torch 1997

Disclaimer: The characters of Fox Mulder, Dana Scully, Alex Krycek and Walter Skinner (and Danny Pendrell) belong to Chris Carter and 1013 Productions. The rest of 'em are mine. The city of San Francisco is a really neat place; some of the geographic locations described here are imaginary. This is a work of speculative fiction and no copyright infringement is intended. This is a sequel to my previous story Ghosts, and will make considerably more sense if you've read that. For those of you who are coming in late: this universe branches off after Terma. The story is set in San Francisco during the summer of 1997, which means that a lot of time has passed since the events of Tunguska and Terma took place. Despite that, no canonical post-Terma XF events can be assumed to have happened/be about to happen here, nor have I incorporated any XF mythology material that has been revealed later than that. Everyone who was alive in Terma is alive now; everyone who was healthy then is healthy now. (And everyone who was dead then is dead now.) — Oh, and I go by the episode order at the official XF site, which means Paper Hearts happened before Tunguska in this timeline.

People who don't like thank you paragraphs can skip this one. I owe a lot to several people: Misha, first reader; Shoshanna, who patiently edited me into a semblance of intelligence; Anna, my Mulder consultant; and also Maria, Susie, Claire, Erick and whoever else provided me with encouragement, cookies and a swift kick when necessary. Special thanks to Kerry, Cameo, Jane and Cody for help with geography and Bay Area research, and to Sylvia, dotlou and Beth for medical info. All errors are mine. Comments are very welcome. :-) Do not archive this story without permission.

Lovers I: Carrion comfort

"And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all.
- - -
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living." — T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding

"...there is no crisis here, there's no conspiracy
I crave inertia, every move made so I can stop
Whatever this madness is in me spinning like a top
On a bed of anxiety over a deep dark drop
down into nothingness, into withoutyouness" — Indigo Girls, Leeds

"I love the way it smells here."

"Plane fuel and dust?" His partner's voice was light and teasing, but she, too, stretched a little and turned her face towards the sun for a few hedonistic seconds before scrambling onto the rapidly filling shuttle. For no apparent reason they were being decanted from their plane in the middle of tarmac nowhere at San Francisco International, and those who didn't make it on this shuttle would have a long, hot, dusty wait before getting to the terminal, because there wasn't another one in sight. This random inefficiency didn't bother him nearly as much as it might have done in another place, where the scents did not trigger distant but happy memories. He wasn't sure what those memories were exactly, but anything that made him feel good was welcomed with open arms.

"Eucalyptus," Mulder said, undeterred by her gentle sarcasm. He raised a hand to his tie and thought about straightening it, then changed his mind and tugged at it instead, until the knot was hanging well below the second shirt button — the first one being undone. When they reached the terminal he was going to be a good little agent again, he promised himself, but not now, not in this crush of people who didn't know he was Bureau and didn't care whether he was proper.

Scully had elected to wear a skirt and pantyhose for this trip. She was probably regretting it, but no sign of her internal curses and complaints was apparent on her face. It was the over-serene look that gave her away this time. He winked at her and suddenly she broke and scowled up at him, the way a guy might have socked his arm. His smile grew wider.

Scully had spent the time on the plane going over the material that Agent Yun had sent to Mulder, and now she had the files tucked into the crook of her arm and used them as a battering ram as she boarded the shuttle and sank down on the last free seat. Mulder tried to stay next to her but was forced to move along as more passengers crowded in, determined not to be the ones who were left behind. He spent the thankfully short ride wedged between a young Norwegian couple with matching square backpacks who didn't say a word to each other, and a black woman whose hair was elaborately braided with so many different kinds of blue and purple beads that Mulder was almost sorry when the shuttle stopped again and she moved away before he'd had the chance to spot them all.

Reunited with Scully, striding through endless corridors, he promised himself that next time he wasn't packing more clothes than could be fitted into a single carry-on bag. He hated all the waiting that was involved in air travel. Bag after bag slid past at a dignified pace on the luggage carousel, to the sound of metal clanking and groaning as people tried to maneuver their unwieldy carts closer. At least his and Scully's bags arrived at the same time, having apparently stuck together in a display of touching loyalty ever since DC. He grabbed them both and volunteered to carry them; the luggage cart situation was getting ugly. Some of these people seemed to be planning to stay for years.

Scully led the way out, turned her head to ask him something and collided with another woman who was also walking in one direction and looking in another. Apologies followed. Scully backed away and stepped on the foot of a man who shouldn't have been wearing a black t-shirt, not with that dandruff problem. She told him very nicely that she was sorry and as he moved away through the crowd still frowning with unappeased annoyance, she looked up at Mulder. Not for the first time, he thought she was looking a little too tired. "Tell me again what we're doing here."

"Pure vacation, Scully. All we have to do is track down a nice little serial killer." He wasn't sure whether his flippant tone would cheer her up or not, but he wanted it to, wanted to see a smile in her eyes to replace the look he didn't have any words for.

"Well, that shouldn't take us long." They started to walk again, side by side this time. "No, I mean, why us? Agent Yun must have had a reason for asking us, and from what I've been able to see," she gestured with her reading material, "there's nothing about this case that suggests an X-file."

"I've worked with Martin Yun before, years ago," Mulder said slowly. "Before I got into the X-files. I worked on a profile with him and we solved that case pretty fast, a guy who killed old ladies and their cats, kind of interesting... anyway, Yun only transferred out here recently and I get the impression from what he said to me over the phone that he doesn't entirely trust Reeves — that's Detective Reeves of the SFPD — doesn't trust Reeves to go along with his theories, or his SAC either for that matter."

"And he thinks you will?" The dry tone of her voice reassured him.

"Yun is hoping that my brains haven't been permanently scrambled by exposure to alien death rays and that I'll be able to find his homicidal homosexual maniac for him in ten seconds flat. He wants to prove that the Bureau is better than the local police. He told his SAC that he wanted me in on this and Spelling told Skinner and Skinner told me and here we are." Mulder shook his head a little sadly. Maybe he shouldn't have agreed to go. Reeves and the rest of the SFPD were probably already planning how to hang Yun with his own guts, and if he came into this as Yun's little pet, they might want to string him up as well just for good measure. "Martin Yun has no real sense of self-preservation, that's his problem."

"Homosexual?" Scully quirked a brow, and paused in the act of stuffing the files back into her briefcase. "There was nothing about that in here. Yun has a reason to think the killer is gay?"

"Oh, yeah, he's got a reason." Taking her elbow, he steered her towards the promise of cool drinks and sunflower seeds. California, here I come. "It's perfectly logical, Scully. Four couples found dead, some facial and genital mutilation involved, so obviously we're dealing with an angry killer who harbors a lot of resentment towards lovers. In San Francisco. Yun has concluded, on this incontrovertible evidence, that the killer is a gay man who expresses his hatred and frustration by killing straight couples."

He picked out a bottle of freshly pressed apple juice and set it on the counter, then added a bag of sunflower seeds, a bag of cashew nuts, and a bag of dried apple rings. That looked too damn healthy, so he scrounged around for anything covered in chocolate, didn't see what he wanted and had to make do with yogurt candy.

Scully picked up a bag of dried pineapple chunks and looked at it, then put that on the counter too. "If that's his theory, why hasn't he put it in his reports so far?" she asked, the tone of her voice matching his own.

"If I were to hazard a guess, I'd say it's because Gabriel Reeves is gay." Getting his wallet out, Mulder paid before his partner could ransack the shelves the same way he had. Yun had gone on about Reeves's sexual preferences at great length and expense, long distance. "Or it could be because Yun knows he'd be going out on a limb. Maybe I'm wrong about Yun, maybe he does have a sense of self-preservation after all. He's asked me to come here and do his dirty work for him. There's just one small problem." Scully raised an eyebrow, gestured silently for him to go on. "I think he's wrong."

"Ah." She grabbed his apple juice, and he heard the pop as she opened it. Mulder had to smile as Scully looked over her shoulder before she drank straight from the bottle, as if expecting her mother to appear and tell her not to do it. "And what do you base that theory on?"

"Just a hunch," he said to see if he could get her going, but all she did was refuse to hand him the apple juice. "A lot of little things that don't quite fit with Yun's idea. I don't know if you noticed, but the only positive connection, if you can call it that, between the four separate couples is that they all resemble each other, they're the same physical types. This is obviously something that's important to the killer. He's not running around offing couples at random just because they're straight and lovers, it's a lot more complex than that."

"Yes, but that doesn't mean the killer can't be gay and resent heterosexuals," Scully argued. "It may be that he resents a specific type of heterosexual couple, but you can't discount the possibility that the sexual orientation of the victims was at least as important as their hair and eye color. All you can say is that the killer's particular pathologies—"

"What I meant was that I don't think Yun's theory about the killer's main motive is correct," Mulder said and made a grab for the apple juice. "Which is just as well, since as theories go that one gets us absolutely nowhere. But when I refuse to accept his groundwork and start over from scratch, he's going to find himself a dog to kick, because that's the kind of guy Martin Yun is, and it's going to make him even more unpopular, and by extension it's going to make me unpopular, so we're going to have a wonderful time here. Let's pick up that car."

All the way to the rental agency, through the signing of papers and handing over of keys, Scully went along in thoughtful silence and Mulder didn't call her on it. She'd ripped open her bag of pineapple chunks and was eating her way through it methodically. Mulder had a feeling that whatever those blue eyes were seeing was probably not what most people would choose to visualize while scarfing down candy, and her first words as they got out into the parking lot and tried to find their car proved it.

"The injuries to the faces and genitals of the victims were largely superficial," she said, sounding abstracted, while he spotted a dark blue Taurus at the end of the next row and led her that way. "Clumsily done, and considering that the victims were alive during the facial mutilation, extremely painful. All the same, you would expect a killer acting in a homicidal rage to inflict more extensive, and less specifically located, wounds. It doesn't look to me as though anger or hatred was the main motivation, unless the killer's anger could only be satisfied by causing the victims this particular type of injury."

Mulder dropped the bags next to the car and stared at her. "The victims were still alive? That's not what Yun told me." He unlocked the trunk and turned to find Scully lifting her own bag inside. "He said we were dealing with someone who killed people and then humiliated the bodies."

"I think he was exaggerating," Scully said dryly. She looked up at him. "Didn't you read the medical examiner's reports?" His guilty look made her grin. "I don't believe it. You drag me clear across the country on this case and you haven't bothered to look into the background properly." With another wicked smile, she got her briefcase out again and carried it with her. "Well, Agent Mulder, now that you've made me do my homework all through the flight, let me fill you in a little as you drive us to the delightful Holiday Inn."

"Not my fault," Mulder said defensively. "Yun made the reservation, we can change it, Scully."

She shrugged as she got into the car and fumbled for the seat belt. "No reason. I'll enjoy being a tourist on the Wharf while you and Yun butt heads on the proper way of profiling a serial killer."

"Thanks, Scully," he muttered and revved the engine a little more, knowing that it annoyed her. She only gave him one of her cool, above-it-all glances, and Mulder sighed, admitted defeat, and drove out of the parking lot. Silence reigned as he got onto 101. Traffic wasn't too heavy yet, at three in the afternoon, and he thought he could have enjoyed the drive if it weren't for his partner's smug silence. She was right; he should have read all the files. If he hadn't been so annoyed at Martin Yun, he would have. "Come on, Scully, you know you're dying to tell me. What did the medical examiner say about the bodies that's got your maidenly heart all a-flutter?"

She pointedly drank some more of his apple juice before reaching down and retrieving the files from her briefcase again. He felt sure she was only doing it to prove a point; Scully could have recited the facts to him without the papers to back her up. She was enjoying herself. Not until she had flipped through the files and chosen the exact sections she wanted did she relent enough to look at him, and then she suddenly smiled. "Do you mind if I have some of your yogurt banana chips?"

"Scully!" Mulder shook his head, but in mock despair, not refusal. "Scully, you can gorge yourself like a pig — like an unusually beautiful, slender and attractive pig — all the way to the hotel if you want to, now tell me what's in there, unless you want to watch me read and drive at the same time."

"I don't know what's come over me," she said in mild amazement. "I'm getting to be as bad as Alex Krycek. Promise to stop me before I order jelly doughnuts and chocolate cake with whipped cream..." She trailed off and looked searchingly at him; he kept his eyes on the road, aware that his knuckles were white where he clutched the steering wheel, cursing inside and struggling to keep those curses from reaching his lips.

Scully was very good about not pushing his buttons, remarkably considerate even of feelings she considered irrational and illogical. Even when they fought, she could be blunt, but rarely cruel. But there was no reason for her to avoid topics he'd never, verbally or otherwise, declared off-limits. During the days just after their return from Leyden Creek they'd discussed Krycek frequently, speculating on what might have happened to him, arguing about the case and what Krycek's interest in it had been. For Mulder, it had been like prodding an aching tooth with his tongue over and over. But as time passed and other cases absorbed them, Alex Krycek and the ghosts had ceased to be a topic of conversation. This was the first time in months that Mulder had heard that name spoken by any voice save his own in the dead of night. He'd been unprepared for the effect it would have on him, and his skin prickled as Scully studied him.

"I'll stop you," he said shortly, hoping she might ascribe his tension to deep-seated resentment.

Scully didn't reply to that. She kept silent for a few moments longer, then tapped the papers on her lap with one finger and recovered her equanimity and efficiency. "The victims' faces were pierced with a blunt metal instrument. The wounds bled profusely, which indicates that this was done while the victims were still alive, but the genital mutilation was done after death. All the facial injuries follow the same pattern, puncturing the nasal cavities and the—"

"With a blunt knife? What a sweetheart," Mulder muttered to himself, then jerked his head around to look at her and at the picture she was holding, where the pattern of the cuts had been marked neatly in yellow and pink highlighter. Something stirred at the back of his mind, then jumped out and yelled. "Scully, does that remind you of anything? Look at the location of the wounds. It looks as though he was searching for implants."

"I suppose that's theoretically possible," she said slowly, studying the picture, "but there could be any number of reasons behind this pattern. Maybe the killer has an obsession with sinus colds. Don't theorize—"

"—ahead of the evidence. Yeah, yeah. And he doesn't seem to have checked for drilled teeth, or made any cuts to the back of the neck, or the abdomen. Tell me what the medical evidence suggests to you, then."

There was a brief pause, the crunching sound of someone consuming yogurt banana chips with great relish, and then she resumed in that matter-of-fact, lecturing voice he found so endearing, "The killer opened up the victims' sinus cavities, and as far as I can tell doesn't seem to have used more violence than necessary, taking into account the fact that he was using an unsuitable implement. There is no random stabbing or gouging, and the shallow scratches on the faces of two of the victims are probably the result of struggles on the victims' part."

"I'm sure that was a great comfort to the victims," Mulder muttered, changing lanes and then leaning forward to make certain he'd read the sign right. "Do only two of the victims bear signs of a struggle? Were the others unconscious, or was that the first kill and he didn't have them tied up tight enough?"

"I don't know," she said, her narrative disrupted yet again. "Have you even looked at these reports?" Scully flipped a few pages, then turned back and read them over again. "There are no marks that indicate that the victims were tied up, and no, it wasn't the first couple." Her voice slowed, then picked up speed again. "No sign of trauma from any blow that might have knocked them out. But the killer could have rendered them unconscious by pressing on their throats—"

"Without leaving any marks?"

"It's possible." Plastic rustled as she dug into the bag of yogurt candy again.

"Sure it's possible. But it's unlikely, and it doesn't really fit with someone who uses a soup spoon or whatever it is to try to dig things out of people's faces."

"It could be that whatever implement he uses has some kind of special significance for him and that whether it is suitable or not is of secondary importance or even of no importance to him," Scully suggested. "And it seems as though he must have subdued his victims that way, because there's no sign of any other kind of physical restraint." She turned another page. "Or of any drugs."

"Mind control, Scully," he said, only half flippantly. "Maybe he hypnotizes them. Maybe we're dealing with another Modell here, did you consider that?"

"No, I didn't." But instead of arguing the point, she went on, "Only after he has completed his search of the victims' faces does he kill them by cutting their throats with a sharp blade of some kind. Finally, after death has occurred, the killer stitches dove feathers to the genitals of his victims, using a fine needle and ordinary white polyester thread. The thread is a common brand; there is no sign that the feathers have been artificially treated."

Mulder sighed, and wondered why he'd thought that the information he had received from Martin Yun had been sufficient — why he'd even assumed that it was correct. Why he had let himself be talked into working with someone he did not, on reflection, particularly like. Well, he did know the answer to that one: because if Yun went on the way he'd started he would inevitably screw up and some innocent person would suffer because of it.

Besides, he had to admit that the details Yun had left out were starting to fascinate him, starting to make this case real and absorbing. "Feathers?" Scully nodded. "That's a new one for me. Did that sign say Junipero Serra?"

She turned her head so fast, he started to worry about whiplash damage. "Yes. Is that good or bad?"

"Uh, good, it means we're on the right way." Mulder ignored her skeptical look with an ease born of years of practice. Silence reigned for a while, as he concentrated on driving and remembering Yun's instructions. After a while, his mind started running down a different track. "Feathers. Lots of interesting ideas and symbolism linked to feathers, a feather on the breath of God, divine justice — of course it doesn't look at though he's weighed their hearts against these feathers, but then again ostrich feathers are a bit hard to stitch to anyone's — um. Maybe I'm on the wrong track here. Or did Yun leave that out, too?"

"No. Apart from the wounds on their faces and throats, and the feathers sewn to their genitals, the victims' bodies were intact. And there are no indications that the killer engaged in any kind of sexual act with the victims." Scully peered out through the windshield. "Mulder, we're heading into Golden Gate Park. Are you sure we're going the right way?"

"Of course I'm sure. Anyway, how lost can we get, all we have to do is go straight ahead until we get to the water and then turn right." Scully's expression made it very clear what she thought of that as a plan, and Mulder started to wonder whether the directions Yun had given him were correct. "Relax, Scully. Enjoy the ride. Look at the cute little squirrels doing their death-defying leaps across the — oh, hell."

"Rest in pieces," Scully said dryly.

One hour and seven wrong turns later, Mulder turned off the ignition and let his head fall forward against the steering wheel. He felt like staying here in the Holiday Inn's subterranean parking garage until he and the Taurus mutated into some new and delightful life form that would lurk in the bends of Lombard Street and eat unwary tourists. Despite the air conditioning, his shirt stuck to his back and his hair had long since abandoned whatever mostly respectable shape he had tried to gel it into that morning. Scully looked offensively neat. Only the knowledge that the bright smile she gave him was indeed intended to provoke prevented him from laying violent hands on a fellow agent.

Scully got out of the car and walked around to open the trunk. After a few deep breaths, Mulder followed. Next time it would be her turn to drive. Turn left, Yun's voice said in his memory. He grabbed his bag with fingers sticky with sweat and yogurt residue and after a moment's contemplation took Scully's too, feeling an irrational desire to hear her say "thank you" later. Or maybe she would criticize him for attempting to be a big macho man again, he thought a bit more cheerfully. Besides, she'd looked a little peaky recently. A vacation in sunny California ought to do her good, if he could keep Yun away from her.

Yun hadn't requested Scully's presence, it had been Mulder who had insisted that his partner come along on this case. He wanted her medical expertise; by now she knew better than anyone what he needed to know and what he considered important, whether they were dealing with inexplicable deaths from no discernible cause or plain, brutal, obvious murder. She could do a few autopsies, and spend the rest of her time pottering around the city. Mulder shook his head at the picture he'd just attempted to conjure up. He wanted Scully there as his partner, in every part of the investigation. Yun would just have to cope.

At least they had no trouble checking in, and there were enough businessmen sprinkled among the tourists that they didn't stand out too much. Mulder had to admit, as he got a good look at himself in the elevator mirror, that he'd had better days; Scully's sidelong glance indicated that she thought so, too. "I told Yun we'd call him as soon as we got here," he said, stepping out on the fifth floor and fumbling with his key card. "According to my calculations, we'll probably get here in about twenty minutes — or how long do you think you need to shower and change?"

"I'll come knock on your door when I'm ready," she said with a smile that had to mean she was going to forgive him for crossing Van Ness four times. Mulder handed over her suitcase and watched her let herself in, then got his own door open. The rooms were next to each other, but had no connecting door. It had been a mistake to let Yun make reservations for them. But they could change that later.

What the room looked like didn't interest him much; he registered the bed and the TV and their relative positions, then set about digging out clean clothes from the bag. Shirt, not too badly wrinkled, lighter suit — with his luck they'd probably get fog any moment now instead of this unusual heatwave — tie, socks, boxers. Mulder shrugged out of everything he was wearing and left it in a heap on the floor, mentally labeling it 'dry-cleaning.' He walked out into the bathroom and straight into the shower, and breathed deep with relief as cool water washed over him. Feathers, he thought. Feathers.

It stopped him from thinking about Alex Krycek.

* * *

When Scully knocked, he was sitting on the bed with his legs stretched out, remote in hand, fully and properly dressed except for his shoes, learning more than he had ever thought there was to know about nail sculpting. He got up to let her in, then looked her up and down and smiled at her immaculate appearance. "You'll have to teach me how to do that, Scully. You look like you have a built-in air conditioner," he said, going back to the bed and sitting down again. She stiffened a little and didn't answer his smile. "Did I say something wrong? You didn't want me to discover your secret?"

"I don't need any Ice Queen cracks from you, Mulder."

He dropped the remote and stared up at her. "That wasn't a — hey." Scooting up against the wall, Mulder pulled his legs up and patted the empty space on the bed. "Sit down while I make the call. It was a compliment, Scully. You look great. That's all." She sat, a bit reluctantly. Instead of getting out the cell phone, he took the time to watch her for a moment. There was still something a little strained in her eyes, a faint tightening around the mouth. Mulder knew she wouldn't tell him what was wrong, and normally he would have let it go and moved on to more urgent business. It was his reluctance to get in touch with Martin Yun that made him stick with this subject — that and his irrepressible curiosity about strange phenomena. "Scully, did someone pop up in the shower with you and call you names? 'Cause if they did, I think we could sue."

Her profile was still and calm for another couple of seconds, then a corner of her mouth quirked up. "No. I— Never mind. I overreacted. Go ahead, Mulder, I can see you're just dying to call Yun." He was reaching for the phone when she said, "Since when do you pay me compliments, anyway?"

"Since now?" Mulder offered, pausing with the phone in his hand. "I might not have done it if I'd known what kind of reaction it would get, but — anyway, I'm pretty sure I've done it before." Having said that, he tried to remember any specific occasion, and couldn't come up with one.

"There's something I've been wanting to ask you." Scully didn't look as if she wanted to ask him anything, though. She sat with her back straight, hands clasped on her lap, as still and controlled as though she were facing a board of inquiry. The swift look she shot him gave no real clue to what she might be thinking.

"What?" he asked when she'd been silent a little too long. "Don't tell me that after all these years you're finally going to ask me which side of the bed I prefer."

"You're doing it again," Scully said. Now she turned, shifting towards him on the bed until they were facing each other. "Mulder, I — in the past, when you made that kind of comment, when you flirted with me, I used to wonder whether you were serious about it." Under any other circumstances, the slightly self-conscious look on her face would have been a delight. "But now I don't wonder any more."

He had absolutely no idea what to say. Mulder dropped his eyes for a moment, avoiding her clear, unreadable gaze. "So you think, what, you think something's changed?" he muttered, trying to find a way to make this conversation more light-hearted again. "You're worried I don't love you any more? That you've lost your sex appeal?"

She laughed a little at that. "That's not the point, Mulder," she said, but there was still something in her voice that made it impossible for him to relax. "I think your attitude towards me has changed on some level, for some reason, and I wonder what — how—"

Seeing her incapable of completing her sentences did nothing to dispel his own sense of dread. Mulder found himself thinking wistfully that now would be a perfect moment for Martin Yun to remember the number of his cell phone. The silence stretched out between them until he made himself break it. "Maybe it has. I thought — you seemed comfortable with this."

"I am comfortable with this," she said immediately, and then seemed to become aware, even as he looked her up and down, of how unlikely those words sounded given her stiff posture and anxious face. To Mulder's relief, she broke into a smile, looking down and then up again as humor chased the tension out of her eyes. "I am. I just wondered—" Scully broke off, and when he looked at her, she shook her head. "Forget it, Mulder. It was stupid."

Suddenly he wanted to pursue it. He wanted to ask her if she thought he had changed; if she had any idea why he had changed. But Mulder knew he might not want to hear the answer. If she had any ideas about the reason behind the changes in him—

In a delayed response to his earlier prayer, the hotel phone rang and saved him from having to decide on a course of action. "Yeah."

"When were you planning on calling, next week?" Martin Yun had a light, smooth voice that could make curses sound like compliments; Mulder didn't know if he was relieved or annoyed to hear it. He shot a quick look at Scully, who seemed to be absorbed in her own thoughts. "Everything all right with the trip, the rooms? Listen, I need to talk to you, give you some background before you jump right into this."

"We'll come down—" Mulder started to offer, but Yun cut him off.

"I'll come and pick you up and show you round the sites, and we can talk things over on the way. I really appreciate your coming out here, Mulder, it'll make things a lot easier. You got the files, right?"

"Yeah, I did, and I don't think—"

"I'll stop by in, let me think, twenty minutes, that all right with you?" Yun didn't wait for an answer. "I look forward to meeting your partner."

The line went dead and Mulder hung up. Annoyance had almost completely conquered relief by now. He picked up the bag of dried apple rings and looked at it, then put it down again. "He's coming here to pick us up. Brace yourself."

"That was Agent Yun?" Scully picked up the remote, half hidden between two wrinkles in the bedspread, and turned the TV off. "What can you tell me about him?"

"Too much. He's around thirty-five, ambitious, aggressive, and would like to believe that he's destined for greatness. A good shot, takes his coffee black and likes redheads." Scully looked exasperated. "You asked. I don't like him, he probably doesn't like me, but we do a decent job of pretending to get along with each other."

She tilted her head to one side. "Is that why he asked you to help him here?"

Mulder got off the bed and started to look around for his shoes. "It doesn't matter to him that he doesn't like me," he said. "He thinks I'll get results, that I'll make him look good. That's what's important to him. He wants to look good, he wants the Bureau to look good, and he thinks I owe him one."

He found the shoes and started to put them on. Despite the way he felt about meeting Yun, he could feel it starting, could feel himself begin to focus on the facts he'd been given and the possibilities that those facts suggested. Sometimes he felt like a machine: something was fed into one end, the machinery cranked into action, and did not stop until it had processed the input and produced... what? What kind of machine was he?

Stupid fucking analogy anyway, he thought dispassionately, but couldn't deny that every part of him knew that he was on a case and working towards a solution. Working towards finding this killer. It required a different kind of focus than the investigation of an X-file did. He couldn't pin the difference down, quite, but knew that if he went and looked in a mirror it would be there in his eyes. The closest he could get was to say that it was the difference between opening up and drawing together, between widening his focus to try to grasp the unlikely and impossible, and narrowing it down in order to understand the tight, warped vision of a killer.

"Do you?" Scully asked, and Mulder turned towards her and twitched a questioning eyebrow. "Do you owe him a favor?"

"Not really," he said, reluctant to discuss the issue although he'd been the one to bring it up. "But I didn't feel I could say no. Not after he'd proposed that brilliant theory of his."

"I see," she agreed with a small ironic smile. Then her face softened into genuine warmth. "No, you couldn't, could you. I'd like to look at the bodies. How likely do you think it is that Agent Yun has antagonized the ME?"

"Very," Mulder told her, "but don't let that stop you. I'd really appreciate your input on that. You might spot something he's missed." He straightened his tie and picked up his suit jacket from the bed. "We might as well go downstairs and wait for Yun."

"I'll just get my briefcase," Scully said, rose to her feet and went towards the door. Halfway there she turned and said, "Do you want to see if we can get rooms with a connecting door?"

"Yeah. I'll ask the desk clerk about it."

But he didn't get the opportunity to do that, because Martin Yun was already waiting when he got out of the elevator. Mulder didn't even want to think about trying to explain to Yun why he and Scully wanted connecting rooms, and he definitely did not want Yun to draw his own conclusions if Mulder didn't explain. He could hear the comments clearly in his mind and was frowning as he took Yun's outstretched hand.

"What's eating you, Spooky? Or are you just that happy to see me?"

"Yeah, I've missed your smiling face," Mulder said, taking stock of the other man. Martin Yun looked much like he had the last time they'd seen each other, several years earlier. A good three inches shorter than Mulder, he had the compact build of a sprinter, and was always shifting his weight from one leg to the other as if about to take off at full speed. His hair was cut shorter now, with almost military severity. "What happened to your nose? You stuck it somewhere it didn't belong?"

"I went mountain climbing and got slammed into the rock face." Yun shrugged. "Couldn't be bothered to have it broken again and set straight. Gives me character. And it makes it easier for other people to identify me. I'm not 'that Asian guy' any more, I'm 'that Asian guy with the broken nose.'" Before Mulder could even smile in recognition of this, Yun went on, "Not all of us can distinguish ourselves by getting as fucking out-there weird as you, although some of the guys here in Frisco..." He trailed off, looking past Mulder towards the elevators. "That your partner? Spooky, you do not deserve that."

Mulder turned around to find Scully walking up to them with her briefcase in a firm grip. He introduced her and Yun to each other, a bit reluctantly, and tried to keep his disapproval from being too obvious as Yun held on to Scully's hand a little too long. "Let's get going," he said.

They crowded into Yun's car and took off. "We've only got about an hour of daylight left," Yun observed. "We'll start with the first site, see how far we get. It's been almost two weeks, you won't find anything, but seeing it might give you a few clues to how the guy thinks, what kind of scene he sets up." He turned his head and looked straight at Mulder for a moment. "We've got a problem."

"Most people would call a serial killer a problem," Mulder agreed mildly.

"Hell, not that." Yun glanced over his shoulder at Scully, too quickly for anyone to see whether it was meant as an apology or not. "The press has caught on to this. This afternoon, a local TV reporter broke the story, it's probably national news by now. You didn't see it, at the hotel?" Mulder shook his head. Scully had interrupted his channel-surfing. "It's a circus, that's why I didn't want you to come down right away."

"Why have you kept it quiet?" Scully asked. The disapproval in her cool voice was just faint enough that Yun might not hear it, Mulder thought. "You've had four double homicides in less than two weeks, and despite the lack of obvious connection, there was a strong resemblance between the victims. If you had gone out with a warning, some of these people might not be dead."

"It wasn't my call," Yun said, sounding off-hand about it. "Spelling didn't want to start a panic, and we've been lucky with the people who've found the victims, they mostly just caught a glimpse and ran for the nearest phone, didn't get any details. I don't know who the hell finally added things up, or if someone decided to talk. There's no way we could have kept every pair of lovers in the city off the streets anyway. All the guy has to do is walk down a street, any street, and he'll see some couple holding hands and bang, off he goes."

"It doesn't seem to me that the selection is that random," Scully said. "There was a distinct resemblance between all four couples: a slight fair-haired woman paired with a taller, darker man, both a little over thirty. It looks as though the killer is deliberately searching for a certain type."

Coming to a temporary halt at a stop sign, Yun turned in his seat again to look back at Scully with less hostility than Mulder had thought might be caused by her argument and her manner. Yun put up with a lot more from redheads, he thought wryly. Maybe he should dye. "I don't think they're alike enough for it to be anything more than a coincidence," he said. "Spooky, you have an opinion on all this yet?"

Scully bristled at being dismissed this way, but as the car shot forward again, she sank back. With a silent sigh, Mulder pulled his sunglasses out of the inside pocket of his jacket and sat turning them over slowly. "Four couples in two weeks," he said, half to himself. "That's a lot in a short time, and so damn regular, too. You haven't found anything, going back, any earlier cases that might be this guy warming up?"

"No." Yun emphasized it with a single shake of his head. "We've got people on it, checking back, checking other states now, nothing so far. No couple killings that might—"

"Doesn't have to be a couple," Mulder said. "Do you have them checking for cases with the same kind of facial mutilation, and maybe additional wounds at the back of the neck and on the victim's abdomen just above the navel?"

After a short silence, Yun said, "No," drowning out Scully's soft "Mulder..." from the back seat. "What, you think he might have started out picking up just the guys, killing them because they turned him down, or because he thought they would turn him down, or—"

"It doesn't have anything to do with that," Mulder said, a bit more harshly than he had intended. "He's looking for something, and I don't know why or when he started, but it seems he hasn't found it yet." He twisted his sunglasses, then put them back in his pocket before he could break them; he knew he often didn't pay enough attention to what his fingers found to play with while his mind was racing. "And my guess is he'll go on looking. I don't think there'll be the usual escalating pattern. He's methodical, he's looking for something specific."

"Doesn't that mean the killings ought to occur randomly?" Scully asked from the back seat, raising her voice to be heard over the engine and the air conditioner. "The killer is going after couples with a certain appearance, for whatever reason, and he can't know when he'll find a pair that matches his requirements. There shouldn't be such a regular pattern to the deaths."

"It's been a bit too regular," Mulder said. He thought about it. Four couples in twelve days. Eight people dead, that fast, and if the killer stuck to his pattern they had less than two days before he struck again. If, as Scully said, he could find the right kind of victims. So far, no clear positive connection between the different sets of victims had been established, apart from their appearance. Mulder shook his head and stayed silent, turning over possibilities in his mind, barely noticing as they entered the green, shady Presidio until the car stopped again and Yun turned the engine off.

Yun and Scully hadn't said a word to each other during the rest of the trip. The battle lines were clearly drawn. Mulder got out of the car and stretched in the warmth of a patch of sunshine, an instinctive response, a brief animal pleasure before the analytical part of him took over again. They'd passed houses, but this wasn't a residential area any more. He followed Yun in among the trees, bouncing on the springy pine needles.

Where had the killer met the couple? How had he forced them to come here, and to follow him away from the road? He'd used a knife, and some other implement, but nothing said that he didn't have a gun as well. Killing with a knife could be done more quietly, if the victims didn't know what was going to happen. But they had known, must have known, and someone should have heard their screams.

"Have you talked to the people who live here?" he said, nodding back towards the road. "About whether they heard anything, saw anything—"

"Nothing unusual," Yun said, his voice clipped. "But we're pretty far away from the houses, and up there is the military cemetery, I don't think we'll get anything out of those guys."

"He didn't meet them out here," Mulder thought out loud, looking around. "They came here with him, and they must have stayed quiet, but I don't know how he keeps control of both of them."

Yun turned around, standing between two trees. He nodded towards an open space where the pine needles had been disturbed. "This is where they were lying, in this hollow right here. Jogger with a dog found them in the morning — he does his killing at night."

It was a shallow little depression, barely big enough to hold two adults; it looked oddly cosy nestled in between the two large trees. Comfortable. It wasn't cordoned off any longer, and Mulder could see the tracks where detectives and agents had tramped along to behold the dead. He crouched down. It was possible to see traces of blood-soaked earth even now, and he called up the image of the couple from one of the photographs in the file, placed them here, with their bloody faces, their cut throats, their clothes partly undone.

Scully, who had fallen behind, came to join him. She sank down beside him, balancing herself easily, and touched a finger to the stained earth. Yun walked past them to pace a small circle around the area. It seemed logical that the killer had brought his victims from the road, but then where had he parked his car? He must have a car. Maybe he'd come the other way, parking by the cemetery and walking them through the woods.

"I couldn't see you from the road," Scully said, and Mulder nodded. "Mulder." She dropped her voice even more. "Are you sure about this, about what the killer's looking for? I know you believe implants are significant, but—"

"It's not a question of what I believe, it's a question of what the killer believes," he interrupted her. "He's looking for something, Scully, and based on the pattern he uses to search the victims' faces, I think he may be looking for implants. I can't say much about his motives yet, and I'd like to know if there have been any other killings where he's checked other places on the victims' bodies as well. If nothing else it might tell us something about when his obsession grew specific. He believes — and his beliefs are all that's important right now."

"He believes what?" Yun had come up behind them again. He was rocking back on his heels, watching Mulder with a mixture of anticipation and impatience. "You got something for me, Spooky?"

Mulder got to his feet; he didn't like to look up at Yun, didn't want to give the other man that advantage. He knew that Yun resented his height and didn't scruple to make use of that knowledge. When he stepped a little closer, Yun tilted his head back angrily, refusing to give ground. "The killer's looking for implants he believes are hidden in the victims' sinuses. It seems to me that he may be searching for a particular couple that he knows by description, but not by sight—"

"Look, I know this is the kind of shit you've been wasting your time on for years now, but we're not playing your X-files games here, Mulder. We're looking for a killer, not some ufology crank." Yun stopped abruptly, then put a hand on Mulder's arm. "Let me talk to you privately for a minute," he said belatedly, and dragged Mulder away from where Scully was still crouched over that pathetic little hollow, and down towards the road again. "I asked to have you brought in on this case because I thought you still had that edge of yours, you could help me with the profile, help me find this queer sonofabitch and put him away. Have you lost it, Spooky? Are you so fixated on this new toy of yours that you've lost your touch?"

"Your profile's wrong, Martin." Mulder drew a slow breath. He thought about telling Yun in detail just what he thought of that profile. But it wouldn't get him anywhere. He was only here because of Yun, and if he antagonized Yun too far nothing he said would have any impact. And then more people would die. He was trying to learn to rein his anger in, at least at times when it wouldn't do him any good. "Yes, I've spent years talking to people who claim to have been abducted. I know what they believe, and what this killer is doing matches those beliefs. He's not cutting the victims' faces at random, he's looking for something, and the pattern he follows matches that of the places where abductees say that they have received alien implants. Do you have a better explanation?"

"Disfiguring the faces of the victims indicates a deep-seated hostility," Yun growled, showing a fair amount of hostility himself. "The fact that it's been done slowly and deliberately is a sign that the killer enjoys inflicting pain. His focus on the faces and genitals points at an obsession with the victims' identities as sexual beings, as gendered beings, as lovers. Fuck it, Spooky, can't you see what's right in front of you?"

The switch from reasoned theory to plain annoyance was so typical of Yun that Mulder almost smiled in the middle of the argument. Whatever else Yun might be, he wasn't stupid. But he wasn't listening either. "You brought me in because you thought I had something to offer," Mulder said. "If you're not going to listen to me unless I say the same thing you've already said, I'm not going to be any damn use to you and I might as well pack up and go back to DC tonight."

"Don't be so fucking touchy. I'm just telling you that—"

"Shut up and listen to me, Yun. If you want to believe that the killer is homosexual and resents straight couples, go ahead, believe it, but it's not going to help you find him unless you can flesh it out a lot more. You're ignoring some obvious indicators that don't necessarily contradict your theory but could add to it. Scully is right, the couples are similar in looks and type. And the pattern he uses is consistent with a search for implants."

"What the hell do implants have to do with all of this, Spooky? You've got these fucking implants and abductions on the brain."

"There's nothing in the rules that says someone can't be a 'ufology crank' and a serial killer both, Martin, and you know it. Do you want my help? Do you? Because if you do, I'm going to look into this my way and I'm going to expect you to pay attention to what I find."

Martin Yun looked away, turning his head sideways, his straight brows drawing together over the bent nose. He kicked violently at a hapless tree root, then took a step backwards and looked at Mulder again. "All right," he said, his voice tense. "But you'd better be able to back this up. And I'm going to enjoy hearing you tell Spelling about this."

Mulder shrugged. Yun might consider that an acid test, but he'd spent years pushing unpopular theories into the faces of unamused superiors, often with far less evidence to back him up than he had in this case. And he had a reputation to maintain, besides. "I'm sure you will. I'll get you a front-row seat, buy you popcorn."

"What about the feathers?" Yun asked abruptly. "You going to tell me that white feathers have some special significance to these ufo nuts? I figured it might be something religious, that's why I asked you to come."

"You didn't even mention the feathers when you called," Mulder said. Movement to one side made him turn and look at Scully as she came walking towards them slowly, brushing earth off her hands. "The image of the dove as a messenger is a very common one, but when it's just the feathers like this... maybe he's saying that he's sending us a message, or the world a message, but what that message is... could be something very specific, something that only has significance to the killer, like his choice of implement to puncture the victims' faces."

"I think it might be possible to deduce, from a detailed inspection of the wounds, more about what he uses as a tool and how he performs this — ritual," Scully said as she joined them. "That might give us another clue to how he thinks. I'd like to view the bodies, if that's possible. At least the most recent ones." Mulder smiled at that familiar line, at the calm curiosity on her face. Yun shrugged silently and turned towards the road, leading the way as they walked out from among the trees and back to the car.

The sun was sinking and the shadows were long in here, darkening the place and making it look grimly inhospitable. Mulder looked around and nodded. In a hollow in the woods, or as near as possible, considering they were in a city. Tucked away out of sight, but not really hidden. Not hidden, because there was a message that needed to be read and understood. He rubbed a hand over his jaw, almost slid it up to mess up his hair but was interrupted as Yun opened the car door and cleared his throat. The agent was looking at his watch. "We have the time for one more site."

"And then you're taking us home to meet daddy?" Mulder got into the car; Scully was already in the back seat, looking reserved and making notes on a pad she'd dug out of the briefcase. "How come you're not at the press conference, jumping through hoops?"

"I don't do PR," Yun said with immense dignity as he started the car and turned it around. "I work." For a moment they were in perfect accord, and grinned at each other. Then Martin Yun shrugged. "Maybe you're right, maybe it's a good idea to go public and tell people not to go into the woods with strangers, not that we should have to tell anyone that. He must talk them into it somehow, at least at first. Then — a gun, threats—"

"It's possible that he drugs them somehow," Scully said from the back seat; Mulder had thought she was too absorbed to pay attention to the conversation. "He could have access to something that doesn't show up on the usual tests."

"There were no injection marks," Yun said.

"Yes, but drug injection would have required that both victims were at least partly subdued already," Scully pointed out. "I was thinking of something that could be administered orally without causing the victims to suspect anything at first, something like rohypnol — it's more difficult to get here now, but there are several countries where it's still regularly prescribed against—"

"Scully, if he gave them rohypnol he'd've had to carry them out there," Mulder objected.

"That would depend on how much it was. A small dose could have rendered them more suggestible, less prone to questioning his actions and more willing to go along with a course of action that would have seemed unsuitable to someone in full possession of his or her faculties. Besides, there are other drugs that affect the cognitive functions without causing severe motor impairment." Scully tapped her pen against the pad resting against her knee. "It would be less risky than trying to hold two people at gunpoint, particularly as all the victims were young and strong, and it seems more likely than that the killer is directing them through some kind of, of personal magnetism." Her voice made a joke of the words, but Mulder heard what she was saying.

He didn't intend to discount that theory, though. Instead he said, remembering her perusal of the ME's report, "But there were no signs of rohypnol or any other drug, right?"

"No," Scully said reluctantly.

They were driving through a quiet residential area now, peaceful and moderately prosperous-looking houses lining the streets. Another green wooded area beckoned ahead of them, and Mulder nodded to himself as they entered it on a winding road. "We're going to have to walk a bit," Yun said and glanced back briefly over his shoulder as if trying to make out what kind of shoes Scully was wearing. "This is all we'll have time for before it gets dark."

"How does Spelling feel about this?" Mulder asked abruptly. "About your having asked me to join the investigation," he clarified as Yun raised an eyebrow. "I know you told me that Reeves wasn't very happy, which I take to mean that Reeves's boss isn't very happy either."

"Yeah, well, I don't particularly care if they're happy," Yun said with a suggestion of a snarl in his voice. "I can bring in anyone I damn well please. Spelling? He's happy, I can tell you that." Yun braked a little too abruptly, and parked the car in front of the Legion of Honor. "He thinks you should get back into profiling. That you're wasted where you are. And frankly, Mulder—"

"Please, no," he said, holding up a hand. "My frail nerves can't take it." Mulder opened the car door and got out, then opened the back door for Scully. She glanced up at him in mixed surprise and acknowledgment, and planted her feet in their sensible shoes steadily on the ground.

"Reeves is taking this personally," Yun said, slamming his door shut and locking the car.

"Because you're saying that the killer is gay?" Mulder had no trouble catching up with Yun's brisk strides, but Scully fell behind again. "You're reading that wrong. There's nothing definite. The killer's interaction with the victims isn't sexual, and he's not trying to humiliate them."

Yun half turned his head, glared over his shoulder as they turned onto the path that clung to the edge of the city's northwest corner, overhanging the drop down to the cold Pacific waves. "You don't think it's humiliating, leaving a body with its face cut up and its pants down? Killing someone is the ultimate humiliation, Mulder, the final way of saying that they are of no account. The rest is just icing on the—"

"Don't get worked up, Martin." For some reason, Martin Yun disliked his first name almost as much as Fox Mulder did, and use of it would make him react and get his attention as few other things did. "And if that's all you can remember from your psych classes, you need to go back to school." He slowed down and looked out at the view, the water and the golden misty hills on the other side, the bridge in the distance gleaming red and unlikely as a child's toy. When Scully caught up with them, he apologized for outpacing her by pointing down at the water. "Wasn't that a porpoise?"

"I didn't see it, Mulder," she said repressively. "Where is the second site?"

"Along here." Yun started walking again, but this time Mulder matched his steps to Scully's, and Yun had to slow down. They walked along in a tense silence that no one was quite ready to break. Mulder knew that Scully was studying him and Yun, possibly speculating about the reasons for the combination of hostility and friendship that had made up the largest part of their interaction so far. Well, if she could figure it out he'd be glad to listen. It had been the same during the only other case they had worked on together, aggression simmering just under the surface of cooperation. Mulder was willing to admit that Yun had his good sides. He just didn't particularly like them.

Once again the place where they found themselves now seemed almost completely removed from the city itself, green and growing, remote and self-contained. Down past the sheer drop, slices of sandy beach lay wedged between the cliffs, pockets of privacy pounded by the waves. Mulder hoped they wouldn't have to climb down. The killer seemed able to lead his victims pretty much as he wanted to. Scully's suggestion of drugs made sense from her perspective, but Mulder was starting to wonder if they were in fact dealing with someone whose ability to influence people went far beyond normal persuasion or drug use. Modell and Cole had both been able to affect the perceptions of others. This killer could be an amateur hypnotist who had suddenly found a whole new way to use his talent. Mulder sighed. Mandrake gone bad, he thought sarcastically. All I have to do is look for the cape and top hat.

The path split in two ahead of them, and Yun followed the older trail out to the right, straight towards the edge, past the warning signs telling him the ground could crumble away under his feet out there. The old path curved around an outcropping where a few low trees grew, teetering on the brink. Mulder looked at Scully, found her looking at him, and they followed Yun. He had stopped past the trees, where the path ended abruptly in a gash of earth that was already beginning to scab over with grass.

"Here?" Mulder asked, coming up to look over Yun's shoulder. Above the gap there was a hollow between the trees, just large enough for two people lying down, and he recognized it from the photos. It hadn't been obvious in the material he'd received how similar the placing of the bodies had been, not just in position, but in location. They had lain here cradled in this hollow, as if cupped in the palm of a giant hand, underneath the green branches.

"Yeah. Killed sometime during the night, between one and five a.m. or so, just like the others, and found in the morning." Yun scratched his jaw thoughtfully. "It gets really dark out here. He must have brought a light of some kind, but no one was around to see anything."

Scully scrambled up to get a closer look, holding on to a narrow tree trunk for support. She reached down with one hand to touch the earth. Mulder turned around carefully, feeling the ground all but shift under his feet, and looked out over the water again. Next to him Yun looked a little offended, since Mulder seemed to ignore the site itself. He left the closer investigation to Scully, while he took in the surroundings and thought about similarities, deliberate and coincidental.

After a while he turned around and considered the place again, seeing it from a practical point of view for a moment. Out of view from the path, but certainly not out of earshot. It had been night, surely no one went here at night. Difficult to get to, particularly at night. Somehow the killer had made two frightened people clamber out here and lie down in what he had chosen as their final resting place. It must have been selected ahead of time. He tried to imagine the scene, the killer with a gun — a gun? — and a flashlight, driving the victims ahead. Flashlight? Some kind of light, something to hunt for implants by in the dark night. And why the dark of night, why this unsafe, uncomfortable, uncontrollable environment...

Mulder went back the way they'd come, testing the narrow and unstable path. One wrong step, and you would tumble down the steep slope until you were caught by the rocks, or fell into the water. He turned his head to look at Yun and said, "The photos you sent us don't show much of the surroundings. Were the other couples lying like this too, in a sheltered place, a hollow or depression in the ground?"

"Yeah," Yun said, rounding the outcropping after him and keeping an eye on Scully, who had climbed across it and down the other side. "It's a bit odd, because he hasn't done anything else to hide the bodies."

"Hiding them may not be the point," Mulder said. "The bodies fit perfectly into those depressions. As though he'd measured them for a shroud of earth."

Yun groaned. "Don't go all poetic on me. You want to know something, Mulder? Back in Violent Crimes, half the time no one knew what you were talking about, only they didn't want to admit it in case it was something really clever."

The sun was setting and they walked back along the path in silence. Mulder let Yun bounce ahead, watching the man's natural energy and impatience bubble to the surface and drive him forward at a faster and faster pace. He slowed down instead to walk beside Scully and she glanced up at him with a little half-smile. Under other circumstances they might have exchanged thoughts on the case and their next move, but in this brief peaceful moment no words seemed necessary. Discussion would follow soon enough. He felt aware of the future and the work it held, but separated from it, existing only in this moment of lingering warmth and growing darkness.

Then they returned to the car and got in, and the sound of the car doors slamming shut broke his dreamy mood. Mulder fought the urge to stretch and toss his head like a waking animal, and instead twisted around in his seat to face Scully. "Did you see anything interesting up there?"

"No, I didn't. I was wondering if the killer could have placed a light of some kind at the crime scenes. He would need both hands for what he does."

Mulder smiled at this evidence of minor telepathy but forbore to point it out. He glanced over at Martin Yun. "Has anyone reported seeing any strange lights at these places before or during the murders?"

"No one's seen a thing," Yun said, driving with a certain impatience. "This guy could be invisible. There are no witnesses. No one's seen anything and no one's heard anything, and I wish to God I knew how he keeps them quiet." He tapped the wheel with three fingers. "I'm taking you two downtown. You'd better think about what you're going to say to Spelling."

* * *

God, what a waste of time. As the elevator doors closed Mulder let himself fall back against the wall with a thump; Scully smiled a little. It had been a long evening. Spelling had asked for results as though Mulder had had days, not hours, to work on the case, and Yun had been watching him the whole time, ready to pounce the moment Mulder gave any sign of intending to demolish his theories. Then Reeves had arrived out of nowhere and pushed his way into the meeting, jacking the tension level up way above what even Mulder could ignore. Yun had been sarcastic, Spelling had ignored the intrusion. Reeves had managed to bristle with hostility and convey a certain appreciation of Mulder's posterior at the same time. Quite a feat, all things considered.

The only silent moment of the evening had occurred when Scully had asked to examine the bodies as soon as possible. It had become clear that Spelling and Yun thought of Scully as a high-tech toy Mulder had insisted on bringing, and had no intention of accommodating her unless Mulder expressly asked them to. So he had asked them, gritting his teeth. Scully hadn't been happy either. Eventually they had reached a point where they were all too uncomfortable to be in the same building with each other, and Yun had driven Mulder and Scully past the nearest fast-food joint and then back to the hotel, where they had been told that no, they could not change their rooms, there were no free rooms due to a conference.

Mulder suddenly chuckled a little to himself, and Scully looked up with a raised eyebrow. "Proctologists," he said in explanation and saw her swift grin before the elevator doors opened again and she composed herself. "Well, it's good to know they're here in case we should suddenly need one," Mulder went on teasingly as he followed her out of the elevator and towards their rooms. "If there's an emergency."

"If you have that kind of emergency, Mulder, I don't want to know about it." She paused, about to push the key card into the slot. "I'm tired, but I'm not that tired. I'll hear you if you bang on the wall." Her mouth curved in a half-smile.

"Thought you didn't want to hear about my emergencies. I'll try not to wake you up, Scully."

He went past her to his own door, opened it and walked in. Knowing he should probably unpack, Mulder thought about it for three seconds as he turned on the bedside lamp, then kicked his shoes off and settled on the bed, remote in hand. His body wasn't too tired, and his brain was wide awake. While he flipped through the channels, he could feel himself thinking, much as he could feel his own heart beating, his lungs drawing in air. There was something freeing about late-night television if you didn't try to actually follow the shows, just let the sounds and images flow over you, nonsense syllables endlessly repeated, a long drawn-out mantra that chanted itself again and again to receptive minds.

Slowly he tugged himself free of the tie, and pushed the pillows into a comfortable heap to lean against. He thought about getting the laptop and starting to write something that would get Martin Yun hopping mad. He thought about taking another shower. He thought about Scully getting ready for bed on the other side of the wall, and about knocking on the wall and asking her to come over so they could talk, a slow late-night talk about nothing in particular. Mulder knew he wouldn't do it. There were some things he only imagined telling her when he knew she was asleep; awake and next to him she was always a little too sharp, too rational and too prone to absolute judgments.

Besides, he wasn't the type to host a miniature slumber party and bare his soul, even to his best friend.

It was going to be a long night, he could feel it in his bones. He found a 1982 made-for-TV movie that was all beaded cowboy shirts and she done him wrong, and let it eat up an hour of his life. Occasionally a rational thought would slide across the surface of his mind. You're missing something obvious about the feathers. The woman on the screen was beginning to see the error of her ways. What if it is some form of mind control? The hero picked up a guitar and his dog slunk away with its tail between its legs. Yun's never going to let you forget about Michelle.

When the movie ended, he couldn't for his life have said whether the guy got the girl or not. Mulder closed his eyes for a moment, investigating the darkness on the inside of his eyelids, but disturbing images moved there and he quickly replaced them with what the TV had to offer. He needed to get some sleep, though. Scully was rising bright and early to look at bodies, and he was going with Yun to see the other sites.

Making an annoyed sound, he tried to relax against the pillows, and turned the bedside light off in an attempt to help sleep sneak up on him unnoticed. He was awake. Wide awake. Well, he couldn't fall asleep yet anyway, he had teeth to brush and clothes to take off. Abandoning a riveting Toyota commercial, Mulder sat up again, got to his feet and went to dig around in his bag. He meandered into the bathroom, brushed and flossed rather mechanically, sat down on the toilet in an attempt to persuade himself that he was too tired to stand up, and eventually stumbled out again wrapped in a bad mood as thick as a fleecy dressing gown.

Shirt and pants landed in a heap on the floor and he crawled in between the sheets, sending the remote crashing to the floor. He closed his eyes, opened them, closed them again. Some memories always came out at night to keep him company. Mulder didn't want them. He wished Scully hadn't reminded him of Alex Krycek earlier, knowing full well that it would have made no difference if she hadn't. The most constant companion of his waking nights was a green-eyed ghost in whose warm presence he'd slept in dreamless, fragile peace.

Mulder tried to keep his thoughts from sliding down into a maelstrom of brooding he was all too familiar with, but couldn't stop some things from surfacing, the condensed versions of longer, oh so pointless meditations. He killed my father. I never should have. Never. Didn't want — did want — do want— He might be dead.


The name conjured him, that most ancient magic, and Mulder shook his head to dispel the sudden image — Alex Krycek looking at him in the sweet darkness, eyes wide and gentle, lips parting, asking for another kiss. Oh, no. And he was betrayed by his body, by the sudden warmth he could not deny, but wouldn't give in to. Not this time. He wasn't going to lie here and jack off thinking about a liar, a killer, a traitor, quite possibly a dead traitor, how sick could you get, how low could you sink?

Alex. Oh, Alex.

How bad could it get?

Mulder groaned, rolled over and hung over the edge of the bed, fumbling for the remote. He went through every single channel, forwards and backwards, sometimes too fast to register what he was seeing. Gradually his breathing evened out and he found his attention caught by something. The story about the killer had indeed made national news. The reporters were compensating for the lack of detail by dramatic delivery, which had the unfortunate effect of making the actual material dry and uninteresting. Brief interview with Spelling, even briefer statement from some Bureau PR drone who looked as though his suit was too tight and he'd rather be in Philadelphia. Mulder tried to imagine the killer watching this, tried to imagine what his reaction would be. Would he revel in the attention? Hate it? Or would he simply not care?

The news program had segued into a reminiscent Zodiac rhapsody, and Mulder's fingers moved almost independently of his mind, searching for something else, finding another channel. Searching. Finding. How does he find them? And what does he say to them? Because there had to be words there somewhere, explanations and commands, as the killer took them to the place he had chosen, a soft bed for lovers to sleep on. Feathers, a feather bed, or angel feathers. Weighed and found wanting... or were they? So tenderly, cruelly cared for. Yun was wrong, Yun was completely wrong about the humiliation.

As his thoughts began to race, Mulder gave in to their demands, got out of bed yet again and retrieved the laptop. He plugged it in and tried to make himself comfortable in bed again, the TV forgotten as he filled a closer screen with the images dancing in his mind. It wasn't a solution, it wasn't what Yun would want, but it was a start.

When he shifted and stretched, much later, a threatening cramp in his left calf made him come back to the present enough to realize that hours had passed. Mulder hit save, leaned back and flexed his legs slowly. He felt pleasantly drained of thought and coherency, and put the laptop down on the floor before pushing himself down into the pillows and closing his eyes. Without thought he curled his arm around one of the pillows, hugging it close. And slept.

* * *

His room got the morning sun. It shone straight in through the window, unhindered by the curtains he'd forgotten to draw closed, and laid a reddish-orange haze over the inside of his eyelids. Mulder muttered to himself and drew the covers over his head, but had to resurface moments later, forced out of sleep by a sudden irrational fear of suffocation. After a few moments spent blinking at the bright light, he tried turning over and going back to sleep, but it was too late. He was undeniably awake.

Stretching and yawning confirmed the inevitable, and in a burst of annoyed energy he flung off the covers and got to his feet, only to sit back down again abruptly while waiting for his blood pressure to catch up. It was a beautiful morning. It was also revoltingly early. Mulder muttered something under his breath, a low curse in the universal pre-coffee morning language, and rose again, more slowly this time.

He padded out into the bathroom, and when he returned headed for his bag and turned it upside down, watching with some satisfaction as everything spilled out in a heap. There was the t-shirt, washed-out, shapeless, sleeveless, soft and comfortable; the shorts and socks, lacking any personality; and the new running shoes. Not so new any longer, of course, but he had a feeling they'd always be the new shoes. They were better than the old ones; maybe he should be grateful to Krycek for forcing him to buy them.

This morning, in bright daylight, he was able to handle that name and the memories it brought with some skill, adding the emotional charge to the nervous energy already coursing through him. He could run, he could sweat it out, let it drain from his body the hard way. He could avoid remembering Krycek's clothes in his closet: the black jeans with the bloodstain, slashed open by a madman's knife; the boots that looked lonely with no feet in them, so lonely that he sometimes wore them even though they didn't quite fit.

While he got dressed he thought about tapping on the wall to tell Scully he was going out, but she was, hopefully, still asleep and having whatever sweet dreams good people usually had. He would be back before she woke up. Mulder walked towards the door, then stopped, turned back, and turned the TV off before he left. In the elevator on the way down he thought about which way to go, but it didn't take him long to decide. Go west, young man.

The city was waking up around him. It was going to be another hot day, and suddenly he was glad he'd spend the early part of it driving around the city with Martin Yun, who didn't care if he took his tie and suit jacket off. Yun had never bothered much with formality. That was one of the few nice things about him. They would gripe and grouse at each other, fight about theories and interpretations, and wind up presenting a reasonably united front to Spelling later on.

Mulder ran at a slow, easy pace past Ghirardelli Square, up between Fort Mason and the youth hostel, and picked up speed slightly on the long downslope towards the Marina Green. He liked to feel his muscles moving with a calm and perfect purpose. That, too, was a form of meditation, the twin rhythms of steps and heartbeats soothing thought away. He passed people walking dogs, people going to work, and enjoyed being part of the landscape, just another runner. Down on the green, some early risers were already getting a kite into the air. It trailed reluctantly after them, then was caught by the wind and rose with a sudden snap and a triumphant flare of the long tail, riding the updraft. In the clear sunlight, its bright red and yellow triangles gleamed enamel bright, a giant brooch pinned insecurely to the sky's pale blue morning dress.

Forcing his attention away from the kite, Mulder veered to the left to avoid a woman with a golden retriever, and became aware that a car was pacing him along Jefferson Boulevard. Another driver honked his horn at the slow pace and then roared past dangerously; Mulder turned his head to look, then had to return his attention to where he was going. He didn't recognize the car, and the windows were dark. He decided to cut right across the green itself, an instinctive reaction to put some distance between himself and whoever seemed to be following him.

As he turned his back on the street he felt a tiny sting at the back of his neck. Mulder jerked and lost his stride; he clapped a hand to the spot and felt nothing. He tried to keep moving, but the ground was shifting under his feet, tilting crazily first one way, then another. The green of the grass came up to meet him, then the grey of the pavement, then the green, grey, green—



* * *


The light was far too bright, and after a first attempt at opening his eyes, he squeezed them shut instead. An instinctive protest came out as a wordless croak, and with the sound came awareness that his throat hurt, and his head, and other more outlying parts that he wasn't feeling too closely connected to at the moment. He lay still and tried to take stock. At least everything still seemed to be there.

A hand closed on his and squeezed it gently. He knew that grip and tried to return it, or acknowledge it. "Mulder," Scully said. "Are you awake? How are you feeling?"

"Mm—" This time, trying to say something brought on a coughing fit, and his body jerked violently. Spikes of pain shot through him, centering in his head, behind his eyes, in his lungs, and in his left wrist. Mulder struggled for breath and finally gained control, sucking in air and trying to relax the muscles that had suddenly clenched up. Scully had let go of his hand and was pulling him upright, raising the bed to let him lean back without lying flat.

He tried again, cautiously, to open his eyes. The light still hurt, but the cramps brought on by the coughing fit had given him perspective on his own pain and he peered at Scully, who sat back in the chair by the bed. She looked concerned, but when she met his eyes, she smiled. Mulder opened his mouth to ask questions, but he didn't want to start coughing again, so he lifted an eyebrow instead.

"You've sprained your wrist and you're covered with bruises, and you have a lump on your head where you hit the ground," she said. "You've been unconscious for several hours. What happened?"

The question echoed in his head; it felt wrong. He frowned. His eyes were adjusting and the light was no longer extremely painful, just painful. "I don't know," he rasped out. "I hit the ground?"

Her eyes narrowed. "Do you know what date it is?"

"No," he sighed, familiar with the drill, "and I don't know who's president, either, but I can sing 'Stairway to Heaven' backwards."

Something very like a smile twitched at the corners of Scully's mouth and then disappeared again before he could be absolutely certain he'd seen it. "You were running along the Marina Green and for some reason you took a fall. The paramedics were concerned about the possible effects of the blow to your head, but there's no sign of any serious injury. The tests show—"

"Running?" he interrupted her. "Was I running after someone, or...?"

"You don't remember?" He rolled his head slowly from side to side, and a wave of delayed pain followed the movement. "Well, that kind of minor retrograde amnesia is consistent with a concussion. You went out running this morning, but apparently you didn't get very far. You don't seem to have done any real damage to yourself, apart from this." Scully's hand brushed over his wrist. "They've done X-rays, a CAT scan. There's nothing that explains why you were unconscious for so long."

Mulder attempted a shrug. "So nothing's really wrong with me except for my wrist."

"It's sprained, but not badly. You'll be typing one-handed for a little while. Maybe you can dictate your profile to Agent Yun."

Hearing that the scans showed nothing wrong did much to convince Mulder that he wasn't hurting as much as he thought he was. With his head turned partly away from the window, he found it easier to watch Scully's face. Waking up to find himself in a hospital bed was almost routine, except that he usually remembered what he'd done to end up there in the first place. Then again, he wasn't sure he wanted to remember. Falling over your own feet while out jogging wasn't particularly glamorous.

"I thought you were slicing livers this morning," he said, testing what he did remember. He shifted in the bed and glanced down at the heplock port in the back of his hand. No IV tube. No monitors, either. Mulder relaxed a little. It really wasn't serious, then.

"I was." Scully looked a little apologetic. "I overslept and had to rush — I thought you and Agent Yun had already left, so I meant to call you later. When Yun came to get you the desk clerk told him that you'd gone out running. He was the one who started calling the hospitals eventually, but you weren't carrying any ID when you were admitted, so it took him a while to track you down. Then he called me—"

"What—" Mulder broke off, trying to hold off another coughing fit. "What made him think I'd be in a hospital?" he wheezed finally. "And what time is it, anyway?"

Scully consulted her watch. "It's past one," she said. "You've been here quite a while. Yun said it was a toss-up between checking the emergency rooms and the singles bars, but he thought it was a little too early for the bars."

"And then he told you what a nice reliable guy he is, I bet." Mulder relaxed against the raised head of the bed. His lungs burned as though he'd been running, but the feeling eased as he breathed slowly. He narrowed his eyes against the light once again. "I hope you didn't believe him. Why didn't anyone call the hotel? I had the keycard in my pocket."

"No, you didn't," Scully told him. "It must have fallen out."

He frowned, but let it go and turned to a more interesting topic. "Did you get anything interesting from the bodies?"

"It's too early to tell yet," she said. "The lab is running a few additional tests on the tissue samples I took, and I won't know anything until I hear from them. When I examined the facial wounds I attempted to see if I could draw any conclusions about the type of implement the killer uses to penetrate the sinus cavities." Her face, her shrug, told him she felt dissatisfied with what she'd seen. "All I can say is that it appears to have rounded edges. Your spoon theory might not be entirely wrong."

"Jeanette Donaldson and Paolo Roberto," Mulder said softly. "Anna Maria Anderson and Daniel Miles. Barbara Ann Magida and Stephen Warnicke. Suzanne Penttiniemi and Carlos Gutierrez." He could see each face clearly, both as they had appeared in life, and as they had looked once the killer was done with them. Digging into their faces with a piece of blunt metal, looking for something so small and delicate he'd probably never see it in the mess of flesh and blood. The mess of living flesh and blood. "Has anyone interviewed the families and found out whether any of the victims claimed to have been abducted?"

"No, Mulder." Scully gave him a suspicious look. "No one's asked the families about that. You don't think that has anything to do with it, do you? You said it was the killer's belief in abductions that was important."

"Yeah, but I was wondering," he paused for a second and tried to remember when he had been wondering, "how does he find them? There's no obvious connection, but there has to be more to it than the way they look, something else that links these particular couples to his obsession, and if we find out how he chooses his victims we have a chance of protecting the people who might be next on his list." Mulder sat up, forgetting his head, and then winced. He held a hand up to shield his eyes and turned towards Scully. "Where are my clothes?"

"I'm not sure you ought to leave yet," she objected. "You were unconscious for an unusually long time. Dr. White and I were discussing whether it might not be advisable to perform some additional tests, and a period of observation would help—"

"I'm fine, Scully. You said the scans and tests show I'm fine. Besides, you're a doctor, you can keep an eye on me." He swung his legs over the edge of the bed, ignoring his dizziness. "I've already wasted most of the day lying here with nothing but a bump on the head and a sprained wrist. I want to go talk to the victims' families."

"I don't think all of them were locals." Scully bent down and pulled a sheaf of papers out of her briefcase. She flipped through them, then ran her finger down a page, while Mulder tried to read upside down. "Donaldson and Roberto lived together in Daly City. Magida and Warnicke were from Santa Rosa. Penttiniemi and Gutierrez... she lived in Berkeley, he lived here with his parents. And Anderson and Miles shared an apartment on Sanchez. Apart from Gutierrez, Anderson and Miles, they all moved here within the past five years, mostly from out of state."

"So I'll start with Gutierrez. Clothes, Scully. Take this out." He gestured at the heplock port. "And where's Yun?"

"Working, I suppose," she shot back, but she carefully pulled the tape loose and took the needle out, then unfastened his hand from the board. "All right, put this on and I'll go talk to the doctor."

'This' turned out to be the clothes he'd been wearing when he was brought in, of course. Mulder eyed the running shorts and t-shirt with distaste, then realized that Scully was counting on that to keep him there. Frowning, he started to disentangle himself from the hospital gown, trying to keep his left hand out of the way. He pulled on the t-shirt, then stood up very slowly and carefully. His head pounded and he had to lean against the wall for a while, but he got the shorts on as well and was managing what he hoped was a nonchalant pose as Scully returned. "Everything clear? Can we go?"

"That depends on how you're feeling." The woman who followed Scully into the room had hair that matched her coat, but her face suggested that she was too young for it. She was pretty in a stern kind of way, like a serious doll. "You've been unconscious for hours and you only just woke up. There's no reason for you to leave at once, is there?"

"I have a job to do," he said, and straightened up to stand without the wall's support. "If the tests don't show anything wrong with me, there's no reason why I shouldn't leave."

She tapped her finger against her lower lip, once. "All right," she said. "Provided that you remain under medical supervision for at least a full day, which I understand your partner is prepared to provide."

"Yeah, she's been providing that for years," Mulder said, unable to resist.

"She did mention that you were unusually accident-prone," the doctor retaliated blandly, and Mulder winced. Ouch. Scully, of course, looked smug. "Try to take it easy for a couple of days." Something of what was passing through his mind must have made it onto his face, because the doctor paused, and raised an eyebrow.

"If I can," he said softly, pushing away from the wall and walking towards the door. "If I can."

Scully caught up with him halfway to the elevators, radiating disapproval. He was able to ignore it through concentrating on his footsteps; every time he set his heel down a flash shot up through his bones to hit a spot somewhere behind his eyes. Mulder recognized the sensation from other times and other concussions; it would pass. When they got into the elevator he resisted the impulse to lean against the wall again. Scully pressed the button for the underground parking level, and turned to face him. "I'm not sure this is such a good idea. And Dr. White almost refused to release you, you know."

"What's more important, Scully, that I have a headache or that there's a killer out there cutting people's throats?"

"I'm only suggesting that if you want to get your own way all the time, you might consider being a little more devious." Then she smiled a little at him, a serious smile, humor mixed with appreciation of what he was saying. "We'd better go back to the hotel first. You need a change of clothes before tackling those interviews."

The doors opened. "And we might want to stop by a drugstore," Mulder admitted. He didn't quite want to say that his head hurt, but he ran a hand over his face and through his hair and tried not to wince.

"I've got some painkillers here." Scully dug the pills out of her bag as she walked and handed them to him before unlocking the car. There was a bottle of water lying on the passenger seat, and he drank deeply from it, cleaning the taste of several hours of unconsciousness out of his mouth. When they drove out into the sunshine he was prepared, and squinted against it. The day was as warm as the morning had promised it would be, as warm as yesterday had been.

Mulder downed a couple of painkillers, then rifled unashamedly through the contents of Scully's briefcase until he found Carlos Gutierrez' home address. After memorizing it, he looked up the rest of them as well. He'd start with Gutierrez, then see if he could get hold of the other victims' families over the phone, maybe drive up to Santa Rosa tomorrow; Anderson had lived at home. It would be worth the time it took, to get to do a face-to-face interview.

Looking out the window as they passed Lafayette Park, Mulder wondered about the places where the victims had been found. There was a trick to seeing patterns, all kinds of patterns; you had to learn to think with your brain unfocused, the way you could unfocus your eyes and see shapes and colors instead of actual objects. Then, once you understood where things were in relation to each other, focus became important again. He visualized the map he'd seen yesterday pinned to the wall, Yun's sweeping gestures as he indicated the progression of murders, the uncertain theory that the killer might choose the vicinity of the South Basin and Candlestick Point for his next kill.

Tourists littered the streets as they got closer to the hotel, their bright shirts indistinguishable from the candy wrappers they dropped and the maps they turned this way and that. Mulder watched them absently through narrowed light-sensitive eyes, feeling the painkillers kick in and soothe the flaring headache into a low even burn, low enough that he could actually feel his throbbing wrist and the bruises all along the left side of his body. He didn't feel worried for this colorful bumbling crowd. The victims had all been locals, more or less. There had to be a connection, a network he could tap into, even if it was so well hidden that no one else had spotted it yet.

He drew a few stares in the lobby, bruises and bandages seeming more obvious against that backdrop. For once Mulder found himself longing for one of his suits; it would cover everything except the scrape on his forehead. The moments he spent asking the desk clerk for a new keycard seemed far too long. Back in his room, he considered taking a quick shower, and then realized it would mean unwinding the elastic bandage around his wrist, and either putting it back on himself or calling on Scully for help. He gave the idea up as being too much trouble, and settled for splashing some water on his face. He was pleased to find that he was a lot steadier on his feet now, less inclined to just lean against the wall and do nothing.

Mulder got dressed as fast as he could. The suit did improve his morale; the cell phone and the guns made him feel complete again; and finally he got out his sunglasses and put them on, and sighed in relief. That was a lot better. The hours until sunset didn't seem as annoyingly long any more.

When he knocked on Scully's door it opened almost under his hand. She dangled the car keys in front of him, then closed her fingers around them just before he could grab them. "You're under medical supervision," she reminded him and stepped forward so that he had to move back and make room for her to close the door. "I've got directions. 33rd and Lawton."

"Let's go, then."

Scully appropriated the driver's seat again, and Mulder let her do it; she was unstoppable when she was being protective. Besides, he'd be a bit uncomfortable driving if he couldn't use his left hand much. With the sunglasses in place, he could spend the trip in a more relaxed manner, slouching on the passenger side trying to recall what had happened this morning. Falling over his own feet. Christ. He couldn't even remember getting out of bed. Everything after the moment when he'd put the laptop aside was gone. Où sont les neiges d'antan? Où sont les pensées d'aujourd'hui, damn it?

He hated losing memories, losing time. Missing time. For a moment his heart beat faster, but then he realized that there must have been witnesses to his fall on the Marina Green. There was still the rest of the night and morning to account for, but he found it hard to believe that his first reaction after getting abducted would have been to go running. Perhaps the simple explanation was the correct one. I stumbled, I fell, I hit my head. I'm a klutz.

"Mulder, are you hungry?" Scully glanced at him. "Did you even have breakfast today?"

"I don't know that, do I," he pointed out. "It can wait. We'll grab some dinner later." He didn't feel hungry at all, just mildly dehydrated, and bent down sideways to get the bottle of water from the floor of the car. The sudden twisting movement drove the air out of his lungs and his breath caught; there was a moment of pressure and then he was coughing, deep racking coughs that scraped his throat and bent him double. When the spasm passed he was leaning against the car door, and cautiously drew some air in, slowly, carefully, trying not to trigger another.

Scully had pulled over at a bus stop in front of a Chinese restaurant and was watching him closely. She reached out and touched his shoulder, not quite helping him to sit up again. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine." His voice rasped a little. "I think I must have choked on something. I'll be okay, I just need some water." Scully bent down and got the bottle for him, and he drank carefully, soothing his throat. "All better," he told her, "let's get going before the bus comes."

She nodded, and when they were on their way again he concentrated on his breathing. It didn't hurt now; only when he drew a deep breath could he feel a slight catch in throat and lungs. Mulder shifted, trying to stretch his legs, and drank some more water. By the time Scully stopped the car again, he'd finished the whole bottle.

They were parked outside a square white house in a street of square white houses. The whole Sunset district unrolled down towards the beach, a geometric grid of Lego pieces, all the houses low and boxy and seemingly interchangeable. When they got out of the car and studied the doors they saw that Carlos Gutierrez had lived in the ground floor apartment, sharing the house with his parents upstairs. Independent enough to come and go as he wanted, but his mother probably did his laundry, Mulder thought as they went up to ring the doorbell.

The woman who opened was small and slim, her dark hair beginning to grow out grey at the roots as though she'd given up dyeing it quite recently. She looked up at them with a certain graceful resignation even before Mulder got his ID out. "I'm Special Agent Fox Mulder, and this is Agent Scully. We're with the FBI, and we'd like..."

"To ask me some more questions about Carlos. Yes. Come in." She turned aside and made a soft gesture, and they stepped into the dim living room. The blinds were drawn. Everything was very quiet. All flat surfaces were dusted, blank, and empty. Mulder realized that he was still wearing his sunglasses, and quickly, guiltily slipped them off and put them in his pocket.

"Mrs. Gutierrez, we're sorry to have to do this. I realize you've already talked to the police and the FBI several times, but—"

"But if there is something you have thought of, something that might help catch this — this beast, of course I will help. You don't have to apologize. I'm sorry my husband isn't here. He's on a business trip." Her voice was steady, and very soft even though she'd interrupted him twice now. Mulder got the impression, looking at her, that she was living very much in her own world right now, but prepared to accept them as part of it, as part of something that might help her make sense of her son's death.

"There is something," he said. "It's going to sound a bit strange, but I have a good reason for asking." Mrs. Gutierrez nodded. "Did your son believe that he had been abducted by aliens?"

She stared at him, and then her face hardened like clay in a potter's kiln and grew stiff and brittle. "You're making fun of me," she said.

"No, Mrs. Gutierrez, we're not," Scully interposed quickly in her most soothingly cool voice; the sideways look she shot Mulder was anything but cool. "We want to know whether your son was interested in — space exploration, science fiction, the possibility of extraterrestrial life. We're investigating whether the killer may have found his victims through an involvement in issues like these."

"This is a serious theory?" Mrs. Gutierrez had walked over to the window, and she stood with her back to them, perfectly still, sculpted out of black wood. "You are really investigating this? The FBI?"

"Yes, it's serious," Mulder said, feeling another slight rasp in his voice. "This could be very important, Mrs. Gutierrez."

For a few moments longer she stood where she was, staring out through a crack in the blinds, and then her carven body came to life again and she turned around. Her eyes met his, and he could still see nothing in them beyond the same endless black resignation. "Carlos and his crazy ideas," she said quietly. Mrs. Gutierrez walked across the room towards a door at the back. "I think you should come with me."

She led them through the house and down the back stairs, rough concrete dimly lit by a single weak lightbulb. Mulder caught a glimpse of the back yard, grass and gravel, before they turned into a narrow dark passage and stood outside the door to Carlos' apartment. Keys rattled, and Mrs. Gutierrez unlocked the door and stepped inside to turn on the light. Scully and Mulder followed her.

"Oh, my God," Scully said, very softly. Mulder couldn't really blame her; he was feeling a little stunned himself. The room was like a cross between Max Fennig's trailer home and his own basement office. Books, magazines, computer printouts and video tapes littered every flat surface; one whole wall was covered with pinned-up notes, post-it stickers, torn-out articles, blurry photographs. Mrs. Gutierrez stood at the center of the room, holding her head high and looking at them as though daring them to say something.

"Thank you," Mulder offered. He met her eyes and tried to convey how serious he was. "This is just what we wanted to find out. Do you know if there was a particular local group that Carlos was involved with, that maybe both he and Ms. Penttiniemi were part of?"

"They used to meet with some people out in Berkeley on Thursdays," she said, "but I don't know who they were, what they did together. Perhaps you can find what you need to know, somewhere here." Mrs. Gutierrez nodded at the jumble that surrounded her son's computer. She perched on the arm of the couch, a ratty old relic from the early eighties, white cover turned grey with age. "Please, go ahead and look."

Scully turned towards the desk, and Mulder could see her mentally rolling up her sleeves. He went over to the wall, and started to study the personal notes and the fliers for various get-togethers. Mrs. Gutierrez watched them as they sifted through the material, finding phone numbers without names and names without phone numbers, odd dates, observations in shorthand, love letters from Suzanne Penttiniemi, printouts of material from MUFON's web site, pictures of crop circles and attempts at a longer descriptive narrative of an abduction experience. Mulder would have liked to take the time to read it, but he couldn't quite justify it to himself, not right now.

"I think I've got something," Scully said finally, straightening up after digging around in a desk drawer. "This is last year's planning calendar." She turned towards Mrs. Gutierrez. "Do you know if your son had been going to these meetings for some time?"

"About two years," the woman replied. "It was Suzanne who introduced him to the group. She said it would be good for him to meet people who knew — who thought—"

"You never answered that question before, Mrs. Gutierrez," Mulder said slowly. "Your son did believe that he had been abducted, then."

"Yes," she admitted quietly, looking embarrassed.

"And Ms. Penttiniemi, do you know if she...?" Mrs. Gutierrez nodded. "Thank you."

Scully cleared her throat, and Mulder turned back towards her. "There are notations for meetings here every Thursday," she said, "with an additional note beside every one of them. It says either 'Blaine's' or 'café'. It looks as though the group alternated between two different meeting places. And there's a Blaine Hibbert, with a phone number, on a post-it note stuck to the page where we have the first memo about a Thursday meeting."

"Let's just hope he hasn't moved since last year," Mulder said. He glanced quickly over at Mrs. Gutierrez, who was still watching them both with infinite patience. Scully caught it, gave an almost imperceptible nod.

"Thank you very much for your assistance, Mrs. Gutierrez." Maybe it was her tone of voice, maybe it was sheer force of will, but Scully got Mrs. Gutierrez to stand up and move towards the door with them. They came out into the cool dark passage and she led them right, towards the door to the street. "You've been a great help."

Mrs. Gutierrez opened the door. Daylight sharpened her features as she turned towards them. "I hope it helps," she said quietly. "I hope it helps."

Mulder fished a card out of his pocket and scribbed his cell phone number on the back. "If you remember anything else that might be relevant, please call me." He handed her the card and stepped out into the sunny street.

She stayed there in the open door, watching them, as they walked to the car and got in. Mulder felt strangely tempted to wave at her, but he didn't want her to think he was being frivolous. Instead, he got out his cell phone and dialed the number he'd read on the post-it note. He waited, while Mrs. Gutierrez closed the door and vanished into her dark house again. After four rings, just when he thought he was going to get someone's machine, the phone was picked up at the other end. "Hello."

"Blaine Hibbert? My name is Fox Mulder, I'm a Federal agent and I'd like—" The click made him break off. He lowered the phone. "He hung up."

"I thought you were famous in NICAP circles." Scully's smile wasn't quite a smirk. "Maybe he hasn't paid his fan club membership dues lately."

Mulder glared at her, then closed his eyes. Damn, but the light was bright out here. He got his sunglasses out, put them on and hit redial. This time he did get an answering machine. "If you knew the number, you know who I am. I hope I'll be back, so leave a message after the tone." Beep.

"Mr. Hibbert, pick up the phone. This is important. It's about Carlos Gutierrez." Mulder waited a few seconds. "Pick up the phone!"

"Maybe he went out," Scully suggested.

"Like hell he did. Pick up the phone, Mr. Hibbert. Refusing to cooperate with a Federal officer is a—"

"Yeah." The voice was flat and uncommunicative. Mulder was so surprised at getting an answer that he just blinked. "What do you want?"

Collecting himself, he went back to what he had been planning to say when he'd first called. "I understand that you run a support group for abductees, Mr. Hibbert. We're investigating the recent murders, and we have reason to believe that Carlos Gutierrez and Suzanne Penttiniemi were part of your group."

"Yeah," Blaine Hibbert said again. He sounded as though every word was an effort. "Yeah, they were. So?"

"So," Mulder gritted out, "we're trying to find out if the other victims had connections with your group or any similar organization. We'd like to talk to you about it."

There was a lengthy pause broken only by the sound of Blaine Hibbert chewing gum. Finally he said, "Are you really Fox Mulder?"

"That's what it says on my paychecks."

"Uhh..." Another pause stretched, tensed, snapped. "Look, I'll meet you tonight, ten o'clock, out on the municipal pier at the Aquatic Park, okay?" With the true grace of the genuinely paranoid, Blaine Hibbert didn't wait for an answer. "Come alone." He hung up. Mulder sighed and hit redial again, but got only the answering machine.

"Probably the only way he can get a date," he muttered. Turning to Scully, he waggled the phone at her. "The elusive Mr. Hibbert wants to meet me later tonight. Probably to tell me in the deepest secrecy that he doesn't know anything about this."

"We could just get his address from the phone company and go out there and put the fear of God into him," Scully suggested.

"Don't you mean the fear of J. Edgar?" Mulder grinned. Then he sobered rapidly. "He sounded nervous. It's a common enough trait among abductees, not to mention coordinators of large groups of highly-strung people, but maybe he really does know something."

"All the more reason to get the information right away."

"Yeah, but..." Mulder hadn't been particularly taken with Blaine Hibbert, and he started to wonder why he wanted to give the man the time he'd asked for, when it was so important that they find out as much as possible as soon as possible. While he thought about it, the phone rang in his hand. "Mulder."

"Back among the living again?" Yun's voice was loud and energetic, edged with a sense of urgency that made Mulder sit up straight and pay close attention. "Listen, Spooky, we've got something. A bartender at a place in the Castro saw the photos of the victims in the paper today and went straight to the police. He says he's seen a guy talking to at least three of the men, right in his bar. I told you we're dealing with a queer bastard."

"Is he still there? I want to talk to him." He glanced at Scully and she started the car. "Keep him with you until I get there, okay?"

"We've got him working with the computer guys to put together a picture of the killer." Yun was smug. Mulder started to worry.

"Martin, don't get too sure of yourself. It might not be the right man."

"Fuck, Spooky, you think this is a coincidence? It fits, you know it fits. He tries to pick up these straight guys, they turn him down, then he sees them with their girlfriends and he loses it, decides if he can't have them, no one can."

"He tries to pick up three straight guys in the same bar in the Castro?" Mulder asked dryly. "You're reaching. Maybe this is the killer, maybe not, but you've got his motivation all wrong."

Yun made an annoyed sound. "This from you? You used to piece things together from half a sentence here, a forgotten habit there, and you'd say, that's the one, that's the one we want. I've got what I need right here."

"Maybe you've got what you need, but you haven't got what the case needs." Mulder knew that Yun was working up to yelling at him, for being such a killjoy, for being an unbeliever, for not agreeing. "We'll be along as soon as we can," he said, cutting Yun's as yet unvoiced tirade short. A single curse reached him before he disconnected and put the phone away.

"Where are we going — the Federal building?" Scully asked.

"Yes. Yun thinks he's onto something." Mulder felt his sunglasses begin to slip, and pushed them back up again. He ran a hand through his hair and tugged at it, but it didn't ease the sensation of tightness and discomfort. "Do you have any more of those painkillers?"

"In my briefcase," she nodded, "but you need something to wash them down with, too. What did Yun say? He's got a suspect?"

"Yeah." Mulder turned around carefully and started to investigate the briefcase. He felt the beginning of a twisting sensation in his chest, and slowed down even more; he refused to start coughing again. He could still feel the rasp and burn of the last coughing fit. "He's got a witness who's seen someone talking to three of the men. It could be the killer."

"You don't sound convinced."

"Martin Yun is convinced." Mulder sat up again, painkillers in hand, and tapped a finger on the cap of the bottle. "He's too convinced. Look at what was in Carlos Gutierrez' apartment — he should have investigated that connection long ago."

"Perhaps Gutierrez was the only victim who had an interest in abduction groups."

"Scully. What about his girlfriend, for one thing? Yun's put the focus of the investigation on other things. He's already twisting the facts to make them fit in with his theories. It isn't impossible to reach a correct conclusion through faulty reasoning, but neither is it something FBI profilers should make a habit of."

Scully turned into the parking lot of a Safeway and paused, hands still on the wheel. "You're that certain that his profile is wrong and yours is right."

"Scully." It came out a bit more harshly than he'd intended, as another wave of pain rolled through his head. "What Yun has is a theory, not a profile. He sees everything the killer does in general terms, not specific. He doesn't want to explain the strange details, he wants to explain them away. Yun wants the killer to be a deranged and resentful gay man, so he calls the mutilation of the victims humiliating instead of trying to see what message the killer is sending us through it. And he's so eager to catch this guy that the first suspect he gets is going to be already condemned in his mind."

"People seem to think very highly of Agent Yun," Scully said. "He has an impressive record." She opened the car door and got outside, and he did as well, determined not to sit in the car like an invalid and let his partner buy water for him. "Are you sure you're not letting your dislike of him color your attitude to his work?"

He turned his back on her and strode across the parking lot towards the store entrance, knowing she'd have to run if she wanted to catch up. Mulder narrowly avoided having his foot run over by a Toyota Corolla turning too fast into a free spot. Inside the store he realized that Scully had stayed where she was instead of following him to argue it out up and down the aisles. Just as well; it didn't do for FBI agents to squabble domestically over the grocery shopping. That would ruin their image.

Mulder got himself a large bottle of water, thought about it for a few moments, and added another. On the way to the checkout he grabbed some dry crackers and a bag of peanut butter M&M's. He didn't walk past any dried fruit for Scully, and he wasn't sure he was prepared to hand over something that could be read as a peace offering anyway.

Maneuvering all this with only one good hand did nothing to change his mood for the better. When he came back to the car, carrying his paper bag, Scully was sitting in the driver's seat with the door open. He got in and left his door open too, unwilling to be shut in any more than he had to in this weather. Mulder shook out two painkillers, opened a bottle of water and downed the pills as fast as he could. The water tasted wonderful and he drank some more; when he finally lowered the bottle he was surprised to see that it was half empty.

"Listen," he said slowly, "I don't like Yun, but most of the time, I respect him. He's done some good work. But he isn't doing it now. There's no room for personal prejudices when you're profiling a killer. You have to see and understand what's in front of you. Anything less than complete concentration will get you nowhere." Mulder paused for a moment, but she said nothing, so he went on, "I used to do this, Scully. I know what I'm talking about."

She shifted towards him. "I know," she said, and he heard a lot more than just simple acknowledgment in her voice. "I just don't want to see you take off on your own and leave everyone else behind. There's room for you and Yun to cooperate."

"If he drops his attitude," Mulder said. He flicked a sideways glance at Scully and caught her in the middle of an eyebrow twitch. "Yeah, but there's a difference, Scully. I'm right." More cool water soothed his sore throat. "The killer searches his victims for implants. He kills them and leaves them in the embrace of the earth, this earth, returning them to what they are a part of, what they should never have been taken away from. He decorates the genitals with white dove feathers, a message, a—" A flash of white pain shot through his head. "A symbol of innocence," he forced out, amazed that it had taken him so long to see it. "He is telling us that the victims are innocent. Maybe he believes that what he's doing to them cleanses them of whatever impurities the abductions may have caused them."

There was a new gleam in Scully's eyes. "You think he might actually believe that he has removed implants from the victims? That he is doing them a favor somehow?"

"I don't know." Mulder frowned, brows drawing together over the bridge of his nose. The skin on his face felt tender, as though he'd been sunburned. "It could be that he judges them to be innocent because he doesn't find implants."

"Considering the equipment he uses and the conditions he works under," Scully said coolly, "it would be extremely difficult for him to find implants even if the victims had them. Nothing of the kind has been found in the bodies, so either he does find them, which I consider unlikely, or the victims didn't have any. But it would be possible for the killer to remove something else from the victims, a bone fragment or some small object that might have lodged in a sinus cavity, and believe it to be an implant."

Mulder nodded slowly. "It's a possibility. But I think the killer is looking for something he hasn't found yet, that he is searching for a specific couple, or at least he was searching when this started. By now, the almost ritual cleansing of the victims he chooses may have become his primary quest, and the previous goal of trying to find the template for the pairs he chooses may have grown less important. Or maybe not." He trailed off, turning over possibilities, then remembered what had sparked the discussion. "We should get going."

"Yes, you're right." She shut the car door and turned the key in the ignition; Mulder hurriedly got his right leg inside the car. As Scully pulled out of the parking lot he opened the packet of crackers and bit into one. It crumbled all over his lap.

"Yun has a witness," he said indistinctly, swallowed, and tried again. "Yun has a witness who has seen the same person talking to three of the men. He thinks it's the killer, who apparently tried to pick them up in a Castro Street bar."

Scully frowned. "You're right, that sounds odd. But it's a link, it's the first real connection we have between the different victims. Depending on what Blaine Hibbert says tonight, it may also be the most important connection."

"We'll see about that," Mulder muttered, sinking back in his seat. He tried another cracker, but it fell apart as well, and finally he gave up on the whole idea and drank some more water instead. Then he closed his eyes for a moment. The painkillers kicked in, and the effect was so soothing that he fell asleep.

Scully shook him awake gently when they'd reached their destination, and gave him a couple of minutes to resume normal thought processes before they went inside. They didn't have to go far before Martin Yun came to meet them, pouncing on them with eager impatience. "Took you long enough."

"We stopped to smell the roses," Mulder said. Yun was smiling a wide toothy smile that Mulder recognized from other times, other successful hunts. He could hardly keep still, shifting this way and that as though his legs were coiled springs that were going to launch him into the air for a triumphant triple roll at any moment.

The self-congratulatory look didn't abate as he ushered Mulder and Scully into the office where Spelling was already waiting. "We've really got something now," he said abruptly. "We're getting somewhere. It was a good idea to go public. Sure we're getting hundreds of calls from the helpful public and hundreds of calls from the terrified public, but it brought us a civic-minded cocks— gentleman who's given us our first real break."

"What exactly did the civic-minded gentleman say?" Scully's voice smoked the way dry ice does. She was standing slightly in front of Mulder, and he wondered what she thought he needed to be protected from now. Spelling directed a quelling glance at Yun, but Yun was so wired he didn't notice, just turned an even wider version of his smile on Scully. "He claimed to recognize three of the victims?"

"Yeah." Yun nodded briskly and kept nodding for longer than was strictly necessary. "He says he's had a guy in his bar who's been trying, from what it looked like, to pick up three of the victims. The killer obviously goes for a certain type of man," Mulder was almost tempted to laugh at the way Yun had appropriated this part of his profile and adapted it to his own purposes, "and when he fails to get what he wants he stalks and kills the men and also their girlfriends, the symbols of their heterosexuality, and disfigures the bodies, getting his revenge on what he wanted but could not have."

"You never did answer my question, what were these supposedly heterosexual men doing in a gay bar?" Mulder asked, sliding his sunglasses down to look at Yun over the top. "Just hanging out because they liked the ambience? All three of them, coincidentally, in the same place?"

"Do you really think it's a coincidence that the female victims all bear a strong resemblance to each other, too?" Scully added, directing the question at Yun but managing to focus on Spelling at the same time, probably judging him more receptive to reasoned argument that went counter to Yun's convictions.

"Look, we've got a link between three of the victims and a strange man, what are you saying, that I shouldn't pursue it because I can't prove he had dove feathers in his pocket?" Yun drew a deep breath and sobered himself a little. "We have to find this man."

"Yes, we do." Spelling leaned against the front of his desk and tapped his front teeth with a ballpoint pen. "But these are valid questions. Agent Mulder, have you worked up a profile of the killer?"

"I've done some work on it," Mulder said. "I have most of the material on my laptop back at the hotel, but I can give you a summary of the most important points." At least he thought he could; it depended on how literal and down-to-earth Spelling would want him to be. "But first I'd like to know exactly what the witness saw, and I'd like to talk to him myself if that's possible. Is he still in the building?"

"I think so. I left him with Sedley and the computer guys working on that sketch." Yun looked less bouncy now, more insecure, as he heard his boss pay serious attention to what Mulder was saying. "I'll take you to him, we can talk to him together."

Mulder was about to say that he'd prefer to talk to the witness alone, when a knock on the door stopped him. Spelling shot out a 'come in,' and a tousled head appeared, followed by a tall lanky body. One hand held a paper that was waved indiscriminately at everyone in the room. "Got the picture right here, I brought it right away like you said. Witness says it's a pretty good likeness."

"Where is the witness now?" Mulder asked, trying to keep hold of his temper.

"Oh, he left, said he had a bar to open, and Sedley didn't want to keep him." The man looked unconcerned, and held the paper up again like a banner for the faithful to rally to. Yun was already next to him, ready to study the results. "Look, I have to run," the man said, letting go of the sketch. "Sedley said to tell you that she's working on a transcript of the interview, okay?" He stepped back and had left the room before Mulder could collar him and shake any useful facts out of him.

Scully walked up to Yun briskly, caught a corner of the paper and brought it down to a level where she could comfortably see.

"Oh, my God."

It was softer than the way she usually said it, more truly stunned, and the look on her face was indescribable. Mulder had been cursing to himself over Sedley's inability to follow Yun's instructions, or possibly Yun's reluctance to follow his instructions; he'd have to find out which bar it was and go down there himself. But now, hearing Scully, he walked up to her and looked down at the paper she held and the face that looked up from it. For a moment his mind did not register what his eyes saw; recognition came with the sudden frenzied beating of his heart at the sight.

It was unmistakably the face of Alex Krycek.

Lovers II: Darksome devouring

"O aching time! O moments big as years!
All as ye pass swell out the monstrous truth,
And press it so upon our weary griefs
That unbelief has not a space to breathe." — Keats, Hyperion

"Oft have I sigh'd for him that heares me not;
Who absent hath both love and mee forgot.
O yet I languish still through his delay;
Dayes seem as yeares when wisht friends breake their day.

Had hee but lov'd as common lovers use,
His faithlesse stay some kindnesse would excuse,
O yet I languish still, still constant mourne
For him that can breake vowes but not returne." — Campion, The Third Booke of Ayres

He stared at the picture, but it didn't change. It was Krycek's face looking up at him with blind, inky eyes. Mulder shook his head slowly, feeling the pulse beat in his throat. "This isn't the killer," he said.

"Spooky, what the hell are you talking about?" Yun sounded more surprised than exasperated. He looked at Mulder, at the picture, at Mulder again. "You mean you know who this is?"

Mulder was still staring, only now starting to register details, wondering about changes. The hair was longer. Hollow cheeks — could just be what the witness thought, what the artist had drawn, it didn't mean that Krycek was out there somewhere not getting enough to eat. The eyelashes were right, though. The witness must have mentioned them specifically.

"Spooky?" Yun prodded him.

It was Scully who answered the question. "Yes, we know who this is." Mulder looked up at the sound of her voice, and their eyes met. So she wasn't sure either — what to say, how to say it. It reassured him somehow. "This man is a former FBI agent who is wanted for questioning in connection with several crimes, including at least two homicides."

"But he is not our killer," Mulder added. He knew he was repeating himself, but that was usually what it took to get things through to Martin Yun, and he wasn't taking any chances here. Yun was far too good at going off in the wrong direction. "He doesn't match the profile."

"Are you sure of that?" Yun asked. He drew breath as if to add something, but instead the question just hung there in the air, alone, loaded. Mulder looked at Yun, trying hard not to react as though he'd just been personally challenged. It wasn't made easier by the fact that that was exactly what Yun was doing.

"How long ago did this man — what's his name? — leave the FBI?" Spelling wanted to know.

"About three years ago," Mulder replied almost absently, still locked into a silent conflict with Martin Yun. "While he was still a Federal agent he called himself Alex Krycek, but that is almost certainly not the name he goes by today."

Spelling nodded slowly. "Three years. It doesn't seem unthinkable that a psychosis might have developed during that time."

"Agent Scully and I were in contact with this man a few months ago." Mulder broke away from Yun to look at Spelling. "Although we were unable to apprehend him at that time, we did have a good opportunity to judge his mental state. He's not the killer."

Spelling sat down on the edge of his desk and steepled his fingers together. "Agent Scully, do you agree with Agent Mulder's opinion?"

"Yes, I do. I don't believe that Krycek is the killer we're looking for in this case," she said. "While I can't completely exclude the possibility that drug use, for instance, might have caused considerable changes in Krycek's personality, I find it unlikely."

"And it is your opinion that this man was mentally stable when you saw him last?"

Mulder didn't know whether he wanted to laugh or curse at hearing Spelling soliciting Scully's judgment this way. It seemed his psychology degree didn't count for much right now. But perhaps, he told himself in an effort to be scrupulously fair, perhaps Spelling was just making certain that Mulder, unlike Yun, did not get too attached to his pet theories.

Scully was crisp and matter-of-fact as she replied, "It is my opinion that Krycek was not suffering from, nor showing any signs of developing, the kind of psychosis we see evidenced in the killer's behavior. Agent Mulder is better qualified to assess Krycek's mental state, and I agree with his judgment."

Drawing breath to speak, Mulder felt it catch in his lungs and had time to think, Oh fuck, not again, before another coughing fit rendered him momentarily oblivious to the rest of the world. It tore through him with casual violence; he felt as though his lungs were being ripped to bloody shreds, and his brain was about to pour out through his nose. This cough was turning him into a mathematical demonstration model: and this is an exponential scale.

When it was over, he didn't dare to breathe at first. Then he drew a short shallow breath, another.

"You okay, Spooky?" Yun and Scully were holding him up, one on each side. Mulder leaned a little more heavily on Yun, whose straight brows almost met over the bumpy ridge of his nose. "That sounded pretty bad."

He nodded slowly, and began to straighten up. "Yeah. 'M fine." The words had jagged edges that tried to stick in his throat; he spat them out looking for bloodstains. But as the tight pressure in his chest eased and the ringing in his ears stopped, he relaxed. Of all the damn times to catch cold. Of all the damn colds to catch.

Yun gave him a searching look before letting go of his arm. "If you say so." Mulder didn't dare turn his head and look at Scully; she had not let go. "Now about this guy Krycek, we have to find him. We'll put a couple of men in the bar in case he goes back there, set some others to searching the whole Castro district." Yun waited for Spelling's nod of confirmation before turning back to Mulder and Scully. "Anything you can tell us that might help us, habits, preferences, people he might know?"

"Try the fast food places," Scully offered, the faintest hint of a smile in her voice. "He eats a lot."

"Yeah? Looks pretty skinny to me. Okay." Yun was shifting back and forth again, barely staying on the ground. "You want to talk to the barman, I'll give you directions right away. I've got a phone number for the bar somewhere." He started to flip through his notebook, then shut it abruptly. "In my office." Yun flicked a quick look at his boss. "Sir?"

"Go ahead," Spelling nodded. "Get Laura to make copies of that picture. I'll take care of the rest."

Scully's cell phone rang and she let go of Mulder's arm to answer it. "Scully. — Already? Thank you. Actually, I'm in the building. Yes. Yes, I'll come down." She put the phone away again and looked up at Mulder. "The additional toxicology report is done."

"Meet you at the car?" he suggested. Spelling was already on the phone himself, and within twenty minutes the whole city of San Francisco, the whole state of California, would be looking for Alex Krycek. Scully nodded and smiled. The fading remains of that smile served as a farewell to Yun, and then she walked out of the room. Mulder wondered what poor lab rat she had wrapped around her finger this time. "Come on, Martin."

"Don't start coughing again," Yun said warningly. They walked out of Spelling's office, and Yun left the composite sketch with the dark-haired, patient-looking woman at the desk outside. "I thought you were going to spit your lungs out on the floor in there, Mulder. What did you do, snitch one of your dad's cigarettes?"

He scowled, following Yun down the corridor, and wondered why the fluorescent lights were so damn bright. The white glare seemed to cut right through his skull and into his brain. Mulder got his sunglasses out again and put them on, ignoring the odd look Yun gave him. He needed some more water. "Just give me that address and phone number and I'll be out of your hair for another couple of hours. Listen, Martin, if you find him, if anyone finds Alex Krycek, call me."

"Sure, sure." Yun went into his own office, walked over to the desk and picked up a note from it. Mulder followed on his heels.

"I mean it, Martin. Call me the minute you hear anything."

Yun paused with the note in his hand. "All right, fine, I'll call. You just said he's been getting away from you for three years, you must be losing your edge, Spooky. What the hell did this guy do, anyway?"

Picking the note out of Yun's fingers, Mulder studied it closely and considered all the different answers to that question. There was so much to choose from. He helped them take Scully. He was involved in the shooting of her sister. He killed my father. He's a liar and a cheat, a thief and a murderer. He's beautiful. He cried in my arms over the death of his father, over the death of my father. He branded me with his kisses and I'll wear his mark till the end of my days. The paper rustled as his fingers shook and he forced his muscles into steadiness again, focused his eyes on the address written there.

"It's a long story," he said finally and handed the note back. "I'll tell you over a beer later. Tell the people you send out that he's probably armed and definitely dangerous. He won't come quietly, but don't let them use too much force. He's not the killer, and we need him alive and in a fit state to talk. For the sake of both this case and a number of others."

"I get it, Spooky, I'm not stupid. So you'll be down in the Castro talking to the bartender? You might have a chance at finding the guy yourself." Mulder nodded absently and made for the door as Yun tossed a final pointed remark after him. "Watch your ass."

Mulder stopped with his hand on the door knob and turned his head to look at Yun over his shoulder. "I won't have to," he said sweetly, "everyone else will do it for me."

Uncertain laughter followed him as he left. He made his way out of the building; Scully had parked in the street, not in the underground parking lot, and he was grateful for that. It was dusk now, soft half-light that would turn into darkness shortly. Mulder felt the shift and swirl of the city all around him, all the busy living minds, the sound and motion of reality. He leaned against the car and waited, relaxing slowly into the new knowledge he had been granted.

Alex Krycek was out there somewhere.

Alex was alive.

Not until this moment, when he knew it wasn't true, could Mulder admit to himself how close he'd come to believing that Krycek had been killed after what had happened in Leyden Creek. He had refused to think about it, but the belief had moved into his subconscious mind and had all but taken over. Relief made him feel giddy. Alive. Alex was still alive.

Memories moved through him, silvery shoals of fish darting through murky waters. The pain of them was sweeter now, and he felt a choking sensation of freedom. Alive. Alive and here, and the world was suddenly dizzyingly complex and full of possibility. He shook his head slowly. Alive...

When Scully came out he smiled at her, a dazed little half-smile, and walked around the car as she unlocked it. "They didn't find anything, Mulder," she said as she got in and started the car. The radio jumped into life and started playing I Wanna Be Sedated. Scully turned the volume down but, rather to Mulder's surprise, did not change the station.

Mulder grabbed his second water bottle and drank before answering, trying to clear his thoughts and his throat. He felt as dry as a sponge left in the sun, even though it was much cooler now. "Nothing?" He licked a drop of water from his lower lip. "What did you ask them to look for?"

"They're still looking," Scully said. "I thought it might be possible that some unusual derivative might have slipped through, but—" Her phone rang. "Scully. — As well as can be expected, sir. It seems that Krycek is involved in this case." She turned the engine off again as she listened to whatever Skinner was saying on the other end, but left the radio on. Mulder tapped his fingers in time to the music. "No, we don't know that yet. We're looking for him."

"Ask him if Cancerman still wants Krycek," Mulder said, trying to come up with any counter-plan, should that be the case, that was more coherent than just 'get to him first.' Scully frowned and shook her head.

"Yes, sir, I'll tell him that. No. Yes. I—" She broke off abruptly. "I can't tell you that under the circumstances, sir. Goodbye."

Mulder had been drinking some more water; he lowered the bottle and felt a grin curl up one side of his mouth. "What, did he ask you what you were wearing?"

To his amazement, Scully actually blushed. Then she shot him a quelling look and turned the key in the ignition. "Did you get the address for that bar?"

"Yes, I did," Mulder said meekly.

They drove for a while in silence. Mulder discovered that he had finished the second bottle of water as well. Since he didn't have anything to wash the crackers down with now, he thought he might as well save them for later. The Ramones had been replaced by something equally noisy; Mulder caught a few words of the lyrics but decided he must have misheard them. If the singer had just yelled 'I want to be your blow job queen', surely Scully would have reacted.

Krycek was here. His thoughts never wandered very far from that fact. Not just here, but for some reason involved, however peripherally, in the case they were assigned to investigate. It made no sense. Seeing his face constructed on paper by someone who had never met him added to the feeling of unreality; Mulder could almost believe it was the relentless churning of his subconscious mind that had conjured Krycek up, added him to this mess.

"I wonder what Krycek's involvement in this is," Scully said a few streets later, echoing his thoughts. She was smoothing her hair back with one hand as she drove. "It can't possibly be a coincidence." Tucking the strands back firmly, she threw him a hasty sideways look. "No one could be that unlucky, not even Krycek."

Mulder frowned. "What do you mean?"

She almost looked a little amused as she replied, "Well, if I'd been talking to three men in the same bar for no particular reason and they'd all gotten killed, I would start to wonder."

"You think that was what he was doing?"

"No, that's what I said, I don't think that was what he was doing." Scully raised an eyebrow. "There has to be a connection there somewhere, but I don't quite see what it could be. Do you have any idea how this fits in with your theories about the killer?"

Mulder shook his head. He thought about Krycek in bars in the Castro, talking to tall dark strangers. He could come up with theories about that, but nothing that had to do with the killer. Closing his eyes behind his sunglasses, he told himself that Scully was right, it couldn't be a coincidence. The question was what kind of a non-coincidence it was. "No," he said.

"I hope we can pick him up quickly. The sketch should help, it's a very good likeness. I told them to dig up his old FBI records and get those photos as well..." Scully's voice trailed off and the next sound from her sounded suspiciously like a dry chuckle. "We should have mentioned the leather jacket."

"What did Skinner say?" Mulder asked.

"He told me to keep an eye on you." She was still smiling a little, and he returned the smile with his best insolent grin. "Mulder, your cough is getting worse, and you still have a headache, don't you?" Mulder nodded. "Maybe we should have run a few more tests."

"Scully, I have a bump the size of an Egg McMuffin on my head. I'll probably have a headache for a couple of days. There's nothing strange about that. I don't know why I had to pick up a cold at the same time. I guess it's the famous Mulder luck." He stretched and rubbed at a spot at the back of his neck, then started to look for the painkillers again.

"All right," Scully said, "but tell me if you get any dizzy spells or sudden pains."

"Mm, if it hurts will you kiss it better?" Mulder slipped the sunglasses down to shoot her a mock-lascivious look, and she giggled. There were few things he liked better than a giggling Scully, so he winked at her as well. "Why didn't you want to ask Skinner about Cancerman's interest in Krycek?"

The giggles vanished, and she shrugged in her usual minimalist fashion. "Because if that man doesn't know Krycek is here, so much the better. The less he knows, the better our chances of finding Krycek first." Then she pursed her lips thoughtfully. "Of course Spelling is busy making Krycek a wanted man all through the state, so attempting secrecy might have been pointless. But," a hint of humor returned, "Skinner hates talking to Cancerman, and why torture him unnecessarily?"

"I can't believe you'd pass up a chance to torment your boss," Mulder said. "C'mon, Scully, don't you ever feel like being a bad girl?"

Her mouth tightened a little. "Sometimes," she said softly, and the sound of her voice made him stop teasing. He wasn't sure what it was she was feeling, anger or regret or some strange silent frustration, but instead of pushing her, Mulder settled back to think his own dark thoughts about the smoking man and how to find Alex Krycek.

Scully found a parking spot on 19th and they walked back up to the bar. It was still relatively early in the evening; the stores had closed and the bars and restaurants were only just starting to fill up with customers. Up at the top of the slope the movie theater beckoned, offering a double bill of My Own Private Idaho and Beautiful Thing. Mulder stepped aside carefully to avoid being nipped by a poodle wearing a studded leather vest, and then walked into the bar with Scully following closely behind him.

It was dimly lit, and not very crowded. The clientele was mixed, jeans and suits and even a little understated leather, but Mulder knew he certainly did not fit in and as soon as Scully became visible behind him, this was even more obvious. Well, it wasn't as though they were trying to be undercover anyway. Looking around quickly, he couldn't see anyone who might be a Bureau agent sent by Yun, which meant the agent in question was either better than he had expected or not here yet. He headed straight for the bar, where a mournful-looking man in his forties, with a carefully kept brown mustache and shoulders of epic proportions, was pouring Stoli and rattling ice cubes.

"Michael Escoval?" The bartender nodded, and Mulder fished out his ID and flipped it open. "Agents Mulder and Scully with the FBI. We'd like to ask you some more questions, do you have a minute?"

Escoval handed the Stoli to the man waiting for it, propped his elbows on the bar and eyed them in a slow and thorough manner, one at a time. "I guess so," he said calmly. "What do you want to know?"

"Well, first of all I'd like a glass of water," Mulder said on a note of apology, taking out the painkillers he'd pocketed earlier. The red-hot wire that had strung itself between his temples was making it a little difficult to concentrate. Escoval set down a glass that was two thirds ice in front of him, and it wasn't until he lifted it to drink that Mulder became aware that he was still wearing his sunglasses. He slipped them off, wincing a little as the dim light in the bar grew brighter, and downed the pills.

"You came forward to the SFPD because you recognized three of the victims, didn't you?" Scully asked, and waited for Escoval's nod of confirmation before going on, "Had you seen them on any previous occasion, before you saw them talking to the man you described to Agent Yun?"


"But you're sure you identified them correctly?"

He nodded again, just as slowly. "I knew them when I saw the pictures in the paper — Roberto, Miles and Gutierrez. Wouldn't have said something if I hadn't been sure. Didn't want to get David in trouble, but when I saw what had happened to them, I knew I had to tell someone about it." Escoval's voice matched his appearance; it was deep and dark and lazy, the words spilling out at their own pace, like the last drops of syrup pouring out of a bottle.

"David?" Mulder couldn't believe it. "That would be David Carstairs?"

"You found him already?" Escoval was unsurprised. "I never knew what his last name was. Just David. He comes in here a lot. He's a good customer, but when I saw it was those people who were dead, what could I do?" Escoval's shrug was leisurely and massive, a mountain shifting. "I don't think he did anything wrong. But maybe he can help you."

"He's a regular here?" Scully didn't even try to keep the amazement out of her voice. Mulder saw her study the bar and its inhabitants again, and weigh it against what she knew of Alex Krycek, probably revising her opinion of both. "When did you see him last?"

"A few nights ago," Escoval said. "He'll probably be in tonight, he usually doesn't stay away this long." Someone brandished a credit card down at the other end of the bar, and he excused himself. Mulder stared down into his glass of ice and water and waited.

He had counted to seven when Scully said, "I had no idea that Krycek was attracted to men. Did you know that?"

Lips against his own, smooth as silk, a tender touch punctuated by the scratchy rasp of stubble. "Yeah, I knew that." Mulder lifted the glass and drank. Ice cubes cooled his hot mouth.

"You never told me."

"It didn't seem relevant." He couldn't look at her as he said that.

"I suppose not," she said, "but a little gossip is always welcome. I told you about Pendrell and the collapsible umbrella, didn't I?"

Mulder snorted with sudden laughter at the memory, but before he could answer, Escoval came back to watch them both again with the same vast calm as before. "Yeah, David was here four or five nights ago," he said, returning to the conversation as though he'd never been gone. "Came in around eight, had a couple of beers, left again at ten. Didn't look any different, didn't act any different."

"Can you tell us some more about the times you saw him with the victims?" Scully asked, all business again. "Was there anything that struck you as unusual about either his or their behavior at the time?"

"I don't know about them," Escoval said. "I mean, I didn't know them, don't know what they were like normally. But David, yeah. David never starts a conversation, he never hits on anyone, he keeps to himself most of the time. So I was surprised to see him talking to these guys at all, and he was being real serious."

"You didn't happen to hear anything they said to each other?" Mulder tried not to sound too hopeful.

"No." Escoval glanced up over Mulder's shoulder, acknowledging a couple of new arrivals. "They were sitting over there," he nodded towards a distant corner. "All I know is they were talking. Maybe David will come here tonight and you can ask him yourself."

"Does he come in here most nights, then?" Scully wanted to know. She sounded fascinated, as though this new insight into the personality of Alex Krycek had distracted her ever so slightly from the case itself. Mulder couldn't really blame her. He had questions he wanted to ask as well, questions he knew he couldn't ask.

"Three, four times a week," Escoval said. "For a couple of months, maybe." He grinned a big, warm grin. "I thought he was just picky at first, but if that's so, he's damn picky. Never seen him go home with anyone. He's a sweet guy. A bit quiet, but real nice. And he tips well."

Mulder swallowed hard. He drank more water and tried to drown all his feelings in the cool taste, washing away private sentiment to make room for professional detachment. Focus. That was what he needed. "Do you know anything about where he lives?" Escoval shook his head. "You don't remember anything he's said that might offer a clue? Any comments about road repairs, or missing the last bus?"

"No." Escoval sounded genuinely regretful that he couldn't help. "I told you, he doesn't talk much."

"Agent Scully, Agent Mulder — I thought I'd find you here." Mulder half turned to find Gabriel Reeves pushing his way in between them, nodding at the bartender. "Hi, Mike." Reeves looked from Scully to Mulder and back again, then took a step backwards so he could look at both of them. "I'm sorry about yesterday," he said unexpectedly. "You must think I'm very unprofessional."

"Not at all," Scully said, a little coolly. "Has Agent Yun apprised you of the latest developments?"

"Gleefully," Reeves said. He shook his head and rubbed two fingers across the bridge of his nose. Mulder thought about offering him a painkiller. "He called me to say he had a suspect who hung out in fucking faggot bars and I should take a good look at the picture, I might know the ugly little cocksucker."

Behind the bar, Escoval coughed in a threatening rumble, like Etna clearing its throat. "Gabe, there are ladies present."

Scully wasn't fazed, and Mulder suspected Escoval might not have been referring to her, anyway. She looked up at Reeves. "You could report—"

"Sure I could." Reeves slumped a little, tiredly, then seemed to shrug it off and stand up straighter. "But the world is full of assholes, and I might as well try to bring this one up properly now I've been saddled with him. I told him I don't like 'em ugly and he should be relieved 'cause it means he's safe."

Mulder had to smile. It seemed that when Yun and Reeves were out from under Spelling's watchful eye, their relationship was a lot more complex than Yun had said, and if Yun had found that Reeves could match his foul mouth and stand up to him, maybe the partnership stood a chance after all.

Scully was grinning, too. Then she said, "I hope Yun didn't say the same thing to everyone, though. If the FBI and the police are out in force looking for an ugly cocksucker, the odds are good they'll miss Krycek."

Choking on his ice water, Mulder stumbled against the bar and coughed, and coughed, and coughed. He dropped the glass and barely heard it break on the floor, the tinkle of shards and ice and water all but drowned by the ringing in his ears. Small, strong hands grabbed the front of his coat and held him up; a larger hand hit his back and sent him into another coughing spasm, and he heard Scully say something cutting and Reeves mumble an apology.

This is ridiculous, he thought. It seemed to take longer each time for him to surface from breathlessness and tightly twisted pain, and when he finally sucked in air it burned all the way from his mouth and nose down through his throat and out into the last alveoli.

"You all right?" That was Escoval, walking around the bar to sweep up the glass. "You sound like you should be home in bed, Agent Mulder."

"Sorry about the glass," he managed, and Escoval dismissed the words with a gesture. "Scully, you ought to be ashamed of yourself."

"That cough is getting worse, Mulder," she said, ignoring his words. "How are you feeling?"

He shrugged. "I'll be fine if you refrain from further profanity." She was still wearing her cross, too. Maybe she'd received a special dispensation.

Reeves had dug a crumpled paper out of his pocket and was smoothing it out and taking a look at it. "She's right, though," he said with a half-smile. Then he leaned against the bar and let the faxed picture of Krycek dangle unheeded from his hand. "Agent Mulder, you're aware that Martin Yun sent for you because he wanted someone to back him up."

"Yeah," Mulder admitted a little reluctantly. He wasn't sure what he disliked more, disavowing loyalty to a fellow agent, or the idea that he might appear to be Yun's little lap dog. "I know. But that was a mistake on his part."

"Asking you for help?" Reeves looked surprised. "I thought this kind of thing was right up your alley. I remember reading about a couple of your cases — the guy with the scissors in Wisconsin, and the Seattle strangler, and Monty P—"

"No," Mulder interrupted him, not wanting to have his past listed and thrown in his face yet again, "his mistake was in thinking I was going to back him up no matter what." He ran a hand through his hair, pressing his fingertips down on the scalp, trying to push the ache away.

"He said that you owed him one." Reeves' voice was neutral.

"I do." The words were already out when he heard what Reeves had actually said. This pain was making him so fucking slow. "I wouldn't lie for him," he grated out, and the rasp in his voice was just as much anger now, "and I don't appreciate the insinuation that I might. What I want is the truth, Reeves, I want to catch the killer. And I don't give a damn if he's straight or he's gay or he's anything else that's going to put either you or Yun in a spin."

Reeves nodded. "Sorry," he said, and then a bit more genuinely, "I didn't mean to offend you, Agent Mulder. I thought maybe you should know that Yun is counting on you."

"He'll live." Mulder glanced at Escoval, who was back behind the bar and following their discussion with a kind of detached interest. "I'd like another glass of water, please. I'll try not to drop it."

"Mulder, maybe we should go back to the hospital and check you out again," Scully said. "That cough you have doesn't sound like just a cold."

"I'm fine. Mostly fine," he amended under the weight of the look she bent on him. "Look, if it's not better tomorrow, I'll go with you and you can run any tests you please."

Scully kept up the look for a while longer and then nodded. "All right," she said. "In that case, I think we should look into getting dinner."

"Mike makes pretty good sandwiches," Reeves put in. He looked at both of them. "If you don't mind, I'd like to talk to you some more. About this case."

"You can take the table at the back there," Escoval said and pointed. "I'll bring you a few things." He assessed all three of them, seemingly judging what they would want, and Mulder found himself nodding as if agreeing to take some peculiar personality test.

"So are you a regular here too?" he asked Reeves's back as they threaded their way between tables and customers.

"No." Reeves pulled out a chair for Scully before seating himself. "Don't tell me you're like Yun, a believer in the great queer conspiracy." Mulder wondered if he'd heard a snort of laughter from Scully, or imagined it. "We don't all know each other and we don't all hang out in the same bars in the Castro."

"I was just thinking that you seem to know the bartender," Mulder said.

"Oh. Oh yeah. Yeah, Mike's an old friend." Reeves looked a little sheepish. "An old lover, actually. Sorry. I guess being around Yun has lowered my own level of tolerance a bit." Mulder sat down too, glad they were at a corner table so he didn't have to have his back to any part of the room. After a moment, Reeves turned businesslike. "Have you worked up a profile to complement or replace the one Yun wrote?"

"Replace," Mulder said, even though Reeves hadn't been asking the question so that it demanded that kind of answer. "But I haven't had the time to show it to anyone yet." He looked at Scully. "We should get what I have so far to Spelling some time tonight. I know everyone's happy that we have a witness to look for — or a suspect, I know Yun still thinks he's a suspect — but the killer's still on the loose and he's probably stalking his next victims right now."

"You can mail the profile to Yun or Spelling when we get back to the hotel," she said.

Mulder returned his attention to Reeves. "The killer is searching for two people he thinks of as guilty of something," he said, "and the ones he has found so far have all been proclaimed innocent. That's the message he is sending us with the feathers stitched to the victims' genitals. That they are human and innocent."

"That they're human?" Reeves frowned. "Are you saying that the killer is looking for a couple that — that isn't human?"

"Possibly," Mulder said absently, and felt Scully kick his shin. "I mean, it seems the killer believes that he is searching for two people who have been in contact with extraterrestrial life and who may have been changed by that. That is why the victims are found in hollows in the earth. It's another sign of their innocence — he is returning them to the earth where they belong." Then he suddenly frowned. "He's picked out the spots ahead of time. But how many spots has he picked, and what would he do if he found the right pair? What would his plan be?"

He rubbed his temples as Escoval brought them something to drink; iced tea for him, mineral water for Scully and a nasty-looking yellow soft drink for Reeves. Nodding his thanks, Mulder sipped at the tea and found it perfect, not too sweet. He glanced suspiciously at Escoval's retreating back. ESP, no doubt about it.

"Wait a minute," Reeves said, sounding bothered. "Are you saying that there is, that the killer's right, that there are some people out there who have been in contact with space aliens?"

Mulder could feel Scully's eyes bore into him. He was tempted to tease her, and he was also tempted to make another small pointless stand for his own beliefs. But his head hurt. "The killer thinks that's what he's looking for, so he must have some idea of what he's going to do with them once he finds them."

Reeves made a face and drank some soda as if to wash a bad taste out of his mouth. "So all these people — he thinks they're innocent, and still he kills them. Yeah, it makes you wonder what he'd do if he found the ones he thinks are guilty."

"I think the killer is tapping into a network of believers in alien abductions, a network that's based in Berkeley. That is probably how he hunts, and it means that the people he's really after must be linked to that somehow, too, or at least he believes they are." Mulder wasn't watching Scully or Reeves, he kept his eyes on the door, looking closely at every new arrival, hoping against hope that it could be that easy. "I'm not sure where Krycek's interest in the victims ties into this."

"Maybe this Krycek guy was just out to get laid," Reeves suggested. The gleam in his eyes as he looked at Mulder said that he didn't think that was such a strange idea.

Scully shook her head. "According to your friend Mr. Escoval, Krycek didn't come here looking for company. It seems too much of a coincidence that these three men, who were all in relationships with women and not known to be bisexual, would have come to this bar and ended up talking to him for no particular reason. And," she smiled wryly, "if you knew as much as we do about Alex Krycek, you would know that uncomplicated theories about his behavior, while appealing, are rarely correct."

Reeves looked surprised. "You've been in contact with him before? You know him?"

"He's a former FBI agent," Mulder said. "He was assigned as my partner for a short time."

"Oh." Reeves leaned forward in his chair, seemed about to ask something else, took a closer look at Mulder, and leaned back again. Escoval came up to them with a tray and filled the small table with sandwich plates, bowls of fries, chips, and various condiments. "Thanks, Mike."

Both Reeves and Scully ate with a good appetite. Mulder kept watching the door. He'd spotted the two agents Spelling had sent here, and they had certainly noticed him, Scully and Reeves. If Krycek were to walk in—

If Krycek were to walk in, what would he do?

He had no idea. Mulder didn't know what would happen, or what he wanted to happen. Now that the first blinding wave of relief had passed, he didn't know what he felt, only that the fiery pain in him that was Alex Krycek burned brighter than the ache in his head or his lungs or his almost forgotten wrist. Mulder thought about the case, about the questions he would have to ask, the information he hoped Krycek could provide him with. But for once those thoughts were pale and listless, not strong enough to carry him through the burning zone in his mind.

"Don't forget your sandwich, Mulder."

"Oh. Right."

So no matter how hard he tried to school himself into professional disinterest, every time the door opened, his heart was in his throat.

When they had finished with their food, Escoval was there again to gather up the remains. The bartender looked doubtfully at the plate in front of Mulder. "You done with that?"

"Yeah." Mulder handed it over, and saw Scully's suspicious glance. "It was great." He hoped Scully wasn't going to ask him what had been in the sandwich; he had no idea. Mulder drank the last of his iced tea and turned to Gabriel Reeves. "Are you going to keep watch here for the rest of the night?"

Reeves nodded. "I thought I would. Seeing that the guy's a regular here, and might not know yet he's wanted."

"Good." Glancing quickly at Scully, Mulder went on, "If he does come here, be careful."

"Yun said he was armed and dangerous."

"Probably armed," Mulder said.

"Definitely dangerous," Scully added. She was closing her notebook, which Mulder didn't remember seeing opened, and signaling departure with every movement.

It wasn't lost on Reeves, who leaned forward towards them. "Aren't you staying here too?" He looked at Mulder, and then slowly turned his head to include Scully in the question. "It seems like the best place, and since you have personal knowledge of the man we want, you probably have the best chance of apprehending him."

"I'm afraid I have a previous engagement," Mulder told him, putting enough of a sarcastic spin on his words that Reeves sank back into his chair again. He glanced at his watch. They had been sitting there for longer than he would have guessed. "Scully, you can stay if you want — I'll catch a cab to the hotel."

She shook her head and stood up. "I'm coming with you. I promised Dr. White that you would be under constant medical supervision until all symptoms had abated." Scully turned to smile at Reeves and say a brisk goodbye, and Mulder followed her example. They both nodded a goodbye to Escoval, who was trapped behind the quite busy bar now, and he sent them a warm smile in return.

Mulder felt taken aback by the man's open friendliness, and by the way he seemed to trust that the police and the FBI would reach a correct conclusion about the man he knew — and liked — as David. Such a complete lack of suspicion in anyone made Mulder's mind construct elaborate scenarios of deep, well-hidden guile and mistrust. When he caught himself at it, he felt he was turning into Frohike.

The sky hung dark above them as they left the bar, the stars blotted out by the garish lights of the city. Clusters of people moved up and down the street, joining and separating, their talking, laughing voices providing the top layer of sound, the melody, under which the solid hum of traffic lay like the persistent single note of a bagpipe drone.

He turned to Scully while they walked back down to 19th. "Maybe one of us should stay here. If Krycek comes—"

"If Krycek comes, there are two FBI agents and a police detective in that bar. And if you have another coughing fit, I am taking you back to the hospital immediately." They reached the car and she unlocked it; Mulder walked around to the passenger side again, being rather used to that by now. "You don't look good, you're flushed, and you barely ate anything."

Mulder disregarded this. He got into the car and fumbled for the seat belt. "You don't think he's coming here, do you."

"No." The reply came without any hesitation. "He hasn't been here since Daniel Miles was killed. Perhaps I'm overestimating him, but it would be stupid to come back now that Carlos Gutierrez is dead as well, and I don't think Krycek is stupid, although he's been reckless enough on occasion." Scully's voice held both logical assessment and somewhat grudging respect. "I think we'll have more luck tracking both him and the killer through Blaine Hibbert's network of alien abductees. Obviously Krycek has access to the same sources the killer does, or very similar ones."

"Yeah." The car slid out into the traffic. "You're right, and that means he's ahead of us, damn him." Mulder frowned, eyebrows drawing together over the bridge of his nose. If they accepted that Krycek's involvement was not a coincidence, it was another reason to speed up their pace as much as they possibly could. Krycek was bound to have his own agenda; Mulder still couldn't guess what it might be, but he felt certain that it might well interfere with or be at cross-purposes to a Federal investigation.

"Hotel first?" Scully asked. "I think we have time. Spelling may not notice if he doesn't get anything from you till tomorrow, but... did you even get his email address?"

"It's on his card. Yeah, I'd better send it to him before he starts wondering why Yun dragged me into this." He cleared his throat carefully and turned his head to study Scully's neat profile. There was a burning sensation just below his rib cage. "So, you think Krycek is cute? You keep surprising me, Scully."

"Well, he's not ugly," she said reasonably. "I think a lot of people would probably find him attractive."

"Why is it that every time I ask you a personal question I get an impersonal answer?" he asked, a hitch of laughter in his voice making it slightly breathless. "Do you think Krycek is cute?"

Scully chuckled and shook her head. "From a purely aesthetic standpoint, he has his good sides, although it's a shame about the chin. But he doesn't exactly strike me speechless with admiration." The faint shadow that moved across her face almost wasn't noticeable in the darkness inside the car, but Mulder heard it in her voice when she started talking again. "I don't think I can be objective about it. When I think about Krycek, it's not his looks that concern me."

The mixed emotions in her voice killed the conversation between them; the only thing he could have said was that he felt the same way. Mulder sat back and tapped his fingers on the side of his leg, against his bruises. The small, blunt pain of it kept him steady. After a while he began to concentrate on reviewing the profile he'd worked up, considering whether anything needed to be added or edited out before he sent it to Spelling.

Gradually his mind started to drift among feathers and the loss of innocent life. Killing the innocent. Killing them although they weren't the ones the killer really wanted... did their deaths substitute for the kill he was unable to make, just as they were distorted reflections of the couple he was unable to find? Something was wrong here. Something didn't quite add up.

The killer was obsessive, a single-minded hunter, and working on a self-imposed, tight schedule. Probably still capable of seemingly normal interaction with others, but the need for precision and the lack of time would make him edgy, push him closer to the point where everything that prevented him from carrying out his quest in the time allotted to it would be dealt with like the annoyance it was. Not cruelly, just with a sense of necessity.

Relaxing further, Mulder drifted, trying not to coax or startle the thoughts that were making their way up into his conscious mind. Presently one arrived that was interesting enough for him to speak it out loud to Scully. "Where does he get the feathers?"

She looked surprised. "Well, I assume—" Then she broke off, and nodded slowly. "Perfect, clean, untreated white dove feathers. Either he has plucked a dove and cleaned the feathers himself, or he bought them. Some places that sell decorations and party supplies have feathers, mostly colored, but I suppose you can get plain white ones too. I would have expected those to be chicken feathers, though, not dove, and treated chemically in some way. The lab should have spotted that and tracked down their origin." Scully frowned, absorbed in this problem.

"It has to be something else. We should look into that." Mulder tried to roll his shoulders so unobtrusively that Scully would not notice as she drove down into the parking garage. All the muscles in his back and neck were protesting viciously, as though he'd put them through some harrowing experience today rather than just taken a tumble on an ordinary city street.

When they crossed the lobby the desk clerk signaled to them, and Mulder sighed. "I'll take care of it," Scully said, touching his arm and giving him a little push towards the elevators. "Go on up, I'll be with you in a minute." He nodded gratefully and did as she said.

Up in his room again he went straight into the bathroom, filled a glass with water and drank it down, then filled it again. Only when he felt how cool the water was did he become aware that he was warm... no, hot. Perhaps all the water he drank evaporated as fast as it entered his body, rising from him in an invisible cloud of steam. Mulder shook his head and brought the glass with him out of the bathroom. He set the laptop up on the bed and plugged in the modem. Might as well check his mail while he was sending the profile to Spelling.

There was nothing interesting, though. Various mailing lists routed through free web addresses were filtered into the mailboxes set up for them, and promptly ignored. The only personal mail was a message from Langly about a new type of beer, possibly addictive. Mulder smiled faintly as he read it. He could picture the three of them trying it out, seriously and scientifically, at least for the first few bottles. It had been too long since he had spent time with the Lone Gunmen, just hanging out rather than demanding immediate assistance with some peculiar problem. One day soon he'd stop by and try that beer.

Straightening up to stretch the kinks out of his back, he reached for his glass of water and dislodged the pile of papers strewn over the bedside table. As they fell to the floor he noticed that the message light on the phone was blinking. Mulder looked at it tiredly and put his glass down again, but before he could do anything there was a knock on the door, and Scully was with him. She must have gotten a keycard to his room from the desk clerk. Her face was serious and she held an envelope very carefully in one hand. Looking closer, Mulder saw that she had put on a latex glove. He started to rise quickly, and the room spun around him. Sitting down again, he barely avoided crushing the laptop. "What have you got?"

"Plain white envelope, nothing written on it, and one white feather inside." Scully looked at it, then at him. Her eyes were a little wide, but other than that, she looked composed enough. "It hadn't been sealed, the flap was just tucked in. It's got the desk clerk's prints on it. We should bring it to the lab, make absolutely sure it's the same type—"

"Does he remember who left it for us? Was it left for you or me?"

"For you, but the clerk doesn't know who handed it in. He wasn't on duty then. He's trying to get hold of the woman who worked the previous shift." Again, Scully's gaze returned to the envelope she held. "He knows, Mulder. He knows we're here, he knows where we're staying..." She wasn't talking about the desk clerk any more. There was something else in her voice, something beyond an analysis of the situation.

Mulder nodded. This time he was careful to rise slowly, without betraying his dizziness. He walked over to Scully and looked down at what she held. The envelope was partly open and he could see the feather inside. It was a message, again, but was it the same message? As a signal of the killer's awareness of them it was undeniable, but there was more that could be read into it. It could be a simple taunt. It could be that the killer was trying to say something about innocence.

He drew a deep breath, shaking off the speculations for the time being, and looked at his watch instead. "Scully, I have to go meet Blaine Hibbert — if I don't show up I'll probably never get hold of him again. Get this to the lab, and get us rooms somewhere else. Call me when you've got it set up, and I'll catch a cab there when I've finished talking to Hibbert."

Her eyes flicked up to his face. "I don't like the idea of you going out there alone."

"I don't think Hibbert's the killer we want. And someone has to get this to the lab, get us new rooms. You're the only one I trust to do it, Scully." Mulder ran a hand across his face, where muscle stretched tight around bone, and tried to smooth it out. "And there's the desk clerk too, someone has to interview her when she gets here."

Scully nodded slowly but decisively. "All right," she said. "I'll do it. But take care of yourself. If he knows we're here, it means he's watching us."

"I'm sure Hibbert will protect me," Mulder deadpanned. He made a show of drawing his jacket back and checking his gun before heading for the door. There was more to be said, but they did not have the time right now. "I'll be waiting for your call, Scully. And if you hear anything about the search for Krycek—"

"Yun will probably call you before he calls me about that," Scully said. She got her phone out, and started to dial. The smile she sent him as the door closed was brief, but genuine.

Mulder left the room and made his way out of the hotel. He walked down towards the waterfront and turned left on Jefferson Street, following it towards the Aquatic Park. The Wharf was jumping with tourists in every nook and cranny, and mingled scents of raw oysters, grilled fish and fresh bread assaulted him from all sides. In the curve of the water park itself, below the looming Ghirardelli building, it was hardly any quieter; a drum player had set himself up on the steps with a scattered but appreciative audience, and a child was persistently crying about some small unfairness in her personal universe.

He went past the museum, out where it was more quiet and dark, and breathed deeply when he stepped out on the pier itself and the air around him grew cleaner and fresh with water. The steady pounding in his head seemed to have a life of its own, much in the way that the rasp of breath in his lungs appeared the result of some force beyond his control. Science has not yet found a cure for the common cold.

Passing a couple who made a pretty picture kissing with the Golden Gate Bridge as a backdrop, Mulder went all the way out to the end of the pier, looking in to see that the drum player's audience had doubled. The rhythm carried clearly across the water. Mulder approached the lone man standing there, and cleared his throat. "Mr. Hibbert?"

"Yeah." There was no mistaking the voice, or the delivery, the same uninterested drawl that had annoyed him so over the phone. Blaine Hibbert was around thirty, but gave an impression of baby fat all the same, a chubbiness that was enhanced by the oversized shirt and washed-out sweatpants he wore; he had a snub nose and pale eyes, and his dirty blond hair had not been trimmed in a long time. "You're alone?"

"The enigmatic Dr. Scully had more interesting things to do," Mulder said dryly. "I'm glad you decided to meet me here. I have some questions for you."

Blaine Hibbert looked around, scanning the sky for helicopters, the bay for divers with waterproof listening devices. "Is this, like, official? I don't want to go on record, sign a statement, have to turn up in court. I can't afford that kind of involvement. You understand that, don't you."

"It depends on what kind of information you can provide me with," Mulder said. "It's unlikely that you will be called as a witness unless you've actually witnessed something."

"I'm not sure about this. I have a bad feeling about... hey, you never showed me your ID, how do I know you are who you say you are?"

Mulder got his ID out, flipped it open in front of Hibbert's face, then shut it and put it away again. "Of course, it could be faked," he said in a friendly tone of voice. "Maybe I'm a Reticulan in full body makeup." Some malignant demon was setting off fireworks behind his eyes and he wished it would stop. "Mr. Hibbert, I'm trying to catch a man who has killed several of your friends. That's not something that inspires you to be cooperative?"

The light was bad, but Hibbert seemed to look sulky. "Yeah, all right. It was a shame about Carlos and Suzanne and the others." He didn't sound entirely convincing, or entirely convinced, rather as if he still thought this was a large-scale joke the police and the FBI were playing on him and the rest of his group.

"They were part of your network?"

Hibbert nodded. "More or less," he said. "I didn't know them all well, though. Carlos and Suzanne, they came most weeks, they kept up with a couple of other groups too. Barbie Ann and Stephen came down as often as they could, maybe once a month. I didn't see the guys from Daly City very often, but they were sort of friendly with Barbie Ann."

"What about Anna Maria Anderson and Daniel Miles?" Mulder asked, wanting the list to be complete.

"Hadn't seen them in a while," Hibbert said shortly.

"Why not?" Mulder probed.

"Because they stopped coming when Anna moved in with Dan, that's why." The scowl on Hibbert's face was unmistakable. Then it was replaced by something else, something deeper. Hibbert's pouting, boyish face was transformed for one instant into a stark mask of grief and regret, an expression so finished and final that it seemed impossible for it to change. And just as that thought entered Mulder's mind, Hibbert was himself again, or at least the same person he had been before.

Mulder fumbled in his pocket and got out a folded and creased paper. He put it into Hibbert's hands. "Do you recognize this man?"

"Yeah." Hibbert was back to sounding uninterested. "Why?"

Impatience edged its way into Mulder's voice. "Tell me who he is, then."

"Some guy, said his name was David Carstairs. He turned up a while ago looking for a friend of his. He seemed pretty involved, but then he stopped coming to the meetings."

"Did you see him talking to any of the victims?"

Hibbert shrugged. "I guess he might have, I wasn't really keeping track... Hey. You mean that that, that this guy, that he's the killer?" Staring down at the xeroxed face of Alex Krycek, Blaine Hibbert did begin to look nervous. "I thought he seemed a bit too good to be true."

"In what way exactly?" Mulder asked, his mind drifting back to the days when he had first met Alex Krycek, the young and eager agent. Maybe Hibbert was more perceptive, or more paranoid, than he had ever been. He had wanted to believe in Krycek.

"He was always listening to people." Hibbert looked up and caught the tail end of some look Mulder wasn't aware of projecting. "Everyone, I mean everyone who comes to these meetings has a story to tell, right, and people don't always want to hear it 'cause they want to tell their own. But Carstairs, he'd just sit and listen. Like he was actually trying to understand." Hibbert shivered. "So he was sitting there picking and choosing."

"No." Mulder took some pleasure in being able to say that. "This isn't the killer. But he was probably looking for the killer. This friend he was supposedly trying to find, who was that?"

Blaine Hibbert looked startled. "Flagstad? Oh, come on." An uncertain impulse towards laughter grew in his eyes. "You've got to be kidding." Mulder did not allow his face to change, and after a few moments Hibbert said in a different voice, "But Flagstad is, like, he's a totally harmless guy, you know?"

"Did he and Carstairs ever meet up, do you know that?"

"No. Not at any of our meetings." Hibbert was still thinking about the previous subject. "Look, Flagstad is this tall skinny guy with wire-framed glasses who takes five lumps of sugar in his coffee. He's not, I mean no way can he be—"

"Have you seen him recently?"

Tilting his head to one side, Hibbert seemed to concentrate. "Couple of weeks ago maybe," he said finally.

"So you haven't seen him since the killings started." That would mean, in all likelihood, that Flagstad had already made his choices, knew who his victims were. Mulder knew he was drawing some pretty fast conclusions, but he felt sure they were the right ones. "Do you have an address for him, a phone number, anything like that?" He wasn't really surprised when Hibbert shook his head. "Are there any other couples you know, part of the group, that also resemble the victims?" Mulder met the blank look with increased impatience. "Think, Mr. Hibbert. They may be in danger."

"I don't know, okay?" Hibbert said. He ran a hand through his unwashed hair and looked over Mulder's shoulder, towards the bridge. "They did kind of look alike, yeah, you're right." Mulder bit his tongue and waited for illumination of some kind. "Mmm... there's Neal and Patricia, Pat looks almost like Barbie Ann's sister. But Neal's black." Hibbert's eyes returned to Mulder's face. "I can't think of anyone else. Not right now."

"No couples that match the description of a tall dark man and a short blonde woman." Mulder allowed himself to sound mildly incredulous; it was hardly an unusual combination.

"No. I don't know." Hibbert shook his head. "Not among the real regulars, the people I know well. There are... I mean, some people used to date but, you know, not any more."

"If the killer saw them together, the fact that they have broken up now may not help them," Mulder said. "Can you make a list for me, complete with addresses and phone numbers if you have them, of everyone who even loosely fits those descriptions?" He dug out a piece of paper and scribbled down his phone number and a rarely-used hotmail address on it. "Mail it to me as soon as you can. And if you see Flagstad again, call me at once. Do you have any photos of him?" Hibbert shook his head. "Then try writing a detailed description."

"It can't be him," Blaine Hibbert protested. "Are you sure it isn't Carstairs?"

Mulder started to say something caustic, then thought better of it. Instead he asked, "Why do you think it could be Carstairs?"

"I just thought — uh—" Faced with a request for thought-out complex reasoning rather than a hunch, Hibbert paused. In the momentary silence, the drummer on the steps and the pounding in Mulder's head achieved a strange syncopated rhythm that almost made sense. When Hibbert resumed speaking he sounded reluctantly intelligent. "I just didn't like him," he said. "There was something about him that was... he would sit in the middle of a group but he'd never be part of it, you know? No matter how much he listened. And," Hibbert's voice turned grittily, elaborately casual, "he told me to my face he thought Anna made a good move leaving me for Dan."

Mulder wondered what had prompted Krycek to be so uncharacteristically rude and personal. "That was it?" he asked. "You didn't like him?"

"Yeah." Hibbert shook his head slowly. "That, and he looks like, like—" One hand moved. The gesture was too vague and fleeting to be semiotically analysed. "I mean, I see all kinds of people at these meetings. Kids, housewives, Nam vets with a grudge. Flaky, borderline, you name it, some of them barely know what year it is. And it's like they're all wondering, we're all wondering what the hell is going on and why this is happening to us." This time the look Hibbert shot Mulder wasn't bored, or cautious. He was pleading for understanding. "Lots of hurt people. And Carstairs was different. Not that he wasn't hurt, but he knew what he was doing. He had both feet on the ground." Hibbert chuckled a little. "I realize it doesn't sound like much. But in that group, it stands out, you know?"

"I can imagine," Mulder said. And he meant it. He knew what Hibbert was trying to say, and found it reassuring.

Hibbert sobered again and his face grew blank, as if laughter had been an unforgivable lapse. "So, like, I really have to go now. You're not going to make anything of this, are you? I'm not gonna wake up to find the military pounding on the door?"

"Not unless you've done something stupid," Mulder said, without mentioning his own more spectacular forays into that type of stupidity. "But if you don't provide me with that list, you might wake up to find me there."

"Yeah, bring Agent Scully," Hibbert suggested. "Look, I, uh, I'll call you if I see... you really think... Flagstad?"

"Don't even think about looking into it yourself, Mr. Hibbert," Muldersaid. "I know you think this man is harmless. All I ask is that you use a bit of common sense for a while."

"Yeah." Blaine Hibbert scuffed one sneaker-clad foot against the pier, and suddenly looked like a teenager. "Okay. Yeah. All right. Uh, Agent Mulder?"


"Could I have your autograph?"

When, some fifteen minutes later, Mulder stood alone at the end of the pier and watched Hibbert walk away, he was feeling an almost uncontrollable urge to laugh. He took long deep breaths, and tasted the first tendrils of incoming fog; when he looked up he saw it roll in under the bridge, moving hungrily towards the lights of the city. The impulse to laughter turned into another kind of satisfaction. Now he had a name, and a description, even if the description wasn't very good and the name was almost certainly false. It was something; it had placed the killer more firmly within the physical universe, made him more reachable.

Then Mulder thought about that tall thin figure walking into the lobby of the Holiday Inn to leave an envelope with a dove feather in it, and felt less pleased and considerably less amused. He got out his phone and called Scully. "It's me. Did you find another hotel?"

"Yes. One moment—" He heard muted voices, footsteps, and then Scully's voice again. "Yes, I did. I've made reservations at the Green family hotel on Anson Place. I haven't told anyone, not even Yun."

"You've talked to Yun?"

"I called and told him about the feather, Mulder. He thinks we may be in danger."

"Brilliant," Mulder muttered. He closed his eyes. The fog lapped at his face with a cool wet tongue. "Scully, I think we've got something. Blaine Hibbert named a suspect."

"A tall, thin man with glasses?"

"Yeah." Mulder started to walk back along the pier, phone in hand. "Are you still talking to the desk clerk? Did you get a good description, can we get another phantom picture made? Did she mention anything that—"

"Mulder. Mulder." After a few moments, the intensity of Scully's words penetrated into his mind. "Mulder, are you okay? You... you're slurring your words."

"I am?" He followed the curve of the steps leading down to the water. The drummer was gone now and the heavy beats inside his skull reigned supreme. "I'm fine. Jus' got a bit carried 'way." Now he could hear it himself, and made an effort to stop it. "I'm going back to the Holiday Inn, are you still there?"

"Yes. I've packed our things, we can leave as soon as I've finished with the witness."

"You packed my things, Scully?" Mulder shook his head reproachfully even though he knew she couldn't see him. "Find anything interesting?"

"I didn't have time to check the whole gif collection on your computer," she said blandly. "See you in a few minutes, then."

He hung up, put the phone away, and had to step to one side quickly to avoid getting tripped up by an elderly gentleman's walking stick. Twisting his body so suddenly was a mistake. One thoughtless, quick breath, and it had him again. The cough sank its claws into him and ripped him bloody. Mulder coughed and wheezed, sinking back against the solid brick wall of some building or other, feeling his ears ring and his vision fail, yearning for air as wildly as any trapped deep-sea diver.

It lasted long, until he finally recovered enough of his senses to fend off the kind stranger who was about to perform the Heimlich maneuver on him. Mulder had a strong feeling that that would not have helped. He stayed leaning against the wall and just breathed for a while. That air could be so wonderful... he relished the smell of the fog now.

When he started to move again, he flinched; it seemed he had pulled a muscle along his ribcage. The thought of Scully and her bottle of painkillers kept him moving in the right direction. That, and the anticipation of what the desk clerk might have said. They were being watched, then. The killer was not so lost in his own games and obsessions that he could not keep an eye on his pursuers. Mulder frowned; his and Scully's names had not been released to any of the news media. Did the killer have access to other sources than those available to the general public?

That was not a pleasant thought. Mulder walked faster, until the air burned in his lungs and he slowed down again, worried that he might have another coughing fit. It was a good thing Scully hadn't been there for this one. He just needed a good night's sleep and he'd feel better.

Back at the hotel, he found Scully waiting for him in the lobby, bags at her feet. Her face was carefully blank, but when she saw him there was relief in her eyes. Mulder walked up to her, standing close enough that they could talk without worrying about being overheard. "Yun was here," Scully said softly. "He's taking the desk clerk to the office to get a statement from her. He offered to find us different rooms but I said I'd taken care of it."

"And then he demanded to know where we would be staying?" Mulder guessed. "I don't know how the killer found us here. Maybe he just called round to all the major hotels in the city and got lucky."

"Maybe," Scully said, sounding unconvinced. "I told Agent Yun he could always get hold of us on our cell phones." She glanced up at him. "He wasn't very happy about that. Mulder, we should get going. We can talk in the car."

He agreed, and they picked up their bags and left the hotel. It wasn't until they were part of the nighttime traffic, anonymously ensconced in their rental car, that the conversation was resumed. Mulder summarized his interview with Blaine Hibbert, careful to include both Hibbert's analysis of Krycek and the description of the man he believed to be the killer. "And you said the desk clerk described a tall, thin man too. It has to be him — Flagstad — although that's probably not his real name."

Scully nodded. "She said that the man who handed in the envelope was around six two or six three, on the skinny side, and wore small wire-framed glasses, just as Hibbert said. Mousy hair, somewhere between thirty and forty. He was wearing dark clothes, she couldn't be more specific." As they stopped at a red light, Scully turned towards Mulder. "The killer could only have tracked us down the way you said if he knew our names and that we were assigned to help Agent Yun on this case."

There was no water in the car. Mulder had retrieved a couple of painkillers from Scully's briefcase; he swallowed them dry. "Mrs. Gutierrez might have told him, if he called up and posed as a friend of her son's."

"Yes. That's one possibility." The lights changed, and Scully returned her attention to the street. "Or he could have found it out from Hibbert. Or," reluctance was plain in her voice, "from the police or the FBI." Her fingers tightened around the steering wheel. "I don't like this at all, Mulder. What do you think it means?"

"It's a signal," Mulder said, "a message to us." Well, that much was obvious. "I think it might be an acknowledgment of us and of our pursuit of him." He rubbed two fingers across his forehead, trying to mold his thoughts into shape. "I hadn't expected it to come so soon. He knows where we are, who we are, after only two days. Maybe all he wanted to communicate was an awareness of being hunted."

"He uses the feathers to symbolize his victims' innocence, according to you," Scully said. "So what does it mean when he sends the same symbol to us? Is it really just a means of identification, or is he trying to convey more than the fact of who he is and that he is aware of us?"

"I don't know," Mulder said reluctantly. He had molasses for brains, and that mental sluggishness was really starting to bother him. He couldn't wait for the painkillers to take effect, for lucidity to return. On a rational level, he was aware that he needed a little more than just a couple of pills, but he still hoped for a miracle. "I don't know."

It became apparent that he couldn't think quite clearly right now, certainly not out loud, and instead of starting to talk his way through the problem, he sank back in the passenger seat and sighed. Vindictive dwarves were mining for gold inside his head, hammers swinging and connecting with forceful precision. He concentrated on breathing.

"Mulder." Scully had parked the car now, they must have arrived already. He had no real memories of the second half of the drive; at some point he'd closed his eyes and now he opened them again, cautiously. "Mulder, you're wheezing. I can hear the breath rattling in your lungs." Before he could react, she reached out and put a hand to his forehead. "And you're running a fever."

"Mmmm... I jus' need some sleep," he told her carefully. "I'll be fine tomorrow, Scully. And if I'm not we can go back to — to th' hospital. Okay?" He just wanted to lie down and close his eyes, and this would all go away. The last thing he wanted was to be driven all over town again and then poked and prodded and made to cough on command. All he needed was to rest for a little while.

"Yes," she said, reluctance coloring her voice. She got out of the car and so did he, slowly. Mulder was so tired he accidentally tried to pick his bag up with his left hand, and only dropped it when his sprained wrist screamed at the abuse. He tagged behind Scully as they entered the small, unprepossessing hotel and let her deal with the night clerk; after all, she had made the reservations. Only when Mulder fumbled out his sunglasses as protection against the lights did the woman behind the desk acknowledge him with a brief, surprised look.

In the tiny elevator going up, Scully looked at him much more searchingly. "What?" he asked.

"Why are you wearing your sunglasses indoors in the middle of the night?"

"I've decided to become a practicing surrealist," Mulder said, then felt amazed at having gotten the words out without getting them mixed up. He smiled a little. The painkillers really were helping, then. "I've got a headache."

She seemed to accept that, but all the same she followed him into his room and watched him as he set the bag down. Only when he turned around and raised an eyebrow did she look a little embarrassed. "I'll see you tomorrow, then," she said. "But if you start feeling worse, don't hesitate to wake me up."

"I'll be fine if I just get some sleep," he repeated, and as she went out through the connecting door and closed it behind her, his entire body gave way and he fell back onto the nearer of the two narrow beds, lying there with his eyes closed. It felt so good just to be still. To do nothing and concentrate on essential things, like breathing.

After a while he managed to sit up again, then got to his feet, walked over and made sure the door to the hallway was locked. Mulder turned the lights off and kicked off his shoes, stripped out of suit jacket and pants and went into the bathroom to use the toilet. He knew he ought to brush his teeth, in much the same way that he knew he ought to eat more vegetables and try to pay his bills on time; it was an ideal state he was certainly not capable of reaching right now. Looking at himself in the bathroom mirror, he saw a red-eyed, scowling maniac squinting back.

When all the lights were out, he sat on the edge of the bed and pulled off his tie, undid two shirt buttons and pulled the shirt over his head. Something caught and tore, but before he could investigate it he started coughing again, arms still caught in the tangles of the shirt. He fell sideways, curling up in a ball and clamping his upper arms along his ribs to keep himself together.

It took a few minutes of quiet breathing after the spasm had passed before he could move again and pull his arms free of the shirt. Mulder noticed in a disinterested, distant way that there were dark stains on the white cloth. He let the shirt fall to the floor, and slowly rolled over onto his back. Sleep. He just needed to sleep.

But it was difficult to let go, even when he closed his eyes. He felt hot and the sheets chafed his skin. And if he didn't think about breathing, would he really remember to do it? He had to breathe so carefully. Head on the pillow, nice and easy, pillow full of feathers and the killer was out there stalking another innocent woman, another innocent man. Out there aware that he was being pursued, sending a feather, a challenge, an invitation.

We each get what we deserve, Mulder's mind told him, my little snow-white dove, rest assured. O that I had wings like a dove, but it wouldn't help, because the sweet dove died. Yes. Died. A death in innocence, death of the innocents, all of them at one fell swoop... no, not chickens, doves. Innocents. The massacre of the innocents. Let God sort them out. He clutched at the sheet, trying to slow the words down, all the words that wouldn't come before. Scully, listen, you have to hear this.

Only she wasn't there; the darkness held only him and his ragged breathing. He turned over, trying to find a cool spot. The sheets hurt his skin; it was like sleeping in a bed of fiberglass. A little light fell in through the window, because he hadn't drawn the curtains here either. Mulder closed his eyes. He was always closing his eyes, he couldn't remember opening them. Something was wrong, all he saw behind his closed eyelids were white feathers falling through the air. Falling, oh god, falling. He hadn't had that dream in a long time.

He had to turn slowly. No sudden twists. His chest ached, but that was all right. His head was terribly heavy, but that was all right too, because it meant that he would stay here on the bed, that he wouldn't float away, wouldn't fall up, down, out into space. Mulder wanted to be at home on his couch, and feel leather smooth under his cheek. He wanted to be in his own bed, curled up under the covers wearing a pair of worn-out black sweatpants. He wanted the pillow to be cool, but it wasn't.

Scully had been right. He could hear his own breaths, loud and wheezing. But it would be all right when he woke up tomorrow, if he could only fall asleep. The sound of his breathing almost covered the soft click of the lock, the tiny yawn and whine of the door hinges. That wasn't really how he noticed. He lay staring up at the ceiling, so overcast with night shadows that it was hardly possible to see how feather-white it was, becoming aware that there was someone else in the room with him.

Mulder tried to move, but he was lead-weighted and slow. His head rolled on the pillow as the door closed again with another barely audible click. Perhaps he was asleep after all, he thought, trying and failing to count the quiet footsteps across the floor. But he could close his eyes and see swirling feathers, open them to movement in the darkness. The mattress dipped under the weight of another body. A hand touched his forehead. "Hell. Those bastards."

He wanted to blink his eyes clear of feathers and grit and shadows, to see, but the room was spinning slowly around him. Mulder drew breath to speak, and started coughing instead. It cut through him, not cleanly like a blade would but with a blunt and jagged rip. It was about to tear him away from himself and he fought it only to find himself held fast already. When he could breathe again he was propped up against a sweater-clad chest, and there was an arm around his shoulders.

The heat of the fever had left him, and now he found himself shaking with the first chill instead. Mulder drew the covers up and pressed in closer to the warmth, burrowing in under the leather jacket. The smell was right, and he breathed as deeply as he dared. "Alex."

"You had to make yourself so damn difficult to find, didn't you, lisitsa?" Fingers threaded through his hair. "Not to mention giving my picture to every cop in town." There was humor in the husky voice, but mostly anger. "I should have taken care of this before I walked out on you in Leyden Creek, Mulder. I'm sorry."

Mulder wanted to ask what was going on, what he was talking about, but all he could manage was another whispery, suddenly uncertain, "Alex?"

"Yeah." The voice was closer now, something brushed against his hair, warm breath on his forehead for a moment. "Don't worry, we're going to fix this. It'll be okay." When the warm body next to his own moved and tried to draw away, Mulder made a protesting sound and tightened the grip of his arms. The ache in his sprained wrist flared up, but he didn't care. "I'm just going to get Scully, okay?" Another soft chuckle. "I hope she doesn't shoot me on sight."

Going, gone, and Mulder sank down into the pillow again with a sob of protest, his hands closing in vain around the sheet. Don't go. Not again. He should never have let go. He didn't hear movement, but the tapping on the wall didn't match the persistent sound in his skull. A few moments later, the connecting door was opened, not at all quietly. Mulder blinked and blinked again, and then squeezed his eyes tightly shut as the lights were turned on, but not before he had glimpsed Scully in a pale green robe staring up at Alex Krycek, all in black.

"What are you doing here?"

"I thought you wanted to get hold of me." There was a softly mocking tone to Krycek's voice, but then it disappeared. "They got to him. We need hospital facilities, unless you have enough equipment here to perform a transfusion."

Mulder slowly dragged a hand up to his face, put it over his eyes and peeked between his fingers. His eyes teared up, but he could see Scully again as she tightened the belt of her robe and stared at Krycek in frank bewilderment. "What are you talking about?" She turned her head to look at Mulder; her eyes widened and she walked quickly towards the bed, voice sharpening in anger. "What did you do to him, Krycek?"

"Nothing." Krycek followed her and looked down as she pointed accusingly at something. "It wasn't me. It's the black cancer, Scully. They've triggered it, and we don't have much time. He'll be dead in less than twelve hours unless we do something."

It was too much trouble to keep his eyes open. He closed them, and lay floating in a misery of shivers and chills as Scully and Krycek argued. The bedcovers were so thin; he couldn't get warm, and he wanted to be held again, but his voice wouldn't work when he tried to speak. Mulder curled up tight, and coughed again, and the darkness inside his head exploded into wild colors that wouldn't fade but grew brighter and brighter until he fell into them.

Surfacing from the white waters of unconsciousness he had no idea how much time had passed. Scully's hand was on his shoulder. "...coughing up blood again. You're saying you have a cure for this?"

"I think so."

"You think so." She was definitely not happy. "I find that less than completely reassuring, Krycek. You told Mulder over five months ago that you knew the cure, that you would give it to him in exchange for—"

"I know what I said, Scully." Mulder had a hard time focusing on what they were saying. He just clung to the sound of their voices, one so reassuringly familiar, another that he had thought he might never hear again. "Things got a bit complicated."

"And now you turn up here out of the blue and expect us to trust you." The hand that smoothed his forehead was Scully's. "How did you even find us here?"

"Would you believe me if I said ESP? Look, we're running out of time. I know what's wrong with Mulder, and I only know one possible way of reversing the damage. Maybe you're willing to gamble on his life and stand here arguing with me—"

"Krycek, you can't just break into his hotel room in the middle of the night and expect me to believe that you're Mulder's guardian angel. For all I know this — this process that you are trying to suggest will do even greater harm to him."

"Greater harm? Scully, he's dying." Krycek's voice was a little unsteady. "If that was what I wanted I could have just stayed away. I'm offering to help. Even if it doesn't work, it can't make him any worse, believe me."

He wanted to say that he wasn't feeling so bad any longer; his head had finally been pounded to pieces and now whatever held his brain cradled in its grasp was soft as absorbent cotton, letting him float gently. The waves of heat and cold that ran through him felt distant, nothing he had to concern himself with. Mulder tried to peek between his fingers again. He could make out Krycek's hand, pale against his dark clothing.

"You mentioned a transfusion," Scully said; Mulder wasn't sure if he'd lost part of the conversation, things seemed to float in and out of focus, both sight and hearing tuning in and out at random. That was all right; it was less trouble that way. "Explain what it is you have in mind."

"A transfusion would be best because the more he gets the faster it'll help him. But just a syringe full should work, too."

"A syringe full of what, for— Oh, no. Krycek, you can't be serious. Do you really expect me to allow Mulder to receive a blood transfusion from you?" Scully was touching him again, one hand closing protectively around his shoulder. He didn't remember her having such cold hands, but even so it felt good. "What good do you imagine that would do? And for all I know you could have any number of—"

"I'm not HIV positive, Scully. Or anything else, for that matter. What I am is immune to the black cancer. When I had that — thing — in me it left enough of itself behind to repel any other similar organisms that might take it into their heads to invade my body." Krycek sounded strained. "Customizing its hosts, I guess. Doesn't want anyone else taking its toys for a ride."

"That's pure speculation. Do you have any kind of scientific evidence that this immunization you believe in actually works?"

Mulder wanted to ask the same thing. He wanted to know everything about Krycek's experiences with alien possession, what it had felt like, what the effects had been; all the questions he hadn't had time for at their last meeting, only he had a hard time thinking past the first 'what'. It wasn't until he drew breath to speak that he remembered deep breaths were a bad idea. His chest tried to turn itself inside out, and sound and vision exploded; he went falling through what looked like every single psychedelic wallpaper available on the Internet, hearing his own coughs and the voices of the two others as if from under water. It all sounded strange, warped. Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh.

They had propped him up and he was half leaning against the headboard, Scully's hand around the back of his neck. Mulder landed in his body with a thud and it all started up again, the explosive headache, the burning in his lungs, the sizzling fever chills, the low throbbing of his abused wrist. He tried to drift off again, into the hazy state he'd been in before, tried to lose the pain of the present, only to feel a sharp slap across his face. Trying to say 'what the hell did you do that for?', all he managed was a low, rattling sound. They had had a deal, no more hitting. Maybe that deal was off again.

" to get him to a hospital, though," Krycek was saying. "He's in bad shape and he might go into shock when the cure takes effect." Mulder shivered and tried to pull the covers up, but his fingers wouldn't close around the cloth. "Just stay away from that phone of yours for a while. I don't want to walk in there and find myself nose to nose with half a dozen cops."

"Are you trying to cut a deal again, Krycek?"

"I'm trying to save his fucking life, okay?" It was unexpectedly savage and Mulder recoiled from it; his body couldn't go anywhere, but his mind could and did, retreating through the swirls of color into dreams of silence, until he was brutally slapped awake again. Maybe Krycek had never agreed to that deal in the first place. Maybe he was trying to get his own back for every time Mulder had hit him. "If he fades out now we've got a vegetable on our hands, like what happened to Dr. Sachs. I don't know what kind of brain damage being in that state can cause, and this doesn't feel like the right time to experiment." There was a brief pause. "I thought I asked you not to call anyone."

"I'm trying to get hold of Dr. White at the Marshall Hale Hospital to get a room ready for him," Scully said, her voice tight. "You'd just better hope and pray that you know what you're doing." There was a wealth of unspoken threats in her voice; then it dropped into a low businesslike tone and faded as she moved off to the other side of the room to talk to Dr. White.

"I'm praying." It was no more than a whisper, and Mulder felt fingertips touch his slapped cheek, gently, apologetically. He struggled to open his eyes, but the first glimpse of light that made its way in under his lids was enough to draw a choked sound of pain from him. Damn, he thought hazily. There was so much he wanted to say.

When Scully came back he concentrated on the sound of her voice so hard that he lost the sense of what she was saying. There was no further argument between her and Krycek, just fast, efficient discussion. She went away again, but not for long; he heard the sound of the connecting door, and Krycek's fingers stroked his face again, and then the door opened and closed again and he managed to see that Scully was there, not wearing the green robe any more.

Another short exchange that he couldn't follow, then hands caught his legs and swung them out of bed, and he was pushed into a sitting position, an arm wrapping around his back and gripping him firmly. Dragged suddenly upright, he blacked out and started slumping forward. But Krycek wasn't letting go and Scully took hold of him as well, wrapping the bedcovers around him and steadying him.

"Come on, Mulder, just out to the elevator," she said as they both propelled him forward. He stumbled with the force of it, got his legs moving. It was impossible to judge the distance to the floor and he kept getting it wrong. When he tried to look, the door was miles away. "This would be a lot easier if you could carry him."

Soft curses he couldn't decipher, and then, "Don't blame me if he throws up." One of the arms holding him let go. Moments later he was gripped around the thighs and hoisted into the air to slump forward, hanging folded and limp over Krycek's shoulder. It did make him feel dizzy, and sick, particularly when Krycek started moving again.

Scully held the door open for them, and as soon as she'd closed it she came to steady Mulder as he was carried down the corridor and into the elevator. "Careful you don't bump his head."

"What are you going to tell the desk clerk?" Krycek sounded, of all things, amused. Mulder opened his eyes, saw moving jeans-clad legs and a moving floor as they got out of the elevator again. Everything was spinning. He wanted to be still. Krycek's soft-soled shoes made no sound against the hard floor. In the background, Scully's voice was saying something about "hospital" and "emergency".

A door squeaked open, and night air cooled his body. Along the pavement. The arm that held him was tightening its hold, quivering a little with the strain of supporting his weight. Mulder wanted to say that he was sorry, he'd try to walk. Krycek stopped, and Mulder heard the sound of a car being unlocked, of doors being opened. Scully's supporting hands came up to catch him as he was lowered down to stand unsteadily on his own two feet and then eased backwards into the back seat of the car.

"You'd better get in there with him," Scully said, "make sure he stays with us. Or maybe we should have put him in the passenger seat so I could monitor his condition—"

"I can keep him conscious," Krycek said. "You know where we're going, you drive." A strong hand shifted his legs and Krycek climbed in beside him. "Mulder, don't drift off now." The car door closed; another door opened and closed, and the engine started. They were moving. "Try to sit up and— Oof."

Scully took a corner like a car thief, and Mulder fell limply against Krycek. The sudden movement made him dizzy, and the dizziness made him shiver with another fever chill. When his head cleared slightly he moved closer, burrowing in against the warmth of Krycek's body, wrapping his good arm around Krycek's waist and holding on. He wanted to be warm and close. He wanted to be held.

It took a few moments. Krycek shifted and tried to move him. The car turned another corner, pressing them closer still. Krycek sighed, and pulled the bedcovers up around Mulder's shoulders and let his hand stay there. That was better; he was still shaking, but it didn't matter so much now. His face was buried against Krycek's chest. Mulder moved his lips against the cotton of the sweater, trying to get the word out, knowing it could not be heard hidden like this. "Alex."

He was shivering, and Krycek's arm tightened around him. "It's all right, it's going to be all right, lisitsa, everything will be fine. Just hold on a little while longer. Don't lose it, stay with me, I know you want to slip away but you have to hang on, lisitsa, moy lyobmoy...."

The soft husky voice kept whispering to him, words he didn't understand, barely audible above the sound of the engine. Mulder tried to listen. He felt Krycek's breath ruffling his hair. The smell of the leather jacket tickled his nose.

Then it tickled too much and he sneezed and started to cough again. Amazingly, he stayed in his body the whole time, feeling the tearing pain and the bright metal taste in his mouth. So it wasn't just his imagination, wasn't just the way it felt, it really was ripping him apart inside. When he subsided into a limp heap again, Krycek wiped his face clean of blood and saliva. Scully's voice came from the driver's seat asking a sharp, anxious question. Mulder couldn't make out what she said, or the words of Krycek's answer, although he felt the vibrations of speech where he rested with his head once again against Krycek's chest.

Everything was distant and hazy, the world around him soft and shapeless and clammy as the fog rolling in under the bridge, choking him with its presence. He wanted desperately to be free of it, but Krycek was talking to him again. The incomprehensible words bored in through the swirling haze that held him, pounded against the remnants of thought in him and demanded admittance. Mulder groaned silently and tried to let go; another sharp slap across the face felt like a breath of fresh air. But it didn't last and he was sinking again, sinking.

It was like his dream of falling, except that instead of stars and space he was surrounded by sticky night and the clinging fragments of dissolving reality. Everything stuck to him when he wanted to be free. He wanted to fight himself clear of it, but had no idea where to begin.

He was aware enough to understand when the car stopped, when the door was wrenched open impatiently and the warmth that was Krycek's breath against the back of his neck vanished. They would want him to move now, he realized. And he couldn't even open his eyes. Krycek pulled away from him, getting out of the car.

Then hands caught him, tugged at him and dragged him out. Mulder tried to get his legs underneath him but they were caught too, he was stretched out and lifted and moved. On a stretcher, some distant still-functioning corner of his mind suggested. More voices and bright lights that swirled orange and yellow across the insides of his eyelids. Mulder squeezed his eyes more tightly shut. Some tiny irregularity in the motion of the stretcher was starting to nauseate him.

He sucked in air, hacked out half a cough, struggled to breathe again. Scully was touching his arm. Something suffocated him... the feathers, he was caught in a storm of whirling white and they tickled and stroked and invaded his body, in through his nose mouth eyes ears, slipping in under his fingernails, toenails, wriggling up his anus, taking him over, oh God—

This time he wanted to cry with gratitude at the slap that left his ears ringing. Back, yes, back to the present, the busy hospital present. Off the stretcher and onto a bed, and things quieted down a little and he started to make out voices again. "...don't know how I let you talk me into this."

"We're both trying to keep him alive, Scully. Now get on with it."

"I think I'm starting to understand that."

The rattle of equipment being set up was the first thing that really bothered him. He hated hospitals; appreciated them, but hated them all the same. The efficiency depressed him, the elaborate, infinitely complex labyrinth of mechanical and medicinal means to treat everything that could be correctly diagnosed. Hospitals relied on certainties, on being able to effect a cure as smoothly as solving an equation. Mulder knew very well that he had depended on that efficiency many times, too many times, and it had always served him well. At the same time, he resented the fact that he and his body were so predictable and ordinary that he could be figured out and solved, a problem among others, with considerable ease by people who had never seen him before.

It was too intimate, he decided hazily. To be known like that, even if it was only your bodily functions being scanned. To have strangers probing his inner mysteries... mystery histories... oh God. He started to laugh, ended up coughing, wondering if he was better or worse now tripping himself up with his own words.


"I am hurrying. If Dr. White comes in to question this... stand still so I can roll your sleeve up. It's a good thing you have the same blood type—"

To judge by the echoes they were in a small room now, and Mulder suspected that whoever had rolled him in had left. He didn't know how Scully had managed to procure a private room like this on such short notice; he wondered dimly what it was Dr. White would question. Something cool swabbed across the inside fold of his elbow and he recognized it as the preliminary to the sting of a needle. When it happened, he was prepared. The needle stayed in him for longer than he had expected it to, and he cracked one eye open to look. Red. Blood.

The haze lifted for a single moment, and he remembered Krycek's words about the black cancer. Mulder opened his mouth to ask what the hell was going on here. But at that moment, it struck.

He had thought the coughing fits hurt.

White stinging fire ran through him, burning his veins, carrying the pain with every hectic beat of his heart out into the last capillary. The inside of his head was scorched already as fireball after fireball rose up to burn itself out against the walls of his skull. Mulder was dimly aware of his muscles clenching, tightening in quick jerky fits. The white fire centered itself around one point inside him and squeezed. His back arched, and as the thick noxious substance started to trickle from his eyes and nose and mouth, he screamed.

* * *

It was the voices that made him aware that he was still alive. They were talking at the very edge of his consciousness, with a quiet urgency that for some reason made him curious to know what they were saying. He concentrated, and found that concentration brought increased awareness. The length of his body, stretched out on a hard bed, was heavy with exhaustion; not the usual sensation of being tautly tired and wired, but limp, a man-shaped bean bag. The voices were coming from his right, and he tried unsuccessfully to turn his head in that direction.

"The nurse reported a convulsion. I think it would be advisable to at least keep these anticonvulsants on hand, in case there is any recurrence; the patient appears to have bruised himself extensively." That would be the ache along his side, Mulder thought, and on his legs.

"I'd rather wait and see." Scully sounded very cool and unconcerned. "Some of that bruising is from his earlier fall. For the past few hours he has been resting quietly. I don't want anyone to inject him with anticonvulsants in my absence, Dr. White."

There was a pause, and then the first voice returned with a little more force. "It isn't impossible that the blow to his head may have triggered epilepsy, Agent Scully, or even that the fall and the blow themselves were the results of a tonic-clonic seizure."

"Agent Mulder has no history of epileptic seizures," Scully said firmly. Her voice was a little warmer when she continued, "I'm very grateful to you for providing us with these facilities on such short notice. If Agent Mulder's condition grows more serious, I will consult you."

Mulder lay still and tried to think. He was in a hospital. He had had some kind of seizure, and apparently fallen again and turned black and blue all over. All right, he could cope with that. Scully didn't sound too worried. But why had he had a seizure? The last thing he remembered was — was — oh hell. He tried to crack one eyelid open and was pleasantly surprised to find the room almost dark, and the one light there was turned considerately away from him. The reduced lighting did not stop the two women at the foot of the bed from noticing when he tried to move, though.

Both of them came up to stand closer to him, and Dr. White asked him, "How are you feeling?"

Hell of a question to ask someone who can't even get both eyes open, he wanted to say, but settled for a croaking, parched sound. Scully nodded in understanding, produced a glass of water out of nowhere and held his head up while he drank. The cool water soothed his raw throat and cleared his mind further. "Thanks," he whispered, and then frowned at his inability to produce a real sound. His throat felt as though he'd been screaming for hours. "Wh-what—"

"I want you to lie still and take it easy, Mulder," Scully said, putting her hand on his forehead again. That gesture was getting to be a habit with her, he thought, because she did it even here in a hospital where she had access to enough thermometers to test his temperature in any body opening she cared to investigate. She turned towards Dr. White. "I'll stay here and keep an eye on him. I know you must have a lot to do."

Not very subtle, Mulder thought; Scully was usually either more devious, or more frank. Dr. White just nodded, though, seemingly not upset at being so summarily dismissed. She looked at him again, then turned and left the room. Mulder drew a slow, careful breath. "Scully, what—"

"I wish you'd stop lurking like that," she said tensely. She wasn't looking at him, but over the bed towards the curtains that could be drawn around it.

A dark figure stepped out to stand opposite Scully at Mulder's bedside. He stared, breath catching in his throat. It couldn't be. It was. "You don't think she's getting a little suspicious?" Krycek said.

"I know I'd be suspicious in her place," Scully snapped. She paused to tuck her hair back behind one ear, and the simple gesture seemed to ease her temper again. "You were right," she said with only a mild trace of resentment in her voice. "It seems to have worked. His pulse is steadier — still a bit fast, though — his breathing is—"

"Scully!" Mulder still couldn't get his voice to come out as anything but a painful hiss, but it was loud enough to stop her. When she looked down at him, he went on, "What is going on?" His eyes flicked towards Krycek, back to his partner.

"It's all right," she said. "You received a blood transfusion from Krycek that drove out the black cancer, and nearly all your symptoms have subsided now. You're probably still feeling a little weak, but once you're well enough to eat solid food you should recover quickly. I wish I'd been able to secure a larger sample of the substance that infected you—"

Mulder looked up at her, and then tried to look at Krycek again. His eyes could only skid over the other man's face, strange familiar features, and then away. It was like trying to stare at the sun. "Black cancer? What is he doing here?" Then he tried to sit bolt upright. "Scully, the killer — the feather—"

Her hands gripped his shoulders and she pushed him down flat, then sat on the edge of the bed, careful not to disturb the IV drip, and glanced at the monitors with a tiny frown. "Relax, Mulder, please. You can't do anything right now, it's only five-thirty in the morning."

Krycek stepped forward into his line of vision again, looking at him from under a wing of dark hair that fell forward into his face. "Mulder, what's the last thing you remember?"

"People are always asking me that," he muttered, and let his eyes drop from Krycek's face. When he thought about the question his brows twisted with annoyance. "I was on the phone with you," he looked at Scully. "And you said you'd gotten us new hotel rooms. And then—" And then, nothing. Not even the dimmest of memories. He subsided into the pillow, kept from swearing only by how painful it was to speak.

"It's not unusual for it to have that effect," Krycek said quietly.

"Will the memories ever come back?" Scully asked.

"Mine haven't." Krycek sounded even more grim. "But it's a comparatively short amount of time he's lost, and a few hours of amnesia are a small price to pay for staying alive." Krycek ran his hand through his hair. It was longer, just the way it had been in the picture. And he was thinner as well, looking drawn and tired, although part of that was probably attributable to the hour and to whatever amount of blood loss this transfusion had caused. "You didn't miss much, Mulder. All you've lost is about seven hours of feeling sick as hell." He looked down at himself and made a face. "And you spat blood all over my only clean sweater, too."

"Revenge," Mulder said and found himself grinning weakly. Then he caught himself up in the middle of it, and rolled his head on the pillow to look at Scully. "About the killer," he began.

"Yun's got people watching the Holiday Inn," she said.

Mulder shook his head. "That's pointless. He'll take — he'll try — it's been three days, Scully. He had them picked out even before he killed the last pair." He had to prop himself up a little. "Get me a map." When neither Scully nor Krycek responded, he pushed his voice out harder; it grated, and broke. "Get me a map."

Slowly, Krycek dug into the inner pocket of his leather jacket and pulled out a battered Muni map. Mulder attempted to push himself into a sitting position, and Scully helped him. He leaned a little more towards the side of the bed where she sat, away from Krycek. The map unfolded over most of the bed and he stared at it until it turned into a blur of colors. There was a pattern to it, he thought. A very simple pattern.

"Mulder, you should lie down."

"I need a pen," he said absently and wasn't surprised when Krycek handed him that, too. He kept his eyes carefully on the map. The first mark here, the second there, third, fourth. Cradled in the earth, not too far from the water. Special places. Fifth. "Here," he said, "it should be here somewhere." Looking up, he met Scully's eyes. "Tell Yun to meet us there." He swept the map aside and swung his legs over the side of the bed.

"You're not going anywhere." Scully stopped him with a hand to his arm, and he felt the unpleasant tug of the IV needle stuck in his flesh, the restraints of the electrodes taped to his skin. "If you think that this is where the killer will leave his next victims, I'll call Yun and tell him to investigate."

Mulder shook his head. "No, I need to see it for myself," he insisted. "Scully, he knows I'm here now. There could be another message. I have to see it. I think the killer's been conveying a lot more through his choice of location than we've been able to see so far. I think we've missed a lot of things, Scully. And the time is important, too."

"You think we can catch him in the act if we get there fast enough?"

"No." Not this one, he thought. "No, I mean the timing is part of it, part of what the killer is doing. He does what he does in the dark of the night — late night, towards morning — and leaves the victims to face the dawn. Sunrise, rebirth..." Drawing a deep breath, Mulder went on, "It's possible that he hopes the truly innocent ones will live again." Cradled in the womb of the earth waiting for the touch of life-giving sunshine, seeds of humanity chewed up, spat out and tossed aside. "That's why I have to see it the way it is, the way he means for it to be seen."

"I'll go," she said. "You stay here. You might have a relapse, Mulder, and besides, you don't have any clothes."

"Then I'll go naked," he snarled. "I'm all right now. Look, all I want to do is drive there, get out and look at the place. Then I'll go sit in the car again. Then I'll let you take me back here again. Anything. I just have to get out there."

"You seem very certain that the killer has struck again." Scully picked the map up off the floor and started to fold it carefully, after looking at the place where Mulder had placed the fifth mark.

"It's important to him to keep his timetable," Mulder said. "He wants to have everything planned out ahead of time, down to the last detail, and if anything disrupts his plans he'll be disproportionally upset no matter how small and insignificant the disruption is. Because he's so obsessed with the ritual he follows, he— Where the hell do you think you're going?"

Alex Krycek stopped at the foot of the bed. "To the bathroom," he said.

"Yeah, heard that one before," Mulder said, fighting not to pull the sheets more securely over himself as he felt the weight of Krycek's look on his bare skin. "There's a bathroom in here."

"Out of order."

Mulder glanced at Scully, and realized he couldn't ask her to go with Krycek to the bathroom. "You've got a lot of questions to answer, Krycek. Don't even think about disappearing again." It sounded weak even to his own ears.

"I'll be back," Krycek said, sounding innocent and mildly injured that anyone could doubt this. At the door, he ruined this image by looking through it cautiously before sneaking outside.

"Scully." Mulder cleared his throat and grimaced. He should ask her to get him a slate so he could write things down instead. "What is he doing here?"

"I'm not sure," she said, giving him a slow, thoughtful, opaque look. "He just turned up out of nowhere in the middle of the night. But I think he saved your life. When you came in here, you — your vital signs weren't good, Mulder. You were fading fast. Now, though—" She glanced at the monitors he was hooked up to, and shook her head. "I won't say you're fine, but you're a lot better than I expected you to be in just a few hours."

"Then let me go to the beach," he said quickly. "You'll be with me, you can get me back here fast if anything happens. It isn't all that far. And it's really important that I get to see this, Scully. I need to get a clearer picture of what the killer is doing, of how he thinks when he does it." He stretched, sitting straighter, trying to demonstrate to her that he felt reasonably alert. "I feel like I have a lot of catching up to do, I know you say I only lost a few hours, but the state I was in last night..." Scully looked down, her mouth tightening. "What? Scully, did something else happen last night that I should know about?"

"No, that's not it." She met his eyes, a dark look in her own. "I should have seen it," she said. "I should have noticed how ill you really were — I shouldn't have let you leave here in the first place. I was preoccupied, but that's no excuse. If Krycek hadn't turned up, I—"

Mulder put his hand over hers and squeezed it gently. "I thought it was just a cold, too," he said. "You did try to get me to come here for some more tests. Don't blame yourself just because I was being stubborn." She smiled a little, but her eyes remained clouded and serious. "What is it that's really bothering you, Scully? You've had something on your mind ever since we got here."

She hesitated. "It's personal," she said. "Mulder, I — I want to tell you, but—"

The door opened, rather more loudly than Krycek would have done it, and Dr. White looked inside. When she saw Mulder sitting up in bed with his feet on the floor, a sheet loosely covering him from mid-thigh to waist, hand in hand with Scully, her eyebrows flew up.

"Dr. White," Mulder addressed her firmly before she could say anything, "can I borrow some clothes, scrubs, anything? I have to go out for a while, it's an emergency."

"Agent Mulder, I don't think it's advisable for you to go anywhere." The doctor took a couple of steps into the room, but maintained a polite distance. "I'm very glad to see that you're feeling better, but I think Agent Scully and I agree that you were discharged too soon last time. We don't want to see you have another relapse."

"This would only be temporary, doctor," Mulder said, trying to infuse the ragged remains of his voice with as much sincerity as he could manage. "I assume you're aware that Agent Scully and I are part of the team working on the case of the," what had the TV stations dubbed him, "the date killer. We need to inspect one of the crime scenes. Agent Scully will monitor me the whole time and then I'll come back here for another checkup."

"I'm sure Agent Scully is quite capable of inspecting the crime scene without you."

"Agent Scully is extremely capable, but she is not a trained profiler." Mulder could feel his assumed sincerity slip, to make way for a paradoxically more genuine emotion. "I need to be out there, doctor. I'm fine, look at the monitors. You can't keep me here. Either I discharge myself right now, or you give me some clothes and I'll be back later and that will be better for everyone."

"Mulder," Scully said warningly, tightening her hand on his.

But Dr. White, although she did not look happy, nodded. "Very well, Agent Mulder. I'll see what I can find for you. But I strongly advise you to come back here afterwards even if you think you're feeling better. We still don't know what type of seizure you were having and there is a definite possibility that it could happen again."

"I don't usually have fits," Mulder said, "so let's hope it was temporary or my reputation at work will really be shot."

Dr. White smiled faintly, understanding that it was meant to be humor but not getting the joke. She turned around and walked out of the room again, and Mulder barely refrained from a smug smile as he looked at Scully.

"All right," she said, "I'll drive you there. And I assume we take Krycek along, if he hasn't vanished again."

Mulder nodded. "We do." If Krycek had vanished, he was going to strangle him. "And we ought to call — do you have my phone? — call Yun and Spelling and get them to send some people out, too, alert the ME and—"

"Mulder, you don't think we should hold off calling anyone else until we've actually found the bodies?"

It was mild, as Scully-skepticism went, but the twitch of her eyebrow spoke volumes of doubt — enough to fill a university library. Mulder reached his arm out towards her, asking her wordlessly to remove the IV. While she busied herself with that and with disconnecting the monitor leads, he said, "We'll find them." It was hard to call up any anger at her lack of faith in him when he was filled with grey grief at the thought of what awaited. "But if you'd rather wait, it doesn't matter. They're not going anywhere."

The door opened again and Krycek slipped inside silently. He didn't stop or say anything, just vanished behind the curtain he'd been hiding behind before. A few moments later Dr. White entered the room again with a bundle under her arm. She came over to the bed and put it down next to Mulder. "I managed to borrow a few things from one of my interns. Please be careful, I promised him he'd get them back before his shift is over."

"Thank you, doctor. I did say I would be back." Mulder investigated the bundle and found that it consisted of a washed-out t-shirt saying MY WIFE WENT TO LONDON AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS LOUSY T-SHIRT, a pair of jeans with patched knees, and weird soft-soled slippers that looked to be a couple of sizes too small.

"I'll take your word for it, Agent Mulder." Dr. White smiled at him and walked out again.

Scully had taped a small gauze pad over the puncture in his arm, and Mulder pulled the t-shirt over his head and stood up to put the jeans on. The original owner was a few inches shorter than him but compensated for that by being almost twice as broad. Mulder pulled the belt tight and found that there was no hole at the point where he needed to buckle it. He muttered and improvised by twisting the belt around itself. "I'm going to look like an escaped mental patient."

"Mulder, you're the one who insists on going." Scully turned around and looked at him. A corner of her mouth went up. "You might feel a bit cold in that, you know."

"Let's go," he said, resigned, and pushed his feet into the slippers. He picked the Muni map out of her hand and stuffed it into a back pocket. "Krycek?"

"You're a fashion plate, Mulder," a mocking voice told him. "GQ material." Krycek returned from his hiding place and went with them. Mulder tuned out most of what he saw and heard in the hospital corridors, and most of what he was feeling. There was too much going on, and he needed to concentrate on where they were going and what they were going to find. Scully might choose not to believe until she actually saw, but he knew.

Mulder wondered what winding paths his subconscious mind had wandered in his hours of memory loss, and if he would ever know. Perhaps the certainty he felt now was in part due to whatever realizations about the killer's behavior had filtered through during the night. He knew he could back up his present claims, that he could piece together parts of the previous evidence to make everyone else see that the conclusion he had drawn was a reasonable one. But he also knew that although that chain of reasoning was present in his mind, he had no memory of constructing it.

When they got to the car, he headed automatically for the front door on the passenger side, Scully got into the driver's seat, and Krycek slipped into the back seat with an odd little half-smile. Mulder turned around as Scully pulled out, looking at his — his what? Prisoner, witness? Nuisance? Savior? Green eyes met his own with an impassive look, shadowed by the dark hair that fell forward untidily. Krycek's mouth was closed, firm, unyielding. Looking at it, Mulder was gripped by a sudden sensory memory so perfect and disturbing that reality wavered around him.

"Mulder, are you sure you're all right?" Scully ignored the almost non-existent pre-dawn traffic in order to grab his wrist and check his pulse. "If at any time you start to feel unwell, you have to tell me at once. Dr. White was right in saying that you might have another seizure; we don't know anything about how your body might react to what it has been through." There was an almost yearning tone in her voice as she went on, "And we really should run some more tests. I'd like to analyze the composition of your blood now and compare it with the previous samples to see if—"

"Sure, fine. Whatever." At least she didn't say anything about his pulse racing. Mulder turned around again and stared firmly forward during the entire drive. He had been proud of himself for being so calm. Apparently it had just taken some time for his reactions to catch up. Now he was intensely, almost ridiculously aware of Krycek's presence. It made it hard for him to breathe.

The sun was coming up when they turned onto the Great Highway and followed it south along the beach. Sand gritted under the wheels of the car. Mulder looked out over the ocean. It had no color that he could make out, and neither did the sky. There was something flat, grey and metallic about everything he saw, except the fading swirls of mist that were retreating as the sun rose. Hard to differentiate between sea and sky, hard to see the pale grass growing on the sand dunes. The beach seemed to be trying to make itself invisible. Then he spotted a jogger in a bright orange sweatshirt and felt oddly relieved.

Scully followed the road past the zoo and then turned off and parked on a flat sandy space. When she turned the engine off, they could hear the waves rolling in. Mulder remained sitting where he was for a moment, relaxing, tensing up. This was too important for him to allow himself to be distracted by anything that didn't relate to the case. He divested himself of some thoughts and focused on others, until Scully and Krycek and his confusion were only shadows in his mind, then opened the car door and got out. The breeze from the ocean was cooler than he had expected, and wound around his bare ankles like a playful cat. Ignoring his own shivers, he walked down towards the water, then turned right and struck out across the sand. It wouldn't be far.

He knew Scully and Krycek were coming after him but he couldn't be bothered to slow down and wait, not when he felt the place calling to him. Up here, the sand sliding under his feet and trickling into the stupid slippers; impatiently he kicked them off and ran on barefoot, knowing exactly where the hollow was and stopping before he stumbled into it.

Yes. Here. The grey light was clear enough. Thin scraggly grass fringed the edge of this shallow little nest, curving into the side of the dune, facing the sea. The smell of blood rose from it to mingle with the ocean breeze. They lay together, like the others, side by side and close as the lovers they were. Their faces were barely visible. Blood had soaked into the sand, into their clothes, into the woman's pale hair. And white feathers quivered in the wind.

Mulder stood watching them in silence. It didn't look as though the killer had rearranged the bodies after death. Both the facial punctures and the throat-cutting must have occurred when they were already lying like this. Curled up in this bloody little earth womb, awaiting the dawn, the birth of a new day.

He didn't turn his head as Scully and Krycek caught up, coming to stand one on each side of him. No one spoke at first. Then Scully got her phone out and dialed. "Agent Yun?" She walked back a few steps as she told Yun to bring a team to the scene as fast as possible. Mulder could almost hear Martin's sleepy voice on the other end, could imagine how quickly the agent would snap into wakefulness at the news.

Krycek walked around the edge of the hollow, careful to keep his distance so that no more sand trickled into it and obscured the bodies or the blood. He squatted down and looked at the victims, his own face calm and uncommunicative. "I think," he said softly, "I think it might be Louise Hofmayer and Vic Laforge." When he bent his neck, a hank of hair fell across his forehead. He didn't bother flicking it back. "They weren't really regulars. Just came to a couple of meetings."

Shaking his head, Mulder turned around and looked at the ocean. He stared out across the endless rise and dip of waves until it became too much for him and he had to let his eyes stay closer to shore, where sand dollars rolled and tumbled in the last thin lick of water to curl up on the sand. "Krycek, just how involved are you in all of this?" He tried to ask the question harshly, but his abused vocal cords weren't providing full cooperation, so it came out a little too plaintive for his liking.

Turning again, he was in time to see Krycek smile, an abrupt, brilliant flare of a smile, rueful but relaxed. "Would you believe I'm just an innocent bystander?" He considered Mulder's face for a moment. "I guess not." Then the smile died as he looked down at the man and woman lying in front of him; even though he'd spoken their names, they were stripped of every identity save that which the killer had given them. "You know, Mulder, Johnny's got to be stopped."

Lovers III: In turns of tempest

"Alas, that they should wear our colors there,
The silken weavings of our afternoons,
And pick the strings of our insipid lutes!
Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly." — Stevens, Sunday Morning

"'Tis but the living who are dumb." — Byron, The Isles of Greece

"Johnny?" Mulder narrowed his eyes. "That's Flagstad?"

"Yeah." Krycek drew breath to say something more, but then his eyes moved past Mulder and he closed his mouth. Scully was back.

"They're on their way," she said, putting the phone away. When she looked at the bodies of the victims, her mouth tightened. "We have to do something to keep people away from here." The beach was relatively deserted at this hour, but there was the occasional early jogger, and sleepy-looking dog owner, moving down by the water.

Krycek shifted uneasily, and looked first at Mulder and then at Scully. "Look — when the cops get here? Now that you've made my face famous, they're going to be all over me like weirdos at a Star Trek convention. I'd appreciate it if we could come to some kind of agreement."

"Krycek, apart from being a crucial witness in the search for a serial killer, you're wanted in connection with several homicides. What kind of agreement did you have in mind?" Scully's voice was as cool as the ocean breeze. She seemed part of this place, at home here, though her hair and eyes provided its only colors.

"I want to help you catch Johnny." Krycek nodded briefly towards the bodies. It was hard to tell if the straightforward tone was meant to convince or not. "But I can be of a lot more use if I'm not locked up somewhere. So if you two take me into some kind of personal custody and, well, vouch for me—"

Scully did not look happy. She was watching Krycek steadily. Mulder remembered an offhand comment made months earlier, Krycek's seemingly casual statement that he'd rather die than go to prison. He knew that this was far more serious to Krycek than the man was letting on. There were several reasons why it wouldn't be safe to put Krycek in a cell somewhere, Mulder thought. But he couldn't break in on what was going on between Krycek and Scully, either — he wanted to wait and see where they were going.

"I'm not sure I want to be responsible for you," Scully said. It sounded cold, but she was talking to Krycek, discussing the issue — almost making a joke. Mulder felt amazed. It seemed they had reached some level of mutual understanding during the night, during his lost hours, and that neither of them was particularly happy with this.

"I didn't have to come to you, you know," Krycek said. He was having a hard time hiding his tension. "I'm here of my own free will, doesn't that count for something?"

"Why exactly are you here, Krycek?" Scully sounded like a prosecutor who was just about to get a damaging admission out of a witness. Mulder wondered what she was up to. Then he tilted his head as the rumble of car engines came to him through the morning air.

"Scully, someone's coming."

After a final searching look at Krycek, she turned and walked back up towards the road. Mulder turned to study the bodies again, taking in everything he could in this last moment of stillness; he knew that once the crime team descended on the scene, everything would be meticulously recorded down to the last detail, but the moment, the surroundings would be lost, the mood would be lost, this carefully arranged still life would change from a twisted man's work of art to an FBI paint-by-numbers picture.

Despite the amount of blood, and the untidy work the killer had made of the victims' faces, nothing here gave the impression of raging violence. It had all been carefully, thoughtfully, methodically done, in strict adherence to the killer's peculiar internal logic. Mulder thought about the workings of this man's mind, this man Krycek called Johnny. He thought about this man sending him a feather, and what it might mean.

"I came to save your life," Krycek said behind his back, distracting him with the quiet, unexpected words. "I received some information about what was happening."

"And why are you still here?" Mulder didn't turn his head. He stared down at the sand, and at the blood in the sand. "Why haven't you just run off again the way you always do?"

Krycek drew an audible, slightly shaky breath. "Like I said, someone's got to stop Johnny. And I think we have a better chance of doing it if we work together."

"We?" But before Mulder could go on, he heard voices. When he turned around he saw the team sprinting towards them across the sand, as if they were worried that the bodies might get up and leave without them. Some of them looked at him, barely acknowledging his presence, expecting him to get out of the way. That was all right; he knew they knew their job, and for once felt no need to try to do it for them. It wasn't as urgent any more; he had seen what he'd been meant to see. Now he needed to process it.

He walked down the slope of the beach, towards the water. The sun had come up while he was thinking of other things, and it had burned away the layer of grey that had covered the world. The sky arced high above him, blue as Scully's eyes; the sea glittered. Shell fragments crunched under his bare feet. When a large wave rolled up high enough to nip at his toes, he was shocked by how icily cold it was. He was tired, tired and thirsty, and his thoughts formed with the slow clarity of crystal.

"Spooky, get out of the water! What are you, stupid?" There was no mistaking Martin Yun's voice, or his usual charming delivery. Mulder turned slowly to find that Krycek was standing right behind him, just out of reach of the waves, and that Yun was striding towards them accompanied by Scully and two other agents. "And what the hell are you wearing?"

"Nice to see you could make it, Martin. You don't like my latest fashion statement?"

Yun dismissed his odd appearance with a shrug, and looked at Krycek. "Agent Scully told me you'd found him. I guess you've both earned your merit badges." Then he took a closer look and scowled in annoyance and surprise. "So I've had men searching the streets for this guy all night and no one thought to mention he's only got one goddamn arm?"

"It was an oversight on our part," Scully began in a voice devoid of apology, "but since the bartender didn't mention it, I think it is safe to assume that—"

"Didn't have time to put the other one on last night," Krycek drawled.

Yun tipped his head towards one of the other agents. "Get the cuffs on him — one cuff, anyway — get him in the car." The returning tension in Alex Krycek was like a shift in the weather.

"No." Mulder stepped out of the water; his feet were numb. He came up to stand next to Krycek, and stared flatly at Yun. "We don't have time for that, Martin. We need him. He stays with us. He's been with us for most of the night, he's not the killer. Scully, you planning on doing the autopsies?"

She glanced up towards the team that swarmed over the sand dune. Mulder looked that way too, and tried to see if the ME was there. "I'd like to at least participate, if Dr. Ince has no objections. But I also want to get you back to the hospital for a few more tests."

"I feel fine," he said, then as her eyes met and held his own, "and you should be in on the autopsies. There could be something new, some additional piece of evidence. We have to make every minute count now. He likes to plan ahead; he must have the next couple picked out already. Anything you discover could be crucial to the investigation."

Scully was about to say something, but Yun got in ahead of her. "Spooky, how did you know about this?" He flung a hand out, gesturing towards the bodies he hadn't yet seen. "And if you had it all figured out ahead of time, couldn't you have been here a bit earlier and caught the bastard at it?"

"Since Agent Mulder was unconscious in a hospital bed at the time the killings occurred, that would have been a bit difficult," Scully said with deceptive mildness. Mulder tried not to wince. The last thing he needed was for her to defend him to Yun. Then her eyes narrowed as she looked past Mulder off into the distance. "There's that jogger in orange again. He's been up and down the beach three times now, he was here when we got here. Maybe he saw something."

Yun lifted his head sharply, then nodded at the agent who was tagging along with him, and they both took off down the beach to intercept the man in orange. Mulder looked at Scully. "Flagstad does his work in the dark, before dawn. You really think that runner there saw the killer?"

"He might have," she retorted, but her eyes were gleaming. It seemed she wasn't above putting Martin Yun to a little extra work, either.

"Scully, they're moving the bodies now." She turned her head and watched, her eyes narrowing. "You can run tests on me later. You do the autopsies, I interrogate Krycek, and we can compare notes later while you poke around among my corpuscles, how's that?"

"You're supposed to go back to the hospital, Mulder, not interrogate anyone."

"He could come along. I'm sure Dr. White would love him if she ever got to meet him." Some fifty yards away, Yun had caught up with the jogger and was starting to lead him back towards the group. "Would you rather have Yun do it?"


"Shut up, Krycek, I wasn't asking you." Mulder fixed his eyes on Scully; she was looking at the hollow and the bodies with a certain restrained longing. "You know if anything happens someone will call you. And I feel all right now." Apart from the fact that his toes were about to fall off, but that had nothing to do with the black cancer, after all.

"You're in no state to drive, Mulder." But it was a weak protest.

"Scully, I'll be—"


"I can drive."

"You?" Scully turned her head to look at Krycek, who had relaxed again once Yun had left, and was chewing on something he'd dug out of his pocket as he watched them both.

"Wanna see my license?" he asked. Scully stared at him hard; he returned the look blandly. "How do you think I got here from Virginia?" Mulder glared at him, and found himself the recipient of a faint smile.

"All right," Scully said, snapping back into decisiveness. "Mulder, call me if you start feeling worse, or if you find out anything I need to know. Here — car keys." She dropped them into Krycek's outstretched hand, turned and started to walk up the beach, then came back again. "You'd better take your hotel room key, too," she said, handing it over to Mulder. "Go get some clothes, then you can give those back to Dr. White's intern."

Scully went towards the hollow in the dunes, narrowly avoiding being caught by Yun, who was returning with the jogger and the other agent, a young, dark-haired woman. The agent and the jogger continued past them, while Yun paused, looked disdainfully at Krycek, then managed a crooked half-smile for Mulder. "He might have seen something, says he saw someone hanging around here — we'll try to get him to come up with a good description before we show him the composite pic." Jerking his head towards Krycek, he asked, "You get anything out of this guy yet?" Only blood, Mulder thought. "How did you find him, anyway?"

"He found us," Mulder admitted. His face felt stiff with the necessity not to give anything away, and he saw from the look in Yun's eyes that it translated as hardness. Between that and the flat tone of his voice, he realized, he was as safe as he wanted to be.

"I guess you could use a soundproofed interrogation room," Yun said with another smile that could have stripped the paint off a car. "Make sure he tells everything he knows. Just get yourself some different clothes first, Spooky. You look like a mannequin out of a fucking Goodwill store window." Yun snorted, spat into the sand about three quarters of an inch from Krycek's left foot, and walked off.

Mulder looked out over the sea again, but he couldn't recapture the lost moment, the feeling of isolation and knowledge. He couldn't even clear his head enough to appreciate the view. His mind was busy sorting and filing, going through the facts, lining up questions. There was so much that needed to be thought of, and worked out. Two days. He had two days before this happened again. He couldn't allow anything he happened to feel to interfere with that, to take time from that. Couldn't stand here stupidly as the minutes slipped away, simply trying to wrap his thoughts around the fact that Alex Krycek was standing next to him.

"Linda sends her love."

Mulder hadn't been expecting the words, hadn't been expecting any words, and he was startled enough to turn and look at Krycek. "You kept in touch with her?"

Krycek smiled a little, a smile of pure affection. "Yeah."

"And you didn't even send me a postcard." Mulder meant to be flippant. In fact, he'd been aiming for flippancy with such easy confidence that he was stunned to hear, as the words came out, how badly he'd missed his mark. "I'm hurt, I really am," he rattled on, trying to cover it up, trying to sharpen his abused voice into sarcasm. "You missed Scully's birthday, too."

"I'd go out and buy her something now," Krycek said gravely, "but somebody took me into custody." Then his voice changed subtly. "And I would have sent you flowers, but I couldn't find any black ones."

"Let's go." Mulder started to walk up the beach. "You still need to work on that symbolism obsession," he tossed over his shoulder, and got a grin in return. It unsettled him further. Scully was busy, and didn't see him go. Yun was already talking to the hapless jogger, incapable of waiting any longer; he looked up long enough to nod briefly.

The car was where they'd left it, of course, and by some miracle had not been boxed in by all the other vehicles. He turned to Krycek and picked the car keys out of his hand quickly, opened the driver's door and stood for a moment trying to remember where he'd left the stupid slippers.

"Are you sure you ought to drive, Mulder? Scully said—"

"No," he said and got into the car anyway. A few moments later Krycek was sitting in the passenger seat, still eyeing him doubtfully. "But you're not going to do it." It felt weird to drive barefoot, and the ache in his left wrist flared up again, but he got the car backed out easily enough. Then he paused. "Tell me where the hotel is."

"I could drive, Mulder." Then Krycek caught Mulder's eyes, and his mouth tightened and relaxed again into an almost-smile. "Head for Union Square."

"All right." Mulder drove back up the Great Highway, hoping he remembered the best route. If he turned right before the park... or after the park? "See if you can find a bottle of water anywhere. Scully usually keeps one around."

Krycek rummaged around among the things on the floor and came up with a plastic bottle of water and the bag of peanut butter M&M's Mulder had bought the day before. "Can I have some of these?"

"Just give me that bottle."

The water cleared his head and got rid of the last lingering taste of black oil in his mouth. With a bit of an effort and some unsolicited advice from Krycek he drove past the park and got onto Geary, and settled in for the long haul. They were in the middle of the morning rush now, and it was no use expecting to get anywhere fast. Mulder just hoped the SFPD wasn't being zealous this morning. He had no driver's license, he had no shoes, he didn't have his FBI ID and he was accompanied by a known felon who was probably, Mulder thought darkly, carrying an unlicensed weapon.

The felon in question cleared his throat. "Mulder, how come you're involved in this? On the face of it, it's not your typical X-file."

"Yun asked me to come in and help him out, and I asked Scully to come along and help me out. He thinks I owe him one because of Michelle," Mulder added absentmindedly as he slipped through an intersection just as the lights were changing. He might have to talk to Yun about that eventually.

"Michelle, that's his wife, right?"

The car swerved. Mulder turned his head and stared at Krycek, then quickly turned back to look at the street, not wanting to dent anyone's fender right now. He couldn't believe his ears. "His wife? He married Michelle? Michelle Sargent?"

"Five years ago, according to his personnel file. I take it this is news to you." The amusement in Krycek's voice was unbelievably annoying.

"Hell yes. I thought — I never—" Mulder shook his head. He needed some more water. He needed a couple of painkillers and some time to himself. "Don't tell me she's a housewife now."

"They've got two kids."

Mulder could fill in the blanks for himself. It would explain why he'd never heard anything of Michelle's further career, and what a waste, if it were true. He still had a hard time believing it. Maybe Krycek was making it up to tease him. "How the hell do you have access to Bureau files, anyway?"

"You don't really want to know, Mulder, trust me. Tell me what happened with you and Yun and this Michelle."

He scowled at a run-down Chrysler that was trying to switch lanes in front of him. "Nothing." Flicking a glance sideways, he saw Krycek raising an eyebrow in not-so-polite disbelief. "We all worked a case together once." He didn't really feel like talking about it; it had been stupid, and it had been a long time ago, and if Martin had actually married Michelle...

"Well, that doesn't— Mulder, watch out for that Volvo. I think a hospital bed is probably the right place for you." Krycek paused expectantly, then went on when Mulder didn't say anything, "You are going to the hospital later, right?"

"There are two sites I haven't seen yet," Mulder said. He was planning it all out in his head as he spoke. "We're going to look at those, and we're going to talk. The really important question here isn't why I'm involved in this case." He turned his head, caught Krycek's eyes and held them for as long as he dared. "The important question is, where the hell do you come into all this?"

Krycek looked away and tucked his chin down. "I used to work with Johnny," he said, "and I was trying to find him."

"So that's why you were seen with three of the victims before they died?" Mulder asked harshly.

"They knew him. I was trying to get some information on where he was hanging out, since he'd stopped attending the meetings. Then I heard that you were here and that they meant to stop you for good this time."

If anything, the traffic situation was getting crazier now, the farther downtown they got. Mulder had to focus on driving, much as he wanted to watch Krycek for any sign that the man was lying. "Why now? You just said it, this isn't an X-file." At least, he amended to himself, it probably wasn't an X-file. He still needed to find out just how Flagstad handled his victims. "What is it about this case? Am I getting too close to something?" If he was, he couldn't see it himself. Unless there really was something more to Flagstad's abduction obsession than he had been able to figure out yet—

"Johnny used to work for them, Mulder. They don't want you to find him. They're scared of what he might say, even though he's not exactly going to make an ideal source for you. No one's been able to track him down and eliminate him," Mulder's mind supplied the unspoken 'yet' in Krycek's brief pause, "so they targeted you instead because you were easier to find. And because..." Krycek hesitated, and tried to turn the hesitation into a yawn.

"Because of what?"

"There are some people who try to protect you, Mulder. And there are others who disapprove of that." He wasn't sure if it was an answer or if Krycek was taking off on a tangent. "I don't know everything about this. I don't even know very much about this. But I want to help you find Johnny."

"Your old friend Johnny." It was getting easier to talk now; the water had helped his throat, too.

"I didn't say he was a friend, I said I used to work with him. He wasn't exactly stable back then, either. I'm not really surprised this happened." Krycek drank some water too, and sat quietly for a while, brooding and staring out the side window, slumping gradually further and further down in his seat, only vouchsafing the occasional word about the next turn as they drew closer. Mulder concentrated on driving. One thing at a time.

He found a parking space close to the hotel and sat for a moment after he'd turned the engine off, flexing his toes. It felt as though the friction of the pedals against the soles of his feet had raised blisters. Apart from that, he did feel a lot better. Only a lingering whisper of headache, a slight burn when he breathed. His wrist hurt, but not so badly that he hadn't been able to hold the steering wheel. Yet if he could trust Scully, and he could trust Scully, he'd been close to dying less than twelve hours earlier. And Alex Krycek had, for some reason best known to himself, turned up out of nowhere and saved his life.

Well, fuck.

Mulder reached out and prodded Krycek, who was either asleep or in a coma. "Get out of the car. I'm not letting you stay down here."

Looking at him and blinking sleepily, Krycek collected himself enough to say, "I knew you couldn't survive for long without an Armani suit." He fumbled with the door handle and got out, stretching and rolling his head. Mulder got out as well and made a face as he put his bare feet down on the street. Locking the car, he set off for the hotel, watching the sidewalk for glass and chewing gum.

When they got inside the desk clerk looked up and smiled, putting her book aside. Her smile only faltered briefly as she got a good look at what he was wearing. "I'm glad to see you're feeling better, sir. I hope you'll be able to enjoy the rest of your vacation without any similar incidents."

Mulder thanked her and made his escape without saying anything specific about what had been wrong with him. As they got into the elevator, Krycek was chuckling to himself. "What?"

"Last time she saw you, you were hanging over my shoulder wrapped in a sheet and Scully was babbling about a medical emergency. She probably thinks the three of us were playing some pretty interesting games last night."

"Everyone knows the FBI's a kinky bunch." Mulder looked down at his feet. Sand-between-the-toes. When the elevator stopped and he got out, he left sandy fragments of footprints behind on the floor.

The room was a mess, but he thought that was due to his own untidiness and to their abrupt departure, rather than to anyone's having searched it. Mulder scowled at his own inability to remember anything about this place; it annoyed him that Krycek had had to lead him to the door.

He wandered around, locating his wallet, his phone, his gun, his other gun... if Scully had left all this behind, she must really have been worried about him. Suit. Clean underwear. He pulled the map out of his back pocket and dropped it absently on the floor. "Got any good games on that laptop?" Krycek asked around another yawn.

"No." Mulder straightened up, a t-shirt in one hand. "I'm going to take a shower." He thought about adding, don't go anywhere, but it seemed somehow pointless. Instead he went into the bathroom and carefully locked the door before stripping out of the borrowed clothes. In addition to being the wrong size, they hadn't been as clean as he could have wished. He turned on the hot water and stepped into the tub with a sigh of relief.

Remembering the elastic bandage around his wrist as it started to get wet, he peeled it off and leaned out past the shower curtain to throw it in the general direction of the sink. Soap and shampoo did wonders to restore him, and he spent a long time getting all the sand off himself. While he stood under the steady stream of water his mind replayed the scene at the beach that morning, the victims, the sunrise. There was no horror in it, nor anything that could be recognized as analysis just yet, simply a review of facts.

It would be useful to ask Krycek some more questions about Flagstad, to see if he could get some more details about the man's particular obsessions and habits. He should have done that in the car, Mulder admitted to himself. It was just difficult to stick to one line of questioning with Krycek; there was too much he wanted to know. Too much he wanted—

Alive, his mind whispered suddenly, insidiously. He's alive. Mulder closed his eyes and let the water run down his face. The abrupt constricting sensation in his chest wasn't entirely unexpected. His heart beat faster as feelings he couldn't suppress uncoiled in him, powerful and frightening. He had been in freefall for so long.

When he stepped out of the tub, the mirror was completely steamed up. He toweled his hair dry, combed it rather haphazardly, looked at the damp elastic bandage in the sink and decided against trying to put it back on again. Instead he pulled on boxers and t-shirt and went outside, bracing himself against the comparatively cool air in the room.

Krycek was lying on Mulder's bed, fast asleep. He'd pulled off the leather jacket and it lay in a heap on the floor; the plain black cotton sweater underneath was thin and worn, the collar fraying in places. Mulder walked over and looked down at him, at the nose with its childish tilt, the fine mouth relaxed to the point of slackness, the long dark lashes resting against pale skin. He lifted a hand tentatively, let it drop again. Krycek hadn't slept all night. It was still early. And if Krycek were awake there would have to be words, thoughts, something more than just the trembling of breath and blood in him.

After a few moments, Mulder went to the foot of the bed and picked up the blanket he'd kicked off last night. He pulled it up over the sleeping man, expecting Krycek to wake up at any moment. When that didn't happen, he paused. Turning around, he crossed the room slowly, and bolted the door. Then he went back to the bed, crawled in clumsily under the blanket and wrapped one arm around Krycek's waist.

Mulder closed his eyes and felt his breathing slow down. The warmth of another body against his own was soothing. It had been a long time since he'd been so close to anyone. And this, this was...


It had been so easy, and in the end, not easy enough. Too easy, to be close like this, to sleep in the same bed. Mulder felt the other man's ribcage rise and fall under the weight of his arm. He remembered the hot pressure of Alex's mouth, and the sour taste of vomit in his own. Too easy, the impossibility of it all. Too easy to let it tear him apart.

He shifted closer, tightening the grip of his arm. He was tired too, tired enough to sleep, but he didn't want to sleep. There was too much that needed to be thought about. And there was this... lying here. His face was resting against the back of Alex's neck. It seemed to him that his own heartbeat, clear and steady, was only an echo of Alex's, that their bodies stretched out together were one body, mirror-doubled but whole. His muscles liquefied into warm relaxation, while glass slivers rattled and stung inside his chest and belly. Half-finished thoughts raced each other in his mind even as the slow soothing honey of well-being drowned out reason.

Mulder stopped himself from pulling Alex even closer. He didn't want to wake the other man, or make his dreams uncomfortable. He didn't want to have to answer the question of what he thought he was doing. He wasn't thinking. The conviction that Alex would disappear if he let go of him was not thought, it was a sharp steel hook sunk deep in his gut, where neither logic nor emotion could touch it.

Opening his eyes again, tickling Alex's skin with his eyelashes, he took in the daylight, the curve of neck, the dark spill of hair. For a few moments longer he tried to make his world remain as small as that, but it kept opening up inexorably with reminder after reminder of wider vistas and inescapable responsibilities. This, whatever it was, pleasure or horror, was a personal indulgence he couldn't justify. Johnny fucking Flagstad had too many feathers left. He needed all of himself for this. He could let go. He could.

Mulder rolled off the bed slowly, landing on the floor. He brushed a hand over his face and head as if cutting himself off from what he had just been doing. Instead he crawled over to the laptop, plugged it in and booted it up. The sudden electric hum did not even make the man on the bed stir. Not that Mulder was paying attention. He called up his profile of Flagstad and sat staring at it for five minutes, gradually emptying his mind of other things. Then he began to type.

When the phone rang, he nearly jumped out of his skin. He'd been far away, deep inside another's convoluted thoughts. It was his cell phone, and he'd left it lying in the middle of the floor. "Yeah." If this was Scully wanting to find out how he was faring in the hospital, he suddenly realized, he was in serious trouble.

"Uh — Agent Mulder?" Not Scully, and he relaxed a little. "This is — oh shit—" There was a pause and a muffled thump. "Hello? Are you there? This is Blaine Hibbert and I, shit, the phone fell on the floor, can you still hear me? Look, I have a problem, I..."

Hibbert's voice grew fainter, and Mulder scowled at the phone. "Mr. Hibbert, what do you want?"

The returning voice was a little breathless. "Flagstad called. I mean, he called ten minutes ago, less maybe. He, uh, he wanted addresses for all the group members, said he wanted to send them all some newsletter he'd been working on? And I..." Hibbert swallowed audibly. "I got a bit frazzled, all right, I told him no, but I couldn't come up with a real good excuse."

"Do you have any idea where he was calling from? What did he say when you refused?"

"Sounded like a phone booth on a street somewhere, I could hear cars and people and things. He, uh, he said 'I see' and then he hung up."

Mulder sucked his next breath in between his teeth, and glanced back at the text on the computer screen as if something would appear there to help him. "Do you have the list of the members' addresses with you? You keep it at home?"


"Okay, I know where you live." It gave him some pleasure to hear Hibbert's paranoid squawk at that. "We'll get there as fast as we can. Try to think about who might be at risk of the people on that list, based on what you know about the victims." Even as he said it, Mulder knew that Hibbert wasn't going to be able to help there, but it couldn't hurt to ask.

As he hung up, he turned his head to find Krycek sitting cross-legged on the edge of the bed, yawning and rubbing his eyes with the heel of his hand. "Where are we going?"

"Berkeley." Mulder turned the computer off and got to his feet. The shirt he grabbed was a little crumpled, but he shook it out and started to put it on, refusing to feel self-conscious just because Krycek was watching him. "Flagstad wants the names and addresses of everyone in Hibbert's group. Hibbert refused, but I have a feeling Flagstad might try to get them anyway eventually. He's obviously focused on those people."

"He's not the type to take no for an answer," Krycek agreed. "Johnny was always very goal-oriented." Stretching, he started to pull his sweater over his head, revealing an equally worn t-shirt. "I'm leaving this here, unless you want to use the bloodstains as a Rorschach test?"

"You have to tell me more about Flagstad," Mulder said, buttoning his pants and reaching for his suit jacket. He ran a quick mental checklist: both guns, phone, car keys, ID. "Come on — we have to go look at those addresses. There's something in there that he wants. If we find out what it is—"

Krycek shrugged into his jacket and headed for the door. "We might figure out his next move. We might also run smack into him in Hibbert's living room. Aren't you going to call for backup?" He pushed the door open and held it while Mulder went outside, knotting his tie. "Come to think of it, aren't you supposed to be in the hospital?"

"I don't think Flagstad's going to..." Mulder left another sentence unfinished as his mind picked up speed and jumped ahead. "This is more important. Scully will understand. Come on, let's get going."

They got into the elevator and Krycek pushed the button. Mulder wondered what it had been like last night, when Krycek had carried him. What Scully had thought of it all. They were standing closer to each other than strangers would; Krycek looked at him seriously, face polite and uncommunicative, eyes all surface, a smooth polished green. That look: in Leyden Creek that look had made him want to break the man open so he could look inside. So he could understand. Now he found himself wondering if his own eyes said anything, anything at all.

When the doors opened onto the small lobby, Mulder walked out ahead of Krycek and nodded at the desk clerk without a word. The brief glimpse he caught of her face gave him the impression that she was pleased to see him dressed like a normal person again. Almost out the door, that thought made him stop and turn around, nearly bumping into Krycek. "Forget something?"

"Yes." He walked back inside. "There's a pair of jeans and a t-shirt in the bathroom of my room that should be delivered to Dr. White at Marshall Hale Hospital as soon as possible. Can you arrange that?" The young woman looked mildly bewildered. "Just add it to the bill," Mulder said and left.

Krycek was waiting by the car, looking uneasily up and down the street, squinting in the bright sunlight. He was wrapped in his leather jacket even though it was another hot day and most of the people who had a choice were in t-shirts or tank tops. When Mulder opened the car door a wave of confined heat rolled out to meet him. He was relieved to see that Krycek slipped the jacket off his shoulders as he settled into the passenger seat.

"Mulder, can we make a stop along the way, find a McDonald's or a Subway or something?"

"I should've known." There was a twinge in his wrist when he started driving, but it wasn't too bad; it had only been a mild sprain. There was also a rumble in his stomach, indicating that refueling might be in order for him, too. "Frohike thinks the fast food chains put addictive substances in their burgers. I should hand you over to him for tests."

"Why not," Krycek said philosophically. "I've never been a guinea pig."

"I guess it would be a move upwards career-wise, for you." Mulder bent down and snagged the water bottle from the floor next to Krycek's foot, and straightened up just in time to avoid crashing into the cars in the next lane. He flipped the top off with his thumb and drank. "And maybe there's a market for videotapes of you screaming when the withdrawal symptoms hit."

"I'll put you down for a signed copy. You should have let me drive."

It wasn't until they were on the Bay Bridge that Mulder had finished the water, put the bottle away, and asked Krycek, "What can you tell me about Flagstad?"

Krycek had been staring out the window, watching the Bay. Now he turned his head and Mulder saw that he was frowning and smiling at the same time. "About John Alexander Flagstad — I don't think that's his real name — not much. School of the Americas, friend of Cardinale's. He looks like a librarian and you don't want to take him on in a barroom brawl. Boring as hell, too." After this first flip assessment, Krycek twisted into a more comfortable position, and started thinking. Mulder could almost see the wheels turning as Krycek's eyelids dropped and his voice grew slower. "He has a military approach to things. He likes order and he likes orders. In his ideal world, life would come with an instruction manual. He wants rules and reasons for everything, and if there aren't any he'll make them up, and believe he got them from somewhere. He was hell to work with — he couldn't improvise. Every time things went wrong I had to try to convince him that I'd been given an emergency plan that he knew nothing about, just to get him to do what I told him."

That fit in very well with what Mulder had already conjectured. Dragging his mind firmly away from speculations on those missions, Mulder said, "So if we upset his plans in any way, he'll find it hard to readjust, and start making mistakes. If, for instance, we remove the address list he wants." He tapped the wheel. "If we start to close in on him, and he gets nervous... if you're right, he'd just see us as an obstacle to the completion of his current mission, so when we get the addresses from wherever Blaine Hibbert lives, we should—"

"I thought you knew where he lived?"

"What?" Mulder glanced sideways at Krycek. "I was assuming you knew. You were part of his group."

"Loosely speaking," Krycek said with a twist of laughter in his voice. "But yeah, I know where he lives."

"Good," Mulder said absently. He wished he'd brought the laptop along, to let Krycek take a look at the profile he'd written. "Anything else about Flagstad you can think of that might be relevant?"

"I didn't know him that well. He was difficult to get along with, opinionated and loud when he disagreed with you. And it was hard to guess what would set him off. For instance, he hated stories about abductions and aliens and what he called 'that tabloid trash.' Refused to discuss it. But he was really interested in things like hypnotism and crystals."

"He hated abduction stories?" Hated, or feared? Mulder filed that away to think about later. "Flagstad's from San Francisco originally, isn't he? Or at least he grew up here."

Krycek looked startled. "Yeah. I don't know where he was born, but he went to school here." Then Krycek smiled. "Tell me what else you've figured out about him."

"He's trying to protect the city," Mulder said as his fingers went on with their soft tap-dance along the steering wheel. "Using the victims, what he imagines he gets from the victims, to encapsulate San Francisco, set up a border as well as to send a message." He turned his head and looked at Krycek. "And he's not sending the message to us. Not the FBI or the people of the city. He's sending it to someone else."

"How do you figure that?"

"What he's doing is some kind of ritual, it's meant to do something, have a certain effect. On something or on someone. Maybe the message is for them — the ones he's looking for. I suspect from what you just said that this type of magical thinking evolved out of his obsession with rules, his conviction that anything can be done if you only know the right method of doing it. And that's what's behind his methodical approach. I don't think he'll start working faster to sustain the thrill. He's not a thrill killer, the deaths are a means to an end."

"But he has to be aware that he's being hunted," Krycek said. "That might make him pick up speed, change his timetable. He's not completely inflexible... he wasn't when I knew him," he corrected, "and I don't think he has any date obsession as such. The interval between the killings is probably what he estimated as sensible for the research and preparations he needed to do, but by now he has it all down pat, he knows what he's doing. There's a McDonald's."

Mulder hadn't even consciously noticed that they were off the bridge. He blinked at the familiar arches, then collected himself and changed lanes. His stomach, long inured to thinking of lukewarm burgers and limp fries as proper food, sat up and began to take notice. There was no car ahead of them in the drive-through lane and for a moment he wondered if it was closed; then he realized it probably had more to do with the hour. They had to wait for their orders, and the sleepy-looking girl in the window finally handed them their bags with the air of someone who wasn't going to do them that kind of favor again.

Used to driving with one hand and eating with the other, Mulder found it was a lot more complicated when you had a sprained wrist and were trying to follow the directions of a man speaking around a mouthful of french fries. FBI agents were expected to avoid walking around covered in Big Mac sauce, that kind of thing gave the Bureau a bad name. By the time they arrived at Blaine Hibbert's house, he'd managed to finish his fries, but his burger was a disgusting mess he wasn't even going to try to touch again. He looked at his own sticky fingers in disgust, and Krycek handed him a napkin. Mulder frowned, and was met with that closed-off, polite look again.

"Let's go in," he said roughly, remembering just what it felt like to want to slap Krycek into the middle of next week. Amazing that someone could be so sarcastic without saying a word. He got out of the car and refrained from slamming the door. Overreacting, he was overreacting again and he had to keep his mind on the case. Had to. Krycek's suggestion that Flagstad might pick up speed clashed with his own belief that it was the certain pace of ritual that mattered. Flagstad wasn't a thrill killer, looking for more more more, but he knew he was being hunted, had even acknowledged it by sending the feather, whatever the hell that meant. And Krycek had worked with Flagstad, known him — but that was in the past, and Krycek wasn't a profiler. The threads were pulling in different directions, and Mulder could feel his web of speculation begin to come apart.

Krycek got out too and stood on the sidewalk stretching in the sun, like a cat. He'd shrugged his leather jacket on again, and held his half-finished strawberry shake tilted at a casual angle. Mulder opened his mouth to say something, and shut it again. Krycek wasn't his partner. Krycek had abandoned Mulder and the FBI years ago. He wasn't required to adhere to Bureau standards of behavior.

"Blaine won't be happy to see me," Krycek said, sounding rather pleased about it. He walked up to the house and rang the doorbell: two short signals and one longer. They waited. Krycek finished his milkshake — he was the only person Mulder had ever come across who could get the last drops out of the cup silently. Nothing happened. Krycek rang the doorbell again, with more force. "He wouldn't have gone out, not when he was expecting you."

Mulder tried the door. It was unlocked, which didn't agree with anything he knew about Blaine Hibbert. He drew his gun, stepped to one side and softly pushed the door open.

The long hallway inside was dark and empty. Mulder went inside; Krycek was a shadow at his back. To the right was the kitchen, small and cluttered, the sink overflowing with dirty dishes. He continued along the hallway. "Mr. Hibbert?" The house sounded empty; his words fell into a hollow silence. "Blaine?" There was daylight at the far end of the passage, where it led into a larger room. Mulder picked up his pace and came out into what had to be Blaine Hibbert's work room.

It bore a strong resemblance to Carlos Gutierrez' ground-floor den, but was even more untidy. Papers and books littered the floor; the wind that came in through the door that opened onto the back yard turned page after page. The computer sitting on the desk in front of the windows hummed to itself. And Blaine Hibbert was slumped face down over the other half of the desk, blood wetting his lanky blond hair, smearing the notebook he'd been writing in, dripping down to soak into the blue carpet.

Papers crumpled under his feet as Mulder walked over to the desk and bent to get a closer look. Any hope that Hibbert was still alive vanished as he saw the exit wound the bullet had made, turning most of the man's forehead into a crater of blood, brain tissue and bone splinters. Mulder closed his eyes for a moment, pointlessly. The image was already fixed in his mind, taking its place with others, other faces staring at him in sightless reproach.

What he could make out of the writing on the spiral pad that was half visible under Hibbert's shoulder looked like a letter to his mother in Seattle, making no mention of anything more interesting than weather conditions and what Hibbert had had for dinner last night. The fliers and printouts that littered the floor seemed to have nothing in common; Mulder didn't know if that was where Hibbert normally kept them, or if Flagstad had created most of the disorder. But he was willing to bet that the address list was no longer in this room.

Krycek had disappeared out the open back door. Mulder followed and found himself in a small, sunny, badly-kept back yard. Two folded white plastic chairs leaned against the fence to the right, and the rolled-up hose next to them did not appear to have been used for several months, to judge both by how dirty it was, and how dry the ground was. An attempt to lay a stone path across what was intended to be a grass lawn had petered out after a yard and a half. Krycek was standing by the back fence, putting his gun away; Mulder decided to ignore that for the time being. He walked over to see what Krycek was looking at.

"He went out here," Krycek said, nodding at some crushed orange poppies, and then pointing out a narrow smear of blood on the peeling white paint of the fence. "We didn't miss him by much — I think he probably saw us through the kitchen window and ran back this way. He wouldn't have been so careless if he hadn't been in a hurry." Then he turned around to face Mulder. "Blaine's dead?"

"Yes." Mulder blinked and Blaine Hibbert's face appeared and disappeared on the inside of his eyelids. His jaw muscles tightened. "I should have told him to leave the house." He had completely misjudged Flagstad's priorities. To the sharp taste of guilt in his mouth was added another, no less bitter: that of uncertainty. The complex weave of fact and intuition that held his profile together was coming undone. "I made the wrong decision."

He had turned away, to face the house again. Behind that door, behind those windows, Blaine Hibbert lay dead. Mulder had found him annoying to the point of exasperation in life; now all he could think about was the terror that Flagstad's sudden appearance must have caused. Why hadn't he told Hibbert to leave? He had allowed the man to stay here, a sitting duck, completely incapable of defending himself against a psychotic professional killer.

"It happens, Mulder." There was nothing soft or commiserating in Krycek's voice. "It even happens to you. Being brilliant is not the same thing as being infallible, no matter how many miracles you've been required to perform for the FBI."

"Next you'll be telling me I'm allowed to make mistakes," Mulder snarled. "I'm sure Blaine Hibbert would love to hear that."

Krycek's hand clamped around his upper arm in a hard grip. "Don't go on a fucking guilt trip now, Mulder. Allowed to make mistakes? You're not trying to learn to play the piano."

"So what the hell are you saying?" Mulder tried to jerk his arm free of Krycek's grip and meet the man's eyes at the same time. He could feel rage building along his spine, up the back of his neck. "It is my fault, but I'm not supposed to feel guilty over it?"

"You can feel as guilty as you like in your spare time, Mulder, but you're in the middle of an investigation. Are you going to take time off to suffer? Or drop it all and let Yun take over?" Krycek's voice was relentlessly hard. "You made a mistake. Live with it, and decide what you're going to do next."

"Says who?" Mulder hissed. He couldn't believe Krycek was trying to give him some warped kind of psych counseling not ten yards away from where a man lay dead because of their mistakes — because of Mulder's mistakes. "An amoral killer who wouldn't know guilt if it kicked sand in his face. Your ideas of acceptable human behavior don't exactly match the rest of the world's."

"And you're normal?" Krycek jerked his arm, shook him, and he thought he heard his bones rattle. "Mulder, you screwed-up idiot, if you were half as sane as you think you are you wouldn't—" Abruptly, Krycek let go of him and stepped back.

Mulder looked at him through narrowed eyes. "I wouldn't what?" Krycek turned his head to one side. Mulder tensed, ready to lash out with words or fists. This wasn't Leyden Creek, and all previous agreements were null and void. "I wouldn't what?"

Two quick steps and Krycek was pressed against him, chest to chest, thigh to thigh. A hand caught his face, thumb rubbing across the stubble on his chin. "You wouldn't want me." The last word was spoken against his lips, just before the kiss burned into him, a perfect strike that took out all higher thought functions at once. It rocked him, pressure of lips and tongue obliterating sanity and self. When it was over, all he could do for a long moment was suck in air. His fury had dissipated, but not the slow darkness that fueled it.

"Damn you," the words were barely vocalized, a whisper of sadness, not anger. Mulder tightened his grip on the warm living body in his arms. Let go and he disappears. Blaine Hibbert had been killed. His profile was completely screwed up. Flagstad was too far ahead of him, and at the same time so tantalizingly close. His ability to concentrate had been shattered the moment he had seen Alex Krycek's face in that composite sketch. His ability to even think had vanished with the first touch. "Damn you, Alex." Let go and he disappears. Let go and—

Mulder dropped his arms and stepped back, wrenching himself free with more force than was necessary from the light touch on his jaw. He turned around and walked back into the house, fishing out his cell phone. The first call, to Martin Yun, was brief and to the point; when Yun started to swear at him for once again being just behind the killer, Mulder simply hung up. Then he took a deep breath and made the second call.


"Scully, it's me. Are you done with the autopsies yet?"

"No, Mulder, I'm not." The sharpness in her voice was affectionate; she was in a good mood. That would change once she got his news. "But so far I've seen nothing that indicates that the killer has changed any part of his MO. The wounds are virtually identical to those of the other victims, and I haven't found any significant trace evidence — nothing that can't be accounted for by the difference in location." He heard the snap of her latex gloves. "How are you? Has Dr. White had a chance to take a good look at you yet?"

"I'm not in the hospital, Scully." He heard her draw breath to speak and continued quickly, "Blaine Hibbert called and said Flagstad had contacted him about the addresses of the members of the abductee network that he runs — ran."

"Ran?" There was another latex snap. "Is Hibbert dead?"

"Flagstad killed him just before we got here. I haven't gone through all of Hibbert's papers yet, but I'm pretty sure Flagstad has those addresses now."

"If Hibbert knew that Flagstad was coming, why didn't he get out of the house?" Scully asked.

"Because I didn't tell him to," Mulder said blackly. "I didn't think Flagstad would go after what he wanted so fast." He turned to look at the sad slumped figure of Blaine Hibbert again. "Yun's on his way here. Do you want to come out too, or finish up what you're doing?" Krycek walked through his field of vision, crossing the room to one of the bookshelves and pulling something out. "You can probably catch a ride with Martin Yun if you hurry."

"I'll come out," she said. Mulder turned his head forty-five degrees so he could see Krycek on his knees on the floor, flipping through the Yellow Pages. "Is Krycek with you?"

"Yeah." The impulse towards protective levity took over, made him ask, "Why, do you want to talk to him?"


He held the phone away from himself and looked at it for a moment, wishing he could see her face, then brought it back to say, "All right. Hang on." Mulder walked slowly across the room and dropped down in a crouch across from Krycek, holding the phone out to him. "Scully."

Krycek looked as surprised as Mulder felt. He accepted the phone, and straightened up, rolling his shoulders back. "Yeah?" Mulder looked upside down at the page Krycek had been scanning. Pet shops. He shook his head. No, not pet shops, but... "I'll try, but — yes, all right. Which pocket does he keep the handcuffs in?" Mulder wondered whether he should react to that or not. He flipped the pages over with more force. "Thank you, Agent Scully."

Reaching out to get the phone back, Mulder decided he would wait for Krycek to tell him what that had been all about, but he couldn't interpret the look on Krycek's face. It irritated him. "You're wrong about the pet shops," he said.

"I thought it might be a place to start." Krycek was still holding the phone, and Mulder let his hand drop, feeling even more irritated. "I don't know where to look for someone who raises pigeons. There's probably a national organization, a pet store owner might—"

"Maybe he just buys the feathers at a party supply store," Mulder said, despite knowing that it wasn't true. "Retail. In a little plastic bag. Nice and clean." He got to his feet; so did Krycek. He took a couple of steps towards the desk; Krycek followed him. "Let me guess. Scully asked you to make sure I stay here until she arrives." Krycek nodded calmly.

Mulder turned away from that calm. He looked at Blaine Hibbert at the desk again. The whole room smelled of blood, and he'd barely noticed. Men looked so strange once they were dead; sad, unreal, twisted shapes. Perhaps it only seemed that way when you saw too many of them. He knew, theoretically, that the mind protected itself, reducing the dead body to an object; but that seemed a simplification of what was going on inside him.

He made himself think about it. This was Blaine Hibbert, and Mulder knew next to nothing about him; their lives had intersected for less than twenty-four hours, they had spoken to each other for less than forty minutes total, and now Mulder stood next to Hibbert's dead body, with the right to go through every detail of Hibbert's existence should he find it necessary. The progression of intimacy had been appallingly quick.

Once he had asked Krycek if the man knew how many he had killed over the years, and the answer had been no. Mulder didn't know if that was the truth or not. But he did know that he carried his own dead with him. The ones he had killed, for whatever reason. The ones who had died around him as he fought for the truth. And the ones who had died because of him, because he had not been able to protect them. It was easy for Krycek to tell him not to feel guilt — the man had no conscience, couldn't possibly have. Could not understand these things.

Mulder knew that he had to carry them with him. Every single one of them. If he didn't, he would forget what he was doing. If he didn't, he would have to deny what he was. It was all too easy to grow accustomed to that ultimate degree of violence, to distance oneself from death. But he would not do it. He refused even to put on his seat belt every time he was racing into another head-on collision with grim reality.

"Johnny's father raised carrier pigeons," Krycek said, dragging him out of his reverie.

Mulder touched the mouse and the screen saver's repetitive message vanished to be replaced by a familiar Netscape window: the MUFON page. He hesitated for a few moments, then checked the bookmarks and picked a search engine. "Then the dove feathers may have no significance beyond the strictly personal." The words tasted like bitter almonds on his tongue. "And we might be better off trying to follow Flagstad's physical trail rather than attempting to predict his next move."

It didn't surprise him to find that there was a national association for pigeon breeders; he would have been more surprised if there hadn't been one, or if they hadn't had a home page. Even the hardware store two blocks down from his apartment building had a home page. In fact, he thought darkly, it might be a good idea to look for Flagstad's home page. Hi and welcome to my little corner of cyberspace! My name is John Flagstad, and I work as a contract killer. Click here if you want to see my rates for murder and mayhem...

"Marin." Krycek was leaning over his shoulder, pointing at the screen's list of pigeon breeders. "It's the nearest place, and I doubt subterfuge was on his mind, much." There was a short pause, as Mulder tried to ignore the heat he could feel radiating from Krycek's body, the enforced intimacy of their positions. He could not straighten up now without bumping into the other man. "Mulder." He kept his eyes fixed on the screen. "I'm sorry."

"For what?" he asked harshly. "For trying to sell me on your personal just-forget-about-it philosophy? For conspiring with Scully behind my back? For trying to count my fillings with your tongue just now? For killing my father?" Mulder twisted his neck uncomfortably to look straight at Krycek. "Or are you sorry for me for being such an idiot that I can't even profile your old partner?"

Krycek was frowning; the odd little crease over the bridge of his nose was a welcome change from the smooth unreadable face he had presented so far. He met Mulder's gaze without hesitation, leaned closer. Tension sang between them. Then he straightened up and turned away. Mulder turned around too, and found himself looking at the back of Krycek's neck again. He waited.

When Krycek began to speak his voice was slow and serious, measured, as if he were reading from a script inside his head. "It was a new, experimental technology. Implants that could be used to control the bearer's behavior, that was the idea. Frankie Lewis volunteered to try them out, she'd helped design the chip, she and her husband, Dario Grazzini. Worked great at first, but then they didn't like the orders they were getting, and they weren't given a chance to take the implants out again."

"Where did they develop this? Whose orders?" Mulder stared harder at the back of Krycek's head, trying to bore his way inside. He had thought at first that Krycek was taking off on a completely unrelated tangent. But the word 'implants' had made him realize that that was not what was going on.

"Frankie and Dario somehow managed to break the control the implants had over them. They ran, and now they're walking around free with some very expensive high-tech equipment in their heads. And that's not popular with those who paid for it in the first place."

"And who did pay for it?" Questions were lining up in his throat, almost choking him with their desire to be asked. "You mean — the consortium. The smoking man. Is this—" He wanted to ask if this was linked to the alien experiments, but he wasn't sure even now how much Krycek knew, and how much he accepted of what he knew. In Leyden Creek, he had been remarkably resistant to that kind of suggestion.

Krycek shrugged. "Johnny was sent to track them down. Nobody knew he was on his own little head trip until it was too late. He'd been in and out of mental hospitals over the past year, but no one thought to check." The tone of voice left no doubt of what Krycek thought of such amateur behavior.

Closing his eyes for a moment, Mulder thought it over. It almost made sense. Almost. "So all the people Flagstad has killed so far are Lewis and Grazzini, in his mind," he said quietly, speaking mostly to himself. "Then when he finds that they are innocent, untainted, he leaves them as a message and a warning." But the words didn't ring completely true to him. It was obvious that Lewis and Grazzini were the key to the mystery, but he couldn't quite fit it together.

Krycek was walking across the room; he stopped by the bookcase, turned around and started to walk back again. "You can figure this out, Mulder, I know you can."

"You know I can? You know I can do the hard work for you?" The anger came back out of nowhere, swept throught his mind, picked up some of the puzzle pieces and put them into place. "You're looking for your old friend Flagstad. You couldn't find him and now you want me to find him for you." He spat the words out. "Was that why you saved my life? Sorry I'm not doing a better job of it so far."

Stopping in the middle of the room, Krycek looked at him from under lowered black eyebrows. "Yeah, I want you to find him. Damn it, Mulder, he's out there killing people, punching holes in their faces, cutting their throats! Doesn't that mean something to you? Johnny's turned into a classic serial killer, and he has to be stopped. You can't drop this just to spite me."

"I'm not going to clap my hands and do the happy dance either," Mulder grated out. "If you want to pull my strings you'd better try to be a bit more subtle about it." He turned around and stared blindly at the computer screen again, trying to get his breathing to slow down. He wanted to hit something, someone. There was no room for cool logic or deductive reasoning in his mind; he shoved them aside, as the blood pounded in his ears.

Damn Alex Krycek. Damn him.

There was movement behind him, but he refused to acknowledge it until a hand touched his shoulder; then he shrugged it off angrily. It did not return, but neither did Krycek move away. "We don't have to fight." Low and serious, Krycek's voice nevertheless made him think of phone sex, that throaty, sultry, promising note reaching places inside him he tried in vain to keep barricaded. "I'm trying to help you, Mulder. I'm trying to help you stay alive and I'm trying to help you catch Johnny. Why do you have such a problem with that?"

He wasn't going to turn around. He wasn't. Paper crumpled between his fingers as he clenched his hands on whatever was at the top of the mess on Blaine Hibbert's desk. "What I have a problem with is being manipulated. What is it you want, Krycek?"

"I want us to find Johnny. That's all."

"We may have the same agenda for the moment, but you can't pretend we have the same goal. There is no us."

"No?" The voice was suddenly a lot closer. He could feel Krycek's breath against the back of his neck. Mulder tensed his shoulders. The heartbeats that echoed through him sped up. But he didn't expect the gentle sadness of the next words. "Maybe not to you, Mulder. Maybe not to you."

Something inside him snapped, or was released. Dropping the papers he held, he found himself relaxing, shifting backwards just enough that their bodies barely touched. "Why the focus on alien abductions?" he asked the air, keeping his mind on the case, if barely. "Is that just Flagstad's personal obsession? You said it was an issue for him. If Lewis and Grazzini developed this technology in some consortium-owned lab—"

"Not exactly," Krycek told him, wrapping his arm around Mulder's waist and pulling him closer. "I understand it was something of a joint effort." Mulder shook his head, in disbelief more than denial. Warmth shot through him. "And Frankie and Dario were starting to wonder just who was calling the shots, just where they were getting their orders." The words were spoken against the nape of his neck now. "Imagine waking up in the morning and not knowing if you woke up by yourself or through someone else's orders. Imagine hesitating in front of the fridge wondering if that sudden craving for milk and cereal is your own or not. That's what they're doing now. They ran, but they don't know if they're free."

Mulder shivered, and dropped his eyes. He saw the desk, the crumpled papers, and then he saw Blaine Hibbert's ruined face. The next shiver was very different from the first. Putting his own hand on Krycek's, he pulled the arm away and stepped sideways, out of his trapped position between Krycek and the desk. He went out through the back door again and tilted his face towards the clean sunlight, willing it to burn out the darkness and confusion in his mind. There was too much going on. Too much. He had to find Flagstad, had to stop Flagstad, before the man killed Lewis and Grazzini. And if he could find them...

He passed a hand over his face and rubbed at his temples. He still had a headache; nothing like yesterday's, but grating and persistent in its own small way. And his throat and the inside of his nose felt scraped and raw. It was very annoying. He wanted to be able to overlook personal discomforts, to concentrate on what was important, but there was too much that might be important. The single-minded focus he wanted to achieve eluded him.

There was no sound to warn him, but when he turned his head he saw, as he had known he would, Krycek standing next to him, eyes narrowed against the bright light. The sunshine picked out a few unexpected reddish highlights in his dark hair. "Who are you working for now?" Mulder asked. Krycek looked startled. "Last time I saw you, your former employer was trying to get you killed. Who are you working for now?"

"Myself," Krycek said with a tight smile. Then he shrugged and amended that to, "Mostly myself." The smile turned into a rueful grin. "I suppose I'm really working for you, now."

Mulder stared at the other man in disbelief. "And what happens when we find Flagstad?"

"Do I look like an oracle to you?" Krycek shrugged, flung his arm out with as much eloquence as he could muster. "As long as he's stopped, I don't particularly care how. Mulder, I know you see plots and conspiracies everywhere, and it's a good thing, it's kept you alive so far, but I don't have a hidden agenda here." The sunlight shot Krycek's eyes through with lucent green. "To coin a phrase, what you see is what you get. If you want it."

When he breathed deep, the scent here was the same as the one that had so delighted him when he'd stepped off the plane, the eucalyptus tang in the air, and the dusty sunny quality that could not be pinned down and named, but was uniquely of this place. Even knowing that the room on the other side of the wood chip-covered wall stank of blood could not entirely choke out his spontaneous need not only to breathe this air but to enjoy it. The small pleasure was controllable, a check against what rose up in him, wild and wordless and struggling, at Krycek's words.

What he finally said was, "I need to think." It could have meant any number of things, and it was certainly true, however it was interpreted. Krycek nodded, serious but somehow with a hint of a smile somewhere, and went across the yard to the spot where Flagstad had disappeared. After a few moments he vaulted easily, silently over the fence.

Mulder folded himself up to sit on the ground — hard-packed dirt, drying and cracked, barely enough to support the shrubs and the grass and the irrepressible California poppies. He leaned back against one of the plastic chairs and tried to relax his shoulders, his thoughts. Eventually he unfocused himself and waited to see what would float up to the top of his mind. Feathers, a soft rain of white feathers.

Lewis and Grazzini had chosen the right place to hide out, if they were as paranoid as Krycek had said, as close to flipping out completely as Krycek had hinted. No one in that particular community would think them strange for what they were doing. Mulder wondered if he could find them before Flagstad did. They wouldn't be inclined to trust him either, of course, but if they did, oh, if they did... his mind, as it sometimes did without warning, unrolled a perfect fantasy for him, of solid evidence at last and lab reports stamped with FBI seals and Senate hearings and Washington Post headlines, CNN interviews, shadow governments dragged into the light screaming and kicking, burned to ashes like vampires in a horror flick.

Then he had to laugh a little, painfully, bitterly.

First he had to find Flagstad. He had miscalculated once already, and Blaine Hibbert had paid the price for that miscalculation. Mulder broke off a dry grass stalk and twisted it around his fingers, watching the way it folded into crisp segments, large and small. He knew more now. More about how Flagstad's rigid mindset had produced a need for magical thinking and behavior, more about what Flagstad thought his acts would accomplish.

And he was becoming very certain that he did not want to run the risk that Flagstad might find Lewis and Grazzini before he did. Flagstad did not consider what he had done to the victims so far to be torture, only a necessary procedure; he had done everything he could to make it possible for his victims to rise again, innocent and reborn. And Mulder thought he could imagine what Flagstad would do to the ones who were, in his mind, tainted. The ones who had dared to run to his city and pollute it with their presence.

How many more victims? The pattern was becoming clear. It all depended on whether Flagstad intended Lewis and Grazzini to be the last couple, or not. Mulder thought he might. The new uncertainty he felt made him reluctant to say, even in the privacy of his own mind, that it was so — but he would have to say it out loud soon enough. He had to recapture that elusive feeling of understanding.

A distant thud had to be the front door to the house thrown open. Mulder stayed where he was, barely half his attention on monitoring the newcomers' progress through the house by footsteps and curses. It was Scully who first came out the back door and caught sight of him. "Mulder!" She walked over to him and crouched down quickly, and he looked up and smiled to ward off the question he knew would follow. "Are you all right?" she said anyway, because he was sitting on the ground staring at nothing when he should have been in the hospital resting like a good boy. "Where's Krycek?"

"He's around here somewhere." Mulder gestured vaguely.

"The autopsies showed nothing new," Scully said as she straightened up again and offered him a hand up that he didn't take. She raised an eyebrow at him as he got to his feet on his own. "It seems clear that he's using a blunt, slightly rusty metal implement on their faces — we found another small metal fragment in one of the wounds where it had grated against bone. I've sent it to be analysed, but since we know who we're looking for, I don't think tracing an object, whatever it is, that he's probably owned for years is going to help us find him."

Mulder nodded his agreement while he brushed dirt and grass from the seat of his pants. "Scully, I've got some more information, Krycek told me some things that—" He broke off as Martin Yun came out to join them. "Don't say it, Martin. I'm not any happier about being two steps behind this killer than you are, and you know it."

The scowl on Yun's face surpassed all his previous efforts. "Who was that kid?" He jerked his head towards the house. "Is the killer changing his MO now?"

"No." Mulder felt himself tense up; it was showtime. Again. "That's Blaine Hibbert, who ran a network for abductees. I interviewed him last night. He's the one who gave us Flagstad's name. This murder isn't part of the cycle, it was simple expediency. Flagstad wanted something and Hibbert had it."

"Yeah? What did he want?"

"An address list for the group."

"Shit." Yun cursed softly. He seemed to have lost his inhibitions around Scully, Mulder noticed with a certain amusement. "Where's that Vegas bandit of yours? I thought you were keeping him on a short leash."

Let go and he disappears... Mulder shook his head. "He's here somewhere, don't worry about it. Scully, did you take a look at the body? It looks straightforward enough. I think Hibbert was forced down in the chair with the gun to his head, and then Flagstad just pulled the trigger."

"Probably." She led the way back inside the house, tossing comments over her shoulder. "The splatter pattern indicates that he had his head turned towards the left; we've already established that Flagstad is right-handed. I doubt he left anything behind here either in the way of trace evidence, but..."

"Some of the blood got on him," Mulder said, "but he's probably washed it off by now. There's a smear on the fence at the back that might hold a fingerprint."

"I doubt we can ID him that way," Yun grouched.

"He might be on record under another name," Scully said, displacing a man who looked rather put out at it and bending close to inspect the entrance wound at the back of Hibbert's head. She was using what Mulder thought of as her teacher voice, the one that had made students at Quantico tremble. "Not necessarily his real name, but if we find an alternate identity for him, we might find another way to trace him." She straightened up again and looked at the computer screen. "Pigeons? Was Hibbert—?"

"No," Mulder stepped forward next to her. "We were doing a bit of research." The look she turned on him would have made the students at Quantico duck and run. "I didn't mess anything up, Scully. And I think we found the place where Flagstad gets his feathers."

She nodded, returning her attention to the information displayed on the screen. After a moment she said, "And I suppose you want to go there straight away."

"I'd like you to go there, Scully. It's not far, you can be up there in less than an hour — if the traffic isn't too bad," he amended. "Take Krycek with you, you seem to be getting along so well with him." Mulder dug into his pocket for the car keys. "Just let me get my cell phone back from him first."

Scully looked at him suspiciously, refusing to be sidetracked. "And what are you going to do, Mulder?"

"Sit down and think," he said. "I need to work with what we've got so far. I have a feeling I'm missing something, something that's right there in front of me." He'd dropped his voice to an intense whisper, unwilling to give Yun even this much. The need for silence and solitude burned in him.

"All right." On some issues she was willing to cooperate with his hunches, his instincts — the profiling of serial killers was one of them. Perhaps it was because she could not deny that whatever it was he did, it worked.

They had to move, as the team working the site started to snap photographs of the room. Moving back towards the hallway, Mulder looked over Yun's shoulder and saw the front door open. Krycek came inside and walked right up to them, flushed and a little breathless from running. "He had a car parked two blocks down," he said without preamble. "I found another blood smear on a lamp post, and a woman who saw a tall brown-haired man carrying a bundle of papers." He handed a note to Martin Yun, perfectly serious. "Ms. Emerson, at—"

"Mulder, get this goddamn Hardy boy away from me," Yun requested. Mulder couldn't really blame him; Yun wasn't used to criminals who pulled their own weight in an investigation.

Sorting themselves out was a complicated procedure that went far too slowly for Yun's taste, that much was clear. Mulder took the chance to pull Scully aside and fill her in on what Krycek had been telling him about the Consortium project and the two runaways Flagstad was presumably looking for. As he might have guessed, she was skeptical of the idea of behavior-controlling implants, but admitted that most of the information seemed to fit in with Flagstad's MO.

"Does Krycek have any idea of where these people are — if they're really hiding out in the Bay Area, if they're actually part of Hibbert's group?"

"You have all afternoon to ask him," Mulder said, feeling a little smug at the thought of Scully painstakingly trying to extract the information. "And to follow up on it if he tells you anything that looks promising." He rubbed the back of his hand against his forehead; he felt a little gritty still.

"Are you sure you're all right, Mulder?" Scully looked up at him with a mixture of concern and exasperation. "You never went to the hospital, did you."

"I'm okay. And I'll spend the rest of the day sitting down," he reminded her. She nodded grudgingly.

Eventually Scully and Krycek went out to the rental car and took off, and Mulder, phone back in his pocket where it belonged, waited for Yun to stop supervising the crime scene team, who didn't need it and tried not to show how much they resented it. Shaking his head slowly, Mulder wondered what had Yun so frazzled. It wasn't as if they hadn't made any progress on the case. They had a name, they had leads, they were going somewhere.

And three people were dead, unnecessarily, but that was Mulder's fault, not Yun's. His conclusions had come too slowly, and had been inaccurate to an almost criminal degree. He needed some time alone to think, to straighten everything out. He stood leaning in the doorway to Blaine Hibbert's house, watching the street and listening with half an ear to the fuss going on behind him, and wondered how Scully and Krycek would get along and what they'd find in Marin. Scully had looked so surprised when he'd asked her to go.

Mulder would have liked to go along himself, to see what could be discovered through that route. But he had to work on his profile. By himself. Or at least well away from Alex Krycek. Not that Krycek's input hadn't been useful.

"You ready to go, Spooky?"

It was obviously an unnecessary question, but Mulder refrained from snapping out an annoyed answer. The tension between him and Martin Yun ran high enough as it was. He just shrugged, and moved out onto the sidewalk. It was hot. He'd already taken his suit jacket off and carried it over one shoulder, hiding the gun holster. Yun's car was parked across the street, in front of a fire hydrant that Mulder had to maneuver around in order to get into the passenger seat. He really wanted something to drink, but a sideways look at Yun's tight mouth told him that it wasn't the right moment to make frivolous requests. On the other hand...

"I need a Coke," he said. "Stop down at the corner there, I'll run in and get a few things."

Surprisingly enough, the expression on Yun's face lightened. "All right." They rolled down the street slowly, pulled over again. "Get me one too. And a couple of—"

"Dove bars," Mulder filled in, getting out and fishing around for his wallet. He added a few items from the chocolate food group for himself, too; what Scully didn't see him eat wouldn't hurt him. When he got back again, something like harmony was achieved as they both headed for the bliss of a sugar high. Yun's driving grew more mellow under the influence, and Mulder felt unexpectedly relaxed. Not until they were on the bridge did he say, "I need you to stop by Union Square. I want to pick my laptop up from the hotel room, then you can find me a quiet corner somewhere."

Yun nodded. He finished his Coke and dumped the can on the floor. "So, Spooky, that guy Krycek was your partner for a while?" Mulder nodded, surprised at the question before he realized Yun was just leading into something. "I noticed you couldn't wait to send him off with Scully just now. So you didn't know all that time you were working with a goddamn cocksucker."

It was half statement, half question. Mulder leaned back in his seat and considered the other agent. He thought about, and rejected, half a dozen replies before settling on a mild, "I forgot to hand out the sexual preferences questionnaire that day."

"He was probably checking out your ass the whole time."

"That's what you used to say about the secretarial pool," Mulder said, remembering back to those days. "Of course, when it was the secretarial pool you were jealous, and when it was Michelle—"

Yun turned his head to glare. "What about Michelle?"

Mulder met that look, held it. "How are the kids, Martin?"

"Fuck." Yun slammed his hand against the steering wheel and wrenched his attention back to what he was doing. He didn't speak another word as he crossed Mission and Market and negotiated his way around Union Square. Mulder didn't say anything either. He got out of the car and walked up to the hotel. The laptop was right where he'd left it on the floor of his room, and on his way out he checked with the desk clerk that the clothes had been delivered to the hospital. Yawning, she said that yes sir, they had, and she was about to go off shift and crash. Mulder smiled and returned to the car. Yun drove on in silence. Not until they were in the underground parking garage and the engine was turned off, leaving only the heavy rattle of large fans, did Yun turn his head to look at Mulder again. "Doesn't it bother you?"

"About Michelle?" Mulder drawled, as obnoxiously as he could. "No, Martin, I can't say that it bothers me exactly."

Yun's jaw clenched. "Having that queer around. Come on, Mulder. Isn't that why you sent him off with Scully?"

"No." Mulder started to open the car door, then turned back. "You were an uptight son of a bitch when I first met you, Martin. What I don't understand is how you can still be an uptight son of a bitch after five years with Michelle Sargent. I'm here to help you with a case, not to get you past your hangups, but I can tell you this, Alex Krycek was a good agent. That was all I cared about when he was my partner. Now he's a crucial witness, and that's—"

Mulder couldn't make himself say that that was all he cared about now. He got out and slammed the door on whatever comment Yun had been about to make. It would be pointless to ask Yun to find him a place to work. Mulder went to the elevators, not surprised to find that Martin Yun stayed in the car rather than join him. There was still unfocused anger prickling between his shoulder blades — anger liberally laced with shame. Going up, he mocked himself ruthlessly for his lack of courage.

The first person he met when he came out into the corridor was Spelling, who greeted him with a scowl and a resigned, "So I hear you found us another dead body."

"Yes, sir." Mulder fell into step beside Spelling; he didn't know where the man was going, but he wasn't going to be standing by the elevators when Martin Yun came along. "This death isn't part of the pattern, though. It's a one-off — a poor guy who just happened to be in the way."

Spelling shot him a heavy look from under tufty grey eyebrows. "And can you guarantee that there won't be any more poor guys who just happen to be in the killer's way in the future, Agent Mulder?"

"I can't guarantee anything. Sir." Mulder glanced sideways and found that Spelling was looking mildly expectant rather than angry. Defused, surprised, he went on in a softer voice, "But if you give me an empty room and a few hours to myself I'll see what I can come up with."

"I hope it's something good," Spelling said, but Mulder didn't feel the same kind of pressure coming from him as from Martin Yun. Spelling had been around a lot longer, and his career didn't hang on this one case. Or maybe it was just that Spelling expected less from Mulder. There was a thought to deflate his ego. Martin Yun's faith in him might be exasperating, but it was also, in its own way, flattering.

Spelling handed him over to a junior agent who in her turn parked him in a glorified broom closet that held a desk, a tiny window and a non-functional desk light, shot him a bright smile, and vanished. Mulder looked around, put his laptop on the desk, closed the door, and sprawled into the chair. After a couple of minutes he discovered that the air conditioning wasn't working, and got up again to open the window. It creaked down a couple of reluctant inches, and let in a blast of warm city air spiced with exhaust fumes. Mulder dropped his suit jacket across the back of the chair, rolled up his shirt sleeves, loosened his tie, and sat down to work.

It was easier when you started from the beginning. Johnny Flagstad's father had been in the army once. Then he'd turned a hobby into a profession and raised carrier pigeons, swift bright-eyed messengers, racing through the skies fast as thought, fast as lightning. They always knew where they were and where they were going. The boy had stood on the ground and watched them, marvelled at the way they could find their way, while his father told him that they navigated by landmarks, by magnetic fields, by reading the stars. The boy never knew what to believe. It was hard to find your way through the stars. At night when the pale ones took him away, he was always afraid he would never come back, that he would be lost. When his father sold the birds and the family moved out to California, Flagstad made the trip with feathers clutched in one hand. His mother beat him for that.

He grew up in San Francisco and came to love this neat grid of a city almost entirely surrounded by water. But he didn't want to sail, he wanted to fly. Wanted to be a fighter pilot. He'd ruined his eyes reading under the bedcovers, all his father's books. In San Francisco, the pale ones did not touch him any more. He was protected. It was safe, and although he never stopped missing the birds, he accepted this place as his true home. The place where he belonged.

What about his mother, Mulder wondered, what had she been like, what had she said? She had been the one who beat him; his father shouldn't be bothered with minor disciplinary problems. Family life was nothing but rules of conduct, the necessity of maintaining order. And the relentless logic of it. Study hard and you will get an A, clean your room and you will get supper. There was never any doubt that consequence followed action. That was what he had been taught. When Johnny could not be a pilot after all, even though he'd worked for it, the foundations of the universe began to tremble.

Mulder stopped typing for a moment; he'd wrapped his ideas up in neat, professional language, backed them up with pieces of evidence to such an extent that at some points he honestly could not tell if he'd deduced as much from the beginning, or if he'd reasoned backwards from what Krycek had told him. It didn't matter to him right then. He could feel the truth of it now, and it was as reassuring as it was disturbing.

Getting up, he walked over to the window and looked outside. Nothing he could see hinted that the city was haunted by a madman, a killer. The houses looked the same and the people looked the same, the bustling life and energy out there were ordinary and predictable. Almost all the victims had been born outside San Francisco, in several cases out of state entirely. He wondered if Gutierrez and Penttiniemi had been a last-minute substitution for some other pair. A short fair woman, a tall dark man. The perfect romance novel couple. They should have called Flagstad the Harlequin killer.

He propped his arms against the window's edge and leaned out as far as he could. There was a ledge down there, if it turned out he was locked in here and had to escape somehow. He could get over to the fire escape, it wasn't far — ten yards, maybe—

Mulder shook his head, pulled himself back inside the small room and went to the desk. The laptop hummed expectantly at him. He sat down, flexed his fingers like a concert pianist, and went back to writing.

Several hours later, he looked at what he had accomplished, shook his head again, and sighed. It was too long. It was too complex. He was writing the story of John Alexander Flagstad's life, not profiling him. For a moment he was tempted to delete it all and start over, but common sense intervened. Mulder scrolled back to the top and started to read. Childhood, teens, failed college studies due to concentration problems, some mental imbalance. His parents had died then, or at least his mother. Leaving San Francisco, convinced that the flashes of childhood memories were nothing but nonsense. Nightmares, dark dreams of pale figures with large eyes.

There were several years unaccounted for, years when Flagstad would have drifted. Mulder thought he'd probably worked as a security guard, practiced some form of martial arts, probably competed, at least on a state level. They might find records of that, but it wasn't important except as a confirmation. Guns, too. All the trappings.

Why glasses and not contact lenses? Did he only wear the glasses when he was being 'civilian', trying to look harmless? On an impulse, Mulder scooted around in the chair and dug into the pockets of his suit jacket. He got out his own glasses, put them on and tried to see his own reflection first on the computer screen, and then in the window. With. Without. The glasses would remind Flagstad of his initial failure, his inability to achieve his real ambition; but they might also serve as a disguise of what the man thought of as his real self, the inner fighter pilot, the one who knew how to make everything come out right by following the correct procedures. Mulder turned back to his laptop, skipping ahead to the interesting bits.

When Flagstad returned to the US in the company of Luis Cardinale, he would have been a trained killer, a controlled, self-contained man whose mind had buried childhood memories of abductions so far down that they were nothing but distant nightmares, if that. His interest in controlling his surroundings would have begun to extend into a desire to control the people around him, hence the interest in hypnotism and mind control. His weaknesses would have made him a perfect subject for the consortium's manipulations, and he would have been intensely loyal.

Mulder frowned at the screen, wondering how much to put in, wondering what Scully-the-sensible would say. Then he shrugged, and went on. He could get her input later. Johnny Flagstad's successes at various missions would have brought him closer to the heart of the organization, would have involved him in more sensitive operations.

He'd have to check with Krycek, of course, but Mulder was willing to bet that Flagstad had been one of the men involved in the attempted retrieval of the DAT tape. And somewhere during that little jaunt, memories and reality would have intersected, and Flagstad's controlled facade would have begun to crack. The nightmares would have grown worse and more vivid. Flagstad had tried to deal with the problem on his own, to keep his employers from finding out about it.

Instead, he had ended up in a mental hospital, maybe several times, as Krycek had said. Obviously Flagstad had recovered enough to be at his employers' disposal eventually — only to be given this mission, that of tracking down two people who had voluntarily put the implants into their own bodies, experimenting of their own free will with Flagstad's childhood terror. And then they had fled to the city that Flagstad thought of as his, his sanctuary, his refuge, his sacred place where evil could not touch him.

Mulder stretched, rolled his shoulders and then his neck. His muscles ached, and he wanted coffee. Venturing out of his isolation cell to wander the corridors, he found not only coffee but a vending machine that provided him with a couple of greasy, plastic-wrapped, God-knew-how-old pastries. Despite the usual rush all around, a lot of which had to be attributed to the search for Flagstad, no one came to ask him how he was doing. Mulder wondered about that: it seemed like an extension of the strange way Yun and Spelling were treating him.

His position in the investigation was unusual to say the least, he had to admit that. He was here at Yun's request, and Spelling had not only agreed to but encouraged his presence. At the same time, there was no real sense of cooperation. There wasn't one investigation going on here, but two. Sipping at his coffee as he went back to his room, Mulder had to admit that that was as much his and Scully's fault as Yun's and Spelling's. Yun and Spelling might be reluctant to make full use of him, but Mulder was equally reluctant to take them completely into his confidence. Particularly now that Alex Krycek had appeared, complicating everything to the nth degree.

Mulder kicked the door shut behind him, put the coffee and pastries down on the desk and sat again, stretching his legs out. He looked sideways at the screen. It was all there. Now he needed to produce an edited version in the right language, for Spelling and Yun to play with. No. Now he needed to think about what Johnny Flagstad would do next. That was the whole point of this little exercise, wasn't it? Not to write the man's biography but to deduce his thought patterns, apply a behavioral model to his actions. Mulder felt unpleasantly conscious that he was delving a little too deeply into Flagstad, into Flagstad's life. He lifted his hands, dropped them. Once he'd stopped typing, he'd become aware of how much his sprained left wrist hurt.

The cell phone rang and he got it out, grabbing the coffee mug with the other hand. "Mulder."

"Mulder, it's me. Krycek was right, this is where Flagstad bought his feathers. He used a different name, but the description was clear enough. And Mulder — he used a credit card." There was barely suppressed excitement in Scully's voice. "I've called in the number, they're running a check now."

"If we're lucky he's used it to pay for his room," Mulder mused. He thought about pointing out that he was the one who'd found that address, not Krycek. "Or bought groceries, something stupid like that, a new shirt, whatever. If he doesn't think we have any chance of tracing that identity, there's no reason he won't have used that card for all his transactions. What name is he going by now?"

"Jack Colquitt. According to Krycek, it's a cover identity that gets passed around — hold on a minute—" He waited, straining to hear the conversation on the other end but unable to make out more than just the sound of Scully's brisk comments and Krycek's husky voice replying. Mulder got up and started to walk around the desk. He wondered if Flagstad would keep to his timetable, or if the man was feeling rattled enough by the attention the case had gotten to try to speed things up. Krycek's voice disappeared with the sound of a door closing. "Mulder, are you still there?"

"Yeah. I was just thinking, if I'm right, Flagstad doesn't care about the media, or the FBI, as such. He won't have tried to get involved in the investigation, he doesn't watch the news to see what they're saying about him. There's no stress factor of that kind, so he probably won't change his pattern because of anything we do—"

"But he does care about the FBI," Scully said. "Or he wouldn't have sent that feather."

"No, but I think that's more personal." Mulder leaned against the desk, braced himself with his left hand, and jerked upright again as pain shot through his wrist. "Considering who his employers are, Flagstad has to know who we are. It could be a taunt, an insult."

"I suppose so," Scully said reluctantly. "So you think he'll try to make his next kill on schedule, the night after tomorrow. That means we have roughly thirty-six hours to find him, or at least to identify his intended victims." She sighed, a barely audible sigh. "We've called in the credit card number, all we can do is wait for a trace." Mulder didn't feel up to sorting through who was who in those 'we's. "As to the possible victims, was anything retrieved from Blaine Hibbert's apartment that might be useful?"

"I don't know," Mulder admitted. "I'll, uh, go talk to Martin again, see if I can get anything out of him."

"Did you have a fight with him?" Scully sounded resigned.

"Scully, I'm shocked. Do you really think I'm unprofessional enough to have a fight with a colleague that I'm working with on a sensitive case? We just had a small disagreement, that's all."

He could hear her smile. "I see. We — hold on—" There was more background noise as the door opened again and she conferred briefly with Krycek. "We're coming back into the city now. We'll stop by and pick you up for," there was another short pause, "either a very late lunch or a very early dinner." She dropped her voice. "And Mulder, I want to talk to you privately later."

"All right," he said, too surprised to do anything but agree. When he'd started to think of questions, she had already hung up. It couldn't be something that was critical to the case, she would have told him that straight away — unless she thought that Krycek was involved, and was trying to keep the information from him? Then Mulder shook his head. If Scully thought Krycek were involved, Krycek would be behind bars by now.

Maybe, he speculated, it had something to do with the personal matter she had been reluctant to talk to him about earlier. But why would that suddenly be so important? She had given every sign, yesterday — had it really only been yesterday? — of wanting to drop the topic, preferably forever. He put the phone away, finished his coffee, saved the Flagstad file to a disk that went into his pocket and shut the laptop down, putting all the things under his personal, immediate control in order. Then he shrugged on his suit jacket, picked up the laptop and headed out to find Martin Yun.

As luck would have it, Yun was exactly where he should be. He sat leaning back in his chair, feet on his desk perilously close to a full mug of coffee, glaring up at the ceiling. Mulder pushed a pile of papers aside, noting as he did so that Yun had not grown any neater in the intervening years, and perched on the edge of the desk. "Martin."

Yun rolled his head and yawned in a demonstrative fashion before giving Mulder a black look. "If you've come to apologize—"

"Don't worry about that, Martin," Mulder growled. "It'll be a cold day in hell and you know it. All I want to know is how the case is going. What did the team find? Did Hibbert keep a backup of the address list on his computer? Or a hard copy that Flagstad missed?"

"If he did, we haven't found it." Yun re-crossed his legs at the ankles. "But we did find Hibbert's personal address book, with all of three addresses in it. His mother, his old scout group leader, and one Angelica Roe, who according to her helped Hibbert run his group. She's with Agent Sedley now, making a list and evaluating the group members according to your criteria for possible victims."

"Martin," Mulder smiled evilly, "I could kiss you."

"Not unless you brush your teeth first, Spooky." Yun held out a hand for his coffee mug, a low-level peace overture that Mulder responded to before he even knew he was doing it. "Thanks. We've also ID'd the victims from this morning, Louise Hofmayer and Victor Thomas Laforge."

The names Krycek had already given them. Mulder nodded, unsurprised. "And they were members of Hibbert's group?"

"Some group, anyway," Yun said. That also fit with what Krycek had said. "So what've you got? Anything?"

"Scully's found the place where Flagstad got the feathers. He used a credit card—"

"Idiot," Yun broke in, pleased. "I knew he'd screw up sooner or later. She have that fag ex-partner of yours with her?" Then he looked up and met Mulder's eyes. "So why the hell do you care so much? That guy screwed you over, screwed the whole FBI over. I could think of worse things to call him."

Mulder sighed. "Do you remember when we were in that bar in Tulsa and the waitress spilled a drink on you and you refused to give her a tip? She blew up and called you a slant-eyed yellow-skinned flat-nosed tight-fisted bastard."

Yun chuckled. "Yeah. She yelled at me for five minutes, then you yelled at her for at least fifteen, over half of which you spent quoting the Constitution, Tom Paine, and Martin Luther King. Finished up by saying that—" He broke off and looked at Mulder.

"That you were a tight-fisted bastard," Mulder said.

They looked at each other under the harsh glare of the fluorescent light; no late afternoon sunshine spilled in here, the window faced north. Yun looked tired, his tie was as crooked as Mulder's own, and there were lines around his eyes that hadn't been there seven years ago. Mulder let his eyes drop to Yun's hands. No, he wasn't wearing a wedding ring, nor was there a pale untanned circle to hint that one had been worn at some point. As he watched, the hand around the coffee mug flexed slowly, clenched, relaxed.

Mulder waited a few moments longer, then stood and stretched, grabbed the laptop and headed for the door. At least he could count on Yun to tell him if anything came up in the list Angelica Roe was putting together, no matter how things stood between them personally. Yun wanted to solve the case too badly to let a small thing like a disagreement with a fellow agent get in his way.

It wasn't until his hand was on the doorknob that Yun said something. "Spooky." Mulder stopped, but didn't turn around. "About Michelle..." For the first time since they'd met again, there was something tentative in Yun's voice, something raw and insecure and vulnerable. Mulder closed his eyes. He didn't need this; he didn't want this.

"I don't care," he said. "I hope you're happy. I don't see any reason why you shouldn't be happy."

"Yeah. No. But I'd appreciate it if you didn't tell—"

"Fuck it, Martin!" He did turn now, caught up in exasperated anger. "I told you, I don't care. I don't blackmail anyone, not even you. And I don't make judgment calls on other people's private lives." Mulder watched Yun's eyes; saw, to his amazement, that the words actually hit home. "Think about it for ten seconds," he suggested. "That might be all it takes."

He opened the door and went outside, walking rapidly down the corridor. The physical reactions to anger were there, heartbeat and breathing quickened, but not too much. He was used to frustration. Mulder pulled his cell phone out and willed Scully to tell him that she was waiting outside now. Food would be a good idea, and getting out of here would also be a good idea. He thought he had already gotten all the "Spooky Mulder? You've come to look at our homegrown San Francisco aliens?" comments he was going to get, the first time he'd been up here, but he wasn't in a mood to test his luck.

Nor did he particularly want to talk to Spelling again, so when he saw the SAC approaching he dodged back into his assigned little cubicle, only to realize he'd gotten himself trapped. This was, Mulder thought to himself, the moment when he stripped to his SuperAgent tights and tried out that ledge escape he'd been planning before.

But Spelling, when he entered, was in a quiet, contemplative, friendly mood. "I understand your partner made some useful discoveries today. Between that credit card number, and the work Agent Sedley is putting in on tracing the other members of Hibbert's, ah, abductee network," give the man some credit, only one eyebrow twitch, "I believe we have a good chance of finding the killer. Yes." Spelling nodded to himself. He peered at Mulder from under his bushy eyebrows. "Yun told me you'd been in the hospital again — with that head injury from the day before yesterday? You should probably get some rest."

"I'm fine, sir," Mulder said instantly. "It was just a check-up."

"You've been working on the profile? Can you think of any other angle we should try?"

Looking past Spelling into the misty landscape of conjecture where Johnny Flagstad currently lived, Mulder said, "I believe Flagstad took his name from his mother's side of the family. If you can find out whether anyone by that name who's lived in San Francisco had a relative called John Alexander — I realize it's a long shot, but—"

Spelling was already nodding. "I'll put someone on that, or do you want to— No. You go get something to eat." The SAC actually smiled at him. "We'll call you or Agent Scully if there are any developments."

His phone chose that moment to ring, and he answered it gratefully. "Mulder."

"Are you ready to go?"

"I'll be down in a minute." He turned back to Spelling. "My partner's waiting for me, sir." Spelling walked with him out into the corridor and towards the elevators. Mulder started to get the uncomfortable feeling that he was being herded. He thought about digging his heels in just for the hell of it, but he was hungry and he wasn't sure what he might be able to accomplish by staying, beyond annoying Spelling, that was. The SAC stayed by his side until he stepped into the elevator; the last thing Mulder saw before the doors closed was Spelling's benevolent smile.

Maybe, he reflected to himself during the ride down from the thirteenth floor, he was just additionally paranoid from having worked under Skinner for so long. The idea of Skinner smiling at him and telling him to go eat dinner left him chuckling as he got out.

Scully was waiting right outside the doors. It seemed that she and Krycek had also stopped by the hotel at some point; she was wearing fresh clothes, and she'd done something to her hair. But Mulder also saw the dark circles under her eyes; she hadn't gotten much sleep during the past night. Maybe they could make this an early night, unless something turned up. Remembering his thoughts on first coming to San Francisco, that Scully could spend most of her time resting and shopping, Mulder had to shake his head. She raised one eyebrow at him, but he just shook his head again and went with her to the car.

Krycek occupied the passenger seat, so Mulder climbed in the back, feeling rather put out. He put the laptop down on the floor and leaned forward between the seats. "Where are we going?"

"Gabriel Reeves recommended a place in North Beach," Scully said, consulting a note and then putting it back in her pocket.

"You mean real food?" Mulder smiled at her in the rearview mirror. His stomach gave a discreet growl around the remnants of the vending machine danishes. He subsided into his seat as they took off, and listened to Scully and Krycek argue politely about the best route to where they were going. They must have been doing this a lot during the afternoon, otherwise they wouldn't have sounded so comfortable about it. "When did you talk to Reeves about restaurants?" he interjected into a pause in the discussion.

"He called me to ask why the APB on Krycek had been cancelled. Seems Yun never told him." Scully was leaning forward as she spoke, reading street signs. She flicked a quick sideways glance at Krycek. "I think we may have ruined your reputation in your favorite bar forever."

Krycek shrugged, but didn't say anything. The conversation died out, and by the time Scully had found the restaurant and a nearby parking spot, the silence between the three of them had grown curiously tense. Mulder decided to ignore it. He wanted food. He wanted to sit down and forget about John Flagstad for a while. They went inside and were shown to a table. Looking around at the clichéd Italian restaurant interior, Mulder wondered about Reeves's taste. At least the red and white table cloth was clean, and there wasn't too much accumulated dust on the Chianti bottles or the picture frames.

Before the waiter could leave, Mulder ordered garlic bread and beer; then he looked at Scully and requested mineral water as well. The waiter suggested wine. Mulder repeated his order for beer. A softly chuckling Krycek placated everyone involved by mentioning Anchor Steam. Settling back into his chair, Mulder shook his head. "I hate places where the waiters tell you what to order."

"There's a Burger King three blocks down," Scully informed him coldly. "You can just start walking—"

"I don't want to go to Burger King. I just want to gripe and grouse for a while." Mulder made a face. "Scully, I just spent five hours trying to get inside Flagstad's head, and I feel like my brain needs a shower. I'm not in a mood to be ordered around by waiters."

She looked at him for a while, and the chill was replaced by simple thoughtfulness. "Maybe you should have a double order of garlic bread," she said finally.

"I don't know about that, but I'm pretty sure I'll have another beer."

There was only one menu, and it was in Italian. Before Mulder could start to complain about that, though, Krycek took it away from him and started to translate. When the waiter returned with the beer, water and garlic bread, he looked surprised but not displeased to find them ready to order. Mulder pounced on the garlic bread as soon as he could; he probably would have wolfed it down regardless of how it tasted, but had to admit that it was really good.

Scully watched him and smiled. "It's good to see that you have your appetite back," she said. "You wouldn't even touch food yesterday."

"Have some too," he said, pushing the plate at her. "You'll regret it if you don't, we'll be breathing garlic in your face for hours. This way you can get even."

By the time the bread was gone, Mulder and Krycek had both finished their beers as well. Mulder was feeling less grouchy, and the arrival of his second beer and a large plate of tagliatelle verde con vongole did much to improve his view of the world in general and this restaurant in particular.

Scully eyed her plate suspiciously. "You didn't tell me that it was a cream sauce." Krycek just grinned at her, and eventually she accepted that it wouldn't kill her, and started eating.

They didn't talk much during the meal. Mulder didn't want to deal with the by now oddly familiar conflict of having to decide how much to tell Krycek about the case. Admittedly Krycek was already in the middle of the case, and knew as much as anyone else about it, but Mulder was well aware that it definitely wasn't standard operating procedure to sit in a restaurant with a known felon — that phrase again — and discuss an ongoing murder investigation with him.

And never mind that they'd done it before. That time, the circumstances had been different; the ghosts of Krycek's parents were laid to rest now. This case wasn't as rawly personal, Krycek didn't have that wounded look any more. Still, Mulder doubted that the effects of a childhood like that would have been undone by whatever peace Krycek had found in Leyden Creek. If there was one thing he knew, it was that things weren't that easy.

He concentrated on his food. Scully and Krycek didn't seem to feel any impulse towards small talk either. The waiter brought them more beer without being asked, but Mulder couldn't bring himself to complain about it. He wanted more beer, and more food, and some quiet time away from Yun and Spelling. In fact, he was toying with the idea of getting drunk, but knew he wouldn't. He hadn't gone beyond taking the edges off his sobriety for years. The usual reason he gave himself was that you never knew when weirdness would strike, in his line of work, and he wanted to be in control of his own actions when it did. Or as much in control as the weirdness in question would let him be.

Eventually he sat back in his chair, replete, almost completely content, and looked at the two others. Krycek was winding spaghetti strands around his fork with neat turns of the wrist, his face expressing nothing beyond mild pleasure. Scully had given up on the cream sauce, but she'd finished most of it. Now she looked back at Mulder, a message in her eyes. She wanted to talk to him. Fine. What were they supposed to do, cuff Krycek to the table and go for a walk? He smiled back at her with unhelpful friendliness.

It was Krycek who broke the silence, putting his fork down with a deliberate clatter and leaning forward to get their attention. "So what are you going to do with me now?" he asked.

"What do you mean?" Scully sounded as though that very question hadn't been at the top of her mind just moments ago. "Technically, your status is unorthodox at the moment, but if you think we'll let you disappear before this investigation is over, you're wrong. I wouldn't hesitate to lock you in a cell myself if I thought that was the best way to keep you here."

"No, I don't think you'll let me disappear." Krycek was wearily amused. "So what are you going to do with me? Let me go back to my apartment overnight?" Then one of his eyebrows twitched. "That's probably not a good idea, unless you want to get rid of me permanently. Any other suggestions?"

Mulder leaned back in his chair. He ignored the glass and sat drinking Anchor Steam out of the bottle, watching the two of them. They were both so collected, so cool and aware of what they did and said. The verbal sparring between them sounded like a game to Krycek, an interesting intellectual exercise to Scully. With the taste of beer in his mouth, he could almost hear a sports commentator trying to pick out the finer points for him.

"Perhaps the best thing to do would be to put you in a cell overnight," Scully suggested.

"And find me dead in the morning?"

She acknowledged that by flicking the hair out of her eyes. "Maybe there's a free room at our hotel."

"I don't have any money." Krycek smiled innocently. "And I'd rather not use my credit cards."

"The FBI might pay," Mulder interjected. "Witness protection, and all that."

"That's what you put on your expense claim last time," Scully said. Recalling some of Skinner's more pungent comments, Mulder tried to nod but was afraid it came out as more of a wince. "It won't wash a second time. The idea that we can keep a witness safer than an entire FBI office or police station can is not a popular one, Mulder." The words 'even if it might be true' remained unspoken — and understood.

"Lock me in the bathroom?" Krycek suggested. It wasn't possible that a mere couple of bottles of Anchor Steam could have brought this out in him, but his eyes were bright with barely-suppressed laughter.

"There are two beds in my room," Mulder said, reluctantly. Scully looked at him; he looked back at her, inviting comment. "In yours too?"

The waiter came back, saving him from whatever she had been about to say. Krycek got to his feet and asked for directions to the men's room. When he had left, and the waiter had removed the plates and himself, Scully propped her elbows on the table and regarded Mulder with a silent, steady look that would have unnerved him completely if it hadn't been for the mellowing effects of beer and pasta. "Mulder. We have to talk."

"You're pregnant?"

"Mulder. Be serious. There is," her eyes were so steady that she had to be concentrating to prevent some other expression from breaking through, "there's something about Alex Krycek that I don't think you have considered."

"I don't think so," he said with grim humor.

She clearly didn't believe him, and went on, "I know you said before that you're aware he's gay. But there's more to it than— Last night, when you were ill and he came to help you, I couldn't help noticing that—"

"Noticing what, Scully?" The lost hours in his mind suddenly seemed like a terrifying black gap where anything might have happened. Where he might have said or done things that could have unexpected repercussions.

"That — the way he held you, and the way he talked to you indicated that he might have an — a more personal interest in you." Scully dropped her eyes for a moment, then looked up again. "Normally, I wouldn't mention something like this, Mulder. It has no bearing on the case, and Krycek's private life is his business. But since his position in this investigation is rather unusual, and since you just offered to share your hotel room with him..."

"You think he might try to ravish me in the middle of the night?"

Scully sighed. She might be uncomfortable, but she was stubborn. Mulder wanted desperately to ask her what had happened and what Krycek might have said, but he felt that if he did she would be able to look straight through him and into his mind. So he waited for her to go on, and she said, "No. I'm merely telling you that you might want to take those facts into consideration." Then a corner of her mouth twitched. "If he does try it, you can always bang on the wall and I'll come in and rescue you."

"Thank you," he said gravely. "Do you want dessert?"

"God, no." It was almost a groan. "I haven't eaten such an obscene amount of food in months."

"I could go for some tiramisu," he said to tease her. Then, checking to see that Krycek wasn't back yet, deciding to risk her uncanny ability to read his mind, drawing a deep nervous breath, "Scully, you know I don't remember anything from last night. What was it that made you think Krycek was taking a personal interest in me?"

She shrugged, but it was clearly not because she didn't know. "When we were driving to the hospital, he was holding you and talking to you the whole time. I don't know what he said, and I think most of it was in Russian, but there was something about the way he looked and the way he sounded—" Scully glanced away for a moment. Then she tucked her hair back behind one ear and met his eyes again, her own a little troubled. "Mulder, I don't know if I should have told you this."

"I was there for it," he pointed out a little grouchily, seeing the shape of her Scully-scruples clearly. Concentrating on the irritation made it easier for him to hide everything else he was feeling. "It's just sheer chance that I don't remember. He can't have known for certain that I wouldn't."

"I suppose not." The restaurant wasn't very full, and they both looked up every time they heard the sound of someone approaching their table, but Krycek wasn't coming back yet. "But how do you feel about him now? Would you be more comfortable if we got a separate room for him?"

"Probably," he admitted, with more irony than she knew, "but Skinner would be livid, and my personal funds are a bit stretched right now." He didn't want to go into the issue of how he felt about Krycek.

"We might be able to get around Skinner."

"You might be able to get around Skinner," he corrected her, "but after the way he looked at me last time we met I think I'll save up any remaining credit I have with him until I really need it." It was more than half a joke, and he wasn't sure why Scully was frowning at him that way. Mulder knew that he could easily charge it to the FBI now and worry about it later; knew that if he talked fast enough, he could justify it.

But he wasn't going to do that. Nor was he going to think too closely about his motives, not right this minute. The waiter was hovering in the distance again and Mulder waved him closer, uncertain whether he wanted to order another beer, or some dessert; uncertain also whether he could handle more food. Or more alcohol. Krycek came back, sat down, and promptly ordered the chocolate ice cream, made on the premises. Mulder settled for tiramisu and sobriety. Scully just shook her head. When their desserts arrived, though, she eyed Krycek's ice cream with enough interest that Mulder ordered it for her, too.

"No, Mulder," she said, half laughing, but when it was brought to her, she picked up the spoon. The last tightness in her face eased away as she tasted it. "Reeves did say that the desserts were outstanding."

Mulder leaned over the table and scooped up some of Scully's ice cream with his own spoon. It was dark and rich with flavor, the heavy chocolate subtly contrasted with a touch of orange. "That's pretty good, Scully, want to swap?"

"No." She rapped his knuckles. "You made your choice, Mulder. Get your spoon out of my dessert."

"I bet that would make a great country and western song title."

There were no more attempts to return to serious subjects. Mulder ate half his tiramisu and then decided he couldn't manage another bite. Scully ate half her ice cream and put her spoon down. He looked at her plate, then glanced up at her. She looked back at him sternly. The staring contest could have gone on indefinitely if Krycek hadn't started laughing. He was already making inroads on Scully's ice cream, having finished his own. She looked at him instead, and shook her head. "Where do you put it all?"

"A bank account in Zürich." Their spoons clashed. "Eat your tiramisu, Mulder. You could have ordered ice cream, you know."

"Yeah, but— Scully, what are you doing with my dessert?"

"I just wanted to try it," she said, swallowing quickly. "It's kind of heavy, isn't it?"

When the waiter came back this time he smiled at them as if at a group of unruly children, and served them coffee they hadn't ordered — double espressos all round, Mulder noticed, wondering if it would be enough to counter the food-induced coma that was creeping up on him — and something mysterious in three small glasses. Krycek picked his glass up, sniffed it, and grinned. "Ramazzotti. I think they like us."

Mulder, tasting the amaro, wasn't so sure. But he drank it anyway. Scully tasted hers and then left it to Krycek; he seemed to be the only one who truly appreciated it.

Eventually they had finished everything there was to finish. Mulder and Scully argued desultorily about who was going to pay for it all, and once that was settled, they all looked at each other, hoping someone else would be the first to get up. It had been a long, slow meal, but it was still relatively early in the evening. Mulder didn't want to suggest any course of action. Conscience nagged at him to call in and hear if anything had happened, but he knew Yun would have contacted them if there had been any developments. Krycek was toying idly with his napkin. It was Scully who got to her feet and by sheer force of will dragged them with her.

They got into the car and drove along Columbus, turning right onto Powell to get straight back to the hotel. Mulder had ended up in the passenger seat this time, and he turned around to look at Krycek. "Is the laptop still on the floor back there?"

There was a scuffle, and the tap of fingers against hard plastic. "Yeah. Mulder, you shouldn't leave stuff like this in the car. Your insurance company would—" Krycek broke off and smothered a yawn. "Actually I guess your insurance company is used to you by now."

"It's not my laptop, it's the FBI's," Mulder said, not wanting to get into a discussion of his insurance company — he was not their favorite customer, that much was certain, although considering the premiums they had him paying, he ought to be. "Scully, can I borrow that Stephen Jay Gould collection you didn't have time to read on the plane?"


He let the edge of a whine creep into his voice. "Why not?"

"Because I didn't have time to read it on the plane." Her nostrils flared and whitened as she tried not to become infected by Krycek's yawns. "Curling up with a book is exactly what I had in mind for myself for the rest of the evening." She flicked him an amused look. "I'm sure you can find a bookstore that's open late somewhere around Union Square."

Back at the Anson Place hotel, they were met by a desk clerk who had to be the first one's sister. Mulder decided that he was too tired to go out, whether to look for a bookstore or for anything else. But the caffeine that sang along his nerves was enough to keep him awake for a good long time, even if it didn't stop him from yawning. Going up in the elevator he caught a glimpse of himself in the small, dark mirror. He looked sleepy and rumpled and stupidly dazed, especially contrasted with Scully's bright, compact neatness.

"You wanna come in and watch TV?" he asked her as they got out.

"No." She shook her head, kindly but firmly, and the look she shot him was quietly amused. So she thought that he was uncomfortable about being left alone with Krycek. The awareness that he was uncomfortable about being left alone with Krycek suddenly struck him as more funny than anything else. It was what he had maneuvered towards; it was his own damn fault. "See you tomorrow, Mulder, unless anything happens."

The door shut behind her with a determined click.

Lovers IV: Sheer and clear

"He is my Altar, I his Holy Place;
I am his Guest; and he, my living Food;
I'm his, by Poenitence; He, mine by Grace;
I'm his, by Purchase; He is mine, by Blood" — Quarles, Canticle

"Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfillment." — T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding

Krycek stood waiting patiently while Mulder unlocked the door, and walked in behind him. Putting the laptop down on his bed, Mulder escaped into the bathroom for a few minutes. He splashed cool water on his cheeks, but rubbing himself dry with the towel brought the heat back again. When he came out, Krycek was sitting on the floor with his back against the other bed, staring out the window with a remote expression on his face. In the sudden stillness, there was a serenity about him, a clarity of line and simplicity of appearance that made the breath catch in Mulder's throat. He leaned against the wall and watched in silence.

This one, he thought, this one can't be my enemy. But was it only the quiet poetry of the moment that allowed his thoughts to state such an uncomplicated and probably false idea? They were not on the same side, that much was certain. And Mulder was aware that he did not only mean in the strange tangle of conspiracies, where anyone might be on any side. It was more than that, or less, perhaps. They were not the same. They perceived the world differently. They did not hold the same beliefs about anything. But watching Krycek like this... Mulder shook his head. A knife may be beautiful, and still draw blood. There was no inherent contradiction here.

They hadn't turned the lights on, and outside it was getting dark. When Krycek turned his head, Mulder could nevertheless see his eyes. They were dark, too, and very serious. A wall he had not even been aware of leaning against was removed, quite suddenly, and he was falling again.

"I thought you might be dead," he said, surprised at the sound of his own voice. He looked away from Krycek, stared out the window too, where there was nothing to be seen. "When you were gone, and we knew whoever had killed the Cloughs was still out there somewhere. Scully asked Lou to keep an eye out, tell us if they recovered your body." The words rang flat and unemotional in his own ears; Mulder wondered what they sounded like to Krycek.

"I said I'd send a postcard next time." That made Mulder turn his head again, to find Krycek still watching him, still as solemn. "I had to leave. Things were falling apart." That was me, Mulder thought. I was falling apart. "I didn't want you or Scully to get caught up in it if he decided to come after me again." He shook his head slowly and leaned it back against the bed, breaking the eye contact. "Did you ever find out what was put in storage in Manassas?"

"A lot of junk," Mulder said glumly, straightening up and walking into the room. He hesitated, and finally folded himself up on the floor not too far from Krycek. "No, not junk — some of it was expensive, high-tech laboratory equipment. But there was nothing—"

"Incriminating?" Krycek smiled faintly. It blurred the pure lines of his face, turned him into a more everyday creature. Mulder was relieved. "All the stuff that would have interested you was probably destroyed."

"Probably." He tried not to fidget. It had been a mistake to sit where he couldn't lean his back against anything. Krycek sat unmoving and relaxed; tired, Mulder supposed. But muscles and nerves jumped in his own body. "I want you to take a look at something." He shifted forward onto his knees and pulled the laptop down from the bed. Plugging it in, booting it up, he wondered if he was being efficient or stupid. "Here," he shifted it over in front of Krycek with the Flagstad profile open, "tell me what you think."

Krycek started to read. His face changed from still to absorbed, and he leaned forward, closer to the small screen, eyes flickering over the lines at high speed. Mulder watched him with the same intensity, trying to study the other man the way Krycek was studying the profile. Now that it wasn't as noticeable, he moved, and moved again, and finally got up to sit on his bed. He turned the TV on, and saw Krycek react minutely to the sudden sound and then settle back into reading again.

For a while he went zap-happy with the remote, but when he found a local news program he stayed with it to see what kind of coverage the latest deaths were getting. He'd been lucky, he realized, that neither Spelling nor Yun had thrown him to the press. A dark young woman with somber lipstick was telling him that the city lived in fear of the psychopath who had killed ten people over a period of twenty days. So Blaine Hibbert's death hadn't made the news yet, perhaps because it seemed unrelated.

She pushed a microphone in the face of the Bureau spokesman Mulder recognized from two nights ago and asked what was being done to protect the people of San Francisco from this insane killer. The spokesman said that the Bureau's top profilers were working on the case. Mulder snorted. Then the reporter turned back to the camera and asked, as sincerely as she could manage, "How many more have to die before the date killer is caught?"

I wish I knew, he thought. The images of the couple he had found that morning, Louise Hofmayer and Vic Laforge, rose up before him. Their faces, their ruined faces, joined the others. And Flagstad was stalking the next couple now. Mulder wondered if Angelica Roe would be able to help. Maybe he shouldn't have left it to the unknown Agent Sedley to question her; maybe he should have done it himself, insisted on sitting in at least.

"Are you on a guilt trip again, Mulder?" The voice slid into his thoughts like a cold wave over hot skin. "Taking the whole weight on your shoulders? I've never known anyone else who had the same ability to accept responsibility for failure as you do. No wonder your career is going nowhere."

"Shut up." He didn't want to turn his head, but did anyway, and glared back angrily into Krycek's calm look. His temper was surging in uncertain flares, hacking like a lighter about to run out of fluid. He wasn't sure he could manage one last burst before tiredness overcame him.

"You haven't failed. You're in the middle of this. We'll solve it, Mulder." Krycek had pushed the laptop aside. He was leaning forward on his knees, face serious again, and intent on what he was saying. "I'm sorry I pushed you before. I didn't mean—"

"You didn't mean it?" Mulder wasn't sure why he spoke the words like an accusation. Or exactly what he was asking about.

"I didn't—" Krycek laughed, but there was no joy in it. "I did mean it. But I am sorry. It's just that— Mulder, you're acting like it's your first case, like you're personally responsible for every detail. You've been in enough investigations to know all you can do is your best. You've turned Johnny inside out," he nodded at the computer screen, "you're carrying the whole investigation forward. If it weren't for you and Scully, Yun would still be trying to find me — he wouldn't even know the first thing about Johnny."

"I wouldn't know much either if it weren't for you turning up out of nowhere." And it wasn't as if he'd found Krycek by using his investigative skills, either. The bitter words came spilling out, "I've been in the hospital twice over the past 48 hours, I have two separate cases of minor retrograde amnesia, I was too late to stop the killer this morning, I was too late to prevent Blaine Hibbert's death." He rubbed at his forehead to chase away a lingering remnant of headache, but the gesture did nothing to drain him of responsibility. "And I don't need a pep talk from you."

Mulder wanted to expound on that theme, but his throat hurt. The mellow mood that the food and the beer had brought about was gone, and he missed it. He had also missed his chance at full-scale anger. There was only bitterness now.

"If you think you're screwing up so badly, why don't you back out?" Krycek made it sound like a perfectly reasonable suggestion; his face expressed nothing but polite inquiry."Tell Yun you can't be of any further help to him, pack your bags, go home."

"Are you trying to get me to give this up? Is that it?" Mulder turned on the bed until he faced Krycek, and glared at him. It had no perceptible effect. "They don't want me to find Flagstad because he used to work for them—"

"This morning you thought I wanted to manipulate you into finding him for me. This isn't about any agenda of mine, Mulder. If you think you have nothing to add to this investigation, why don't you want to abandon the case?" Then the cool facade cracked, and Krycek smiled wryly. "I am trying to manipulate you. Use your brain, damn it."

He took a deep breath, held it, counted to ten, let it out. Mulder let himself slide forward off the bed and land on the floor so he could lean back too; he propped his arms on his updrawn knees and let his head hang forward, eyes closed, for as long as it took for the pounding of his heart to grow slower. The urge to lash out was still there, but at least he could acknowledge that it was an extremely unproductive impulse.

"I want you to do something for me," he said finally, quietly. "I know it won't be easy for a lying bastard like you, but I want you to try. Next time you want something, say what you fucking well mean." Mulder looked up and caught the look on Krycek's face: unguarded, rueful, oddly tender. The cutting words in his mouth dried up and blew away. "I need to solve this case," he said instead, keeping his voice soft and level. "Don't play mind games with me."

"I'm not." Their eyes met. "Not much," Krycek amended. "I was just trying to say that I believe in you and that you don't have to do that to yourself. But if you need to feel guilty," Krycek shrugged, "it's up to you."

"I don't need to—" He broke off. Krycek was grinning at him. "You never stop, do you." He shouldn't have hoped for a truce. Shouldn't even have suggested it. And he should still be angry, but something about that grin made him want to return it. "So tell me what you think about that profile."

"All right." Krycek settled himself more comfortably. "As far as I know, you're right on the money. I don't know the details of Johnny's past that well. He didn't talk much about it. But I do know he accidentally found out more than he could handle during that business with the digital tape."

"Was that the first time you realized something was wrong with him?"

"No." Krycek was giving him that annoying smile again, the quiet, amused one. "There's something wrong with all of them. All of us. But that was when he started to crack up. I don't know exactly what happened after that, either — I didn't hang around to find out after he and Luis tried to blow me up."

Mulder raised an eyebrow. "They did? Because you stole the tape?"

"No. I wouldn't have stolen the tape if they hadn't done that. They were trying to wipe out me and it at the same time." Krycek shrugged. "Never mind that now. About Johnny, if this is what he's doing, what he's thinking — where did you put my map?"

"Around here somewhere." Mulder looked at the spot on the floor where he'd dumped the borrowed clothes, then shook his head and started to go through his pockets. He found the map, already starting to fray along the folds, and spread it out on the floor between them, switching on one of the bedside lamps. The spots where John Flagstad had left his victims traced a wavering line around his beloved city, keeping it safe. "I don't think he's following any known occult system." He let his fingers trace the path from first site to last. "And it's nothing as simple as a circle. It seems to be a kind of instinctive logic. Maybe he focuses on sites that are important to him for personal reasons."

"So." Krycek nodded at the map. "So where will he place the next victims? There aren't any obvious gaps. If the pattern is finished, does that mean he's going to try for Frankie and Dario now?"

"Maybe. Most likely, if he can find them." Mulder let his fingers wander across the map, reading it. He squinted, let his vision blur. Patterns. Meandering around the city. Around. "I think whatever happens next will happen somewhere in the center," he said. "The heart of the city. On his ground. His power base. The question is..."

"Where," Krycek filled in for him. He leaned forward over the map, too. "Not the geographical center, that would be too easy. Whatever place he thinks of as being most important of all, that he considers the heart of the city." Green eyes flicked up, shot him a quick look. "Does that make sense?"

"Don't try to to be stupid, it doesn't suit you. Of course it makes sense." Mulder was still staring at the map in an abstracted kind of way. "But where?"

They tossed ideas back and forth for a while, trying to look at the city from Flagstad's point of view. There were several possibilities, none of which could be easily dismissed. Krycek suggested Mount Davidson; Mulder leaned more towards Twin Peaks. But he wasn't sure. The gut-centered feeling of understanding would not come. Instead he listened as Krycek told him more about Flagstad; habits, mannerisms, little preferences, anything he could recall. The details appeared to fit in seamlessly with the profile he'd built up.

"And he tried to hypnotize Luis once," Krycek said with a reminiscent grin. "Luis was furious."

"He seems to have the hang of it now," Mulder muttered.

"I thought you couldn't hypnotize people into doing something they don't really want to do." Krycek pushed his hair out of his face. "Let alone hypnotize them into lying still while you're hacking at their sinuses."

"You have any other suggestions? Remember Augustus Cole?"

"That was different." Krycek looked a little ill at ease.

"Not all that different. Is there anything else you can tell me about Flagstad's interest in mind control?" Mulder hoped for more information that could take him in a different direction, but he thought whatever Flagstad did was probably based in some way on his interest in hypnotism.

After a while, Krycek ran out of suggestions and anecdotes. Mulder sat silent, picking at the fragments of knowledge, the scraps of fact, trying to tease further meaning from them. He thought about rapping on the connecting door and asking Scully to come in and join the discussion. She knew Flagstad in her own way, from what he did to people and how he did it, and her different perspective might be just what was needed here. But she'd looked tired even before they came here, and she'd wanted to read her book, and... and she'd think he didn't want to be alone with Krycek.

Looking up again, he found that Krycek was watching him, or perhaps just looking at him the way he'd looked out of the window before. The green eyes focused slowly and met his own. Caught them — he finally understood that expression, unable to look away. The city of San Francisco lay between them, paper thin, ringed with a necklace of deaths. The flicker and blare of the TV seemed to come from a long way off, dim and muted, the distant sounds of another world. Mulder set his jaw, unsure of what he was trying to resist. The memory of those moments in Hibbert's back yard still made him angry.

"I said I was sorry I pushed you," Krycek said. He hadn't moved, neither of them had moved but all the same Mulder had the sudden impression that Krycek was much closer than he had thought at first. And he wasn't talking about guilt any more. Not that guilt. "I won't do it again."

Mulder forced his eyes to drop. He started to fold up the map. His hands weren't shaking. That morning, he had acted without thinking, lying down next to a sleeping Krycek on this very bed, stealing a moment's peace and silence. He'd acted without thinking; did that mean he had acted on what he'd been feeling? Was there an essential dichotomy there, or was he simply dividing his perceptions and experiences so he wouldn't have to integrate them?

Language isn't a virus. Language is a disguise.

He looked at the folded-up map, tossed it aside. It was still early in the evening, by his standards. He wouldn't be able to sleep yet. The TV showed him nothing interesting, and suddenly he didn't want to lose time to whatever he might find there of carefully packaged entertainment, didn't want the flow of image after image and irrelevancy after irrelevancy that was ready to roll over him.

If Scully had only let him have that book... Mulder looked back at Krycek again. "I don't understand it," he said honestly. He drew breath again to try to explain what 'it' was, aware that honesty would be lost as soon as he tried, but Krycek just nodded. "I'm going to bed. I—" No. God, no. Getting to his feet, he went past Krycek and back into the bathroom again, closed the door, locked it as he had that morning, aware even as he did it that this last was a pointless and rather absurd gesture.

The bathroom lights were glaringly bright after the soft glow of the TV and the bedside lamp. It was a small bathroom and nowhere near the standard of the one in the Holiday Inn, but considerably better than those of several motels he'd stayed in across the country. Mulder stood on a small green mat and brushed his teeth with care. He hadn't gone to bed this early in years. Decades.

When he looked at the man in the mirror, he could see no signs that this was someone who'd suffered a concussion a day and a half ago, who had been close to dying from the black cancer less than twenty-four hours ago. He would have to get those blood samples analyzed later, he thought. Scully would see to it. Now Alex Krycek's blood was in him, running through his veins at every beat of his heart. You couldn't get much more intimate with someone than that.

His throat and the inside of his nose were still sore, and the remnants of a headache hung around his head like a wispy cloud; his wrist hurt; the bruises from the fall hadn't faded much. But he felt all right. Restless, uncertain, edgy, confused, but physically, more or less all right.

Mulder stayed in the bathroom as long as he could justify staying; he decided to take a shower, scrubbing carefully around every toe and behind each ear, and then he fiddled around with his nail clippers, brushed his teeth and combed his hair. When he couldn't think of anything else to do, he wrapped a towel around his waist and unlocked the door, taking a quick deep breath. He wasn't a man who hid in bathrooms from strange situations. Not forever, anyway, he thought and coaxed a smile from himself.

The blinds were down now. Krycek was sitting at the foot of Mulder's bed, remote in hand, flipping through the channels. He got up when Mulder came back, walked towards him. "My turn?" They passed each other, close enough that the clothes Mulder carried over one arm were disturbed by Krycek's passage. "I promise not to use your toothbrush."

"I think yours is still in there with my stuff." Mulder walked towards his bed, speaking with his back turned, trying not to clutch at his towel. "I never unpacked all of it after Leyden Creek."

He thought he heard Krycek say "Thanks" before the bathroom door closed. Dumping his clothes at the foot of the bed, he started to dig around in his bag for a pair of clean boxers to sleep in. Krycek had left the TV on a channel showing a Star Trek: TNG rerun, and Mulder watched idly for a few moments while he put his boxers on, then switched channels with a shudder as Wesley Crusher appeared. He couldn't find anything interesting, and finally turned the volume down to a reedy whisper and crawled into bed.

The fresh sheets felt good. Mulder wondered if the sheets that he'd been wrapped in when he'd gone to the hospital would appear on the hotel bill,and how he would explain that to Skinner. He closed his eyes, relaxed into the pillow, listened to the sound of running water from the bathroom. He opened his eyes again. Maybe if he turned the volume back up. He'd put the remote where he couldn't reach it. Mulder got out of bed. He took a step towards the TV, then changed his course and went to the door and threw the bolt. Looking at the unlocked connecting door, he pictured Scully sleeping, and smiled a little.

Krycek came back from the bathroom in t-shirt and briefs just as Mulder was returning to his bed. They looked at each other, and Mulder swallowed a tight choking ball of heat; it broke open in his chest and made his breath catch. The thoughts of two nights ago came back to him. How bad can it get? How bad could it be, to sleep alone again...

He drew another breath, and heard himself say, "Come to bed with me." Krycek froze and stared, no expression at all on his face. "If you want to." Space and time executed a neat pirouette around the single silent moment that followed his words.

"If I—" Krycek shook his head. He moved up along his own bed and Mulder experienced a moment of sickening freefall again, before Krycek turned back, pillow in hand. "You steal the pillow," he explained, sounding strangely calm while tossing it onto Mulder's bed. Then he crawled in under the covers and lay there waiting.

Mulder forced himself to move. He switched off the bedside lamp and got back into bed. Blue light from the TV danced across the walls and ceiling as the pictures changed. The sound was so faint and distant it might have been anything. Both sounds and images were insubstantial whispers that could not quite reach him. Krycek was strong and solid when Mulder touched him. It was a slow hesitant touch, a brush of his hand over chest and shoulder. He thought he could feel, through the soft thin cotton, Krycek's heart beat as fast as his own. When he slid his arm around the other man's back and pulled him closer he felt a shiver, a sigh.

It felt so good. Two nights of sleeping close, like this, and months without it, months of being too cold. Mulder tightened his grip and Krycek's hand moved up his spine and settled between his shoulderblades, so warm, skin on skin. Heat radiated out from that touch and made his flesh tingle with a new awareness, a new sensitivity. It wasn't too late to let go, to roll back, to just fall asleep in this shared warmth. Not too late.

Mulder turned his head, brushing his lips over a stubbled cheek, and Krycek was moving too and their mouths met, breathed briefly together, then melted into each other.

He didn't know if his eyes were open or closed. It was like breathing again after being too long under water. Desperate, rushed, painful, wonderful. Mulder shivered violently, a strong muscular spasm that rocked his whole body and drove him deeper into Krycek's tight grip, and he felt a trembling start in his belly, a worrying swirl and flow, liquid, volatile. Alex.

"Alex." It was barely audible, spoken tongue to tongue, but he could feel it being heard. "Alex." They were lying so close together, there was no room to move; no friction, just heat. "I thought you were dead. I thought..." Pressure of lips, the rasp and scrape of stubble. Alex's hand slid up and cupped the back of his neck, fingers weaving into his hair. He tried to work the arm he was lying on around Alex's body as well. The impulse to hold hard, to crush and be crushed, finally began to worry him and he broke out of the kiss, backed off a little.

Alex looked at Mulder, his face open, his eyes burning. He swallowed and then tried to speak. "If you — if you're changing your mind — it's—"

"No." Mulder could not stand the ache in his bones, the deep grinding pain in his soul. It seemed he hurt no matter what he did, so he moved closer again and brushed his lips over Alex's. He meant it as a light touch, but he couldn't keep it that way; moments later they were welded together again, kissing and kissing and kissing. And the blinding pleasure of it rose in him like blue fire and burned higher than the pain.

His hand moved over Alex's back, slid down and in under the hem of the t-shirt and up again, thumb tracing the spine, palm stroking the smooth column of muscle along it. A soft sound, caught by his tongue, shot through him and traveled like a white flare along his nerves, highlighting his desire. Twisting his hips, he pushed against Alex, pressing his own heat and hardness against the other man's. This caged and smothered touch was hot enough to burn away even the memory of ever being cold and lonely. The thin cotton fibers that separated them ought to just crumble into ashes. He sucked in air, tried to find his thoughts. You know who this is. This is — this is—

This is so good. Fingers danced over his shoulder, dipped into the hollow above his collarbone, then below it, stroking so gently it almost tickled. Up again, curving around the shoulder, back to the collarbone, teasing up along his throat, flicking his earlobe, caressing his jaw. Mulder turned his head, tried to catch those fingers between his teeth. He trapped the tip of the index finger and licked at it, then sucked it in slowly, letting his tongue curve in narrow strokes from joint to joint.

Alex said something, harsh and husky and incomprehensible. He pulled his wet finger free of Mulder's mouth and dragged it down his chest, ending by flicking it against his nipple. Cold and hot, a sudden sizzle of pleasure. Mulder arched and twisted his hips against Alex's.

"Oh God, lisitsa..." Alex sounded breathless. There was something in his voice that Mulder had never heard before, that he wanted to hear again.

He rolled in close again and licked at Alex's neck, bit down here and there and felt shivers. Moving up, he nibbled at the earlobe and then drew the pointed tip of his tongue around the ear's curling folds, tracing every one of them with slow precision. Down along the arched neck, pulse beats speeding up against his lips. The neck of the t-shirt stopped him, but only for a moment. Mulder twisted himself down along Alex's body, rubbing himself against that solid heat.

He pressed his mouth against the hard hollow of the breastbone, turned his head sideways and caught a nipple between his teeth. Alex moaned. Mulder sucked through the cloth, then chewed at the hardening nub, biting down with increasing pressure. The moan turned into a strangled gasp. Turning to the other side, Mulder licked and bit again, catching the first nipple between his fingers and pinching it gently. Alex's hand was in his hair again, a light fluttering touch, fingers curving around his skull. Mulder dragged the t-shirt up, freeing the skin, licking at the fine dusting of hair there.

Looking down, he saw that the head of Alex's cock had slipped free of his briefs, straining upwards along his belly, gleaming with moisture. Mulder felt his tongue curl and press against his teeth at the sight, then dart out to lick his lips. He wanted to taste it, wanted it wet and slick on his tongue, wanted to feel the heaviness of desire and the dull pulsing throb of lust. It was a need that filled his entire body, shockwave-fast and dizzying. The hunger rolled through him and twisted in his stomach, breaking suddenly in a splinter of glass knives that dug deep.

Mulder couldn't stop the raw sound of distress that wrenched itself from his throat. He clamped his lips together once it had escaped, shut his eyes just as tight, and rolled away from Alex, sucking in air. Pain racked him. He wanted to say he was sorry, but it was all he could do to keep breathing. Away from Alex's warm body, he jerked and trembled in sudden shock.

"Ssshhh, lisitsa." The covers were pulled around his shoulders, the weight of an arm resting on top of them, trying to draw him back again. Mulder shivered under it, and it was slowly removed. "It's all right. I won't push you." It sounded strained, but honest.

Mulder breathed slowly and tried to recover himself, but it was hopeless. He'd thought he was swimming in the shallows, but now when he tried to put his feet down, the ocean was fathoms deep below him. Alex touched his hair with slow gentleness, curled against him carefully, didn't hold him down. Perhaps it wouldn't have mattered. It was Alex's very presence that was pulling him apart, that and his own reaction to it.

Shaking his head slowly, Mulder opened his eyes again. He moved closer to Alex; he wanted so much to be warm. They lay together in silence for a while, and the stabs of pain that had stolen breath and thought from him eased. At least he hadn't been sick, he thought darkly. Turning into the circle of Alex's arm, he faced the other man again.

Alex's hand moved over Mulder's back in long slow strokes, and he shivered in response. He knew it was meant to be soothing, but when Alex touched him, he burned. Even now, with the last splinters of deep hurt lodged edgy and dangerous inside him, he burned. When he looked at Alex and saw the depths of wordless desire in the green eyes, he burned even more. Drawing breath to speak, he was at a loss for words. "I'm — it's—"

"It's all right," Alex repeated in that husky voice that always made his knees go weak, and stroked the back of his neck carefully. "We'll just sleep. Do you want me to take the other bed?"

"No — don't go." He burrowed in closer, until they were touching body to body again. It was impossible for him to hold so much, he was a cup running over, and he knew what he wanted to drain off and what he wanted to be filled with. For once, he knew; or maybe it was that he couldn't bear any more pain. Not right then. He arched his back against the gentle caress of Alex's hand, willing it to touch him all over, gather up every part of him and hold it here, in this place, in this moment.

"I'm not going." Alex rubbed his shoulders, the back of his neck. Mulder breathed deeply, wanting another caress there. He pressed himself against Alex and became aware, at the same moment that Alex became aware, that he was hard still, the solid proof of his desire hot and insistent against Alex's hipbone. Another kind of heat burned in his face. He just wanted to be held. He just wanted— "Mulder?"

It was a soft question, a question that did not make any assumptions. He swallowed painfully, felt the need rise again, an old hunger, a new hunger. They were touching, and he burned, yet he was afraid to move after what had happened before. Blue-tongued flames licked at him at every point where skin met skin. This wanting was going to shiver him apart, yet he could not say, would not say...

It was dragged out of his throat by a gasping breath, little more than a whisper. "Please." Nothing had ever been so hard. "Please."

Lips touched his own in a kiss so light and gentle, Mulder thought Alex had not understood him, or had perhaps preferred not to understand him. But then that airy caress moved from his mouth to his throat and traced the nerves there, touched down on the pleasure points with quiet certainty, following a route that Mulder hadn't been aware of, one that had to be marked on his skin for those with sufficient skill in lip-reading. This tender sensuality made him relax, breathe easier and more deeply. Tiny kisses fell into the indentation above his collarbone, raindrops filling a hollow in the ground. The feathery touch moved across his skin and he lay there like parched earth, soaking it up.

When the first sharp cut came, the ice and fire of a tongue slicing across his nipple, it tore a shapeless gritty sound from his throat. His bones were made of liquid metal, white and sizzling, and his muscles tightened and jerked in that heat and moved of their own accord. Drained of the confusion of thought, he was sensation, he was what was happening to him. Teeth grazed him and he arched into that pressure, the edge of feeling.

Alex's mouth moved over him, licking and biting, then kissing tenderly. The palm of his hand tingled with pleasure where Alex's tongue had drawn him a new lifeline, and he had to bite his lip to keep from crying out at the relentless attention to the soft skin at the fold of his elbow. Even the barely-felt brush of Alex's hair against his skin sent brief heated jolts through him. Words spoken into his navel made him jerk and choke on silenced laughter. "Ticklish?" Mulder felt a smile curve against the skin of his belly. "Sorry." Kisses moved down in a straight line, and he wasn't breathing.

But Alex abandoned that path with one last brush of lips right above the waistband of his boxers, and moved on; the next time his mouth touched down on Mulder's body it was on the inside of his thigh, just above the knee. Slow, wet, sucking kisses burned themselves into Mulder's skin. He felt he should be able to count the marks afterwards. His hand traveled in slow motion, fingertips brushing across Alex's hair, his face. Alex lifted his head and sucked at each of those fingertips in turn, and the swirling liquid heat drew tighter, squeezed the pleasure into him. Out of him.

"Please," he said again; it was easier now. "Alex..." His fingers were released, and his hand fell limp at his side as his entire attention was taken up by the lazy tongue strokes moving up the inside of his thigh again. Reaching the cloth of the boxer shorts on that side, Alex switched to the other leg and started using his teeth. "Oh God."

"You don't believe in God," Alex said into his flesh, breathing on wet skin, making him quiver. Mulder caught his breath for a moment as Alex shifted his weight, moving up. And then that mouth came down on him again like lightning hurled by the God he did not believe in, lips shaping the straining length of his erection, hot breath sealing the cotton cloth to the flesh. There was a wet patch near the waistband where the weeping head of his cock pressed desperately against the force of the elastic, and Alex sucked on it, sucked the cloth-covered head into his mouth, wetting it even more.

Mulder choked on a hoarse, rasping cry. He wasn't getting enough air; his head tossed from side to side, mouth gasping for breath. When the heat and wetness left him he actually felt a moment's strange relief, before his body reminded him of how much it missed this torment, and then he all but whimpered. He raised his head and saw Alex lever himself up to sit astride Mulder's leg, then reach out and slip a finger under the elastic of his boxers, teasing a line across his lower abdomen before starting to tug them off. "Alex." He only wanted those bright green eyes to look at him, and they did, smiling tenderly, before Alex tugged his t-shirt up and wriggled out of it, tossed it aside.

"Come on, Mulder, lift your hips a little — yeah—" Mulder squirmed. He felt the cool kiss of air on his exposed cock, and the warm stroke of Alex's hand brushing the crease between leg and torso; felt also the hot insistent brush of the other man's cloth-covered erection against his thigh. The stupid boxer shorts were worked off his hips slowly and abandoned as an uninteresting project. Mulder saw a bright, wicked smile curve Alex's mouth for the space of a heartbeat, and then the dark head bent and he was recaptured, liquid heat sliding down around his hard flesh. His head fell back with a flat thud against the pillow.

"Yes — Alex — please — Alex—" He could not remember any other words. He could not remember ever remembering any other words. Nor could he remember being seared by pleasure quite like this. After the long cold solitude of so many separate nights, this fire was too much for him. It would consume him whole, leave charred and blackened remains behind.

He didn't care; rapid breaths sobbed in his throat and his hips worked, held down only by Alex's weight across his leg. All of him was pulled tight, a knot of flame, a crowned knot of fire drawn together by the burning rose of Alex's mouth and the licking fiery petal of his tongue. A silent scream ripped out of him, the sound itself leeched away by the heat. He arched up and felt his spine fracture and his head break open, and he was coming in sharp ecstatic convulsions, tossed up and out, held and received and swallowed.

After that, the stillness seemed strange. Mulder became aware, again, of the hum and whine of the TV, the sound patterns fragmenting on the edge of his hearing into droning nonsense. When Alex released him, the air closed coolly around his wet skin. Little ripples shot through him, nerves and muscles in the throes of the last aftershocks. The boxers, tangled around his knees, were pulled off. Bedcovers and a warm body came up to cover him, wrap around him. Alex draped himself half across Mulder's chest, settling his weight into the hollow between arm and side, tucking his hand around the opposite shoulder.

With his eyes still closed, Mulder turned his head fractionally and brushed his lips over Alex's hair and then, investigating more closely, his forehead. He lifted first one arm and then the other to wrap around Alex, feeling more tremors. They wouldn't stop. Breath caught in his throat again. His grip hardened involuntarily, he sucked in air and swallowed, and shuddered. Alex moved in his arms and lifted his head to look searchingly at him. "Are you all right? Lisitsa, what — oh."

"I'm fine," Mulder insisted shakily. His eyes burned, his voice was out of control and he wanted to hide his face, his self, his vulnerability. Alex cupped his hand around the back of Mulder's head and pulled him closer. He pressed his face against Alex's neck and tried to strangle the hot, reluctant sobs. Something hurt, inside, and he hated it. Alex was being gentle again, holding him, stroking him. The forces that fought in him were already exhausted from a long, hard battle. Somewhere in the touch of Alex's hand on his skin, he gave up trying to hide. "Mostly fine," he said into the soft hollow of Alex's throat, and let himself roll back a little.

Alex licked the damp, tender skin around his eyes; kissed his temple, his cheek, the corner of his mouth. "Tell me something."

"What?" His brain was still mush. He wasn't in a state to tell anyone anything, and he would have guessed conversation to be the last thing on Alex's mind right now.

"Tell me about Martin Yun and Michelle Sargent."

It was so unexpected, he drew his breath in on a choke of laughter. Mulder rolled his head from side to side to clear it. "Why do you want to know — all right. All right. It's a stupid story." He tried to straighten his spine, then curved back against Alex, deciding he had been more comfortable like that. It was too complicated to untangle himself, anyway; they had ended up in one of those impossible positions, arms and legs entwined, heads tucked close together. "A story from the time when I was young and innocent."

"And now you're old and depraved." Alex was breathing against his ear. It tickled pleasantly.

"Don't remind me." Mulder bit the nearest part of Alex that he could reach with his mouth; it happened to be his shoulder. Then he stopped trying to order his thoughts, and started saying what he did think. "I liked Michelle a lot. Better than Martin. We worked together on a case, all three of us. She was bright as hell, probably still is. We were all under a lot of pressure and she was the one who could ease it up for a moment here and there, make us laugh when we needed it. I thought I'd found a friend."


"But, uh." He freed one hand and worked it up to drag his thumb slowly across Alex's face, down over eyebrow and eye and cheek to linger on the sharp-stubbled jawline. "You need a shave." The skin around his lips was scratched and sore. "But she wanted me for more than a friend, and I — panicked, and stupidly told Martin about it, and he offered to help me get out of it."

Alex's back shook with laughter. "You panicked because someone made a pass at you? How old were you, Mulder?"

"I panicked because she told me she thought I would make a good sub." Looking up at the ceiling, Mulder thought that the flowing swirl and shift of the blue light might make a good focus for a meditation exercise. It was very soothing. "I didn't know anything about that, what she was talking about. I just thought she was another Phoebe, someone who would push my buttons and teach me to jump through hoops and this time I'd have to wear a harness, too."

Alex sucked in a slow breath and let it out again against Mulder's cheek. "I see. I think I can figure out the rest of this story. You panicked and told Yun, and he offered to talk to Michelle and tell her that you were... what? Secretly married, gay, pining away for an old girlfriend?"

"I don't know what he told her," Mulder admitted. "I never asked. But I think I've figured out at least part of it now." He couldn't help it, chuckles rose in him and demanded to be let out. "And he never told me, because he'd seen how I reacted, and now he thinks I think he's a pervert. Serves him right, bigoted idiot."

"And if he knew about this," Alex licked gently at his throat, "he would think that you are a pervert."

"Yeah." He didn't want to go there, not at that moment.

"Did you ever change your mind about the S&M scene?"

Mulder shrugged, as well as he could manage with most of Alex's weight pressing down on him. "Depends on what you mean by change my mind. I'm not sorry I didn't take Michelle up on her offer. I don't have a problem with what other people choose to do, as long as they're happy with it. I just like my personal interactions to be a bit less ritualized, I guess."

He dragged his thumb across Alex's lips now, felt them move in speech. "But isn't there always something essentially formal and ritual about human sexual contact? On some level an agreement is made between two parties — usually two parties — this for that, move for countermove, your pleasure for mine. Maybe there's a point to having it all spelled out so you know what you're getting, then you can't complain afterwards."

The smile under his fingers was an invitation, and he grinned too, and tilted Alex's head up. "I get the point, okay?" he said, and managed a kiss by craning his neck awkwardly.

They shifted around that kiss, slow adjustments, smooth body-to-body caresses that brought them round to a more comfortable position. Mulder was still riding the last wave of hazy contentment, the pleasure center of his brain purring like a happy kitten. He gave his entire attention to kissing Alex, enjoying the delicate interplay of lips and tongues and teeth the way he might appreciate and enjoy a complex work of kinetic art. When he ran his hand up Alex's chest, down his back, he felt the muscles start to work in the familiar pattern of arousal, tensing, twisting, letting go and winding up again.

Free of that kind of overriding urgency, he could take his time to explore, but the way Alex shuddered under his touch told him he'd better not take too much time. He mouthed his way down the arched throat, licked the soft hollow where pulse beats trembled against the pressure of his tongue, bestowed two swift kisses on the spots where the clavicles joined the breastbone. Alex's hand in his hair was tugging at him very gently, more gently than he could have managed himself had their circumstances been reversed.

Mulder twined himself further down, but couldn't pass by Alex's erect nipples, rosy and hard against pale skin. He flicked his tongue over the nearest one in quick airy stripes, and then sucked it in between his teeth. The sound Alex made low in his throat echoed through his chest, and he pressed his hips against Mulder's belly, the slick head of his cock leaving a wet mark there. Mulder moved his mouth to the other nipple and tongued it thoroughly. He slipped his free hand down the small of Alex's back, hooked his fingers into the briefs and pushed them down over the warm gorgeous curve of his ass, down along the backs of the strong legs.

Then he drew his nails up the inside of the thigh, with nicely judged pressure. Alex hissed and clenched his fingers in Mulder's hair. "Don't," an unsteady intake of breath, "don't tease me now, I don't think I can—"

"All right," he said, speaking into the soft skin of Alex's stomach. Muscles rippled under his lips. Something warm and wet and hard bumped into his chin from below and he smiled. "All right."

And it was. When he opened his mouth and wrapped his tongue around the silky cockhead he could have cried out with pleasure, the way Alex did. The taste was so sweet. He worked his other hand up from under his own body to steady the quivering shaft, hold it in place for his mouth to devour. He loved the slickness of tart liquid on his tongue, and the blunt insistent shape that fit so well into the hollow of his mouth. His tongue worked in slow pressing swirls, alternating with pulses of strong suction that made Alex arch and moan and breathe out soft incomprehensible sounds that might have been Russian curses, or just failed attempts to form the word please.

Mulder closed his eyes, flicked his tongue insistently across the underside of the head, where its rounded lines drew up and together into a most sensitive spot. His free hand stroked up the back of Alex's thigh again, until the tip of his index finger could trace the crease just below the curve of the buttock, moving slowly inward. Alex made an uncertain, ragged sound and shifted his legs minutely. The small movement was easy for Mulder to read; he continued the light, teasing caress, drawing it up along the cleft of Alex's ass and then down again, sliding in deeper along sweat-slick skin.

He found the tight tender bud, stroked it slowly. Then he relaxed his throat muscles and took Alex in as deep as he could, and pressed his finger down in insistent deepening strokes, small thrusts that matched the pulses of his mouth and throat working the hard cock.

Alex stopped breathing. Mulder could feel it. After a stunned heartbeat had passed, he stiffened and came hard, body jerking out of control, cries of pleasure insufficiently smothered by the pillow. Mulder slid his mouth up the pulsing shaft to catch the hot bursts of semen on his tongue, to taste before he swallowed. He went on sucking, more gently now, until Alex's hand urged his head away.

Mulder kissed his way back up again, belly, chest, throat, mouth. The soft purr at the back of Alex's throat as they kissed stroked over him like a languid caress. Alex sprawled in his arms, limp with contentment, warm and satisfied and beautiful. Mulder kissed the flushed cheeks, the drooping eyelids.

"Lisitsa." Sharp teeth chewed on his lower lip for a moment. "So good..."

He rubbed his chin scratchily against the edge of Alex's jaw. "What is that you keep calling me?"

Alex looked mildly embarrassed. "Nothing. 'S just a nickname."

Pulling the covers up around them, Mulder drew Alex into a tighter embrace. Their bodies settled together like buildings after an earthquake, a slow, comfortable collapse. Alex buried his face against Mulder's throat, made a sleepy sound, moved his lips and then lay perfectly still. "You can't sleep like that," Mulder said, fingertips drifting through the hair at the nape of Alex's neck. "You can't breathe."


"What does it mean, Alex? That word?"

The soft even breaths against his skin grew deeper, louder and steadier. He felt another small relaxation, as Alex's chin dug into his shoulder. There was no reply to his question; Alex was asleep.

Mulder closed his eyes too. He wondered what time it was. Around midnight, maybe. Cars went by outside on Powell, the sound barely audible over the soft murmur of the television. He could still taste Alex in his mouth, and felt as though he would never want anything else again; he was unwilling to leave this moment, that spurious certainty. Holding and being held, he drifted down slowly from wakefulness into a light doze, surfacing now and then to confirm that it was all still real, that Alex lay there curled around his body in deep, trusting sleep. It had been a long time, a very long time since he had slept with someone like this. Alex, in Leyden Creek, although there had not been this ease, this closeness. Before that, he could barely remember. Some stranger whose quest for temporary satisfaction had intersected with his own.

It wasn't worth remembering. This was different. This was something else. He was so warm and content that the fleeting disquiet that passed through him could not get any purchase, and slipped away again. Turning his head very slowly, he rubbed his cheek against soft dark hair. Alex.

* * *

He woke with a crick in his neck, tried to use his shoulder to push the pillow into a more comfortable position, and failed. The pillow made an annoyed sound and subsided back into sleep. Mulder blinked. It was very early, just beginning to get light. He didn't feel the need to face another dawn, closed his eyes and decided to go back to sleep as well, but the discomfort in his neck was enough to keep him awake, if not enough to actually make him move.

Besides, the sound of Alex's heartbeat distracted him. It was steady and slow and inescapable. He listened to it and tried to remember his dreams. They had been curiously unclear, a slow roll of images and events that had held nothing of horror and hardly anything of interest. Just dreams. Part of his sleep, and here he was now, awake, with Alex Krycek.

Mulder lifted his head slowly, and looked at Alex's sleeping face. He studied the small neat nose, the smooth strokes of the eyebrows, arched even in sleep like the wings of a bird ready for flight. There was nothing to be read here, no secret signs either of feature or expression that might reveal what kind of man this was. Mulder watched the quick tracking movements of the eyes beneath the soft eyelids. He wanted to get inside.

Instead he let his eyes follow the line of the jaw and throat, dark stubble on fair skin, a small red mark from his own teeth. The smooth expanse of shoulder. And then... the place that was defined by what was missing. Scars that spoke of pain he did not want to imagine, could not help but imagine.

Mulder was gripped by a feeling of unreality; he had gotten out of that, it hadn't happened to him, why had it happened to Alex? How could somebody just get a piece of his body cut off? Those people had been faced with a choice that terrified them. The calm brutality of the solution struck him even more now, when he was safely away from it all, when he had had time to distance himself from it. Tunguska sometimes seemed like a bad dream more than an actual memory of horror. But the black cancer had risen up in him the day before yesterday, and here was Alex, who bore the marks of that terrible trip on his body.

"You can touch it if you want to." His eyes flew up and he saw that Alex was watching him, sleepily but with a certain wariness. Mulder tried not to flinch or look embarrassed. He'd been staring, he knew it.

"I thought you didn't want me to," he said softly.

"It's all right." It was hard for him to judge the look in Alex's eyes, as sleep-heavy eyelids hid them again. There was something in the voice that sounded almost like provocation. Or fear. So Mulder bent his neck and kissed the scars, mapping them with his lips, carefully getting to know this part of Alex. It was strange, and he had the feeling it was scaring him as much as it scared Alex. He put one hand on Alex's chest to steady them both, and felt tension but no rejection. Instead, Alex said slowly, "You know, last night was the first time... since I lost my arm. It was a bit like being a virgin all over again."

"Oh," Mulder said in a small voice, feeling as though the breath had been punched from his lungs. He froze where he was, mouth brushing against shiny scar tissue. The hurt that welled up inside him was strange and complex, and drew its strength and force from the tone of Alex's voice just then, and from the words he had said.

Oh God, he killed my father, and he trusts me. Mulder tried to move. He wanted to scream and beat his head against the wall. He wanted to hold Alex close. He wanted to hurt Alex; he wanted to hurt himself. It was too much, he hadn't wanted to know that.

The quality of his stillness and silence did not go unremarked for long. "What's wrong?" Alex asked, and there was an edge of something in his voice again that cut deep, the slightest whisper of uncertainty, of vulnerability. When Mulder did not answer, Alex went on, "Regrets?"

"Yes," he said honestly. He lifted his head. "What did you expect?" Alex just looked at him quietly. After a moment, Mulder met that look and accepted the truth of it. There was so much that needed to be said between them, and so few words. He frowned, half pain, half resignation, and moved closer, pillowed his head on Alex's chest again.

"I never expected this to happen in the first place," Alex said. He wrapped his arm around Mulder's shoulders and pulled him closer. One of them sighed; their bodies fitted themselves together easily. Mulder closed his eyes. Curling up in bed with Alex Krycek wasn't supposed to feel like coming home. Maybe you didn't get to choose your homecomings. "You surprised me, Mulder."

"Yeah, well..." The next words didn't make it past his lips. Homecoming, he thought again. Home. Flagstad had come back to the place he thought of as his home. Nothing else in the city of San Francisco could be as important to the man as that one spot. "Alex, do you know where Flagstad lived when he lived here?"

Alex's thumb, moving in small stroking motions over Mulder's shoulder, stopped. Then Alex started to laugh. "No," he said after a few moments, and Mulder heard the difference in the sound of his voice, heard the added distance that humor lent, "no, I don't." The gentle caresses were resumed again. "Pillow talk, Mulder? I should have known." Alex sounded amused, and composed.

"If that's what you want to call it. I told Spelling yesterday," Mulder rubbed his chin thoughtfully against Alex's breastbone, as if to make up for the direction his thoughts were taking, "I think Flagstad took his name from someone in the family, I asked him to trace any San Francisco Flagstads."

"But he wasn't born here, the family came from some midwestern state originally," Alex objected. "That's the impression I always had and that's what you put in your profile, too." After a moment he went on, "Of course, they could have moved here because they inherited property, a house."

"From a maternal grandparent," Mulder said.

"Do you have anything that backs up that theory, or are you just speculating at random?" Alex was still stroking his shoulder, but without the same fine edge of concentration. "If we could find a Flagstad family here, and a Flagstad family home, we'd be close to finding him. But unless you know where you're coming from with this, it could just mean a lot of Bureau hours wasted searching for something that isn't there."

"It's a hunch," Mulder muttered, speaking into Alex's chest. "The maternal symbolism is there, the earth as mother, life-giver. It might be his mother's maiden name, or his grandmother's." Then he sat up. "Wouldn't have thought you cared about wasted Bureau hours anyway."

"You're not the only one who wants to find Johnny before he kills anyone else."

"Well, I still think that's one way to do it. Maybe the best way." He swung his legs over the side of the bed and paused; the pressure in his bladder was telling him to go to the bathroom, but it had been surprisingly hard to let go. Mulder shook his head as he stood up. He couldn't spend the morning in bed with Alex Krycek, even if they were talking about the case.

Once in the bathroom he went into his usual morning routine, not thinking about anything much beyond the motions required to become clean and presentable. The quick shower was all business and no pleasure; he flinched once as the hot water hit four neat red half-moons dug into his shoulder. He hadn't noticed that happening, last night. Drying himself off, towelling his hair, he was already outlining the rest of the day in his head.

Scully was probably up and moving on her side of the connecting door. They needed to find out if Agent Sedley had come up with anything from interviewing Angelica Roe, and the state of the investigation into San Francisco Flagstads, who had to exist, and what had happened to the Holiday Inn desk clerk's testimony and had they worked up a composite of Flagstad yet and passed it out, and— He looked at his own freshly shaved face in the mirror and tried to make his thoughts slow down.

Leaving the bathroom, he felt the usual chill as the cooler air outside licked at the drops of water he'd missed. He also felt something else, the suspicion of a less substantial touch even than that. Mulder looked up, and became aware that he was standing naked in the middle of the room, and Alex Krycek was sitting up in bed, watching him. Several contradictory impulses ran through him at once — to get dressed as fast as possible, to stand there and enjoy the look in Alex's eyes, to get back in bed with Alex right now, even, amazingly, to blush.

The sharp rap on the connecting door nearly made him jump.

"Mulder? Are you up?" Scully's voice was muffled, of course, but he was appalled at how clearly he could hear her through the door. "I'm going down to breakfast."

"Ten minutes," he raised his voice to tell her. Alex would just have to hurry. Mulder headed for last night's pile of clothing and started to sort through it, pausing t-shirt in hand to state something that suddenly amazed him. "I don't have a headache."

Alex chuckled. "Well, that's nice. All the same, I don't think we have the time." Mulder looked up in time to see Alex get out of bed, too, and watched him walk across the room. There was a sudden tightness in his chest as he acknowledged the taut strength of Alex's body, and its hard-won grace and ease of movement. This was no casual ability displaying itself, it was a birthright laboriously reclaimed. When the bathroom door closed Mulder swallowed hard and returned his attention to finding something to wear.

It was going to be another warm day, he thought, looking out the window, but it would have to be another formal day all the same. No t-shirt under his shirt, though, not in weather like this. He stretched, and slipped his arms through the sleeves of the pale blue shirt. He felt good, better than good, healthy and alert and oddly relaxed. Mulder dragged the back of his hand across his mouth, attempting to wipe away the sudden smile. There was a twinge of uneasiness in him, rising through the relaxation.

He was in the middle of strapping his holster on when Alex came back out. "Do you need to borrow some clean clothes?" he asked, and then had to add, "I'm not going shopping with you again."

"I need to check in at my apartment," Alex said, pulling his jeans on with quick, precise, practiced one-handed tugs. "There's some stuff there I want to get before someone else cleans the place out. What's the first thing you're doing today?"

"Breakfast," Mulder said. Then he shrugged. "I'm hoping for the needle pulled out of the haystack. If we can find Flagstad's old home, stake it out — he's bound to be there, often if not all the time — probably rents a room nearby—"

"Nothing on the credit card yet?"

"No. They would have called and told us, I hope." Mulder picked up his suit jacket, and as if on cue, the cell phone inside it rang. He extracted it and looked at it curiously before answering. "Mulder."

"This is Anna Gutierrez." He recognized the soft, gently accented voice and nodded unthinkingly. "I was just down looking at Carlos' things again, and I wanted to ask you, when you took the feather away, did you also take the tape from his answering machine?"

Mulder blinked. He glanced up at Alex, at the window, at the rumpled bed, as if any of these things might give him a clue to what the woman on the phone was talking about. "No. We didn't—"

"I just thought it might be, because I noticed — but if you didn't, where has it gone to?"

"Mrs. Gutierrez." Mulder collected himself and began to react to what he was hearing. "Wait a moment. You say that we took a feather — you're not referring to Agent Scully and myself?"

"No," she laughed briefly and self-consciously, a little embarrassed, "I just meant the FBI, that other agent who was here yesterday. I didn't get a phone number for him so I called you. I hope you don't mind." Belatedly she added, "It isn't too early, is it?"

Mulder drew a deep breath. "No, it isn't too early. You're saying Carlos received a white feather before he was killed."

"Yes. I didn't know, until the other agent came here and asked about it. He said he was taking it to be analyzed. Was it important?"

"Mrs. Gutierrez, this is very important." Questions fought each other on his tongue to be asked first. "This other agent, what did he look like? What did he say his name was?"

"He was tall and thin," she said promptly, "and very polite. His name was, was..." Mrs. Gutierrez trailed off into sudden uncertainty.

"Did he show an FBI ID?" Mulder held his breath.

"I think so," she said, and now the uncertainty in her voice was even more marked. "He showed me something. Are you saying I did something wrong, that I shouldn't have let him take the feather and envelope? He sounded very convincing, and I know he showed me something."

"We'll come over and talk to you, Mrs. Gutierrez," Mulder said. "Don't worry about it. I'll be there as soon as I can." Stuffing the phone back into his pocket, he thought that if anything were to give him a headache today it would probably be this. He looked up and met Alex's eyes. "I think Flagstad's taken up a new hobby."

"Impersonating FBI agents?" Alex nodded his immediate understanding. "What was that about the feather? Does he send them feathers before he kills them?" He frowned.

"Maybe," Mulder said. "I haven't heard anything about feathers being found in the other victims' apartments. But it could be he got those back before the police or the FBI got there." He bent down to adjust his ankle holster. "What I want to know is why he sent me a feather."

Alex went very still. "He sent you a feather."

"Scully didn't tell you?" Mulder straightened up again and cursed the gaps in his memory. "That's why we left the Holiday Inn. He went there, gave an envelope to the desk clerk. It's got to be a message of some kind, but there hasn't been any further contact."

"Well, now you know what kind of message it is, don't you?" Alex's voice was sweet and cutting. "Mulder, do you mean to say that Johnny Flagstad has sent you what amounts to a death threat, and all you've done is change your hotel?"

"We don't know that that's what it means," Mulder said. "It's not as if I'm an abductee with a blonde girlfriend. And I've done more than just change hotels, I'm trying to find the man, damn it!"

Alex Krycek came up next to him; the sudden closeness was startling now that they were dressed and life had resumed its normal appearance. Mulder wasn't sure if he wanted to object to it or not. It felt strange; no one entered his personal space that way, except Scully. "Maybe you should step back a little. Concentrate on the profile, stay off the streets."

"Why?" Mulder scowled. "I'm a field agent these days, not a profiler, no matter what Yun brought me in for. The best way to catch Flagstad will be to stake out his family home once we find it, and that's what I'm going to do."

"Maybe you should let someone else do it." Krycek's hand hovered over Mulder's shoulder, then dropped to his side again. "If we find that place. You could let Yun take over—"

"I'm not going to let Martin Yun take over anything," Mulder said tightly. "He brought me in as a consultant, he can deal with it. What the hell is going on here, anyway? I thought you wanted me to find Flagstad. Changed your mind already?"

Krycek sounded choked, awkward, determined. "No, but— I think it would be better if I—"

"If you?" Implications raced through Mulder's mind. He went cold with anger, then hot. "If you, what? What are you trying to say here? You want to find him, you said so yourself. What's your agenda, Krycek?"

Krycek sighed and ran his fingers through his hair, stroking it back; it fell forward again at once, obscuring one of his eyes. "We went through this last night. I know you want me to have all kinds of hidden motives, Mulder, but this isn't about that."

"So what is it about? Last night you said you wanted me to find him, now you're telling me to back off. What the hell's going on? What's different this morning?" The moment the words were out of his mouth he could think of a thousand answers, only one of which really mattered, and despite the anger he felt his tongue nearly tie itself in knots and he finished more weakly, "Why did you change your mind?"

"Because he's threatened to fucking well kill you!" Krycek snapped, his voice a whip, each word a stinging lash. "You think he doesn't mean it?"

"You think I can't take care of myself?"

"Bingo." Krycek's voice had dropped to a whisper, but it was still just as sharp. "That's exactly what I think. You told me yourself last night how Johnny gets his victims. Christ, Mulder, you've been put under so many times you'd probably let yourself be hypnotized by a pair of furry dice dangling from a rearview mirror, there's no way you could resist him."

"You don't even know that that's what he wants!" Mulder took a step back, putting distance between them. He looked at the face, at the darkening eyes, as though staring down into an abyss opening up right by his feet. "Why are you trying to get me to back off now? You decided you want to get to him first after all?"

"I don't want him to kill you."

"You were looking for Flagstad. It wasn't because he's an old friend. That was your mission this time, wasn't it. Wasn't it?" He stared hard into Krycek's eyes and saw the telltale flutter of long lashes, the first flickers of panic and guilt. The short nod. "You were going to kill him."

Krycek swallowed, looked down, then up again. "Yeah. That's why I was looking for him, but Mulder, it—"

"You fucking bastard, you pretended you didn't have any business with him any more, and you were going to get me to lead you to him!" Even as he said it, he knew that he should have known, and the falsity of his anger made him even angrier. "You're working for them again, goddamnit!" He didn't know what happened first, whether Krycek flinched even before his hand started moving, divining his intentions.


The only thing that could have stopped his fist from impacting with Krycek's face was the sound of his name spoken in that particular tone by that particular voice. He turned his head to see Scully standing by the open connecting door, her hand on the door knob. Anger hung around her, the saint's halo, a tightly contained blaze.

"I thought you were downstairs at breakfast," he said, surprised at the sudden calm of his voice when his heart was still pounding with fury and shock.

"You didn't show up. It's been twenty minutes." Scully let go of the door and stepped inside, her eyes moving with quick assessment over the two of them, and then over the room. It was Mulder's turn to flinch, though less perceptibly. He knew what she was going to find. When she saw the one messed-up bed, she drew in a sharp breath and her face grew even harder. "What is going on here?"

There wasn't a short answer to that. "It doesn't have anything to do with you, Scully." Although it was too late for him to claim that, now that she had seen and understood.

"She means with the case," Krycek said, his voice still hoarse with tension, but mocking for all that. "That is what we're fighting about, isn't it? You think I went to the trouble of saving your life because I need you to find Flagstad so I can kill him. Mulder, I walked out on my mission. I'm on my own, whether you want to believe it or not. There's someone else on Flagstad now, probably with orders to kill me while he's at it, and Flagstad's out to kill you; we'll just have to see which one of us survives the longest. If we don't get our act together, my money's on Johnny."

Krycek walked towards the door, not looking at Mulder, not turning his head at Scully's sharp "Where are you going?"

He did reply, as succinctly as possible. "Breakfast." The door closed behind him and he was gone.

Mulder turned towards Scully, who was watching him with an expression he knew well. He was angry himself this time, though. "He was sent to kill Flagstad, he admitted as much. How the hell am I supposed to believe him when he says he won't do it now? It would be a perfect setup — we take him there, he takes out Flagstad, we'll have done all the hard work for him."

"Why do you believe one thing he says and not another? You keep picking and choosing. If you don't trust him to tell you the truth, stop asking him questions. And if you think he's going to kill Flagstad, make sure he stays out of the investigation."

"But if we don't keep him with us, he'll get killed," Mulder muttered.

"You only have his word for that." Scully shook her head even as she was speaking, tossing strands of hair out of her face. "Mulder, forget about the investigation for a minute. Is this really — are you out of your mind?" He opened his mouth, closed it again when he realized where she was heading. "Is this what it looks like? You — he — you—"

She gestured towards the bed. The shock and anger warring in her eyes were almost like a physical blow. He couldn't deny that the assumption, or was it an accusation, was true, but didn't realize he would sound so defensive when he said, "I don't need you to tell me I've been stupid."

"Oh yes, you do. That's Alex Krycek, Mulder. You slept with Alex Krycek?" She walked up to him as she spoke, stepping in so close he could feel the heat of her emotions. "Stupid doesn't even begin to cover it. You just said yourself that you don't trust him, and that's not even the main reason why it's so..." A brief blush came and went on her cheeks. "I didn't want to believe it. I thought you had the TV on last night."

"You heard—" Mulder turned his head away abruptly. When he did, he found himself looking at the bed. His stomach turned over.

"God, Mulder. You really let me make a fool of myself last night, trying to talk about Krycek's attraction to you. Were you planning to do it even then — to have sex with the man who killed your father?" Her voice didn't shake, it was tight and controlled, stringing the words together like evenly matched pearls. "That's not just stupid, Mulder, it's — sick. Twisted."

"Scully." He didn't know what he was trying to say; with his head still turned away, he held up a hand, attempting to stop her words.

"I'm not going to say anything about the effect this could have on your career if anyone besides me found out about it, Mulder. I know you're intelligent enough to figure that out yourself. But what about you? What kind of—" She drew a deep breath. "I thought you had more sense than this. I thought you had better taste than this. I feel like I don't know you any more, Mulder. This is the last thing I would have expected from you."

"I didn't plan it." He couldn't raise his voice but he didn't want to, either. Any attempt at justification would be a mistake. "I didn't—" There were no words he could use to even start to explain it all to her. His chest ached tightly; it was hard to breathe. Mulder sucked in air and it caught in his throat. Without looking back at her, he went towards the door.

"Where are you going?" she asked again, far more sharply than she'd asked Krycek.

"I need some fresh air." He could barely get the words out.

"Mulder!" But he was through the door already and moved blindly down the corridor, got into the elevator, and the doors shut just as he saw Scully come out after him.

* * *

Waiting for Mrs. Gutierrez to open her door, he fiddled with his new sunglasses. He had discovered walking down Powell that he'd left his old pair behind in the hotel room, and nothing would have made him go back for them. Instead he'd turned into the nearest store and bought these — ridiculously expensive, comfortably stylish — to hide behind.

The sun beat down on his shoulders, warm enough almost to burn. The back of his neck was getting hot. During the cab ride here he had kept the window rolled down, watched streets and houses and refused the driver's every attempt to start a conversation. He could still hear Scully's angry voice ringing in his ears. She had been furious. Small wonder. He had slept with Alex Krycek.

When the door opened, he tried to make his face blank and neutral. "Mrs. Gutierrez—"

"Please come in," she said, stepping aside, looking dubiously at his face. Mulder quickly took the sunglasses off. She led him into the kitchen, a sunnier and less painfully tidy place than the living room they had stayed in last time. "Would you like some coffee?"

"Yes — no — yes, please." He hadn't quite been listening to her question. The obscenity of it all struck him, like a padded hammer striking a large gong, producing a deep, bone-jarring chime. Last night hadn't been one of his fantasies, it had been real. All of it. The taste was still in his mouth. "Could I use your bathroom?"

He didn't wait for an answer, walked quickly back and in through the door he'd seen when she led him past it, had enough presence of mind to turn the faucet on for concealment before falling to his knees and throwing up in the toilet bowl. The stomach acid burned his throat. Mulder spat and cursed and waited a moment to make sure it was only the once, before standing up to rinse his mouth. Over the sound of running water and the toilet flushing, he told himself conversationally to get a grip.

But he really had done it, and he could remember every detail. Not just the physical sensations, but the way he had felt, hearing Krycek cry out. That sound had etched itself into him with the inevitability of diamond cutting glass. So had Scully's angry words, telling him that he was sick and perverted.

Mulder looked at himself in the mirror. Well, what does she know? She's not a psychologist. Wanting to sleep with the man who killed your father is a perfectly normal reaction, an Oedipus-complex transference that has its root in some narcissistic drive towards autoeroticism— His stomach twisted, not relishing this flippancy. He swallowed hard and tried to make himself behave. Mrs. Gutierrez already had a less than ideal impression of FBI agents.

Rinsing his mouth one more time, he went out again and found her waiting in the kitchen, coffee mug held comfortably in her hand, while a second mug stood waiting for him. He watched the steam rise from the coffee, then lifted his eyes and met Mrs. Gutierrez' look. "Milk, sugar? Or cream?" she asked, pushing all these things closer to him across the counter top.

"Thanks. Mrs. Gutierrez, tell me about the man who came here." He sipped at the coffee. It was hot and strong, and the smell wound its way up through his nose and seemed to jump-start his brain. "I'd like you to describe what he looked like, and tell me all you can remember about what he said."

"He wasn't an FBI agent." Mrs. Gutierrez looked at him. Then she stirred her coffee with more force, spoon clinking against the inside of the mug and causing dark waves that nearly spilled over the sides. "I don't know what an FBI ID is supposed to look like! I didn't mean to do anything wrong!"

"Nobody blames you," Mulder said. He had a fair suspicion that what Flagstad had shown this woman hadn't borne any kind of resemblance to his and Scully's ID cards, but with Flagstad's unusual abilities, any square piece of paper might have looked right. "Just describe what happened."

Mrs. Gutierrez sipped at her coffee, then put the mug down. She kept hold of the spoon, gesturing with it for emphasis. "He came and rang the doorbell yesterday afternoon, a little after three. A tall man, skinny, a bit like—" She bit her lip and shot him a quick look.

"A bit like me," Mulder said and found his mouth working at a smile. "Only taller."

"Yes," she admitted. "He told me what his name was, but I can't remember. I know it was only yesterday, but it feels like a long time ago. He talked a lot, but I can't remember everything he said." Mrs. Gutierrez rubbed at her temple. "I'm getting old. He wore glasses."

"And he asked about a feather. You never mentioned the feather to me or Agent Scully when we were here." Mulder drank more coffee. His stomach griped a little, but his taste buds were having a grand time.

"You didn't ask!" The spoon went back into the mug with a splash. "I didn't know there was a feather. He helped me find it."

Mulder was seized with a sudden suspicion. "When the FBI and the police were here before — I don't mean myself and Agent Scully, but before that — did anyone go through Carlos' things, looking for something that could have a connection to this crime?"

"Some things." She frowned in thought. "One nice man, his name was Reeves, he asked me if Carlos had received any threats or strange phone calls, if there had been anything unusual, anything I had seen or heard. But I didn't! If someone had threatened Carlos," she looked pleadingly at Mulder, "he would have told me. Wouldn't he?"

"I don't think Carlos knew what the feather meant," Mulder said. It would fit very well with Flagstad's view of the world, he thought, for the man to believe that he was sending out a comprehensible warning. The recipients might have thought it a prank, a tease, a mistake, but hardly a threat. And the idea had apparently never occurred to either Yun or Reeves. At least Reeves had asked about threats, and it wasn't his fault that Carlos Gutierrez had never told his mother about being sent something as ridiculous as a feather. Details about Flagstad's MO had not yet begun to seep out then.

"We went down and looked through Carlos' things," Mrs. Gutierrez went on, "and it took maybe an hour before we found the feather and the envelope."

"He took both?" Mulder asked, feeling a feeble hope that maybe the envelope had been left behind. The feather would presumably be the same kind that had been found on the victims' bodies.

"Yes. He said he needed them for some kind of test. He was very polite, he said it would be a great help." She stared down at the counter top, then abruptly up at Mulder. "Who was he?" When he didn't answer at once, her black brows drew together. "Was he the one who killed Carlos?"

Mulder nodded. "I think so."

Her upper lip lifted from her teeth in an expression of mingled hatred and disgust that nearly made him take a step backwards. "If I had known," she said. "If I had known..."

"I understand how you feel, Mrs. Gutierrez. But that man is dangerous. If you see him again, call the police or the FBI at once. Don't try to talk to him, don't go near him." He sipped at his coffee. "Do you remember what you did after he left?"

She looked surprised. "I — I'm not sure. I remember sitting in the kitchen, that was a while after he'd gone, just sitting here. I think I was tired after looking through Carlos' things for that envelope."

"That memory is pretty clear, isn't it, compared to your memories of when the man who claimed to be an FBI agent was actually here?" She nodded. "I believe he may have hypnotized you, Mrs. Gutierrez. Have you ever been hypnotized previously?"

"Yes," she said, doubt in her voice. "At a party, when I was younger. It made us silly. There was one boy who made sounds like a sheep, and I sang a song. But this wasn't like that. I don't remember a pendant, or anyone telling me to go to sleep." The creases in her forehead deepened. "The sun was glinting off his watch. I remember that I was annoyed, when I opened the door, I got that light in my eyes. Do you think that was it?"

"Maybe it was." Mulder wasn't actually sure. Flagstad had mesmerized the victims at night, when he wouldn't have been able to count on such things as light reflections. Maybe it was sheer coincidence that this was what Mrs. Gutierrez remembered best. "And you think he may have taken the tape out of Carlos' answering machine as well?"

"It's not there any more," she said simply.

"Were there any messages on it?"

"I don't know."

As he was thinking about it, his phone rang. Mulder hesitated for a moment, his hand hovering over his pocket. It was very likely to be Scully, still angry. The second signal cut the air and he became aware that Mrs. Gutierrez was watching him curiously. "Mulder."

"Hey, Spooky." Martin Yun sounded briskly cheerful, determined to forget yesterday's conversation. That was fine with him. "We've got a lead on Flagstad. He used the Colquitt identity and credit card to rent a room on Russian Hill." Yun rattled off an address. "They haven't seen him there for a couple of days, but we're going in carefully all the same. You wanna be in on it, you meet me there right away."

Mulder nodded. "Is Scully coming?" he asked, striving to make the words casual.

"No, she's babysitting." Yun laughed. "Sedley got some names out of that Roe woman, and your partner is helping round them up. She insisted that they ought to be stashed in a safe house somewhere until we get Flagstad. So I guess we'd better hurry."

"Yeah. Corner of Leavenworth and Greenwich? I'll see you there." He hung up and turned back to Mrs. Gutierrez, who had finished her coffee and was rattling the spoon in the empty mug, seemingly unaware of the movement of her hand. "I'm sorry, looks like I have to run. But I want to ask you before I go, is there anything you remember about what the man said yesterday? Anything that struck you as out of character, or strange for an FBI agent to say?"

She shook her head. "No. I've thought, and — no. I can't remember much of what he said. He wanted to know about the feather, and he liked my coffee, and he asked about you."

"About me?" Mulder said, taken aback.

"Yes, you and the other agent." Mrs. Gutierrez frowned. "Nothing really, he just mentioned you — asked if it had been you two who were here. What you talked about."

"I see." And he thought he did. Mulder thanked Mrs. Gutierrez for the coffee, and she walked him to the door still fretting over having let the killer into her house. He could understand that. When the door closed behind him, he heard the rattle as she put the chain on.

It made sense that Flagstad would have tried to check in what direction the investigation was going. But the killer could hardly have expected Mrs. Gutierrez to be privy to the details. If he wanted to know more, he would have to go elsewhere. Mulder fished out his cell phone again as he walked into the sunny street, and dialed slowly.


"This is Agent Mulder." He weighed truth and efficiency against each other. "Sir, I think you should be careful about checking the ID's of everyone who comes in today. Flagstad's been impersonating an FBI agent and visiting the mother of one of the victims."

"He showed an FBI ID?" Spelling reacted immediately.

"That's what Mrs. Gutierrez said, but she's also admitted that she doesn't know what an FBI ID looks like. It seems likely that he tricked her somehow, made her believe him."

"Agent Mulder, you say in your profile that you believe the killer, Flagstad, has some unusual abilities — something about hypnotism? Is that what you're insinuating here?"

"I'm not insinuating anything. A former associate of Flagstad's has said that the man has an interest in hypnotism. And many serial killers like to involve themselves in the investigation in some way," he allowed himself to sound a little obnoxious, stating something that Spelling was well aware of. "I think it wouldn't hurt to keep an extra watch on things."

Spelling coughed, an annoyed rumble that had Mulder holding the phone away from his ear and scowling. "I'll tighten up security. Is the woman all right?"

"Yes, but Flagstad walked away with a piece of evidence we didn't even know existed. It seems he sends the victims a white dove feather ahead of time."

Spelling's breath whistled between his teeth. "I see. I'll get someone to check the homes of the other victims again." One of the few good things about a high-priority case that was in the public eye — Spelling was throwing everything and everyone he had at this. "Yun had a lead on his whereabouts—"

"I'm going to meet him there."

When Mulder hung up he stood indecisively for a few moments, phone in one hand and sunglasses in the other. He hadn't asked the cab to wait, and the residential street was deserted, nothing moving in the strong sunlight. Sweat was beginning to trickle between his shoulderblades. After a while he put the phone away and the sunglasses on and started to walk towards the distant rattle of a streetcar.

It was something of a relief to know that Scully was off working on another end of the case, that he probably wouldn't run into her when he went to meet Yun. He didn't want to have to face that look in her eyes again any time soon. She'd never looked at him quite like that before, not even when they'd argued fiercely about some conviction of his or of hers, not even when he'd taken off without her in a critical situation.

This had been anger on a whole new scale. He had slept with Alex Krycek, Krycek the killer betrayer liar double agent miserable stinking rat scum. She must think he was either sublimely kinky, or totally out of his mind.

Mulder considered the question. Well, which was it? He'd reached a larger street, and looked around for a cab to hail. There wasn't a car in sight. He turned right and started to walk in towards the city, or at least towards the next streetcar stop. Kinky or crazy, interesting alternatives, and normally he would have asked if he couldn't be both. But he couldn't attribute the events of last night to anything as facile or dismissive as that. Couldn't say that he didn't know what he'd been doing, or that he'd been looking for some perverted thrill.

No, he couldn't go on Ricki Lake as Men who like to blow their fathers' killers. When he had taken Krycek's cock in his mouth, all he had been thinking about was giving pleasure.

What Krycek had been thinking was anyone's guess. Mulder looked along the street and saw a streetcar in the distance. He settled in to wait, uncomfortably aware that his shirt was clinging to his back under the suit jacket. Krycek's mission was to kill Flagstad. Krycek was working for the consortium again. It had finally been spelled out in so many words.

He didn't know why it hurt so much.

The sunglasses slipped down his sweaty nose and he cursed under his breath. There wasn't a cloud in the sky. Looking down along the street he saw, beyond the streetcar, past the houses, what had to be the sea. When the streetcar arrived he got on and tried to give the operator a five-dollar bill. She just looked at him. "Exact change only," she drawled.

Mulder dug around in the pockets of his suit jacket and came up with fifty-seven cents. Two schoolboys sitting near the front of the streetcar were laughing at him. He checked his pants pockets and only found some lint and a paper clip. The operator was tapping her fingers impatiently; he curbed the impulse to consign everything and everyone to the devil. "I'm sorry, I—"

"Here." A middle-aged woman with three shopping bags leaned forward and handed him two quarters. "You a tourist?"

He paid and sank down on the seats right behind her with the air of a WWI soldier ducking into a trench. "Actually I'm a Federal agent."

"But you're not from around here or you'd know about needing exact change," she said, smiling at him with a mixture of benevolence and superiority. "I try to help out where I can, though. You have to do a little bit of good every day."

Mulder nodded cautiously. "You can try," he said.

"Your day hasn't been worth anything if you haven't made anyone smile, I always say." Her eyes were rather demanding, so he showed his teeth as best he could. As far as he knew, he hadn't made anyone smile today.

The ride seemed to take forever, while he tried to work out where he needed to get off. The woman who'd rescued him went on taking credit for this and innumerable other good deeds, but when someone sat down beside her she stopped trying to twist around to face him. Mulder finally got off at a subterranean stop and made his way to the surface with no real idea of where he was. He found a cab and fell into it with a sigh of relief.

During the drive his foot tapped of its own accord as he kept glancing at his watch; Yun had asked him to hurry. He dug his cell phone out, looked at it, put it back again. His finger had hovered, about to hit speed dial, call Scully. Mulder leaned back in the seat and wondered if she had taken Krycek with her. It seemed unlikely on the surface of it, as Krycek was probably the second-to-last person Scully wanted to see today, but Mulder didn't think she'd trust anyone else to keep an eye on him, either. No one else at all, presumably, after this morning.

He tried to think about it. He'd lost her trust — it had been there in her eyes when she said she felt as though she didn't know him any longer. And he didn't know what he could do to regain what he had lost. This wasn't some issue of belief where they could resign themselves to agreeing to disagree. It was something he had done that could never be undone, and that would be harder for her to forgive than any last-minute ditch, any other stunt he'd pulled behind her back.

Mulder closed his eyes. This was his private life, not part of a case. No. This was his private life and it was part of a case. God, my life is so screwed up. I am so screwed up.

"We're here," the driver announced, his accent British and incongruous. "Or as close as I can take you."

Looking up, Mulder saw that the street was blocked with Bureau cars and people. Yun was standing by the steps of the house that had to be the one Flagstad had rented a room in, scowling impatiently. So, no heroic capture yet. Mulder paid the driver and got out of the car, unfolding himself into an unobtrusive stretch; when he pulled his shoulders back he heard the crack and pop of shifting vertebrae.

He walked up the street, pausing only to flip his ID open at the one junior G-man of the SF field office who didn't recognise Spooky Mulder, and turned in through the open gate to meet Yun. "No sign he's been here since the landlord saw him last?"

"Landlady. No." Yun grimaced up at him. "Where the hell were you? I couldn't hold off everything just to wait till you got here."

"You didn't have to," Mulder said. "I got delayed." He went past Yun and into the house; as he'd expected, Yun followed him.

The room Flagstad-as-Colquitt had rented was on the second floor, and an unholy mess — the floor was littered with empty take-out cartons, dirty underwear, pamphlets from every UFO-related group or organization in the Bay Area. These things were in the process of being collected by a young agent whose black hair was slipping free from its careful knot. Mulder thought he remembered her from the beach, yesterday morning. She glanced up at them both, and tried to smooth the frown off her face; Mulder went around her to look out the windows. It was a corner room, which gave him too large an area to choose from for his liking.

"You came up here for the view, Spooky?" Yun bent to inspect a colorful flier for a meeting held two weeks ago — Dolphins Channel Alien Poetry! — and then straightened up again. "Come on, look at this stuff, make yourself useful." Despite the dog-trainer attitude, there was a real plea for help lurking somewhere in his voice. Mulder couldn't be bothered to take offence.

"I am," he said, and tapped at the glass. "Somewhere out there, probably close by, is Flagstad's boyhood home. And that's the place he's chosen for the next killing. I'll bet you my entire collection of video tapes that you can see it from here."

"I don't want your goddamn video tapes. Attack of the Fifty-Foot Woman, alien autopsies—"

"Debbie Does Dallas—" He looked more closely at the window panes. The window to the left was greasier, smeary with human touch here and there, though nothing as clear as a fingerprint was visible. Mulder renewed his attention to what could be seen in that direction.

"Probably Debbie Does Betelgeuse," Yun grumbled. "Bet there's a market for that," he overturned some more fliers with his foot, "an abduction scenario, some guys in latex suits—"

"I hate to kill your new career before it's started, Martin, but it's been done." Mulder turned around and surveyed the room again. Flagstad liked Chinese. He wore white cotton Y-fronts and had either been here a very long time, or was very particular about changing his underwear regularly. There were no bags left behind, no other items of clothing.

"You have a signed copy?" The comeback was weak. Yun was fiddling with his tie. As soon as the young woman went out of the room with her burden of white cartons and plastic spoons, he turned to Mulder. "Look, Spooky, we need to move faster here. We're under a lot of pressure now."

"Spelling sounded pretty relaxed when I talked to him," Mulder said, crouching down and pretending to become absorbed in a paper densely printed in Gothic script, all caps, that invited the reader to hear Blaine Hibbert read from his own manuscript about abductions. He blinked; he hadn't known Hibbert was working on a book. "So who lit the fire under your ass?"

"I can catch this guy," Yun said insistently. "I know I can."

Mulder glanced up at him and nodded, rather noncommittally. "Spelling said—"

"Goddamnit, will you stop talking to Spelling behind my back?" Yun flicked a quick glance towards the door, went down on one knee next to Mulder, looking for all the world as if he were about to propose. His eyes burned blackly. "I know you're not trying to take this case away from me," he said, his voice flat with anger. "You talk to me, not to Spelling."

Illumination came to Mulder, rather late. Spelling sounded serene because he had faith in Mulder, not in Yun. And Yun's reaction wasn't exactly unexpected. "Martin," he looked directly at Yun, the two of them huddled up together in one corner of the room, "I don't give a flying fuck what you want me to do or not to do."

He straightened up again and took a couple of steps away, distancing himself again, or trying to. Dust danced in the sun stripes falling in through the window; outside the light beat down on trees, houses, slopes, concrete steps. There were older houses up to the left, and his interest quickened at the sight.

"You're going to try to take this one for yourself, then? You think you can get your career going again by coming in here and, and applying the magic Fox Mulder touch to my case, by taking all the credit for it? You haven't solved this one yet and even if you do, you'll still be Spooky the nutcase. You think Spelling respects you? You're nothing but a tool to him, Mulder."

"Shut up," he said evenly, with studied calm, as the dark-haired young agent came back again accompanied by a man in his fifties who was snapping on latex gloves with an air of distaste. Of course Spelling saw him as a tool. Everyone did. Krycek certainly had. "Let's go back outside."

They went back down the stairs in silence. Mulder could sense Yun seething behind him, and wondered if it would be worth the effort to try to calm him down. Just as he admitted to himself he didn't particularly want to waste any energy trying, his cell phone rang. He stepped out into the sunshine and answered it.

"Mulder, it's me." There was a brief pause. He didn't know whether to allude to their last words to each other or not, and apparently Scully didn't either, but then she went on, "Is — is Krycek with you?"

"No." Forebodings gathered around his head like small dark storm clouds. "I thought — assumed — he would have gone with you today."

"He did." In Scully's dry, clipped tones he could hear just how comfortable she and Krycek had been with that arrangement. Mulder squinted against the sunlight, getting his bearings — the houses that had sparked his curiosity waited for him. "But then he got a phone call—"

"Krycek got a phone call?"

"Yes. An Agent Mortimer called on my phone and said that Spelling had some questions. And then Krycek took off, with the phone, and I haven't seen him since. I called the office just now."

"There is no Agent Mortimer," Mulder predicted glumly. The sunshine didn't seem quite so warm and bright any longer. "And they hadn't seen Krycek."

"No." Scully sighed, a barely audible little exhalation of breath. "I should have kept a closer watch on him. He was," her voice faded a little, "not very communicative for most of the morning." Meaning they hadn't said two words to each other, Mulder guessed. That didn't really surprise him.

"No one saw him leave?"

"I didn't notice he was missing until about twenty minutes after I handed him the phone," Scully said. "He could have gone anywhere. I've tried calling, but he doesn't answer — he might just have dumped the phone somewhere."

"Where are you now?" he asked. Yun was watching him intently, the remains of anger warring with curiosity in the other agent's face.

"Marin. Mulder, do you think Krycek got a message from — his employers?"

"Seems pretty likely, doesn't it?" The sunshine had turned icy. The taste in his mouth was of ashes and rain. He hadn't believed his day could get any worse. "So either he was told to get the hell away from us, or they've found Flagstad." Mulder looked at his watch. "How long has he been missing?"

"It's been half an hour since the phone call. Ten minutes since I discovered he was gone. We're leaving here now, we have to make another stop before we can come back to the city. I've alerted Spelling to Krycek's disappearance."

"All right. I'll talk to Yun. Call me if anything comes up, if you can think of anything."

"I will."

As he put the phone away, he felt a smile as cold as the sunshine curve his mouth. Mulder turned back to Martin Yun. "You can stop worrying," he said. "We've lost Krycek. I'm pretty sure Spelling won't love me any more once he hears about that."

"Your partner lost him?" Yun shook his head. "Careless."

"It's my fault." Mulder checked his watch again, every minute measuring the distance of how far Krycek could run. "She would've helped you put him in a cell, Martin." His smile grew slightly manic. "You were right. We need to move faster. What do we do now?"

"The people Roe identified as potential victims have been put under 24-hour protective surveillance," Yun said. "Problem is, I'm not convinced Flagstad won't just take his next set off the street — or at least," he amended at Mulder's look, "pick some couple that's as close as he can get to what he wants. I got a look at those lists. The whole fucking state of California is full of people who think they were snatched by little green men. He can pick and choose."

"Little grey men," Mulder said, half to himself, ignoring Yun's exasperated sigh at the words. "We need to find the Flagstad family property, and we need to find out his real name. There are people going through property records, we can tell them to narrow their search down to the area that can be seen from those windows," he jerked his head up in the general direction of the second story of the house behind them.

"You're that sure he's in that house, wherever it is?" Yun sounded reluctant to be persuaded.

"I won't stop you from looking for him anywhere else." Mulder took his sunglasses out and turned them over between his fingers. "I'm going to take a walk around here, see if there's anything that looks suggestive."

Yun sighed. "We're on a hill. You could see half the city from those windows, Spooky. How much walking are you planning to do?"

"I didn't have time for my run this morning." He shifted his shoulders, trying to dislodge the shirt that was sticking to his back. Not unless you counted running away from the hotel. "If we're lucky, it's close. Flagstad would have wanted to be as near to it as possible."

Shrugging, Yun walked out into the street. "All right. Take Agent McKee with you, she's the one upstairs with Olsen, call in if you find anything—" He broke off and had the grace to catch himself up and grin. "Just let me know, Spooky, okay? I'll be in the office. With the property records."

Mulder stayed where he was, leaning against the gate, and watched Yun get into a car and drive off. Sweat was beading on his forehead and upper lip, but he barely noticed. The day was beginning its descent into afternoon, and a shimmering heat haze lay along the long straight streets, hovered above the rooftops. I could use something to drink.

He glanced up towards the apartment on the second floor where Agent McKee was presumably still collecting pamphlets, and then went out into the street and turned right, wandering up along the large flat concrete blocks of the pavement. He didn't want to have any Agent McKee, or agent anything, tagging along. Somewhere not too far away, children were playing, shrieking with glee. Mulder knew the sensible, methodical thing to do would be to go from door to door. He wandered slowly up to the next intersection, looking in all directions for a convenience store, or an itinerant beer seller.

Mrs. Gutierrez' coffee had left his stomach growling. He turned right again, staying in the shade, until he reached a set of stairs leading up to a small lane. Mulder paused and looked up. Flagstad would have had a clear view of those houses from the left-hand window in his rented room. He stood vacillating for a while, and then his stomach clenched insistently. With a resigned sigh, Mulder went on, heading down the hill.

He found a small café with two rickety metal tables outside under an unbleached, utilitarian-looking awning, squeezed into the shade, the table legs propped up on one side with small wooden blocks. Despite this precaution, his beer nearly spilled over the side of the glass when he put it down. He ate a slice of cold mushroom-and-spinach pie and tried to read a four-day-old newspaper he found lying on the other table. The words couldn't quite catch his attention; they slid off the surface of his eyes, of his mind, directly into oblivion. After a while he put the paper aside in resignation and concentrated on finishing his beer.

So, Krycek was gone. It shouldn't really surprise him. Hadn't it been obvious from the start that Krycek had had his own agenda? Krycek always had his own agenda, no matter what he said. Mulder supposed he should be grateful that this one had included saving his life.

And some sex to pass the time. He couldn't pretend that had been Krycek's idea, though. It had felt so right to reach out, last night. He'd made the mistake of thinking that Krycek could soothe the pain inside him, when the truth was, Krycek was the pain inside him.

"Coffee? Dessert?" The waiter was leaning in the open door, with a tray clamped under one arm and his pen poised to take the order, although Mulder didn't see why he needed to write down the requests of his only customer. "We have a really good chocolate coffee cake, six layers, with walnuts on top."

"Sounds good." Mulder nodded absently, and the waiter disappeared again. He stared across the street, eyes unfocused. Damn Krycek anyway. For turning up, for vanishing, for sharing his blood, for saving Mulder's life, for every single kiss, every touch, for all his betrayals, for anything, everything.

You killed my father. You hurt everyone I care for. I don't believe a word you say. You've come between me and Scully. You meant to use me and kill Flagstad. You keep walking out on me every time I come close to trusting you. I thought you were dead, Alex, fuck you, don't do this to me again!

Let go and he disappears.

"Hey, are you all right? Uh, sir?"

Mulder slowly unclenched his hand from where it gripped the arm of his chair, and turned his head to meet the waiter's concerned look. "I'm fine," he said and reached to take the coffee cup from the outstretched hand. "Thanks."

The glass plate that replaced the remains of his pie held an enormous slice of cake, enough for three people. Mulder picked up his fork, seeing red lines on his palm where the edges of the metal armrest had bitten into his skin. Chocolate cake reminded him of Alex Krycek. A lot of things reminded him of Alex Krycek. He took a small bite and blinked at the dense chocolate-and-coffee taste. He could be here all afternoon.

Krycek had seemed so vulnerable then, in Leyden Creek, eating chocolate cake with his past exploding all around him. Everything he hadn't said about the way he had grown up had struck a chord in Mulder, had forced unwilling, silent empathy out of him even as he tried to resist. He was still trying to resist, but he hadn't done it well enough. Krycek kept insinuating himself into his life, into his work, into everything that was important to him, making himself a part of it.

And then he'd leave. Scowling at his fork, Mulder thought about the information Krycek was walking away with, wondered if there was anything there that would trip up the rest of the investigation, the way he'd already been tripped up, the way he'd fallen.

It took him half an hour to eat half the slice of cake, washed down with another cup of coffee. By then he was on a sugar-and-caffeine high that made his brain bounce against the inside of his skull. He hadn't heard from Scully again, or Yun, but he didn't think either of them would call him to make small talk right now. Yun was probably busy sucking up to Spelling in some way or other. Poor idiot, Mulder thought, then wondered if he meant Spelling or Yun.

Yun wasn't a bad agent, though. Not normally. But having allowed his prejudices to get the better of him at the start of this case, he was now scrambling to catch up and get ahead and would probably, Mulder thought without any real concern, try to do so by any means at his disposal. Mulder found himself wishing idly that Yun had stayed at home with the kids and that it was Michelle working with him instead. She'd been more concerned with results and less with making herself look good.

He took a last bite of cake, finished his coffee and tucked a couple of bills under the edge of the plate. When he got to his feet he jostled the table and it rattled, the wooden blocks slipping. Mulder backed away cautiously and headed back up the street again, hoping he'd be out of earshot when it fell.

Most of the houses around here looked well-kept and obviously inhabited. He wondered if there was any chance that the Flagstad house had been sold or rented, if Flagstad was keeping some people hostage there. Possible, but he didn't think so. More likely that the house would have stood empty for some years and that he should be looking for places that could use a bit of maintenance.

He retraced his steps, studying every place he went past. Flagstad would be there, hidden away, having finally discarded his Colquitt disguise and any attempt at screening himself behind a normal identity. Everything that wasn't necessary would have been peeled away in preparation for what was to come. The next one was the important one. Mulder stopped abruptly, letting that thought unfold to its logical end. Did Flagstad think he had found Lewis and Grazzini? Had he found them?

It would have been useful to be able to discuss the question with Krycek but Krycek was gone, and besides, he reminded himself, he wouldn't have been able to believe anything Krycek said. Mulder shook his head and resumed his slow pace. A cat lay sunning itself on a car roof and he threw it a tiredly amused glance. He was melting; the furry creature seemed more than comfortable. Perhaps Flagstad had truly found the couple he was looking for, perhaps he only thought he had, perhaps he was still looking. In any case, he had to be caught before the next kill. Tonight — tomorrow morning.

If Flagstad performed his last ritual killing, it seemed not unlikely that he would vanish after that, sink into invisibility after having finished what he thought of as his mission. Then he would be all but impossible to find. Or, Mulder admitted to himself, they might get to him first and dispense their own brand of justice. He clenched his jaw. They. Krycek. Damn it. Krycek had claimed he wasn't after Flagstad any longer, but how the hell could Mulder believe it? He had spent last night in the embrace of a contract killer, feeling warm and safe, feeling almost happy.

Higher up along the street, he saw a woman carefully digging around in large flowerpots balanced precariously along a wooden railing. Mousy brown hair fell in her face and she flicked it back with a garden-gloved hand. "Excuse me," he said, and waited until she looked up. "Do you know if there are any empty houses around here?"

The woman straightened up and put the small trowel down. "To rent, you mean? Or to buy?" He nodded. Her eyes assessed him, his appearance, his clothes. "I don't think so. You can rent rooms or apartments, but — well, there's a place two blocks that way," she nodded her head, "that was for sale a while ago, but I think they've taken the sign down now. And a house up there," now she pointed, instead, up towards the lane he'd seen before, "you might be able to rent if you could find the owners."

Then her face closed up with sudden suspicion, and she seemed to regret what she'd said. Mulder dug into his pocket and got out his ID. "It's all right," he said, "I'm not a burglar. Thanks for your help."

She was still leaning forward, trying to see what the ID card said, when he walked off. If there was a house up in that lane that was standing empty, its owners untraceable, he was going to take a good look at it. The memory of the smudged window was very clear in his mind, and he was absolutely certain that Flagstad would have spent a lot of time in that room looking towards the one spot that for him symbolized everything that was important to him about this city; the one spot that was and always would be his place of safety, his true home.

Mulder tried to imagine feeling that way. The truth was, his home was not exactly his castle. He didn't trust any walls to keep him safe. As he walked, he loosened his tie and undid the top button of his shirt, relieved that there was no Agent McKee with him to take into consideration. He wasn't in a mood to explain his hunches, impulses, or methods of investigation.

When he got back to the stairs he turned and walked up, one hand skimming along the smoothly worn railing. The wood ran silken and slick under his fingers and reminded him with unpleasant suddenness of Alex Krycek's skin. Mulder pulled his hand away and pushed it into his pocket. It was shady here, the deep shade of trees and houses, and cooler than the street down below. He made his way slowly along the well-kept paving stones.

It was easy to see which of the houses here did not fit in with the rest — rather like one of the first questions in an IQ test. Shuttered windows, a small overgrown front yard, flaking paint, gutters overflowing with something green that looked semi-sentient at least. He went closer, seeing the low, half-open gate where the street number had fallen off, leaving only a darker shadow on the wood.

From farther up the lane he heard voices, footsteps, the clang and clatter of tools. Mulder glanced up to see two men working on repairing a window frame. He looked down at the gate again; his hand was resting on it now, almost without any conscious decision on his part. He ought to go back, or at least call in this address and demand that Yun find out who owned the house. When he leaned forward he saw a fallen mailbox lying on its side just inside the fence, covered in dirt and leaves. A name had been elaborately painted on its side in flowing Gothic script. For a moment he was irrationally reminded of Blaine Hibbert's stupid flier. Then he saw that the first letter was a large curling F.

Mulder didn't pause to think about it; he was through the gate, across the small yard and up the steps to the house before some remnant of caution made him freeze with his hand on the door and he listened intently. There was no sound from inside, but he hadn't really expected there to be. Waiting like that at a closed door hardly ever brought an actual sound of confirmation, nor could silence be taken to mean anything certain. It was more a question of listening for emptiness, or for presence.

Eventually he tried the door handle. The door wasn't locked. It opened slowly and silently under his hand, so silently he moved in to look at the hinges, touching them with a fingertip and finding them recently oiled. His heart beat faster. This is it. This is the right place. He's been here.

Gun in hand, he went inside and waited for his eyes to adjust to the dim light. The house smelled of dust and crumbling wallpaper, earth and wood. It was more run-down than it had looked from the outside; it would take a lot of work to make it habitable again. The furniture had been left behind, unprotected. Mulder shook his head. Someone had left this place in a hurry, and it had stood untenanted for years. He'd hypothesized that the second parent, probably the father, had died while Flagstad was in South America. It didn't look as though Johnny had come back to claim his inheritance until now.

Mulder walked slowly along the hallway. Dust balls rolled along the floor, stirred by his passing. He stopped and carefully scanned the room opening up on the right: empty. Books were falling apart in dark bookshelves; the goose-necked lamp poised to illuminate a table and a deep armchair was host to an elaborate spiderweb, and the lampshade had frayed into tattered, yellowed, irregular lace. This could be a beautiful house if someone took care of it, but Mulder saw no sign that anyone had entered this room for years.

He went on towards the back of the house. The hallway ended with an arch leading into a larger room where the sunshine filtered in between the slats of the shutters, raising a fine dust haze that made it difficult for him to see anything. Mulder went in with his gun at the ready and his eyes half-closed. Most of the floor was bare, but there was some furniture towards the back wall — a couple of chairs, a table, a chest of drawers. He saw a dark shape, the outline of a head, and froze, his aim as true as he could make it. "FBI! Put your hands up—"

"I knew you'd come." It was said quietly, but with great finality. The man in the right-hand chair got to his feet, moving with slow deliberation and keeping his hands where Mulder could see them the whole time. When he rose the chair creaked in protest.

Johnny Flagstad was several inches taller than Mulder, with long arms and legs and a long, non-descript face. He was wearing black pants with side pockets, low boots and a dark green short-sleeved shirt over a black t-shirt. The glasses were, as everyone had agreed, wire-rimmed and harmless-looking. It wasn't possible to see his eyes behind them; sunshine glinted off the glass and the metal.

"You're under arrest." Mulder tried to see behind the glassy glittering surface, to find the man, whatever his name was, that he had been chasing. The military obsession was there, both in the clothing and in the way Flagstad held himself. "You have the right to remain silent—"

"I knew you'd come. I knew that I could count on you to come to me." The sunshine-sparks were almost but not quite regular, like waves rolling in towards an unseen shore, blending and separating in a seamless, absorbing rhythm. Flagstad smiled. He had narrow lips and small, even teeth. His voice was much softer than Mulder had expected. "It will be all right now, it's all going the way I'd planned. I'm very glad you're here."

Flagstad walked across the floor towards Mulder, his body weight setting off little creaks and shudders in the broad planks. He was too thin for his height, his shoulders wide but oddly lacking in solidity; he ought to disappear if seen in profile. One large hand reached out and plucked the gun from Mulder's grip. There was considerable strength there, no matter what he looked like.

"You can't take that," Mulder said, shaking his head, trying to clear away the sunspots that danced before his eyes. A metal shaft was sticking out of Flagstad's shirt pocket, blunt, slightly rusty. Or was that really rust? Mulder tried to make himself focus on it, but Flagstad's hand caught his chin and tilted his head up.

"Don't worry. It will be all right now." Flagstad's voice dropped to a friendly murmur. "It's all started now, anyway. You can't do anything to stop it." He shook Mulder's head lightly. "Not a thing."

Flagstad let go, still smiling, and Mulder tried to clear his head and think of something to say. The blow came out of nowhere, a large palm hitting his cheek and the left half of his mouth. His head snapped sideways and he lost his balance, taking two steps before slamming into the wall. Mulder drew in a quick breath and jerked himself upright. "We can talk about this," he said indistinctly around his split lip, unable even as the words left his mouth to imagine how, or what would be said.

"We could," Flagstad agreed. "But I don't want to talk." He pulled his arm back for another blow. "I don't think it's a good idea for me to talk to you. I know what you are." Mulder tried to dodge, couldn't. The second openhanded slap took the right side of his face and made his ears ring.

When he closed his eyes he saw dancing sunny waves, gold and glitter. He forced his arms up slowly through thick and uncooperative air to try to shield his head, and Flagstad punched him in the stomach, making him fold over with a sound at first more of surprise than pain. He had a sudden, reality-disrupting memory of Skinner's apartment in Crystal City, dim lights, a man hunched around the impact of a solid fist. A large hand gripped the back of his shirt collar and pulled him upright, tie and cloth choking him; then a second blow drove the air from his lungs.

If he'd had the breath for speech, he would have tried to ask what was happening. Flagstad was hitting him slowly and methodically, not hard enough to do any deeper damage, he thought, just bruising him all over. Mulder tried to grasp the implications, failed. "Wh—"

The sound barely left his mouth before the palm of Flagstad's hand rendered him forcibly silent. "Don't worry," the man said, and Mulder wondered at the tone of reassurance. He attempted to lift his arm. Something weighed him down. "I know what you are. It'll be all right. Now that you're here, it'll be all right."

He never saw the last blow, the one that made the glittergold waves close over his head and sent him into darkness.

Lovers V: Heaven-handling

"There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands" — T. S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

"And when the Foreign Office find a Treaty's gone astray,
Or the Admiralty lose some plans and drawings by the way,
There may be a scrap of paper in the hall or on the stair—
But it's useless to investigate—Macavity's not there!" — T. S. Eliot, Macavity: the Mystery Cat

The flower garland that was stenciled along the wall, all around the room, presented a vaguely Jugend impression but had almost certainly been put there sometime in the mid-Seventies. The color scheme, brown and orange, provided something of a clue. Smears here and there in the paint indicated that whoever had done the stencilling hadn't been very good at it. Thin vine curls ran in almost perfect figure eights between the stylized leaves.

Almost perfect. His eyes traced the first loop, the second one, and then had to skip with an annoying little wrench past a leaf to start on the next set. And the next. And the next. Loop, loop, wrench. Loop, loop, wrench. A thin brown line against the dingy background. Sometimes it was hard to make out and he had to look closely; he could have used his glasses. Mulder reached the edge of the wall and turned ninety degrees to face the next one. His feet scuffed on the floor and raised a small cloud of dust.

It was hot in here. Sweat was running down his face, tracking cleaner lines through the dust and dirt. It stung the scratches over his left cheekbone, and he shook his head, a short, cramped movement, trying to get the flattened hair off his forehead and the moisture out of his face without taking his eyes off the wall. Loop. Loop. Wrench. Orange and brown. The room was very small, hardly more than a walk-in closet, converted to a child's bedroom by the addition of a tiny square window. Not much light entered by way of it, just the heat of the sun.

His shirt was sticking to his body, sweat and dirt dulling the fabric. The spot between his shoulderblades itched. And the backs of his thighs, and the soles of his feet, and the edge of his jaw. The rest of him just ached. Mulder moved his lips in a slow attempt to complain, then regretted it as the cut in his lower lip started to open up again. The movement caused another few drops of blood to trickle down his chin. Loop, loop, wrench.

The house was very quiet around him. He couldn't hear Flagstad, but he knew the man was there, probably just on the other side of the door, which had been left a few inches ajar. Mulder took another shuffling step sideways, following the flower garland. He stretched his arms and tried to get his bound hands to reach the itch at the back of his left thigh, and failed as his shoulder muscles began to cramp.

In here, the air was thick and clinging. It was hard to move. It was hard even to move his eyes, and tracing the loops of the flowering vine was slow work. Reaching the next corner, he turned again. A piece of paper whispered under his shoe. This was a very small room, but the flower garland went on forever. He went on forever, around and around. Around the room, around the small bag in the corner, full of feathers.

He knew that they weren't white.

A sound dropped into the silence of the house. It was a familiar sound, a metal sound, a gun sound. Loop. Loop. Wrench. It died out, its echo died out, the memory of the sound died out and the vine wound its way across the wall. The garland was painted high, to go over the window, and he had to keep his head tilted back. Light directly on his face distracted him and he narrowed his eyes to slits, desperate not to be blinded and lose track of the thin brown line. Loop. Loop.

"Come around the corner, Alex. I don't bite."

Wrench. His neck muscles quivered under the strain.

"Like hell you don't." The words were politely enough spoken, if a little breathless. The voice was so very familiar. Another involuntary muscle spasm pulled his arms back, clenched his neck muscles tighter, as part of him tried to turn towards the door. "You didn't ask me to come here for coffee and conversation. I brought the things you said you wanted."

"I'm sure you did. Come in here." There was a spiderweb in one corner of the window, and it fluttered a little in some small draft, a disturbing movement at the edge of his vision. "I really want to talk to you, Alex."

"You're talking." No sound of movement followed. "What have you done with him?"


"Mulder." Hearing his own name made him react again, tugged at his aching body, but his eyes stayed locked to the painted garland, unable to look away. "Where the hell is he? You said you had him."

"He's entertaining himself. Don't worry about that. It's too early to do anything yet, and I need her, too." Flagstad chuckled, light and happy laughter. "I figured it all out. They didn't give me all the information I needed, but I figured it out."

"You figured what out?" Loop. Loop. Wrench. "Johnny. Why don't you tell me about it?"

"Come in here and I'll tell you." There was a creak, Flagstad settling himself more comfortably into his chair. Mulder could very clearly picture him sprawling there, long-limbed, loose and easy with the grace of a resting predator. He wanted to spit at his mind's imagery; Flagstad didn't deserve to be romanticized. "You can't shoot me around the corner anyway. I know you're here to kill me. Come on in, Alex."

There were distant shuffling sounds, not clear enough for him to tell what was happening outside the small room. Mulder moved away from the window, turning again to the next wall. He licked his lips. Blood and dust.

"All right." Krycek's voice was clearer now, a little closer. "Tell me what you're up to. What do you want Mulder for?"

"You know." Flagstad laughed again, sounding relaxed and content. "It was so simple once I figured it out. I know the right way to do it now. Once it's over, I'll be safe. We'll all be safe. Mission accomplished." He snapped his fingers. "Just like that."

"Johnny." Krycek dropped into a low, smooth, persuasive tone. "Your mission was to find Frankie and Dario. Remember? You've been looking for them all this time, haven't you?" Barely a hitch in the molasses-rich trickle of absolute sincerity.

"They tried to fool me one time too many," Flagstad said. "But this time I figured it out." The chair creaked again under his shifting weight. "I can't let you shoot me, Alex. This is really important."

"Yeah. This is really important. It's so important, you're going to have to explain it all to me. Have you found Frankie and Dario? Have you?" Despite the repeated questions, Krycek didn't change the steady tone of his voice or raise it above his previous quiet speech. He sounded almost normal.

"They fooled you too, didn't they?" Loop. Loop. Wrench. The tickle of dust in his nose like some subtle Chinese torture, to distract him from the steady thrum of pain from Flagstad's blows. "I have him now. She'll come. He came here, I knew he'd come when I sent him the message, and she'll come too."

The sounds of movement were so quiet, he could barely hear them. His neck muscles were screaming now. It was difficult to concentrate on both the loops and flowers, and the voices coming to him from outside the door. "You have Dario too?"

"I have him." Flagstad was beginning to sound a little impatient. "They fooled you, Alex. But I figured it out, I sent the feather and he came and she'll come soon. It's all going according to plan."

"But you said you had Mulder—" Krycek broke off.

"Yes. I have him. He's not going anywhere — he's in no shape to go anywhere." Flagstad was matter-of-fact about it, there was no gloating, just simple satisfaction. "He's mine now."

The next words were nothing more than explosions of sound, curses in a language he didn't know. Gone was the steady patience, the soft, friendly questions. Mulder heard a slam, fist hitting wall, and he heard Flagstad laughing again. He tensed up, expecting the next sound to be a gunshot. But instead, the fuss died down and silence trickled in before Krycek spoke again. He sounded angry now. "You know what the word is on Mulder. You remember what the boss said."

"I'm just doing my job." There was still an edge of glee in Flagstad's voice. "They thought I wouldn't figure it out. He's changed and so has she, but I knew when I spotted them that it all made sense."

"Johnny, you can't kill him. You've always been under orders not to kill him, goddammit. I'll help you get out of here — we'll knock him over the head and drop him off somewhere." Krycek's new attempt at sounding reasonable wasn't quite as successful as the previous one. "You know that's the best thing to do. No one has to find out what you did."

"You won't even look at me," Flagstad said regretfully. "You think I don't know you're here to kill me?"

"Actually, I'm not." Loop, loop, wrench. He was moving away from the door now, and the scrape of his feet against the floor lost him a few words coming in from outside. " stop you from killing him. You're making a big mistake here. You think the boss will forgive you if you off Mulder?"

"This is a lot more important. Alex, you just don't understand, do you? Once this is finished and over, we'll be safe. I'll be safe. I'm just following orders."

"No, you're not. You've got it all mixed up. Listen to me." Krycek was starting to sound strained. "Your mission was to get Frankie Lewis and Dario Grazzini, remember?"

"Yes, and I've taken care of it. You can go back and tell them that, I got it right. Put the gun down, Alex. Just put the gun down and sit over there and wait with me."

"I'm putting it away," Krycek said slowly. "But Johnny..."

"It won't be long now."

The silence that followed was long enough that Mulder finished the side wall and turned towards the window again. His body felt slow and heavy, leaden with dust and fatigue. He could barely feel his hands, and when he tried to flex his fingers it was a drowsy, inefficient movement. The angle of the light coming in through the window had changed, and when he came closer it settled in a warm embrace over his shoulders and chest.

Blinking, he felt grit against the inside of his eyelids. His eyes stung and watered. When he blinked again, tears joined the sweat and blood on his face and he felt a momentary relief. The toe of his right shoe grazed the bag of feathers.

"Is this where you're going to do it?" Krycek asked outside. "Right here?" He cleared his throat; he seemed to be having a problem with the dust, too. "No, it would be in your old room, I think, Johnny. Safest place in the whole city. Isn't that right?"

"I knew you'd understand if I explained it to you." Flagstad had quieted down again, too. "I'll show it to you later."

"Okay." There were more sounds of movement, creaking floor planks, footsteps. "You know, I could help you, if you'd let me. Now that I understand. I could guard him for you if you want to go looking for her."

"There's no need for that." Flagstad was smug. "She'll come to me. He came, and she'll come. I know it."

"You're probably right," Krycek muttered in an undertone so soft Mulder could barely make the words out. "So where are you keeping him?"

"Alex, go sit in the corner there."

"Hey, I was just asking—"

"I've got his gun." It was hard to tell if Flagstad was boasting, or issuing a warning.

"I can see that." Mulder strained to hear any further sound of movement, but he couldn't make anything out. He tugged at the rope that bound his wrists together. It was pulled tight, cutting into his skin, and didn't give. "Johnny, why did you kill Blaine?"

"He was an asshole," Flagstad said and laughed. This time the sound of his laughter was rawer and uglier. "Didn't you think he was an asshole, Alex?"

"Sure he was, but—"

"He thought he knew something, with his little organization and his little web page and his silly little book. He didn't know shit, Alex. I made him sit down in that chair and hold still for me and I shot him. And I tell you—" A shrill sound cut the air, and then another. A cell phone was ringing. No, two cell phones, out in that room beyond the door that didn't quite close. "What the hell is that?!" The calm satisfaction was gone from Flagstad's voice. "Alex!"

"It's her phone," Krycek said, voice slightly muffled. "It's just — wait — no, it's his phone—"

"Don't answer it—"

The discreet signals seemed strangely loud in this quiet house, and the phones rang in tandem, one just seconds after the other. Mulder heard thumps and curses as Flagstad searched for the second cell phone, still in his suit jacket somewhere out there. And then all hell broke loose.

The front door was slammed open, hitting the wall so hard the whole house seemed to jump, and at the same time there was a crash of shattered glass — no, two crashes, coming from separate directions. Heavy footsteps shook the floor boards and rough voices yelled. The only word Mulder could make out was "FBI!"

He strained against the rope that bound his wrists together. His vision narrowed down to the fine line of the garland. Loop. Loop. Fuck this— Wrench. There was a shot, another. The pounding of his heart was so loud he could barely hear, and everything seemed to be happening at once out there, while in the room where he stood the dust still hung in the air and the patch of sunshine moved lazily across the floor. The backs of his thighs still itched as if from strokes of invisible feathers.

"...hands where I can see them!" That was Scully's voice. He bit his lip, tasted more blood.

"Johnny, put the gun down!" Krycek sounded choked, hoarse and angry, his words barely audible over the thunder of people storming through the house, opening doors, checking every room. Except this one, because the door was behind Johnny Flagstad.

A separate set of footsteps seemed to break away from all the others, running along the hallway, skidding around the corner. The soft thud of a collision and a sound of surprise from Scully were drowned out by two shots in quick succession. Mulder jerked, his whole body convulsing, feeling the impact of the bullets. His eyes tried to stay with the thin brown line but he was falling, unable to stop it, tumbling to the floor as he heard the delayed third shot.

He landed on one shoulder with a bone-jarring crash and rolled, inhaling dust, choking and coughing. His scraped cheek was pressed against the floorboards when he regained control of his body enough to lie still. Mulder tried to curse, but his throat was too dry. He painfully rolled back again, using the leverage of shoulder and hip to raise himself, curled his legs up and jerked into a kneeling position, then had to stop to cough again.

People were shouting outside his little room, and he heard more running footsteps and slamming doors. Mulder got to his feet and staggered towards the sound of voices. Whatever had happened out there, he was going to get out of this room. He hit the door with the same shoulder that had hit the floor and gritted his teeth as it swung open.

Flagstad had slid out of the chair. The first shot had taken him between the eyes, the second in the chest. He was lying on the floor, an ungainly tangle of arms and legs and long skinny torso, metal gleam of gun half hidden by his right hand. A compact form knelt by his side. Mulder took a shuffling step closer and the man looked up. "Spooky!" A quick relieved smile lit up Martin Yun's face as he looked up and down, checking for injuries. "You look like shit. Good to see you." Yun got to his feet and clapped Mulder's shoulder, saw him wince, and spun him around to untie his hands. "Hell of a mess here, but at least we got him. You need a doctor?"

Blood rushed stingingly back into his wrists and hands. Mulder tried to rub them together unobtrusively to ease the pain. Someone at the other end of the room called up the stairs, "We've found him!"

"No, I'm fine." He looked around the room and saw Krycek pinned between two large agents, head bent forward, hair falling into his face, arm wrenched back uncomfortably. "Where's Scully?"

"She went after McKee." Yun wound the strands of rope around his fingers and shoved the ball into his pocket. "Guess I'd better explain things to you."

"Guess you'd better," Mulder agreed grittily. "And you can break up that threesome in the corner, too. You can let go of him," he raised his voice, addressing the men who held Krycek, "it's all right."

"Agent Scully called in to say he'd taken off on his own before. And he was in here with Flagstad," Yun said.

"I know. He was trying to talk Flagstad into letting me go." Mulder stopped to cough again. Right now he'd give his video collection for a glass of water. Yun suddenly gripped his arm and peered more closely at his face.

"Shit — you're not coughing blood, are you?"

"No. 'S just my lip. Martin, tell me what happened." The two agents reluctantly let go of Krycek, who straightened up and flipped his hair out of his face, then walked away from them to look down at Flagstad's body. "And stop clinging to me, I have enough bruises." Mulder scrubbed half-heartedly at the blood on his face with slow, leaden hands. He remembered a dark-haired young woman in Flagstad's rented room. "Where did McKee go and why is Scully following her?"

"She shot Flagstad," Krycek said.

Mulder turned to give Krycek a sharp look. "Scully shot Flagstad?"

"No, McKee did." Krycek looked unnaturally calm, only the bright glitter in his eyes betraying him. "She missed me, though."

Mulder considered the two shots fired close together, and then the third one. He glanced at Flagstad and then at Yun, who was glaring at Krycek. "I didn't see her aiming at you," Yun growled. He turned back to Mulder. "We found the house in the property records, belonging to a Margit Flagstad in the sixties. She left it to her granddaughter, who moved here with her family in seventy-two. One child, John Alexander Ellis."

It was Krycek's turn to crouch down by the body. "Ellis," he said thoughtfully, reaching out. He seemed to be patting the dead man's bloody chest, and both Mulder and Yun opened their mouths to object. "I kept looking at this, tried to figure out what it was." Krycek pulled a slim metal object from Flagstad's shirt pocket and held it up. "It's a key. An old key."

"Don't touch that," Yun snapped.

"This is what he used on the victims' faces," Krycek went on, ignoring Yun. "Has to be."

Mulder nodded. It made perfect sense. The original key to this house, the key to the belief that had led Flagstad to murder again and again. He looked at Flagstad's long, wiry limbs; the man had been strong enough to drive the blunt metal into flesh and bone, performing his strange search. Now that Flagstad was dead, Mulder didn't think they'd ever find out whether the killer thought he had found any implants or not, if it had been a real search or just a ritual, part of the larger ritual. He knew what he thought, but there would be no confirmation. He was putting the last facts he had together, but there was no urgency to his thoughts any more. It was over.

"Then we noticed you were missing," Yun went on, "and I knew you'd said you'd go up to look at these houses, so we decided to go in as fast as we could. Scully said you'd probably be here. It was her idea to try to use the phone signal as a distraction."

"Good thing I didn't bring McKee with me." Turning away from the body on the floor, he went to the chest of drawers and got his gun, put there by Flagstad hours ago. He weighed it in his hands before putting it back in the waist holster he still wore. The other gun was still in place, resting snugly against his ankle, more of a taunt than a reassurance. Flagstad hadn't searched him for other weapons after picking the gun out of his hand, confident that it wouldn't be necessary. Mulder scowled. Right now he didn't think he could bend down and take it out without falling over. "Where's my phone?"

"I've got it," Krycek said. "Scully's too. Here." Their fingers touched as Mulder reclaimed his cell phone. He glanced quickly into Krycek's face, without knowing quite what he was searching for there. The dark eyes were unreadable now, green glints buried in the shadows. "Yun's right, you look like shit. What did he do to you?" It was all in the voice, that peculiar huskiness that came out under stress, and it sent a ripple down Mulder's spine.

"I don't think it was me he was doing it to," Mulder said slowly. He rolled a shoulder back and bit down on the impulse to freeze and groan, not wanting either Krycek or Yun to notice it. "I just don't know what gave him the idea that I was Grazzini."

"Well." Krycek sounded reluctant, and dropped his voice even more, to a low murmur that Yun might or might not be able to make out. "He knew about Scully. And your sister. And the two of you do resemble Frankie and Dario, more than some of the victims did, except for Scully's red hair. You turned up here in San Francisco, and he knew there was something special about you, and he knew there was something special about them. That's as much of it as I can get to make any kind of sense."

Mulder nodded. "Flagstad — Ellis — was the one who called you on Scully's phone?"

"Yeah. He asked me to go to my old apartment and pick up a few things, then he called me there, and gave me this address. I figured out from what he said that he'd got you." The silky fringe of hair fell forward again, and Krycek didn't try to smooth it back. "Thought I'd see if I could talk him out of it."

"I noticed." Mulder shot a quick look towards Yun, who'd gone to confer with the two other agents, and turned back to Krycek. "Thanks."

He started to lift his hand, let it fall. This time, Krycek didn't flinch. Mulder considered the possible advantages of taking a step back, but he was too tired for any sudden moves. Besides, he knew exactly where they were in relation to each other. The perceptions of his senses bounced off Krycek's presence, keeping him constantly aware of the other man. It was like navigating by means of a radar that only recognized one object.

"I didn't realize he'd hurt you," Krycek said, his voice like rust, like silk.

"I'm all right." Mulder broke away from the too-intense eyes that held his own. There was too much he couldn't say in front of three FBI agents. He turned slowly, so as not to show what an effort it was, walked away from Krycek, past Yun and the others, out of the room and along the dusty hallway. More than anything else he wanted to get out of this house. The insides of his lungs felt clogged with dirt and grit. Mulder went out through the wide-open front door and stopped in the small front yard to look up at the sky. It looked good. It looked wonderful.

This was the second time in three days that Alex Krycek had come to try to save his life. Mulder suspected that Krycek would also cheerfully have shot Flagstad as part of the rescue mission, once he'd acquired any available information about Lewis and Grazzini, but that didn't seem quite as important any more. He'd lost the morning's fine edge of indignation. The ground between them had shifted yet again, and he wasn't sure where he stood. He didn't know what would have happened if the FBI hadn't arrived in force, but he realized that he believed Krycek would have done all he could to get him out of there, in the same way he believed that Scully would have done everything in her power under the same circumstances.

Scully had, of course, rescued both of them.

"Agent Mulder." It was Spelling, breaking away from a small group of other people to come up to him. Mulder snapped out of his thoughts and attempted to concentrate. "Are you all right? Do you need medical attention?"

"I just need to wash my face. Which way did McKee and Scully go?" Mulder heard Yun and Krycek come out of the house behind him. He resisted the impulse to turn around and look. "I guess McKee is considered armed and dangerous now. And she looked like such a nice girl."

"I'm sure Agent McKee had a good reason for what she did," Spelling said. Krycek laughed softly, but didn't say anything.

"Yeah, she didn't want Flagstad taken alive." Mulder peered over Spelling's shoulder and saw Scully and another agent come back down the narrow lane. Scully in a bullet-proof vest, a sight for sore eyes. He went to meet her, taking in the set of her shoulders and the tight line of her mouth. "McKee got away?"

"Yes." Scully looked up at him, then reached out a hand and touched his unmarked cheek lightly. The spontaneous gesture made him smile and then grimace as his mouth hurt. "How are you feeling?"

"I've been better, but I'll live." He felt a sudden impulse to hug her, but he knew how the kevlar would feel against his bruised ribs.

"I'm glad you're all right, Mulder." Their eyes met, and he tried a silent apology. Scully was flushed and a little edgy, but her anger wasn't directed at him. She dropped her hand and looked more composed as the others came up to them. "There was a car waiting for her. A dark green Mitsubishi Galant. We couldn't make out the license plate."

"Put everything you have into finding McKee," Mulder suggested to Spelling. "Whatever her reasons were for doing this, they weren't anything you would approve of. How long had she been with you?"

"She came here fourteen months ago," Yun said. "Straight from the Academy."

"Hard-working, earnest and dedicated," Mulder said dryly. He turned his head to look at Krycek. Krycek's face was blank, closed off, completely unrevealing. Mulder wondered what Krycek knew about McKee. He'd been the secondary target, after Flagstad, and apparently of less importance. That was strange in itself, since Krycek must be regarded as a much larger potential security leak than Flagstad.

"Sir, I think it might be a good idea if you assigned someone to check and reevaluate her work," Scully said. "It seems clear that she wasn't taking her orders from you, at least not primarily."

Spelling frowned. "Agent Scully — Agent Mulder — what exactly are you suggesting? I don't understand myself why Agent McKee acted as she did, but to assume that there are more complicated and sinister motives behind this..." His voice trailed off into a small, heavy shrug.

It was the best opening they'd get. Scully picked it up and ran with it. "We believe Agent McKee may have been associated with a group that Flagstad worked for before coming to San Francisco, a group of people who will do anything to remain anonymous in order to carry on their—" He almost expected her to say 'nefarious.' "—unscrupulous projects. Her orders would have been to silence Flagstad at any cost."

"Yeah?" Yun was clearly skeptical. "And what reason did she have to shoot at Five-Fingered Freddy here the way he says she did?"

"I guess I reminded her of her nasty babysitter," Krycek said. Scully rolled her eyes, but didn't contradict him.

Spelling wasn't happy with the suggestion that McKee might have been an infiltrator from a group he'd never heard of and wasn't ready to believe in. He argued and complained while the rest of the team searched the Flagstad family home from top to bottom, bringing out, among other things, a printout of Blaine Hibbert's address list and a bag of dove feathers dyed black. Mulder let Scully do most of the talking. Both his lip and his jaw ached a little too much for comfort. Olsen provided unexpected support by plaintively wondering why McKee would do something like this under sudden stress, when nothing in her personality or her earlier behavior had ever hinted that she would.

Eventually, Spelling had to agree that McKee's actions had been inexplicable and completely out of line, and ordered a full-scale search for her. Once that had been arranged, Mulder let his attention drift again. It was getting cooler in the lane as the sun sank lower. He reached up and tried unobtrusively to rub some of the stiffness out of his neck and shoulders. He'd only spent a few hours in the house, but it felt like coming out after being cooped up indoors for a week.

Eventually the discussion wound down into a stalemate, and Spelling suggested a return to the office for a thorough debriefing. "Better let Spooky take a shower first," Yun commented. "He looks like an extra in a Van Damme movie."

"Sir, I think we'd better go back to our hotel," Scully said. "We'll come to the office in an hour for the debriefing, unless Agent Mulder needs to rest."

"No, I'll be fine," Mulder said quickly. But he did want to clean up and get out of his grimy, bloodstained clothes. He also wanted to get away from Martin Yun for a while. It was hard to tell from the look on Yun's face if he was happy with the part he'd played, or if he felt Mulder had stolen his case. No one looked entirely satisfied. Spelling and Yun went on talking about Agent McKee in a low, puzzled tone of voice while Scully went to return the equipment she'd borrowed.

"I don't know where she might have gone," Krycek said even more quietly, in a voice meant for Mulder's ears alone. Mulder shook his head to say that no, he hadn't really expected that Krycek would know that. McKee had been a surprise to everyone. When Scully came back, Krycek and Mulder followed her to the car with nothing more than muttered 'later's to Yun and Spelling. Mulder didn't remember until he was on the very last step of the stairs what the feel of the wooden railing against his palm had reminded him of earlier. Then he looked down at Krycek, walking in front of him, and sighed.

Things were quiet between them as they drove back to the hotel, but it wasn't the uncomfortable silence he'd thought might arise. For Mulder, tired and bruised, the short drive was a chance to simply sit and do nothing, without having to worry that someone might try to kill him at any moment, or that his mind was not his own, his actions not taken by his own choice. Both Scully and Krycek were winding down from their respective adrenaline highs. She had shed her excited flush with the kevlar, and drove with firm efficiency.

Mulder couldn't see Krycek in the back seat, but he was conscious of the other man's presence behind him the way he would have been conscious of a distinct scent or the location of a heat source. It made him feel reckless, like turning his back on something dangerous and unpredictable. It distracted him from the disappointment and guilt he felt. Flagstad had been killed, not captured, and who knew how many secrets had died with him? Not just consortium secrets; Flagstad hadn't been in any state to reveal too many of them. His confusion would probably just have added to Mulder's own. But Mulder wondered how many deaths would remain unexplained now that Flagstad was gone.

Leaning back in the car seat, he rested his head and took the weight off his abused neck muscles. His body wanted to go limp, as though everything inside his skin had been removed and he was nothing but a rather cunningly made balloon filled with water. Scully glanced sideways at him but said nothing. He could tell that she was planning to examine him as thoroughly as they had the time for.

Which wasn't much, as Spelling had made it clear that he wanted them to hurry. Mulder supposed he could always have fainted gracefully into Spelling's arms if he'd felt the need for an overnight hospital stay, but he knew that a shower, a little concentration and a lot of coffee would render him alert again, or a reasonable facsimile thereof. He wasn't about to let Scully put him in the hospital again; he didn't need to lie down that badly. He would just have to distract her from getting a close look at him.

Thinking about hospital stays reminded him of something he'd almost forgotten. "Scully?" She nodded to show that she was listening, her eyes on the intersection in front of them. "Has Dr. White or anyone else from the hospital gotten back to you about those blood samples you took from me, and the samples of that black stuff? Or did you turn them over to the FBI lab?"

"No, I left all of it with Dr. White," Scully said. "I was going to ship it back to DC and let Pendrell take a good look at it. I don't really trust anyone else to check for every possible oddity. I just haven't had the time yet to get in touch with her."

"You'd better check the samples are still there," Krycek put in from the back seat. "For all we know, McKee might have paid a visit to the hospital before she went to Russian Hill."

"I'll call Dr. White as soon as we're at the hotel," Scully said tightly.

Mulder frowned. He had a headache again. It slowed him down. "It doesn't fit," he said.

"You don't think McKee would have gone there?"

He shrugged. "I don't know anything about McKee. But all of it — the plan, if there is one." Mulder turned to look at Krycek after all. "You told Flagstad he shouldn't kill me, that he was under orders not to touch me. But they got to me days ago and activated the black cancer. I was supposed to die from that, wasn't I? It doesn't make sense. Do they want me alive or dead?"

"The operative word here," Krycek said, "is 'they'." He leaned forward between the front seats until his breath almost ruffled Scully's hair. "We're dealing with a group of people who, although they presumably work towards the same goal, don't always agree as to methods, or even in which direction the goal is to be found."

"You called them the engineers of the future," Mulder said almost dreamily. It was strange that you could feel such an intimate hatred for such a remote, concealed group. "But what do they want from me?"

"I told you before, they don't agree on what to do about you," Krycek said. "That's as much as I know. Some of them think that you're crucial to the future they want to create. Some of them don't. Johnny worked for the people who want you alive, before he lost it."

"You've certainly had more than your share of close escapes," Scully commented, a little sarcastically, rather affectionately. She parked the car as she spoke and freed herself of the seat belt. "Mulder, I think you'd better clean up before I take a look at you. Can you manage by yourself? You don't feel dizzy, or faint?"

"I'm just hungry." But he knew he was stiff and awkward when he climbed out of the car, and tried to distract them from noticing. "I left my suit jacket and tie in that house. Flagstad must have pulled them off me after he took my gun."

"They've probably been brought in along with the rest of the evidence from the site," Scully said. She came around the car, and he suspected her of being about to take his arm for support, so he started walking. "Your dry-cleaning bills must be amazing, Mulder."

He managed to raise an eyebrow at her. "You think I wear any of my suits twice?"

The desk clerk eyed them a little curiously when they came into the small lobby. Mulder tried to keep his face averted as he went towards the elevator, well aware of how he must look, but she called out to him, "Er, do you need a doctor or an emergency room or something?"

"I'm a doctor," Scully said crisply, closing her hand around Mulder's elbow after all. "He's all right."

"My reputation," Mulder said mournfully as the elevator doors closed behind them, "will never be the same again."

"Actually," Krycek said, "you're running pretty true to form." He and Scully exchanged a look that was almost a smile, and Mulder was so surprised that he couldn't even think of a good comeback to that. He looked at Scully, who had told him earlier today that he was sick and twisted for wanting the man she was smiling at now. She transferred the look to him, and his puzzlement about her attitude was subsumed in a rush of affection.

Scully was looking at him as if he were human, again. He still had a chance to win back what he'd lost, to regain her esteem. He just wasn't sure what he would have to do, or if he'd be able to do it. Mulder met her eyes squarely. "Get your doctor things, Scully."

"Don't fall in the shower." She handed him the key to his room as they got off the elevator, and went to unlock her own door. Mulder went into his room and found that Krycek was following him silently. He glanced back over his shoulder, but Krycek wasn't looking at him. While Mulder dug into his bag for clean things to wear, Krycek went to the window and looked out. He leaned against the wall gracelessly in a way that emphasized rather than hid the asymmetry of his body; watching him, Mulder was struck by how noticeable it was, compared with Krycek's usual controlled, deliberate movements. It touched something inside him, some spot even more tender than the bruises on his ribs.

Once he'd found clean boxers and a t-shirt, Mulder went into the bathroom, turned the shower on and started to strip while the water got warm. He felt slow and clumsy, and sighed with relief once he was rid of the dirty clothes. Bits and pieces of Flagstad's house, of Flagstad's blows, clung to him. Stepping in under the spray, he winced and then tilted his face up, eyes squeezed shut, and fumbled for the soap.

Washing stung, but not too much. He rubbed thoughtfully at his jaw; it was sore and he didn't relish the idea of shaving. Instead he rinsed off again and stood under the hot spray a while longer, willing himself into some degree of relaxation. Krycek and Scully would be waiting outside. Neither Mulder nor Scully had asked Krycek to come along when they'd left the Flagstad house, or told him not to leave the hotel room. It didn't seem to be an issue any more.

Let go and he disappears... but Krycek hadn't disappeared, hadn't run away, hadn't tried to leave without a word. He was out there, looking as tired as Mulder felt. Mulder turned the water off and stepped out of the shower. There were fresh towels on the towel rack, and the newly laundered softness was gentle on his bruises. He carefully pulled on the boxers and t-shirt, and went towards the door. For a moment he toyed with the idea of standing there to see if he could hear what Scully and Krycek were saying, if anything, but he would never be able to pick up their voices over the sound of the bathroom fan.

Mulder went outside. Krycek was still standing by the window, leaning against the wall, with his eyes on Scully. "McKee got them?"

"I don't think so. I don't know." Scully had put her bag down on one of the beds and turned around to talk to Krycek. "When I found that no one had heard of those blood samples, I asked for Dr. White and was told that she was home with a cold. They wouldn't give me her home number, but I persuaded them to call it for me."

"And?" Krycek asked with the air of one who won't be surprised no matter what. He had his hand in his pocket, shoulders pushed up and slightly hunched, but looked more relaxed than defensive.

"And apparently her phone has been disconnected. It could just be a coincidence, but..." Scully shook her head and tucked her hair back.

Mulder moved forward and looked from Scully to Krycek, drawing their attention. He frowned. "Dr. White has run off with my blood samples?"

"We don't know that for certain," Scully said reluctantly, "but it looks like a very real possibility."

"Hell," Mulder said, unable to put any real force into it. He couldn't muster any feeling of surprise, any more than Krycek had; there had been too many situations like this one over the years, where evidence had been snatched out of his hands, where people had vanished as though they'd never existed. It reminded him of Krycek's first disappearance, years ago. He would have liked to be angry, but he was too tired. "Was that why you tried to stay out of her way, Krycek? You were afraid she'd recognize you? You could have warned us."

Krycek shook his head. "It's a large organization," he said. "I'm not — I was never exactly at the heart of it. They have enormous resources, Mulder, you know that. You're lucky it was just one doctor and not the entire hospital."

"You can still take a look at my current blood composition when we get back to DC," Mulder said to Scully. "It's got to be different, there has to be something there you can analyze." She had turned towards the bed and was just taking her stethoscope out. "Scully, I think it's pretty safe to say that my heart is still beating."

"Sit down," she said, nodding at the bed and putting the stethoscope down to get out a roll of bandages and a bottle of some antiseptic solution. "I've seen a little too much of your blood composition already today, it was all over your face." Mulder did as she asked and she took hold of his jaw and turned his face towards the light, checking his pupils, and then looking at his lip and the scrapes on his cheek. "It doesn't look too bad," Scully commented, swabbing at the cuts. He tried not to jerk away from the sting. "Does your head hurt?"

"A bit," he said reluctantly, and her fingers went through his hair to find new bumps and cuts, skimming lightly over his scalp, catching here and there in the damp tangles of his hair. The light, competent touch was soothing. He closed his eyes, opened them again as his stomach rumbled. "It's all right, Scully, I think it's just dehydration. And I could do with some food, too."

"Let me put something on your wrists. Rope burn?" He nodded, glancing down at the red, chafed circles. Yes, the desk clerk probably thought he was kinky beyond belief. "Mulder, you shouldn't have gone in there without backup. He could have killed you. You were lucky — was he going to keep you as a hostage?"

"Not exactly." He'd known that this conversation was coming. The chill salve she applied to his wrists numbed them somewhat. "Flagstad had become convinced that I was actually Dario Grazzini, the man he was looking for, and that you were the woman, Frankie Lewis. He was waiting for you to come to the house, too, so he could perform his final sacrifice."

Scully looked at him. One of her eyebrows lifted. "He told you that?"

"Not in so many words," Mulder admitted, knowing how Scully felt about phrases like 'final sacrifice.' "I pieced it together from what he said to me and what he said to Krycek later. It would have been the last kill, the culmination of the cycle, and then Flagstad would probably have gone underground and disappeared for good."

"He wouldn't have made it far," Krycek said from the window — Krycek, whose original mission had been to end Flagstad's life. It seemed he was deliberately reminding Mulder of that, or at least refusing to hide the fact. "But once the killings stopped, the FBI would probably have lost their chance to get him."

"I suppose that's possible," Scully said. "But it doesn't explain why you went in there instead of calling me or Martin Yun and waiting for backup. You knew better than anyone just how dangerous Flagstad was."

"I wasn't even sure he would be there—" Mulder looked away from her, only to be faced with another angry look.

"Yes, you were," Krycek contradicted him flatly. "You were sure and you went in anyway. And one of these days you won't be so lucky, Mulder. If Johnny hadn't decided you were Dario Grazzini, he would have blown your brains out the way he did Hibbert's." The image of Hibbert, fallen forward over his desk, was so clear in his mind. And he knew Krycek was right, that could have been him, slumped in some out-of-the-way corner of that house on Russian Hill, discarded as irrelevant to Flagstad's grand plan.

"You should learn to use them while you still have them," Scully put in, dabbing some salve onto his cheek as well before recapping the tube and putting it away. "It would save you a few bruises, and one day it might save your life."

He couldn't really answer that, and with the two of them tag-teaming him, he decided silence was the simplest solution. It would be impossible to explain anyway, to describe the mood he had been in standing outside the Flagstad home, to add up all the little things that had made his decision for him. And he hadn't been shot, after all. "You finished with me, Scully?" Mulder got up off the bed, tried to move smoothly. "Spelling's waiting for us. I think he'd like to hear all this, too."

Scully watched him through narrowed eyes. He realized, too late, that it might have been the wrong move to try to fool her with a reference to duty; she was usually the one who had to remind him that his superiors expected a report now and then. "Have you injured your shoulder as well?"

"It's nothing, Scully."

Mulder drew himself up and tried to step away, but it was too late. Scully followed him with two determined steps to his one. She reached up and unerringly dug her thumb into a tender spot; he twitched without meaning to do so, and glanced down at her to see if she'd noticed. She had. "Nothing? Take your shirt off and let me take a look at that."

"Scully..." he whined.

"Take your shirt off." Her raised eyebrow did not admit of any alternatives, and if he didn't do what she asked she would try to undress him as though he were five years old, so he reluctantly grabbed the hem and pulled the t-shirt over his head, exposing torso and shoulders. "Oh my God, Mulder. Why didn't you say anything?"

"It's all right," he said, looking down at the marks left by Flagstad's fists. He couldn't see the bruises on his back, but Scully pushed him away from the bed and walked around him, her fingers touching down lightly on each one. "There's nothing you can do about those, anyway, and the skin isn't broken or anything, much. I'll be fine."

"Some of these look pretty bad. You could have a cracked rib—" Her fingers probed, and Mulder pulled away from the touch before he could stop himself. "Does that hurt?"

"No, it tickles," he lied. "Scully, they're just bruises. If I'd cracked my ribs, I would know."

Mulder glanced towards Krycek for support, and was met by a frown. Krycek walked away from the window, around the foot of the other bed. He was moving smoothly again, but when he spoke his voice was a little ragged. "He did this to you?" Dark eyes took in the red and purple discolorations, the scratches and scrapes. "I should have shot him instead of trying to talk to him."

Mulder shook his head slowly. The anger he heard there tightened his own gut, made him acutely aware of things he'd tried hard to forget. His own hands closed and opened; he felt an urge to brush them together, try to brush some things away. There were many things he loathed the late Johnny Flagstad for, but this wasn't really one of them. "No, you did the right thing. If we could have taken him—"

"He hurt you, Mulder. I would've killed him for that." It was such a simple statement, and so loaded. Mulder felt it go through him and be met by some intensity of emotion of his own, one that took hold of him with the ease and familiarity of an old friend. He knew this feeling. It had just taken him so long, far too long, to accept responsibility for what he'd done.

"Why do you care?" he asked abruptly. Krycek looked up, his eyes meeting Mulder's with a stunned, almost blank look. "After Tunguska — hell, after this morning — I would have thought you'd cheer him on."

"You want to know why I care, Mulder?" It was a soft-voiced growl, full of menace. "You want me to tell you?"

That one hit him so hard he wanted to sit down; he had to ignore it. Next to him Scully had stiffened, her hand still on his back. "It was wrong of me," he said stiffly. "I lost my temper and it stayed lost, I guess."

"Apologizing for unprofessional conduct? Mulder, I don't blame you for Tunguska. I made a few mistakes there myself." Krycek dropped his eyes, then jerked them up quickly again before Mulder could more than suspect that he'd been glancing at the left side of his body. For some reason this small reminder of the outcome of that trip wound him even tighter.

"I'm sorry I kept hitting you, okay?" he snapped.

"Mulder!" That was Scully, looking at him in amazement and something close to shock. Oh, shit. He'd gotten himself in deeper with her, just when he'd been hoping there was some way he could get things back to the way they had been. But he couldn't take his words back now.

Krycek ignored Scully's interruption; his eyes were fixed on Mulder's face. "Yeah, well. Do it again and I might hurt you."

"No. No, you won't." Mulder shrugged off Scully's hand and walked over to where Krycek was standing, moved in close, willing himself to believe it was easy — like firewalking. He lifted his chin in open invitation. "Come on, then. Hit me."

Krycek looked at him for a long moment, out of eyes that glittered dangerously. He pressed his lips together, then took a step backwards and turned away. "Go to hell, Mulder."

Mulder stood where he was, looking at Krycek's shoulders, at the back of Krycek's neck, the curve of his ear beneath the straight fall of hair. He remembered bringing Krycek to Skinner's apartment in a kind of furious desperation, unable to trust himself around the man, only to find he wasn't the only one who carried a grudge. The gut punch Skinner had delivered had had an impact on Mulder, too; that blow had seemed to justify his own unprofessional behavior, validate the anger he felt that wanted to express itself physically. As if Skinner's action could somehow change wrong into right.

He despised violence, as a tool, as a means of communication. But it was there beneath his other more sophisticated ways of coping with life, beaten into him at an early age and never forgotten. With Krycek, he'd sometimes forgotten, sometimes made himself forget, the other options.

Only very slowly did he move away from Krycek again and go back to the bed where he'd put his t-shirt. He picked it up and pulled it over his head, emerging from the cotton to find Scully watching him. Her eyes were unreadable, clear and infinite as the sky.

Mulder wanted to explain things to her, but it would have seemed too much like trying to make excuses for himself, and he couldn't do that. Even before this, she had known something of what he was capable of; she'd seen him lose his temper and hit Roche, had seen him punch Krycek when they'd captured the militia members. So far, he hadn't crossed the line that would make her withdraw her support, not while she had been there to see him, although he knew more than well that she would never have done those things — it wasn't in her to act like that. It felt good to be able to rely on that. He depended on her moral integrity as much as on her common sense.

Now, of course, he had done the unforgivable in sleeping with Alex Krycek, so perhaps it didn't matter if she found out about the way he'd slapped Krycek around during the Tunguska case.

Scully drew a deep breath, and picked up her bag. Her eyes flicked from Mulder to Krycek and back again. "You should get dressed, Mulder. Remember we said we'd be in Spelling's office as soon as we could." She crossed the room and went out through the connecting door, closing it carefully behind her. Mulder stood staring after her for a few moments before he realized she was gone.

Then he glanced over to where Krycek still stood, unmoving. Dusk was falling outside, and most things in the room were becoming wrapped in a grey haze. If he'd stayed longer in the bathroom, Scully might have missed his bruises. The leather jacket had slipped from Krycek's shoulders and lay in a heap on the floor; he was wearing a grey sweater that he must have picked up at his apartment. Mulder cleared his throat. "I'm sorry," he said softly. There was no reaction. "I'm sorry, okay? I don't do apologies well."

Krycek finally turned around, but it was hard to see the expression on his face behind the screen of hair, in the poor light. "All right," he said. "Apology accepted. It's good to hear you're sorry. About Tunguska."

"About this morning," Mulder said, as if making a correction. "I — oh, shit." He took a step away, then changed direction with a wrench and walked towards Krycek instead. "I wish you'd try to hit me back."

"It would be easier that way, wouldn't it?" Krycek shook his head. "You know, you just demonstrated, Mulder, I won't do it."

"I don't know if I would have — I mean, if Scully hadn't come in. But the intention was there. And I'm sorry." He sighed, shrugged, didn't know how to move, what to do with his hands, with himself. "OPC will just love it if I turn myself in to them."

"Screw OPC." There was a faint, exasperated smile on Krycek's face, and a flippancy in his voice that wasn't entirely forced. "If you feel so strongly you have to do something to make up for all that crap, why don't you kiss me to make it all better?"

Mulder had been moving closer all the time, until they were standing less than a foot from each other again, a distance that had seemed considerable to Mulder when he was trying to bridge the gap with words, but which was now an almost non-existent safety margin. "No," he said, so quickly it came out more as reflex than response. "No."

He shook his head, and turned away from temptation, crossing his arms over his chest. He didn't hear Krycek move, but he felt the warmth, the presence, as the other man stepped up close behind him. An arm joined his own, fingers interlacing with his, and he felt Krycek's chest press against his back. It was a solid touch and more than touch, a reminder of the other's body, his breathing presence. He felt grounded again. When he attempted to step away, the arm around his chest held him fast — not so hard that he couldn't have broken its grip, but he paused all the same.

"Don't run." It was nothing but a soft whisper, a suggestion, not a command. Lips brushed against the back of his neck. The skin on his arms pebbled in response to the touch and he knew Krycek could feel it. Alex Krycek placed one slow, gentle kiss after another there, with careful attention.

He found his breath, his voice. "Stop it." It didn't come out right, and he tried again. "Stop — stop it... I could..."

"What?" Krycek murmured into his skin, as his mouth moved on, raising chill after exquisite chill.

Mulder sucked in another deep breath and tried to explain while he could still find the words. "I could really hurt you." It wasn't exactly what he wanted to say, but it was part of it.

The exhalation of air against his neck was quiet laughter. Alex's arm tightened around him. "Mulder. You know it's too late to worry about that."

And there it was: he couldn't say anything to that. They stood like that for a long time, fingers locked together, Krycek's face against the back of Mulder's neck, his lips unmoving now, nothing but a soft warm pressure, asking nothing, demanding so much. Dusk reclaimed another corner of the room, while the scarlet stripes of sunset shone on the far wall. Mulder closed his eyes and dragged Alex's hand up across his chest, hugging it for a moment against his throat, under his chin. He wanted to open it up, kiss the palm, mouth the fingers one by one, but he knew if he started he wouldn't be able to stop.

So he let go and stepped away, heading determinedly for his suitcase. "Scully's right, we should hurry." The shirt he pulled out was a bit wrinkled from all the packing and unpacking, but it would do under a suit jacket and he shrugged it on, started to button it. "I guess it's too much to hope for that they'll have found McKee by the time we get there." The second suit was one he didn't really like, a dark grey, slightly funereal creation. Mulder picked a tie at random and looped it around his neck. "Yun's probably happy to have Spelling to himself for a while, though."

"To tell him who did all the real work?" Krycek sounded only mildly sarcastic. Mulder stepped into the suit pants, tucked his shirt in and started to hunt for a belt. "I think Spelling's pretty clear on that already."

Picking up the suit jacket, Mulder transferred various odds and ends to its pockets and slung it over his shoulder. He ran through his mental check list: both gun holsters, both guns, yes he had done a safety check, phone, sunglasses, ID, wallet. "I would sell my soul right now for iced tea and half a dozen marble glazed donuts." When he turned around, Krycek was grinning and putting his leather jacket on. "Let's go get Scully."

The first light tap on the connecting door brought her out. She looked carefully at them both, but didn't comment on the scene she'd witnessed before. Instead she led them out of Mulder's room and down the hall, talking over her shoulder about how Yun had reacted when she had told him that Mulder was probably in the Flagstad house.

"He didn't seem surprised," she said as the elevator doors closed. "Angry, yes, but not surprised. Did you pull that kind of stunt on him when you worked together?"

Mulder thought about it. "Not exactly," he said. "I was a good little profiler, I didn't go out in the field. Much. But Michelle and I did something similar a couple of times, going after evidence before we'd finished the theoretical reasoning about where it ought to be."

"Michelle?" Scully glanced up at him curiously. "Who's Michelle?"

"She worked with me and Yun on that case. Apparently she and Yun are married these days." Mulder wondered if he could get hold of Yun's home number; it would be interesting to talk to Michelle again after all these years, see how she and Yun got on.

"He's married?" There was definite disapproval in Scully's voice. "He didn't mention that when he tried to ask me out to dinner."

Then again, perhaps it would be a little too interesting to talk to Michelle, Mulder thought as they got off the elevator again. Krycek chuckled softly and asked, "So does that mean you'll be breaking the date?"

She shot them both a haughty look over her shoulder. "There's no date to break." Out in the street, she tucked her hair behind her ears and unbent enough to say, "I don't expect much from men who suggest drinks at a place called Centerfolds as a good way to start an evening."

Despite several hopeful requests from Mulder, Scully did not stop at a Dunkin Donuts on the way, insisting that he needed 'real food' instead. In the end, the nearest she could get to that without a major detour was sandwiches. Mulder didn't really mind, although he'd been looking forward to that slightly bloated grease-and-sugar donut feeling, and to chasing it away with lots and lots of coffee. He only objected to the suggestion that he get a sandwich full of sprouts and lettuce and without any mayo. "Scully, they're my arteries."

They brought their bags to the car and Mulder sat sipping his coffee for the second half of the drive. The hot liquid stung his lip, but it cleared his head. By the time they arrived, he was feeling alert enough to realize that Spelling might not want them to have a picnic in his office, and hungry enough not to care. The chocolate coffee cake was only a distant memory.

In the elevator on the way up, he looked at Scully. He wasn't sure whether his primary desire was to have a long talk with her, or to avoid it at all costs. It was hard to judge what her feelings were towards him now; it felt as if things were almost back to normal, but he hadn't forgotten the morning's confrontation and he knew she most certainly hadn't, either. Maybe she would try to corner him once the debriefing was over. Scully didn't always insist on talking things out when she knew he was uncomfortable, and she rarely pressed him on personal issues, but this was not exactly a run-of-the-mill disagreement. He didn't know where he stood with her, and it made his entire world unsteady.

Yun was already in Spelling's office, of course. So was Agent Olsen, the middle-aged man Mulder remembered from the apartment Flagstad had rented. He must have been McKee's partner, Mulder guessed, assigned to keep an eye on the new agent. Spelling himself was on the phone discussing retrieved evidence, but he hung up not long after Mulder, Scully and Krycek had come in.

"Sit down," he said, gesturing at the chairs that had been dragged in to cluster around the desk. Spelling didn't have a particularly large office; there wasn't room for a conference table. "I'm sorry we're a bit crowded, I forgot that Agent Olsen would have to be here." Spelling glanced at Krycek. "And I wasn't expecting you to bring your former suspect, either. I don't quite understand what his position is in this investigation," the sudden quirk of Krycek's mouth spoke volumes, and Mulder had to look away quite quickly, "but it doesn't seem to me that he belongs in even an informal debriefing."

"He's a crucial witness to what was happening in the house on Russian Hill," Scully pointed out, putting her coffee cup down on a corner of Spelling's desk. "He saw things Agent Mulder was not in a position to notice. We may as well take his statement here and now as part of this meeting, to save time."

Mulder chose a chair with solid armrests and put his styrofoam coffee cup on one of them, stretching his legs out and starting to extract the sandwiches from the bag. "Scully, I think this one's yours." He handed it over to her, then glanced at Krycek. "Steamed tofu with alfalfa sprouts and banana slices, was that yours or mine?"

"Very funny, Mulder." But Krycek was grinning again as he took the sandwich and started to unwrap it carefully. "We forgot to get chips."

"Yeah, but I bought some of those chocolate chip cookies — the ones that were shaped like alien heads." Mulder bit into his sandwich and closed his eyes in simple pleasure. It hurt his mouth, but it was worth it. When he opened his eyes again he saw Olsen look almost pleadingly at Spelling, who frowned.

"Agent Mulder. No doubt you cultivate your reputation for eccentricity with care, but I would appreciate it if you didn't do it in my office." Spelling certainly didn't possess Skinner's talent for understated menace, but he knew how to make his annoyance felt in his voice. "Now if we can get down to business?"

The business, such as it was, was slow and uninspired. Yun recapitulated the progress of the investigation, starting with the first murder and ending with the discovery of Margit Flagstad's house in the property records. He took his time about it, and kept the references to Mulder's contributions to a minimum. Mulder wasn't surprised. He concentrated on his sandwich, and thought about Yun's future with the Bureau. The man was so nakedly ambitious, it was almost embarrassing to behold, a bit like watching Tom Colton. No — Mulder had to take that thought back — Martin Yun wasn't quite as bad as Colton. But he could get that way if he didn't rein himself in.

Somebody should rein him in, anyway, Mulder thought idly and again contemplated the idea of calling Michelle. The chuckle he had to suppress at that idea distracted him enough that Spelling had to say his name twice before he realized that he was being asked to review his profile and explain the conclusions he'd drawn and what had caused him to find and enter the Flagstad house this afternoon.

Yun made a sour face at that reference. Mulder wiped his hands on a paper napkin and picked up his coffee, which was still decently warm. He sipped at it while he organized his thoughts. "I was originally brought in because Agent Yun thought there might be a religious significance to some part of the killer's behavior." He glanced at Martin Yun almost affectionately. "But it seemed to me when I went over the material, particularly the descriptions of what the killer did to the victims' bodies, that the pattern was suggestive of a type of non-religious belief that has come to be quite familiar to me in recent years."

Scully looked at him at that, and Krycek seemed to be hiding a smile. Mulder went on to explain in detail his deductions about the killer's obsession with abductions and abductees, and the investigations that had allowed him to gradually track the man down in the physical world. When he described his second interview with Mrs. Gutierrez, Spelling interrupted him. "So you really think that Flagstad — Ellis — hypnotized this woman into believing that he was an FBI agent?"

"No, not exactly." Mulder dug into the paper bag for a chocolate chip cookie and bit into it. Spelling looked mollified, but lost that look quickly when Mulder went on, "I believe that Flagstad's abilities must have been linked to hypnotism, but they went beyond it, and I have no clear explanation for the power he possessed to manipulate people to a greater or lesser degree. Agent Scully and I have come across at least one case previously where an unusual mental ability of the same type was linked to a brain tumor. It's possible that the autopsy can show some similar—"

"Spooky, come on," Yun said impatiently. "That's ridiculous. The old lady didn't want to have to admit to you that she'd been taken in by whatever line he fed her, so she made up a story. It was all in her imagination."

Mulder looked up abruptly at Yun. "And the victims who let Flagstad dig into their faces with a rusty old key, the victims who weren't bound or drugged but just lay there, fully conscious, while he did that to them — I suppose it was all in their imagination, too?" The cookie broke to pieces as his fingers clenched on it. "What's your explanation for that, Martin? Do you have one?"

"Some new drug," Yun shot back, "some designer drug that our labs can't trace yet. That's a lot more likely than that he just waved his hands at them and they went along like lambs to the slaughter."

"Agent Scully," Spelling tried to put in, "is it possible something of that kind might have been overlooked in the autopsies that would explain why the victims—"

"Some new drug?" Mulder leaned forward in his chair. If he'd had the talents of a Modell or a Flagstad himself, he would have tried to shove the truth into Martin Yun's dense head. "There was no drug involved! I'm not sure how he did it, but I'm willing to swear he didn't drug me."

"What the hell is that supposed to prove?" Yun asked in mingled annoyance and bewilderment. "You're not one of the victims!"

"I almost was. You don't know what went on in that house. Listen—"

"Agent Mulder!" Spelling's voice, raised to a volume that was impossible to ignore, cut through the heated discussion. "Agent Yun! This is getting us nowhere. Agent Mulder, please continue where you were."

"But—" He caught Scully's eyes, read the message there. Mulder drew himself upright and then sank back in his chair again, making an effort to unwind. He was the one who was being asked to continue, not Yun. He would just have to work his way around to this gradually. Taking another sip of coffee, he found that it was lukewarm now. "Yes, sir."

He looked around at the others present. Yun was still leaning forward, bracing his hands on his thighs, looking ready to erupt out of his chair in response to what Mulder might say. Scully was watching him as if she knew that her very presence was support and comfort. Maybe she did know. Spelling was waiting, brows drawn together, an expression of mingled anticipation and skepticism on his face. It was quite a change from reporting to Skinner, whose unyielding demeanor often made Mulder feel that he was talking to an Easter Island stone deity. Olsen was still looking as if he wondered what he was doing here. And Krycek — Krycek had grabbed the chocolate chip cookies away from Mulder at some point.

"Agent Mulder?" Spelling prodded him.

Mulder took a deep breath. "Flagstad was focused on, obsessed with, a couple that he believed to be tainted by their voluntary association with alien technology. He was an abductee himself, although he had repressed those memories for a long time. He chose victims who had also been abducted and what he did to them was meant as a message to the people he ultimately intended to kill."

"Agent Mulder—"

"When he had selected his victims, Flagstad notified them by sending them a dove feather, a message that none of them understood. He arranged a meeting — he was part of the network, people trusted him, believed him to be harmless. Then he hypnotized the victims into coming with him to a secluded place he had selected carefully. The placement of the victims is crucial, both the geographic locations and the similarities of the sites. Flagstad meant—"


"—meant to return them to the earth." He looked at Yun, looked at Spelling, willed them to be silent. "They went along with him and lay down in the graves he had chosen for them, and let him cut into their faces with that key, the key to his old home. Then he killed them, and marked them with white feathers, symbols of innocence, stitching the feathers to the genitals as a sign that these people were untainted and could be allowed to reproduce."

"When they were already dead?" Spelling asked, bewildered.

"I believe that Flagstad thought, or at least hoped, that the innocent would live again, either with the sunrise, or with the killing of the final pair of victims."

"That's... an interesting possibility," Spelling said. "But the idea that Flagstad hypnotized his victims still seems far-fetched to me. I think it's not unlikely that we'll find some obscure drug among his possessions, something that will provide a more mundane explanation for how he controlled the victims."

"Sir, there's more that indicates—" Mulder was about to go back to detailing the information Mrs. Gutierrez had given him when a sharp knock on the door distracted him. The door opened almost before the sound had died away, and Gabriel Reeves walked into the room. Reeves looked annoyed; his mouth was set and he squared his shoulders as he looked at all of them, his eyes lingering longest on Martin Yun.

"Detective Reeves," Spelling half rose from his chair, then sat back down again, "come in. Take a chair," he gestured around the room, "somewhere."

"I heard you caught the killer," Reeves said, his voice even. "Good of you to tell me." He came towards them, and Yun, who was closest to the door, got to his feet. For a moment Mulder thought he was going to witness a physical fight in the SAC's office, but Yun just shoved the chair he'd been sitting on in Reeves's direction, and went to perch on Spelling's desk next to where Mulder was sitting. "You didn't think I might want to be in on that?"

"That was partly my fault, detective," Scully said. She didn't sound very apologetic. "The operation was rushed because I believed that Agent Mulder was in the house with the killer, and I wanted to get him out of there as fast as possible. I assumed that Agent Yun would contact you."

"So did I," Reeves said pointedly, sitting down in the chair Yun had left for him. "Would anyone care to recap recent events?"

"Agent Mulder was just describing how he deduced the location of the killer," Spelling said with a look at Mulder, who pulled himself a bit more upright in his chair and made a half-hearted attempt at maintaining a professional demeanor. He resumed his explanation, quoting most of his profile from memory as he went along. This was what they wanted from him: what Yun had hoped for, what Spelling had expected. He felt a sudden distaste for his own role, for the whole situation.

Then he looked across at Scully, and her level gaze reminded him he wasn't alone here. And it wasn't as though he hated the work. It was just the way people responded to his methods and theories that got to him now and then. He wasn't sure if it was better or worse these days. The transition from being the apple of Behavioral Science's eye to becoming the Bureau's black hidden-in-the-basement sheep had changed people's attitude towards him, but it hadn't changed him much, and sometimes he wondered why no one seemed to see that.

Mulder worked his way through the chain of reasoning and events to the morning's investigation of Flagstad's rented room, and his choice not to take McKee along as he went to look around the neighborhood. "I don't know what would have happened if she'd been with me when I found him, but—"

"Agent Mulder, let's leave those speculations aside and backtrack a moment." Spelling leaned his elbows on the desk and focused on Mulder. "You found a house you were convinced was the killer's new hiding place, and you didn't call in to check this with the property records, nor to request backup. You just went in without a word to anyone."

"I wasn't certain that Flagstad would be there," Mulder said, which was, despite what Krycek had said, true. "I wanted to see if there was any trace of his presence in the house."

"In the future, Agent Mulder, I would suggest that you follow proper procedure," Spelling said dryly. "It will save you a great deal of trouble when your next psych evaluation comes around."

Mulder opened his mouth to argue, then shut it again. If he tried to say anything in his defence, Spelling's next step would be to ask him how he thought an agent's choice to go alone, without backup and without notifying anyone, into a house containing a psychotic serial killer, would be classified. That wasn't really a question he would like to answer. It hadn't been like that. Well, not quite like that. He knew he'd been reckless, but the strongest feeling driving him had been the desire to solve the case.

Instead of attempting to explain this, he started to describe his encounter with Flagstad, recounting their conversation word for word. "I'm not sure how to define what the man was doing. I was completely conscious — well, until he knocked me out — but I gradually lost control of my own actions."

There was a small crease between Scully's brows as she listened to him. "Are you certain that it wasn't just a result of the physical violence he was inflicting on you?"

He glanced up at her. "Scully, I had my gun pointed at him, and he walked up to me and took it out of my hand, and I let him do it." Mulder frowned at the memory. He had been completely helpless. While it had been happening, he'd been protected from his own reactions to what Flagstad was doing by what Flagstad was doing, but now he started to feel the aftershocks of fear and anger, and tried to hide them from the others in the room. "Whatever he was doing, it made me completely responsive to his suggestions. I didn't even try to hit him back."

Those words brought other memories. Mulder shifted his gaze from Scully to Krycek and was met with a long serious look, a small lift of the eyebrow, before long lashes dropped down to veil Krycek's eyes again. Mulder took the hint. Silent communication between Scully and himself had sometimes occasioned comments in meetings much like this one; he didn't need anyone to think he was somehow in collusion with Krycek.

"So you're suggesting that Flagstad hypnotized you?" There was open doubt in Spelling's voice. "My understanding is that no one can be hypnotized to do something that's really against his will..." His voice trailed off.

"If you're asking do I have a subconscious desire to get beaten up by psychotic thugs, I can assure you that the answer is no," Mulder said tightly. "As I have told you — repeatedly — Flagstad's ability went beyond ordinary hypnotism. It seems to have been carried or at least initiated by some kind of visual cue that put the victims in a receptive state." He turned abruptly to Krycek. "When you were in the house with Flagstad, did you ever look directly at him?"

Krycek shook his head. "No, I didn't." He shifted himself a little more towards Spelling. "Agent Mulder's profile, as well as my own previous knowledge of Flagstad's interest in hypnotism, had led me to believe that this would be an unwise move. But I didn't get the impression that Flagstad was trying to establish any kind of control over me."

"Neither did I," Mulder agreed, remembering the conversation between Flagstad and Krycek. It had seemed to him that Flagstad had believed Krycek would cooperate of his own free will once he understood what Flagstad was trying to do. "But he did over me. He implanted some kind of command in my mind that kept me trapped in that room — he didn't even lock the door." His legs had been free, the door had been standing ajar, and he'd been trapped and helpless all the same. It was a humiliating memory. Had he really believed he would be able to resist Flagstad's powerful abilities at mind control? Krycek had been right, damn him.

"Agent Mulder, do you really expect us to believe that the killer was capable of manipulating you this way?" Spelling asked, the tilt of his head speaking volumes. "You admit there was a degree of physical violence involved, and you were unconscious at one point. You must have been in shock, disoriented—"

"Do you think I don't know what was happening to me? Do you think there's any other way to explain what happened to the people Flagstad killed?" He was all set to challenge Spelling outright; that was the second time the man had hinted and more than hinted that he didn't believe Mulder was thinking clearly. But then the phone on Spelling's desk rang, and Mulder accepted the interruption.

"Yes— Good. Was there anything that merits special attention? Do you think you can bring them by my office?"

Mulder looked away from Spelling again, letting the man's voice fade into a background buzz. The SAC's attitude now was so different from what it had been during most of the case, he wondered if Yun had managed to put in a good hour's work while he'd been at the hotel changing his clothes. Or it could be that Spelling was only pleasant to people while he wanted something from them. He had Flagstad now, or at least Flagstad's body, and perhaps he felt that it was time for him to send Spooky Mulder back to the obscurity of a basement office in DC.

Reeves straightened up out of his sulk and said something low-voiced to Krycek, who smiled and handed him half a chocolate chip cookie. Mulder wasn't even aware that he was watching the interaction between them until Yun leaned forward and touched his shoulder. "You'd think it would make some kind of difference that one's a criminal and one's a cop. I guess it's true that cocksuckers stick together no matter what."

Mulder glanced up and contemplated idly what Martin Yun's nose would look like with another break in it, then sighed. "Yeah, just like Freemasons, Martin. Don't tell me you really believe in all those weird conspiracy theories." It gave him a certain amount of satisfaction to see the startled look in Yun's eyes. "You really don't like him, do you," he asked.

Instead of blowing up at him, Yun thought for a moment. "Actually he's starting to grow on me. But don't tell him I said that."

"Oh, Reeves." Mulder almost grinned. "I'd figured that out already. I was talking about Krycek."

That earned him an even more startled look and a slow shake of the head. "Mulder, you told me he's a renegade agent and a killer, why the hell should I like him?"

Spelling was wrapping up his phone conversation, attempting to keep it short, and the meeting would be resumed any minute. "Why indeed," Mulder muttered quietly, and subsided into his chair again.

"Agent Sedley will come by shortly with the preliminary list of what was found in Flagstad's possession both in the rented room and in the house," Spelling said, putting the phone down.

Mulder looked up. "Did they find the answering machine tape that was taken from the Gutierrez house? Do they know what's on it?"

"You'll have to ask Agent Sedley when she gets here." Spelling had gotten to his feet while talking to Sedley; now he leaned forward over the desk and surveyed them all, bringing them subtly to attention. "Agent Yun, I want you to assist Josh Simon in preparing a statement. We've already informed the press that the killer is no longer at large, but Simon's working on a longer press release. He wants you in the spotlight with him."

The frown on Yun's face certainly wasn't feigned, but at the same time he looked a little pleased. "I suppose," Mulder drawled, "the press release won't say anything about Flagstad being shot by an agent who is now on the run."

Spelling twisted sharply to face him. "You're damn right it won't. Until we catch McKee, I don't want a word about her actions to reach the media. I've heard what you and your partner have to say, Agent Mulder, but there could be a good reason for what she did, and I won't kill a promising young agent's career before I know what's really going on."

"She killed her own career," that was Krycek speaking up, unexpectedly, "when she first appeared on another payroll than the FBI's." His words were hard but his eyes were oddly gentle, watching Spelling.

Mulder had just been feeling a certain reluctant respect for Spelling, for the faith he had in his people. He wondered if Krycek felt the same thing. He'd never told Krycek about the disbelief that had been in Skinner's face and voice on the morning of Krycek's own disappearance. Maybe he should have... or maybe he should never mention it.

A knock on the door was Sedley, who entered with a sheaf of papers in her long, narrow, dark-skinned hands. She was tall and very slender, a black heron of a woman. Scully turned to smile warmly at her, and an answering smile lit Sedley's face before she went up to the desk. "Sir, I have the lists here."

"Was there an answering machine tape among the things retrieved from the Flagstad house?" Mulder asked.

"Yes." Sedley half-turned towards him, and flipped through her papers quickly. "I have a transcript of the message here," she handed it to him.

Mulder grabbed the paper and scanned the lines. There had only been one message on the tape, after Carlos Gutierrez' 'leave your name and number at the tone.' A woman's voice. Carlos, it's Fran. I — we need to talk to you. I think you could be in danger, Carlos. You and Suzanne. Please call.

Fran. Frankie. Frankie Lewis, it had to be. The message had been left before she'd known that Flagstad had gotten to Gutierrez, but well after she'd figured out that the killer was after her and Grazzini. So she'd been trying to warn those of her friends that she'd perceived as being at risk. That was generous of her, and more than a little risky. Mulder tapped his knee and wondered if there had been messages from Lewis and Grazzini on anyone else's machine as well, and if those messages had been retrieved, or were already deleted.

"Can you run an analysis on this tape," he looked up to ask, "for background noises, anything that might give a clue where she was calling from?"

"I suppose," Sedley said, then caught herself up and looked towards Spelling for clues. "We could, if it's important."

"What is it, Agent Mulder?" Spelling asked, reaching out for the transcript. He scanned quickly down the lines. "Who's this Fran woman?"

"I believe she's a Frankie Lewis," Mulder said, glancing at Krycek to see his eyes widening. "And she and her husband Dario Grazzini were the ultimate targets of Flagstad's murders, the people he had mistaken myself and Agent Scully for. We should do everything we can to find them, although it's possible that they've left the Bay Area already."

"Flagstad's intended final victims?" Spelling tapped a finger against the paper. "The people you referred to as the templates against which Flagstad measured all the others, the ones he may have been sending the message to?" Mulder nodded. "I think it's a good idea to try to find them, Agent Mulder, but now that Flagstad is no longer putting them and other people at risk, it can't be a high-priority investigation."

"Sir, it's extremely important that we find them as soon as possible. These people are the reason Flagstad committed his crimes."

"Yeah, but do we have any reason to suspect them of being involved in criminal activities?" Martin Yun put in. "You can't justify a full Bureau manhunt for people who haven't done anything except attract the attention of a killer."

"These people are connected to the same group that Agent McKee was suborned by," Mulder said. "They are carrying some vital information—"

Yun cut him off with a wave of the hand. "Spooky, what was that you said to me ten minutes ago about conspiracy theories? A psychotic killer apparently believed that, but that doesn't make it true."

About to snap back at Yun, Mulder was distracted as Spelling slapped his hand against his desk, calling for silence again. "Agent Scully. Do you share Agent Mulder's opinion on this?"

"Yes, sir," she said briskly, and Mulder wished he could kiss her. "I believe we should make every effort to find Ms. Lewis and Mr. Grazzini, not only because it may shed a clearer light on Flagstad's motivations but also because they have information that is not only at the heart of this series of murders but crucial to the understanding of a conspiracy," her quick sideways glance at Yun was level and calm, "that involves far greater and more serious issues than the corruption of junior Federal agents."

"I see." Spelling seemed to have a problem with meeting Scully's clear, unwavering gaze. "Agent Scully, I think it will be best if you and Agent Mulder make this matter a separate investigation, and clear it with your supervisor before you proceed. Meanwhile I'll see if I can spare you any resources after we've wrapped up the Flagstad case."

"Sir, this is part of the Flagstad case!" Mulder leaned forward, past Yun, who was partly obscuring his view of Spelling. "Maybe even the most important part. If you want that profile to be complete—"

"I'm not saying I don't want all the available information," Spelling said, his voice sharpening. "I'm just saying that I don't think we can make closure on this case contingent on the chance that you may or may not find these people, who according to your own estimate are likely to have left the city, perhaps even left the state. There are many other investigations that have been shortchanged due to the Flagstad case. My resources are finite, Agent Mulder." He turned his head away. "Thank you, Agent Sedley, that will be all."

"Yes, sir." Sedley shifted back from the desk and looked down to catch Mulder's eyes. "Agent Mulder? I was asked to pass on a message to you from Ms. Roe. She wants you to know that there will be a meeting later tonight to honor the memory of Blaine Hibbert, and she was hoping you might like to say a few words." Sedley didn't sound as if she thought that would be a good idea. "Ten o'clock, at the Happy Clam Café in Berkeley."

"Thank you." He met Sedley's doubting glance with the beginnings of a smile, and to his surprise she suddenly smiled back warmly before nodding to Spelling and turning to leave the room. Mulder stretched his legs out and contemplated this new possibility while watching the scuffed toes of his shoes. Most of Blaine Hibbert's network of abductees would probably show up at this café. It would be the perfect place to start looking for Lewis and Grazzini.

Raising his eyes again, he saw that Krycek was frowning at him, frowning very discreetly, but that little crease at the bridge of his nose was there. Mulder wondered if Krycek had something against the hunt for the missing consortium scientists. Krycek must have been able to figure out that this would happen, and he'd still chosen to tell Mulder about it. He would just have to cope.

"Now perhaps we can get this meeting back on track," Spelling said. "Agent Mulder?"

"Yes, sir." He described how Flagstad had confined him to the room at the back of the house, without being interrupted this time, although Yun looked openly skeptical, Spelling carefully neutral. Mulder was about to begin to detail the conversation he'd overheard on Krycek's arrival, when Spelling's phone rang again.

"Yes," Spelling rapped out, more sharply this time. "Yes — when? I see. All right. I'll be there." The phone was slammed down with unnecessary force, and Spelling's breath hissed between his teeth. "It looks as though we're going to have to cut this short. Another case just blew up in our faces. Bank fraud," he muttered, making it more of a curse than an explanation.

"Not the Senator Alstrom case?" Yun slid off the desk to stand upright.

"I need to be there," Spelling said, without confirming or denying. "We'll continue this later — I'll schedule a new meeting as soon as I can get away." He picked up a few things from his desk and shoved them haphazardly into his pockets. "My apologies. Agent Yun, can you wrap things up here?"

Spelling was halfway to the door before Yun answered, "Yes, sir, of course." As soon as he was gone, the agent sank back against the desk again. "Hell."

"So you've got a crooked senator?" Mulder asked blandly. "Sounds like fun. Come on now, Martin. Take charge. Get on top of the situation." The suddenly blazingly angry look in Yun's eyes made him realize what he'd said, and he nearly laughed out loud. It hadn't been his intention to needle the man that way, but he couldn't feel sorry for it, either. He looked at his watch. "Scully and I are going to Berkeley in an hour. Better make it quick."

"I don't think there's much to say," Yun said. "Unless," he turned his head, "you have something you'd like to add, Olsen."

"No." Olsen shook his head quickly with the air of a man who wanted nothing more than to leave.

"Good. We still need to take a statement from him," Yun jerked his head towards Krycek.

"Yes, we do," Scully agreed, rising to her feet as she spoke. "I would appreciate it, Agent Yun, if you and Detective Reeves could handle that. Agent Mulder and I have a few things to discuss." Her eyes pinned him in place. He nodded wordlessly. "We'll be back later to pick Krycek up."

Yun raised an eyebrow. "You're taking him with you to Berkeley? What is he, Mary's little lamb?"

"He's the only one who can identify Lewis and Grazzini," Scully said, a shade of boredom in her voice hinting that she really shouldn't have had to explain that. "Mulder."

"Let's go out for coffee," he suggested, getting to his feet. "The stuff they have here is an X-file, I swear."

It was coming, then, the talk he dreaded. His mind toyed with possible evasions and distractions. He could certainly think of things that they hadn't done, things that needed to be investigated more closely. But Scully didn't look as though she would take 'but first we have to' for an answer this time. The best he could hope for was to get them out of here before it all started.

She walked ahead of him out of the office. As he followed, he turned his head towards Krycek and collected another frown, but this one looked merely concerned. Mulder felt a sudden crazy impulse to do something, say something, but nothing came to mind except touches he would never be able to explain away and then he was past Krycek's chair, out the door. In the corridor outside, he easily caught up with Scully, but didn't try to outpace her.

"Is there a place nearby that has good coffee?" she asked in the elevator, going down.

"I don't know. There must be something." Looking down at her, he added, "I feel like I'm in a tumbril on the way to the guillotine."

Scully raised her face, tilting her head back so far it had to be uncomfortable, to look straight at him. "Is that how you think of me? Am I your personal judge, jury and executioner now?"

The conflicting impulses to snap at her and to apologize cancelled each other out in the time it took for them to reach the ground floor and step outside. On an impulse, he put his hand carefully in the small of her back, not quite embracing her, as they walked through the foyer and out into the street. The touch gave him balance, and an answer. "I think you'll always be my judge in some ways, Scully. There isn't anyone else whose opinion matters quite so much to me."

"There are moments when I wish you would remember that," she said with a barely audible sigh. They turned left and strolled slowly along the pavement. "But even more," these words came more slowly, "I wish you didn't have to remember that."

Ducking out of the path of a rotund bag lady, Mulder put her words away, to contemplate later. They went on in silence until they came to what looked like a brand new place, Claire's Coffee House in pink neon over the door, three high, round-topped tables to stand by, two of them occupied, full length glass windows, and the intoxicating scent of coffee beans being ground on the premises. Mulder led the way inside. He smiled at the pale, freckled woman behind the counter and ordered a double espresso and a glass of water; his various aches and pains were catching up with him, slowing him down. "Scully, do you have any—"

"Painkillers?" She pulled a small white bottle from her pocket with a slight flourish, and handed it to him. Then she stood hesitating for so long over the selection of coffee that he abandoned her and took his cup and glass to the one free table, downing a couple of pills with the water before sipping the espresso.

Scully came back and set her cup down, and he leaned over the tabletop to sniff at it. "What did you get?"


"Artificial flavoring," Mulder said. "I mean, it's probably not the real thing. You know that coffee connoisseurs feel that the practice of adding various flavors to coffee is—"

"Mulder, you are not a coffee connoisseur." She sniffed at the cup herself, then drank with every sign of pleasure. "And we didn't come here to talk about coffee."

"No." He retreated into his own small cup for a moment. There were any number of places this conversation could start, all of them unpleasant. Mulder supposed the best thing would be to face up to it, to be frankly repentant and open, but he was at a loss for words. He didn't want to lose her. More than anything else, he didn't want to lose her friendship, her honest, clear-eyed affection, whatever measure of respect she had for him. But not even to keep Scully could he completely disavow whatever was between him and Alex Krycek — what had started out as a splinter of wood piercing his skin had worked its way deep, and would not be dislodged.

"I'm sorry for what I said this morning," she said, startling him into looking at her again. "Some of it, at least. I was shocked; I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I'm sorry I called you sick and twisted. I was angry."

"I noticed," he muttered, wondering if he had the guts to ask if she still believed he was sick and twisted. The cup clattered against the saucer as he put it down. Shaking hands. Jesus. It took all his courage not to start speaking the words that presented themselves so easily to his mind and tongue, all the glib deflections, deceptions, counter-accusations that would steer this conversation in a different direction.

"I'm not going to apologize for being angry, Mulder," she told him seriously. "Especially after the talk we had at the restaurant last night. I still can't believe you did that to me. You knew, you must have known then that you were attracted to Krycek and you let me sit there and try to warn you."

"What was I supposed to say, Scully? Don't worry, I don't mind, I think he's cute?" He paused on a drawn-in breath, but she didn't say anything so he went on, trying to sound analytical, "Is that it, is that the real problem, that you feel you made a fool of yourself, like you said this morning? Is that what is really bothering you?"

"No." She raised her chin and hit him with her bluest, steeliest gaze, and he realized he'd been doing it anyway, and that she wasn't going to let him get away with it. "The real problem here is that you slept with someone we both know is an amoral killer. And you lied to me about it."

"I did not lie to you about it!" He sucked in air again and brought his voice down to a civilized level, hoping the other people in the coffee shop weren't starting to look at them. His battered face was bad enough, he didn't need to draw additional attention to himself by yelling. "I just didn't tell you about it, because I thought—" Mulder sighed. "Because I didn't think. Scully, I didn't know then that it would happen, you have to understand that."

"Are you trying to tell me that it was an accident?" With one eyebrow raised, she was a picture of polite disbelief.

"An impulse. And you don't have to tell me it's different from picking up some Reese's peanut butter cups when you're standing in the check-out line. I know that."

"Do you? Mulder, I would have expected you of all men to be capable of thinking with something other than your—"

"Scully. Haven't you ever done something — even knowing that you'll regret it — that you just couldn't stop yourself from doing?"

To his surprise, that seemed to stop her in her tracks. She looked at him for a few moments with a strangely distant look in her eyes, then glanced down and seemed to regroup while she tucked her hair back with one hand. The small grooming gesture told him he'd rocked her, even if he wasn't quite sure how. "Yes, I have," she said finally, quietly. "But Mulder, Krycek. You know what he's done—"

"So do you, and you were trading jokes with him earlier today, you backed each other up when you were telling me off—"

"That's hardly the same level of intimacy," she shot back. "The way you've been acting lately, I need all the support I can get." He clenched his jaw, felt his tongue move to spit out some hurtful comment his mind hadn't quite put together yet, and then she leaned forward around the edge of the small table and put a hand on his arm. "No — I'm sorry. I didn't mean that. But I don't understand it. Why, Mulder, what made you do this? You suddenly decided out of the blue that it would be a good idea to sleep with Krycek?"

"No." He shook his head quickly. Opportunity had given the impulse free rein, but it had been driven by all the pent-up feelings and frustrations of the past five months and more. "This didn't start last night, Scully. In Leyden Creek—"

"You and Krycek — in Leyden Creek — you were sleeping together then?" The momentary softening of her attitude vanished and she drew back from him again, looking hurt and disappointed.

"No. Well, yes — no — in a way. It started there." He braced his elbows against the table and dropped his head forward into his hands. It felt as though she was drilling a hole in his head with her eyes. "No, that's not true either. It started back in Washington three years ago, when I was assigned a new partner. God, Scully, I don't think I can explain this."

"You'd better try," she said. "I want to understand what is going on with you, but this — this is just so far removed from anything I would ever have imagined." She looked at him searchingly.

"I know you don't like to consider extreme possibilities," he said, anticipating the exact shade of amused irritation on her face. "Did you even know that I'm attracted to men as well as women?"

"No." It was less convenient for Scully to lean on the table; it was too high for her. She laid one forearm flat against the table top and stirred her vanilla-flavored coffee with the other hand. "And it feels strange not to have known something as important as that about you. I thought," she looked a little unhappy, "that we were close enough that you wouldn't feel uncomfortable telling me things like that."

"It's not that I would have felt uncomfortable," he said, and reviewed his feelings to see if he was telling the truth. It was hard to tell. "The subject just never came up. I don't know what you're imagining, but I haven't been having this wild private life that I haven't told you about, Scully."

"You don't have the time for a wild private life," she told him. "And whether your decision not to tell me about that was conscious or unconscious doesn't matter. You have a right to your privacy, Mulder. But of all the ways I could have found out about your bisexuality, this is the last I would have imagined."

"Yeah," he muttered, picking his coffee cup up again and tilting it this way and that, shifting the dregs around.

"I don't care if you sleep with men. That's your business. It's the fact that it's Krycek that troubles me." Scully leaned forward even more, looking intently at him. "I thought you hated him, Mulder, and I wouldn't blame you for feeling that way. But if you do, then why did you have sex with him?"

"I don't hate him," he said helplessly. "Well, sometimes I think I do. But I don't, not any more." He tugged at his hair. "It's complicated."

"You're the psychologist, Mulder," she reminded him, not unkindly. "You said it started back when he was your partner?"

"Yes. No." Looking up, he saw that she was about to lose patience with his inability to say one thing and stick with it. "It depends on how you look at it," he said quickly. "Back when Krycek and I were assigned together, I — I liked him. I wanted to trust him, I almost did trust him. He was a good partner, we worked well together, we connected in a way that — that we still do." Connected so well that it unsettled him; his belief in Krycek's essential otherness was rocked by the eerie way their minds could run on such amazingly close parallel lines.

"He's been helpful on this case," Scully admitted. "Not just as a witness or a source of information. I noticed that myself. I actually told him the other day that he must have been a good agent."

Mulder nodded. "He was. And I thought if I couldn't be with you, he was the best possible alternative. And when I realized that he wasn't who he seemed to be, and that he'd helped them take you, I spent a lot of time hoping he'd find a hell and rot in it. And it was worse because I'd liked him, because..."

"Because you'd been attracted to him?" she filled in for him.

"Yeah." Mulder shook his head. "I don't know. I suppose I was, but after he was gone I tried to tell myself I hadn't been. It seemed like the ultimate idiocy — it was the first time in years I'd met someone that I was interested in, and he turned out to be a Consortium hit man. It shook my faith in my own paranoia. I just wanted to forget."

He tried for a smile, and Scully smiled with him. She had curved both hands around her coffee cup and drank slowly from it. "But you know what he is now," she said, turning serious again. "And it isn't just what you found out then, three years ago. The crimes that he has committed against us, against our families, are almost impossible to forgive. I realize that you find him attractive, maybe more than just physically, but..."

"I don't know what he is now," Mulder contradicted her. "I don't think you do either. I don't think he knows." He thought about Krycek's unreadable eyes, and his soft, tender mouth. Killer. Lover. "Things changed in Leyden Creek, Scully. Don't tell me you didn't notice."

The group of people at the table nearest to them collected their bags and clattered out; the coffee house grew quieter. Behind the counter, the red-headed woman busied herself sorting mugs and glasses. Scully shifted on her feet. "Yes," she said slowly. "I couldn't help feeling a little sorry for him. He was so obviously hurting, and you were being so hard on him."

"I didn't want to feel sorry for him. He told me he killed my father." Mulder rubbed the ball of his thumb against the scabbed-over split in his lip. It hurt.

"You already knew that."

"It was different to hear him admit it. In Hong Kong he said he didn't do it, and I didn't believe him. In Leyden Creek he said he did it, and I almost didn't want to believe him." Mulder tried to stare out the window, but it was dark outside and light in here and all he saw was his own reflection, and Scully's. They looked like a Hopper painting. "Because if I believed him I'd have to do something. Scully, where do you draw the line between justice and vengeance?"

She frowned, and hesitated for a few moments before answering. "When I found Cardinale, I wanted to kill him. I wanted to shoot him there and then for what he'd done. It seemed monstrously unfair to me that this creep of a man could be alive and able to walk around when my sister was dead. She would have led a rich, wonderful, loving life, and Cardinale was wasting his breathing hours on hurting other people."

That hurt was still there in her voice, a sorrow that had not grown gentler. It didn't surprise him. He had always known that grief was not a linear, time-bound emotion. "I'm sorry about Melissa," he said awkwardly. "But you didn't shoot Cardinale."

"No. He was terrified, and babbling, and I realized that he was almost convinced I would kill him, could see that I was ready to do it. And what I saw in his face then made me understand that I was about to pull the trigger not on Luis Cardinale, but on my own principles." Scully shifted her weight to the other foot, and raised her head to look at him again. "But you don't go around shooting at Krycek. Apparently you just beat him up."

Instead of all the rational defences that he could come up with, the sidetracking remarks, the explanations and excuses, what he actually said was, "He drives me crazy."

Scully considered this for a while, picking her spoon up and tapping it softly against the side of the cup. It was an annoying little sound and Mulder wished she'd stop doing it. Finally she said, "Mulder, I think that once we get back to DC, you should make an appointment with one of the Bureau psychologists. Or someone who's non-Bureau, if you would feel more comfortable with that. I think—"

"You think I need professional help," he said dryly. "Scully, I am a psychologist."

"You're also confused," she pointed out. "Conflicted. Mulder, I'm your friend, and I'll talk this through with you for as long as we both can stand it. But the mind isn't my area of expertise, and any help I can offer can only be that of a well-meaning layperson."

"The Bureau shrinks hate me," he said. "It doesn't matter what I say, they're always convinced I'm trying to manipulate them."

Mulder thought she would answer, 'And you're not?' but instead she just repeated, "So go to someone outside the Bureau. It's just a suggestion, Mulder, but I think you need to discuss this with someone who can meet you on your own terms. If there is something between you and Alex Krycek that involves this degree of violence—"

"No!" He stared at her, appalled. "God, Scully, no. That's not the way it is at all."

"The fact that you apologized for it doesn't mean it didn't happen, Mulder. You know it's very common for people who are trapped in abusive relationships to believe they're making a fresh start when they're just beginning the next cycle of recriminations and more abuse."

"Scully." He fought the impulse to sweep the coffee cups from the table and beat his head against its laminated surface. It might make him feel a little better, but it wouldn't improve things in the long run. "I am not having a relationship with Alex Krycek." Mulder considered that for a couple of seconds. "I'm definitely not in the middle of an abusive relationship with Alex Krycek. We just had sex. Once. Do you really think that I'm — that we're — do you really think I could do that, Scully?" He didn't know whether to scream at her, or cry.

Scully looked at him seriously. "I found you about to hit him, after having slept with him. And today you admitted you'd hit him before, repeatedly. What was I supposed to think?" Then she breathed deeply and softened, her eyes warmly concerned. "I'm sorry. I was trying to shock you. Sometimes... Mulder, I know you have a high degree of self-awareness in some areas, but in others you don't. It's only natural, we're all like that. And in stressful situations, it's sometimes hard to prevent patterns that you've learned in childhood from breaking through."

The espresso machine wheezed asthmatically, a little prelude, before settling into its steady hissing that almost covered the clatter of cups and spoons. It was dark outside and the pavement just in front of the coffee shop was bathed in pink light from the neon sign. People walked in and out of that light, hurrying on their way, barely glancing in through the windows to where Mulder stood with his shoulders hunched. He reached to take hold of his empty cup, but his hands were shaking again, trembling with ill-defined emotion, something that would not quite be anger, did not quite turn to tears.

With jerky abruptness, he stepped away from the table and walked blindly to the door, pushing it open, going outside. It didn't take him long to leave the embrace of the neon light and start to walk down the block, carefully looking where he was going, not wanting to walk right into someone. Long strides and deep breaths did nothing to settle him. He felt fractured, kaleidoscope colors without a pattern. All his words, all the fancy thematic structures in his mind seemed to have deserted him.

It was getting cooler, the temperature dropping down from its moderate heatwave high to something more normal for a San Francisco summer evening. Even walking at a quick pace, he didn't break a sweat. A breeze met him, but he couldn't blame it for the rising tears, could only turn his head away from those he met and scrub surreptitiously at his eyes with the heel of his hand.

He didn't know how much knowledge there was in Scully's words and how much was guesswork. Maybe he should have stayed to ask her, but that was not a discussion he was prepared to have. It was enough that she had told him, indirectly, what he might turn into. It was enough that she had hinted, no matter how tenderly, that she thought it was possible. It was enough that he knew that she was right.

Reaching a corner, he turned left and went on walking. There were fewer people here and he could move faster. Fewer people to see him. In the grip of self-loathing, he looked on the dumpsters outside a restaurant's back entrance as possible hiding places. He went halfway down the block, and then without slowing down veered abruptly sideways and threw himself against the wall, so hard it almost knocked the breath from his lungs.

It hurt. Every bruise from the past couple of days was screaming when he reeled back and went on his slightly more unsteady way. It hurt but the pain was, in its way, cleansing. It was good pain, pain that let him know where he stood in the larger scheme of things. When he emerged onto another, wider street, he turned left again. Tilting his head back, he saw that the sky had grown low and cloudy over the streetlights. The people he met were wearing coats, huddling into them as if the temperature drop had surprised and offended them.

He had been honest in his apology, he knew that much, and had meant it as a promise. Now Scully had made him wonder how much he could believe in what he said. She was seeing him more clearly than he was seeing himself. It reminded him of a tarot reader he'd met once who had told him that she couldn't read the cards for herself because she got in the way. It was a good thing he could at least see others, or he would have wasted an expensive education.

The first chill drops of rain fell on him as he came to the next corner. Automatically turning left, he went briskly along the slight upslope, still feeling the echo of his deliberate collision with the wall in his body. He had known that this talk with Scully would be painful, but this wasn't something he had anticipated.

Still, it could have been worse. Much worse. She hadn't screamed, she hadn't run. Honesty compelled him to admit that she wasn't the one who was prone to walking out of emotionally threatening situations. Mulder lengthened his stride. Despite whatever considerable doubt she felt, she was still with him — making accusations that stung him down to his soul, but that was probably the price he had to pay for keeping her in his life. He could handle it. He could. He had to.

He went slowly around the last corner. Left. It wasn't far. Stopping outside the coffee house, he saw that Scully was still standing where he had left her. Not just that, but she had ordered another cup of coffee; steam rose up past her nose as she sipped at whatever revolting brew she had chosen this time — chocolate? Praline? More vanilla? Watching her when she didn't know he was doing it was a small pleasure. She was, left to her own devices, so perfectly Scully. It was all there, the way she moved, the thoughtful look, the promise of energy and smiles.

Mulder pushed the door open again and went back inside. She had her back to him, and he went around the small table, and stopped where he had been standing, and looked at her. "I just needed some air," he said. She regarded him steadily. "I think we should get back to what we were talking about before."

Scully tilted her head to one side and seemed to weigh possibilities in her mind. "We were talking about justice and vengeance," she said. "About how you felt when Krycek told you he killed your father." Mulder nodded. They could start again from there. "So did you believe him or not, in the end? And what did you decide to do?"

"He was crying," Mulder answered obliquely.

She looked surprised. "Krycek was crying?"

"Yeah." He could still see it, slow silent tears in a dark room, and the rain falling outside. That look in Krycek's eyes, half-wounded, half-defiant.

"Over killing your father?"

"Yes." It sounded strange when he said it.

"And that makes it all right?" she asked, not at all harshly.

"It changes things." It hadn't been the start of the changes and certainly not the end of them, but in that moment could be found some key to his own reactions, he thought, a pivot around which he had turned. The change in direction had perhaps been slight, but he had felt its effect then and he was feeling it now.

Scully looked at him as if what he'd said made perfect sense. Her open eyes hinted at surprise, and at a certain wonder. "Mulder, I think what you're trying to define isn't where to draw the line between justice and vengeance, but where to draw it between justice and mercy."

"Scully, I don't know what the hell I'm trying to do."

They shared a smile at that. He picked up her coffee cup and smelled it. Chocolate and mint. It didn't ask to be shared, so he put it down and finished his glass of water instead. Scully checked her watch quickly, then propped her chin in her hand. "But I think sleeping with Krycek is attempting to take forgiveness a step too far."

Mulder drew a deep breath and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Scully, on some level my awareness of what he's done will always be there, and color the way I look at him. But you have to believe that it's possible for me to go to bed with Alex Krycek, all of him, the entire complex fucked-up annoying brilliant body and soul, and not just a gun-wielding archetype, the big bad bogeyman from my subconscious made flesh."

"Hmm." Reclaiming her coffee cup, she sought refuge in it for a moment. "Do you believe it's possible?" He opened his mouth to speak, closed it again. "Mulder, I still think you need—"

"Help?" he said wryly.

"Support," she said. "Someone to talk to who isn't me. You can't tell me that what is going on here is completely normal and healthy. I — I don't want to be your judge in this matter, Mulder. I'm not qualified. One minute I think it's appalling, the next you've got me believing it ought to make perfect sense. What was it that happened between you and Krycek in Leyden Creek that I didn't notice?"

"Too much," he said, suddenly feeling tired. "It was hard to keep him at a distance, and the more I found out about him, the harder it got. When the ghosts of his parents came for him—"


"I saw them too, Scully. They were there. It made me remember what happened in New Mexico, when I saw my father. How long do you think we carry our ghosts with us?"

She looked startled, and then thoughtful. "You mean, like memories? For as long as we live, I suppose. I'm not surprised you had dreams about your father then, just after his death, and when you had come close to death yourself."

"Not dreams, Scully. And Krycek's parents weren't a dream either." He could still see them in his mind's eye, reaching out with something that was, perhaps, forgiveness. The dead were hard to comprehend and hard to face. They hand their eyes, the part that stares. "I wanted to understand him." Stealing a sip from her coffee cup, he grimaced, and admitted, "I think I wanted to understand my own reaction to him."

"And do you?"

"No. But no one else gets under my skin the way he does." He slumped against the table. "Maybe you're right. Maybe it's twisted, insane. Sometimes I think about it and the horror of it all makes me want to be sick. And sometimes—" Mulder ran a hand through his hair. "We never finished the debriefing. I never got round to describing what happened once Krycek got to the house."

"What did happen?"

"He tried to get Flagstad to release me. Tried to save my life again." He shrugged. "And then you came. You know, I thought you'd be angrier than this that I didn't tell you about what happened in Leyden Creek."

"You still haven't told me what happened in Leyden Creek."

"Oh. Right. We slept in the same bed. We — kissed." He looked at her from under lowered eyelids, checking for a reaction. She was probably jaded by now, impossible to upset; it made him grin.

"What's so funny?" she asked.

"I was just thinking that you probably wouldn't bat an eyelash right now if I told you I was engaged to be married to Bigfoot."

"Mulder," she said, deadpan, "Bigfoot would have been less of a shock." Then she sipped at her chocolate-flavored coffee. "Yes, I wish you'd told me about it back then. But it doesn't feel right to yell at you for that when— I've been keeping things from you too."

"What? You had a wild affair with Tooms?"

"You were the one who crawled around in a tunnel with a naked Tooms, not me." Scully looked down at her hands, still curved around the cup. "No. Not Tooms. Skinner."

Lovers VI: Of now done darkness

"These men, and those who opposed them
And those whom they opposed
Accept the constitution of silence
And are folded in a single party.
Whatever we inherit from the fortunate
We have taken from the defeated" — T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding

"Lovers, like the dead
In their loves are equal;
Sophomores and peasants,
Poets and their critics
Are the same in bed." — Auden, Heavy Date

He looked at her bent head with the sensation of having expected a last step of a staircase where no step was to be found. After a moment, she straightened her neck and met his eyes squarely. "Skinner," he said tentatively. "Assistant Director Skinner? Our boss, Walter S. Skinner?"

"Don't pretend to be dense," she snapped.

"I'm not, I just — how long?" Then he added, unable to resist, "The relationship, I mean," and watched her visibly restrain herself from hitting him.

"Mulder, if you're going to be difficult about this—"

"Being difficult is part of my boyish charm." He braced his elbows on the tabletop again, avoiding a coffee spill, and thought out loud. "I didn't think Skinner was the type to get involved with a subordinate. I thought he had the rule book tattooed on the inside of his eyelids." On the heels of that, a faint flicker of unease, remembering Skinner hitting Krycek. "He'd be in trouble if it got out — you too, not the same kind of trouble, of course—"

"You're hardly the right person to talk about that."

"I know. I was just pointing it out." He looked at her, at the light in her eyes, at the tense set of her mouth, her shoulders drawn back and squared resolutely. She looked like a determined martyr waiting for someone to bring out the lions. "Scully, you don't look happy. Are you happy?"

"I'm fine," she said automatically.


"I think I'm happy," she offered more slowly, tilting her head to one side, appearing to think seriously about it for once. "Or I think I will be now that I'm not worried about how to tell you any longer."

"Which brings us back to the question of how long this has been going on," he said. "How long — has this been go-ing on, how—"

"Shut up." She shook her head, but started to smile. "You can't sing. A couple of months."

"That's very vague. You mean the exact date isn't engraved on your heart in letters of gold?" Then he took a sobering breath. "Sorry. I guess I'm still a bit surprised by all this." And he was also, though he wasn't going to tell her that, relieved that the conversation had strayed away from a detailed investigation of his own life. He felt wrung out, unable to take more emotional stress. "I want to know, though. I can't believe this has been going on for months right under my nose and I haven't noticed anything."

"I could say the same thing," Scully said with a pointedly raised eyebrow.

"Yeah, but there was less actually going on in my case," he said. Just a lot of wanting and not having, hurting and wishing, trying not to want, not to wish, not to hurt. "Unless you and Skinner have decided to keep it platonic for the sake of the Bureau."

"We should have," Scully said. She looked down at the table top, blushed faintly. Mulder tried valiantly not to picture her and Skinner in bed together. The more he tried not to think about it, the more lurid images his mind provided for him. He wondered if she thought about him and Krycek that way — if she visualized them together, if that made her blush. "As it is, I ought to request a transfer to a position where he is no longer my direct supervisor. Back to Quantico, for instance."

"Scully!" He leaned forward, willing her to look up at him. His heart started to beat faster. That bleak, duty-fraught statement alarmed him "Are you thinking seriously about this? Abandoning the X-Files division? Giving up your work? Our work?" Abandoning the X-Files for Skinner? he wanted to ask, but didn't.

"I don't want to," there was unhappiness in her voice again. "You know I don't want to. But the only alternative is to keep this quiet. Can I — do you think we can do that? Will you keep this to yourself?"

"Yes," he said without hesitation. "I don't think it will affect your work — either of you. I haven't noticed any difference in Skinner's attitude towards us lately, and if he didn't turn over-protective in the first flush of romantic passion he's hardly going to do it now. And I can't exactly see you manipulating him into anything, either." Then he started to smile. "Although if you could manage to get our budget doubled, I could finally buy that genuine antique Aztec crystal divining set I've always wanted — five crystals of different sizes, one turns red when you're in the presence of a deity, another glows green when there's an alien around, a third—"

"A third that plays the Macarena if you put it in a crop circle?"

"Oh, you get their catalogs too?"

She swatted his wrist, rather mildly. But when she spoke again, she was serious. "I don't like it. I don't like the silences and I don't like the lies." Looking up at him, her eyes were bright and a little sad. "But I think the work we do is important and no, I don't want to give it up. I'm not ready to go back to Quantico and teach, not when I can be out in the field and help people directly." Scully frowned. "Perhaps it's selfish of me. Perhaps I've simply become addicted to our high solve rate."

Mulder thought for a moment longer than usual before answering her. "I don't want you to leave, Scully. And that is purely selfish on my part. But if this really gets to be too much for you, I guess I'd..."

"You'd encourage me to put in for a transfer?" She sounded incredulous.

"No, I'd start on the heavy emotional blackmail and remind you that I couldn't survive without you. I need you to come rushing in to save my ass on a regular basis." He shifted, curving his spine slightly and then straightening his shoulders. All the bruised parts of his body were getting stiff. The walk around the block might have helped if he hadn't thrown himself into that wall. But that had been, in its own way, necessary. "I'm glad you finally told me."

"I thought you knew," Scully admitted, then smiled. "Well, not knew exactly, but I thought you'd sensed something. That that was why there was something different between us. That you were flirting with me again because you felt it was somehow safe."

"I was too busy keeping my own secrets to think about whether you had any." He shook his head slowly, thinking about how distracted he had been, and how distracted she had been. "That's what keeping secrets does to you. It makes you think people can read them in your eyes and in the way you move, that there's a sign pinned to your back that everyone can see. I thought things were different because of me, Scully. Because of what I've been thinking about."

"Krycek." The doubt was back in her voice. "Mulder, I don't want to judge you—" She glanced up, caught his eye on her, and had the grace to smile with equal parts guilt and humor. "All right, maybe I do want to judge you. But I can't pretend I think this is anything but strange, and a very bad idea for a lot of reasons."

"You think I don't know that?" he asked a little tiredly.

"No." Scully's voice was warm. "I also think you know I won't expose you in any way."

"Considering what I've got on you," he said, mostly joking.

Scully made a face. "It has nothing to do with that. I don't think of this as an escalating arms race of blackmail possibilities. But Mulder, I do think you should consider talking to someone. You're in a very irregular and very vulnerable position, and I don't think it's been good for you to keep all this locked inside."

"Silences and lies," he said. "You're right. I hate this, Scully. I really, really hate this." He didn't specify what 'this' was, nor did she ask. It was clear from how she put it that she thought he ought to talk it out, figure out why he had done it, realize it had been wrong and never do it again. A simple plan. He hadn't managed to convey the complexity of whatever was between him and Alex Krycek, and the impossibility of reducing it to a confession of temporary insanity. The word that he'd chosen made him smile. Perhaps Scully wanted to send him to a psychiatrist the way she would have sent someone else to church.

Scully checked her watch again. "We have to get back if we're going to pick up Krycek before driving over to Berkeley." She picked her coffee cup up and drank down the last of her chocolate mint coffee. Mulder felt his stomach protest on seeing it. "Do you really think Lewis and Grazzini will be there?"

"It's a long shot," he admitted, relieved to be back to talking business. It had been a harrowing hour. "I think it's fairly likely they've already left the area, but if they're still here, they might come. And even if they don't, I hope we can talk to some other people who might have a clue about where they've gone, starting with Angelica Roe."

"Let's go, then," she said.

Mulder led the way to the door and pushed it open. There was still rain hovering in the air, but only the occasional drop fell on them as they walked back up the street. It wasn't far, and in a few minutes they were inside again. Scully flipped her ID shut and put it back in her pocket, and brushed the raindrops out of her hair as they waited for the elevator. It seemed to Mulder that the temperature was still dropping.

Once they got up they went straight for Spelling's office and found Krycek and Reeves sharing the last of the chocolate chip cookies and discussing the Forty-Niners. There was no sign of Yun, and Mulder wondered if he'd even stuck around to take the statement, or left it to Reeves. "Are you finished here?" he asked, walking in and picking up the bag that had held the cookies. A few crumbs fell out into his palm. "I paid good money for these."

"Thanks," Reeves said disingenuously, then grinned. "Yeah, we're done."

Krycek got to his feet and brushed the cookie crumbs off his jeans. "Berkeley?" he asked. "I know where the Happy Clam is — that's where Blaine held his public meetings."

"I thought it might be," Mulder said, crumpling the paper bag in his hands and tossing it in a neat arc over Spelling's desk and into the wastebasket. "Let's go, then."

* * *

The café was already filling up with people. It was a small place, ten tables, forty chairs. Mulder thought Roe might have underestimated Blaine Hibbert's popularity; the bell on the door kept jangling, an uneven, unstructured lament. Together with Scully and Krycek he moved into a front corner, leaning against the wall, scanning the room and glancing out the window to watch the people passing in the street. It was hard to make out faces beneath the umbrellas; it had finally started raining in earnest. Scully settled in front of him, Krycek to his right.

The wall he leaned against was painted a warm yellow, and the chairs and tables were dark green. The colors and the soft lighting combined to create a soothing ambience. It was hard to make people's faces out clearly across the room. Krycek was nodding at some, smiling at others, but refusing waved invitations to come over and talk. Some of the people who recognized him gave him a second, puzzled look, as if trying to figure out what was wrong. It took Mulder a moment or two to get it — Krycek still wasn't wearing his prosthesis. Those men and women might not even have known that he was missing a limb.

The smell of coffee hung in the air, rich and tantalizing. Most of those who had come to honor Hibbert's memory had opted to drink lattes and eat cream-filled buns while they were doing it. Wet coats and open umbrellas provided a steamy, sauna-like atmosphere. There was a low murmur of talk, hushed in deference to the reason for this gathering, that died away altogether when Angelica Roe stepped up next to the counter and tapped a coffee mug with a spoon for silence.

"I guess you all know why we're here," she began haltingly. "It's because we miss Blaine." Roe was no public speaker, but emotion carried her words and made people listen to her as she talked about Hibbert's life and what she knew about his death. Mulder only half listened to what she said, tensing every time the café door opened again to admit late arrivals, of which there seemed to be a lot despite the fact that Roe was already running half an hour behind schedule.

In front of him, Scully stood still and silent. She had pulled her lightweight jacket off and held it folded over her arms; the loose green cotton sweater hid the gun tucked into the back of her jeans. Despite the casual clothes, she didn't look anything like the rest of the people in this place and neither, he suspected, did he. It was hard to hide that level of concentration, and Krycek, still and intent, his green eyes hard and thoughtful, wasn't providing much in the way of cover for them.

The door opened again with a bright jangle of sound and a larger group of people slipped inside, trying to be quiet. Roe faltered, then picked up and went on as the latecomers spread out, finding seats here and there at various tables. She had reached the topic of Hibbert's book, which she vowed to publish and which she predicted would turn out to be a real eye-opener for the American public. Mulder shook his head slightly, feeling curiously ashamed of the way he immediately doubted this. At least it wasn't a Scully kind of doubt. He thought it quite possible that Hibbert had had things to say that could be eye-opening; he just didn't think anyone would read the book.

Next to him, Krycek tensed up even further, then leaned closer, his breath warm against Mulder's skin. "There they are," he whispered, nodding towards a table at the center of the room. "Those two right there who just came in — woman in blue, man in a green coat."

Mulder spotted them as soon as he looked that way, while Krycek shifted forward to tell Scully. Frankie Lewis was short and slim, in her mid-thirties, pale and nervous-looking. The hair that peeked from beneath a scarf was almost strawberry blonde. Dario Grazzini was tall, not quite as darkly Italian as his name had suggested, his shoulders set with stiff unease. He wore a baseball cap that he didn't pull off as he slumped down in his chair.

"We'll try to talk to them as soon as the meeting is over," Mulder whispered to his companions. "Keep an eye on them, make sure they don't leave before us. Maybe we should move closer to the door."

Scully nodded, still with her back to them both, and transferred her weight with seeming casualness to the other leg preparatory to moving. Mulder pushed away from the wall, ready to follow her. Several of the recent arrivals were standing between them and the door, since all the tables had filled up by now. They would have to make their way past the other guests as quietly as they could.

"I know there are many of you who have good memories of Blaine," Angelica Roe was saying, "and I hope you want to share them with us all here and now. Just come forward and say whatever you want. We're all friends here."

With a whispered apology, Scully passed the first little knot of people, but then she was held up as a man started to get up from his place at a table in the back and maneuver his way between the chairs towards the counter where Roe was standing. Mulder, behind her, was stopped trying to pass the first group and had to edge back as they glared at him for blocking their view. The door to the café opened again, and a single figure slid inside, ducking immediately towards the other side of the room.

Peering between the heads of the other people, Mulder made out dark hair in a knot, and a pale, serious profile above a dark shirt.


There were two women between him and Scully, and he didn't want to raise his voice to get her attention, knowing that that would make McKee spot them. Turning to look momentarily over his shoulder, he caught Krycek's eyes and saw from the expression on the other man's face that he, too, had seen McKee. Krycek was frowning and his lips had thinned in anger and concentration. Something about that look made Mulder feel a little cold. Then he remembered that McKee had been shooting at Krycek, and he knew Krycek did not have a forgiving nature when it came to people who tried to kill him. He'd just have to try to keep Krycek away from the woman.

When he looked that way again, he saw that McKee was moving along the wall opposite them, sliding past chairs and standing people with greater ease. She kept her head down, but Mulder saw that her attention was focused on a spot in the center of the room — the table where Lewis and Grazzini were sitting. Surely she couldn't be intending to shoot them here and now. It would cause a panic, and it would be hard for her to get out again. But McKee was young and, it seemed, less than completely professional. He found his hand moving towards his gun.

"Blaine and I didn't always get along that well," the man who had gotten up said, then cleared his throat abruptly after that inauspicious beginning, and shuffled his feet. "I mean, we didn't always have the same opinion about things. But I respected him. He did good work, and — and we'll all miss him."

Mulder hoped that no one in this café would have to know what Blaine Hibbert had looked like when he died, or what his killer had said about him later. He felt ashamed suddenly to be there, part of this crowd, when it was his negligence that had gotten Hibbert killed. Clenching his free hand, he concentrated on what he was here to do.

Frankie Lewis was fidgeting in her seat, clearly uneasy. She looked down at her hands, inspected her bitten fingernails, looked up again and turned her head, seemingly about to whisper something to Grazzini. Then she froze, looking past him. Mulder followed the direction of her gaze, and swore under his breath. She'd seen McKee, and clearly recognized her.

Jumping to her feet, Lewis overturned her chair as she dragged Grazzini upright too and ran for the door. People cursed and cried out as they were pushed out of the way, and the speaker at the front of the room ground to a confused halt. "Scully, follow them!" Mulder called, pushing past the two women. He saw that McKee was already moving, too. She was closer to the door than they were. Before Scully could get there, McKee was slipping outside in Lewis and Grazzini's wake.

"She's out to get them," Krycek said tightly as they more or less elbowed their way out. Mulder pulled his gun out as soon as he made it to the doorway, and then they ran after Scully, who was already pounding down the street. The rain and darkness meant the sidewalk was relatively uncrowded, and up ahead he could see Lewis and Grazzini rounding a corner, McKee following them. He ran faster, and Krycek kept up with him, yelling, "McKee's got her gun out—"

There was a shot from up ahead, and he heard someone scream, but there was no room in his tightly focused vision for the confused and frightened bystanders. Scully was calling to McKee to drop her weapon. Then she put on a burst of speed, and slammed McKee into the wall by the corner with a full-body tackle any NHL player would have been proud of. Mulder lengthened his strides even more and reached the two grappling figures just as McKee raised her arm.

He wasn't sure if she meant to turn the gun and shoot Scully or hit her temple with the butt, but he grabbed McKee's wrist and slammed it back into the wall. The gun fell from suddenly nerveless fingers and clattered harmlessly on the sidewalk, and McKee said something muffled and painful, fighting his grip. Scully glanced quickly up at him, then freed one hand to get her handcuffs out.

They pinned the struggling woman between them and cuffed her securely. After a few moments McKee quieted down, and Mulder let go of her and looked around. Neither Krycek nor Lewis and Grazzini were in sight any longer. "Damn it!"

"Go after them," Scully said, in between sucking in deep breaths, her hand reassuringly steady as she kept her gun trained on McKee. "Go, Mulder!"

He ran on down the narrower, darker side street, trying to listen over the pounding of his heart, his feet, the rain, for anything that might give him a clue to where the three people he was chasing had gone. Rain got in his eyes. A couple of cars rolled past slowly down at the next intersection, and he could barely hear the engines. Mulder went on down to that corner and skidded to a halt, looking both ways. Nothing was moving under the streetlights.

Where would Lewis and Grazzini have run? There was nothing he could see that could give him a clue, except what looked like a car park down towards the left. They would probably have been trying to get to their car. He turned left and ran on. His suit pants were starting to cling to his calves where water had splashed up from the pavement.

The car park was deserted. He went across it diagonally, looked down the street beyond, and saw nothing. Mulder slowed down to a walk, and then came to a full stop. Lewis and Grazzini might have driven off, but he should have at least caught up with Krycek. They must have gone the other way. He turned around, brushing wet hair off his forehead with the hand that wasn't holding the gun.

Back up the street, jogging instead of running, he knew he'd lost his chance at the fleeing ex-Consortium scientists. They had to be far away by now, taking with them the mysterious implants and all their knowledge of that project, other projects they might have been involved in. He shouldn't have made the mistake of going so far into the café. He hadn't realized it would get that crowded, or that McKee would show up to complete her cleanup operation. That long talk with Scully had addled his brains.

When he came back to the intersection, he saw Krycek come walking down from the other direction. Mulder stopped and waited on the corner, looking up the block to where he'd left Scully and McKee to see that the local police had already arrived. Two cars at least were parked at the mouth of the narrow street, lights flashing. Someone must have called them from the café.

That reminded him of something and he fished out his cell phone and dialed rapidly, waiting impatiently through two rings before there was an answer. "Yeah?"

"Martin, we've got McKee." Mulder couldn't keep the satisfaction he felt from coloring his voice, but he did at least refrain from adding a 'so there.'

"You — fuck, Spooky, you serious?" The incredulity in Martin Yun's voice felt good, too. "Where did you find her?"

"Happy Clam Café. Told you it was a good idea to go to the memorial meeting for Hibbert." Saying 'I told you so' to Yun was almost as good as saying 'so there,' and he had to grin. There was no way Yun could manage to claim the credit for this one, and that would no doubt be a frustrating experience for poor Martin. Krycek came up next to him, looking rain-wet and collected, and stopped to wait. "The cops are here now. We'll bring her in, okay?"

"I'll see if I can wrestle Spelling away from the senator. Talk to you when you get here." Yun hung up abruptly, and Mulder slapped the phone antenna down with a pleased snap of the wrist. He looked at Krycek, inviting a report.

"They had a car up there," Krycek said, tilting his head back in the direction he'd come from. "Blue Ford Mustang, but I didn't make the license plate. The streetlight right there is broken."

"Yeah? Damn." Mulder stepped closer, reached around under Krycek's jacket and pulled his gun out. He closed his hand around the barrel. One side was faintly warm from Krycek's body but the other was as cool as the night air. "So they got away."

Krycek grinned at him, seemingly amused rather than offended. "Brilliant deductive work, Agent Mulder." He reached out to take the gun back; Mulder held it away from him. "Hey." Mild annoyance only in the smoky voice. "It's too late in life for a career change, and you'd make a lousy pickpocket anyway."

"I guess I would." He slid the hand holding the gun back in under Krycek's jacket, and reached around with his other arm as well, using both hands to carefully tuck the gun back in place. Krycek looked closely at him from under rain-matted eyelashes. His movements slowed down as his hands released the grip of the gun. It would be easy to pull Krycek against him now, to kiss his water-slicked lips and taste the cool rain and the underlying heat of the man.

"But you get my vote for the FBI's annual Mr. Wet Armani competition," Krycek added huskily. Without moving his feet, he shifted his body weight forward, bringing them even closer.

A car door slammed at the other end of the block, where Scully was waiting with the handcuffed McKee. Mulder's hands fell to his sides. It was the wrong time, the wrong place, and he would do well to remember that if he wanted to keep his job. He turned and started to walk up towards Scully. Krycek fell into step beside him. Glancing sideways, he saw that Krycek was smiling very softly to himself. It made him look younger, happier. The wrong face as well? No. Krycek had been right. It was too late, for both of them.

"I'll ask the police to look out for a blue Ford Mustang, but I don't know how much good it'll do us," he said. "Besides, they'll probably switch cars as soon as they can."

"I know you really wanted Lewis and Grazzini," Krycek said, sounding a little regretful. "But at least you've got McKee."

Mulder nodded. "If we can keep her alive, yeah." Another thought struck him. "How did you get that gun through security at the Federal building?"

That got him another smile, a gleam and flash of teeth in the dark street. "Didn't. I left it in the car." And this was the man who had ragged him about leaving the laptop. Mulder shook his head.

Coming up to the corner, they found McKee already in the back seat of a police car, cuffed and surly, her dark hair falling out of its neat bun to curl around her face. Scully was talking to one of the uniformed police officers, but half turned towards them as they came closer. "You lost them?"

"Yeah," Mulder confirmed regretfully. "I called Yun, told him we're bringing McKee in. He said he'd see if he could get hold of Spelling, too. Has she said anything?"

"Apart from laughing out loud when I read her her rights, no." Scully shook her head. She lowered her voice, "I think one of us had better ride with her in the police car."

"I think that's a good idea." Mulder flicked a glance at the policeman, who just looked mildly bewildered. Probably a good and honest man, but this wasn't a moment to take chances. "Your choice, Scully."

"You go with her," she said, so decisively she must have made her mind up even before she raised the topic. "I'll drive back with Krycek."

For a moment he envisioned Scully putting Krycek through the same third degree as she had done with him in the coffee house earlier tonight, and a small rippling shiver that had nothing to do with the rain slid down his spine. Then he thought, what the hell, and fished the car keys out of his pocket. "All right, I'll see you there."

Scully smiled quickly at him, then turned to Krycek. "Let's go."

Mulder turned his head in time to meet Krycek's eyes before the man walked away with Scully. The look that passed between them was as intimate as the kiss that hadn't happened down the block, and he had to tilt his head back and let the rain wash away the effects of it before he could talk to the policeman. Introducing himself and showing his credentials took only a few moments, and then he opened the door and swung himself into the back seat of the police car, next to McKee.

Seen up close, she seemed appallingly young. Mulder knew that she had to be around twenty-five, but hunched up in jeans and a drab grey jacket, with her smooth face scrubbed clear of any trace of makeup, she looked all of seventeen. McKee didn't turn her head as he sat down beside her and closed the car door again. She stared forward in silence, biting her lip; it appeared to be more of a habitual nervous tic than a response to the situation.

"We're taking you in," he said flatly, searching her face for reactions. "Spelling will be there, and he'll ask you why you did it. And Olsen will be there, and he'll ask you why you did it. What are you going to say to them?"

McKee didn't move to face him. Her face was closed, and if she felt any remorse at what she'd done, or any fear at the thought of facing her former boss and her former partner, it didn't show. The heavy solidity of her profile didn't crack. Mulder waited in silence while she lifted her cuffed hands to rearrange her hair, tucking the black strands up again in a semblance of neatness. He was just considering his next line of attack when she said, more flatly still, "Nothing."

"Nothing?" He leaned closer to her. "You don't feel you owe them something? They trusted you, Agent McKee. They liked you. They believed in you, and you turned out to be a traitor. Do you really have nothing to say to them?" The door on the driver's side opened and the policeman got in, tossing them both a look in the rear view mirror before starting the car. "Or are you just ashamed to look them in the eye?"

The car pulled out into the street and she turned her head away from him, watching the sidewalk, the people, the lit storefronts and coffee houses. Mulder was left with a view of the back of her neck and the collar of her jacket. He leaned back, making himself a bit more comfortable.

"I have nothing to say until I've talked to my lawyer," she said finally, and sat staring straight ahead again as they drove out of Berkeley and towards the Bay Bridge. There was a scrape on the back of her right hand where Mulder had slammed her hand against the wall, but although the skin was abraded, she wasn't bleeding. Other than that small mark, she was remarkably neat, self-contained and closed off.

He sat watching her, studying her face intently, until he realized that he was searching for some sign of Krycek in her, as if the two of them were twins under the skin, soul-identical. It was the mystery that was the same: how someone so young, so clean, so bright, could have stepped voluntarily into the darkness. With Krycek, he had begun to come to some kind of understanding, however reluctant. But here was another, who seemed unconcerned at having sold herself. What was the driving force — simple or not-so-simple greed, misguided patriotism, stupidity? What was it that turned people away from the truth and made them conspire to cover it up?

The water of the Bay was all velvety darkness, with the city shining garish and warm on the other side. Mulder tapped his fingers against his knee, watched the view, watched McKee's profile. Scully and Krycek were somewhere along the same route, and he felt a moment's worry, again, at what she might be saying. At what Krycek might be saying.

"They'll try to have you killed, you know," he told McKee softly, sounding as friendly as he could. "You're a security risk now." She didn't answer. "Did you ever meet Luis Cardinale? Remember what happened to him?" Was that a muscle that jumped, fractionally, in McKee's jaw? "My partner caught him, but he was found dead in his cell before he could testify. An apparent suicide. That's what it will say on your death certificate too, Agent McKee. That you hung yourself with the sheets, or maybe your shoelaces." Flashing a quick glance at her hands, he saw that her fingers were clenching together a little more tightly. "You won't get any support from them. But if you talk to us, we'll help you."

She still refused to look at him, and he let the silence stretch between them for the rest of the drive, willing to give her time to think it over. If she decided to cooperate, if she gave him the name of whoever had given her her orders, then they would perhaps be getting somewhere. If she didn't cooperate, they would at least be no worse off than before.

Yun was waiting for them when they got out of the car, balancing on the balls of his feet, more tensely wound up than ever. He came forward, thanked the police officer, and shepherded Mulder and the cuffed McKee towards the elevator. Mulder looked around for Scully and Krycek, but didn't see them. It surprised him; Scully wasn't a slow driver, and the police car had taken it easy. On the way up, Yun regarded McKee with undisguised loathing, and Mulder couldn't blame him. "Olsen's waiting in the interrogation room," he said, ostensibly to Mulder, but with a sideways glance at McKee to see how she'd react. Her face stayed still and blank.

"Scully back yet?" he asked, tapping his fingers against the side of his leg.

"No." Yun punched the up button with unnecessary force. "But Spelling came back in from the Alstrom case, he's going to sit in on this, too, and I've called Reeves. All for you." He turned to speak directly into McKee's ear, viciously close. "I hope you appreciate it."

"I want my lawyer to be present," she said, turning her head so she was nose to nose with Yun. He bristled at her; Mulder wondered for a moment if he would actually bite her.

"Here in the elevator?" Yun pulled back, then turned his back on McKee and ignored her until the elevator doors opened again and let them out. He led the way towards the interrogation room Olsen had prepared, tossing over his shoulder, "All right, we'll call him for you."

"I'd prefer to call her myself," McKee stated firmly and turned right, into the nearest room with a phone. Mulder shrugged at Yun. She did have the right, and they would be here in the room with her. While he thought this, McKee had already picked up the phone with her cuffed hands and dialed rapidly. "This is Lucy McKee," she said to the voice at the other end. "I wish to speak to—" Her face changed. "What? — Nonsense. Tell her it's— What do you mean, you don't recognize that name?"

Looking at Yun again, Mulder found his own growing smile answered by one just as dry and twice as evil. "Having a little problem, Agent McKee?" Yun asked.

McKee turned her back on them and hunched over the phone. "This is ridiculous," she hissed, and Mulder couldn't tell whether it was to herself or to the person she was talking to. "I am a client of Ms. Costagavras's and I demand to speak to her immediately."

"Costagavras." Yun was taking notes. "If Costagavras is crooked, we're going to have an interesting time of it."

"I'm sure you will. But I bet McKee isn't in Costagavras's address book any more." Walking across the room, Mulder came to a halt right behind McKee's back and bent his head to speak directly into her ear. "Told you they wouldn't help you."

She twisted around to glare at him, and the phone went crashing to the floor. McKee dropped the receiver as well and stepped back, away from Mulder and away from the mess. Mulder crouched down, unconcerned, to put the receiver in its place and put the phone up on the desk again. He didn't have to look up to know that Yun was moving in on McKee instead. "Agent McKee, I'm sure I don't have to tell you that a lawyer will be appointed for you if—"

"There's been a mistake," she snapped. "I have a lawyer."

"Apparently not," Mulder said. He picked up the phone and hit redial, and got a busy signal. "Was that her home number or does she keep long business hours?" McKee's mouth closed into a thin line. "Face it, Lucy, you're in trouble. Do you want another lawyer or do you want to try to handle this on your own?"

McKee set her jaw and looked away from him. Mulder shrugged, and glanced at Yun. "I'll take her to the interrogation room," Yun said. "Olsen and Spelling and I will get things started, you come along when your partner gets here."

"All right. Want me to bring you some coffee?"

"Yeah, that would be good." McKee glared at them both, and they ignored her; Yun took her arm and brought her along with the air of a man carrying an awkward package. Mulder walked after them out of the room but turned back towards the elevators. After a few moments Yun came back and handed him a file. "Here's everything we've got on McKee. Read fast."

"Thanks," he muttered and flipped it open, scanning the pages.

He'd only made it halfway through when Scully and Krycek arrived. They'd stopped for gas on the way, and the right-hand pocket of Krycek's leather jacket had a suspicious bulge and crackle to it. Seeing Mulder's glance, Krycek grinned and offered him half a candy bar. "Empty calories?"

Mulder shook his head. "No thanks, I'm on a diet. It looks as though McKee's already been cut loose from the organization; her lawyer's not taking calls right now. Spelling, Yun and Olsen are in with her now but I don't know how far they'll get. Reeves is on his way, too."

"Has she said anything?" Scully asked.

"Not a word. But I think once she realizes they've dumped her and her life is in danger, she might be induced to talk."

"Better hope that happens before you lose her," Krycek said through a mouthful of chocolate. He slouched behind as Mulder led the way towards the interrogation room. Outside the door, they all paused.

"Scully, you go in. I promised to bring Yun coffee, I forgot." Mulder glanced at Krycek. "And I guess we'd better find an empty corner somewhere."

"Yeah, with a comfortable chair," Krycek said.

Eventually he left Krycek sitting in the small cubicle where he'd been working on the Flagstad profile a couple of days ago. Krycek put his feet up on the desk next to the mug of coffee he'd grabbed and pulled a paperback out of an inside pocket. He seemed strangely incurious about McKee and what she might say, but then again, Mulder thought as he wandered back to the interrogation room, he probably realized that there was no way anyone would allow him to sit in on this... and that Mulder and Scully would very likely tell him afterwards.

Inside the interrogation room everything was silent. McKee and Scully sat facing each other at the table, under the lamp, while the three men stood spread out, one against each blank wall, their faces obscured by shadows. Mulder wondered who was behind the mirror. He crossed over to Yun and handed him his coffee. After a few moments Scully said, "So it was your own decision to murder John Ellis."

McKee said nothing. She sat with both arms on the table, hands linked together, and looked for all the world as though she was praying. Mulder cleared his throat. "She confessed to the murder already?"

Scully didn't take her eyes off McKee as she replied, "Five people saw her shoot him, including myself. I think Agent McKee's intelligent enough to realize that claiming innocence at this point would be futile."

"Oh, I don't know. She's obviously not intelligent enough to realize that cooperation would be in her own best interests." Mulder leaned back against the wall next to Yun. He saw a look of annoyance cross McKee's face, but she didn't speak.

"Tell us why you killed John Ellis, Agent McKee." Scully's voice didn't change, it was calmly, unfailingly polite. Mulder watched her profile across the table from McKee's, and decided McKee would crack first. "And then tell us why you attempted to kill Mr. Grazzini and Ms. Lewis."

"This isn't going to look good on your record, McKee," Mulder remarked. "One murder, two attempted murders, resisting arrest... you'll be sent to bed without any supper. You might not even be allowed to stay in the FBI."

"I don't ever want to see her face again after this," Spelling growled from the other end of the room. "I don't want to hear her name."

"What a shame. And she was such a good young agent, too." Mulder pushed away from the wall and walked behind Scully, keeping his face out of the direct lamplight. He knew McKee was theoretically familiar with standard interrogation practices, but he doubted she'd ever been on the receiving end like this. Circling the table, he came to a halt behind her, and bent close and spoke to the back of her head. "No one's going to get you out of this one, Lucy. No one's coming to rescue you and you know it. You can go down alone, or you can make a deal."

Under the lamplight McKee's hair gleamed, dark and heavy; she bent her head a little forward, away from Mulder and his words. On the other side of the table Scully leaned forward too. "Ms. McKee. You were assisting with the Flagstad case for several days, along with your former partner Agent Olsen. Can you tell me at what point you decided to kill John Ellis, a.k.a. Flagstad?"

"It wasn't your decision, was it?" Mulder purred. "You were told to do it, and you did what you were told. And now you're sitting here facing a potential first degree murder charge and your lawyer's not returning your calls. Doesn't that tell you something about the people you chose to work for, Lucy?"

Scully, still not exchanging a single look with him, picked up, "It is understandable that you found Flagstad's crimes disturbing, but nothing in your actions suggests that you were acting on an impulse. The placement of the shots indicates careful aim and the cold-blooded intention to kill. You had a getaway car waiting."

"Talk to us, Lucy." Mulder stood behind her and saw her consciously pull back her shoulders, attempting not to cringe away from him. Leaning forward across the table would only bring her nearer to Scully. "Tell us who you're working for. Give us the names of the people who've cut you loose." She shifted in her chair. "They're not showing any sign of loyalty to you, Lucy."

"This is ridiculous," Yun said out of the darkest corner of the room, his voice dripping with scorn. "She probably doesn't know anything. She's not working for anyone. She went nuts, she killed Flagstad, she's going to do time for it, end of story." He cleared his throat and spat into his coffee mug; Mulder thought that might be overdoing it a bit. "Don't try to make this into something fancy."

Mulder, who had been leaning so closely over McKee that he was practically breathing into her ear, straightened up and took a step backwards. "Maybe you're right," he said, letting a trace of doubt creep in.

"Nonsense," Scully said. "The murder of Flagstad was clearly premeditated. I very much doubt that Ms. McKee can plead insanity, even temporary—"

"Oh, stop it," McKee snarled.

There was a moment's silence in the room, and then everyone's attention refocused on the young woman across the table from Scully. Her eyes had come alive, with a glitter that made her look hard and unpredictable. "Stop what?" Scully asked coolly. "Ms. McKee, as long as you refuse to cooperate with us, you have very little say in what goes on in this interrogation room."

McKee twisted around in her chair until she was facing Mulder. "You're the profiling genius. You tell me why I did it."

"Sure, I'll tell you," he said. She thought she had begun to fight back; she didn't realize that she was cracking already. "Because you're stupid, Lucy. Stupid and greedy. They offered you money and you took it. You sold your soul for a better car, and no matter what the commercials say, it's not worth it."

"And who pays for your suits?" she shot back. "It's not the FBI."

"My suits are not under investigation at the moment," he said and tried not to laugh, shit, it was the wrong moment to laugh but he couldn't stop it. A snorting sound came from the corner where Yun was propping up the wall. The corner of Scully's mouth twitched. "You don't know how many years of paper rounds it took to pay for this suit."

Scully looked at him over McKee's head. "Oh, and I always thought you were the man behind the original Get Rich Quick spam."

He grinned at her, then turned serious again. The mood in the room changed again, quickly and completely. Bending down towards McKee, close as a lover, he said, "The point is, Lucy, I haven't killed anyone for it."

McKee turned back again, trying to ignore him, only to be faced by a Scully who was no longer smiling. "Ms. McKee, when did you decide to kill John Ellis?" Scully leaned forward over the table. "Or was it, in fact, not your decision at all?"

"This is just a waste of time," Spelling said, stepping out of his dark corner. "Agent Yun, come with me. There's no need for us to participate in this any longer." The two of them went towards the door. "McKee isn't going to tell us anything. She doesn't know anything. Yun's right — she killed Flagstad, she'll go to prison for it, end of story."

They walked out and the door closed behind them. The clear warm light of the lamp fell on McKee's face, not quite so blankly smooth any more. Mulder pulled out a chair and sat down at the table too, between Scully and McKee. "He's right, you know," he said in a conversational tone. "As things stand now, that's what will happen. You'll go to prison, if you live long enough."

McKee raised an eyebrow. "Are you threatening me, Agent Mulder?"

"Not at all." He smiled at her.

"A couple of years ago a man named Luis Cardinale was arrested for murder and attempted murder," Scully said. "But then, I assume you know all about what happened to him. He was found dead in his cell before he could betray his employers."

"And you know who his employers were. They weren't loyal to him," Mulder said, "and they won't be loyal to you. Costagavras has already dropped you. If you thought that was a betrayal, just wait till someone sneaks past security to silence you."

"You're saying the FBI's security measures are inefficient?" McKee tried to scoff.

"Not necessarily," Mulder said smoothly, "but you'll be out of our hands soon. If you persist in your silence, then there's nothing that warrants a Federal investigation, and no reason why you should be given extra protection. The FBI can keep you safe, Lucy, but only if you give us a good reason."

"If Ms. McKee acted on her own initiative," Scully pointed out, "then she has no reason to fear anything other than a long prison sentence."

As if on cue, the door opened and Gabriel Reeves walked in. He was chewing gum, his hair was ruffled, his shirt creased. He smiled at Mulder and Scully, his eyes passing over McKee as if she weren't even there. "You dragged me out of bed for this?"

"The night time is the right time," Mulder said, straight-faced.

McKee stirred in her chair, appearing suddenly restless. She glanced up at Mulder, then at Reeves, but turned to Scully to make her request. "I need to use the bathroom."

"I'll take you," Scully said mildly. "We don't want you to be uncomfortable, after all; we have a long night ahead of us."

Scully and McKee got to their feet and went out. With a resigned shrug, Mulder leaned against the table and wondered what might make McKee talk. Maybe all it would take was a little time, maybe she needed to think about what they'd told her before she decided it was true. He looked at Reeves. "Let me guess, Lewis and Grazzini haven't called the police to say someone shot at them."

Reeves shook his head. "I just talked to the guys over in Berkeley. Several people reported shots fired, but the intended victims seem to have made a clean getaway." Scratching his jaw, Reeves went on, "I thought this would be over when we caught Flagstad. Never thought that that would set off a whole new investigation."

The slightly disappointed look on Reeves's face was understandable, Mulder thought. There had been no sense of closure or accomplishment at finding Flagstad, not when it had resulted in the killer's death at the hands of an FBI agent. "We led her to him," Mulder said darkly. "If she hadn't managed to be in on the raid at the house, she would have gotten to him later." McKee had, in fact, done exactly what he had accused Krycek of doing. She had let Mulder and the FBI do the hard work for her. He felt his jaw tighten.

"You really think she's working for some covert organization?" Reeves asked. "It seems a bit far-fetched to me."

"Whereas the idea that she lost her head when she was confronted with Flagstad, and shot him on an impulse, makes perfect sense? McKee's partner says she's an extremely level-headed young woman. Her psych profile describes a stable, stress-resistant personality."

"If she's that stress-resistant, she might not tell us anything," Reeves said.

"Sooner or later her self-interest has to kick in," Mulder said, half trying to convince himself. McKee couldn't seriously be intending to die for the Consortium. Not if she was given a choice. Not now that she knew how little they cared for her. Not now that he finally had a chance to break through the wall of secrets. His eyes went to the door; he was waiting for Scully and McKee to come back. Another thirty seconds and he would start to worry. Consortium assassins could just as well be lurking in the ladies' bathroom of the Federal building as anywhere else.

"I was wondering," Reeves started to say, but then the door opened again.

The McKee who stepped inside was considerably more ruffled than the one who had stepped out. Her hair had fallen down, she had a smudge on one cheek and her hands were cuffed behind her again. Following her, Scully looked tidier and more collected, but the color in her cheeks and the set of her mouth spoke volumes. "Please sit down again, Ms. McKee," she said in the kind of voice that made obstructive chiefs of police whimper and recalcitrant witnesses quail.

Mulder straightened up again, stepping away from the table. "Tried to make a break for it, did you, Lucy?" He dropped his voice to a mockery of intimacy. "You must not have thought it through very well. You were told to remove Flagstad when he went rogue. How long do you think it would take for someone to be sent after you? Or were you planning to try to go back to them?"

"They would never believe that you hadn't talked to us," Scully said. Her tone had gone from cool to cold; she did not enjoy being assaulted in bathrooms, even though she'd obviously handled McKee without any real trouble. "You must know the nature and the degree of paranoia of the organization you were involved with, Ms. McKee; do you really believe you could survive either with them or away from them at this point?"

McKee twisted in her chair, tossing her head to get the hair out of her face. The calm surface had vanished. She must have been counting on her assault on Scully, and now she didn't know what to do. He'd better tell her. "Talk to us, Lucy. Give us a name, give us some facts to work with. If you do, things might improve for you. If you don't..."

"All right," she said, her voice so choked that he could barely make out the words at first, didn't dare to believe in them. McKee glared at Scully, then looked up at Mulder with an even more vicious look. "All right. I want the full witness protection program, round-the-clock guards, new identity, new face, everything. You promise me that, and I'll talk."

Mulder looked at McKee, at her pale angry face, her half-desperate, half-hating eyes, her tangled hair and snarling mouth, the hands that had shot Flagstad and the mind that had betrayed the FBI, and almost wanted to kiss her. He pulled a chair out from the table, turned it around and sat down, leaning his arms against the back. "We'll keep you safe, Lucy," he said. "My word on it. You tell us what we want to know, and we'll keep you safe."

It took a little more coaxing to actually get her to start talking; she was nervous and fretful now that her hard facade had shattered, she wanted water, she wanted to fix her hair, she practically wanted her hand held. Spelling, Yun and Olsen came back to sit in on the session, bringing coffee for everyone. McKee was uncuffed and sat hunched over in her chair, looking uncertainly at them all. "I was recruited at Quantico," she said. "This smoking guy came to see me..."

* * *

He leaned back against the wall, letting it bear the weight of his sleepless exhilaration. Five in the morning and his mind was shining with demented lucidity, thoughts like stars, like sunshine. Mulder rubbed his fingers along his eyebrows, then stroked them up across his temples through his hair, drawing his nails along the scalp. He had drunk so much bad coffee that he imagined he could feel it move in his belly and try to develop into an intelligent life form. That didn't matter.

We've got you, he thought with immense satisfaction. In his mind's eye he saw smoke drifting away on the wind, saw a cigarette being ground out for the last time. This was solid, it had to be. They had McKee, they had McKee's testimony. It was being entered into the computers right now, and it was in the memory of six people at least. Spelling, Yun, Scully, Reeves, Olsen, himself. And Scully was on the phone to Skinner, telling him that joy cometh in the morning.

Scully and Skinner. He shook his head slowly, letting a bemused smile curl his mouth upwards. He would have expected Scully, insofar as he had ever thought about it, to prefer a more normal, soft-edged, above all more verbal type of man. As to Skinner, it was impossible to imagine him having any kind of preference at all. Scully certainly didn't resemble Sharon, but then he guessed there was a point to that.

If Skinner loved Scully, it wasn't hard to see what had drawn him. If Skinner loved Scully... he'd better, Mulder thought, he'd better love her honestly and long, or he'd be having words with one of his special agents. Scully deserved the best, and if she wanted Skinner, then she deserved the best that Skinner had to give. Maybe he'd better have a little talk with the assistant director when he got back to DC. Oh, Scully would kill him if she ever got wind of it, but all the same...

The sound of footsteps coming along the corridor made him think about straightening up, but then he decided he wasn't up to it. He stayed slouched where he was as Gabriel Reeves walked into view, shirt sleeves rolled up, tie long since discarded, with that same end-of-a-long-night look on his face. Reeves came up to Mulder and stopped, and took a drink from the coffee mug in his hand before speaking.

"That went pretty well, I thought."

"Yeah." Mulder nodded his heartfelt agreement. "She gave us more than I thought she would. God, you have no idea how long I've waited for this." He couldn't stop the grin, or the twinge of fear that went with it — was it, would it be enough? Would it be taken from him again? It couldn't be, not now. Not when he was so close.

Reeves smiled. "Your partner said you'd been after these guys for years. Must feel good to finally have them where you want them." Stretching a little, Reeves looked at his coffee mug again, then made a grimace of faint disgust and put it on top of the nearest metal filing cabinet.

"You have no idea," Mulder repeated, more softly this time. He scrubbed his hair back again, felt a yawn come creeping. The cool wall against his back was making him stiff and he could feel every bruise now.

"So how much longer do you think you'll be in town?" Reeves asked. "Scully said you'll be pushing to take her to DC with you, but it'll take a while to wrap things up on the Flagstad case. I guess you won't be waiting here to take her back, but—"

"We might," Mulder interrupted him. "That could be sooner than you think. We're waiting on confirmation from AD Skinner before we set things in motion. We need to start working with her testimony now, before these people have a chance to go underground and vanish. If we get things worked out, she'll be routed via Quantico to a safe house somewhere during the investigation."

Reeves accepted the correction with a shrug. "And she goes free for the murder of Flagstad. Not that he wasn't walking garbage, but is what she's given you worth dropping a murder charge?"

"Yes." There was no hesitation in his answer. "These men have committed countless murders over the years, and believed themselves to be untouchable. This is our first chance, maybe our only chance to get something to stick to them."

"I see," Reeves said, although he probably didn't. "In either case, I guess you'll be out of here pretty soon. I just wanted to ask you if you thought you had time to go out for a drink before you leave."

Mulder raised his sleep-heavy lids, looked more closely at Reeves's face for what he thought might be there. It was nothing overt, but he could read voices, and body language, even when he was tired. Especially signals like this, he thought with a tiny thread of amusement; humans were probably hard-wired to recognize sexual invitations no matter what condition they were in. It surprised him a little. He'd sensed something at their first meeting — oh, all right, and at the second — but lately he'd thought that if Reeves wanted to ask anyone out for a drink, and more, it was Krycek.

Realizing that he was expected to come up with an answer, he dredged up a half-apologetic, half-exhausted smile. "Sorry, but I don't think so. I doubt I'll have time to do more than sleep for a while. If it turns out we're here for a couple of days more, Scully and I might give you a call."

Krycek came around the corner towards them. He moved easily enough, even at this late hour; long legs made walking look effortless. The persistent fringe of silky hair had fallen forward into his face again, and he tried to shake it back with a jerk of his head before speaking. "Mulder, are you ready to go? Scully's wrapping things up now, they've fixed a schedule for a constant guard on McKee until you can either take her to a safe house or take her out of here. And you look like you're about to fall asleep on your feet."

"Would make a change from the couch," he muttered, half to himself, and straightened up, pushing away from the wall's chilly support and wincing a little. Krycek was frowning at him again, and Mulder almost smiled. He turned towards Reeves instead. "Sorry," he offered again, and was surprised to see a wry smile on the detective's face.

"That's all right," Reeves said with a wave of his hand. "I see how it is. I probably won't see you again later today, so we'd better say our goodbyes now." He stretched out his hand. "It's been good to work with you, Agent Mulder. I'm sorry I doubted you the way I did when Yun brought you in." The quick handshake was completely professional, devoid of any suggestion. Reeves moved on. "And it's been — interesting — to meet you, Mr. Krycek. You've certainly been in a position many would envy you for during this investigation, but then I suspect you've worked hard for it."

Reeves had walked away before Mulder had even finished his next stretch. It didn't do much to help his muscles unkink. He looked at Krycek with another half-smile. "You think it's enough, the safety measures we have for McKee? You think she'll live till tomorrow?" He didn't even want to ask about the next few days, the next few weeks, the time it would take to bring a case against any member or members of the consortium to trial.

Krycek shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe the best thing to do would be to bring her back and put her in the other bed in Scully's room, cuff her to the frame. Or we can just leave her here and hope for the best."

"Did you tell Scully that?"

"Yeah." He nodded. "Spelling was against it. And Olsen's determined to do everything he can, he feels so bad about having had McKee for a partner for months without noticing anything." Krycek looked down quickly, then up again at Mulder. "He's all set to feel guilty for years."

Mulder rubbed the heel of his hand over the bridge of his nose. "Are you trying to tell me I should have a little talk with him?"

"That's up to you," Krycek told him neutrally. "Come on now."

"Yeah, all right." He trailed along after Krycek, thinking about Agent Olsen's probable state of mind, and about safe houses in California and Virginia, and straight answers from a crooked woman, and the possibility of sleep. Strung out on caffeine and excitement, he was starting to feel like an attenuated replica of himself, or perhaps an artistic interpretation. A Giacometti Mulder.

Scully was still on the phone, but as they came up to her in the doorway of Yun's office, she hung up and looked at them both. "Skinner says he'll make arrangements for transporting McKee, and us, out of here in the afternoon or early evening."

Mulder blinked. "That was fast. The California judiciary system isn't going to be happy about letting her go."

"We'll have to send her back eventually," Scully said, "but he's sure enough that they'll let us have her that he's talking flight times. We'll be taking her ourselves. I don't know, maybe you're right," this to Krycek, "maybe it would be better if McKee came with us now instead of staying here."

"Do you know how many Federal agents there are here?" Yun half-shouted from inside the room. "If she's not safe here, she's not safe anywhere!"

"I think it'll be all right," Mulder said. He dropped his voice a little. "I think it's better for Olsen, too. Where is he?"

"Just down the hall," Scully nodded. "Let's go back to the hotel, then." She leaned into the room. "Agent Yun, we'll call you later today with information about how the prisoner is to be transported."

"Sure, fine, whatever." Yun's voice was a yawn carrying words.

"Just a minute," Mulder said, and wandered off down the hall in the direction Scully had indicated. He found Agent Olsen by the water cooler, staring rather morosely at a decidedly un-regulation calendar someone had hung up over it. A female moose wearing a colorful bikini and sunning herself on a Hawaiian beach stared back at him. Mulder grinned a little, and wondered how long it would be before Spelling discovered it and took it down. "Agent Olsen? I just wanted to have a word with you before I left."

Olsen turned to look at him. "I'll keep an eye on her," he said. "I swear I will. I don't know how she managed to fool me like that, but it won't happen again."

"It could have happened to anyone," Mulder said. "She appears to have been very careful." He was about to say, don't blame yourself, then stopped. The little speech he'd been contemplating suddenly felt pointless. Olsen would blame himself anyway. And Mulder couldn't tell him the story of Alex Krycek as some kind of comforting example, or to create any kind of fellow-feeling. There was no moral to that story — at least, none that could be applicable here. If, three years from now, Olsen found himself sleeping with his former partner and wondering what was happening to him, then perhaps they could talk.

"I just hope she's that careful with what she tells us," Olsen said, and Mulder could only agree.

He got himself a cup of water while he was standing there, and drank it as he walked back with Olsen to Yun's room. Olsen turned aside to begin his self-imposed watch, and Mulder stuck his head inside the room to say good night, or good morning, or something. Scully and Krycek had already moved on towards the elevators, but they'd wait for him one minute longer. Yun was leaning against his desk, ankles crossed, his hair sticking straight up. His usual vitality was damped down, hidden under a layer of five-in-the-morning weariness. He glanced up at Mulder. "Go away, Spooky. Go to bed."

"Sweet dreams to you, too," Mulder said lightly. "It's been interesting to work with you again, Martin."

"Is that what you call it?" Yun shot him a wry, tired grin. "Interesting. Yeah. It's been interesting. You know, I talked to Michelle a couple of hours ago, told her you were here." Mulder waited silently. "She says hi."

"That's all she says?"

"Nah. She said I should have invited you and your partner over one night. I guess it's too late now."

Mulder leaned against the doorjamb. "Amazing how time flies, isn't it?" he said with barely restrained sarcasm. "You should have tried that earlier — I could have told you it would be the only way you'd get to have dinner with Scully." Yun scowled at him. "Did you tell Michelle about that?"

"No." Yun's head fell forward and he rubbed at the back of his neck. "It's not easy," he said unexpectedly, voice husky under pressure. "It's not easy, to belong to someone. Sometimes I want to try to run away. Just so she can catch me again." Unsure of what to say, Mulder just stood where he was, watching Yun with the same concentration he would have used to read the body language of a suspect, or attempting to fathom the higher mysteries of the universe as conveyed through a Burger King commercial. "You know, when I had to explain to Michelle why you weren't interested, I told her you were queer."

"Just the first thing that popped into your mind, Martin?"

"I wanted to be sure. If I'd just said you didn't like the idea she might have decided she wanted to persuade you. And I wanted her." The ragged edge was back again, revealed by exhaustion. Mulder felt momentarily stunned by the depth of emotion behind those few words. "So are you?"

"What?" He tried to backtrack.

"Queer." Yun had lifted his head and was looking at him, eyes flat and tired. "You're not married yet, you're not sleeping with your partner, you read me fucking GLAAD lectures, Reeves wants to nail you." Then he rubbed the back of his neck again. "Course, you were screwing half the secretarial pool back when we were on the Kitty Killer case."

"Don't exaggerate, Martin. No more than a third at most..." He let his voice trail off, meeting Yun's eyes, wondering how serious the man was. "Maybe I was doing that because I was having doubts about my sexual identity," he offered, unable to keep from grinning.

Yun frowned, a small straight crease appearing between his eyebrows. "You want me to think that you're queer? Is that it?"

"Martin," Mulder said, feeling a sudden surge of unexpected affection, "I don't give a damn what you think." He pulled himself upright. "And now I'll go get some sleep."

He went off down the hall, weary down to the bone but still carried along by the wave of nervous exaltation that had swept him up when McKee had first agreed to testify. It was, as he had always known, not necessarily a wonderful world, but certainly a world full of wonders. Krycek and Scully were holding the elevator for him, leaning against its open doors like mismatched bookends. Looking at them both, Mulder felt his face turn helplessly to a smile. They all piled in, Scully hit the button for parking level, and down they went. It was cool down here, with the disheartening smell of concrete and exhaust fumes. Scully headed for the car, pulling the keys from her pocket.

"I'll drive," she said, then glanced up in surprise when Mulder didn't protest. He shrugged and went around to the passenger side. The back of his neck was so sore that he could barely turn his head. He might not be a traffic hazard but he was getting pretty damn close.

Krycek slipped into the back seat, and cursed softly as Scully backed out. "What?" Mulder asked, leaning his head against the headrest.

"I just put my foot in the remains of that Big Mac you never finished."

"Sorry," Mulder said lazily. He adjusted the seat belt and closed his eyes. For most of his adult life he had wished for the ability to sleep whenever he got the opportunity, instead of having to try to ambush Morpheus every night. Now he was tired enough to be absolutely certain that the moment he got into bed, he'd be unconscious. "Scully, did you tell Skinner about Lewis and Grazzini?"

"Yes. But he thought it was more important for us to concentrate on McKee and her testimony. We need to move fast."

"I know." He opened one eye, looked at the street ahead, thought about the future. "I was hoping he could assign someone else to look for them as part of the McKee case."

"You'd better talk to him yourself, Mulder," she said. He wondered if Scully would completely refuse to run interference between him and Skinner from now on, if she'd doubt his motives now that he knew of their relationship. That could get to be tiresome, but he supposed he could manage, as long as he didn't give in to impulse and wink at the AD next time he saw him. Maybe, Mulder thought to himself with a half-formed grin, she was just making up this affair to get him to do his share of putting in requests.

The car slowed down at a traffic light, then speeded up again. It wasn't far from the Federal building to Union Square, and the streets were as empty as they ever got. In a few more minutes, they were at Anson Place, stepping out into the damp night air. It had stopped raining, but the pavement was still wet. The click when Scully locked the car was the loudest sound in the street.

Inside the Green family hotel, one of the sisters was on desk clerk duty; she sat reading a book but put it down as soon as she heard them, and stood up to smile at them. "Good morning," she said brightly. "I hope the morning traffic doesn't wake you up later."

"I don't think so," Scully said with a tired smile.

They crowded into the small elevator. Mulder dug the key out of his pocket and stood turning it between his fingers, more than half of his mind still on McKee, presumably sleeping right now under Olsen's watchful eye. Was this what Christmas felt like to some people? No, probably not. This wasn't a gift, even though it was a surprise. He had worked for it, and now he wanted to hold on to it with both hands. If, despite Skinner's assurance, they weren't allowed to take McKee with them, he was going to find a way to stay here, stick to her like a burr all the way through the Flagstad trial. He wasn't going to lose her. He wasn't going to lose this possibility, this chance to make things come out right for once.

The hallway looked the same. He went towards his door and Krycek came with him. Scully paused with her key in the lock and looked over at them, opened her mouth to speak and closed it again. There was a carefully blank expression on her face. Mulder realized that it had only just occurred to her that he and Krycek were about to be alone in the same room again. He didn't laugh; it was too complicated an issue for him to laugh about. But he came close.

"Sleep well," he said instead.

"You too." She hesitated for another fraction of a second before continuing, "Skinner's calling me later today. I'll wake you and let you know what's happening."

"Good," he said and opened the door. Krycek went inside, and Mulder exchanged another long look with Scully before following him. He hung out the Do Not Disturb sign, pushed the door shut and bolted it. Turning around, he saw that the leather jacket was lying on the floor and Krycek had already vanished into the bathroom.

He went over to the window and looked out. There wasn't much to see, just darkness, and the last few drops of rain. Instead he leaned against the wall, and the image of McKee under heavy guard came back to him again. She would be safe like that. They had all agreed that she would be safe like that. So what was bothering him? Mulder picked idly at the cracking paint on the window frame, feeling the tiny flakes dig into his skin.

When Krycek came back out, he was still standing there, with paint chips under his nails. He turned around and studied the other man. Krycek was yawning, his hair an untidy, half-damp mess. The left sleeve of his sweater had worked free of the waistband of his jeans and hung limply at his side. "Your turn," Krycek said. "There's something wrong with the hot water. I hope they've fixed it by the time we have to get up."

Mulder nodded and crossed the room, walking slowly, feeling like someone's arthritic grandmother. Judging by the way Krycek watched him, that was what he looked like, too. He went into the bathroom and brushed his teeth in cold water, but drew the line at washing anything. He might not have done that even if there had been hot water — all he wanted was to take care of the absolute necessities and go to bed. Leaving the bathroom again to the sound of a flushing toilet, he found Krycek stripped to t-shirt and underwear, sitting on the edge of the bed they hadn't used last night. The overhead light was off, only the bedside lamps providing soft illumination.

It would have been possible, Mulder thought slowly, to have put Krycek under the same type of guard as McKee. If she was safe now, Krycek would have been as well. If she wasn't safe... no, he couldn't finish that thought. She had to be safe. And Krycek was here. He toed his shoes off, let the suit jacket slip from his shoulders to join Krycek's leather on the floor, and tugged at his tie with jerky, awkward motions. "You going to sleep there?" he asked.

"Depends," Krycek said, looking up at him thoughtfully.

"Don't forget to bring the pillow with you." Mulder sat down on the bed to pull his socks off. His back protested when he bent forward, and then protested some more when he sat up and pulled his arms back to get the shirt off.

"You're black and blue," Krycek commented. Mulder stood up reluctantly to take his pants and boxers off, stepped out of them where they lay in a puddle on the floor, and pulled the bedcovers free. He got into bed with a small sigh and sank back into a cotton embrace.

"I know," he said, feeling it every time he moved, deciding not to move any more. "Come on."

Krycek turned off the bedside lamp nearest to him and stood up, slowly pulling his t-shirt over his head. The scars were in shadow and his profile, outlined by the remaining light, was peaceful as he bent to get the pillow. He came across the short distance between the beds and peeled off his briefs before slipping under the covers, lying close to Mulder but not trying to hold him. After a moment, he reached to turn out the second lamp, too. The room was plunged in soothing darkness. "Do you really think you'll be comfortable with me here?" he asked.

One more time, then, Mulder thought, rolling slowly onto his side, and then falling forward to drape his bruised self over Alex Krycek, curling his free arm around the man's ribcage, tucking his unshaven chin into the hollow above the collarbone. He breathed out, settling down, thinking he was never going to move again. "Yes," he said, eyes already closed. "Now shut up and go to sleep." The last thing he heard was a faint breath of laughter.

~~ He was falling through an infinity of stars, stars small and perfect as snowflakes, catching in his hair and on his skin, a sting neither hot nor cold. When he tried to clutch at them they disappeared, but when he opened his hands and let himself fall they came to him, gilding him with their light. It was beautiful, and he was completely unprepared when the fall suddenly ended and he landed hard. ~~

Very hard, because he ached all over. Mulder scraped out a muffled noise of complaint. He cracked one eye open and saw sunlight, streaming in through the uncovered windows. One day he'd remember to pull the blinds down. The covers had slipped down to his waist, but he was warm, wrapped around Alex in a sunny room. He wondered what time it was, and whether it was any use trying to go back to sleep again.

Alex's hand came up to stroke his hair, fingers combing through to his scalp, scratching it gently. He sighed. It felt good; it almost made up for the way Alex's ribs were digging into some of his more tender bruises. Stretching a little, carefully, Mulder decided to be awake. He wriggled one foot, then the other. The post-case tristesse that usually gripped him on mornings like this was conspicuously absent. Then again, things weren't finished by any means; the Flagstad case might be over, more or less, but the business with McKee was very much a current issue.

Trying to shift his head, he froze and hissed with discomfort. His neck and shoulders had stiffened even more overnight and the position he was lying in evidently hadn't helped. The hand in his hair slipped down to rub gently at the sore muscles. Mulder tried to relax into the touch for a while; then he reluctantly pulled himself free to lie on his back, supporting his head on a pillow rather than Alex Krycek's shoulder.

"Try a hot shower," Alex suggested sleepily, rolling onto his side, bringing their bodies into close contact again. "That usually helps when you're feeling sore."

"In a while." He closed his eyes again, not to go back to sleep, although his body suggested it. Probably not to go back to sleep. "I'm not getting up yet." Then he felt himself start to smile as he realized what it was that pressed against the back of the hand that was trapped between his and Alex's bodies. Mulder turned his hand carefully and closed it around Alex's cock, half-hard and thickening rapidly against his palm. He tightened his hand repeatedly in gentle squeezes, and rubbed his thumb in a small circle at the base.

Alex pushed into his grip with a small, pleased sound. "Maybe it's better if you stay in bed," he agreed. The smell of his arousal rose up from under the covers, warm and suggestive. After a few moments his hand rose and started to drift over Mulder's chest, fingertips dipping down with care between the bruises, teasing the nipples with touches that were half imagination. Mulder sighed and stroked his fingers along Alex's cock, then slid them down to curve around the hot trembling sac.

"Yeah," he said lazily, "I might just sleep for another hour." He turned his head to look at Alex with a half-apologetic grin. "You know, this might be a bad idea. I can't move much."

"So don't move." Alex leaned forward and breathed a kiss into the hollow of Mulder's throat, then started to work his way down, mouth and lips drifting lightly across Mulder's shoulders and chest like fog rolling in across the Bay, and just as inescapable and all-enveloping. Every part of him strained towards those delicate, not-quite-erotic touches, desperate not to miss any sensation. He felt warmth flood through his body, pooling in his stomach, his groin. When a fingertip flicked his nipple more firmly, he almost jumped. "Sorry," Alex said, looking up with a perfectly straight face from licking a line along the lower edge of Mulder's rib cage.

Mulder considered telling Alex he was a cock tease but then decided that he felt too good and Alex undoubtedly knew it anyway. He closed his eyes as Alex pushed the covers down to nibble on his hipbone. He missed the hot living warmth of Alex's cock in his hand. It was brushing against the outside of his knee now, and bumping the kneecap. Alex licked along the crease at the top of his thigh, blew a teasing tickling breath into his pubic hair.

The sun and the covers would have kept him warm; Alex was setting him on fire. Mulder sucked in a long breath as Alex began to tongue the base of his cock, rubbing it wetly, working his way around before painting a broad stroke all the way to the head. He tried to lie still, to slide gently through the sensation and let it carry him along, but his body worked, wanting to struggle into and out of pleasure. His joints were coming undone, the features of his face shifting into cubistic disarray, his thoughts shredding, cut-up fragments, unfashionable poetry. It felt strange to be wanted so cleanly, so absolutely.

"Come up here," he mumbled, lips thickened with lust and unwilling to talk. He brushed Alex's shoulder, his side, tried to reach. Faced with this generous hunger, Mulder found himself compelled to respond in kind; he could not be still.

Alex lifted his head. "What?" he asked, distracted.

"Turn around," Mulder said a little more clearly, "I want to suck — oh Jesus," as Alex dipped down again to flicker tiny bolts of wet lightning over the head of his cock. For a moment he was convinced the top of his head had blown off and he would spend the rest of his life with his thoughts on display for all the world to see.

"I'm not sure I can keep my balance like that," Alex said thoughtfully, curling up and bracing himself on his arm. Mulder lifted his head to look at Alex, at the beautiful mutilated reality of him, and there was a sudden stabbing sensation deep in his chest and he dropped his head back down, thinking he shouldn't have done that. But he couldn't stop now. "But I can try."

They both moved slowly, Mulder slipping down in the bed as Alex swung around to hang over him, knees resting solidly in the mattress by Mulder's shoulders, arm planted to one side of Mulder's hip. Mulder realized it couldn't be quite comfortable, but he was pleased, reaching up carefully to stroke and knead at the strong thighs before catching Alex's cock and rubbing it between his fingers, momentarily fascinated by the way the head was emerging from the foreskin, like a monk baldly pulling back the hood of his habit. Then he pushed the pillow into shape under his head with one hand and drew the tip down to his mouth with the other. He remembered this taste, pleasantly sharp, warmly human, clearly Alex. It tasted like his skin only more so. He wanted more of it. He wanted more of all this, the touch, the warmth, the passion.

Alex made a sound of approval that created an exquisite humming buzz around Mulder's own sensitive spots and then went on to lick him thoroughly, with a lightness and delicacy of touch that promised endless pleasure without release. Mulder closed his eyes in dizzy frustration. Working his hips wouldn't help. Alex's mouth moved down one side of his cock and up the other, seemingly drawing all his nerve endings with it. Mulder sucked harder, in pleading encouragement, and felt the hot hard flesh in his mouth jump, felt the ripple continue through Alex's body, but the gentle touch that tormented him never faltered.

Without being consciously aware of it he had tilted his head farther and farther back, trying to take Alex in deeper, and now his neck was complaining. The ache brought him back a little to himself and allowed him to breathe. Mulder let the shaft slip from his mouth and tongued his way down the underside, with particular attention paid to the spot beneath the crown. His fingers read the response in the tremors that shot through Alex's legs, his back. Mulder moved on to breathe on the tightening balls, flick them with his tongue. He had to pause to suck in air when Alex's soft nibbles grew momentarily firmer, pushed him higher. It was getting hard to focus his mind, except on what was important. Alex.

Alex's legs trembled again when Mulder urged them farther apart. He licked along the perineum, his pace as leisurely and unhurried as the movements of Alex's tongue on him. Soft smooth skin. Alex was breathing hard. Alex was already moving when Mulder's hands came to shift him, a little forward, a little down. Mulder stroked his tongue across puckered skin, tight ring of muscle. He thumbed the rounded buttocks apart and his tongue returned in quick flickering movements, little lashes of pleasure.

"Ohjesuschrist," Alex said grittily, speaking into the hard curving flesh of Mulder's erection. Then he moaned, a sound as soft as his skin, as delicate as the fine-tuned response of his nerves. Mulder licked at him, sucked at him, thrust with his tongue against the body's resistance. He had known Alex would like this, he remembered Alex coming hard with a finger pushing into him. And his vampire mouth wanted to learn every secret part of Alex and feed off the pleasure it created. "Jesus God, lisitsa..."

He hadn't know how hungry he was for that shaking voice until he heard it. Mulder shivered, working his tongue around quivering muscle. The wet tip of Alex's cock was dragging over his chest, leaving a sticky trail of arousal. When it nudged across his nipple a jolt shot down into his groin. His cock jumped and Alex kissed it. Alex was trembling; what had been mildly uncomfortable at the start had to be almost painful now. "Don't fall on me," Mulder said, his voice a little slurred, and then he bit the round curve of Alex's ass for emphasis.

The answer was shaky laughter and another smothered moan. But it was clear that Alex was holding himself up with an effort, panting harshly into the skin of Mulder's lower belly, his back a taut and awkward bow. After a few more moments he moved away, withdrawing clumsily and reluctantly to fall to his side next to Mulder. When he turned again he slid down onto the floor and Mulder turned his head, confused, reaching out to pull Alex up again. His skin was screaming to be touched.

"Wait," Alex said from the floor, digging into the pile of clothing until he found his leather jacket. After a few moments of going through the pockets he came back up on the bed and knelt by Mulder's side, holding a small tube. His fingers hid the brand name, but Mulder's IQ hadn't dropped so many points that he couldn't figure out what it was and what they needed it for. He felt himself grow impossibly harder, his skin singed with the heat of sudden expectation. "You don't have to move," Alex said huskily, unscrewing the cap with a deft one-handed grip.

Mulder caught the thick gel on his fingers as it pushed out of the tube. He could feel the ache and burn of desire in the strangest places, along the soles of his feet, at the back of his neck, in the crook of his elbow. Alex was sitting back on his heels, knees wide apart, and Mulder reached between his legs and stroked, probed, all the while watching Alex's face. When his middle finger worked past the tightness and slid inside, Alex tipped his head back a fraction and his mouth opened to suck in air.

In a sympathetic response, Mulder felt his mouth open, too, and he licked his lips, tasting Alex. He wanted to tell Alex that he was beautiful. Instead he slid another finger in through the clench of muscle and flexed both in a scissoring motion, a careful stretch. The weight of Alex's balls danced against the inside of his arm. "More lube," he said, reaching up for it, and Alex squeezed it out over his fingers and then he was pushing inside again, feeling the amazing heat, seeing Alex flush slowly.

He was so concentrated on Alex's face, Alex's response, that he didn't even notice what Alex was doing with his hand until there was a hot slick grip around his cock and he arched into it, pure unthinking reflex. "That's enough," Alex said and rose up on his knees, and Mulder let his fingers slip out and just watched breathlessly as Alex moved over him again, straddled him, met his eyes for a second in a short jarring kiss. God, he was so hard, and Alex held him steady, slowly lowering himself. Mulder fought to lie still and let Alex set the pace. He wanted to thrust up hard, bury himself in the tight heat, in Alex, oh God, Alex.

Drawing in a deep breath, he closed his eyes and concentrated on not coming. Not yet, he prayed incoherently, feeling Alex's weight settle down across his hips, feeling himself enclosed by firm muscle and slick tissue, oh please, not yet. He pulled his legs up and his pelvis tilted and he was deeper still. His hands lifted and stroked up along taut thighs, towards the center of things, fingers dipping in to feel them joined: the clenching ring of muscle held open by his own flesh. Breath hissed in, an almost-groan. "Look at me," Alex said, "look at me."

Mulder opened his eyes and stared into glowing green. He tilted his hips again, slightly, a small, pushy experiment. Alex pressed back against him, then lifted himself, slid up, down, his eyes as much as his weight pinning Mulder to the bed. Every movement drove a stab of pleasure up along Mulder's spine. And the eyes, the face, were so open. He could see every reaction. Alex wanted him to see it. That thought took him perilously close again and he dug his fingers into Alex's legs in a silent whimper.

If any part of him was hurting right now, he didn't know it. Alex moved over him in a slow excruciating rhythm, yes, crucifying him, nailing him to the bed with every relentless breathtaking buttery slick thrust and grind of his hips. Mulder drew his breath in on a gasp of laughter at the illogic of the thought and reached with both hands to hold Alex's cock in a tight grip. His fingers were still slippery with lubricant and he matched Alex's own pace; seeing the twisting pleasure in Alex's face, he groaned and then bit his lip. The walls were thin.

Inside, he thought, the word shaping itself with such force in his head that he could feel his lips moving. Inside and it was hot and sweet and Alex was open to him, full of honest desire. His skin tingled, his teeth were softening in his mouth, his toes curled and every hair on his body was a fine-drawn wire of hot gold. Alex was breathing in irregular gasps, grinding down as Mulder arched up, his hand wrapped around the back of Mulder's thigh for support, the spot that had itched so badly yesterday.

"Lisitsa," Alex said, desperately, and Mulder felt the tremors in him, felt legs tighten around his hips, the leap of flesh against his stroking hands. He moved without thought, thrusting, twisting, impossibly deeper, and Alex cried out, a raw, dry scream. Mulder felt the hot gush of semen over his fingers, over his belly, his chest, and he was caught in the clench of muscular contractions that wrung his own orgasm out of him like the juice spilling from a crushed fruit.

The world went dim. His legs slid down to lie flat again, and Alex fell forward over him, glueing them together with sweat and come, and panted into his neck. Mulder sighed, flattened under Alex's almost completely limp body, and decided he probably didn't need to breathe anyway. He was distantly aware that everyone on this floor of the hotel must have heard Alex, but he couldn't make himself care. There was no room for a petty concern like that, not after this clear, clean, annihilating ecstasy.

Eventually Alex moved again, separating them, and slid mostly off him with a murmured wordless apology. Mulder turned his head searchingly and they kissed for the first time since they'd woken up. It was a long, leisurely kiss, a drink of water after hard work. Mulder stretched as well as he could, feeling considerably more comfortable in his body now. Eventually he broke his mouth away from Alex's to say, "Much better than a hot shower."

"You can have the shower too," Alex said with a soft chuckle. "It wasn't an either-or deal. In fact," he trailed a fingertip through the slippery mess on Mulder's belly, "I think a shower is mandatory at this point."

"Mm," Mulder said, wrapping an arm around Alex's back. He didn't want to get up yet. He had no idea what time it was, and he remembered Scully saying that she was going to wake him up as soon as she heard from Skinner again, but it was good to lie like this, to be languid and lazy and close. He felt like a harp after a struck chord, still ringing with the echoes of those harmonies. That he could resonate so deeply to Alex's touch was both disturbing and inexpressibly wonderful. "You all right?"

"Don't be an idiot." But Alex came closer, pressing himself carefully against Mulder's side. His lips traced a rambling path along Mulder's shoulder. He was more of a cuddly creature than Mulder would have expected, in the aftermath of orgasm.

"How old are you?" he asked out of the blue.


"I wondered how old you are," he repeated, brushing his fingertips against the short hair at the nape of Alex's neck. "According to your FBI records, you should be twenty-nine now. Are you?"

"No." Alex pressed closer and kissed him again. It was a fairly distracting kiss, even for someone who had just come so hard he thought he needed to tighten his joints with a screwdriver before he'd be able to walk, a kiss that could have been the closing argument in any discussion. Mulder was surprised when Alex volunteered a little later, "Thirty-two. They shaved off a few years to make me look young and harmless."

"Harmless," Mulder said reflectively. He remembered the Alex of those days, seemingly a little too young to be where he was, but bright enough to make it appear just possible. Good-looking beneath his awkward disguise of hair gel and polyester, a gem asking to be taken out of its tasteless setting, a temptation waiting for someone to happen to. "What did you do during those years, Alex? The years that aren't in your records?"

Alex drew back to look at him, his eyes once more a smooth unreadable emerald. "I grew bonsai and meditated on the nature of the universe, Mulder. And now I'm going to the bathroom."

It was no use trying to hold him. They came apart with a sticky sound and Alex sat up on the edge of the bed, scratching the back of his neck idly before getting up to walk across the room. When the bathroom door closed behind him, Mulder rolled over into the broad stripe of sunlight and sighed. It seemed the rain had passed and the heat was back. No one had called to say that McKee was dead, so he was going to assume that she was alive. And with McKee's help, he was going to get that smoking son of a bitch, and hopefully some of the others as well.

All in all, it was the best morning he'd had in years. The tiny shivers of unease he felt were just part of the price he was paying for it.

After a couple of minutes he slowly struggled into a sitting position and bent down to sort out their clothes, pushing leather and denim one way and fine wool the other. At the bottom of the pile he found, unexpectedly, the TV remote. He scooted down to the foot of the bed, turned the set on and flipped through the channels. On a local news channel he found Yun and the Bureau spokesman he recognized from earlier broadcasts, who had to be Josh Simon. Turning up the volume, he discovered it was the taped footage from yesterday about Flagstad's death. Yun looked more comfortable with the cameras than Simon did.

Mulder wondered whether Yun would ever get in touch with him again. He wasn't sure whether the conversation last night — this morning? — had left them completely alienated, or perversely closer. Martin Yun was a difficult man to like, probably even more difficult to love. He hoped Michelle was managing. At least he trusted that he and Yun were both agreed that the debt, if there had been a debt, was paid in full. The bathroom door opened and he tried to turn his head, swore, and twisted his whole body around instead.

"Hot water's not back yet," Alex told him. Walking over to the bed, sitting down beside him, kissing the point of his shoulder, Alex Krycek looked as casual as any lover greeting another, except that there was a shading of darkness in his eyes that spoke of concerns beyond the here and now. Everything was beyond the here and now, Mulder thought. This, seemingly so real and simple and present, was the dream. His feeling of unease grew. He couldn't hold on to the moment; in his mind, the future had already arrived.

"Look at Yun," Mulder said to distract himself, nodding carefully towards the TV screen. "His fifteen minutes. The man who hates PR, making sure the camera gets his good side."

"You think he has a good side?" A fleeting smile passed across Alex's face and was gone again. "Mulder—" He paused. "Would you hit me if I called you Fox?"

"No." No, and no, and no. Not ever again. "But don't."

"All right. Lisitsa." He started to stand up and Alex helped him with a friendly push. It wasn't that bad, really; he felt creaky and stiff, but the only thing that gave him more than a moment's pause was his neck and shoulders. That would pass. He'd felt worse after sleeping at his desk for a couple of nights running.

Mulder went to the bathroom and washed gingerly in cold water, cursing now and then to keep himself going. He was starting to feel unsettled, not knowing what would happen next. If they were going to be stuck in San Francisco for another couple of days, what would they do? The tourist existence he'd originally envisioned for Scully came to mind and he chuckled a little, reaching out for a towel to dry himself. He could just see the three of them taking the ferry to Alcatraz.

Then for a moment he could see just that, the blue water of the Bay, sunshine shooting sparks off Scully's hair, Krycek laughing at something.

He wanted to go back to DC with McKee. The longer they had to wait to put the investigation in motion, the greater the risk that those secretive sons of bitches would vanish before he could get at them. McKee had given them more than he had expected, considering her lowly status in the organization, and he knew that once he started digging he could find more. He would have the Bureau's full resources on his side this time. Or as much of the Bureau as wasn't corrupt.

Coming out of the bathroom again, he found Alex already dressed in jeans and one of Mulder's t-shirts, sitting on the bed, wiggling his toes. It was an unlikely and endearing sight, and Mulder grinned as he went to look for clean underwear. "Morning exercises?"

"I already got my workout this morning," Alex told him. That phone sex voice again. He wondered if Krycek was aware of it, if he used it deliberately. When he turned around again Alex was putting his socks on with an air of great concentration. "Mulder, remember I told you that there are some people who want to keep you alive, and some who don't?"

He didn't blink at the change of topic. "Yes."

"You should keep that in mind while you look into what McKee has been telling you," Alex said seriously, looking up to meet his eyes. "I know you're feeling like a kid on Christmas morning, but you have to understand that you've got the tiger by the tail." Then he laughed. "Clichés aside, Mulder, just make an effort this time and think before you act. This is going to be more dangerous than anything you've ever done before. Believe me."

Mulder tugged his shirt on and stepped back across the space between the beds to sit down next to Krycek again, his fingers busy with the buttons. "You're not trying to talk me out of this investigation, are you?"

"As if I could," Alex said with a crooked grin. "No. I just want you to — be careful, okay?" He looked as though he was about to add something, when there was a brisk knock on the connecting door.

"It's Scully," she said from the other side. "Are you decent?"

Mulder got to his feet again, picking his pants up and stepping into them. "Just a minute," he raised his voice to answer. Krycek was dressed, of course, and Scully had certainly seen her partner in less clothing than he was wearing now, but he wanted to spare her the embarrassment of walking in on another scene of obvious intimacy. Besides, the room reeked of sex.

"Come in here when you're ready. They stopped serving breakfast hours ago, so I bought us a few things."

"Donuts?" he said hopefully, but she didn't answer. Mulder hurried into the rest of his clothes. Putting on his tie was the most uncomfortable part. When he turned he saw that Krycek had got his shoes on and was holding his jacket in his hand, looking at it. "I don't think you need to wear that to eat breakfast."

The other man shrugged wordlessly and came closer to him, step by slow step, until they were standing chest to chest. Mulder looked into Alex's eyes, to see if he could see beneath the surface. He wasn't sure, and he lifted his hand and brushed his fingers over the nearest stubbled cheek, feeling the rasp against his skin as though it were the only really certain thing in the universe. Alex leaned closer and caught his mouth with soft lips, kissed him gently but thoroughly. It was soft but intoxicating, overwhelmingly intimate.

Breakfast was waiting. Scully was waiting. After a while Mulder pulled back, reluctantly, and they both went towards the connecting door. Scully's room was neat and tidy; the beds were made, and the window was open to let in fresh, sunny air. On the dresser she'd put some small bottles of fruit juice, a bag of apples, styrofoam cups full of coffee — and a carton of donuts. Mulder smiled. The breakfast of compromise. Alex opened the carton and picked out a chocolate-glazed donut.

"I've heard from Skinner," Scully said. She was standing by the window, sipping juice straight from the plastic bottle; her voice was cool, clipped, but Mulder thought it was due more to self-consciousness than anything else. "He's made arrangements for us to fly out of here with McKee later this afternoon." She looked at her watch. "We should probably leave as soon as you've eaten."

"I need to pack," Mulder said, twisting the cap off a juice bottle with a nervous turn of the wrist. He glanced at Alex, away again. "So he's authorized this investigation?"

"Yes." Scully took a couple of steps towards him. She'd packed her bag already and it sat waiting at the foot of the bed. "He's going to assign a couple of other agents to work with us. McKee will stay at Quantico overnight and then she's going to a safe house in—" Scully broke off, looking at Krycek.

"Better not tell me," Krycek agreed, and bit into his donut, looking unconcerned. "Make sure those other agents are people you can trust."

Mulder drank the juice down, all of it in one long swallow, and set the bottle aside again. They'd be leaving soon, then. He looked at the donuts and felt his stomach lurch uncertainly. "Are we picking McKee up?"

"Spelling is responsible for transporting her to the airport," Scully said, "but I think it would be best if we drove there with them. We'll be met at Dulles, of course." She dug an apple out of the bag but didn't bite into it. She seemed to be waiting for some response from him, but he wasn't sure what.

"I need to pack," Mulder said again. He picked up a donut and a cup of coffee and went back through the connecting door. The room still looked like a disaster area. It still smelled of sex. He set the cup and donut down on the bedside table and went to retrieve his bag from the corner by the TV. Putting it down on the bed they had slept in, he started to pick up the things he'd flung here and there over the few days he'd been staying here. Clothes, maps, the laptop, computer disks, books... no, wait, that map was Krycek's. And so was the soft washed-out black sweater with the bloodstains.

Mulder paused with the cotton sweater in his hands, taken by surprise by the impulse to stuff it into his bag along with his own things. He had enough of Krycek's tattered wardrobe in his apartment already, he didn't need to add to it, and Krycek probably wouldn't appreciate having his few items of clothing stolen. Through the open connecting door he heard Scully talking, heard Krycek's deeper voice husk out a reply. Skinner must have been pulling a lot of strings this morning to get things moving so quickly. Skinner must really be convinced that they could get that smoking old bastard and his cronies through McKee's cooperation.


Going into the bathroom, he collected toothbrush and shaving gear and other odds and ends, stuffing them in no particular order into the ugly toilet case his mother had given him for Christmas six years ago. He came out again weighing it in his hand, scanning the room for other possessions.

Back to DC, back to another investigation. The most important investigation of all. Mulder found himself shivering slightly. He was so prepared for this to turn into a disaster, he felt as though someone had pulled the floor out from under his feet already. It was too much trouble to fold his shirts properly and he just shoved them into the bag; it didn't matter, it wasn't as if he was going to wash and iron them himself anyway. His running shoes went on top of everything else. Closing the bag, he looked at his hand luggage, the laptop in its carrying case, a copy of the Bay Guardian. As if he'd be able to read during the flight, watching McKee.

He was ready to go, he supposed. His stomach protested at the thought of eating anything, and he ignored the donut on the bedside table. There was something else he had to settle before he could leave, though, and he didn't know how. He went back to the connecting door and leaned against the doorjamb, looking into the room. Scully sat on the edge of one of the beds, the untouched apple still in her hand. One of the cups of coffee that had stood on the dresser was missing. So was Alex Krycek.

For one moment he felt surprise, and then surprise at his own surprise.

Scully looked up at him, then got to her feet. "Are you ready?" she asked.

"You let him go," he said, not a question. And he'd been wondering how to say goodbye.

"I — yes." She tucked her hair back behind her ear and turned more fully towards him. "I know Skinner won't understand, he was furious that we couldn't manage to bring Krycek in from Leyden Creek." Yes, Mulder remembered that very clearly. "But he's been helpful to us here, he saved your life. And we've got McKee. And besides—"

"Besides, you don't want him around me any more." He watched her flush faintly. Yes, she must have heard them before. He didn't care. Maybe she believed it was sick and twisted, maybe he believed on some level that it was sick and twisted, but it had been good all the same. His mind brushed against the word 'beautiful,' veered away again. "So do you still think I need therapy, Scully?"

She sighed. "No, I think I need therapy. I just let a criminal walk out that door without trying to stop him. And no," her eyes cut to his face, flashes of blue steel, "it wasn't just because he's been sleeping with my partner, either."

"You like him," he said.

"We have to go now, Mulder." Scully picked up her bag and went towards the door without meeting his eyes or trying to answer his question. "Are you ready?"

"Yeah," he said and went back into his room again. He picked up the bag, put it down, unzipped it, managed to squeeze Alex's sweater and the well-worn map down into the free space, and shut the bag again. Hefting it in one hand, he looked at the bed, at the sheets stained with lubricant and drying semen, and felt again that tightening of his shoulders, that clenching of his jaw, the need to lash out at something or someone. Krycek had left him without saying goodbye yet again. Let go and he disappears. Fuck him.

Only he'd already done that, hadn't he. Mulder turned around with the bag in one hand and the laptop in its carrying case in the other, walked to the door, unbolted it, opened it and stepped into the corridor. Scully was waiting by the elevator and he went to join her; they rode down in silence and handed their keys in to the cheerful desk clerk, who told them she would miss them, and sounded quite sincere about it. In fact, Mulder thought, she probably was. They must have been the most entertaining guests the hotel had had in a long time.

Scully had already settled the matter of their bill. She led the way out into the street and over to the car, unlocked it and put her bag in the back seat. Then she paused, and looked at Mulder. "Do you want to drive?"

He nodded and took the keys from her hand after putting his own things next to hers. Getting in, starting the car, he concentrated on remembering the route to the Federal building. Scully had brought the box of donuts and now she balanced it on the dash as she put her seat belt on. He drove slowly out into the early-afternoon weekday traffic, and carefully kept his attention away from the sidewalks, tried not to look for a dark-haired man in a leather jacket.

By the time they got to the Federal building his stomach was churning. He volunteered to stay in the car while Scully went inside. Mulder looked at the donuts and then looked away; he could smell them from where he sat. It was ridiculous. He'd seen bodies in every stage of decay and decomposition, he'd gone directly from autopsy scenes to cafeterias, discussed serial killers over dinner. Death didn't mess with his digestion. Alex Krycek did.

Damn you, Alex, he thought, but there was nothing pure about his anger any more. He ran a hand over his face, through his hair, scrubbed at himself, but all the detritus of the past four days still clung to him.

After a while Scully came back out again, talking to Yun. They were followed by a small group of people, dark suits clustered around a shorter, skirted figure. Mulder got out of the car to watch as McKee was safely stowed away in the back seat of a white sedan, with an agent on each side — one of them was Sedley. McKee looked different today, in a skirt and jacket and with a scarf tied over her hair. The sullen profile that showed under the bright silk was the same, though.

Scully shook hands with Yun rather formally and headed back to the car. Yun didn't come over, but he caught Mulder's eye and nodded at him before turning back into the Federal building. Getting back into the car, Mulder rolled his shoulders before fastening the seat belt, and looked at Scully. "Did you bring any more of those juice bottles?"

"I've got one here," she said, bending forward to dig into the bag at her feet. "Do you want painkillers with that?"

"Not this time." The white car pulled out and he followed it. This way, at least they wouldn't get lost going back to the airport. Mulder accepted the juice bottle she handed him and drank slowly as they drove out of San Francisco. It wasn't until they had left the city that he glanced over at Scully again. "Is Skinner happy with this? Is he going to give us all the resources we need to pull this off?"

It came out sounding a little rougher and more doubting than he had intended. Scully pursed her lips at his tone of voice before answering. "Yes. I believe—" She broke off.


"I think he's going to work with us himself on this." When he didn't answer, she went on, "We don't quite know who we can trust, Mulder, and the fewer people we have to bring into this the better."

That was only too true. "Maybe we can drag Pendrell out of the lab for this one," Mulder suggested. "He's done more than his share of research for us and he's reliable. Not a field agent, of course, and there might be a little too much tension in the group with both him and Skinner there, but..."

The look he shot her now was impossible to misunderstand and he wasn't really surprised when she started to look angry. "Mulder, what is wrong with you? You've been given testimony that might take down the Consortium, and you sound as though you're wearing shoes that are three sizes too small. If you can't deal with my relationship with Walter, can't you at least say so instead of insinuating—"

"I wasn't insinuating anything. Pendrell has had a crush on you since the first time you stuck your little red head into his lab. And I don't have a problem with your relationship with Skinner, okay?" His voice was rising in anger. "It's none of my goddamn business unless it interferes with your work."

"Well, you have a problem with something."

"Oh, I know, Scully, I know. Friends have suggested that I seek professional help for it." Then he almost bit his tongue off. She bent forward, concerned; she was about to say something, and he wasn't sure he wanted to hear it. "I think it's a good idea for us to work with Skinner," he said in a deliberately neutral tone. "We can trust him, and his presence makes it clear that the Bureau is taking this seriously."

Scully nodded. She leaned back in her seat again and looked out the window on her side, while Mulder concentrated on keeping an even distance from the car ahead. Although it was a sunny day, it wasn't as hot as it had been when they came here, even now that they were out of the city. Cooler winds had started to blow, dropping the temperature. Mulder vaguely remembered someone on the TV that morning either predicting or just hoping for more rain.

The drive seemed shorter now that they were going back. Approaching the airport, the cars separated as Mulder headed for the rental agency. Scully had made arrangements with the agents transporting McKee. When they got back from returning the car, McKee was waiting, cuffed to Sedley, in a small room normally used by airport security. Not only did she have that colorful scarf on her head, she was wearing rather a lot of makeup. Mulder wasn't sure if it was intended as a half-hearted disguise, or if he was simply seeing the private Lucy McKee. If he was, someone should tell her that color lipstick didn't suit her.

Scully exchanged greetings with Sedley and the other agent, and in a few moments McKee was handcuffed to her wrist instead. Sedley offered to wait with them, but Scully turned the offer down with no more than a cursory glance at Mulder. He wasn't about to argue. He kept his eyes on McKee, half expecting her to disappear into thin air, but she just glowered back at him. Confession and the promise of protection had done nothing to improve her attitude.

Before leaving, Sedley shook hands with both of them as the other agent, whose name Mulder didn't know, hovered in the background. "It was an experience to work with you," she said. "You're both very good." Her smile as she left was warm and genuine.

The small room had no windows. The hum of air conditioning filled it from white wall to white wall, and the linoleum floor was scuffed and dirty. Mulder prowled from corner to corner, diagonally. He was aware that Scully was watching him almost as concentratedly as he was watching McKee. The awareness did nothing for his restlessness. He felt hollow, and wanted fiercely to be back in familiar environments and in the middle of the investigation already. He needed to work — to work hard — to throw himself into it.

Glancing at his watch, he wondered how soon they would be allowed to board. He could start up the laptop once they got on the plane, work out a plan of action based on McKee's testimony. Or maybe just play endless games of Tetris from one end of the country to the other. The tension in his neck and shoulders as he turned around made him regret that he'd turned down Scully's offer of painkillers, but he'd been eating Tylenol like candy lately. The pain would pass. The pain would have to pass.

"She's right," Scully said. The sound of her voice was unexpected and he stopped pacing the room, turned towards her. "You did a very good job on the Flagstad profile, Mulder. Don't lose sight of that while you think about what we're going to do next."

Mulder shrugged. "It's good that we found him," he said, but his voice was flat. He had no emotion left over right now for the man who had intended to hack his face up and kill him, who had intended to do the same thing to Scully. The man who was now lying on a slab somewhere with a bullet in his brain and another in his chest. It was past. When he blinked, he saw again the stencilled flower garland and the dust motes floating in the air, heard Krycek's tense arguments.

"Mulder." Scully took a step towards him, then paused as she realized that to come closer, she would have to drag McKee along. She sighed, and then ignored the woman cuffed to her wrist as if McKee weren't there. Coming up to him, she put a hand on his arm. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," he said. "Apart from having been concussed, injected with an unknown substance, subjected to a test run of a particularly nasty illness, hypnotized, and beaten up by a psychotic killer, I've had a wonderful time." When he blinked this time, he saw Krycek, flushed and panting, all barriers down, driving them both towards ecstasy.

She looked down, then up again, and seemed to reach a decision. "He asked me to tell you he'd be in touch." No need to explain who 'he' was. There was a troubled look in her eyes, but she didn't say anything else; no suggestions of what he ought to do before that happened, or when that happened. Instead she wrapped her free arm around him and hugged him awkwardly, and after a moment he hugged her back, looking away from the puzzled and irritated McKee. When Scully let go of him, her troubled look was warmer and more concerned. "Mulder, how do you feel?"

"Strange," he said, tugging at his tie and undoing the topmost button of his shirt. "I feel strange."

The door opened, and a member of the airport security staff nodded at them. It was time for them to board the plane. Mulder picked up the laptop, and Scully made sure that McKee had her coat, and then they walked out. Nothing happened as they were escorted to the gate and went down the narrow carpeted corridor that would take them to the plane. As they reached the end and saw the flight attendant waiting at the open door, fresh air came streaming towards them and there was a glimpse of sunlight, of sky.

Mulder breathed deeply. Plane fuel and dust. But he thought he could feel, all the same, a hint of eucalyptus.

* * *

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