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

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