Lovers IV: Sheer and clear

"He is my Altar, I his Holy Place;
I am his Guest; and he, my living Food;
I'm his, by Poenitence; He, mine by Grace;
I'm his, by Purchase; He is mine, by Blood" — Quarles, Canticle

"Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfillment." — Eliot, Little Gidding

Krycek stood waiting patiently while Mulder unlocked the door, and walked in behind him. Putting the laptop down on his bed, Mulder escaped into the bathroom for a few minutes. He splashed cool water on his cheeks, but rubbing himself dry with the towel brought the heat back again. When he came out, Krycek was sitting on the floor with his back against the other bed, staring out the window with a remote expression on his face. In the sudden stillness, there was a serenity about him, a clarity of line and simplicity of appearance that made the breath catch in Mulder's throat. He leaned against the wall and watched in silence.

This one, he thought, this one can't be my enemy. But was it only the quiet poetry of the moment that allowed his thoughts to state such an uncomplicated and probably false idea? They were not on the same side, that much was certain. And Mulder was aware that he did not only mean in the strange tangle of conspiracies, where anyone might be on any side. It was more than that, or less, perhaps. They were not the same. They perceived the world differently. They did not hold the same beliefs about anything. But watching Krycek like this... Mulder shook his head. A knife may be beautiful, and still draw blood. There was no inherent contradiction here.

They hadn't turned the lights on, and outside it was getting dark. When Krycek turned his head, Mulder could nevertheless see his eyes. They were dark, too, and very serious. A wall he had not even been aware of leaning against was removed, quite suddenly, and he was falling again.

"I thought you might be dead," he said, surprised at the sound of his own voice. He looked away from Krycek, stared out the window too, where there was nothing to be seen. "When you were gone, and we knew whoever had killed the Cloughs was still out there somewhere. Scully asked Lou to keep an eye out, tell us if they recovered your body." The words rang flat and unemotional in his own ears; Mulder wondered what they sounded like to Krycek.

"I said I'd send a postcard next time." That made Mulder turn his head again, to find Krycek still watching him, still as solemn. "I had to leave. Things were falling apart." That was me, Mulder thought. I was falling apart. "I didn't want you or Scully to get caught up in it if he decided to come after me again." He shook his head slowly and leaned it back against the bed, breaking the eye contact. "Did you ever find out what was put in storage in Manassas?"

"A lot of junk," Mulder said glumly, straightening up and walking into the room. He hesitated, and finally folded himself up on the floor not too far from Krycek. "No, not junk — some of it was expensive, high-tech laboratory equipment. But there was nothing—"

"Incriminating?" Krycek smiled faintly. It blurred the pure lines of his face, turned him into a more everyday creature. Mulder was relieved. "All the stuff that would have interested you was probably destroyed."

"Probably." He tried not to fidget. It had been a mistake to sit where he couldn't lean his back against anything. Krycek sat unmoving and relaxed; tired, Mulder supposed. But muscles and nerves jumped in his own body. "I want you to take a look at something." He shifted forward onto his knees and pulled the laptop down from the bed. Plugging it in, booting it up, he wondered if he was being efficient or stupid. "Here," he shifted it over in front of Krycek with the Flagstad profile open, "tell me what you think."

Krycek started to read. His face changed from still to absorbed, and he leaned forward, closer to the small screen, eyes flickering over the lines at high speed. Mulder watched him with the same intensity, trying to study the other man the way Krycek was studying the profile. Now that it wasn't as noticeable, he moved, and moved again, and finally got up to sit on his bed. He turned the TV on, and saw Krycek react minutely to the sudden sound and then settle back into reading again.

For a while he went zap-happy with the remote, but when he found a local news program he stayed with it to see what kind of coverage the latest deaths were getting. He'd been lucky, he realized, that neither Spelling nor Yun had thrown him to the press. A dark young woman with somber lipstick was telling him that the city lived in fear of the psychopath who had killed ten people over a period of twenty days. So Blaine Hibbert's death hadn't made the news yet, perhaps because it seemed unrelated.

She pushed a microphone in the face of the Bureau spokesman Mulder recognized from two nights ago and asked what was being done to protect the people of San Francisco from this insane killer. The spokesman said that the Bureau's top profilers were working on the case. Mulder snorted. Then the reporter turned back to the camera and asked, as sincerely as she could manage, "How many more have to die before the date killer is caught?"

I wish I knew, he thought. The images of the couple he had found that morning, Louise Hofmayer and Vic Laforge, rose up before him. Their faces, their ruined faces, joined the others. And Flagstad was stalking the next couple now. Mulder wondered if Angelica Roe would be able to help. Maybe he shouldn't have left it to the unknown Agent Sedley to question her; maybe he should have done it himself, insisted on sitting in at least.

"Are you on a guilt trip again, Mulder?" The voice slid into his thoughts like a cold wave over hot skin. "Taking the whole weight on your shoulders? I've never known anyone else who had the same ability to accept responsibility for failure as you do. No wonder your career is going nowhere."

"Shut up." He didn't want to turn his head, but did anyway, and glared back angrily into Krycek's calm look. His temper was surging in uncertain flares, hacking like a lighter about to run out of fluid. He wasn't sure he could manage one last burst before tiredness overcame him.

"You haven't failed. You're in the middle of this. We'll solve it, Mulder." Krycek had pushed the laptop aside. He was leaning forward on his knees, face serious again, and intent on what he was saying. "I'm sorry I pushed you before. I didn't mean—"

"You didn't mean it?" Mulder wasn't sure why he spoke the words like an accusation. Or exactly what he was asking about.

"I didn't—" Krycek laughed, but there was no joy in it. "I did mean it. But I am sorry. It's just that— Mulder, you're acting like it's your first case, like you're personally responsible for every detail. You've been in enough investigations to know all you can do is your best. You've turned Johnny inside out," he nodded at the computer screen, "you're carrying the whole investigation forward. If it weren't for you and Scully, Yun would still be trying to find me — he wouldn't even know the first thing about Johnny."

"I wouldn't know much either if it weren't for you turning up out of nowhere." And it wasn't as if he'd found Krycek by using his investigative skills, either. The bitter words came spilling out, "I've been in the hospital twice over the past 48 hours, I have two separate cases of minor retrograde amnesia, I was too late to stop the killer this morning, I was too late to prevent Blaine Hibbert's death." He rubbed at his forehead to chase away a lingering remnant of headache, but the gesture did nothing to drain him of responsibility. "And I don't need a pep talk from you."

Mulder wanted to expound on that theme, but his throat hurt. The mellow mood that the food and the beer had brought about was gone, and he missed it. He had also missed his chance at full-scale anger. There was only bitterness now.

"If you think you're screwing up so badly, why don't you back out?" Krycek made it sound like a perfectly reasonable suggestion; his face expressed nothing but polite inquiry."Tell Yun you can't be of any further help to him, pack your bags, go home."

"Are you trying to get me to give this up? Is that it?" Mulder turned on the bed until he faced Krycek, and glared at him. It had no perceptible effect. "They don't want me to find Flagstad because he used to work for them—"

"This morning you thought I wanted to manipulate you into finding him for me. This isn't about any agenda of mine, Mulder. If you think you have nothing to add to this investigation, why don't you want to abandon the case?" Then the cool facade cracked, and Krycek smiled wryly. "I am trying to manipulate you. Use your brain, damn it."

He took a deep breath, held it, counted to ten, let it out. Mulder let himself slide forward off the bed and land on the floor so he could lean back too; he propped his arms on his updrawn knees and let his head hang forward, eyes closed, for as long as it took for the pounding of his heart to grow slower. The urge to lash out was still there, but at least he could acknowledge that it was an extremely unproductive impulse.

"I want you to do something for me," he said finally, quietly. "I know it won't be easy for a lying bastard like you, but I want you to try. Next time you want something, say what you fucking well mean." Mulder looked up and caught the look on Krycek's face: unguarded, rueful, oddly tender. The cutting words in his mouth dried up and blew away. "I need to solve this case," he said instead, keeping his voice soft and level. "Don't play mind games with me."

"I'm not." Their eyes met. "Not much," Krycek amended. "I was just trying to say that I believe in you and that you don't have to do that to yourself. But if you need to feel guilty," Krycek shrugged, "it's up to you."

"I don't need to—" He broke off. Krycek was grinning at him. "You never stop, do you." He shouldn't have hoped for a truce. Shouldn't even have suggested it. And he should still be angry, but something about that grin made him want to return it. "So tell me what you think about that profile."

"All right." Krycek settled himself more comfortably. "As far as I know, you're right on the money. I don't know the details of Johnny's past that well. He didn't talk much about it. But I do know he accidentally found out more than he could handle during that business with the digital tape."

"Was that the first time you realized something was wrong with him?"

"No." Krycek was giving him that annoying smile again, the quiet, amused one. "There's something wrong with all of them. All of us. But that was when he started to crack up. I don't know exactly what happened after that, either — I didn't hang around to find out after he and Luis tried to blow me up."

Mulder raised an eyebrow. "They did? Because you stole the tape?"

"No. I wouldn't have stolen the tape if they hadn't done that. They were trying to wipe out me and it at the same time." Krycek shrugged. "Never mind that now. About Johnny, if this is what he's doing, what he's thinking — where did you put my map?"

"Around here somewhere." Mulder looked at the spot on the floor where he'd dumped the borrowed clothes, then shook his head and started to go through his pockets. He found the map, already starting to fray along the folds, and spread it out on the floor between them, switching on one of the bedside lamps. The spots where John Flagstad had left his victims traced a wavering line around his beloved city, keeping it safe. "I don't think he's following any known occult system." He let his fingers trace the path from first site to last. "And it's nothing as simple as a circle. It seems to be a kind of instinctive logic. Maybe he focuses on sites that are important to him for personal reasons."

"So." Krycek nodded at the map. "So where will he place the next victims? There aren't any obvious gaps. If the pattern is finished, does that mean he's going to try for Frankie and Dario now?"

"Maybe. Most likely, if he can find them." Mulder let his fingers wander across the map, reading it. He squinted, let his vision blur. Patterns. Meandering around the city. Around. "I think whatever happens next will happen somewhere in the center," he said. "The heart of the city. On his ground. His power base. The question is..."

"Where," Krycek filled in for him. He leaned forward over the map, too. "Not the geographical center, that would be too easy. Whatever place he thinks of as being most important of all, that he considers the heart of the city." Green eyes flicked up, shot him a quick look. "Does that make sense?"

"Don't try to to be stupid, it doesn't suit you. Of course it makes sense." Mulder was still staring at the map in an abstracted kind of way. "But where?"

They tossed ideas back and forth for a while, trying to look at the city from Flagstad's point of view. There were several possibilities, none of which could be easily dismissed. Krycek suggested Mount Davidson; Mulder leaned more towards Twin Peaks. But he wasn't sure. The gut-centered feeling of understanding would not come. Instead he listened as Krycek told him more about Flagstad; habits, mannerisms, little preferences, anything he could recall. The details appeared to fit in seamlessly with the profile he'd built up.

"And he tried to hypnotize Luis once," Krycek said with a reminiscent grin. "Luis was furious."

"He seems to have the hang of it now," Mulder muttered.

"I thought you couldn't hypnotize people into doing something they don't really want to do." Krycek pushed his hair out of his face. "Let alone hypnotize them into lying still while you're hacking at their sinuses."

"You have any other suggestions? Remember Augustus Cole?"

"That was different." Krycek looked a little ill at ease.

"Not all that different. Is there anything else you can tell me about Flagstad's interest in mind control?" Mulder hoped for more information that could take him in a different direction, but he thought whatever Flagstad did was probably based in some way on his interest in hypnotism.

After a while, Krycek ran out of suggestions and anecdotes. Mulder sat silent, picking at the fragments of knowledge, the scraps of fact, trying to tease further meaning from them. He thought about rapping on the connecting door and asking Scully to come in and join the discussion. She knew Flagstad in her own way, from what he did to people and how he did it, and her different perspective might be just what was needed here. But she'd looked tired even before they came here, and she'd wanted to read her book, and... and she'd think he didn't want to be alone with Krycek.

Looking up again, he found that Krycek was watching him, or perhaps just looking at him the way he'd looked out of the window before. The green eyes focused slowly and met his own. Caught them — he finally understood that expression, unable to look away. The city of San Francisco lay between them, paper thin, ringed with a necklace of deaths. The flicker and blare of the TV seemed to come from a long way off, dim and muted, the distant sounds of another world. Mulder set his jaw, unsure of what he was trying to resist. The memory of those moments in Hibbert's back yard still made him angry.

"I said I was sorry I pushed you," Krycek said. He hadn't moved, neither of them had moved but all the same Mulder had the sudden impression that Krycek was much closer than he had thought at first. And he wasn't talking about guilt any more. Not that guilt. "I won't do it again."

Mulder forced his eyes to drop. He started to fold up the map. His hands weren't shaking. That morning, he had acted without thinking, lying down next to a sleeping Krycek on this very bed, stealing a moment's peace and silence. He'd acted without thinking; did that mean he had acted on what he'd been feeling? Was there an essential dichotomy there, or was he simply dividing his perceptions and experiences so he wouldn't have to integrate them?

Language isn't a virus. Language is a disguise.

He looked at the folded-up map, tossed it aside. It was still early in the evening, by his standards. He wouldn't be able to sleep yet. The TV showed him nothing interesting, and suddenly he didn't want to lose time to whatever he might find there of carefully packaged entertainment, didn't want the flow of image after image and irrelevancy after irrelevancy that was ready to roll over him.

If Scully had only let him have that book... Mulder looked back at Krycek again. "I don't understand it," he said honestly. He drew breath again to try to explain what 'it' was, aware that honesty would be lost as soon as he tried, but Krycek just nodded. "I'm going to bed. I—" No. God, no. Getting to his feet, he went past Krycek and back into the bathroom again, closed the door, locked it as he had that morning, aware even as he did it that this last was a pointless and rather absurd gesture.

The bathroom lights were glaringly bright after the soft glow of the TV and the bedside lamp. It was a small bathroom and nowhere near the standard of the one in the Holiday Inn, but considerably better than those of several motels he'd stayed in across the country. Mulder stood on a small green mat and brushed his teeth with care. He hadn't gone to bed this early in years. Decades.

When he looked at the man in the mirror, he could see no signs that this was someone who'd suffered a concussion a day and a half ago, who had been close to dying from the black cancer less than twenty-four hours ago. He would have to get those blood samples analyzed later, he thought. Scully would see to it. Now Alex Krycek's blood was in him, running through his veins at every beat of his heart. You couldn't get much more intimate with someone than that.

His throat and the inside of his nose were still sore, and the remnants of a headache hung around his head like a wispy cloud; his wrist hurt; the bruises from the fall hadn't faded much. But he felt all right. Restless, uncertain, edgy, confused, but physically, more or less all right.

Mulder stayed in the bathroom as long as he could justify staying; he decided to take a shower, scrubbing carefully around every toe and behind each ear, and then he fiddled around with his nail clippers, brushed his teeth and combed his hair. When he couldn't think of anything else to do, he wrapped a towel around his waist and unlocked the door, taking a quick deep breath. He wasn't a man who hid in bathrooms from strange situations. Not forever, anyway, he thought and coaxed a smile from himself.

The blinds were down now. Krycek was sitting at the foot of Mulder's bed, remote in hand, flipping through the channels. He got up when Mulder came back, walked towards him. "My turn?" They passed each other, close enough that the clothes Mulder carried over one arm were disturbed by Krycek's passage. "I promise not to use your toothbrush."

"I think yours is still in there with my stuff." Mulder walked towards his bed, speaking with his back turned, trying not to clutch at his towel. "I never unpacked all of it after Leyden Creek."

He thought he heard Krycek say "Thanks" before the bathroom door closed. Dumping his clothes at the foot of the bed, he started to dig around in his bag for a pair of clean boxers to sleep in. Krycek had left the TV on a channel showing a Star Trek: TNG rerun, and Mulder watched idly for a few moments while he put his boxers on, then switched channels with a shudder as Wesley Crusher appeared. He couldn't find anything interesting, and finally turned the volume down to a reedy whisper and crawled into bed.

The fresh sheets felt good. Mulder wondered if the sheets that he'd been wrapped in when he'd gone to the hospital would appear on the hotel bill,and how he would explain that to Skinner. He closed his eyes, relaxed into the pillow, listened to the sound of running water from the bathroom. He opened his eyes again. Maybe if he turned the volume back up. He'd put the remote where he couldn't reach it. Mulder got out of bed. He took a step towards the TV, then changed his course and went to the door and threw the bolt. Looking at the unlocked connecting door, he pictured Scully sleeping, and smiled a little.

Krycek came back from the bathroom in t-shirt and briefs just as Mulder was returning to his bed. They looked at each other, and Mulder swallowed a tight choking ball of heat; it broke open in his chest and made his breath catch. The thoughts of two nights ago came back to him. How bad can it get? How bad could it be, to sleep alone again...

He drew another breath, and heard himself say, "Come to bed with me." Krycek froze and stared, no expression at all on his face. "If you want to." Space and time executed a neat pirouette around the single silent moment that followed his words.

"If I—" Krycek shook his head. He moved up along his own bed and Mulder experienced a moment of sickening freefall again, before Krycek turned back, pillow in hand. "You steal the pillow," he explained, sounding strangely calm while tossing it onto Mulder's bed. Then he crawled in under the covers and lay there waiting.

Mulder forced himself to move. He switched off the bedside lamp and got back into bed. Blue light from the TV danced across the walls and ceiling as the pictures changed. The sound was so faint and distant it might have been anything. Both sounds and images were insubstantial whispers that could not quite reach him. Krycek was strong and solid when Mulder touched him. It was a slow hesitant touch, a brush of his hand over chest and shoulder. He thought he could feel, through the soft thin cotton, Krycek's heart beat as fast as his own. When he slid his arm around the other man's back and pulled him closer he felt a shiver, a sigh.

It felt so good. Two nights of sleeping close, like this, and months without it, months of being too cold. Mulder tightened his grip and Krycek's hand moved up his spine and settled between his shoulderblades, so warm, skin on skin. Heat radiated out from that touch and made his flesh tingle with a new awareness, a new sensitivity. It wasn't too late to let go, to roll back, to just fall asleep in this shared warmth. Not too late.

Mulder turned his head, brushing his lips over a stubbled cheek, and Krycek was moving too and their mouths met, breathed briefly together, then melted into each other.

He didn't know if his eyes were open or closed. It was like breathing again after being too long under water. Desperate, rushed, painful, wonderful. Mulder shivered violently, a strong muscular spasm that rocked his whole body and drove him deeper into Krycek's tight grip, and he felt a trembling start in his belly, a worrying swirl and flow, liquid, volatile. Alex.

"Alex." It was barely audible, spoken tongue to tongue, but he could feel it being heard. "Alex." They were lying so close together, there was no room to move; no friction, just heat. "I thought you were dead. I thought..." Pressure of lips, the rasp and scrape of stubble. Alex's hand slid up and cupped the back of his neck, fingers weaving into his hair. He tried to work the arm he was lying on around Alex's body as well. The impulse to hold hard, to crush and be crushed, finally began to worry him and he broke out of the kiss, backed off a little.

Alex looked at Mulder, his face open, his eyes burning. He swallowed and then tried to speak. "If you — if you're changing your mind — it's—"

"No." Mulder could not stand the ache in his bones, the deep grinding pain in his soul. It seemed he hurt no matter what he did, so he moved closer again and brushed his lips over Alex's. He meant it as a light touch, but he couldn't keep it that way; moments later they were welded together again, kissing and kissing and kissing. And the blinding pleasure of it rose in him like blue fire and burned higher than the pain.

His hand moved over Alex's back, slid down and in under the hem of the t-shirt and up again, thumb tracing the spine, palm stroking the smooth column of muscle along it. A soft sound, caught by his tongue, shot through him and traveled like a white flare along his nerves, highlighting his desire. Twisting his hips, he pushed against Alex, pressing his own heat and hardness against the other man's. This caged and smothered touch was hot enough to burn away even the memory of ever being cold and lonely. The thin cotton fibers that separated them ought to just crumble into ashes. He sucked in air, tried to find his thoughts. You know who this is. This is — this is—

This is so good. Fingers danced over his shoulder, dipped into the hollow above his collarbone, then below it, stroking so gently it almost tickled. Up again, curving around the shoulder, back to the collarbone, teasing up along his throat, flicking his earlobe, caressing his jaw. Mulder turned his head, tried to catch those fingers between his teeth. He trapped the tip of the index finger and licked at it, then sucked it in slowly, letting his tongue curve in narrow strokes from joint to joint.

Alex said something, harsh and husky and incomprehensible. He pulled his wet finger free of Mulder's mouth and dragged it down his chest, ending by flicking it against his nipple. Cold and hot, a sudden sizzle of pleasure. Mulder arched and twisted his hips against Alex's.

"Oh God, lisitsa..." Alex sounded breathless. There was something in his voice that Mulder had never heard before, that he wanted to hear again.

He rolled in close again and licked at Alex's neck, bit down here and there and felt shivers. Moving up, he nibbled at the earlobe and then drew the pointed tip of his tongue around the ear's curling folds, tracing every one of them with slow precision. Down along the arched neck, pulse beats speeding up against his lips. The neck of the t-shirt stopped him, but only for a moment. Mulder twisted himself down along Alex's body, rubbing himself against that solid heat.

He pressed his mouth against the hard hollow of the breastbone, turned his head sideways and caught a nipple between his teeth. Alex moaned. Mulder sucked through the cloth, then chewed at the hardening nub, biting down with increasing pressure. The moan turned into a strangled gasp. Turning to the other side, Mulder licked and bit again, catching the first nipple between his fingers and pinching it gently. Alex's hand was in his hair again, a light fluttering touch, fingers curving around his skull. Mulder dragged the t-shirt up, freeing the skin, licking at the fine dusting of hair there.

Looking down, he saw that the head of Alex's cock had slipped free of his briefs, straining upwards along his belly, gleaming with moisture. Mulder felt his tongue curl and press against his teeth at the sight, then dart out to lick his lips. He wanted to taste it, wanted it wet and slick on his tongue, wanted to feel the heaviness of desire and the dull pulsing throb of lust. It was a need that filled his entire body, shockwave-fast and dizzying. The hunger rolled through him and twisted in his stomach, breaking suddenly in a splinter of glass knives that dug deep.

Mulder couldn't stop the raw sound of distress that wrenched itself from his throat. He clamped his lips together once it had escaped, shut his eyes just as tight, and rolled away from Alex, sucking in air. Pain racked him. He wanted to say he was sorry, but it was all he could do to keep breathing. Away from Alex's warm body, he jerked and trembled in sudden shock.

"Ssshhh, lisitsa." The covers were pulled around his shoulders, the weight of an arm resting on top of them, trying to draw him back again. Mulder shivered under it, and it was slowly removed. "It's all right. I won't push you." It sounded strained, but honest.

Mulder breathed slowly and tried to recover himself, but it was hopeless. He'd thought he was swimming in the shallows, but now when he tried to put his feet down, the ocean was fathoms deep below him. Alex touched his hair with slow gentleness, curled against him carefully, didn't hold him down. Perhaps it wouldn't have mattered. It was Alex's very presence that was pulling him apart, that and his own reaction to it.

Shaking his head slowly, Mulder opened his eyes again. He moved closer to Alex; he wanted so much to be warm. They lay together in silence for a while, and the stabs of pain that had stolen breath and thought from him eased. At least he hadn't been sick, he thought darkly. Turning into the circle of Alex's arm, he faced the other man again.

Alex's hand moved over Mulder's back in long slow strokes, and he shivered in response. He knew it was meant to be soothing, but when Alex touched him, he burned. Even now, with the last splinters of deep hurt lodged edgy and dangerous inside him, he burned. When he looked at Alex and saw the depths of wordless desire in the green eyes, he burned even more. Drawing breath to speak, he was at a loss for words. "I'm — it's—"

"It's all right," Alex repeated in that husky voice that always made his knees go weak, and stroked the back of his neck carefully. "We'll just sleep. Do you want me to take the other bed?"

"No — don't go." He burrowed in closer, until they were touching body to body again. It was impossible for him to hold so much, he was a cup running over, and he knew what he wanted to drain off and what he wanted to be filled with. For once, he knew; or maybe it was that he couldn't bear any more pain. Not right then. He arched his back against the gentle caress of Alex's hand, willing it to touch him all over, gather up every part of him and hold it here, in this place, in this moment.

"I'm not going." Alex rubbed his shoulders, the back of his neck. Mulder breathed deeply, wanting another caress there. He pressed himself against Alex and became aware, at the same moment that Alex became aware, that he was hard still, the solid proof of his desire hot and insistent against Alex's hipbone. Another kind of heat burned in his face. He just wanted to be held. He just wanted— "Mulder?"

It was a soft question, a question that did not make any assumptions. He swallowed painfully, felt the need rise again, an old hunger, a new hunger. They were touching, and he burned, yet he was afraid to move after what had happened before. Blue-tongued flames licked at him at every point where skin met skin. This wanting was going to shiver him apart, yet he could not say, would not say...

It was dragged out of his throat by a gasping breath, little more than a whisper. "Please." Nothing had ever been so hard. "Please."

Lips touched his own in a kiss so light and gentle, Mulder thought Alex had not understood him, or had perhaps preferred not to understand him. But then that airy caress moved from his mouth to his throat and traced the nerves there, touched down on the pleasure points with quiet certainty, following a route that Mulder hadn't been aware of, one that had to be marked on his skin for those with sufficient skill in lip-reading. This tender sensuality made him relax, breathe easier and more deeply. Tiny kisses fell into the indentation above his collarbone, raindrops filling a hollow in the ground. The feathery touch moved across his skin and he lay there like parched earth, soaking it up.

When the first sharp cut came, the ice and fire of a tongue slicing across his nipple, it tore a shapeless gritty sound from his throat. His bones were made of liquid metal, white and sizzling, and his muscles tightened and jerked in that heat and moved of their own accord. Drained of the confusion of thought, he was sensation, he was what was happening to him. Teeth grazed him and he arched into that pressure, the edge of feeling.

Alex's mouth moved over him, licking and biting, then kissing tenderly. The palm of his hand tingled with pleasure where Alex's tongue had drawn him a new lifeline, and he had to bite his lip to keep from crying out at the relentless attention to the soft skin at the fold of his elbow. Even the barely-felt brush of Alex's hair against his skin sent brief heated jolts through him. Words spoken into his navel made him jerk and choke on silenced laughter. "Ticklish?" Mulder felt a smile curve against the skin of his belly. "Sorry." Kisses moved down in a straight line, and he wasn't breathing.

But Alex abandoned that path with one last brush of lips right above the waistband of his boxers, and moved on; the next time his mouth touched down on Mulder's body it was on the inside of his thigh, just above the knee. Slow, wet, sucking kisses burned themselves into Mulder's skin. He felt he should be able to count the marks afterwards. His hand traveled in slow motion, fingertips brushing across Alex's hair, his face. Alex lifted his head and sucked at each of those fingertips in turn, and the swirling liquid heat drew tighter, squeezed the pleasure into him. Out of him.

"Please," he said again; it was easier now. "Alex..." His fingers were released, and his hand fell limp at his side as his entire attention was taken up by the lazy tongue strokes moving up the inside of his thigh again. Reaching the cloth of the boxer shorts on that side, Alex switched to the other leg and started using his teeth. "Oh God."

"You don't believe in God," Alex said into his flesh, breathing on wet skin, making him quiver. Mulder caught his breath for a moment as Alex shifted his weight, moving up. And then that mouth came down on him again like lightning hurled by the God he did not believe in, lips shaping the straining length of his erection, hot breath sealing the cotton cloth to the flesh. There was a wet patch near the waistband where the weeping head of his cock pressed desperately against the force of the elastic, and Alex sucked on it, sucked the cloth-covered head into his mouth, wetting it even more.

Mulder choked on a hoarse, rasping cry. He wasn't getting enough air; his head tossed from side to side, mouth gasping for breath. When the heat and wetness left him he actually felt a moment's strange relief, before his body reminded him of how much it missed this torment, and then he all but whimpered. He raised his head and saw Alex lever himself up to sit astride Mulder's leg, then reach out and slip a finger under the elastic of his boxers, teasing a line across his lower abdomen before starting to tug them off. "Alex." He only wanted those bright green eyes to look at him, and they did, smiling tenderly, before Alex tugged his t-shirt up and wriggled out of it, tossed it aside.

"Come on, Mulder, lift your hips a little — yeah—" Mulder squirmed. He felt the cool kiss of air on his exposed cock, and the warm stroke of Alex's hand brushing the crease between leg and torso; felt also the hot insistent brush of the other man's cloth-covered erection against his thigh. The stupid boxer shorts were worked off his hips slowly and abandoned as an uninteresting project. Mulder saw a bright, wicked smile curve Alex's mouth for the space of a heartbeat, and then the dark head bent and he was recaptured, liquid heat sliding down around his hard flesh. His head fell back with a flat thud against the pillow.

"Yes — Alex — please — Alex—" He could not remember any other words. He could not remember ever remembering any other words. Nor could he remember being seared by pleasure quite like this. After the long cold solitude of so many separate nights, this fire was too much for him. It would consume him whole, leave charred and blackened remains behind.

He didn't care; rapid breaths sobbed in his throat and his hips worked, held down only by Alex's weight across his leg. All of him was pulled tight, a knot of flame, a crowned knot of fire drawn together by the burning rose of Alex's mouth and the licking fiery petal of his tongue. A silent scream ripped out of him, the sound itself leeched away by the heat. He arched up and felt his spine fracture and his head break open, and he was coming in sharp ecstatic convulsions, tossed up and out, held and received and swallowed.

After that, the stillness seemed strange. Mulder became aware, again, of the hum and whine of the TV, the sound patterns fragmenting on the edge of his hearing into droning nonsense. When Alex released him, the air closed coolly around his wet skin. Little ripples shot through him, nerves and muscles in the throes of the last aftershocks. The boxers, tangled around his knees, were pulled off. Bedcovers and a warm body came up to cover him, wrap around him. Alex draped himself half across Mulder's chest, settling his weight into the hollow between arm and side, tucking his hand around the opposite shoulder.

With his eyes still closed, Mulder turned his head fractionally and brushed his lips over Alex's hair and then, investigating more closely, his forehead. He lifted first one arm and then the other to wrap around Alex, feeling more tremors. They wouldn't stop. Breath caught in his throat again. His grip hardened involuntarily, he sucked in air and swallowed, and shuddered. Alex moved in his arms and lifted his head to look searchingly at him. "Are you all right? Lisitsa, what — oh."

"I'm fine," Mulder insisted shakily. His eyes burned, his voice was out of control and he wanted to hide his face, his self, his vulnerability. Alex cupped his hand around the back of Mulder's head and pulled him closer. He pressed his face against Alex's neck and tried to strangle the hot, reluctant sobs. Something hurt, inside, and he hated it. Alex was being gentle again, holding him, stroking him. The forces that fought in him were already exhausted from a long, hard battle. Somewhere in the touch of Alex's hand on his skin, he gave up trying to hide. "Mostly fine," he said into the soft hollow of Alex's throat, and let himself roll back a little.

Alex licked the damp, tender skin around his eyes; kissed his temple, his cheek, the corner of his mouth. "Tell me something."

"What?" His brain was still mush. He wasn't in a state to tell anyone anything, and he would have guessed conversation to be the last thing on Alex's mind right now.

"Tell me about Martin Yun and Michelle Sargent."

It was so unexpected, he drew his breath in on a choke of laughter. Mulder rolled his head from side to side to clear it. "Why do you want to know — all right. All right. It's a stupid story." He tried to straighten his spine, then curved back against Alex, deciding he had been more comfortable like that. It was too complicated to untangle himself, anyway; they had ended up in one of those impossible positions, arms and legs entwined, heads tucked close together. "A story from the time when I was young and innocent."

"And now you're old and depraved." Alex was breathing against his ear. It tickled pleasantly.

"Don't remind me." Mulder bit the nearest part of Alex that he could reach with his mouth; it happened to be his shoulder. Then he stopped trying to order his thoughts, and started saying what he did think. "I liked Michelle a lot. Better than Martin. We worked together on a case, all three of us. She was bright as hell, probably still is. We were all under a lot of pressure and she was the one who could ease it up for a moment here and there, make us laugh when we needed it. I thought I'd found a friend."


"But, uh." He freed one hand and worked it up to drag his thumb slowly across Alex's face, down over eyebrow and eye and cheek to linger on the sharp-stubbled jawline. "You need a shave." The skin around his lips was scratched and sore. "But she wanted me for more than a friend, and I — panicked, and stupidly told Martin about it, and he offered to help me get out of it."

Alex's back shook with laughter. "You panicked because someone made a pass at you? How old were you, Mulder?"

"I panicked because she told me she thought I would make a good sub." Looking up at the ceiling, Mulder thought that the flowing swirl and shift of the blue light might make a good focus for a meditation exercise. It was very soothing. "I didn't know anything about that, what she was talking about. I just thought she was another Phoebe, someone who would push my buttons and teach me to jump through hoops and this time I'd have to wear a harness, too."

Alex sucked in a slow breath and let it out again against Mulder's cheek. "I see. I think I can figure out the rest of this story. You panicked and told Yun, and he offered to talk to Michelle and tell her that you were... what? Secretly married, gay, pining away for an old girlfriend?"

"I don't know what he told her," Mulder admitted. "I never asked. But I think I've figured out at least part of it now." He couldn't help it, chuckles rose in him and demanded to be let out. "And he never told me, because he'd seen how I reacted, and now he thinks I think he's a pervert. Serves him right, bigoted idiot."

"And if he knew about this," Alex licked gently at his throat, "he would think that you are a pervert."

"Yeah." He didn't want to go there, not at that moment.

"Did you ever change your mind about the S&M scene?"

Mulder shrugged, as well as he could manage with most of Alex's weight pressing down on him. "Depends on what you mean by change my mind. I'm not sorry I didn't take Michelle up on her offer. I don't have a problem with what other people choose to do, as long as they're happy with it. I just like my personal interactions to be a bit less ritualized, I guess."

He dragged his thumb across Alex's lips now, felt them move in speech. "But isn't there always something essentially formal and ritual about human sexual contact? On some level an agreement is made between two parties — usually two parties — this for that, move for countermove, your pleasure for mine. Maybe there's a point to having it all spelled out so you know what you're getting, then you can't complain afterwards."

The smile under his fingers was an invitation, and he grinned too, and tilted Alex's head up. "I get the point, okay?" he said, and managed a kiss by craning his neck awkwardly.

They shifted around that kiss, slow adjustments, smooth body-to-body caresses that brought them round to a more comfortable position. Mulder was still riding the last wave of hazy contentment, the pleasure center of his brain purring like a happy kitten. He gave his entire attention to kissing Alex, enjoying the delicate interplay of lips and tongues and teeth the way he might appreciate and enjoy a complex work of kinetic art. When he ran his hand up Alex's chest, down his back, he felt the muscles start to work in the familiar pattern of arousal, tensing, twisting, letting go and winding up again.

Free of that kind of overriding urgency, he could take his time to explore, but the way Alex shuddered under his touch told him he'd better not take too much time. He mouthed his way down the arched throat, licked the soft hollow where pulse beats trembled against the pressure of his tongue, bestowed two swift kisses on the spots where the clavicles joined the breastbone. Alex's hand in his hair was tugging at him very gently, more gently than he could have managed himself had their circumstances been reversed.

Mulder twined himself further down, but couldn't pass by Alex's erect nipples, rosy and hard against pale skin. He flicked his tongue over the nearest one in quick airy stripes, and then sucked it in between his teeth. The sound Alex made low in his throat echoed through his chest, and he pressed his hips against Mulder's belly, the slick head of his cock leaving a wet mark there. Mulder moved his mouth to the other nipple and tongued it thoroughly. He slipped his free hand down the small of Alex's back, hooked his fingers into the briefs and pushed them down over the warm gorgeous curve of his ass, down along the backs of the strong legs.

Then he drew his nails up the inside of the thigh, with nicely judged pressure. Alex hissed and clenched his fingers in Mulder's hair. "Don't," an unsteady intake of breath, "don't tease me now, I don't think I can—"

"All right," he said, speaking into the soft skin of Alex's stomach. Muscles rippled under his lips. Something warm and wet and hard bumped into his chin from below and he smiled. "All right."

And it was. When he opened his mouth and wrapped his tongue around the silky cockhead he could have cried out with pleasure, the way Alex did. The taste was so sweet. He worked his other hand up from under his own body to steady the quivering shaft, hold it in place for his mouth to devour. He loved the slickness of tart liquid on his tongue, and the blunt insistent shape that fit so well into the hollow of his mouth. His tongue worked in slow pressing swirls, alternating with pulses of strong suction that made Alex arch and moan and breathe out soft incomprehensible sounds that might have been Russian curses, or just failed attempts to form the word please.

Mulder closed his eyes, flicked his tongue insistently across the underside of the head, where its rounded lines drew up and together into a most sensitive spot. His free hand stroked up the back of Alex's thigh again, until the tip of his index finger could trace the crease just below the curve of the buttock, moving slowly inward. Alex made an uncertain, ragged sound and shifted his legs minutely. The small movement was easy for Mulder to read; he continued the light, teasing caress, drawing it up along the cleft of Alex's ass and then down again, sliding in deeper along sweat-slick skin.

He found the tight tender bud, stroked it slowly. Then he relaxed his throat muscles and took Alex in as deep as he could, and pressed his finger down in insistent deepening strokes, small thrusts that matched the pulses of his mouth and throat working the hard cock.

Alex stopped breathing. Mulder could feel it. After a stunned heartbeat had passed, he stiffened and came hard, body jerking out of control, cries of pleasure insufficiently smothered by the pillow. Mulder slid his mouth up the pulsing shaft to catch the hot bursts of semen on his tongue, to taste before he swallowed. He went on sucking, more gently now, until Alex's hand urged his head away.

Mulder kissed his way back up again, belly, chest, throat, mouth. The soft purr at the back of Alex's throat as they kissed stroked over him like a languid caress. Alex sprawled in his arms, limp with contentment, warm and satisfied and beautiful. Mulder kissed the flushed cheeks, the drooping eyelids.

"Lisitsa." Sharp teeth chewed on his lower lip for a moment. "So good..."

He rubbed his chin scratchily against the edge of Alex's jaw. "What is that you keep calling me?"

Alex looked mildly embarrassed. "Nothing. 'S just a nickname."

Pulling the covers up around them, Mulder drew Alex into a tighter embrace. Their bodies settled together like buildings after an earthquake, a slow, comfortable collapse. Alex buried his face against Mulder's throat, made a sleepy sound, moved his lips and then lay perfectly still. "You can't sleep like that," Mulder said, fingertips drifting through the hair at the nape of Alex's neck. "You can't breathe."


"What does it mean, Alex? That word?"

The soft even breaths against his skin grew deeper, louder and steadier. He felt another small relaxation, as Alex's chin dug into his shoulder. There was no reply to his question; Alex was asleep.

Mulder closed his eyes too. He wondered what time it was. Around midnight, maybe. Cars went by outside on Powell, the sound barely audible over the soft murmur of the television. He could still taste Alex in his mouth, and felt as though he would never want anything else again; he was unwilling to leave this moment, that spurious certainty. Holding and being held, he drifted down slowly from wakefulness into a light doze, surfacing now and then to confirm that it was all still real, that Alex lay there curled around his body in deep, trusting sleep. It had been a long time, a very long time since he had slept with someone like this. Alex, in Leyden Creek, although there had not been this ease, this closeness. Before that, he could barely remember. Some stranger whose quest for temporary satisfaction had intersected with his own.

It wasn't worth remembering. This was different. This was something else. He was so warm and content that the fleeting disquiet that passed through him could not get any purchase, and slipped away again. Turning his head very slowly, he rubbed his cheek against soft dark hair. Alex.

* * *

He woke with a crick in his neck, tried to use his shoulder to push the pillow into a more comfortable position, and failed. The pillow made an annoyed sound and subsided back into sleep. Mulder blinked. It was very early, just beginning to get light. He didn't feel the need to face another dawn, closed his eyes and decided to go back to sleep as well, but the discomfort in his neck was enough to keep him awake, if not enough to actually make him move.

Besides, the sound of Alex's heartbeat distracted him. It was steady and slow and inescapable. He listened to it and tried to remember his dreams. They had been curiously unclear, a slow roll of images and events that had held nothing of horror and hardly anything of interest. Just dreams. Part of his sleep, and here he was now, awake, with Alex Krycek.

Mulder lifted his head slowly, and looked at Alex's sleeping face. He studied the small neat nose, the smooth strokes of the eyebrows, arched even in sleep like the wings of a bird ready for flight. There was nothing to be read here, no secret signs either of feature or expression that might reveal what kind of man this was. Mulder watched the quick tracking movements of the eyes beneath the soft eyelids. He wanted to get inside.

Instead he let his eyes follow the line of the jaw and throat, dark stubble on fair skin, a small red mark from his own teeth. The smooth expanse of shoulder. And then... the place that was defined by what was missing. Scars that spoke of pain he did not want to imagine, could not help but imagine.

Mulder was gripped by a feeling of unreality; he had gotten out of that, it hadn't happened to him, why had it happened to Alex? How could somebody just get a piece of his body cut off? Those people had been faced with a choice that terrified them. The calm brutality of the solution struck him even more now, when he was safely away from it all, when he had had time to distance himself from it. Tunguska sometimes seemed like a bad dream more than an actual memory of horror. But the black cancer had risen up in him the day before yesterday, and here was Alex, who bore the marks of that terrible trip on his body.

"You can touch it if you want to." His eyes flew up and he saw that Alex was watching him, sleepily but with a certain wariness. Mulder tried not to flinch or look embarrassed. He'd been staring, he knew it.

"I thought you didn't want me to," he said softly.

"It's all right." It was hard for him to judge the look in Alex's eyes, as sleep-heavy eyelids hid them again. There was something in the voice that sounded almost like provocation. Or fear. So Mulder bent his neck and kissed the scars, mapping them with his lips, carefully getting to know this part of Alex. It was strange, and he had the feeling it was scaring him as much as it scared Alex. He put one hand on Alex's chest to steady them both, and felt tension but no rejection. Instead, Alex said slowly, "You know, last night was the first time... since I lost my arm. It was a bit like being a virgin all over again."

"Oh," Mulder said in a small voice, feeling as though the breath had been punched from his lungs. He froze where he was, mouth brushing against shiny scar tissue. The hurt that welled up inside him was strange and complex, and drew its strength and force from the tone of Alex's voice just then, and from the words he had said.

Oh God, he killed my father, and he trusts me. Mulder tried to move. He wanted to scream and beat his head against the wall. He wanted to hold Alex close. He wanted to hurt Alex; he wanted to hurt himself. It was too much, he hadn't wanted to know that.

The quality of his stillness and silence did not go unremarked for long. "What's wrong?" Alex asked, and there was an edge of something in his voice again that cut deep, the slightest whisper of uncertainty, of vulnerability. When Mulder did not answer, Alex went on, "Regrets?"

"Yes," he said honestly. He lifted his head. "What did you expect?" Alex just looked at him quietly. After a moment, Mulder met that look and accepted the truth of it. There was so much that needed to be said between them, and so few words. He frowned, half pain, half resignation, and moved closer, pillowed his head on Alex's chest again.

"I never expected this to happen in the first place," Alex said. He wrapped his arm around Mulder's shoulders and pulled him closer. One of them sighed; their bodies fitted themselves together easily. Mulder closed his eyes. Curling up in bed with Alex Krycek wasn't supposed to feel like coming home. Maybe you didn't get to choose your homecomings. "You surprised me, Mulder."

"Yeah, well..." The next words didn't make it past his lips. Homecoming, he thought again. Home. Flagstad had come back to the place he thought of as his home. Nothing else in the city of San Francisco could be as important to the man as that one spot. "Alex, do you know where Flagstad lived when he lived here?"

Alex's thumb, moving in small stroking motions over Mulder's shoulder, stopped. Then Alex started to laugh. "No," he said after a few moments, and Mulder heard the difference in the sound of his voice, heard the added distance that humor lent, "no, I don't." The gentle caresses were resumed again. "Pillow talk, Mulder? I should have known." Alex sounded amused, and composed.

"If that's what you want to call it. I told Spelling yesterday," Mulder rubbed his chin thoughtfully against Alex's breastbone, as if to make up for the direction his thoughts were taking, "I think Flagstad took his name from someone in the family, I asked him to trace any San Francisco Flagstads."

"But he wasn't born here, the family came from some midwestern state originally," Alex objected. "That's the impression I always had and that's what you put in your profile, too." After a moment he went on, "Of course, they could have moved here because they inherited property, a house."

"From a maternal grandparent," Mulder said.

"Do you have anything that backs up that theory, or are you just speculating at random?" Alex was still stroking his shoulder, but without the same fine edge of concentration. "If we could find a Flagstad family here, and a Flagstad family home, we'd be close to finding him. But unless you know where you're coming from with this, it could just mean a lot of Bureau hours wasted searching for something that isn't there."

"It's a hunch," Mulder muttered, speaking into Alex's chest. "The maternal symbolism is there, the earth as mother, life-giver. It might be his mother's maiden name, or his grandmother's." Then he sat up. "Wouldn't have thought you cared about wasted Bureau hours anyway."

"You're not the only one who wants to find Johnny before he kills anyone else."

"Well, I still think that's one way to do it. Maybe the best way." He swung his legs over the side of the bed and paused; the pressure in his bladder was telling him to go to the bathroom, but it had been surprisingly hard to let go. Mulder shook his head as he stood up. He couldn't spend the morning in bed with Alex Krycek, even if they were talking about the case.

Once in the bathroom he went into his usual morning routine, not thinking about anything much beyond the motions required to become clean and presentable. The quick shower was all business and no pleasure; he flinched once as the hot water hit four neat red half-moons dug into his shoulder. He hadn't noticed that happening, last night. Drying himself off, towelling his hair, he was already outlining the rest of the day in his head.

Scully was probably up and moving on her side of the connecting door. They needed to find out if Agent Sedley had come up with anything from interviewing Angelica Roe, and the state of the investigation into San Francisco Flagstads, who had to exist, and what had happened to the Holiday Inn desk clerk's testimony and had they worked up a composite of Flagstad yet and passed it out, and— He looked at his own freshly shaved face in the mirror and tried to make his thoughts slow down.

Leaving the bathroom, he felt the usual chill as the cooler air outside licked at the drops of water he'd missed. He also felt something else, the suspicion of a less substantial touch even than that. Mulder looked up, and became aware that he was standing naked in the middle of the room, and Alex Krycek was sitting up in bed, watching him. Several contradictory impulses ran through him at once — to get dressed as fast as possible, to stand there and enjoy the look in Alex's eyes, to get back in bed with Alex right now, even, amazingly, to blush.

The sharp rap on the connecting door nearly made him jump.

"Mulder? Are you up?" Scully's voice was muffled, of course, but he was appalled at how clearly he could hear her through the door. "I'm going down to breakfast."

"Ten minutes," he raised his voice to tell her. Alex would just have to hurry. Mulder headed for last night's pile of clothing and started to sort through it, pausing t-shirt in hand to state something that suddenly amazed him. "I don't have a headache."

Alex chuckled. "Well, that's nice. All the same, I don't think we have the time." Mulder looked up in time to see Alex get out of bed, too, and watched him walk across the room. There was a sudden tightness in his chest as he acknowledged the taut strength of Alex's body, and its hard-won grace and ease of movement. This was no casual ability displaying itself, it was a birthright laboriously reclaimed. When the bathroom door closed Mulder swallowed hard and returned his attention to finding something to wear.

It was going to be another warm day, he thought, looking out the window, but it would have to be another formal day all the same. No t-shirt under his shirt, though, not in weather like this. He stretched, and slipped his arms through the sleeves of the pale blue shirt. He felt good, better than good, healthy and alert and oddly relaxed. Mulder dragged the back of his hand across his mouth, attempting to wipe away the sudden smile. There was a twinge of uneasiness in him, rising through the relaxation.

He was in the middle of strapping his holster on when Alex came back out. "Do you need to borrow some clean clothes?" he asked, and then had to add, "I'm not going shopping with you again."

"I need to check in at my apartment," Alex said, pulling his jeans on with quick, precise, practiced one-handed tugs. "There's some stuff there I want to get before someone else cleans the place out. What's the first thing you're doing today?"

"Breakfast," Mulder said. Then he shrugged. "I'm hoping for the needle pulled out of the haystack. If we can find Flagstad's old home, stake it out — he's bound to be there, often if not all the time — probably rents a room nearby—"

"Nothing on the credit card yet?"

"No. They would have called and told us, I hope." Mulder picked up his suit jacket, and as if on cue, the cell phone inside it rang. He extracted it and looked at it curiously before answering. "Mulder."

"This is Anna Gutierrez." He recognized the soft, gently accented voice and nodded unthinkingly. "I was just down looking at Carlos' things again, and I wanted to ask you, when you took the feather away, did you also take the tape from his answering machine?"

Mulder blinked. He glanced up at Alex, at the window, at the rumpled bed, as if any of these things might give him a clue to what the woman on the phone was talking about. "No. We didn't—"

"I just thought it might be, because I noticed — but if you didn't, where has it gone to?"

"Mrs. Gutierrez." Mulder collected himself and began to react to what he was hearing. "Wait a moment. You say that we took a feather — you're not referring to Agent Scully and myself?"

"No," she laughed briefly and self-consciously, a little embarrassed, "I just meant the FBI, that other agent who was here yesterday. I didn't get a phone number for him so I called you. I hope you don't mind." Belatedly she added, "It isn't too early, is it?"

Mulder drew a deep breath. "No, it isn't too early. You're saying Carlos received a white feather before he was killed."

"Yes. I didn't know, until the other agent came here and asked about it. He said he was taking it to be analyzed. Was it important?"

"Mrs. Gutierrez, this is very important." Questions fought each other on his tongue to be asked first. "This other agent, what did he look like? What did he say his name was?"

"He was tall and thin," she said promptly, "and very polite. His name was, was..." Mrs. Gutierrez trailed off into sudden uncertainty.

"Did he show an FBI ID?" Mulder held his breath.

"I think so," she said, and now the uncertainty in her voice was even more marked. "He showed me something. Are you saying I did something wrong, that I shouldn't have let him take the feather and envelope? He sounded very convincing, and I know he showed me something."

"We'll come over and talk to you, Mrs. Gutierrez," Mulder said. "Don't worry about it. I'll be there as soon as I can." Stuffing the phone back into his pocket, he thought that if anything were to give him a headache today it would probably be this. He looked up and met Alex's eyes. "I think Flagstad's taken up a new hobby."

"Impersonating FBI agents?" Alex nodded his immediate understanding. "What was that about the feather? Does he send them feathers before he kills them?" He frowned.

"Maybe," Mulder said. "I haven't heard anything about feathers being found in the other victims' apartments. But it could be he got those back before the police or the FBI got there." He bent down to adjust his ankle holster. "What I want to know is why he sent me a feather."

Alex went very still. "He sent you a feather."

"Scully didn't tell you?" Mulder straightened up again and cursed the gaps in his memory. "That's why we left the Holiday Inn. He went there, gave an envelope to the desk clerk. It's got to be a message of some kind, but there hasn't been any further contact."

"Well, now you know what kind of message it is, don't you?" Alex's voice was sweet and cutting. "Mulder, do you mean to say that Johnny Flagstad has sent you what amounts to a death threat, and all you've done is change your hotel?"

"We don't know that that's what it means," Mulder said. "It's not as if I'm an abductee with a blonde girlfriend. And I've done more than just change hotels, I'm trying to find the man, damn it!"

Alex Krycek came up next to him; the sudden closeness was startling now that they were dressed and life had resumed its normal appearance. Mulder wasn't sure if he wanted to object to it or not. It felt strange; no one entered his personal space that way, except Scully. "Maybe you should step back a little. Concentrate on the profile, stay off the streets."

"Why?" Mulder scowled. "I'm a field agent these days, not a profiler, no matter what Yun brought me in for. The best way to catch Flagstad will be to stake out his family home once we find it, and that's what I'm going to do."

"Maybe you should let someone else do it." Krycek's hand hovered over Mulder's shoulder, then dropped to his side again. "If we find that place. You could let Yun take over—"

"I'm not going to let Martin Yun take over anything," Mulder said tightly. "He brought me in as a consultant, he can deal with it. What the hell is going on here, anyway? I thought you wanted me to find Flagstad. Changed your mind already?"

Krycek sounded choked, awkward, determined. "No, but— I think it would be better if I—"

"If you?" Implications raced through Mulder's mind. He went cold with anger, then hot. "If you, what? What are you trying to say here? You want to find him, you said so yourself. What's your agenda, Krycek?"

Krycek sighed and ran his fingers through his hair, stroking it back; it fell forward again at once, obscuring one of his eyes. "We went through this last night. I know you want me to have all kinds of hidden motives, Mulder, but this isn't about that."

"So what is it about? Last night you said you wanted me to find him, now you're telling me to back off. What the hell's going on? What's different this morning?" The moment the words were out of his mouth he could think of a thousand answers, only one of which really mattered, and despite the anger he felt his tongue nearly tie itself in knots and he finished more weakly, "Why did you change your mind?"

"Because he's threatened to fucking well kill you!" Krycek snapped, his voice a whip, each word a stinging lash. "You think he doesn't mean it?"

"You think I can't take care of myself?"

"Bingo." Krycek's voice had dropped to a whisper, but it was still just as sharp. "That's exactly what I think. You told me yourself last night how Johnny gets his victims. Christ, Mulder, you've been put under so many times you'd probably let yourself be hypnotized by a pair of furry dice dangling from a rearview mirror, there's no way you could resist him."

"You don't even know that that's what he wants!" Mulder took a step back, putting distance between them. He looked at the face, at the darkening eyes, as though staring down into an abyss opening up right by his feet. "Why are you trying to get me to back off now? You decided you want to get to him first after all?"

"I don't want him to kill you."

"You were looking for Flagstad. It wasn't because he's an old friend. That was your mission this time, wasn't it. Wasn't it?" He stared hard into Krycek's eyes and saw the telltale flutter of long lashes, the first flickers of panic and guilt. The short nod. "You were going to kill him."

Krycek swallowed, looked down, then up again. "Yeah. That's why I was looking for him, but Mulder, it—"

"You fucking bastard, you pretended you didn't have any business with him any more, and you were going to get me to lead you to him!" Even as he said it, he knew that he should have known, and the falsity of his anger made him even angrier. "You're working for them again, goddamnit!" He didn't know what happened first, whether Krycek flinched even before his hand started moving, divining his intentions.


The only thing that could have stopped his fist from impacting with Krycek's face was the sound of his name spoken in that particular tone by that particular voice. He turned his head to see Scully standing by the open connecting door, her hand on the door knob. Anger hung around her, the saint's halo, a tightly contained blaze.

"I thought you were downstairs at breakfast," he said, surprised at the sudden calm of his voice when his heart was still pounding with fury and shock.

"You didn't show up. It's been twenty minutes." Scully let go of the door and stepped inside, her eyes moving with quick assessment over the two of them, and then over the room. It was Mulder's turn to flinch, though less perceptibly. He knew what she was going to find. When she saw the one messed-up bed, she drew in a sharp breath and her face grew even harder. "What is going on here?"

There wasn't a short answer to that. "It doesn't have anything to do with you, Scully." Although it was too late for him to claim that, now that she had seen and understood.

"She means with the case," Krycek said, his voice still hoarse with tension, but mocking for all that. "That is what we're fighting about, isn't it? You think I went to the trouble of saving your life because I need you to find Flagstad so I can kill him. Mulder, I walked out on my mission. I'm on my own, whether you want to believe it or not. There's someone else on Flagstad now, probably with orders to kill me while he's at it, and Flagstad's out to kill you; we'll just have to see which one of us survives the longest. If we don't get our act together, my money's on Johnny."

Krycek walked towards the door, not looking at Mulder, not turning his head at Scully's sharp "Where are you going?"

He did reply, as succinctly as possible. "Breakfast." The door closed behind him and he was gone.

Mulder turned towards Scully, who was watching him with an expression he knew well. He was angry himself this time, though. "He was sent to kill Flagstad, he admitted as much. How the hell am I supposed to believe him when he says he won't do it now? It would be a perfect setup — we take him there, he takes out Flagstad, we'll have done all the hard work for him."

"Why do you believe one thing he says and not another? You keep picking and choosing. If you don't trust him to tell you the truth, stop asking him questions. And if you think he's going to kill Flagstad, make sure he stays out of the investigation."

"But if we don't keep him with us, he'll get killed," Mulder muttered.

"You only have his word for that." Scully shook her head even as she was speaking, tossing strands of hair out of her face. "Mulder, forget about the investigation for a minute. Is this really — are you out of your mind?" He opened his mouth, closed it again when he realized where she was heading. "Is this what it looks like? You — he — you—"

She gestured towards the bed. The shock and anger warring in her eyes were almost like a physical blow. He couldn't deny that the assumption, or was it an accusation, was true, but didn't realize he would sound so defensive when he said, "I don't need you to tell me I've been stupid."

"Oh yes, you do. That's Alex Krycek, Mulder. You slept with Alex Krycek?" She walked up to him as she spoke, stepping in so close he could feel the heat of her emotions. "Stupid doesn't even begin to cover it. You just said yourself that you don't trust him, and that's not even the main reason why it's so..." A brief blush came and went on her cheeks. "I didn't want to believe it. I thought you had the TV on last night."

"You heard—" Mulder turned his head away abruptly. When he did, he found himself looking at the bed. His stomach turned over.

"God, Mulder. You really let me make a fool of myself last night, trying to talk about Krycek's attraction to you. Were you planning to do it even then — to have sex with the man who killed your father?" Her voice didn't shake, it was tight and controlled, stringing the words together like evenly matched pearls. "That's not just stupid, Mulder, it's — sick. Twisted."

"Scully." He didn't know what he was trying to say; with his head still turned away, he held up a hand, attempting to stop her words.

"I'm not going to say anything about the effect this could have on your career if anyone besides me found out about it, Mulder. I know you're intelligent enough to figure that out yourself. But what about you? What kind of—" She drew a deep breath. "I thought you had more sense than this. I thought you had better taste than this. I feel like I don't know you any more, Mulder. This is the last thing I would have expected from you."

"I didn't plan it." He couldn't raise his voice but he didn't want to, either. Any attempt at justification would be a mistake. "I didn't—" There were no words he could use to even start to explain it all to her. His chest ached tightly; it was hard to breathe. Mulder sucked in air and it caught in his throat. Without looking back at her, he went towards the door.

"Where are you going?" she asked again, far more sharply than she'd asked Krycek.

"I need some fresh air." He could barely get the words out.

"Mulder!" But he was through the door already and moved blindly down the corridor, got into the elevator, and the doors shut just as he saw Scully come out after him.

* * *

Waiting for Mrs. Gutierrez to open her door, he fiddled with his new sunglasses. He had discovered walking down Powell that he'd left his old pair behind in the hotel room, and nothing would have made him go back for them. Instead he'd turned into the nearest store and bought these — ridiculously expensive, comfortably stylish — to hide behind.

The sun beat down on his shoulders, warm enough almost to burn. The back of his neck was getting hot. During the cab ride here he had kept the window rolled down, watched streets and houses and refused the driver's every attempt to start a conversation. He could still hear Scully's angry voice ringing in his ears. She had been furious. Small wonder. He had slept with Alex Krycek.

When the door opened, he tried to make his face blank and neutral. "Mrs. Gutierrez—"

"Please come in," she said, stepping aside, looking dubiously at his face. Mulder quickly took the sunglasses off. She led him into the kitchen, a sunnier and less painfully tidy place than the living room they had stayed in last time. "Would you like some coffee?"

"Yes — no — yes, please." He hadn't quite been listening to her question. The obscenity of it all struck him, like a padded hammer striking a large gong, producing a deep, bone-jarring chime. Last night hadn't been one of his fantasies, it had been real. All of it. The taste was still in his mouth. "Could I use your bathroom?"

He didn't wait for an answer, walked quickly back and in through the door he'd seen when she led him past it, had enough presence of mind to turn the faucet on for concealment before falling to his knees and throwing up in the toilet bowl. The stomach acid burned his throat. Mulder spat and cursed and waited a moment to make sure it was only the once, before standing up to rinse his mouth. Over the sound of running water and the toilet flushing, he told himself conversationally to get a grip.

But he really had done it, and he could remember every detail. Not just the physical sensations, but the way he had felt, hearing Krycek cry out. That sound had etched itself into him with the inevitability of diamond cutting glass. So had Scully's angry words, telling him that he was sick and perverted.

Mulder looked at himself in the mirror. Well, what does she know? She's not a psychologist. Wanting to sleep with the man who killed your father is a perfectly normal reaction, an Oedipus-complex transference that has its root in some narcissistic drive towards autoeroticism— His stomach twisted, not relishing this flippancy. He swallowed hard and tried to make himself behave. Mrs. Gutierrez already had a less than ideal impression of FBI agents.

Rinsing his mouth one more time, he went out again and found her waiting in the kitchen, coffee mug held comfortably in her hand, while a second mug stood waiting for him. He watched the steam rise from the coffee, then lifted his eyes and met Mrs. Gutierrez' look. "Milk, sugar? Or cream?" she asked, pushing all these things closer to him across the counter top.

"Thanks. Mrs. Gutierrez, tell me about the man who came here." He sipped at the coffee. It was hot and strong, and the smell wound its way up through his nose and seemed to jump-start his brain. "I'd like you to describe what he looked like, and tell me all you can remember about what he said."

"He wasn't an FBI agent." Mrs. Gutierrez looked at him. Then she stirred her coffee with more force, spoon clinking against the inside of the mug and causing dark waves that nearly spilled over the sides. "I don't know what an FBI ID is supposed to look like! I didn't mean to do anything wrong!"

"Nobody blames you," Mulder said. He had a fair suspicion that what Flagstad had shown this woman hadn't borne any kind of resemblance to his and Scully's ID cards, but with Flagstad's unusual abilities, any square piece of paper might have looked right. "Just describe what happened."

Mrs. Gutierrez sipped at her coffee, then put the mug down. She kept hold of the spoon, gesturing with it for emphasis. "He came and rang the doorbell yesterday afternoon, a little after three. A tall man, skinny, a bit like—" She bit her lip and shot him a quick look.

"A bit like me," Mulder said and found his mouth working at a smile. "Only taller."

"Yes," she admitted. "He told me what his name was, but I can't remember. I know it was only yesterday, but it feels like a long time ago. He talked a lot, but I can't remember everything he said." Mrs. Gutierrez rubbed at her temple. "I'm getting old. He wore glasses."

"And he asked about a feather. You never mentioned the feather to me or Agent Scully when we were here." Mulder drank more coffee. His stomach griped a little, but his taste buds were having a grand time.

"You didn't ask!" The spoon went back into the mug with a splash. "I didn't know there was a feather. He helped me find it."

Mulder was seized with a sudden suspicion. "When the FBI and the police were here before — I don't mean myself and Agent Scully, but before that — did anyone go through Carlos' things, looking for something that could have a connection to this crime?"

"Some things." She frowned in thought. "One nice man, his name was Reeves, he asked me if Carlos had received any threats or strange phone calls, if there had been anything unusual, anything I had seen or heard. But I didn't! If someone had threatened Carlos," she looked pleadingly at Mulder, "he would have told me. Wouldn't he?"

"I don't think Carlos knew what the feather meant," Mulder said. It would fit very well with Flagstad's view of the world, he thought, for the man to believe that he was sending out a comprehensible warning. The recipients might have thought it a prank, a tease, a mistake, but hardly a threat. And the idea had apparently never occurred to either Yun or Reeves. At least Reeves had asked about threats, and it wasn't his fault that Carlos Gutierrez had never told his mother about being sent something as ridiculous as a feather. Details about Flagstad's MO had not yet begun to seep out then.

"We went down and looked through Carlos' things," Mrs. Gutierrez went on, "and it took maybe an hour before we found the feather and the envelope."

"He took both?" Mulder asked, feeling a feeble hope that maybe the envelope had been left behind. The feather would presumably be the same kind that had been found on the victims' bodies.

"Yes. He said he needed them for some kind of test. He was very polite, he said it would be a great help." She stared down at the counter top, then abruptly up at Mulder. "Who was he?" When he didn't answer at once, her black brows drew together. "Was he the one who killed Carlos?"

Mulder nodded. "I think so."

Her upper lip lifted from her teeth in an expression of mingled hatred and disgust that nearly made him take a step backwards. "If I had known," she said. "If I had known..."

"I understand how you feel, Mrs. Gutierrez. But that man is dangerous. If you see him again, call the police or the FBI at once. Don't try to talk to him, don't go near him." He sipped at his coffee. "Do you remember what you did after he left?"

She looked surprised. "I — I'm not sure. I remember sitting in the kitchen, that was a while after he'd gone, just sitting here. I think I was tired after looking through Carlos' things for that envelope."

"That memory is pretty clear, isn't it, compared to your memories of when the man who claimed to be an FBI agent was actually here?" She nodded. "I believe he may have hypnotized you, Mrs. Gutierrez. Have you ever been hypnotized previously?"

"Yes," she said, doubt in her voice. "At a party, when I was younger. It made us silly. There was one boy who made sounds like a sheep, and I sang a song. But this wasn't like that. I don't remember a pendant, or anyone telling me to go to sleep." The creases in her forehead deepened. "The sun was glinting off his watch. I remember that I was annoyed, when I opened the door, I got that light in my eyes. Do you think that was it?"

"Maybe it was." Mulder wasn't actually sure. Flagstad had mesmerized the victims at night, when he wouldn't have been able to count on such things as light reflections. Maybe it was sheer coincidence that this was what Mrs. Gutierrez remembered best. "And you think he may have taken the tape out of Carlos' answering machine as well?"

"It's not there any more," she said simply.

"Were there any messages on it?"

"I don't know."

As he was thinking about it, his phone rang. Mulder hesitated for a moment, his hand hovering over his pocket. It was very likely to be Scully, still angry. The second signal cut the air and he became aware that Mrs. Gutierrez was watching him curiously. "Mulder."

"Hey, Spooky." Martin Yun sounded briskly cheerful, determined to forget yesterday's conversation. That was fine with him. "We've got a lead on Flagstad. He used the Colquitt identity and credit card to rent a room on Russian Hill." Yun rattled off an address. "They haven't seen him there for a couple of days, but we're going in carefully all the same. You wanna be in on it, you meet me there right away."

Mulder nodded. "Is Scully coming?" he asked, striving to make the words casual.

"No, she's babysitting." Yun laughed. "Sedley got some names out of that Roe woman, and your partner is helping round them up. She insisted that they ought to be stashed in a safe house somewhere until we get Flagstad. So I guess we'd better hurry."

"Yeah. Corner of Leavenworth and Greenwich? I'll see you there." He hung up and turned back to Mrs. Gutierrez, who had finished her coffee and was rattling the spoon in the empty mug, seemingly unaware of the movement of her hand. "I'm sorry, looks like I have to run. But I want to ask you before I go, is there anything you remember about what the man said yesterday? Anything that struck you as out of character, or strange for an FBI agent to say?"

She shook her head. "No. I've thought, and — no. I can't remember much of what he said. He wanted to know about the feather, and he liked my coffee, and he asked about you."

"About me?" Mulder said, taken aback.

"Yes, you and the other agent." Mrs. Gutierrez frowned. "Nothing really, he just mentioned you — asked if it had been you two who were here. What you talked about."

"I see." And he thought he did. Mulder thanked Mrs. Gutierrez for the coffee, and she walked him to the door still fretting over having let the killer into her house. He could understand that. When the door closed behind him, he heard the rattle as she put the chain on.

It made sense that Flagstad would have tried to check in what direction the investigation was going. But the killer could hardly have expected Mrs. Gutierrez to be privy to the details. If he wanted to know more, he would have to go elsewhere. Mulder fished out his cell phone again as he walked into the sunny street, and dialed slowly.


"This is Agent Mulder." He weighed truth and efficiency against each other. "Sir, I think you should be careful about checking the ID's of everyone who comes in today. Flagstad's been impersonating an FBI agent and visiting the mother of one of the victims."

"He showed an FBI ID?" Spelling reacted immediately.

"That's what Mrs. Gutierrez said, but she's also admitted that she doesn't know what an FBI ID looks like. It seems likely that he tricked her somehow, made her believe him."

"Agent Mulder, you say in your profile that you believe the killer, Flagstad, has some unusual abilities — something about hypnotism? Is that what you're insinuating here?"

"I'm not insinuating anything. A former associate of Flagstad's has said that the man has an interest in hypnotism. And many serial killers like to involve themselves in the investigation in some way," he allowed himself to sound a little obnoxious, stating something that Spelling was well aware of. "I think it wouldn't hurt to keep an extra watch on things."

Spelling coughed, an annoyed rumble that had Mulder holding the phone away from his ear and scowling. "I'll tighten up security. Is the woman all right?"

"Yes, but Flagstad walked away with a piece of evidence we didn't even know existed. It seems he sends the victims a white dove feather ahead of time."

Spelling's breath whistled between his teeth. "I see. I'll get someone to check the homes of the other victims again." One of the few good things about a high-priority case that was in the public eye — Spelling was throwing everything and everyone he had at this. "Yun had a lead on his whereabouts—"

"I'm going to meet him there."

When Mulder hung up he stood indecisively for a few moments, phone in one hand and sunglasses in the other. He hadn't asked the cab to wait, and the residential street was deserted, nothing moving in the strong sunlight. Sweat was beginning to trickle between his shoulderblades. After a while he put the phone away and the sunglasses on and started to walk towards the distant rattle of a streetcar.

It was something of a relief to know that Scully was off working on another end of the case, that he probably wouldn't run into her when he went to meet Yun. He didn't want to have to face that look in her eyes again any time soon. She'd never looked at him quite like that before, not even when they'd argued fiercely about some conviction of his or of hers, not even when he'd taken off without her in a critical situation.

This had been anger on a whole new scale. He had slept with Alex Krycek, Krycek the killer betrayer liar double agent miserable stinking rat scum. She must think he was either sublimely kinky, or totally out of his mind.

Mulder considered the question. Well, which was it? He'd reached a larger street, and looked around for a cab to hail. There wasn't a car in sight. He turned right and started to walk in towards the city, or at least towards the next streetcar stop. Kinky or crazy, interesting alternatives, and normally he would have asked if he couldn't be both. But he couldn't attribute the events of last night to anything as facile or dismissive as that. Couldn't say that he didn't know what he'd been doing, or that he'd been looking for some perverted thrill.

No, he couldn't go on Ricki Lake as Men who like to blow their fathers' killers. When he had taken Krycek's cock in his mouth, all he had been thinking about was giving pleasure.

What Krycek had been thinking was anyone's guess. Mulder looked along the street and saw a streetcar in the distance. He settled in to wait, uncomfortably aware that his shirt was clinging to his back under the suit jacket. Krycek's mission was to kill Flagstad. Krycek was working for the consortium again. It had finally been spelled out in so many words.

He didn't know why it hurt so much.

The sunglasses slipped down his sweaty nose and he cursed under his breath. There wasn't a cloud in the sky. Looking down along the street he saw, beyond the streetcar, past the houses, what had to be the sea. When the streetcar arrived he got on and tried to give the operator a five-dollar bill. She just looked at him. "Exact change only," she drawled.

Mulder dug around in the pockets of his suit jacket and came up with fifty-seven cents. Two schoolboys sitting near the front of the streetcar were laughing at him. He checked his pants pockets and only found some lint and a paper clip. The operator was tapping her fingers impatiently; he curbed the impulse to consign everything and everyone to the devil. "I'm sorry, I—"

"Here." A middle-aged woman with three shopping bags leaned forward and handed him two quarters. "You a tourist?"

He paid and sank down on the seats right behind her with the air of a WWI soldier ducking into a trench. "Actually I'm a Federal agent."

"But you're not from around here or you'd know about needing exact change," she said, smiling at him with a mixture of benevolence and superiority. "I try to help out where I can, though. You have to do a little bit of good every day."

Mulder nodded cautiously. "You can try," he said.

"Your day hasn't been worth anything if you haven't made anyone smile, I always say." Her eyes were rather demanding, so he showed his teeth as best he could. As far as he knew, he hadn't made anyone smile today.

The ride seemed to take forever, while he tried to work out where he needed to get off. The woman who'd rescued him went on taking credit for this and innumerable other good deeds, but when someone sat down beside her she stopped trying to twist around to face him. Mulder finally got off at a subterranean stop and made his way to the surface with no real idea of where he was. He found a cab and fell into it with a sigh of relief.

During the drive his foot tapped of its own accord as he kept glancing at his watch; Yun had asked him to hurry. He dug his cell phone out, looked at it, put it back again. His finger had hovered, about to hit speed dial, call Scully. Mulder leaned back in the seat and wondered if she had taken Krycek with her. It seemed unlikely on the surface of it, as Krycek was probably the second-to-last person Scully wanted to see today, but Mulder didn't think she'd trust anyone else to keep an eye on him, either. No one else at all, presumably, after this morning.

He tried to think about it. He'd lost her trust — it had been there in her eyes when she said she felt as though she didn't know him any longer. And he didn't know what he could do to regain what he had lost. This wasn't some issue of belief where they could resign themselves to agreeing to disagree. It was something he had done that could never be undone, and that would be harder for her to forgive than any last-minute ditch, any other stunt he'd pulled behind her back.

Mulder closed his eyes. This was his private life, not part of a case. No. This was his private life and it was part of a case. God, my life is so screwed up. I am so screwed up.

"We're here," the driver announced, his accent British and incongruous. "Or as close as I can take you."

Looking up, Mulder saw that the street was blocked with Bureau cars and people. Yun was standing by the steps of the house that had to be the one Flagstad had rented a room in, scowling impatiently. So, no heroic capture yet. Mulder paid the driver and got out of the car, unfolding himself into an unobtrusive stretch; when he pulled his shoulders back he heard the crack and pop of shifting vertebrae.

He walked up the street, pausing only to flip his ID open at the one junior G-man of the SF field office who didn't recognise Spooky Mulder, and turned in through the open gate to meet Yun. "No sign he's been here since the landlord saw him last?"

"Landlady. No." Yun grimaced up at him. "Where the hell were you? I couldn't hold off everything just to wait till you got here."

"You didn't have to," Mulder said. "I got delayed." He went past Yun and into the house; as he'd expected, Yun followed him.

The room Flagstad-as-Colquitt had rented was on the second floor, and an unholy mess — the floor was littered with empty take-out cartons, dirty underwear, pamphlets from every UFO-related group or organization in the Bay Area. These things were in the process of being collected by a young agent whose black hair was slipping free from its careful knot. Mulder thought he remembered her from the beach, yesterday morning. She glanced up at them both, and tried to smooth the frown off her face; Mulder went around her to look out the windows. It was a corner room, which gave him too large an area to choose from for his liking.

"You came up here for the view, Spooky?" Yun bent to inspect a colorful flier for a meeting held two weeks ago — Dolphins Channel Alien Poetry! — and then straightened up again. "Come on, look at this stuff, make yourself useful." Despite the dog-trainer attitude, there was a real plea for help lurking somewhere in his voice. Mulder couldn't be bothered to take offence.

"I am," he said, and tapped at the glass. "Somewhere out there, probably close by, is Flagstad's boyhood home. And that's the place he's chosen for the next killing. I'll bet you my entire collection of video tapes that you can see it from here."

"I don't want your goddamn video tapes. Attack of the Fifty-Foot Woman, alien autopsies—"

"Debbie Does Dallas—" He looked more closely at the window panes. The window to the left was greasier, smeary with human touch here and there, though nothing as clear as a fingerprint was visible. Mulder renewed his attention to what could be seen in that direction.

"Probably Debbie Does Betelgeuse," Yun grumbled. "Bet there's a market for that," he overturned some more fliers with his foot, "an abduction scenario, some guys in latex suits—"

"I hate to kill your new career before it's started, Martin, but it's been done." Mulder turned around and surveyed the room again. Flagstad liked Chinese. He wore white cotton Y-fronts and had either been here a very long time, or was very particular about changing his underwear regularly. There were no bags left behind, no other items of clothing.

"You have a signed copy?" The comeback was weak. Yun was fiddling with his tie. As soon as the young woman went out of the room with her burden of white cartons and plastic spoons, he turned to Mulder. "Look, Spooky, we need to move faster here. We're under a lot of pressure now."

"Spelling sounded pretty relaxed when I talked to him," Mulder said, crouching down and pretending to become absorbed in a paper densely printed in Gothic script, all caps, that invited the reader to hear Blaine Hibbert read from his own manuscript about abductions. He blinked; he hadn't known Hibbert was working on a book. "So who lit the fire under your ass?"

"I can catch this guy," Yun said insistently. "I know I can."

Mulder glanced up at him and nodded, rather noncommittally. "Spelling said—"

"Goddamnit, will you stop talking to Spelling behind my back?" Yun flicked a quick glance towards the door, went down on one knee next to Mulder, looking for all the world as if he were about to propose. His eyes burned blackly. "I know you're not trying to take this case away from me," he said, his voice flat with anger. "You talk to me, not to Spelling."

Illumination came to Mulder, rather late. Spelling sounded serene because he had faith in Mulder, not in Yun. And Yun's reaction wasn't exactly unexpected. "Martin," he looked directly at Yun, the two of them huddled up together in one corner of the room, "I don't give a flying fuck what you want me to do or not to do."

He straightened up again and took a couple of steps away, distancing himself again, or trying to. Dust danced in the sun stripes falling in through the window; outside the light beat down on trees, houses, slopes, concrete steps. There were older houses up to the left, and his interest quickened at the sight.

"You're going to try to take this one for yourself, then? You think you can get your career going again by coming in here and, and applying the magic Fox Mulder touch to my case, by taking all the credit for it? You haven't solved this one yet and even if you do, you'll still be Spooky the nutcase. You think Spelling respects you? You're nothing but a tool to him, Mulder."

"Shut up," he said evenly, with studied calm, as the dark-haired young agent came back again accompanied by a man in his fifties who was snapping on latex gloves with an air of distaste. Of course Spelling saw him as a tool. Everyone did. Krycek certainly had. "Let's go back outside."

They went back down the stairs in silence. Mulder could sense Yun seething behind him, and wondered if it would be worth the effort to try to calm him down. Just as he admitted to himself he didn't particularly want to waste any energy trying, his cell phone rang. He stepped out into the sunshine and answered it.

"Mulder, it's me." There was a brief pause. He didn't know whether to allude to their last words to each other or not, and apparently Scully didn't either, but then she went on, "Is — is Krycek with you?"

"No." Forebodings gathered around his head like small dark storm clouds. "I thought — assumed — he would have gone with you today."

"He did." In Scully's dry, clipped tones he could hear just how comfortable she and Krycek had been with that arrangement. Mulder squinted against the sunlight, getting his bearings — the houses that had sparked his curiosity waited for him. "But then he got a phone call—"

"Krycek got a phone call?"

"Yes. An Agent Mortimer called on my phone and said that Spelling had some questions. And then Krycek took off, with the phone, and I haven't seen him since. I called the office just now."

"There is no Agent Mortimer," Mulder predicted glumly. The sunshine didn't seem quite so warm and bright any longer. "And they hadn't seen Krycek."

"No." Scully sighed, a barely audible little exhalation of breath. "I should have kept a closer watch on him. He was," her voice faded a little, "not very communicative for most of the morning." Meaning they hadn't said two words to each other, Mulder guessed. That didn't really surprise him.

"No one saw him leave?"

"I didn't notice he was missing until about twenty minutes after I handed him the phone," Scully said. "He could have gone anywhere. I've tried calling, but he doesn't answer — he might just have dumped the phone somewhere."

"Where are you now?" he asked. Yun was watching him intently, the remains of anger warring with curiosity in the other agent's face.

"Marin. Mulder, do you think Krycek got a message from — his employers?"

"Seems pretty likely, doesn't it?" The sunshine had turned icy. The taste in his mouth was of ashes and rain. He hadn't believed his day could get any worse. "So either he was told to get the hell away from us, or they've found Flagstad." Mulder looked at his watch. "How long has he been missing?"

"It's been half an hour since the phone call. Ten minutes since I discovered he was gone. We're leaving here now, we have to make another stop before we can come back to the city. I've alerted Spelling to Krycek's disappearance."

"All right. I'll talk to Yun. Call me if anything comes up, if you can think of anything."

"I will."

As he put the phone away, he felt a smile as cold as the sunshine curve his mouth. Mulder turned back to Martin Yun. "You can stop worrying," he said. "We've lost Krycek. I'm pretty sure Spelling won't love me any more once he hears about that."

"Your partner lost him?" Yun shook his head. "Careless."

"It's my fault." Mulder checked his watch again, every minute measuring the distance of how far Krycek could run. "She would've helped you put him in a cell, Martin." His smile grew slightly manic. "You were right. We need to move faster. What do we do now?"

"The people Roe identified as potential victims have been put under 24-hour protective surveillance," Yun said. "Problem is, I'm not convinced Flagstad won't just take his next set off the street — or at least," he amended at Mulder's look, "pick some couple that's as close as he can get to what he wants. I got a look at those lists. The whole fucking state of California is full of people who think they were snatched by little green men. He can pick and choose."

"Little grey men," Mulder said, half to himself, ignoring Yun's exasperated sigh at the words. "We need to find the Flagstad family property, and we need to find out his real name. There are people going through property records, we can tell them to narrow their search down to the area that can be seen from those windows," he jerked his head up in the general direction of the second story of the house behind them.

"You're that sure he's in that house, wherever it is?" Yun sounded reluctant to be persuaded.

"I won't stop you from looking for him anywhere else." Mulder took his sunglasses out and turned them over between his fingers. "I'm going to take a walk around here, see if there's anything that looks suggestive."

Yun sighed. "We're on a hill. You could see half the city from those windows, Spooky. How much walking are you planning to do?"

"I didn't have time for my run this morning." He shifted his shoulders, trying to dislodge the shirt that was sticking to his back. Not unless you counted running away from the hotel. "If we're lucky, it's close. Flagstad would have wanted to be as near to it as possible."

Shrugging, Yun walked out into the street. "All right. Take Agent McKee with you, she's the one upstairs with Olsen, call in if you find anything—" He broke off and had the grace to catch himself up and grin. "Just let me know, Spooky, okay? I'll be in the office. With the property records."

Mulder stayed where he was, leaning against the gate, and watched Yun get into a car and drive off. Sweat was beading on his forehead and upper lip, but he barely noticed. The day was beginning its descent into afternoon, and a shimmering heat haze lay along the long straight streets, hovered above the rooftops. I could use something to drink.

He glanced up towards the apartment on the second floor where Agent McKee was presumably still collecting pamphlets, and then went out into the street and turned right, wandering up along the large flat concrete blocks of the pavement. He didn't want to have any Agent McKee, or agent anything, tagging along. Somewhere not too far away, children were playing, shrieking with glee. Mulder knew the sensible, methodical thing to do would be to go from door to door. He wandered slowly up to the next intersection, looking in all directions for a convenience store, or an itinerant beer seller.

Mrs. Gutierrez' coffee had left his stomach growling. He turned right again, staying in the shade, until he reached a set of stairs leading up to a small lane. Mulder paused and looked up. Flagstad would have had a clear view of those houses from the left-hand window in his rented room. He stood vacillating for a while, and then his stomach clenched insistently. With a resigned sigh, Mulder went on, heading down the hill.

He found a small café with two rickety metal tables outside under an unbleached, utilitarian-looking awning, squeezed into the shade, the table legs propped up on one side with small wooden blocks. Despite this precaution, his beer nearly spilled over the side of the glass when he put it down. He ate a slice of cold mushroom-and-spinach pie and tried to read a four-day-old newspaper he found lying on the other table. The words couldn't quite catch his attention; they slid off the surface of his eyes, of his mind, directly into oblivion. After a while he put the paper aside in resignation and concentrated on finishing his beer.

So, Krycek was gone. It shouldn't really surprise him. Hadn't it been obvious from the start that Krycek had had his own agenda? Krycek always had his own agenda, no matter what he said. Mulder supposed he should be grateful that this one had included saving his life.

And some sex to pass the time. He couldn't pretend that had been Krycek's idea, though. It had felt so right to reach out, last night. He'd made the mistake of thinking that Krycek could soothe the pain inside him, when the truth was, Krycek was the pain inside him.

"Coffee? Dessert?" The waiter was leaning in the open door, with a tray clamped under one arm and his pen poised to take the order, although Mulder didn't see why he needed to write down the requests of his only customer. "We have a really good chocolate coffee cake, six layers, with walnuts on top."

"Sounds good." Mulder nodded absently, and the waiter disappeared again. He stared across the street, eyes unfocused. Damn Krycek anyway. For turning up, for vanishing, for sharing his blood, for saving Mulder's life, for every single kiss, every touch, for all his betrayals, for anything, everything.

You killed my father. You hurt everyone I care for. I don't believe a word you say. You've come between me and Scully. You meant to use me and kill Flagstad. You keep walking out on me every time I come close to trusting you. I thought you were dead, Alex, fuck you, don't do this to me again!

Let go and he disappears.

"Hey, are you all right? Uh, sir?"

Mulder slowly unclenched his hand from where it gripped the arm of his chair, and turned his head to meet the waiter's concerned look. "I'm fine," he said and reached to take the coffee cup from the outstretched hand. "Thanks."

The glass plate that replaced the remains of his pie held an enormous slice of cake, enough for three people. Mulder picked up his fork, seeing red lines on his palm where the edges of the metal armrest had bitten into his skin. Chocolate cake reminded him of Alex Krycek. A lot of things reminded him of Alex Krycek. He took a small bite and blinked at the dense chocolate-and-coffee taste. He could be here all afternoon.

Krycek had seemed so vulnerable then, in Leyden Creek, eating chocolate cake with his past exploding all around him. Everything he hadn't said about the way he had grown up had struck a chord in Mulder, had forced unwilling, silent empathy out of him even as he tried to resist. He was still trying to resist, but he hadn't done it well enough. Krycek kept insinuating himself into his life, into his work, into everything that was important to him, making himself a part of it.

And then he'd leave. Scowling at his fork, Mulder thought about the information Krycek was walking away with, wondered if there was anything there that would trip up the rest of the investigation, the way he'd already been tripped up, the way he'd fallen.

It took him half an hour to eat half the slice of cake, washed down with another cup of coffee. By then he was on a sugar-and-caffeine high that made his brain bounce against the inside of his skull. He hadn't heard from Scully again, or Yun, but he didn't think either of them would call him to make small talk right now. Yun was probably busy sucking up to Spelling in some way or other. Poor idiot, Mulder thought, then wondered if he meant Spelling or Yun.

Yun wasn't a bad agent, though. Not normally. But having allowed his prejudices to get the better of him at the start of this case, he was now scrambling to catch up and get ahead and would probably, Mulder thought without any real concern, try to do so by any means at his disposal. Mulder found himself wishing idly that Yun had stayed at home with the kids and that it was Michelle working with him instead. She'd been more concerned with results and less with making herself look good.

He took a last bite of cake, finished his coffee and tucked a couple of bills under the edge of the plate. When he got to his feet he jostled the table and it rattled, the wooden blocks slipping. Mulder backed away cautiously and headed back up the street again, hoping he'd be out of earshot when it fell.

Most of the houses around here looked well-kept and obviously inhabited. He wondered if there was any chance that the Flagstad house had been sold or rented, if Flagstad was keeping some people hostage there. Possible, but he didn't think so. More likely that the house would have stood empty for some years and that he should be looking for places that could use a bit of maintenance.

He retraced his steps, studying every place he went past. Flagstad would be there, hidden away, having finally discarded his Colquitt disguise and any attempt at screening himself behind a normal identity. Everything that wasn't necessary would have been peeled away in preparation for what was to come. The next one was the important one. Mulder stopped abruptly, letting that thought unfold to its logical end. Did Flagstad think he had found Lewis and Grazzini? Had he found them?

It would have been useful to be able to discuss the question with Krycek but Krycek was gone, and besides, he reminded himself, he wouldn't have been able to believe anything Krycek said. Mulder shook his head and resumed his slow pace. A cat lay sunning itself on a car roof and he threw it a tiredly amused glance. He was melting; the furry creature seemed more than comfortable. Perhaps Flagstad had truly found the couple he was looking for, perhaps he only thought he had, perhaps he was still looking. In any case, he had to be caught before the next kill. Tonight — tomorrow morning.

If Flagstad performed his last ritual killing, it seemed not unlikely that he would vanish after that, sink into invisibility after having finished what he thought of as his mission. Then he would be all but impossible to find. Or, Mulder admitted to himself, they might get to him first and dispense their own brand of justice. He clenched his jaw. They. Krycek. Damn it. Krycek had claimed he wasn't after Flagstad any longer, but how the hell could Mulder believe it? He had spent last night in the embrace of a contract killer, feeling warm and safe, feeling almost happy.

Higher up along the street, he saw a woman carefully digging around in large flowerpots balanced precariously along a wooden railing. Mousy brown hair fell in her face and she flicked it back with a garden-gloved hand. "Excuse me," he said, and waited until she looked up. "Do you know if there are any empty houses around here?"

The woman straightened up and put the small trowel down. "To rent, you mean? Or to buy?" He nodded. Her eyes assessed him, his appearance, his clothes. "I don't think so. You can rent rooms or apartments, but — well, there's a place two blocks that way," she nodded her head, "that was for sale a while ago, but I think they've taken the sign down now. And a house up there," now she pointed, instead, up towards the lane he'd seen before, "you might be able to rent if you could find the owners."

Then her face closed up with sudden suspicion, and she seemed to regret what she'd said. Mulder dug into his pocket and got out his ID. "It's all right," he said, "I'm not a burglar. Thanks for your help."

She was still leaning forward, trying to see what the ID card said, when he walked off. If there was a house up in that lane that was standing empty, its owners untraceable, he was going to take a good look at it. The memory of the smudged window was very clear in his mind, and he was absolutely certain that Flagstad would have spent a lot of time in that room looking towards the one spot that for him symbolized everything that was important to him about this city; the one spot that was and always would be his place of safety, his true home.

Mulder tried to imagine feeling that way. The truth was, his home was not exactly his castle. He didn't trust any walls to keep him safe. As he walked, he loosened his tie and undid the top button of his shirt, relieved that there was no Agent McKee with him to take into consideration. He wasn't in a mood to explain his hunches, impulses, or methods of investigation.

When he got back to the stairs he turned and walked up, one hand skimming along the smoothly worn railing. The wood ran silken and slick under his fingers and reminded him with unpleasant suddenness of Alex Krycek's skin. Mulder pulled his hand away and pushed it into his pocket. It was shady here, the deep shade of trees and houses, and cooler than the street down below. He made his way slowly along the well-kept paving stones.

It was easy to see which of the houses here did not fit in with the rest — rather like one of the first questions in an IQ test. Shuttered windows, a small overgrown front yard, flaking paint, gutters overflowing with something green that looked semi-sentient at least. He went closer, seeing the low, half-open gate where the street number had fallen off, leaving only a darker shadow on the wood.

From farther up the lane he heard voices, footsteps, the clang and clatter of tools. Mulder glanced up to see two men working on repairing a window frame. He looked down at the gate again; his hand was resting on it now, almost without any conscious decision on his part. He ought to go back, or at least call in this address and demand that Yun find out who owned the house. When he leaned forward he saw a fallen mailbox lying on its side just inside the fence, covered in dirt and leaves. A name had been elaborately painted on its side in flowing Gothic script. For a moment he was irrationally reminded of Blaine Hibbert's stupid flier. Then he saw that the first letter was a large curling F.

Mulder didn't pause to think about it; he was through the gate, across the small yard and up the steps to the house before some remnant of caution made him freeze with his hand on the door and he listened intently. There was no sound from inside, but he hadn't really expected there to be. Waiting like that at a closed door hardly ever brought an actual sound of confirmation, nor could silence be taken to mean anything certain. It was more a question of listening for emptiness, or for presence.

Eventually he tried the door handle. The door wasn't locked. It opened slowly and silently under his hand, so silently he moved in to look at the hinges, touching them with a fingertip and finding them recently oiled. His heart beat faster. This is it. This is the right place. He's been here.

Gun in hand, he went inside and waited for his eyes to adjust to the dim light. The house smelled of dust and crumbling wallpaper, earth and wood. It was more run-down than it had looked from the outside; it would take a lot of work to make it habitable again. The furniture had been left behind, unprotected. Mulder shook his head. Someone had left this place in a hurry, and it had stood untenanted for years. He'd hypothesized that the second parent, probably the father, had died while Flagstad was in South America. It didn't look as though Johnny had come back to claim his inheritance until now.

Mulder walked slowly along the hallway. Dust balls rolled along the floor, stirred by his passing. He stopped and carefully scanned the room opening up on the right: empty. Books were falling apart in dark bookshelves; the goose-necked lamp poised to illuminate a table and a deep armchair was host to an elaborate spiderweb, and the lampshade had frayed into tattered, yellowed, irregular lace. This could be a beautiful house if someone took care of it, but Mulder saw no sign that anyone had entered this room for years.

He went on towards the back of the house. The hallway ended with an arch leading into a larger room where the sunshine filtered in between the slats of the shutters, raising a fine dust haze that made it difficult for him to see anything. Mulder went in with his gun at the ready and his eyes half-closed. Most of the floor was bare, but there was some furniture towards the back wall — a couple of chairs, a table, a chest of drawers. He saw a dark shape, the outline of a head, and froze, his aim as true as he could make it. "FBI! Put your hands up—"

"I knew you'd come." It was said quietly, but with great finality. The man in the right-hand chair got to his feet, moving with slow deliberation and keeping his hands where Mulder could see them the whole time. When he rose the chair creaked in protest.

Johnny Flagstad was several inches taller than Mulder, with long arms and legs and a long, non-descript face. He was wearing black pants with side pockets, low boots and a dark green short-sleeved shirt over a black t-shirt. The glasses were, as everyone had agreed, wire-rimmed and harmless-looking. It wasn't possible to see his eyes behind them; sunshine glinted off the glass and the metal.

"You're under arrest." Mulder tried to see behind the glassy glittering surface, to find the man, whatever his name was, that he had been chasing. The military obsession was there, both in the clothing and in the way Flagstad held himself. "You have the right to remain silent—"

"I knew you'd come. I knew that I could count on you to come to me." The sunshine-sparks were almost but not quite regular, like waves rolling in towards an unseen shore, blending and separating in a seamless, absorbing rhythm. Flagstad smiled. He had narrow lips and small, even teeth. His voice was much softer than Mulder had expected. "It will be all right now, it's all going the way I'd planned. I'm very glad you're here."

Flagstad walked across the floor towards Mulder, his body weight setting off little creaks and shudders in the broad planks. He was too thin for his height, his shoulders wide but oddly lacking in solidity; he ought to disappear if seen in profile. One large hand reached out and plucked the gun from Mulder's grip. There was considerable strength there, no matter what he looked like.

"You can't take that," Mulder said, shaking his head, trying to clear away the sunspots that danced before his eyes. A metal shaft was sticking out of Flagstad's shirt pocket, blunt, slightly rusty. Or was that really rust? Mulder tried to make himself focus on it, but Flagstad's hand caught his chin and tilted his head up.

"Don't worry. It will be all right now." Flagstad's voice dropped to a friendly murmur. "It's all started now, anyway. You can't do anything to stop it." He shook Mulder's head lightly. "Not a thing."

Flagstad let go, still smiling, and Mulder tried to clear his head and think of something to say. The blow came out of nowhere, a large palm hitting his cheek and the left half of his mouth. His head snapped sideways and he lost his balance, taking two steps before slamming into the wall. Mulder drew in a quick breath and jerked himself upright. "We can talk about this," he said indistinctly around his split lip, unable even as the words left his mouth to imagine how, or what would be said.

"We could," Flagstad agreed. "But I don't want to talk." He pulled his arm back for another blow. "I don't think it's a good idea for me to talk to you. I know what you are." Mulder tried to dodge, couldn't. The second openhanded slap took the right side of his face and made his ears ring.

When he closed his eyes he saw dancing sunny waves, gold and glitter. He forced his arms up slowly through thick and uncooperative air to try to shield his head, and Flagstad punched him in the stomach, making him fold over with a sound at first more of surprise than pain. He had a sudden, reality-disrupting memory of Skinner's apartment in Crystal City, dim lights, a man hunched around the impact of a solid fist. A large hand gripped the back of his shirt collar and pulled him upright, tie and cloth choking him; then a second blow drove the air from his lungs.

If he'd had the breath for speech, he would have tried to ask what was happening. Flagstad was hitting him slowly and methodically, not hard enough to do any deeper damage, he thought, just bruising him all over. Mulder tried to grasp the implications, failed. "Wh—"

The sound barely left his mouth before the palm of Flagstad's hand rendered him forcibly silent. "Don't worry," the man said, and Mulder wondered at the tone of reassurance. He attempted to lift his arm. Something weighed him down. "I know what you are. It'll be all right. Now that you're here, it'll be all right."

He never saw the last blow, the one that made the glittergold waves close over his head and sent him into darkness.

* * *

Lovers V: Heaven-handling

art || the x‑files || e‑mail