Lovers V: Heaven-handling

"There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands" — T. S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

"And when the Foreign Office find a Treaty's gone astray,
Or the Admiralty lose some plans and drawings by the way,
There may be a scrap of paper in the hall or on the stair—
But it's useless to investigate—Macavity's not there!" — T. S. Eliot, Macavity: the Mystery Cat

The flower garland that was stenciled along the wall, all around the room, presented a vaguely Jugend impression but had almost certainly been put there sometime in the mid-Seventies. The color scheme, brown and orange, provided something of a clue. Smears here and there in the paint indicated that whoever had done the stencilling hadn't been very good at it. Thin vine curls ran in almost perfect figure eights between the stylized leaves.

Almost perfect. His eyes traced the first loop, the second one, and then had to skip with an annoying little wrench past a leaf to start on the next set. And the next. And the next. Loop, loop, wrench. Loop, loop, wrench. A thin brown line against the dingy background. Sometimes it was hard to make out and he had to look closely; he could have used his glasses. Mulder reached the edge of the wall and turned ninety degrees to face the next one. His feet scuffed on the floor and raised a small cloud of dust.

It was hot in here. Sweat was running down his face, tracking cleaner lines through the dust and dirt. It stung the scratches over his left cheekbone, and he shook his head, a short, cramped movement, trying to get the flattened hair off his forehead and the moisture out of his face without taking his eyes off the wall. Loop. Loop. Wrench. Orange and brown. The room was very small, hardly more than a walk-in closet, converted to a child's bedroom by the addition of a tiny square window. Not much light entered by way of it, just the heat of the sun.

His shirt was sticking to his body, sweat and dirt dulling the fabric. The spot between his shoulderblades itched. And the backs of his thighs, and the soles of his feet, and the edge of his jaw. The rest of him just ached. Mulder moved his lips in a slow attempt to complain, then regretted it as the cut in his lower lip started to open up again. The movement caused another few drops of blood to trickle down his chin. Loop, loop, wrench.

The house was very quiet around him. He couldn't hear Flagstad, but he knew the man was there, probably just on the other side of the door, which had been left a few inches ajar. Mulder took another shuffling step sideways, following the flower garland. He stretched his arms and tried to get his bound hands to reach the itch at the back of his left thigh, and failed as his shoulder muscles began to cramp.

In here, the air was thick and clinging. It was hard to move. It was hard even to move his eyes, and tracing the loops of the flowering vine was slow work. Reaching the next corner, he turned again. A piece of paper whispered under his shoe. This was a very small room, but the flower garland went on forever. He went on forever, around and around. Around the room, around the small bag in the corner, full of feathers.

He knew that they weren't white.

A sound dropped into the silence of the house. It was a familiar sound, a metal sound, a gun sound. Loop. Loop. Wrench. It died out, its echo died out, the memory of the sound died out and the vine wound its way across the wall. The garland was painted high, to go over the window, and he had to keep his head tilted back. Light directly on his face distracted him and he narrowed his eyes to slits, desperate not to be blinded and lose track of the thin brown line. Loop. Loop.

"Come around the corner, Alex. I don't bite."

Wrench. His neck muscles quivered under the strain.

"Like hell you don't." The words were politely enough spoken, if a little breathless. The voice was so very familiar. Another involuntary muscle spasm pulled his arms back, clenched his neck muscles tighter, as part of him tried to turn towards the door. "You didn't ask me to come here for coffee and conversation. I brought the things you said you wanted."

"I'm sure you did. Come in here." There was a spiderweb in one corner of the window, and it fluttered a little in some small draft, a disturbing movement at the edge of his vision. "I really want to talk to you, Alex."

"You're talking." No sound of movement followed. "What have you done with him?"


"Mulder." Hearing his own name made him react again, tugged at his aching body, but his eyes stayed locked to the painted garland, unable to look away. "Where the hell is he? You said you had him."

"He's entertaining himself. Don't worry about that. It's too early to do anything yet, and I need her, too." Flagstad chuckled, light and happy laughter. "I figured it all out. They didn't give me all the information I needed, but I figured it out."

"You figured what out?" Loop. Loop. Wrench. "Johnny. Why don't you tell me about it?"

"Come in here and I'll tell you." There was a creak, Flagstad settling himself more comfortably into his chair. Mulder could very clearly picture him sprawling there, long-limbed, loose and easy with the grace of a resting predator. He wanted to spit at his mind's imagery; Flagstad didn't deserve to be romanticized. "You can't shoot me around the corner anyway. I know you're here to kill me. Come on in, Alex."

There were distant shuffling sounds, not clear enough for him to tell what was happening outside the small room. Mulder moved away from the window, turning again to the next wall. He licked his lips. Blood and dust.

"All right." Krycek's voice was clearer now, a little closer. "Tell me what you're up to. What do you want Mulder for?"

"You know." Flagstad laughed again, sounding relaxed and content. "It was so simple once I figured it out. I know the right way to do it now. Once it's over, I'll be safe. We'll all be safe. Mission accomplished." He snapped his fingers. "Just like that."

"Johnny." Krycek dropped into a low, smooth, persuasive tone. "Your mission was to find Frankie and Dario. Remember? You've been looking for them all this time, haven't you?" Barely a hitch in the molasses-rich trickle of absolute sincerity.

"They tried to fool me one time too many," Flagstad said. "But this time I figured it out." The chair creaked again under his shifting weight. "I can't let you shoot me, Alex. This is really important."

"Yeah. This is really important. It's so important, you're going to have to explain it all to me. Have you found Frankie and Dario? Have you?" Despite the repeated questions, Krycek didn't change the steady tone of his voice or raise it above his previous quiet speech. He sounded almost normal.

"They fooled you too, didn't they?" Loop. Loop. Wrench. The tickle of dust in his nose like some subtle Chinese torture, to distract him from the steady thrum of pain from Flagstad's blows. "I have him now. She'll come. He came here, I knew he'd come when I sent him the message, and she'll come too."

The sounds of movement were so quiet, he could barely hear them. His neck muscles were screaming now. It was difficult to concentrate on both the loops and flowers, and the voices coming to him from outside the door. "You have Dario too?"

"I have him." Flagstad was beginning to sound a little impatient. "They fooled you, Alex. But I figured it out, I sent the feather and he came and she'll come soon. It's all going according to plan."

"But you said you had Mulder—" Krycek broke off.

"Yes. I have him. He's not going anywhere — he's in no shape to go anywhere." Flagstad was matter-of-fact about it, there was no gloating, just simple satisfaction. "He's mine now."

The next words were nothing more than explosions of sound, curses in a language he didn't know. Gone was the steady patience, the soft, friendly questions. Mulder heard a slam, fist hitting wall, and he heard Flagstad laughing again. He tensed up, expecting the next sound to be a gunshot. But instead, the fuss died down and silence trickled in before Krycek spoke again. He sounded angry now. "You know what the word is on Mulder. You remember what the boss said."

"I'm just doing my job." There was still an edge of glee in Flagstad's voice. "They thought I wouldn't figure it out. He's changed and so has she, but I knew when I spotted them that it all made sense."

"Johnny, you can't kill him. You've always been under orders not to kill him, goddammit. I'll help you get out of here — we'll knock him over the head and drop him off somewhere." Krycek's new attempt at sounding reasonable wasn't quite as successful as the previous one. "You know that's the best thing to do. No one has to find out what you did."

"You won't even look at me," Flagstad said regretfully. "You think I don't know you're here to kill me?"

"Actually, I'm not." Loop, loop, wrench. He was moving away from the door now, and the scrape of his feet against the floor lost him a few words coming in from outside. " stop you from killing him. You're making a big mistake here. You think the boss will forgive you if you off Mulder?"

"This is a lot more important. Alex, you just don't understand, do you? Once this is finished and over, we'll be safe. I'll be safe. I'm just following orders."

"No, you're not. You've got it all mixed up. Listen to me." Krycek was starting to sound strained. "Your mission was to get Frankie Lewis and Dario Grazzini, remember?"

"Yes, and I've taken care of it. You can go back and tell them that, I got it right. Put the gun down, Alex. Just put the gun down and sit over there and wait with me."

"I'm putting it away," Krycek said slowly. "But Johnny..."

"It won't be long now."

The silence that followed was long enough that Mulder finished the side wall and turned towards the window again. His body felt slow and heavy, leaden with dust and fatigue. He could barely feel his hands, and when he tried to flex his fingers it was a drowsy, inefficient movement. The angle of the light coming in through the window had changed, and when he came closer it settled in a warm embrace over his shoulders and chest.

Blinking, he felt grit against the inside of his eyelids. His eyes stung and watered. When he blinked again, tears joined the sweat and blood on his face and he felt a momentary relief. The toe of his right shoe grazed the bag of feathers.

"Is this where you're going to do it?" Krycek asked outside. "Right here?" He cleared his throat; he seemed to be having a problem with the dust, too. "No, it would be in your old room, I think, Johnny. Safest place in the whole city. Isn't that right?"

"I knew you'd understand if I explained it to you." Flagstad had quieted down again, too. "I'll show it to you later."

"Okay." There were more sounds of movement, creaking floor planks, footsteps. "You know, I could help you, if you'd let me. Now that I understand. I could guard him for you if you want to go looking for her."

"There's no need for that." Flagstad was smug. "She'll come to me. He came, and she'll come. I know it."

"You're probably right," Krycek muttered in an undertone so soft Mulder could barely make the words out. "So where are you keeping him?"

"Alex, go sit in the corner there."

"Hey, I was just asking—"

"I've got his gun." It was hard to tell if Flagstad was boasting, or issuing a warning.

"I can see that." Mulder strained to hear any further sound of movement, but he couldn't make anything out. He tugged at the rope that bound his wrists together. It was pulled tight, cutting into his skin, and didn't give. "Johnny, why did you kill Blaine?"

"He was an asshole," Flagstad said and laughed. This time the sound of his laughter was rawer and uglier. "Didn't you think he was an asshole, Alex?"

"Sure he was, but—"

"He thought he knew something, with his little organization and his little web page and his silly little book. He didn't know shit, Alex. I made him sit down in that chair and hold still for me and I shot him. And I tell you—" A shrill sound cut the air, and then another. A cell phone was ringing. No, two cell phones, out in that room beyond the door that didn't quite close. "What the hell is that?!" The calm satisfaction was gone from Flagstad's voice. "Alex!"

"It's her phone," Krycek said, voice slightly muffled. "It's just — wait — no, it's his phone—"

"Don't answer it—"

The discreet signals seemed strangely loud in this quiet house, and the phones rang in tandem, one just seconds after the other. Mulder heard thumps and curses as Flagstad searched for the second cell phone, still in his suit jacket somewhere out there. And then all hell broke loose.

The front door was slammed open, hitting the wall so hard the whole house seemed to jump, and at the same time there was a crash of shattered glass — no, two crashes, coming from separate directions. Heavy footsteps shook the floor boards and rough voices yelled. The only word Mulder could make out was "FBI!"

He strained against the rope that bound his wrists together. His vision narrowed down to the fine line of the garland. Loop. Loop. Fuck this— Wrench. There was a shot, another. The pounding of his heart was so loud he could barely hear, and everything seemed to be happening at once out there, while in the room where he stood the dust still hung in the air and the patch of sunshine moved lazily across the floor. The backs of his thighs still itched as if from strokes of invisible feathers.

"...hands where I can see them!" That was Scully's voice. He bit his lip, tasted more blood.

"Johnny, put the gun down!" Krycek sounded choked, hoarse and angry, his words barely audible over the thunder of people storming through the house, opening doors, checking every room. Except this one, because the door was behind Johnny Flagstad.

A separate set of footsteps seemed to break away from all the others, running along the hallway, skidding around the corner. The soft thud of a collision and a sound of surprise from Scully were drowned out by two shots in quick succession. Mulder jerked, his whole body convulsing, feeling the impact of the bullets. His eyes tried to stay with the thin brown line but he was falling, unable to stop it, tumbling to the floor as he heard the delayed third shot.

He landed on one shoulder with a bone-jarring crash and rolled, inhaling dust, choking and coughing. His scraped cheek was pressed against the floorboards when he regained control of his body enough to lie still. Mulder tried to curse, but his throat was too dry. He painfully rolled back again, using the leverage of shoulder and hip to raise himself, curled his legs up and jerked into a kneeling position, then had to stop to cough again.

People were shouting outside his little room, and he heard more running footsteps and slamming doors. Mulder got to his feet and staggered towards the sound of voices. Whatever had happened out there, he was going to get out of this room. He hit the door with the same shoulder that had hit the floor and gritted his teeth as it swung open.

Flagstad had slid out of the chair. The first shot had taken him between the eyes, the second in the chest. He was lying on the floor, an ungainly tangle of arms and legs and long skinny torso, metal gleam of gun half hidden by his right hand. A compact form knelt by his side. Mulder took a shuffling step closer and the man looked up. "Spooky!" A quick relieved smile lit up Martin Yun's face as he looked up and down, checking for injuries. "You look like shit. Good to see you." Yun got to his feet and clapped Mulder's shoulder, saw him wince, and spun him around to untie his hands. "Hell of a mess here, but at least we got him. You need a doctor?"

Blood rushed stingingly back into his wrists and hands. Mulder tried to rub them together unobtrusively to ease the pain. Someone at the other end of the room called up the stairs, "We've found him!"

"No, I'm fine." He looked around the room and saw Krycek pinned between two large agents, head bent forward, hair falling into his face, arm wrenched back uncomfortably. "Where's Scully?"

"She went after McKee." Yun wound the strands of rope around his fingers and shoved the ball into his pocket. "Guess I'd better explain things to you."

"Guess you'd better," Mulder agreed grittily. "And you can break up that threesome in the corner, too. You can let go of him," he raised his voice, addressing the men who held Krycek, "it's all right."

"Agent Scully called in to say he'd taken off on his own before. And he was in here with Flagstad," Yun said.

"I know. He was trying to talk Flagstad into letting me go." Mulder stopped to cough again. Right now he'd give his video collection for a glass of water. Yun suddenly gripped his arm and peered more closely at his face.

"Shit — you're not coughing blood, are you?"

"No. 'S just my lip. Martin, tell me what happened." The two agents reluctantly let go of Krycek, who straightened up and flipped his hair out of his face, then walked away from them to look down at Flagstad's body. "And stop clinging to me, I have enough bruises." Mulder scrubbed half-heartedly at the blood on his face with slow, leaden hands. He remembered a dark-haired young woman in Flagstad's rented room. "Where did McKee go and why is Scully following her?"

"She shot Flagstad," Krycek said.

Mulder turned to give Krycek a sharp look. "Scully shot Flagstad?"

"No, McKee did." Krycek looked unnaturally calm, only the bright glitter in his eyes betraying him. "She missed me, though."

Mulder considered the two shots fired close together, and then the third one. He glanced at Flagstad and then at Yun, who was glaring at Krycek. "I didn't see her aiming at you," Yun growled. He turned back to Mulder. "We found the house in the property records, belonging to a Margit Flagstad in the sixties. She left it to her granddaughter, who moved here with her family in seventy-two. One child, John Alexander Ellis."

It was Krycek's turn to crouch down by the body. "Ellis," he said thoughtfully, reaching out. He seemed to be patting the dead man's bloody chest, and both Mulder and Yun opened their mouths to object. "I kept looking at this, tried to figure out what it was." Krycek pulled a slim metal object from Flagstad's shirt pocket and held it up. "It's a key. An old key."

"Don't touch that," Yun snapped.

"This is what he used on the victims' faces," Krycek went on, ignoring Yun. "Has to be."

Mulder nodded. It made perfect sense. The original key to this house, the key to the belief that had led Flagstad to murder again and again. He looked at Flagstad's long, wiry limbs; the man had been strong enough to drive the blunt metal into flesh and bone, performing his strange search. Now that Flagstad was dead, Mulder didn't think they'd ever find out whether the killer thought he had found any implants or not, if it had been a real search or just a ritual, part of the larger ritual. He knew what he thought, but there would be no confirmation. He was putting the last facts he had together, but there was no urgency to his thoughts any more. It was over.

"Then we noticed you were missing," Yun went on, "and I knew you'd said you'd go up to look at these houses, so we decided to go in as fast as we could. Scully said you'd probably be here. It was her idea to try to use the phone signal as a distraction."

"Good thing I didn't bring McKee with me." Turning away from the body on the floor, he went to the chest of drawers and got his gun, put there by Flagstad hours ago. He weighed it in his hands before putting it back in the waist holster he still wore. The other gun was still in place, resting snugly against his ankle, more of a taunt than a reassurance. Flagstad hadn't searched him for other weapons after picking the gun out of his hand, confident that it wouldn't be necessary. Mulder scowled. Right now he didn't think he could bend down and take it out without falling over. "Where's my phone?"

"I've got it," Krycek said. "Scully's too. Here." Their fingers touched as Mulder reclaimed his cell phone. He glanced quickly into Krycek's face, without knowing quite what he was searching for there. The dark eyes were unreadable now, green glints buried in the shadows. "Yun's right, you look like shit. What did he do to you?" It was all in the voice, that peculiar huskiness that came out under stress, and it sent a ripple down Mulder's spine.

"I don't think it was me he was doing it to," Mulder said slowly. He rolled a shoulder back and bit down on the impulse to freeze and groan, not wanting either Krycek or Yun to notice it. "I just don't know what gave him the idea that I was Grazzini."

"Well." Krycek sounded reluctant, and dropped his voice even more, to a low murmur that Yun might or might not be able to make out. "He knew about Scully. And your sister. And the two of you do resemble Frankie and Dario, more than some of the victims did, except for Scully's red hair. You turned up here in San Francisco, and he knew there was something special about you, and he knew there was something special about them. That's as much of it as I can get to make any kind of sense."

Mulder nodded. "Flagstad — Ellis — was the one who called you on Scully's phone?"

"Yeah. He asked me to go to my old apartment and pick up a few things, then he called me there, and gave me this address. I figured out from what he said that he'd got you." The silky fringe of hair fell forward again, and Krycek didn't try to smooth it back. "Thought I'd see if I could talk him out of it."

"I noticed." Mulder shot a quick look towards Yun, who'd gone to confer with the two other agents, and turned back to Krycek. "Thanks."

He started to lift his hand, let it fall. This time, Krycek didn't flinch. Mulder considered the possible advantages of taking a step back, but he was too tired for any sudden moves. Besides, he knew exactly where they were in relation to each other. The perceptions of his senses bounced off Krycek's presence, keeping him constantly aware of the other man. It was like navigating by means of a radar that only recognized one object.

"I didn't realize he'd hurt you," Krycek said, his voice like rust, like silk.

"I'm all right." Mulder broke away from the too-intense eyes that held his own. There was too much he couldn't say in front of three FBI agents. He turned slowly, so as not to show what an effort it was, walked away from Krycek, past Yun and the others, out of the room and along the dusty hallway. More than anything else he wanted to get out of this house. The insides of his lungs felt clogged with dirt and grit. Mulder went out through the wide-open front door and stopped in the small front yard to look up at the sky. It looked good. It looked wonderful.

This was the second time in three days that Alex Krycek had come to try to save his life. Mulder suspected that Krycek would also cheerfully have shot Flagstad as part of the rescue mission, once he'd acquired any available information about Lewis and Grazzini, but that didn't seem quite as important any more. He'd lost the morning's fine edge of indignation. The ground between them had shifted yet again, and he wasn't sure where he stood. He didn't know what would have happened if the FBI hadn't arrived in force, but he realized that he believed Krycek would have done all he could to get him out of there, in the same way he believed that Scully would have done everything in her power under the same circumstances.

Scully had, of course, rescued both of them.

"Agent Mulder." It was Spelling, breaking away from a small group of other people to come up to him. Mulder snapped out of his thoughts and attempted to concentrate. "Are you all right? Do you need medical attention?"

"I just need to wash my face. Which way did McKee and Scully go?" Mulder heard Yun and Krycek come out of the house behind him. He resisted the impulse to turn around and look. "I guess McKee is considered armed and dangerous now. And she looked like such a nice girl."

"I'm sure Agent McKee had a good reason for what she did," Spelling said. Krycek laughed softly, but didn't say anything.

"Yeah, she didn't want Flagstad taken alive." Mulder peered over Spelling's shoulder and saw Scully and another agent come back down the narrow lane. Scully in a bullet-proof vest, a sight for sore eyes. He went to meet her, taking in the set of her shoulders and the tight line of her mouth. "McKee got away?"

"Yes." Scully looked up at him, then reached out a hand and touched his unmarked cheek lightly. The spontaneous gesture made him smile and then grimace as his mouth hurt. "How are you feeling?"

"I've been better, but I'll live." He felt a sudden impulse to hug her, but he knew how the kevlar would feel against his bruised ribs.

"I'm glad you're all right, Mulder." Their eyes met, and he tried a silent apology. Scully was flushed and a little edgy, but her anger wasn't directed at him. She dropped her hand and looked more composed as the others came up to them. "There was a car waiting for her. A dark green Mitsubishi Galant. We couldn't make out the license plate."

"Put everything you have into finding McKee," Mulder suggested to Spelling. "Whatever her reasons were for doing this, they weren't anything you would approve of. How long had she been with you?"

"She came here fourteen months ago," Yun said. "Straight from the Academy."

"Hard-working, earnest and dedicated," Mulder said dryly. He turned his head to look at Krycek. Krycek's face was blank, closed off, completely unrevealing. Mulder wondered what Krycek knew about McKee. He'd been the secondary target, after Flagstad, and apparently of less importance. That was strange in itself, since Krycek must be regarded as a much larger potential security leak than Flagstad.

"Sir, I think it might be a good idea if you assigned someone to check and reevaluate her work," Scully said. "It seems clear that she wasn't taking her orders from you, at least not primarily."

Spelling frowned. "Agent Scully — Agent Mulder — what exactly are you suggesting? I don't understand myself why Agent McKee acted as she did, but to assume that there are more complicated and sinister motives behind this..." His voice trailed off into a small, heavy shrug.

It was the best opening they'd get. Scully picked it up and ran with it. "We believe Agent McKee may have been associated with a group that Flagstad worked for before coming to San Francisco, a group of people who will do anything to remain anonymous in order to carry on their—" He almost expected her to say 'nefarious.' "—unscrupulous projects. Her orders would have been to silence Flagstad at any cost."

"Yeah?" Yun was clearly skeptical. "And what reason did she have to shoot at Five-Fingered Freddy here the way he says she did?"

"I guess I reminded her of her nasty babysitter," Krycek said. Scully rolled her eyes, but didn't contradict him.

Spelling wasn't happy with the suggestion that McKee might have been an infiltrator from a group he'd never heard of and wasn't ready to believe in. He argued and complained while the rest of the team searched the Flagstad family home from top to bottom, bringing out, among other things, a printout of Blaine Hibbert's address list and a bag of dove feathers dyed black. Mulder let Scully do most of the talking. Both his lip and his jaw ached a little too much for comfort. Olsen provided unexpected support by plaintively wondering why McKee would do something like this under sudden stress, when nothing in her personality or her earlier behavior had ever hinted that she would.

Eventually, Spelling had to agree that McKee's actions had been inexplicable and completely out of line, and ordered a full-scale search for her. Once that had been arranged, Mulder let his attention drift again. It was getting cooler in the lane as the sun sank lower. He reached up and tried unobtrusively to rub some of the stiffness out of his neck and shoulders. He'd only spent a few hours in the house, but it felt like coming out after being cooped up indoors for a week.

Eventually the discussion wound down into a stalemate, and Spelling suggested a return to the office for a thorough debriefing. "Better let Spooky take a shower first," Yun commented. "He looks like an extra in a Van Damme movie."

"Sir, I think we'd better go back to our hotel," Scully said. "We'll come to the office in an hour for the debriefing, unless Agent Mulder needs to rest."

"No, I'll be fine," Mulder said quickly. But he did want to clean up and get out of his grimy, bloodstained clothes. He also wanted to get away from Martin Yun for a while. It was hard to tell from the look on Yun's face if he was happy with the part he'd played, or if he felt Mulder had stolen his case. No one looked entirely satisfied. Spelling and Yun went on talking about Agent McKee in a low, puzzled tone of voice while Scully went to return the equipment she'd borrowed.

"I don't know where she might have gone," Krycek said even more quietly, in a voice meant for Mulder's ears alone. Mulder shook his head to say that no, he hadn't really expected that Krycek would know that. McKee had been a surprise to everyone. When Scully came back, Krycek and Mulder followed her to the car with nothing more than muttered 'later's to Yun and Spelling. Mulder didn't remember until he was on the very last step of the stairs what the feel of the wooden railing against his palm had reminded him of earlier. Then he looked down at Krycek, walking in front of him, and sighed.

Things were quiet between them as they drove back to the hotel, but it wasn't the uncomfortable silence he'd thought might arise. For Mulder, tired and bruised, the short drive was a chance to simply sit and do nothing, without having to worry that someone might try to kill him at any moment, or that his mind was not his own, his actions not taken by his own choice. Both Scully and Krycek were winding down from their respective adrenaline highs. She had shed her excited flush with the kevlar, and drove with firm efficiency.

Mulder couldn't see Krycek in the back seat, but he was conscious of the other man's presence behind him the way he would have been conscious of a distinct scent or the location of a heat source. It made him feel reckless, like turning his back on something dangerous and unpredictable. It distracted him from the disappointment and guilt he felt. Flagstad had been killed, not captured, and who knew how many secrets had died with him? Not just consortium secrets; Flagstad hadn't been in any state to reveal too many of them. His confusion would probably just have added to Mulder's own. But Mulder wondered how many deaths would remain unexplained now that Flagstad was gone.

Leaning back in the car seat, he rested his head and took the weight off his abused neck muscles. His body wanted to go limp, as though everything inside his skin had been removed and he was nothing but a rather cunningly made balloon filled with water. Scully glanced sideways at him but said nothing. He could tell that she was planning to examine him as thoroughly as they had the time for.

Which wasn't much, as Spelling had made it clear that he wanted them to hurry. Mulder supposed he could always have fainted gracefully into Spelling's arms if he'd felt the need for an overnight hospital stay, but he knew that a shower, a little concentration and a lot of coffee would render him alert again, or a reasonable facsimile thereof. He wasn't about to let Scully put him in the hospital again; he didn't need to lie down that badly. He would just have to distract her from getting a close look at him.

Thinking about hospital stays reminded him of something he'd almost forgotten. "Scully?" She nodded to show that she was listening, her eyes on the intersection in front of them. "Has Dr. White or anyone else from the hospital gotten back to you about those blood samples you took from me, and the samples of that black stuff? Or did you turn them over to the FBI lab?"

"No, I left all of it with Dr. White," Scully said. "I was going to ship it back to DC and let Pendrell take a good look at it. I don't really trust anyone else to check for every possible oddity. I just haven't had the time yet to get in touch with her."

"You'd better check the samples are still there," Krycek put in from the back seat. "For all we know, McKee might have paid a visit to the hospital before she went to Russian Hill."

"I'll call Dr. White as soon as we're at the hotel," Scully said tightly.

Mulder frowned. He had a headache again. It slowed him down. "It doesn't fit," he said.

"You don't think McKee would have gone there?"

He shrugged. "I don't know anything about McKee. But all of it — the plan, if there is one." Mulder turned to look at Krycek after all. "You told Flagstad he shouldn't kill me, that he was under orders not to touch me. But they got to me days ago and activated the black cancer. I was supposed to die from that, wasn't I? It doesn't make sense. Do they want me alive or dead?"

"The operative word here," Krycek said, "is 'they'." He leaned forward between the front seats until his breath almost ruffled Scully's hair. "We're dealing with a group of people who, although they presumably work towards the same goal, don't always agree as to methods, or even in which direction the goal is to be found."

"You called them the engineers of the future," Mulder said almost dreamily. It was strange that you could feel such an intimate hatred for such a remote, concealed group. "But what do they want from me?"

"I told you before, they don't agree on what to do about you," Krycek said. "That's as much as I know. Some of them think that you're crucial to the future they want to create. Some of them don't. Johnny worked for the people who want you alive, before he lost it."

"You've certainly had more than your share of close escapes," Scully commented, a little sarcastically, rather affectionately. She parked the car as she spoke and freed herself of the seat belt. "Mulder, I think you'd better clean up before I take a look at you. Can you manage by yourself? You don't feel dizzy, or faint?"

"I'm just hungry." But he knew he was stiff and awkward when he climbed out of the car, and tried to distract them from noticing. "I left my suit jacket and tie in that house. Flagstad must have pulled them off me after he took my gun."

"They've probably been brought in along with the rest of the evidence from the site," Scully said. She came around the car, and he suspected her of being about to take his arm for support, so he started walking. "Your dry-cleaning bills must be amazing, Mulder."

He managed to raise an eyebrow at her. "You think I wear any of my suits twice?"

The desk clerk eyed them a little curiously when they came into the small lobby. Mulder tried to keep his face averted as he went towards the elevator, well aware of how he must look, but she called out to him, "Er, do you need a doctor or an emergency room or something?"

"I'm a doctor," Scully said crisply, closing her hand around Mulder's elbow after all. "He's all right."

"My reputation," Mulder said mournfully as the elevator doors closed behind them, "will never be the same again."

"Actually," Krycek said, "you're running pretty true to form." He and Scully exchanged a look that was almost a smile, and Mulder was so surprised that he couldn't even think of a good comeback to that. He looked at Scully, who had told him earlier today that he was sick and twisted for wanting the man she was smiling at now. She transferred the look to him, and his puzzlement about her attitude was subsumed in a rush of affection.

Scully was looking at him as if he were human, again. He still had a chance to win back what he'd lost, to regain her esteem. He just wasn't sure what he would have to do, or if he'd be able to do it. Mulder met her eyes squarely. "Get your doctor things, Scully."

"Don't fall in the shower." She handed him the key to his room as they got off the elevator, and went to unlock her own door. Mulder went into his room and found that Krycek was following him silently. He glanced back over his shoulder, but Krycek wasn't looking at him. While Mulder dug into his bag for clean things to wear, Krycek went to the window and looked out. He leaned against the wall gracelessly in a way that emphasized rather than hid the asymmetry of his body; watching him, Mulder was struck by how noticeable it was, compared with Krycek's usual controlled, deliberate movements. It touched something inside him, some spot even more tender than the bruises on his ribs.

Once he'd found clean boxers and a t-shirt, Mulder went into the bathroom, turned the shower on and started to strip while the water got warm. He felt slow and clumsy, and sighed with relief once he was rid of the dirty clothes. Bits and pieces of Flagstad's house, of Flagstad's blows, clung to him. Stepping in under the spray, he winced and then tilted his face up, eyes squeezed shut, and fumbled for the soap.

Washing stung, but not too much. He rubbed thoughtfully at his jaw; it was sore and he didn't relish the idea of shaving. Instead he rinsed off again and stood under the hot spray a while longer, willing himself into some degree of relaxation. Krycek and Scully would be waiting outside. Neither Mulder nor Scully had asked Krycek to come along when they'd left the Flagstad house, or told him not to leave the hotel room. It didn't seem to be an issue any more.

Let go and he disappears... but Krycek hadn't disappeared, hadn't run away, hadn't tried to leave without a word. He was out there, looking as tired as Mulder felt. Mulder turned the water off and stepped out of the shower. There were fresh towels on the towel rack, and the newly laundered softness was gentle on his bruises. He carefully pulled on the boxers and t-shirt, and went towards the door. For a moment he toyed with the idea of standing there to see if he could hear what Scully and Krycek were saying, if anything, but he would never be able to pick up their voices over the sound of the bathroom fan.

Mulder went outside. Krycek was still standing by the window, leaning against the wall, with his eyes on Scully. "McKee got them?"

"I don't think so. I don't know." Scully had put her bag down on one of the beds and turned around to talk to Krycek. "When I found that no one had heard of those blood samples, I asked for Dr. White and was told that she was home with a cold. They wouldn't give me her home number, but I persuaded them to call it for me."

"And?" Krycek asked with the air of one who won't be surprised no matter what. He had his hand in his pocket, shoulders pushed up and slightly hunched, but looked more relaxed than defensive.

"And apparently her phone has been disconnected. It could just be a coincidence, but..." Scully shook her head and tucked her hair back.

Mulder moved forward and looked from Scully to Krycek, drawing their attention. He frowned. "Dr. White has run off with my blood samples?"

"We don't know that for certain," Scully said reluctantly, "but it looks like a very real possibility."

"Hell," Mulder said, unable to put any real force into it. He couldn't muster any feeling of surprise, any more than Krycek had; there had been too many situations like this one over the years, where evidence had been snatched out of his hands, where people had vanished as though they'd never existed. It reminded him of Krycek's first disappearance, years ago. He would have liked to be angry, but he was too tired. "Was that why you tried to stay out of her way, Krycek? You were afraid she'd recognize you? You could have warned us."

Krycek shook his head. "It's a large organization," he said. "I'm not — I was never exactly at the heart of it. They have enormous resources, Mulder, you know that. You're lucky it was just one doctor and not the entire hospital."

"You can still take a look at my current blood composition when we get back to DC," Mulder said to Scully. "It's got to be different, there has to be something there you can analyze." She had turned towards the bed and was just taking her stethoscope out. "Scully, I think it's pretty safe to say that my heart is still beating."

"Sit down," she said, nodding at the bed and putting the stethoscope down to get out a roll of bandages and a bottle of some antiseptic solution. "I've seen a little too much of your blood composition already today, it was all over your face." Mulder did as she asked and she took hold of his jaw and turned his face towards the light, checking his pupils, and then looking at his lip and the scrapes on his cheek. "It doesn't look too bad," Scully commented, swabbing at the cuts. He tried not to jerk away from the sting. "Does your head hurt?"

"A bit," he said reluctantly, and her fingers went through his hair to find new bumps and cuts, skimming lightly over his scalp, catching here and there in the damp tangles of his hair. The light, competent touch was soothing. He closed his eyes, opened them again as his stomach rumbled. "It's all right, Scully, I think it's just dehydration. And I could do with some food, too."

"Let me put something on your wrists. Rope burn?" He nodded, glancing down at the red, chafed circles. Yes, the desk clerk probably thought he was kinky beyond belief. "Mulder, you shouldn't have gone in there without backup. He could have killed you. You were lucky — was he going to keep you as a hostage?"

"Not exactly." He'd known that this conversation was coming. The chill salve she applied to his wrists numbed them somewhat. "Flagstad had become convinced that I was actually Dario Grazzini, the man he was looking for, and that you were the woman, Frankie Lewis. He was waiting for you to come to the house, too, so he could perform his final sacrifice."

Scully looked at him. One of her eyebrows lifted. "He told you that?"

"Not in so many words," Mulder admitted, knowing how Scully felt about phrases like 'final sacrifice.' "I pieced it together from what he said to me and what he said to Krycek later. It would have been the last kill, the culmination of the cycle, and then Flagstad would probably have gone underground and disappeared for good."

"He wouldn't have made it far," Krycek said from the window — Krycek, whose original mission had been to end Flagstad's life. It seemed he was deliberately reminding Mulder of that, or at least refusing to hide the fact. "But once the killings stopped, the FBI would probably have lost their chance to get him."

"I suppose that's possible," Scully said. "But it doesn't explain why you went in there instead of calling me or Martin Yun and waiting for backup. You knew better than anyone just how dangerous Flagstad was."

"I wasn't even sure he would be there—" Mulder looked away from her, only to be faced with another angry look.

"Yes, you were," Krycek contradicted him flatly. "You were sure and you went in anyway. And one of these days you won't be so lucky, Mulder. If Johnny hadn't decided you were Dario Grazzini, he would have blown your brains out the way he did Hibbert's." The image of Hibbert, fallen forward over his desk, was so clear in his mind. And he knew Krycek was right, that could have been him, slumped in some out-of-the-way corner of that house on Russian Hill, discarded as irrelevant to Flagstad's grand plan.

"You should learn to use them while you still have them," Scully put in, dabbing some salve onto his cheek as well before recapping the tube and putting it away. "It would save you a few bruises, and one day it might save your life."

He couldn't really answer that, and with the two of them tag-teaming him, he decided silence was the simplest solution. It would be impossible to explain anyway, to describe the mood he had been in standing outside the Flagstad home, to add up all the little things that had made his decision for him. And he hadn't been shot, after all. "You finished with me, Scully?" Mulder got up off the bed, tried to move smoothly. "Spelling's waiting for us. I think he'd like to hear all this, too."

Scully watched him through narrowed eyes. He realized, too late, that it might have been the wrong move to try to fool her with a reference to duty; she was usually the one who had to remind him that his superiors expected a report now and then. "Have you injured your shoulder as well?"

"It's nothing, Scully."

Mulder drew himself up and tried to step away, but it was too late. Scully followed him with two determined steps to his one. She reached up and unerringly dug her thumb into a tender spot; he twitched without meaning to do so, and glanced down at her to see if she'd noticed. She had. "Nothing? Take your shirt off and let me take a look at that."

"Scully..." he whined.

"Take your shirt off." Her raised eyebrow did not admit of any alternatives, and if he didn't do what she asked she would try to undress him as though he were five years old, so he reluctantly grabbed the hem and pulled the t-shirt over his head, exposing torso and shoulders. "Oh my God, Mulder. Why didn't you say anything?"

"It's all right," he said, looking down at the marks left by Flagstad's fists. He couldn't see the bruises on his back, but Scully pushed him away from the bed and walked around him, her fingers touching down lightly on each one. "There's nothing you can do about those, anyway, and the skin isn't broken or anything, much. I'll be fine."

"Some of these look pretty bad. You could have a cracked rib—" Her fingers probed, and Mulder pulled away from the touch before he could stop himself. "Does that hurt?"

"No, it tickles," he lied. "Scully, they're just bruises. If I'd cracked my ribs, I would know."

Mulder glanced towards Krycek for support, and was met by a frown. Krycek walked away from the window, around the foot of the other bed. He was moving smoothly again, but when he spoke his voice was a little ragged. "He did this to you?" Dark eyes took in the red and purple discolorations, the scratches and scrapes. "I should have shot him instead of trying to talk to him."

Mulder shook his head slowly. The anger he heard there tightened his own gut, made him acutely aware of things he'd tried hard to forget. His own hands closed and opened; he felt an urge to brush them together, try to brush some things away. There were many things he loathed the late Johnny Flagstad for, but this wasn't really one of them. "No, you did the right thing. If we could have taken him—"

"He hurt you, Mulder. I would've killed him for that." It was such a simple statement, and so loaded. Mulder felt it go through him and be met by some intensity of emotion of his own, one that took hold of him with the ease and familiarity of an old friend. He knew this feeling. It had just taken him so long, far too long, to accept responsibility for what he'd done.

"Why do you care?" he asked abruptly. Krycek looked up, his eyes meeting Mulder's with a stunned, almost blank look. "After Tunguska — hell, after this morning — I would have thought you'd cheer him on."

"You want to know why I care, Mulder?" It was a soft-voiced growl, full of menace. "You want me to tell you?"

That one hit him so hard he wanted to sit down; he had to ignore it. Next to him Scully had stiffened, her hand still on his back. "It was wrong of me," he said stiffly. "I lost my temper and it stayed lost, I guess."

"Apologizing for unprofessional conduct? Mulder, I don't blame you for Tunguska. I made a few mistakes there myself." Krycek dropped his eyes, then jerked them up quickly again before Mulder could more than suspect that he'd been glancing at the left side of his body. For some reason this small reminder of the outcome of that trip wound him even tighter.

"I'm sorry I kept hitting you, okay?" he snapped.

"Mulder!" That was Scully, looking at him in amazement and something close to shock. Oh, shit. He'd gotten himself in deeper with her, just when he'd been hoping there was some way he could get things back to the way they had been. But he couldn't take his words back now.

Krycek ignored Scully's interruption; his eyes were fixed on Mulder's face. "Yeah, well. Do it again and I might hurt you."

"No. No, you won't." Mulder shrugged off Scully's hand and walked over to where Krycek was standing, moved in close, willing himself to believe it was easy — like firewalking. He lifted his chin in open invitation. "Come on, then. Hit me."

Krycek looked at him for a long moment, out of eyes that glittered dangerously. He pressed his lips together, then took a step backwards and turned away. "Go to hell, Mulder."

Mulder stood where he was, looking at Krycek's shoulders, at the back of Krycek's neck, the curve of his ear beneath the straight fall of hair. He remembered bringing Krycek to Skinner's apartment in a kind of furious desperation, unable to trust himself around the man, only to find he wasn't the only one who carried a grudge. The gut punch Skinner had delivered had had an impact on Mulder, too; that blow had seemed to justify his own unprofessional behavior, validate the anger he felt that wanted to express itself physically. As if Skinner's action could somehow change wrong into right.

He despised violence, as a tool, as a means of communication. But it was there beneath his other more sophisticated ways of coping with life, beaten into him at an early age and never forgotten. With Krycek, he'd sometimes forgotten, sometimes made himself forget, the other options.

Only very slowly did he move away from Krycek again and go back to the bed where he'd put his t-shirt. He picked it up and pulled it over his head, emerging from the cotton to find Scully watching him. Her eyes were unreadable, clear and infinite as the sky.

Mulder wanted to explain things to her, but it would have seemed too much like trying to make excuses for himself, and he couldn't do that. Even before this, she had known something of what he was capable of; she'd seen him lose his temper and hit Roche, had seen him punch Krycek when they'd captured the militia members. So far, he hadn't crossed the line that would make her withdraw her support, not while she had been there to see him, although he knew more than well that she would never have done those things — it wasn't in her to act like that. It felt good to be able to rely on that. He depended on her moral integrity as much as on her common sense.

Now, of course, he had done the unforgivable in sleeping with Alex Krycek, so perhaps it didn't matter if she found out about the way he'd slapped Krycek around during the Tunguska case.

Scully drew a deep breath, and picked up her bag. Her eyes flicked from Mulder to Krycek and back again. "You should get dressed, Mulder. Remember we said we'd be in Spelling's office as soon as we could." She crossed the room and went out through the connecting door, closing it carefully behind her. Mulder stood staring after her for a few moments before he realized she was gone.

Then he glanced over to where Krycek still stood, unmoving. Dusk was falling outside, and most things in the room were becoming wrapped in a grey haze. If he'd stayed longer in the bathroom, Scully might have missed his bruises. The leather jacket had slipped from Krycek's shoulders and lay in a heap on the floor; he was wearing a grey sweater that he must have picked up at his apartment. Mulder cleared his throat. "I'm sorry," he said softly. There was no reaction. "I'm sorry, okay? I don't do apologies well."

Krycek finally turned around, but it was hard to see the expression on his face behind the screen of hair, in the poor light. "All right," he said. "Apology accepted. It's good to hear you're sorry. About Tunguska."

"About this morning," Mulder said, as if making a correction. "I — oh, shit." He took a step away, then changed direction with a wrench and walked towards Krycek instead. "I wish you'd try to hit me back."

"It would be easier that way, wouldn't it?" Krycek shook his head. "You know, you just demonstrated, Mulder, I won't do it."

"I don't know if I would have — I mean, if Scully hadn't come in. But the intention was there. And I'm sorry." He sighed, shrugged, didn't know how to move, what to do with his hands, with himself. "OPC will just love it if I turn myself in to them."

"Screw OPC." There was a faint, exasperated smile on Krycek's face, and a flippancy in his voice that wasn't entirely forced. "If you feel so strongly you have to do something to make up for all that crap, why don't you kiss me to make it all better?"

Mulder had been moving closer all the time, until they were standing less than a foot from each other again, a distance that had seemed considerable to Mulder when he was trying to bridge the gap with words, but which was now an almost non-existent safety margin. "No," he said, so quickly it came out more as reflex than response. "No."

He shook his head, and turned away from temptation, crossing his arms over his chest. He didn't hear Krycek move, but he felt the warmth, the presence, as the other man stepped up close behind him. An arm joined his own, fingers interlacing with his, and he felt Krycek's chest press against his back. It was a solid touch and more than touch, a reminder of the other's body, his breathing presence. He felt grounded again. When he attempted to step away, the arm around his chest held him fast — not so hard that he couldn't have broken its grip, but he paused all the same.

"Don't run." It was nothing but a soft whisper, a suggestion, not a command. Lips brushed against the back of his neck. The skin on his arms pebbled in response to the touch and he knew Krycek could feel it. Alex Krycek placed one slow, gentle kiss after another there, with careful attention.

He found his breath, his voice. "Stop it." It didn't come out right, and he tried again. "Stop — stop it... I could..."

"What?" Krycek murmured into his skin, as his mouth moved on, raising chill after exquisite chill.

Mulder sucked in another deep breath and tried to explain while he could still find the words. "I could really hurt you." It wasn't exactly what he wanted to say, but it was part of it.

The exhalation of air against his neck was quiet laughter. Alex's arm tightened around him. "Mulder. You know it's too late to worry about that."

And there it was: he couldn't say anything to that. They stood like that for a long time, fingers locked together, Krycek's face against the back of Mulder's neck, his lips unmoving now, nothing but a soft warm pressure, asking nothing, demanding so much. Dusk reclaimed another corner of the room, while the scarlet stripes of sunset shone on the far wall. Mulder closed his eyes and dragged Alex's hand up across his chest, hugging it for a moment against his throat, under his chin. He wanted to open it up, kiss the palm, mouth the fingers one by one, but he knew if he started he wouldn't be able to stop.

So he let go and stepped away, heading determinedly for his suitcase. "Scully's right, we should hurry." The shirt he pulled out was a bit wrinkled from all the packing and unpacking, but it would do under a suit jacket and he shrugged it on, started to button it. "I guess it's too much to hope for that they'll have found McKee by the time we get there." The second suit was one he didn't really like, a dark grey, slightly funereal creation. Mulder picked a tie at random and looped it around his neck. "Yun's probably happy to have Spelling to himself for a while, though."

"To tell him who did all the real work?" Krycek sounded only mildly sarcastic. Mulder stepped into the suit pants, tucked his shirt in and started to hunt for a belt. "I think Spelling's pretty clear on that already."

Picking up the suit jacket, Mulder transferred various odds and ends to its pockets and slung it over his shoulder. He ran through his mental check list: both gun holsters, both guns, yes he had done a safety check, phone, sunglasses, ID, wallet. "I would sell my soul right now for iced tea and half a dozen marble glazed donuts." When he turned around, Krycek was grinning and putting his leather jacket on. "Let's go get Scully."

The first light tap on the connecting door brought her out. She looked carefully at them both, but didn't comment on the scene she'd witnessed before. Instead she led them out of Mulder's room and down the hall, talking over her shoulder about how Yun had reacted when she had told him that Mulder was probably in the Flagstad house.

"He didn't seem surprised," she said as the elevator doors closed. "Angry, yes, but not surprised. Did you pull that kind of stunt on him when you worked together?"

Mulder thought about it. "Not exactly," he said. "I was a good little profiler, I didn't go out in the field. Much. But Michelle and I did something similar a couple of times, going after evidence before we'd finished the theoretical reasoning about where it ought to be."

"Michelle?" Scully glanced up at him curiously. "Who's Michelle?"

"She worked with me and Yun on that case. Apparently she and Yun are married these days." Mulder wondered if he could get hold of Yun's home number; it would be interesting to talk to Michelle again after all these years, see how she and Yun got on.

"He's married?" There was definite disapproval in Scully's voice. "He didn't mention that when he tried to ask me out to dinner."

Then again, perhaps it would be a little too interesting to talk to Michelle, Mulder thought as they got off the elevator again. Krycek chuckled softly and asked, "So does that mean you'll be breaking the date?"

She shot them both a haughty look over her shoulder. "There's no date to break." Out in the street, she tucked her hair behind her ears and unbent enough to say, "I don't expect much from men who suggest drinks at a place called Centerfolds as a good way to start an evening."

Despite several hopeful requests from Mulder, Scully did not stop at a Dunkin Donuts on the way, insisting that he needed 'real food' instead. In the end, the nearest she could get to that without a major detour was sandwiches. Mulder didn't really mind, although he'd been looking forward to that slightly bloated grease-and-sugar donut feeling, and to chasing it away with lots and lots of coffee. He only objected to the suggestion that he get a sandwich full of sprouts and lettuce and without any mayo. "Scully, they're my arteries."

They brought their bags to the car and Mulder sat sipping his coffee for the second half of the drive. The hot liquid stung his lip, but it cleared his head. By the time they arrived, he was feeling alert enough to realize that Spelling might not want them to have a picnic in his office, and hungry enough not to care. The chocolate coffee cake was only a distant memory.

In the elevator on the way up, he looked at Scully. He wasn't sure whether his primary desire was to have a long talk with her, or to avoid it at all costs. It was hard to judge what her feelings were towards him now; it felt as if things were almost back to normal, but he hadn't forgotten the morning's confrontation and he knew she most certainly hadn't, either. Maybe she would try to corner him once the debriefing was over. Scully didn't always insist on talking things out when she knew he was uncomfortable, and she rarely pressed him on personal issues, but this was not exactly a run-of-the-mill disagreement. He didn't know where he stood with her, and it made his entire world unsteady.

Yun was already in Spelling's office, of course. So was Agent Olsen, the middle-aged man Mulder remembered from the apartment Flagstad had rented. He must have been McKee's partner, Mulder guessed, assigned to keep an eye on the new agent. Spelling himself was on the phone discussing retrieved evidence, but he hung up not long after Mulder, Scully and Krycek had come in.

"Sit down," he said, gesturing at the chairs that had been dragged in to cluster around the desk. Spelling didn't have a particularly large office; there wasn't room for a conference table. "I'm sorry we're a bit crowded, I forgot that Agent Olsen would have to be here." Spelling glanced at Krycek. "And I wasn't expecting you to bring your former suspect, either. I don't quite understand what his position is in this investigation," the sudden quirk of Krycek's mouth spoke volumes, and Mulder had to look away quite quickly, "but it doesn't seem to me that he belongs in even an informal debriefing."

"He's a crucial witness to what was happening in the house on Russian Hill," Scully pointed out, putting her coffee cup down on a corner of Spelling's desk. "He saw things Agent Mulder was not in a position to notice. We may as well take his statement here and now as part of this meeting, to save time."

Mulder chose a chair with solid armrests and put his styrofoam coffee cup on one of them, stretching his legs out and starting to extract the sandwiches from the bag. "Scully, I think this one's yours." He handed it over to her, then glanced at Krycek. "Steamed tofu with alfalfa sprouts and banana slices, was that yours or mine?"

"Very funny, Mulder." But Krycek was grinning again as he took the sandwich and started to unwrap it carefully. "We forgot to get chips."

"Yeah, but I bought some of those chocolate chip cookies — the ones that were shaped like alien heads." Mulder bit into his sandwich and closed his eyes in simple pleasure. It hurt his mouth, but it was worth it. When he opened his eyes again he saw Olsen look almost pleadingly at Spelling, who frowned.

"Agent Mulder. No doubt you cultivate your reputation for eccentricity with care, but I would appreciate it if you didn't do it in my office." Spelling certainly didn't possess Skinner's talent for understated menace, but he knew how to make his annoyance felt in his voice. "Now if we can get down to business?"

The business, such as it was, was slow and uninspired. Yun recapitulated the progress of the investigation, starting with the first murder and ending with the discovery of Margit Flagstad's house in the property records. He took his time about it, and kept the references to Mulder's contributions to a minimum. Mulder wasn't surprised. He concentrated on his sandwich, and thought about Yun's future with the Bureau. The man was so nakedly ambitious, it was almost embarrassing to behold, a bit like watching Tom Colton. No — Mulder had to take that thought back — Martin Yun wasn't quite as bad as Colton. But he could get that way if he didn't rein himself in.

Somebody should rein him in, anyway, Mulder thought idly and again contemplated the idea of calling Michelle. The chuckle he had to suppress at that idea distracted him enough that Spelling had to say his name twice before he realized that he was being asked to review his profile and explain the conclusions he'd drawn and what had caused him to find and enter the Flagstad house this afternoon.

Yun made a sour face at that reference. Mulder wiped his hands on a paper napkin and picked up his coffee, which was still decently warm. He sipped at it while he organized his thoughts. "I was originally brought in because Agent Yun thought there might be a religious significance to some part of the killer's behavior." He glanced at Martin Yun almost affectionately. "But it seemed to me when I went over the material, particularly the descriptions of what the killer did to the victims' bodies, that the pattern was suggestive of a type of non-religious belief that has come to be quite familiar to me in recent years."

Scully looked at him at that, and Krycek seemed to be hiding a smile. Mulder went on to explain in detail his deductions about the killer's obsession with abductions and abductees, and the investigations that had allowed him to gradually track the man down in the physical world. When he described his second interview with Mrs. Gutierrez, Spelling interrupted him. "So you really think that Flagstad — Ellis — hypnotized this woman into believing that he was an FBI agent?"

"No, not exactly." Mulder dug into the paper bag for a chocolate chip cookie and bit into it. Spelling looked mollified, but lost that look quickly when Mulder went on, "I believe that Flagstad's abilities must have been linked to hypnotism, but they went beyond it, and I have no clear explanation for the power he possessed to manipulate people to a greater or lesser degree. Agent Scully and I have come across at least one case previously where an unusual mental ability of the same type was linked to a brain tumor. It's possible that the autopsy can show some similar—"

"Spooky, come on," Yun said impatiently. "That's ridiculous. The old lady didn't want to have to admit to you that she'd been taken in by whatever line he fed her, so she made up a story. It was all in her imagination."

Mulder looked up abruptly at Yun. "And the victims who let Flagstad dig into their faces with a rusty old key, the victims who weren't bound or drugged but just lay there, fully conscious, while he did that to them — I suppose it was all in their imagination, too?" The cookie broke to pieces as his fingers clenched on it. "What's your explanation for that, Martin? Do you have one?"

"Some new drug," Yun shot back, "some designer drug that our labs can't trace yet. That's a lot more likely than that he just waved his hands at them and they went along like lambs to the slaughter."

"Agent Scully," Spelling tried to put in, "is it possible something of that kind might have been overlooked in the autopsies that would explain why the victims—"

"Some new drug?" Mulder leaned forward in his chair. If he'd had the talents of a Modell or a Flagstad himself, he would have tried to shove the truth into Martin Yun's dense head. "There was no drug involved! I'm not sure how he did it, but I'm willing to swear he didn't drug me."

"What the hell is that supposed to prove?" Yun asked in mingled annoyance and bewilderment. "You're not one of the victims!"

"I almost was. You don't know what went on in that house. Listen—"

"Agent Mulder!" Spelling's voice, raised to a volume that was impossible to ignore, cut through the heated discussion. "Agent Yun! This is getting us nowhere. Agent Mulder, please continue where you were."

"But—" He caught Scully's eyes, read the message there. Mulder drew himself upright and then sank back in his chair again, making an effort to unwind. He was the one who was being asked to continue, not Yun. He would just have to work his way around to this gradually. Taking another sip of coffee, he found that it was lukewarm now. "Yes, sir."

He looked around at the others present. Yun was still leaning forward, bracing his hands on his thighs, looking ready to erupt out of his chair in response to what Mulder might say. Scully was watching him as if she knew that her very presence was support and comfort. Maybe she did know. Spelling was waiting, brows drawn together, an expression of mingled anticipation and skepticism on his face. It was quite a change from reporting to Skinner, whose unyielding demeanor often made Mulder feel that he was talking to an Easter Island stone deity. Olsen was still looking as if he wondered what he was doing here. And Krycek — Krycek had grabbed the chocolate chip cookies away from Mulder at some point.

"Agent Mulder?" Spelling prodded him.

Mulder took a deep breath. "Flagstad was focused on, obsessed with, a couple that he believed to be tainted by their voluntary association with alien technology. He was an abductee himself, although he had repressed those memories for a long time. He chose victims who had also been abducted and what he did to them was meant as a message to the people he ultimately intended to kill."

"Agent Mulder—"

"When he had selected his victims, Flagstad notified them by sending them a dove feather, a message that none of them understood. He arranged a meeting — he was part of the network, people trusted him, believed him to be harmless. Then he hypnotized the victims into coming with him to a secluded place he had selected carefully. The placement of the victims is crucial, both the geographic locations and the similarities of the sites. Flagstad meant—"


"—meant to return them to the earth." He looked at Yun, looked at Spelling, willed them to be silent. "They went along with him and lay down in the graves he had chosen for them, and let him cut into their faces with that key, the key to his old home. Then he killed them, and marked them with white feathers, symbols of innocence, stitching the feathers to the genitals as a sign that these people were untainted and could be allowed to reproduce."

"When they were already dead?" Spelling asked, bewildered.

"I believe that Flagstad thought, or at least hoped, that the innocent would live again, either with the sunrise, or with the killing of the final pair of victims."

"That's... an interesting possibility," Spelling said. "But the idea that Flagstad hypnotized his victims still seems far-fetched to me. I think it's not unlikely that we'll find some obscure drug among his possessions, something that will provide a more mundane explanation for how he controlled the victims."

"Sir, there's more that indicates—" Mulder was about to go back to detailing the information Mrs. Gutierrez had given him when a sharp knock on the door distracted him. The door opened almost before the sound had died away, and Gabriel Reeves walked into the room. Reeves looked annoyed; his mouth was set and he squared his shoulders as he looked at all of them, his eyes lingering longest on Martin Yun.

"Detective Reeves," Spelling half rose from his chair, then sat back down again, "come in. Take a chair," he gestured around the room, "somewhere."

"I heard you caught the killer," Reeves said, his voice even. "Good of you to tell me." He came towards them, and Yun, who was closest to the door, got to his feet. For a moment Mulder thought he was going to witness a physical fight in the SAC's office, but Yun just shoved the chair he'd been sitting on in Reeves's direction, and went to perch on Spelling's desk next to where Mulder was sitting. "You didn't think I might want to be in on that?"

"That was partly my fault, detective," Scully said. She didn't sound very apologetic. "The operation was rushed because I believed that Agent Mulder was in the house with the killer, and I wanted to get him out of there as fast as possible. I assumed that Agent Yun would contact you."

"So did I," Reeves said pointedly, sitting down in the chair Yun had left for him. "Would anyone care to recap recent events?"

"Agent Mulder was just describing how he deduced the location of the killer," Spelling said with a look at Mulder, who pulled himself a bit more upright in his chair and made a half-hearted attempt at maintaining a professional demeanor. He resumed his explanation, quoting most of his profile from memory as he went along. This was what they wanted from him: what Yun had hoped for, what Spelling had expected. He felt a sudden distaste for his own role, for the whole situation.

Then he looked across at Scully, and her level gaze reminded him he wasn't alone here. And it wasn't as though he hated the work. It was just the way people responded to his methods and theories that got to him now and then. He wasn't sure if it was better or worse these days. The transition from being the apple of Behavioral Science's eye to becoming the Bureau's black hidden-in-the-basement sheep had changed people's attitude towards him, but it hadn't changed him much, and sometimes he wondered why no one seemed to see that.

Mulder worked his way through the chain of reasoning and events to the morning's investigation of Flagstad's rented room, and his choice not to take McKee along as he went to look around the neighborhood. "I don't know what would have happened if she'd been with me when I found him, but—"

"Agent Mulder, let's leave those speculations aside and backtrack a moment." Spelling leaned his elbows on the desk and focused on Mulder. "You found a house you were convinced was the killer's new hiding place, and you didn't call in to check this with the property records, nor to request backup. You just went in without a word to anyone."

"I wasn't certain that Flagstad would be there," Mulder said, which was, despite what Krycek had said, true. "I wanted to see if there was any trace of his presence in the house."

"In the future, Agent Mulder, I would suggest that you follow proper procedure," Spelling said dryly. "It will save you a great deal of trouble when your next psych evaluation comes around."

Mulder opened his mouth to argue, then shut it again. If he tried to say anything in his defence, Spelling's next step would be to ask him how he thought an agent's choice to go alone, without backup and without notifying anyone, into a house containing a psychotic serial killer, would be classified. That wasn't really a question he would like to answer. It hadn't been like that. Well, not quite like that. He knew he'd been reckless, but the strongest feeling driving him had been the desire to solve the case.

Instead of attempting to explain this, he started to describe his encounter with Flagstad, recounting their conversation word for word. "I'm not sure how to define what the man was doing. I was completely conscious — well, until he knocked me out — but I gradually lost control of my own actions."

There was a small crease between Scully's brows as she listened to him. "Are you certain that it wasn't just a result of the physical violence he was inflicting on you?"

He glanced up at her. "Scully, I had my gun pointed at him, and he walked up to me and took it out of my hand, and I let him do it." Mulder frowned at the memory. He had been completely helpless. While it had been happening, he'd been protected from his own reactions to what Flagstad was doing by what Flagstad was doing, but now he started to feel the aftershocks of fear and anger, and tried to hide them from the others in the room. "Whatever he was doing, it made me completely responsive to his suggestions. I didn't even try to hit him back."

Those words brought other memories. Mulder shifted his gaze from Scully to Krycek and was met with a long serious look, a small lift of the eyebrow, before long lashes dropped down to veil Krycek's eyes again. Mulder took the hint. Silent communication between Scully and himself had sometimes occasioned comments in meetings much like this one; he didn't need anyone to think he was somehow in collusion with Krycek.

"So you're suggesting that Flagstad hypnotized you?" There was open doubt in Spelling's voice. "My understanding is that no one can be hypnotized to do something that's really against his will..." His voice trailed off.

"If you're asking do I have a subconscious desire to get beaten up by psychotic thugs, I can assure you that the answer is no," Mulder said tightly. "As I have told you — repeatedly — Flagstad's ability went beyond ordinary hypnotism. It seems to have been carried or at least initiated by some kind of visual cue that put the victims in a receptive state." He turned abruptly to Krycek. "When you were in the house with Flagstad, did you ever look directly at him?"

Krycek shook his head. "No, I didn't." He shifted himself a little more towards Spelling. "Agent Mulder's profile, as well as my own previous knowledge of Flagstad's interest in hypnotism, had led me to believe that this would be an unwise move. But I didn't get the impression that Flagstad was trying to establish any kind of control over me."

"Neither did I," Mulder agreed, remembering the conversation between Flagstad and Krycek. It had seemed to him that Flagstad had believed Krycek would cooperate of his own free will once he understood what Flagstad was trying to do. "But he did over me. He implanted some kind of command in my mind that kept me trapped in that room — he didn't even lock the door." His legs had been free, the door had been standing ajar, and he'd been trapped and helpless all the same. It was a humiliating memory. Had he really believed he would be able to resist Flagstad's powerful abilities at mind control? Krycek had been right, damn him.

"Agent Mulder, do you really expect us to believe that the killer was capable of manipulating you this way?" Spelling asked, the tilt of his head speaking volumes. "You admit there was a degree of physical violence involved, and you were unconscious at one point. You must have been in shock, disoriented—"

"Do you think I don't know what was happening to me? Do you think there's any other way to explain what happened to the people Flagstad killed?" He was all set to challenge Spelling outright; that was the second time the man had hinted and more than hinted that he didn't believe Mulder was thinking clearly. But then the phone on Spelling's desk rang, and Mulder accepted the interruption.

"Yes— Good. Was there anything that merits special attention? Do you think you can bring them by my office?"

Mulder looked away from Spelling again, letting the man's voice fade into a background buzz. The SAC's attitude now was so different from what it had been during most of the case, he wondered if Yun had managed to put in a good hour's work while he'd been at the hotel changing his clothes. Or it could be that Spelling was only pleasant to people while he wanted something from them. He had Flagstad now, or at least Flagstad's body, and perhaps he felt that it was time for him to send Spooky Mulder back to the obscurity of a basement office in DC.

Reeves straightened up out of his sulk and said something low-voiced to Krycek, who smiled and handed him half a chocolate chip cookie. Mulder wasn't even aware that he was watching the interaction between them until Yun leaned forward and touched his shoulder. "You'd think it would make some kind of difference that one's a criminal and one's a cop. I guess it's true that cocksuckers stick together no matter what."

Mulder glanced up and contemplated idly what Martin Yun's nose would look like with another break in it, then sighed. "Yeah, just like Freemasons, Martin. Don't tell me you really believe in all those weird conspiracy theories." It gave him a certain amount of satisfaction to see the startled look in Yun's eyes. "You really don't like him, do you," he asked.

Instead of blowing up at him, Yun thought for a moment. "Actually he's starting to grow on me. But don't tell him I said that."

"Oh, Reeves." Mulder almost grinned. "I'd figured that out already. I was talking about Krycek."

That earned him an even more startled look and a slow shake of the head. "Mulder, you told me he's a renegade agent and a killer, why the hell should I like him?"

Spelling was wrapping up his phone conversation, attempting to keep it short, and the meeting would be resumed any minute. "Why indeed," Mulder muttered quietly, and subsided into his chair again.

"Agent Sedley will come by shortly with the preliminary list of what was found in Flagstad's possession both in the rented room and in the house," Spelling said, putting the phone down.

Mulder looked up. "Did they find the answering machine tape that was taken from the Gutierrez house? Do they know what's on it?"

"You'll have to ask Agent Sedley when she gets here." Spelling had gotten to his feet while talking to Sedley; now he leaned forward over the desk and surveyed them all, bringing them subtly to attention. "Agent Yun, I want you to assist Josh Simon in preparing a statement. We've already informed the press that the killer is no longer at large, but Simon's working on a longer press release. He wants you in the spotlight with him."

The frown on Yun's face certainly wasn't feigned, but at the same time he looked a little pleased. "I suppose," Mulder drawled, "the press release won't say anything about Flagstad being shot by an agent who is now on the run."

Spelling twisted sharply to face him. "You're damn right it won't. Until we catch McKee, I don't want a word about her actions to reach the media. I've heard what you and your partner have to say, Agent Mulder, but there could be a good reason for what she did, and I won't kill a promising young agent's career before I know what's really going on."

"She killed her own career," that was Krycek speaking up, unexpectedly, "when she first appeared on another payroll than the FBI's." His words were hard but his eyes were oddly gentle, watching Spelling.

Mulder had just been feeling a certain reluctant respect for Spelling, for the faith he had in his people. He wondered if Krycek felt the same thing. He'd never told Krycek about the disbelief that had been in Skinner's face and voice on the morning of Krycek's own disappearance. Maybe he should have... or maybe he should never mention it.

A knock on the door was Sedley, who entered with a sheaf of papers in her long, narrow, dark-skinned hands. She was tall and very slender, a black heron of a woman. Scully turned to smile warmly at her, and an answering smile lit Sedley's face before she went up to the desk. "Sir, I have the lists here."

"Was there an answering machine tape among the things retrieved from the Flagstad house?" Mulder asked.

"Yes." Sedley half-turned towards him, and flipped through her papers quickly. "I have a transcript of the message here," she handed it to him.

Mulder grabbed the paper and scanned the lines. There had only been one message on the tape, after Carlos Gutierrez' 'leave your name and number at the tone.' A woman's voice. Carlos, it's Fran. I — we need to talk to you. I think you could be in danger, Carlos. You and Suzanne. Please call.

Fran. Frankie. Frankie Lewis, it had to be. The message had been left before she'd known that Flagstad had gotten to Gutierrez, but well after she'd figured out that the killer was after her and Grazzini. So she'd been trying to warn those of her friends that she'd perceived as being at risk. That was generous of her, and more than a little risky. Mulder tapped his knee and wondered if there had been messages from Lewis and Grazzini on anyone else's machine as well, and if those messages had been retrieved, or were already deleted.

"Can you run an analysis on this tape," he looked up to ask, "for background noises, anything that might give a clue where she was calling from?"

"I suppose," Sedley said, then caught herself up and looked towards Spelling for clues. "We could, if it's important."

"What is it, Agent Mulder?" Spelling asked, reaching out for the transcript. He scanned quickly down the lines. "Who's this Fran woman?"

"I believe she's a Frankie Lewis," Mulder said, glancing at Krycek to see his eyes widening. "And she and her husband Dario Grazzini were the ultimate targets of Flagstad's murders, the people he had mistaken myself and Agent Scully for. We should do everything we can to find them, although it's possible that they've left the Bay Area already."

"Flagstad's intended final victims?" Spelling tapped a finger against the paper. "The people you referred to as the templates against which Flagstad measured all the others, the ones he may have been sending the message to?" Mulder nodded. "I think it's a good idea to try to find them, Agent Mulder, but now that Flagstad is no longer putting them and other people at risk, it can't be a high-priority investigation."

"Sir, it's extremely important that we find them as soon as possible. These people are the reason Flagstad committed his crimes."

"Yeah, but do we have any reason to suspect them of being involved in criminal activities?" Martin Yun put in. "You can't justify a full Bureau manhunt for people who haven't done anything except attract the attention of a killer."

"These people are connected to the same group that Agent McKee was suborned by," Mulder said. "They are carrying some vital information—"

Yun cut him off with a wave of the hand. "Spooky, what was that you said to me ten minutes ago about conspiracy theories? A psychotic killer apparently believed that, but that doesn't make it true."

About to snap back at Yun, Mulder was distracted as Spelling slapped his hand against his desk, calling for silence again. "Agent Scully. Do you share Agent Mulder's opinion on this?"

"Yes, sir," she said briskly, and Mulder wished he could kiss her. "I believe we should make every effort to find Ms. Lewis and Mr. Grazzini, not only because it may shed a clearer light on Flagstad's motivations but also because they have information that is not only at the heart of this series of murders but crucial to the understanding of a conspiracy," her quick sideways glance at Yun was level and calm, "that involves far greater and more serious issues than the corruption of junior Federal agents."

"I see." Spelling seemed to have a problem with meeting Scully's clear, unwavering gaze. "Agent Scully, I think it will be best if you and Agent Mulder make this matter a separate investigation, and clear it with your supervisor before you proceed. Meanwhile I'll see if I can spare you any resources after we've wrapped up the Flagstad case."

"Sir, this is part of the Flagstad case!" Mulder leaned forward, past Yun, who was partly obscuring his view of Spelling. "Maybe even the most important part. If you want that profile to be complete—"

"I'm not saying I don't want all the available information," Spelling said, his voice sharpening. "I'm just saying that I don't think we can make closure on this case contingent on the chance that you may or may not find these people, who according to your own estimate are likely to have left the city, perhaps even left the state. There are many other investigations that have been shortchanged due to the Flagstad case. My resources are finite, Agent Mulder." He turned his head away. "Thank you, Agent Sedley, that will be all."

"Yes, sir." Sedley shifted back from the desk and looked down to catch Mulder's eyes. "Agent Mulder? I was asked to pass on a message to you from Ms. Roe. She wants you to know that there will be a meeting later tonight to honor the memory of Blaine Hibbert, and she was hoping you might like to say a few words." Sedley didn't sound as if she thought that would be a good idea. "Ten o'clock, at the Happy Clam Café in Berkeley."

"Thank you." He met Sedley's doubting glance with the beginnings of a smile, and to his surprise she suddenly smiled back warmly before nodding to Spelling and turning to leave the room. Mulder stretched his legs out and contemplated this new possibility while watching the scuffed toes of his shoes. Most of Blaine Hibbert's network of abductees would probably show up at this café. It would be the perfect place to start looking for Lewis and Grazzini.

Raising his eyes again, he saw that Krycek was frowning at him, frowning very discreetly, but that little crease at the bridge of his nose was there. Mulder wondered if Krycek had something against the hunt for the missing consortium scientists. Krycek must have been able to figure out that this would happen, and he'd still chosen to tell Mulder about it. He would just have to cope.

"Now perhaps we can get this meeting back on track," Spelling said. "Agent Mulder?"

"Yes, sir." He described how Flagstad had confined him to the room at the back of the house, without being interrupted this time, although Yun looked openly skeptical, Spelling carefully neutral. Mulder was about to begin to detail the conversation he'd overheard on Krycek's arrival, when Spelling's phone rang again.

"Yes," Spelling rapped out, more sharply this time. "Yes — when? I see. All right. I'll be there." The phone was slammed down with unnecessary force, and Spelling's breath hissed between his teeth. "It looks as though we're going to have to cut this short. Another case just blew up in our faces. Bank fraud," he muttered, making it more of a curse than an explanation.

"Not the Senator Alstrom case?" Yun slid off the desk to stand upright.

"I need to be there," Spelling said, without confirming or denying. "We'll continue this later — I'll schedule a new meeting as soon as I can get away." He picked up a few things from his desk and shoved them haphazardly into his pockets. "My apologies. Agent Yun, can you wrap things up here?"

Spelling was halfway to the door before Yun answered, "Yes, sir, of course." As soon as he was gone, the agent sank back against the desk again. "Hell."

"So you've got a crooked senator?" Mulder asked blandly. "Sounds like fun. Come on now, Martin. Take charge. Get on top of the situation." The suddenly blazingly angry look in Yun's eyes made him realize what he'd said, and he nearly laughed out loud. It hadn't been his intention to needle the man that way, but he couldn't feel sorry for it, either. He looked at his watch. "Scully and I are going to Berkeley in an hour. Better make it quick."

"I don't think there's much to say," Yun said. "Unless," he turned his head, "you have something you'd like to add, Olsen."

"No." Olsen shook his head quickly with the air of a man who wanted nothing more than to leave.

"Good. We still need to take a statement from him," Yun jerked his head towards Krycek.

"Yes, we do," Scully agreed, rising to her feet as she spoke. "I would appreciate it, Agent Yun, if you and Detective Reeves could handle that. Agent Mulder and I have a few things to discuss." Her eyes pinned him in place. He nodded wordlessly. "We'll be back later to pick Krycek up."

Yun raised an eyebrow. "You're taking him with you to Berkeley? What is he, Mary's little lamb?"

"He's the only one who can identify Lewis and Grazzini," Scully said, a shade of boredom in her voice hinting that she really shouldn't have had to explain that. "Mulder."

"Let's go out for coffee," he suggested, getting to his feet. "The stuff they have here is an X-file, I swear."

It was coming, then, the talk he dreaded. His mind toyed with possible evasions and distractions. He could certainly think of things that they hadn't done, things that needed to be investigated more closely. But Scully didn't look as though she would take 'but first we have to' for an answer this time. The best he could hope for was to get them out of here before it all started.

She walked ahead of him out of the office. As he followed, he turned his head towards Krycek and collected another frown, but this one looked merely concerned. Mulder felt a sudden crazy impulse to do something, say something, but nothing came to mind except touches he would never be able to explain away and then he was past Krycek's chair, out the door. In the corridor outside, he easily caught up with Scully, but didn't try to outpace her.

"Is there a place nearby that has good coffee?" she asked in the elevator, going down.

"I don't know. There must be something." Looking down at her, he added, "I feel like I'm in a tumbril on the way to the guillotine."

Scully raised her face, tilting her head back so far it had to be uncomfortable, to look straight at him. "Is that how you think of me? Am I your personal judge, jury and executioner now?"

The conflicting impulses to snap at her and to apologize cancelled each other out in the time it took for them to reach the ground floor and step outside. On an impulse, he put his hand carefully in the small of her back, not quite embracing her, as they walked through the foyer and out into the street. The touch gave him balance, and an answer. "I think you'll always be my judge in some ways, Scully. There isn't anyone else whose opinion matters quite so much to me."

"There are moments when I wish you would remember that," she said with a barely audible sigh. They turned left and strolled slowly along the pavement. "But even more," these words came more slowly, "I wish you didn't have to remember that."

Ducking out of the path of a rotund bag lady, Mulder put her words away, to contemplate later. They went on in silence until they came to what looked like a brand new place, Claire's Coffee House in pink neon over the door, three high, round-topped tables to stand by, two of them occupied, full length glass windows, and the intoxicating scent of coffee beans being ground on the premises. Mulder led the way inside. He smiled at the pale, freckled woman behind the counter and ordered a double espresso and a glass of water; his various aches and pains were catching up with him, slowing him down. "Scully, do you have any—"

"Painkillers?" She pulled a small white bottle from her pocket with a slight flourish, and handed it to him. Then she stood hesitating for so long over the selection of coffee that he abandoned her and took his cup and glass to the one free table, downing a couple of pills with the water before sipping the espresso.

Scully came back and set her cup down, and he leaned over the tabletop to sniff at it. "What did you get?"


"Artificial flavoring," Mulder said. "I mean, it's probably not the real thing. You know that coffee connoisseurs feel that the practice of adding various flavors to coffee is—"

"Mulder, you are not a coffee connoisseur." She sniffed at the cup herself, then drank with every sign of pleasure. "And we didn't come here to talk about coffee."

"No." He retreated into his own small cup for a moment. There were any number of places this conversation could start, all of them unpleasant. Mulder supposed the best thing would be to face up to it, to be frankly repentant and open, but he was at a loss for words. He didn't want to lose her. More than anything else, he didn't want to lose her friendship, her honest, clear-eyed affection, whatever measure of respect she had for him. But not even to keep Scully could he completely disavow whatever was between him and Alex Krycek — what had started out as a splinter of wood piercing his skin had worked its way deep, and would not be dislodged.

"I'm sorry for what I said this morning," she said, startling him into looking at her again. "Some of it, at least. I was shocked; I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I'm sorry I called you sick and twisted. I was angry."

"I noticed," he muttered, wondering if he had the guts to ask if she still believed he was sick and twisted. The cup clattered against the saucer as he put it down. Shaking hands. Jesus. It took all his courage not to start speaking the words that presented themselves so easily to his mind and tongue, all the glib deflections, deceptions, counter-accusations that would steer this conversation in a different direction.

"I'm not going to apologize for being angry, Mulder," she told him seriously. "Especially after the talk we had at the restaurant last night. I still can't believe you did that to me. You knew, you must have known then that you were attracted to Krycek and you let me sit there and try to warn you."

"What was I supposed to say, Scully? Don't worry, I don't mind, I think he's cute?" He paused on a drawn-in breath, but she didn't say anything so he went on, trying to sound analytical, "Is that it, is that the real problem, that you feel you made a fool of yourself, like you said this morning? Is that what is really bothering you?"

"No." She raised her chin and hit him with her bluest, steeliest gaze, and he realized he'd been doing it anyway, and that she wasn't going to let him get away with it. "The real problem here is that you slept with someone we both know is an amoral killer. And you lied to me about it."

"I did not lie to you about it!" He sucked in air again and brought his voice down to a civilized level, hoping the other people in the coffee shop weren't starting to look at them. His battered face was bad enough, he didn't need to draw additional attention to himself by yelling. "I just didn't tell you about it, because I thought—" Mulder sighed. "Because I didn't think. Scully, I didn't know then that it would happen, you have to understand that."

"Are you trying to tell me that it was an accident?" With one eyebrow raised, she was a picture of polite disbelief.

"An impulse. And you don't have to tell me it's different from picking up some Reese's peanut butter cups when you're standing in the check-out line. I know that."

"Do you? Mulder, I would have expected you of all men to be capable of thinking with something other than your—"

"Scully. Haven't you ever done something — even knowing that you'll regret it — that you just couldn't stop yourself from doing?"

To his surprise, that seemed to stop her in her tracks. She looked at him for a few moments with a strangely distant look in her eyes, then glanced down and seemed to regroup while she tucked her hair back with one hand. The small grooming gesture told him he'd rocked her, even if he wasn't quite sure how. "Yes, I have," she said finally, quietly. "But Mulder, Krycek. You know what he's done—"

"So do you, and you were trading jokes with him earlier today, you backed each other up when you were telling me off—"

"That's hardly the same level of intimacy," she shot back. "The way you've been acting lately, I need all the support I can get." He clenched his jaw, felt his tongue move to spit out some hurtful comment his mind hadn't quite put together yet, and then she leaned forward around the edge of the small table and put a hand on his arm. "No — I'm sorry. I didn't mean that. But I don't understand it. Why, Mulder, what made you do this? You suddenly decided out of the blue that it would be a good idea to sleep with Krycek?"

"No." He shook his head quickly. Opportunity had given the impulse free rein, but it had been driven by all the pent-up feelings and frustrations of the past five months and more. "This didn't start last night, Scully. In Leyden Creek—"

"You and Krycek — in Leyden Creek — you were sleeping together then?" The momentary softening of her attitude vanished and she drew back from him again, looking hurt and disappointed.

"No. Well, yes — no — in a way. It started there." He braced his elbows against the table and dropped his head forward into his hands. It felt as though she was drilling a hole in his head with her eyes. "No, that's not true either. It started back in Washington three years ago, when I was assigned a new partner. God, Scully, I don't think I can explain this."

"You'd better try," she said. "I want to understand what is going on with you, but this — this is just so far removed from anything I would ever have imagined." She looked at him searchingly.

"I know you don't like to consider extreme possibilities," he said, anticipating the exact shade of amused irritation on her face. "Did you even know that I'm attracted to men as well as women?"

"No." It was less convenient for Scully to lean on the table; it was too high for her. She laid one forearm flat against the table top and stirred her vanilla-flavored coffee with the other hand. "And it feels strange not to have known something as important as that about you. I thought," she looked a little unhappy, "that we were close enough that you wouldn't feel uncomfortable telling me things like that."

"It's not that I would have felt uncomfortable," he said, and reviewed his feelings to see if he was telling the truth. It was hard to tell. "The subject just never came up. I don't know what you're imagining, but I haven't been having this wild private life that I haven't told you about, Scully."

"You don't have the time for a wild private life," she told him. "And whether your decision not to tell me about that was conscious or unconscious doesn't matter. You have a right to your privacy, Mulder. But of all the ways I could have found out about your bisexuality, this is the last I would have imagined."

"Yeah," he muttered, picking his coffee cup up again and tilting it this way and that, shifting the dregs around.

"I don't care if you sleep with men. That's your business. It's the fact that it's Krycek that troubles me." Scully leaned forward even more, looking intently at him. "I thought you hated him, Mulder, and I wouldn't blame you for feeling that way. But if you do, then why did you have sex with him?"

"I don't hate him," he said helplessly. "Well, sometimes I think I do. But I don't, not any more." He tugged at his hair. "It's complicated."

"You're the psychologist, Mulder," she reminded him, not unkindly. "You said it started back when he was your partner?"

"Yes. No." Looking up, he saw that she was about to lose patience with his inability to say one thing and stick with it. "It depends on how you look at it," he said quickly. "Back when Krycek and I were assigned together, I — I liked him. I wanted to trust him, I almost did trust him. He was a good partner, we worked well together, we connected in a way that — that we still do." Connected so well that it unsettled him; his belief in Krycek's essential otherness was rocked by the eerie way their minds could run on such amazingly close parallel lines.

"He's been helpful on this case," Scully admitted. "Not just as a witness or a source of information. I noticed that myself. I actually told him the other day that he must have been a good agent."

Mulder nodded. "He was. And I thought if I couldn't be with you, he was the best possible alternative. And when I realized that he wasn't who he seemed to be, and that he'd helped them take you, I spent a lot of time hoping he'd find a hell and rot in it. And it was worse because I'd liked him, because..."

"Because you'd been attracted to him?" she filled in for him.

"Yeah." Mulder shook his head. "I don't know. I suppose I was, but after he was gone I tried to tell myself I hadn't been. It seemed like the ultimate idiocy — it was the first time in years I'd met someone that I was interested in, and he turned out to be a Consortium hit man. It shook my faith in my own paranoia. I just wanted to forget."

He tried for a smile, and Scully smiled with him. She had curved both hands around her coffee cup and drank slowly from it. "But you know what he is now," she said, turning serious again. "And it isn't just what you found out then, three years ago. The crimes that he has committed against us, against our families, are almost impossible to forgive. I realize that you find him attractive, maybe more than just physically, but..."

"I don't know what he is now," Mulder contradicted her. "I don't think you do either. I don't think he knows." He thought about Krycek's unreadable eyes, and his soft, tender mouth. Killer. Lover. "Things changed in Leyden Creek, Scully. Don't tell me you didn't notice."

The group of people at the table nearest to them collected their bags and clattered out; the coffee house grew quieter. Behind the counter, the red-headed woman busied herself sorting mugs and glasses. Scully shifted on her feet. "Yes," she said slowly. "I couldn't help feeling a little sorry for him. He was so obviously hurting, and you were being so hard on him."

"I didn't want to feel sorry for him. He told me he killed my father." Mulder rubbed the ball of his thumb against the scabbed-over split in his lip. It hurt.

"You already knew that."

"It was different to hear him admit it. In Hong Kong he said he didn't do it, and I didn't believe him. In Leyden Creek he said he did it, and I almost didn't want to believe him." Mulder tried to stare out the window, but it was dark outside and light in here and all he saw was his own reflection, and Scully's. They looked like a Hopper painting. "Because if I believed him I'd have to do something. Scully, where do you draw the line between justice and vengeance?"

She frowned, and hesitated for a few moments before answering. "When I found Cardinale, I wanted to kill him. I wanted to shoot him there and then for what he'd done. It seemed monstrously unfair to me that this creep of a man could be alive and able to walk around when my sister was dead. She would have led a rich, wonderful, loving life, and Cardinale was wasting his breathing hours on hurting other people."

That hurt was still there in her voice, a sorrow that had not grown gentler. It didn't surprise him. He had always known that grief was not a linear, time-bound emotion. "I'm sorry about Melissa," he said awkwardly. "But you didn't shoot Cardinale."

"No. He was terrified, and babbling, and I realized that he was almost convinced I would kill him, could see that I was ready to do it. And what I saw in his face then made me understand that I was about to pull the trigger not on Luis Cardinale, but on my own principles." Scully shifted her weight to the other foot, and raised her head to look at him again. "But you don't go around shooting at Krycek. Apparently you just beat him up."

Instead of all the rational defences that he could come up with, the sidetracking remarks, the explanations and excuses, what he actually said was, "He drives me crazy."

Scully considered this for a while, picking her spoon up and tapping it softly against the side of the cup. It was an annoying little sound and Mulder wished she'd stop doing it. Finally she said, "Mulder, I think that once we get back to DC, you should make an appointment with one of the Bureau psychologists. Or someone who's non-Bureau, if you would feel more comfortable with that. I think—"

"You think I need professional help," he said dryly. "Scully, I am a psychologist."

"You're also confused," she pointed out. "Conflicted. Mulder, I'm your friend, and I'll talk this through with you for as long as we both can stand it. But the mind isn't my area of expertise, and any help I can offer can only be that of a well-meaning layperson."

"The Bureau shrinks hate me," he said. "It doesn't matter what I say, they're always convinced I'm trying to manipulate them."

Mulder thought she would answer, 'And you're not?' but instead she just repeated, "So go to someone outside the Bureau. It's just a suggestion, Mulder, but I think you need to discuss this with someone who can meet you on your own terms. If there is something between you and Alex Krycek that involves this degree of violence—"

"No!" He stared at her, appalled. "God, Scully, no. That's not the way it is at all."

"The fact that you apologized for it doesn't mean it didn't happen, Mulder. You know it's very common for people who are trapped in abusive relationships to believe they're making a fresh start when they're just beginning the next cycle of recriminations and more abuse."

"Scully." He fought the impulse to sweep the coffee cups from the table and beat his head against its laminated surface. It might make him feel a little better, but it wouldn't improve things in the long run. "I am not having a relationship with Alex Krycek." Mulder considered that for a couple of seconds. "I'm definitely not in the middle of an abusive relationship with Alex Krycek. We just had sex. Once. Do you really think that I'm — that we're — do you really think I could do that, Scully?" He didn't know whether to scream at her, or cry.

Scully looked at him seriously. "I found you about to hit him, after having slept with him. And today you admitted you'd hit him before, repeatedly. What was I supposed to think?" Then she breathed deeply and softened, her eyes warmly concerned. "I'm sorry. I was trying to shock you. Sometimes... Mulder, I know you have a high degree of self-awareness in some areas, but in others you don't. It's only natural, we're all like that. And in stressful situations, it's sometimes hard to prevent patterns that you've learned in childhood from breaking through."

The espresso machine wheezed asthmatically, a little prelude, before settling into its steady hissing that almost covered the clatter of cups and spoons. It was dark outside and the pavement just in front of the coffee shop was bathed in pink light from the neon sign. People walked in and out of that light, hurrying on their way, barely glancing in through the windows to where Mulder stood with his shoulders hunched. He reached to take hold of his empty cup, but his hands were shaking again, trembling with ill-defined emotion, something that would not quite be anger, did not quite turn to tears.

With jerky abruptness, he stepped away from the table and walked blindly to the door, pushing it open, going outside. It didn't take him long to leave the embrace of the neon light and start to walk down the block, carefully looking where he was going, not wanting to walk right into someone. Long strides and deep breaths did nothing to settle him. He felt fractured, kaleidoscope colors without a pattern. All his words, all the fancy thematic structures in his mind seemed to have deserted him.

It was getting cooler, the temperature dropping down from its moderate heatwave high to something more normal for a San Francisco summer evening. Even walking at a quick pace, he didn't break a sweat. A breeze met him, but he couldn't blame it for the rising tears, could only turn his head away from those he met and scrub surreptitiously at his eyes with the heel of his hand.

He didn't know how much knowledge there was in Scully's words and how much was guesswork. Maybe he should have stayed to ask her, but that was not a discussion he was prepared to have. It was enough that she had told him, indirectly, what he might turn into. It was enough that she had hinted, no matter how tenderly, that she thought it was possible. It was enough that he knew that she was right.

Reaching a corner, he turned left and went on walking. There were fewer people here and he could move faster. Fewer people to see him. In the grip of self-loathing, he looked on the dumpsters outside a restaurant's back entrance as possible hiding places. He went halfway down the block, and then without slowing down veered abruptly sideways and threw himself against the wall, so hard it almost knocked the breath from his lungs.

It hurt. Every bruise from the past couple of days was screaming when he reeled back and went on his slightly more unsteady way. It hurt but the pain was, in its way, cleansing. It was good pain, pain that let him know where he stood in the larger scheme of things. When he emerged onto another, wider street, he turned left again. Tilting his head back, he saw that the sky had grown low and cloudy over the streetlights. The people he met were wearing coats, huddling into them as if the temperature drop had surprised and offended them.

He had been honest in his apology, he knew that much, and had meant it as a promise. Now Scully had made him wonder how much he could believe in what he said. She was seeing him more clearly than he was seeing himself. It reminded him of a tarot reader he'd met once who had told him that she couldn't read the cards for herself because she got in the way. It was a good thing he could at least see others, or he would have wasted an expensive education.

The first chill drops of rain fell on him as he came to the next corner. Automatically turning left, he went briskly along the slight upslope, still feeling the echo of his deliberate collision with the wall in his body. He had known that this talk with Scully would be painful, but this wasn't something he had anticipated.

Still, it could have been worse. Much worse. She hadn't screamed, she hadn't run. Honesty compelled him to admit that she wasn't the one who was prone to walking out of emotionally threatening situations. Mulder lengthened his stride. Despite whatever considerable doubt she felt, she was still with him — making accusations that stung him down to his soul, but that was probably the price he had to pay for keeping her in his life. He could handle it. He could. He had to.

He went slowly around the last corner. Left. It wasn't far. Stopping outside the coffee house, he saw that Scully was still standing where he had left her. Not just that, but she had ordered another cup of coffee; steam rose up past her nose as she sipped at whatever revolting brew she had chosen this time — chocolate? Praline? More vanilla? Watching her when she didn't know he was doing it was a small pleasure. She was, left to her own devices, so perfectly Scully. It was all there, the way she moved, the thoughtful look, the promise of energy and smiles.

Mulder pushed the door open again and went back inside. She had her back to him, and he went around the small table, and stopped where he had been standing, and looked at her. "I just needed some air," he said. She regarded him steadily. "I think we should get back to what we were talking about before."

Scully tilted her head to one side and seemed to weigh possibilities in her mind. "We were talking about justice and vengeance," she said. "About how you felt when Krycek told you he killed your father." Mulder nodded. They could start again from there. "So did you believe him or not, in the end? And what did you decide to do?"

"He was crying," Mulder answered obliquely.

She looked surprised. "Krycek was crying?"

"Yeah." He could still see it, slow silent tears in a dark room, and the rain falling outside. That look in Krycek's eyes, half-wounded, half-defiant.

"Over killing your father?"

"Yes." It sounded strange when he said it.

"And that makes it all right?" she asked, not at all harshly.

"It changes things." It hadn't been the start of the changes and certainly not the end of them, but in that moment could be found some key to his own reactions, he thought, a pivot around which he had turned. The change in direction had perhaps been slight, but he had felt its effect then and he was feeling it now.

Scully looked at him as if what he'd said made perfect sense. Her open eyes hinted at surprise, and at a certain wonder. "Mulder, I think what you're trying to define isn't where to draw the line between justice and vengeance, but where to draw it between justice and mercy."

"Scully, I don't know what the hell I'm trying to do."

They shared a smile at that. He picked up her coffee cup and smelled it. Chocolate and mint. It didn't ask to be shared, so he put it down and finished his glass of water instead. Scully checked her watch quickly, then propped her chin in her hand. "But I think sleeping with Krycek is attempting to take forgiveness a step too far."

Mulder drew a deep breath and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Scully, on some level my awareness of what he's done will always be there, and color the way I look at him. But you have to believe that it's possible for me to go to bed with Alex Krycek, all of him, the entire complex fucked-up annoying brilliant body and soul, and not just a gun-wielding archetype, the big bad bogeyman from my subconscious made flesh."

"Hmm." Reclaiming her coffee cup, she sought refuge in it for a moment. "Do you believe it's possible?" He opened his mouth to speak, closed it again. "Mulder, I still think you need—"

"Help?" he said wryly.

"Support," she said. "Someone to talk to who isn't me. You can't tell me that what is going on here is completely normal and healthy. I — I don't want to be your judge in this matter, Mulder. I'm not qualified. One minute I think it's appalling, the next you've got me believing it ought to make perfect sense. What was it that happened between you and Krycek in Leyden Creek that I didn't notice?"

"Too much," he said, suddenly feeling tired. "It was hard to keep him at a distance, and the more I found out about him, the harder it got. When the ghosts of his parents came for him—"


"I saw them too, Scully. They were there. It made me remember what happened in New Mexico, when I saw my father. How long do you think we carry our ghosts with us?"

She looked startled, and then thoughtful. "You mean, like memories? For as long as we live, I suppose. I'm not surprised you had dreams about your father then, just after his death, and when you had come close to death yourself."

"Not dreams, Scully. And Krycek's parents weren't a dream either." He could still see them in his mind's eye, reaching out with something that was, perhaps, forgiveness. The dead were hard to comprehend and hard to face. They hand their eyes, the part that stares. "I wanted to understand him." Stealing a sip from her coffee cup, he grimaced, and admitted, "I think I wanted to understand my own reaction to him."

"And do you?"

"No. But no one else gets under my skin the way he does." He slumped against the table. "Maybe you're right. Maybe it's twisted, insane. Sometimes I think about it and the horror of it all makes me want to be sick. And sometimes—" Mulder ran a hand through his hair. "We never finished the debriefing. I never got round to describing what happened once Krycek got to the house."

"What did happen?"

"He tried to get Flagstad to release me. Tried to save my life again." He shrugged. "And then you came. You know, I thought you'd be angrier than this that I didn't tell you about what happened in Leyden Creek."

"You still haven't told me what happened in Leyden Creek."

"Oh. Right. We slept in the same bed. We — kissed." He looked at her from under lowered eyelids, checking for a reaction. She was probably jaded by now, impossible to upset; it made him grin.

"What's so funny?" she asked.

"I was just thinking that you probably wouldn't bat an eyelash right now if I told you I was engaged to be married to Bigfoot."

"Mulder," she said, deadpan, "Bigfoot would have been less of a shock." Then she sipped at her chocolate-flavored coffee. "Yes, I wish you'd told me about it back then. But it doesn't feel right to yell at you for that when— I've been keeping things from you too."

"What? You had a wild affair with Tooms?"

"You were the one who crawled around in a tunnel with a naked Tooms, not me." Scully looked down at her hands, still curved around the cup. "No. Not Tooms. Skinner."

* * *

Lovers VI: Of now done darkness

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