In the bleak midwinter

torch, February/March 1998

Disclaimer: The characters are the property of Chris Carter and 1013 Productions. I don't think anyone would consider giving me money for this. Spoilers: not really. A few generic mytharc episode references and some sort-of Tunguska/Terma references. There's stuff in here that doesn't fit totally with Patient X/The red and the black, since it was written before I'd seen them. Trust no one. I'm sure the intelligent reader can come up with ideas for how those events lead to this setup. Inspired by A. Leigh-Anne Childe's Fatherland and written with her full knowledge and consent, so if anyone thinks the scenario looks familiar up to a point, they're perfectly right. Do not archive this story without permission.

In the bleak midwinter

His fingers were stiff with cold, and he fumbled; the garbage can lid rattled and the metal echo seemed to fill the alley and rise straight up towards the gray heavens, a call for attention he desperately did not want. He huddled deeper into his coat and held his breath, wrestling with the lid, biting his lip as if that would make his search silent. The winter air slid down the back of his neck, in under the ragged collar, rolled icily down his spine; he shivered and breathed out in quick, frightened puffs of steam. A few drops of blood trickled from the second joint of his right index finger, where callused skin was cracking from the chill and the exertion.

When the lid came free in his hands he half-stumbled backwards before recovering his balance on the slippery street. Underfoot was a treacherous mixture of ice and slush and gravel and garbage, and his once-sturdy hiking boots were well-worn now, their thick soles cracked. Wetness had begun to seep through. He wiggled his toes automatically as he set the lid down and bent forward over the lip of the garbage can. He knew what the cold could do.

Sniffing, testing, he shook his head, but dug quickly through the contents anyway. It smelled wrong, unpromising, too clean. He'd be better off fighting for scraps behind that Chinese restaurant two blocks down. But halfway down his hands found a familiar shape: a white take-out carton bearing a familiar red logo. To judge by the weight it was at least half full and when he fumbled it open he saw that there was sauce mixed in with the rice, sweet and sour, cooled into jellylike firmness. His mouth watered.

Then he looked up abruptly, checking the distant sky over the narrow alley. Nothing there, only clouds. He stowed the carton in a clumsily sewn-on inside pocket and put the lid back on the trash can, trying to hush it into silence. As he wrestled it down he heard a car roll slowly past the mouth of the alley and he froze, huddled down where he was for long minutes. When only silence followed he eventually straightened up and moved to get out. It was only hunger that had driven him to walk into a cul-de-sac — hunger, and a dislike of fighting for his food.

At times like this, he wondered why he had chosen to stay in this area. It wasn't that he loved the city so, or that he felt most at home here. It wasn't indifference to the greater danger. Here, more than anywhere, he ran the risk of being seen, of being known for who he was. And the winters were so cold, he thought, a thin shiver of amusement threading its way through his mind, so damn cold.

He slowed down, taking greater care as he approached the corner, the larger street, and so the attack didn't take him completely by surprise. The hands that grabbed for him couldn't get a good grip, and he twisted and kicked, without knowing who he fought against, and tore himself free, and ran. His worn soles found almost no purchase on the icy sidewalk and he was clumsy, stiff with the effort to keep his balance and move forward as his terrified heart dictated. Footsteps pounded behind him, hard wet sounds. The take-out carton banged against his thigh, a prize he would gladly lose to be free of his pursuer. He fumbled with buttons as he ran, wrenched the coat away from his shoulders, flung it off and behind, hoping to cause a stumble, a distraction, praying it was nothing more than competitive greed that chased him.

The air leaped on him, tearing through his sweater, his shirt. He heard a muffled curse from behind. When he sucked in another deep breath it bit at him, deep inside; the temperature was dropping, tonight the slush would freeze to ice again. Putting on a burst of speed, he almost believed himself free, when a hard, heavy body slammed into him and redirected him, driving him into the nearest wall. Georgetown brick; it knocked the air from his lungs.

Hands wrestled his arms back. He struggled wildly, scraping himself against the bricks, but his attacker was stronger and had better leverage, trapping him in an armlock and then cuffing him so easily that he almost sagged forward in despair. The length of another's body against his own held him and breath was warm against his ear. "Mulder." It had been so long since he'd heard the name spoken, he almost didn't recognize it as his own. "Mulder, you look like shit."

He focused on what was directly in front on his eyes. The edge of a brick. Crumbling mortar. "When you go underground," he said softly, "you gotta learn to live with the rats."

"Yeah, but at least I didn't swear off soap forever."

Spun around by strong hands, he found himself staring into a strange-but-familiar face; the same green eyes, the same almost delicate mouth, offset by a new scar, a thin white line down the left cheek. It had started to snow again, large white flakes like damp feathers floating down to cling to them both. Krycek was in uniform, and Mulder nodded at the insignia before snow settled over them. "I see you've been promoted," he said blandly. "Congratulations."

"Come on," Krycek said, and tugged him forward. Mulder saw a car parked farther up along the street and realized it was the same one he had seen from behind the garbage can. Krycek had come back for him on foot. "Mulder, move."

"You can kill me just as easily here," he said, and then tried to tear himself free and run again. Krycek jerked at his cuffed hands and kicked his feet out from under him. He went to his knees first, a jarring shock, and then fell forward; only the grip Krycek still had on his hands kept his face from hitting the ground. A knee dug into his spine.

"We're getting out of here," Krycek informed him. A gloved hand covered half his face, nose and mouth. At first he tried to hold his breath, but when he finally sucked in air he felt a dusty, gritty, chemical smell, and then all he had to struggle against was darkness.

* * *

Waking, he found himself curled almost fetally in the passenger seat of a car, huddled around the seatbelt. The thought of Krycek pulling the seatbelt around his unconscious body was at once humorous and unsettling. He felt lonely without his coat. Soft music trickled from the speakers, half hidden by the purr of the engine. The heater had been turned up high, and the warmth released what the winter had kept in check; now he could feel the rank, sour smell of his own body. Turning his head, he saw Krycek, relaxed, both hands on the wheel. Both gloved hands. Mulder blinked, and twisted upright.

At his movement, Krycek glanced towards him. "Don't try anything," he said.

Mulder noticed that his hands were cuffed in front of his body now. He shrugged. Looking forward he saw that they were on a narrow, twisting road, going through a densely wooded area. So he had been unconscious for quite some time. It wasn't snowing here, but the gray sky was growing darker. He leaned back against the headrest, eyelids sinking drowsily down again. It was the warmth that seduced him. He hadn't been warm for such a long time. "Where are you taking me?" he asked, not really expecting an answer.

"Here." Krycek turned right onto an even narrower road. It was well-kept and even, though, and bordered on one side with a neat fence. After about a quarter of a mile the road ended as Krycek drove up in front of a large house, gravel crunching darkly under the wheels of the car. There were lights in several windows. Off to one side, Mulder saw a fenced-in pasture, a barn, some other buildings. He glanced quickly at Krycek, judging the other man's state of attention, the distance to the woods, the limitations the cuffs would impose on his movements. "We're going in, Mulder. Don't be difficult."

Krycek got out of the car, and Mulder scrabbled at the door handle, pulling it and getting the door open just as Krycek came around to help him. He got out and shivered at the wind biting into him. The sweater was ragged, the shirt full of holes. Mulder drew breath to speak and then he turned his head and saw, over by the corner of the house, two short figures. A boy who looked at him calmly, a girl with long dark braids, bundled up against the cold in a thick warm jacket. He stiffened and took a step that way; Krycek's hand on his arm brought him up short and he spun around, anger blazing through him. "You son of a bitch."

"They were a gift, Mulder." Krycek pulled him towards the door, guiding him up the steps, holding him still. He discovered to his shame that his knees wanted to give out on him, that he was trembling all over. "A gift I wasn't in a position to refuse at the time. Come on in."

Inside, his first confused impressions were of warmth and elegance. It was a beautiful house; the rooms were gracefully proportioned, with high ceilings and large windows, and furnished in good, verging on expensive, taste. Whoever lived here favored light colors, and pale wood, and simple decorations. Mulder followed Krycek through a hallway, up a flight of stairs, past open doors. He saw thin gauzy curtains, shelves crammed with books, an overstuffed chair draped with a woven silk shawl, a framed Hokkusai print on a wall. The smoothly polished parquet under his feet seemed to reprove his boots.

He was being led somewhere, and he could only imagine to whom Krycek would bring such a gift. When Krycek finally stopped, Mulder found himself gripped by another bout of nauseating fear, and his legs trembled again. He hated that fear in himself, hated the pathetic thing he had become, and he tried to lock his knees and raise his chin and watch without a shiver as Krycek put his hand to the door in front of them. "I hate you," he said conversationally, thinking it might be his last chance to say it.

"You're filthy," Krycek said, and opened the door. The tiles on the floor were black; the walls were tiled with white, interrupted by a band of pale aqua at about the height of Mulder's shoulder. There was a huge bathtub, an open-fronted cabinet holding fluffy aqua towels, a toilet with a wooden seat, a wicker clothes hamper, a sink, a full length mirror. All of it was as unreal to him as stepping into a photograph, a magazine advert for a kind of life he could barely remember. "You stink, Mulder. Get clean."

Relief made him giddy. "You expect me to take a bath like this?" He raised his cuffed hands and shook them, rattling, at Krycek. Krycek only smiled and pulled his gun out, and Mulder faltered and took half a step away before he saw the small key in Krycek's other hand. Krycek's other, gloved hand. He stood still as the cuffs were unlocked; then he walked over to the tub and bent down, put the plug in and turned on the hot water. Turning around, he saw that Krycek was sitting on the wooden toilet seat, gun held loosely but comfortably in his right hand. "I need to piss."

Krycek rose to his feet again and gestured him forward with a small ironic smile. Mulder flipped the seat up and fumbled with the zipper of his pants, encrusted with grime and far from cooperative. He was aware of Krycek, behind him now, probably leaning against the door, was aware of eyes on him. Then he turned his head a few degrees to the right, and forgot about Krycek watching him. The full length mirror threw his reflection back at him with a clarity that didn't care about the time he'd spent hiding. What he saw was a walking scarecrow, a stick figure of a man wearing dirty, tattered clothes, with lank hair falling over his eyes; shoulders hunched against the cold, against expected blows, against prying eyes; a rough beard showing traces of gray. He was so taken aback by this that he almost forgot what he was doing. This wasn't someone he knew. This wasn't Fox William Mulder. No one would know him for who he had been.

"The nose," Krycek said, answering an unspoken question. "It's very distinctive."

The sound of the flushing toilet almost covered his, "Fuck." He kicked his hiking boots off and bent down to peel away two layers of socks, checking his toes as he did to make sure they weren't frozen, weren't numb. As he straightened up again he pulled the sweater over his head and dumped it carelessly on the floor. The shirt, too, and then he paused and walked over to the tub and checked the water temperature. "So how's life in the military these days? Is it hard work, hunting for dissidents?"

He didn't glance back at his clothes, but he did wonder where his coat was, if it had been left behind on a snowy street, if he would ever see it again. It was too short for him, but it had belonged to Frohike and so he'd kept it, as a reminder of the first death he'd witnessed as the new world order was implemented. By people like Krycek.

"Grueling." Footsteps against tile, and then Krycek's voice was much closer to him. "I think we'll have to issue nose filters in the future." Gloved fingertips ran down his side, and he flinched. "Mulder, I used to think that if you had one flaw it was that you were too skinny."

"You don't like my new look?" He glanced over his shoulder at the neat, clean, well-muscled, uniformed man who had once been his partner, who had briefly been his lover. "Post-apocalyptic anorexia. I thought I might set a new fashion."

Krycek shook his head. "Not with that beard." He touched a finger to it. "Ugliest thing I've ever seen. Between that and the stink, you have to be the least successful hustler in DC. I heard you were selling your ass on the street, but it looks like that was only a rumor."

Shoving his pants down, Mulder found himself laughing, roughly. "I've sold every part of my body that anyone was willing to pay for, except my kidneys. Is that what this is all about? Better get on with it, I charge by the hour."

"I never thought of you as the kind of guy who'd whore for a living."

"No?" Mulder stepped out of the pants, leaned forward and turned off the taps. Steam rose up from the tub, and he picked up a bottle of bath salts and dumped a generous amount into the water. It would take a while for him to soak the grime away. "I haven't been quite as successful at it as you, of course."

The water was hot and he hissed as he stepped into it, his toes curling in mingled pain and pleasure. If Krycek was going to kill him, he would at least die clean and warm, a prospect that had seemed more and more remote as this winter wore on.

"You've been selling yourself too cheap. You should have left the city," Krycek said, steadying him with one hand as he sat down in the tub. "Heard anything from Scully lately?"

"No." Mulder let himself sink down under the water, emerged snorting and coughing. It happened to be the truth, although he wasn't sure if Krycek would believe him. All he knew was that Scully was out west somewhere, she and Byers, leading the armed underground resistance. "I'll have to speak to the postman. I don't even get my junk mail." She had been angry at him as they parted, unwilling to understand his reluctance to turn guerrilla.

"There is no junk mail in the new republic," Krycek said gravely. "The people who used to tell you you were already a winner were the first up against the wall when the revolution came."

"Has anyone ever told you your sense of humor sucks?"

"You used to say it about once a week." Krycek straightened up and stepped away from the tub. "I'll go get you something to eat. Don't drown."

"That uniform's gone to your head. I don't take orders from you." Mulder ducked down under the surface of the hot bath water again and didn't come up until Krycek had left the bathroom. He stretched thoughtfully and wiggled his toes. They were not a pretty sight. He'd lost two toenails getting his foot run over on a street corner a couple of months earlier, and the broken toes had healed crookedly. The remaining nails were black with accumulated dirt, cracked and ugly. Looking at his fingers, he noticed a few similarities, although his hands were marginally cleaner.

Mulder sighed, and reached for the soap and the soft, wood-backed brush. He started with his feet, then worked upwards along scrawny legs, prodding at the muscles with his fingers. He could still run; it was the winter that had made him slow and awkward. At least he hoped so. Flakes of dead skin worked loose and floated in the water. He finished scrubbing his thighs, and cupped a thoughful hand around his genitals. Krycek was right; he hadn't turned many tricks lately. Krycek was wrong; he hadn't exactly set out to make whoring his new profession. It had just been, from time to time, a way to make money. Not recently, though.

Working the long-handled brush over his back turned out to be the nearest thing to absolute ecstasy he had experienced in years. Mulder found himself whimpering with pleasure, and bit his lip hard, not wanting Krycek to hear. He scrubbed and soaped, soaped and scrubbed, and spent long luxurious minutes working shampoo into his beard and the tangled mess of his hair. As he tried to run his fingers through it, they caught on the knots and he was startled into a soft little 'ow' at the pain.

He leaned forward and turned on the taps again, and pulled the plug part-way up, letting the dirty water drain away to be replaced by more, clean, hot. Steam drifted through the air. Mulder picked up some more bath salts and dumped an even more generous quantity into the tub, viciously hoping they were expensive and difficult to get. When the water around him was clear again he pushed the plug back down with his toes, and started over with the soap and shampoo. Krycek came back in as he was brushing at his toenails. A wave of cooler air rolled in with him and Mulder slipped down as far as he could into the water until the bathroom door closed again.

"I've got some food for you." Krycek knelt by the side of the tub, putting down a tray. Freed from his own stink, Mulder found his sense of smell almost back to normal again. There was toast, he thought, and eggs. Scrambled eggs, he discovered a moment later as Krycek offered him a spoonful. Without thinking he opened his mouth, accepted being fed. Bite of toast, spoonful of eggs, the spoon and the toast both held in firm, strong, black-gloved hands.

"Do you sleep with those gloves on?" he asked through a mouthful of toast, then shook his head, "I don't want to know." This was too strange as it was; he was lying here in the warm comfortable embrace of the water, being fed by a uniformed major of the army that had sworn to kill him. Next came a mug of hot chocolate, strong and sweet, with a dash of something alcoholic in. He drank it down eagerly.

"What happened to your paranoia, Mulder?" Krycek asked softly. "What if I'm drugging you?"

He laughed. "I'm naked in your fucking bathtub and you've got a gun. It'd be a waste of good drugs. Was that the last of the toast?"

"I can make you some more later." Krycek moved the tray aside and straightened up, going to the bathroom cabinet and rummaging for something that clinked against a metal edge.

"You could make me some more now." He watched Krycek's back, wondering how far he could push this before he got killed, or how long this dream would continue before he woke up. When Krycek turned around again there was a gleam of sharp metal in his hand and Mulder jerked upright, sending a hot scented wave over the edge of the tub. He glanced around for something, anything, that could be used as a weapon.

"I'm going to cut your hair," Krycek said, ignoring Mulder's sudden tension. He pulled a towel from a shelf and came over to the tub again. Mulder looked at the scissors and then subsided back again, slowly. There was something else in Krycek's hand too, something he couldn't see clearly. Krycek put the towel over the corner of the tub and perched there, almost behind Mulder, putting the scissors down with a soft clatter. Craning his neck to see, Mulder found his head gripped and turned forward again. There was another sound that he identified as leather falling onto damp tiles. Krycek had taken his gloves off. He shivered.

"What if I don't want my hair cut," he said.

"I don't think you understand," Krycek said, leaning forward, speaking softly and intimately as his fingers tugged at the nape of Mulder's neck. "I'm going to cut your hair." Sharp gliding sound of scissors. He held still and watched as the cut off tangles and snarls fell into the water around him. There were more silver threads mixed in with the brown than he had expected. Krycek's hair was still smoothly, evenly dark, and all the creases around his eyes looked like laughter. Mulder was well aware that the lines on his face now spoke of pain.

"Are you happy?" he asked.

The hands touching his head stilled. He held his breath, certain that in the next moment, scissors would stab into his flesh. Then, with a quiet exhalation, Krycek went back to work, shearing the sacrificial lamb. "I had help," he said. "Langly helped me find you. He's working for us now."

Mulder closed his eyes. "You're lying," he said. Langly had disappeared the day Frohike died.

Fingers threaded through his hair. The fingers of Krycek's left hand. He shuddered despite the hot water. They both fell silent while Krycek cropped his hair into short, brutal order, shorter than he'd ever worn it in his life. Mulder breathed in the smell of the bath salts, comfrey and wintergreen, and the more subtle and undefinable scent of Krycek and Krycek's uniform. God, how he hated that uniform. Hated Krycek touching him with that hand.

"If you say so," Krycek said finally. The grip on his head shifted and Krycek was cutting his beard, close to the skin.

"Hey." Mulder tried to speak without moving his jaw. "I need that. It keeps me warm."

"Shut up." The scissors kept moving. He shut up.

Krycek leaned forward and managed to shear off most of the beard on the left side of Mulder's face; then he got up and moved, seating himself on the narrow edge of the tub facing Mulder instead, and continued. Mulder glanced down nervously at the moving scissors, then closed his eyes. The terror of this intimate touch was exhilarating. It had been so long since he had truly felt anything, beyond hunger and cold and misery. The points of contact where Krycek's fingertips held his jaw steady burned through the remains of his stubble, into his skin.

When Krycek put the scissors down, Mulder chose not to open his eyes just at first. He smelled something else, something casually familiar that he hadn't been in contact with in a long time. Not until it touched his skin did he realize it was shaving foam... no, not foam out of a can, but soft lather from a cup, applied with an equally soft brush. It covered the lower half of his face, the underside of his jaw, the beginnings of his throat. Raising his eyelids at last, drowsy with the heat and the beautiful terror and the gentle touch and the comfort of not being hungry, he saw Krycek's right hand, holding a razor. Not a safety razor, but an old-fashioned straight-bladed relic of the days of demon barbers, its handle black and worn under Krycek's fingers, its blade narrow and well honed.

It was just too good, too perfect. He wanted to say something but couldn't find the words for it. Instead he met Krycek's eyes, and deliberately tilted his head back, just a fraction, baring his throat. And Krycek smiled a very small smile, and steadied his head again, and began to shave him.

That, too, was good. He had meant what he said, that he needed the beard to warm his face on winter days like this one and even more during the long winter nights. It offered some protection from the elements, although it was annoying when tiny icicles formed in it. And shaving was a bothersome business that always made his face itch. But this, this was good, this close and skillful touch. Some of the pleasure owed itself to his delighted fear, and to his body's reaction to unaccustomed comfort. But it was nevertheless good. He had the sensation of being prepared for something, and it dazed him just slightly, made him easy under Krycek's touch, pliable, yielding.

His mind drifted. He thought about Scully, as he hadn't done in a long time, and that led him to think about Byers, of course, and that led him to think about Langly, Krycek had to be lying about Langly, and about Frohike, and a morning when his life had changed so suddenly and absolutely that it amazed him the sky hadn't been a different color since then.

When Krycek finished, leaned back, and looked at him, he felt naked as he hadn't done when he'd taken his clothes off. He set his jaw, and met that assessing look with one of his own. "Well? Do I look fabulous?"

Krycek's voice was dry. "That's not the word I would have picked." The familiar green eyes gleamed, though, with something that could possibly be humor. It was an uncomfortably attractive look; it made him look real and human and understandable. "You should rinse off."

Clumps of hair floated in the water, clung to his shoulders, his neck. Mulder wanted to protest, perversely, just for the sake of refusing to do what Krycek told him to, but then he pulled the plug with his toes and leaned forward to turn the water on and switch it over to the shower. Krycek got up and took the towel with him as he stepped away from the tub. Standing up to sluice himself off, Mulder felt unaccountably self-conscious again. The removal of dirt and hair and beard had changed him and left him unprotected. He wouldn't put it past Krycek to have done it deliberately.

When he turned the water off and stepped out of the tub, Krycek was just standing there looking at him. Mulder pulled a towel from the shelf and began to dry himself off, his skin pebbling now that he was out of the hot water. His fingertips were wrinkled, and he was delighted by that, rubbing them softly against each other to feel it better. "You always knew, didn't you," he said, briskly towelling his hair. "That we'd end up like this, one of us a successful traitor with a house in the country, the other a fugitive with deplorable personal hygiene."

"God, you're thin." Fingertips drifted over his ribs, down over his abdomen to settle for a moment on a sharp hipbone. He emerged from the towel to glance warily at Krycek. "I think there's some left-over pot roast in the fridge."

He wanted to think of a smart comeback, but his mouth was watering. The toast and scrambled eggs had barely put a dent in his hunger. His voice was rough as he asked, "You got something I can wear? Or do you want me to walk around the house naked?"

"I wouldn't mind," Krycek said, "but you look cold." Now those fingertips stroked upwards again, drawing a line over his torso, teasing the goosebumps, finishing by flicking over one tight nipple. Mulder jerked slightly, more from surprise than anything else. "I'll get you some sweats."

Krycek turned away and walked out of the bathroom, and Mulder finished drying himself. Looking at the full length mirror again, he saw someone almost recognizable, someone not too impossibly far removed from the man who had once worn expensive suits and chased aliens. He couldn't stop a small whuff of laughter from escaping at the thought. It seemed like a faraway, childishly innocent game, as sweet to the memory as sunny afternoons of playing hide and seek with his sister, long, long ago.

He was still trying to decide whether or not he ought to wrap a towel around his hips before Krycek came back, when Krycek did come back, opening the door again to toss sweatpants and a thick fleecy sweater at him. Mulder pulled the clothes on wordlessly. They gave him more bulk, made him look even more like his old self again, and he wondered if that had been Krycek's intention. He glanced at the man standing in the doorway, the man he'd once called Alex. "Pot roast?"

"If you want." Krycek turned and walked away, clearly expecting him to follow, so he did. The floors were comfortably smooth under his bare feet, and the carpets, when he crossed them, were soft. Krycek led him downstairs to the kitchen. No sleek modernity here either; wood, tile, marble counter tops, a large table at the center of the room, its top slightly scarred. A fluffy, flat-faced cat came padding quietly around a corner, stopping by the refrigerator to meow its demands. Mulder crouched down and offered an outstretched hand, and the cat butted its head against his knuckles in a friendly, hungry fashion. He buried his fingers in thick fur. Nothing like a Persian in winter.

Krycek opened the fridge and pulled out a plastic container and a tin of cat food. The cat abandoned Mulder's caresses as soon as its bowl was filled, and he straightened up again, knees creaking, to watch Krycek pile food on a plate and put it in the partially concealed microwave oven. Even cold, it smelled good. Hell, the cat food smelled good.

He looked at the back of Krycek's head and sought for something to say. The sudden change in his circumstances, from cold, dirty, and hungry to warm, clean, and not quite so hungry, had thrown him. He had been less than himself for a long time, with nothing on his mind but survival. This situation would have been tricky enough even had his mind been clear; he wondered just what Krycek had poured in that hot chocolate, and how much.

"Sit down," Krycek suggested, gesturing at the table, so he pulled out a chair and sat. Krycek turned around and leaned against the counter, and they looked at each other, eyes meeting for a moment that lengthened, turned from encounter into scrutiny into staring contest, until the abrupt beep of the microwave broke them apart. Taking the plate out, Krycek brought it over to the table along with two forks and handed one to Mulder. "I assume you still remember how to use this."

Mulder took the fork and looked at it thoughtfully. "You stab people with it," he said. "To check the color of their blood."

"That's right." Krycek started to eat, and after a moment, so did Mulder. It was good. It was very good, and not just because he had spent so much time without real food. He wondered briefly whether Krycek was sharing a plate with him to reassure him about not being drugged, but it seemed a minor issue compared with the way the food tasted in his mouth. The sheer luxury of it, the hot rich flavors of sauce and meat exploding on the tongue... it seemed to him he would be able to live on the memory alone for months.

The cat finished its dinner long before he did, and came to rest over his feet, a large living fur slipper, giving his toes an occasional raspy lick. It had started to grow dark outside while he was in the bathroom, and when Krycek finished eating he got up to turn on the lights, causing Mulder to blink and squint for a moment as he finished what was on the plate.

Putting the fork down, he looked up at his — captor? Host? "Thank you."

Krycek smiled a little, barely more than a quirk of the lips, yet it seemed genuine enough. "There's more. I can heat it up for you if you want."

Instead of pointing out that he was perfectly capable of operating a microwave oven, he leaned back in the chair and said, "I appreciate the thought, but you don't have to fatten me up before you hand me over. Or are they coming here to get me?" He glanced out the window; the darkness was unbroken by headlights, he could hear no car engines.

Krycek hesitated for a moment, as if caught between several possible movements and reactions, and then ran a hand over his hair. "I thought—" His eyes flicked towards Mulder, away again. "I thought you could stay here for a while."

"Here." Mulder spoke the word as though he'd never heard it before. "Stay here a while." He looked at Krycek, who was leaning back against a different counter now, with blank incomprehension. "You want me to—"

"Yeah." Krycek came closer, with a slow menacing step, but then he just took the plate away and went to put it in the sink. Carefully pulling his feet out from under the cat, Mulder stood up and took a couple of steps in that direction. He thought he was prepared, when Krycek turned around again, but the look in the green eyes silenced him. "It's time for you to get off the streets, Mulder. If you're still doing it for money, I'll pay you to stay."

His mind could come up with no appropriate phrases for a situation like this. He had thought long ago, with tired and despairing humor, that he was living in a surrealist play; then the streets and the seasons had stripped him of fancy and complex similes, leaving him pared down to sheer animal survival instinct leavened with the occasional flash of insight. There was no brightness in him now, and very little understanding of how it could have come to this, how anything like this could be happening to him, to them both. He had finally given up trying to make sense of it, and Krycek's words only proved to him how right he had been.

"I thought you were married," he said.

Krycek looked at him blankly. "I am. What does that have to do with anything?" Stepping closer, Krycek touched him again, curving a hand around his neck, thumb stroking his cheekbone. Reflex and memory made Mulder move along with that touch, move closer himself. When his eyelids dropped and his gaze lowered, he saw Krycek's uniform, as if he needed another reminder of who and what this was.

"And a good servant of the state," Mulder went on. "I'm a known enemy of the new government. Wanted dead or alive, isn't that how it is?"

"No one would find you here," Krycek said, his voice a shade huskier than before. "I wouldn't let them take you." The grip of his hand tightened, and he leaned closer, lips brushing over Mulder's mouth and then pressing harder.

Mulder didn't even try to resist. He opened his mouth to the kiss, returned it, and Krycek's heat poured into him, filling him with the awareness of wanting and being wanted. His body reacted slowly but surely to this and he felt his cock twitch in the loose sweatpants. How long had it been since anyone had touched him with desire? He couldn't remember. And this man — this man

They kissed for a long time, standing there in the kitchen. The cat grew bored and left to pursue its own interests. Mulder wrapped his arms around Krycek and held on tight, while random words swirled in his head. Reality. Truth. Trust. Traitor. Regret. It was Krycek who stepped back eventually, drawing a steadying breath. He went over to the fridge again and pulled out a bottle of white wine — Californian, Mulder noticed, something of a rarity these days — and opened it, then took the bottle in one hand and two glasses in the other and led the way out of the kitchen.

Mulder followed, not even considering any other alternative. He glanced around as they walked through the house and back up the stairs again. There were lights on in several of the rooms, but he didn't see anyone else there. Many things spoke of comfort rather than absolute luxury, and there was a lived-in feeling to the place that sat oddly with Krycek's uniform and reserved air. They went past the bathroom this time and into a bedroom. It was relatively spacious, dominated by a king-sized bed draped in pristine white covers. A folded quilt in shades of blue and gray lay at the foot. The wallpaper was chilly white with pale gray stripes; apart from the bed, there was only one piece of furniture, a hope chest standing under the window.

"So are you paying for this or not?" he asked Krycek's back.

There was a soft clatter of glass and then the sound of Krycek pouring wine into the glasses he'd put down on the hope chest. "If you want me to."

"I want you to take that goddamn uniform off." Mulder accepted the glass Krycek handed him and sipped very carefully at the wine. He'd never been much of a drinker, and now of all times he needed a clear head.

Krycek looked back at him, and then put his glass down and began to undress, his movements slow but very matter of fact. He let the uniform fall on the floor, carelessly, not even in a single pile, scattering the pieces as he stepped closer and closer to Mulder. Mulder waited, and when Krycek had peeled off every layer, down to the skin, his eyes went to the left shoulder, to the arm.

It wasn't quite a scar, or a line, more a subtle change in skin tone, something that could conceivably be explained away as a trick of the light. Except that he knew that wasn't what it was. His hand rose up to touch it, but stopped a few inches away, and he used the movement to put his glass away and begin to shrug out of the sweater instead. Krycek helped him, hindered him, stroking up his back and pulling the sweater over his head. It fell to one side and Krycek pulled him close, brushing lips over his cheek and down his throat.

"I missed you," it was barely more than a whisper. "I missed you, Fox."

No one else had ever spoken his name like that — as though it were at once description and insult and endearment, a gentle taunt, a mocking term of affection. And for a brief moment the years fell away and he could feel once again what it had been like to embrace this man for the first time and give in to a rush of desire he had known, even then, to be sweet, irresistible, and irredeemably stupid.

He pulled away with slow reluctance to take the sweatpants off, and when they were both naked they hesitated for a second and then fell on the bed in a tangle of arms and legs and panting breaths, clutching at each other, hands gripping in bruising caresses, mouths open to kiss and lick and bite and curse. It was a wild, intense wrestling match, and when Mulder finally found himself on his back, pinned down with his arms held over his head, he was breathless and aroused and filled with endless sorrow.

"I'm out of practice," he said.

The fingers of Krycek's left hand against his mouth stopped any further words, and he flicked his tongue out to taste them, to try to find a difference there. Fingertips trailed slowly down his throat, over his chest and belly, showing him his skinny, miserable, maltreated body and at the same time gilding it with a beauty Krycek seemed to feel more than see.

When those fingers brushed over his cock, he jerked violently, instinctively trying to fling himself away, and at the same time he grew even harder. Krycek looked up to meet his eyes. "You always were kinky, Fox," he said, affection and resignation warring in his voice. Then he let go of Mulder's arms and moved down, brushing a light kiss against the belly button before taking the erect cock in his mouth.

Mulder cried out, a muted, breathless little sound that would have embarrassed him if he had been able to think of anything beyond the sensations Krycek was drawing out of him with lips and tongue and fingers. He tried to find something to hold on to, anything, and finally tangled one hand into Krycek's hair and bucked up into that hot mouth. Krycek, unfazed, didn't even choke, just followed his movements and sucked harder.

All he knew was that it had been too long, and he couldn't hold back. Mulder desperately tried to fuck Krycek's mouth, to push himself deeper into the pleasure he could barely believe in. A strong hand dug into his hip, kept him under control. His heart was racing, and he wanted to cry and scream and break things. The feeling was sharp and clear and far too intense; he sobbed once, briefly, and then he was coming so hard it hurt. It overwhelmed him, but it was over far too quickly.

Breathing in quick shallow pants, he let go of his bitten lower lip and tried to find himself again, to achieve some measure of inner balance. He pushed himself up on one elbow and looked at Krycek, who was leaning back with a satisfied air, moist lips slightly parted. Mulder wished for a moment that Krycek would just pounce on him and take him, fuck his ass or his mouth, use him and throw him away, but that wasn't going to happen.

He sat up, running his hands down Krycek's body, stroking and teasing. Krycek's cock leaped eagerly under his touch and he pushed Krycek's legs apart to settle between them. He kissed the shaft, licked at the head, then worked his way down again slowly to bite the inside of the thigh. Krycek made encouraging noises as Mulder pushed his legs up. It was easy to know what to do, what would please. He licked along the curve of Krycek's ass and then dipped his tongue into the crack, teasing lightly back and forth before concentrating his efforts on the dark rose of flesh that begged to be tasted. Mulder worked his tongue around it, licking in broad strokes and then blowing cool air on the wet skin, listening to Krycek's heavy breathing.

This was familiar, this touch, and so was Krycek's response, shivers and soft moans. He knew Krycek was stroking himself, pumping his cock slowly, and after a while he heard a tormented cry, "Fox."

Mulder pressed closer, sucked harder, pushing with his tongue at the clenched opening. He heard Krycek's breath catch, felt the acute tension of muscles under his hands and then the convulsion, the shaking climax. When he was sure it was over, he planted a light butterfly kiss on the perineum and uncurled himself into a half-sitting position, looking at Krycek, who lay quite still with his eyes closed, a glistening spill of semen trailing across his belly. Moving up quietly, Mulder settled down to one side of Krycek and wasn't surprised when Krycek reached out for him, eyes still closed, and pulled him into a loose embrace.

He lay there quietly with his head on Krycek's right shoulder and waited as the other man's breathing slowed down and grew more peacefully regular. With his eyes half closed, he couldn't see much beyond an expanse of smooth skin. He felt calm now, as calm as a lake in winter, frozen through. Moving one hand with sluggish slowness, he dipped a finger into the puddle in Krycek's navel and brought it to his mouth, tasting it thoughtfully. It was the same, the taste he remembered.

It didn't take long for Krycek to fall asleep. Mulder felt the arm that curved around his back grow lax and eventually slide off as Krycek's breathing changed. He waited a while longer before he moved, very carefully working himself free enough to brace himself on one elbow and reach out with the other hand to drag a pillow towards them. Looking at Krycek's sleeping face, he committed it to memory, the mouth, the square chin, the scar, the long lashes, the shape of the nose, before sliding the pillow over that face and holding it there.

He hadn't known what to expect. At first it was strangely easy, and he almost relaxed, when Krycek's body suddenly spasmed and began to fight for air. Mulder leaned forward, holding the pillow fast with all his strength. He knew that if Krycek had been awake from the beginning, he would have failed. As it was he could only hang on. One of Krycek's hands, the left hand, dug into his shoulder, nails gouging his flesh, but he didn't let go. Mulder closed his eyes and wished he could pray, and eventually, after a time that seemed terribly long, the struggles grew fainter, and finally ceased.

For a long moment he just lay where he was, to make certain, perhaps, or because he couldn't move. Not until the muscles in his right arm began to cramp did he release his grip on the pillow and pull away, leaving it in place.

Mulder propped himself up on one arm and looked at the body, this body, this dead body. It was beautiful, but he'd always known that. He trailed a finger from the throat where no pulse was beating down the center of the chest, brushed over the few downy hairs there, and choked on sudden vicious pain, folding over to press his face against Krycek's chest again.

"I'm sorry," he gasped, and felt a rush of ugly tears heat his face and sting his eyes. "I'm sorry, Alex, I'm sorry!" He fought the sobs, fought the urge to simply break apart. The inevitability of it, that it should have come to this, terrified him. He pressed closer to Krycek's body and worked a hand down to hold his own cock, erect again, stroked it rhythmically and tried to find himself in the feeling. "Alex..." It was like making love to both of them, one last time, more tender than they had been able to be with each other. He squeezed his eyes shut, tears trickling down his cheeks, and remembered a younger and more innocent Krycek panting and moaning underneath him. "Alex!"

When he came, his semen mixed with Krycek's on Krycek's stomach, and he drew his fingers through the wetness of their combined essence, joining them forever. Mulder swallowed hard, and wiped his nose carelessly on the back of his hand. He looked again, one final time, legs and hips and the beautiful cock, soft now, belly and chest and shoulders smooth with muscle, arms... that damn arm. His eyes narrowed. He wished he could cut it off, free Krycek's body from the alien presence, and for a moment went far enough to entertain the idea of finding that razor in the bathroom. But he realized it wouldn't be right.

Instead he pushed himself upright and slid off the bed, starting to get dressed. The uniform felt strange and wrong and terrible on him, and he shivered. It didn't quite fit, it was too loose, of course, but when he put the fleecy sweater on underneath the uniform coat it wasn't so bad. And Krycek's shoes were the right size, or as near as made no difference. Dressed and ready, he walked out of the room without looking back, and headed down the stairs.

Mulder made a detour through the kitchen, picking up a six-pack of soft drinks, half a loaf of bread and a piece of cheese, and then he went outside. The car was still parked right in front of the house, and the keys were in his pocket. He got in, disoriented for a moment, before reflexes took over and he adjusted the seat and the rearview mirror, put the key in the ignition and turned it. Of course he remembered how to do this. And the lights were on in this house, and the front door was unlocked, and he was going to leave. Leave, and go west.

The car moved forward smoothly, its headlights slicing through the night. Looking in the rearview mirror to make sure it was angled correctly, Mulder saw them again standing by the corner of the house, the two children, perfectly still, their eyes gleaming and dark and full of a calm, terrible knowledge as they watched him drive away.

* * *

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