The screen refreshed, offered him a silver spider's web shivering against a midnight blue background.
Marita nodded, tight-lipped. "Obviously."
Eyes brightening in irritation and excitement, Alex Krycek watched the image shimmer again. "This is the one." Mumbled words, but certain. This had to be the one.
They'd spent too long chasing possible sightings across the country, arriving always and inevitably too late to see much, if any, action. Yet, just as inevitably, always just in time to see the battered brains and bodies of those who'd been returned.
Even Krycek admitted that the hunt had lost its glamour. The whole thing had been less of an adrenaline rush once the FBI, and then the others, had turned away. The buzz of chasing the pack, yet knowing that he would be there to cut in first at the critical moment had been a delight. Poor little Gibson. Did Scully know what had become of him? Alex did.
More problematic, though, without the mass of activity that had surrounded the search in those early days, Krycek's work now stood out like a sore thumb. When he'd been hiding in the shadows of the Lone Gunmen's hacks into military satellites; intercepting the steady train of faxes, emails and phone calls that had marked Scully's dealings with FBI area offices - Alex had had the luxury of invisibility.
There was no such smokescreen now. Krycek hadn't expected the chase to turn cold so soon.
Scully's responses to mysterious police reports of "returned" missing persons had drifted to pro- forma - become perfunctory requests for names, addresses, distinguishing features and medical reports.
Alex sighed a little, recalled the fire that he'd once seen in Mulder's partner, wondered if it had been extinguished by too many tears. He shook his head, amused. When had he become such a romantic? Then again, perhaps the enigmatic Dr. Scully was more pragmatic than even he'd imagined.
Krycek looked up, saw Marita's foot tap impatiently at the ground again. Why the hell hadn't she stayed in D.C.? Had she asked a question? "What?"
"You're miles away."
"Just wondering - if I were missing - how long people would search for me."
"You already know that."
Alex smiled - well, yes, and then again, no. "The silo? The jail? I wasn't missing, they knew exactly where I was."
And Marita smiled back, a crack in the ice of her eyes.
As minutes turned to hours, so the soft sigh in Marita's breathing had turned, in Krycek's ears, to a demanding snort. He bit into the rapidly congealing burger that room service had delivered and allowed himself to acknowledge her presence. "Why are you here?"
"Shouldn't I be asking you that?"
Krycek didn't bother to respond, just shifted his attention back to the satellite transmission.
His indifference had the desired effect, Marita was just a little shrill as she spoke. "You were paid, up front, to bring Mulder in. I'm here to make sure you do."
"And what do you think I'm doing?"
He feigned surprise. "Such vulgarity."
"We could be doing this in D.C. - and more comfortably." She cast her eyes over the discarded burger, crinkling her nose as she did, before moving on to look in disgust at the only bed in the room. Her brief shudder, a statement that only Krycek would have noticed.
She was right. Another dingy hotel room in another one-horse town.
Conscious that her eyes were giving too much away, she turned her gaze onto the screen. Lost even her aura of composure as she failed to conceal her disgust at seeing more of the same old images. She threw back her head. "If they release him, we know exactly how to find him. Either he'll go to her, or she'll go to him. It's been months."
Of course, Marita's words made perfect sense. Krycek had no reason to disagree. And if his objectives were the same as his paymasters', then sitting on his ass back in D.C. would be a perfectly reasonable strategy. Simply wait for Mulder to come home and then stop by and collect him for a little debriefing.
Even if the aliens had messed with Mulder's biochemistry, a possibility for certain, it wouldn't really take that long to crack the codes and open a route into his memories. A week, tops. Then Scully could have him back for keeps. Scarcely a blip compared to the months he'd already been missing.
Perfect sense, a highly satisfactory arrangement all around. At least, it would have been, if Krycek's vision had been so limited. Somewhere along the line a new possibility had occurred to Alex.
Could Fox Mulder be turned?
Rationally, up on that ship, Mulder would know that he was not findable, that rescue was not possible, that no search party was going to bring deliverance. But, deep down, underneath that logic, wouldn't there be a darker emotion, available for use by someone who knew exactly which button to push?
An emotion that could be made to howl its disappointment when Mulder was returned and the first friendly face he saw was not that of Dana Scully?
The ground shuddered beneath his feet, the earth became a living thing as the animals fell silent. Stillness was a given, the air itself an obstacle to breathing. The urge to run boiled high in his throat, even as his body rejected motion as an impossibility.
The first time he'd experienced the rush, he'd thought it life- changing. Now? There were times he wondered if it had become an addiction. The urge to stand as close as possible to the fire, to wait until flesh reddened and blistered before retreating. It was there now, surging all around him, flowing through him in a breathless sizzle of adrenaline. Like watching the glowing end of the world.
Krycek, bright-eyed and optimistic, watched the lights retreating and carefully measured every breath he took. The ship had become a mere dot by the time Marita arrived.
She spoke in a breathless whisper. "Why do you do that?"
"You think sitting in a car will stop them if they want you?" It was a rhetorical question, they both had the experience to know better. Up close and personal experience.
Krycek smiled at her silence, then got swiftly back to business. "The arrangements are in place?"
"You really think this is it?"
"Private clinic. By helicopter, maybe an hour." She sighed. "One call's all it'll take."
Krycek peered into the darkness, hunting for movement in the shadows. Patience, he reminded himself. If this was the night - and it surely was, at least if he was reading the technological tea leaves right - then it was important not to make some stupid mistake.
If Mulder was as unpredictable in his post-abduction daze as he could be in his stone-cold-sober daily life, then he might do more than just walk around in circles. Fortunately, the nearest town was at least five miles away and with no obvious lights twinkling an invitation, it would take even a fully alert Mulder a while to get his bearings.
Which would give Krycek all the time he needed.
The first figure to emerge was a woman, all slumped shoulders and shaking limbs, staggering as if drunk, tumbling over soft ground and tree roots, every footstep another move through an obstacle course.
Krycek muttered, his damp breaths clouding the night air, "Come on. Come on."
Another figure, larger this time. Male, perhaps. Krycek prepared to move forward, stopped as he realized that unless they'd taken to fattening up their captives, he wasn't looking at Mulder.
Patience, he reminded himself. He checked the weight of the gun in his hand, confirmed that it was the right one, no mistakes allowed. The ski mask was a snug fit, a little melodramatic perhaps, but appropriate. If Mulder caught a glimpse of him, he'd just assume that it was another nightmare his psyche had dragged up.
Inevitably, Mulder was the last to emerge. But there was no mistaking him when he did. Krycek almost laughed at the sight, partly from joy as his plan started to come together, partly from the spectacle of a disoriented and bewildered Fox Mulder digging deep into some remembered piece of FBI training to try to scope out his environment before moving on.
Krycek shook his head, ignored the other abductees as they staggered in trancelike confusion down the hill and towards the road. Alex started his advance on Mulder, made sure his words sounded like an order. "On the ground."
Krycek was gratified but not surprised to see Mulder freeze in place. Another piece of that FBI heritage kicking in. OK, one step further. "On the ground. Face down, hands behind your back."
Mulder still didn't move and Krycek wasn't surprised by that, either. Confused or not, some orders just weren't on Mulder's list for voluntary compliance. No matter, the important thing was to get near enough to open fire. Naturally, Mulder's inability to get his eyes to focus gave Alex exactly what he needed - breathing space to get a few yards closer.
One shot was all it took. Mulder screamed as it hit, and dropped to his knees. For a fraction of a second, Krycek thought it was over and that the tranquilizer's effect had been instantaneous.
No such luck. A moment later and Mulder looked up, saw the gun in Alex's hand and the mask over his face, and suddenly looked anything but tranquil. Springing to his feet, a remarkably nimble move given his performance up until then, Mulder bolted.
Fuck. Exactly what Alex hadn't wanted. Stupid bastard was probably going to fall and hurt himself now. Fortunately, the tranquilizer would stop him from getting very far. Even so, it was important not to let him get out of sight. Finding an unconscious Fox Mulder in woods this dense, on a night this dark, was an unattractive prospect.
Sure enough, Mulder's next step sent him careering down hill in a muddy slide of a run. A tumbled escape that almost looked too deliberate to be mere accident. But equally, a move too hasty for Krycek to want to mimic it, too much left to chance for him to enjoy gambling on avoiding a broken neck or a twisted ankle.
What if the dart had missed?
Krycek didn't doubt his aim. Not for an instant. But still, what if?
Furious, he stumbled down the hill after his target. Mulder - two minutes down from an alien ship and he'd already managed to start pissing people off. Revenge would be sweet.
Mulder's bare foot vanishing into the undergrowth was Krycek's warning that he'd better save the fantasy for later, right now the chase needed his full attention. He paused as he reached the level ground and listened for movement, picked up only the wind groaning through the tops of trees. "Serve the asshole right if I let him die out here. Exposure, Mulder. How about it?"
It was Marita's voice that replied. "He's over here."
And sure enough, there he was, almost invisible under a mound of ivy creeping its way over a lightning-felled tree trunk. A good attempt. But not good enough.
The operating table had its extension wings flung out, allowing the arms to be held conveniently far from the body, necessary for maximum access. The surgical crew made the usual jokes about crucifixion.
Alex didn't see it that way, never had. Did that make him the odd man out? Again. Well, why not? After all, when they'd strapped him down last time they'd only needed one wing. What did they joke about then? Traffic cop pose, perhaps?
But no, looking down on Mulder's still docile and doped body, Alex didn't see the heroism of crucifixion, he saw an exhibit. The bizarre lighting only serving to heighten the effect of a Fox Mulder showcased as the most highly prized butterfly in some madman's collection.
"He's coming around." The nurse threw a convenient towel over Mulder's face as she spoke, an effective blindfold for someone that well pinned down.
The surgeon turned back to Krycek again. "You're sure about this?"
Krycek gestured angrily at the door and headed out of the room. He waited in the scrub-up area until the team followed.
"You think he's deaf as well?" Krycek growled, irritated by their cavalier approach to their patient. They already knew Mulder's memory wasn't going to be wiped afterwards. What the hell were they thinking of? "Just do as I told you." Krycek's look made it obvious that this was an order that required confirmation, he waited.
"You need the standard tests, but no medication. He stays conscious. And no painkillers?"
"You're having problems with the term medication?"
"Yeah, you're a doctor. Don't try and play Mr. Morality on me, I know the kind of doctoring you do." Of course, there were limits, acceptable and unacceptable work practices, even with these guys, and Krycek knew that he was pushing them. But they were in no position to complain, they'd sold their souls a long time ago.
"He might seize, heart attack even."
"Then make sure he doesn't. Take all the time you need. And he's got to see you. It's important that he knows he's off that ship."
The surgeon shrugged, and his colleagues took his lead, muttering discontent and compliance in equal measures as they prepared to return to the operating room.
Amateurs. It would be a hell of a lot more convenient to let these people do it their way and then get a second crew in to work Mulder over afterwards. More convenient, perhaps, but also more suspicious.
Mulder wouldn't be surprised at the medical experimentation, but his suspicions would certainly be aroused if he was then passed over to a more straightforward torture chamber.
Far too risky. It was going to be hard enough to get Mulder to accept Krycek as a rescuer, it would be impossible if the scene looked forced or staged.
So cold. How long had it been since he'd last felt warm? Weeks, months maybe. Surely not months? Actually, he ought to be used to it by now. Maybe it wasn't really just a temperature thing, then. Perhaps it was the sensation of exposure that he hadn't learned to handle.
Had he heard voices just now? Human voices talking to him, or about him? He could have sworn he'd heard a woman's voice, and then something warm had been put over his head.
He'd been moved, that much was certain. His arms were being held at right angles to his body. He flexed experimentally against the restraints, confirmed that ankles, wrists and chest were being held tight. His head was locked in position as if he were wearing a helmet.
Some new experiment?
Some new experimenters?
Mulder shivered, the closest thing to voluntary movement that the restraints would allow. What if that dream hadn't been a dream? What if the circle of light that had vanished overhead really had been the ship leaving him behind? And then he'd run and someone had tried to stop him, but he'd run and fallen just the same, and fatigue and giddiness had overwhelmed him and he'd passed out.
And what if he'd been brought here, a place of safety, a hospital even and...
And what? And then they'd thrown something over his face at the first sign he was coming to, and they'd just walked out of the room.
And not only the person who'd done the throwing, there were others, too. And, if this was safety, where was Scully?
The restraints didn't feel very friendly, either. Though perhaps they were to protect him from further damage. Could he really be that badly injured? Apart from his head, which was pounding like the mother of all hangovers had taken residence, he felt physically fine - good, even. Well, apart from the cold.
And the panic. Yes, of course, the panic. A taste of bile in his mouth and the sound of running hooves in his ears. Lucky he'd not eaten in a while. If he threw up here, how long before anyone noticed?
Anyone? Why anyone, why not anything? Why did this feel so different? Why was this human? It wasn't as if the treatment was particularly humane. He swallowed, tried to force his brain to see what his body seemed to know unconsciously. If he could just get that reasoning up into the light where he could see it, maybe he could understand this better.
It was drafty in here, not just cold. Cold he knew, all over and all-embracing. This was different. One leg felt warmer than the other. Not warm, just not as cold. Drafty. Like a place with doors or air conditioning. The noise was different, too, like the sound of machines breathing interspersed with evenly paced blips of noise. Blips like a heart monitor might make.
He tried to shout something out, but his throat was too dry to cooperate, his vocal chords too raw from screaming, and perhaps now too rusty from disuse. The best that he could offer was a near soundless grunt and even that set him shivering again.
Where were they? If there were people here - why weren't they in *here*?
People walked away from the dead in hospitals, left them to their own devices with a sheet over their face. No, that couldn't be it. If he was dead, why the restraints, why hold his arms away from his body? Why would the monitor still be going blip, blip, blip?
Mulder heard the swoosh as the door swung open. He took a deep breath. OK, he'd be getting his answers soon enough.
"Get that." A man's voice.
An instant later and the towel had gone from his face and Mulder was blinking hard to try to see past the blinding white light that was shining into his eyes.
"You've got something we need."
And Mulder tried to scream, wanted to demand to know where he was and who they were and his muscles, already tired and disobedient, tensed against the leather straps but felt only the impossibility of escape.
"You're going to lie very still and let us do what we have to do. We don't want to hurt you...unnecessarily."
Mulder had kept his eyes shut for most of the procedures, opening them only occasionally to confirm that his torturers were every bit as human as he'd feared or to check that the drips to his arms were still bringing fresh blood in, even as they drained his away.
They'd been excited about the blood; he'd heard them almost laughing, delighted by the amount of some antigen they'd been able to extract. He could only guess that was why they'd come back for more; even diluted by the transfusions, it was apparently valuable stuff. Well worth the repeated flush-throughs that they seemed to be enjoying so much.
Unless of course he was actually manufacturing the antigen fresh each time. But that was too big a fear to admit to, even to himself. The prospect that they might keep him alive, like this, to be milked for something in his blood. Not worth thinking about.
They didn't seem to be in much of a hurry, leaving him alone for long periods, laughing and joking on their return from wherever, before turning their silent attention back to him.
Mulder guessed they went home at night after they'd finished their shifts, guessed that much from their habit of switching off the lights as they left. An economy-minded move that hadn't ever seemed like an issue on the alien ship.
There was no point in enumerating the injuries or the humiliation.
He had no desire to remember the scalpel cuts that had reopened wounds so expertly and painlessly closed on the ship. He had no need to relive the panic as they'd clumsily drilled back into his skull to insert cumbersome electrodes replete with untidy wires.
Ugly plastic tubes kept him nourished, hydrated, and cleared away the waste, and he didn't need to open his eyes to see that they were still in place.
And this was what the humans did. And his thoughts shifted to Scully and what humans had done to her. And he couldn't help but wonder what the big deal was about being human.
The farther away from his body that he kept his brain, the better chance he had of making it through this. Making it through? An awfully big assumption, taking for granted that there would be a life after this, a life that would be recognizably his.
Yet without that assumption, there was nothing. Except to wish for death. And he already knew that was another wish that didn't work.
According to Mulder's interpretation of their timetable, almost a month had passed before they spoke to him directly. What surprised him was that apparently they expected him to answer. "You could hear them, couldn't you?"
Of course he'd been able to hear them, that was just a standard part of the abductee experience. He'd conducted maybe a hundred interviews with people who'd said exactly that.
"I'm not talking about them playing the 'keep calm' tapes. They want your participation in the project. They gave you information. They gave you orders, didn't they?"
A few slivers of ice to ease his throat and Mulder realized that at some point in the last few days his vocal chords must have started to work again. Had they been paralyzed? Even so, he choked over his first word. "No."
He opened his eyes in time to see another hypodermic needle sink into his arm. No wonder they needed to keep him so accessible.
His interrogator adopted what Mulder guessed was supposed to be a persuasive tone. "It'll help you remember."
And as the warmth crept through his veins and lightened his thoughts, he gave himself permission to remember, and better still, to see it as good thing. After all, he was supposed to be a seeker of the truth. And if they'd left some message in the murky depths of his subconscious, wasn't it better to drag it out into the daylight?
Maybe it wasn't just his new jailers who needed to hear this.
"They don't think we can survive." And as the words crept past his lips, Mulder felt his defenses start to crumble and his panic build as he fought to stop them from shattering completely. Because he suddenly knew, with devastating clarity, that he didn't want to be part of the same "we" as his torturers.
"We're losing him."
And Mulder felt the next needle drive into his vein and wanted to stay lost. They were his memories and he wanted them, and he saw no reason to share. Why the fuck should he? Death might not be an option, but perhaps silence was.
Mulder's descent into darkness was of his own choosing, the heady mix of drugs was not. They juggled with uppers and downers and anti-depressants and reduced inhibitions. Mulder danced on the tightrope and resolved that if he slipped, it would be into incoherence, not confession.
The shaking became more insistent. Drug-dazed, Mulder decided it was easier to keep his eyes shut and ignore it. He had no desire to see who was messing with the IVs and catheters, playing with the wires and electrodes.
Whatever it was they did. Really, it was better not to know. Even if this one did seem unusually clumsy.
They'd been questioning him, gradually upping the doses of liquid relaxation, until - until he'd passed out. Which was quite comical in its own way, given how determined they'd been to keep him conscious through their surgery and tests.
Unfortunately, despite his enjoyment of that irony, the reality was not too good for his nerves. Had he passed out before or after telling them what they wanted to know?
Maybe he'd remember later, when the river of memories and images had stopped trickling quite so sluggishly through his brain and the throbbing in his head had eased off a little.
Someone was rubbing his arm, as if they were trying to get the circulation back into flesh numb with cold and from being held immobile for days. How considerate of them, maybe the blue fingers were a warning sign that the blood they were drawing might be on the decline.
"For fuck's sake, Mulder. We don't have all day."
The voice shocked Mulder's eyes open, though they lacked the focus to confirm the identification. "Krycek?"
Angry, but resigned, Mulder's eyes flashed danger signs even through the watery haze that soaked them. "I should have known."
"Asshole. I'm rescuing you. Or I would be if you weren't so fucking determined to die here. Move it!" Krycek emphasized the point by hauling Mulder up to a sitting position, a maneuver made more difficult by Mulder's spirited, but clumsily ineffectual, attempt to resist.
Krycek spat out his instructions. "Save your energy for getting out of here."
What? The suddenly plentiful supply of adrenaline was starting to cut through the haze in his head. Mulder tried to understand the offer. Out of here would be a good move, even if it was with Krycek, Krycek was a problem for another day.
He tried to stand.
Unfortunately, even a grudgingly willing spirit wasn't enough to compensate for an impossibly weak body. All he needed was another few minutes to get his breath back, and clear the lightheadedness.
He sat back heavily on the bed, studied his white goose-pimpled flesh and didn't want to see more. He tried to stand, cursing the banality of dizziness, and pins and needles as reasons for failure. Now, fractured bones and blood, those would be real excuses, ones for which he could have forgiven himself.
"We don't have the time." Krycek's voice again, insistent now, hissing through the fog.
"Cold," Mulder replied forlornly. Groaning as he heard his own words, angry with himself for being so weak and moreover for sounding that way. Especially in front of Krycek. He wondered if he was going to be sick.
And Krycek laughed, a sudden bark of a sound, brief and baffling. Alex shook his head, pulling off the padded jacket he was wearing, and in the same move started to feed Mulder's right arm into it.
It was enough, enough to remind Mulder about being human and how much he needed to get away from here. Gripping the strap that had been pinning down his wrist only a moment before, he found enough strength and balance to stand again and start the process of wriggling himself into Krycek's jacket. Krycek obliged by guiding his left arm into place.
"OK?" Krycek urged.
Mulder leaned heavily on Krycek's shoulder as they headed out into darkened corridors, discreetly subdued lighting marking the way. The place was perhaps a disappointment, certainly a source of confusion to Mulder. He'd expected something more militarized. Certainly not a place with cozy carpets, flowers in vases, and paintings on the walls.
As far as Mulder could tell, the corridor they were moving through was deserted. The rooms were unlit and silent, suggesting there were no other patients around, not even a monitor mumbling reassuring blips. A private clinic, he guessed. An entire wing, or at least this floor of it, cleared just for him. Should he feel honored?
Krycek put extra pressure on his back, urging him forward. Mulder wanted to oblige, almost falling over as he made the mistake of releasing his grip on Krycek's shoulder in an attempt to run, or at least jog. They slipped wordlessly into a fast walking pace, making up in consistency what they risked losing through the drive for speed.
The car came as a relief, Mulder collapsing into an exhausted heap as soon as he got inside. His attempt to comply with Krycek's order to "keep down" was half-hearted at best, but then so was Krycek's follow-up tirade of obscenities about ingratitude and indiscipline.
The only guards they saw were the two slumped over the table in the gatepost. Mulder glanced from the bodies to Krycek, who shrugged and waved his silenced gun for Mulder's enlightenment.
They were miles along the road before Mulder spoke. "How?"
Krycek turned slightly, green eyes glistening in the darkness of the car. "Ahh, I'd expected a 'why.' God knows, I knew I wasn't going to get a 'thanks.'"
Mulder's tone didn't change. "How?"
Krycek shifted his eyes back to the road ahead. "Inside help."
Mulder shrugged. Was he surprised? "Who are you working for?"
"Jesus, Mulder. Get some sleep."
"You're high, you're asking fucking dumbass questions that you won't remember the answers to in the morning, and you're pissing me off."
"So let me out of the car."
"I've had better conversations with three-year-olds."
"Where are we going?"
"What? So you can ask me how far it is, and how long it'll take, and if we're there yet?"
"It'd be a start."
Krycek smiled grimly, stroked his fingers across the steering wheel. His voice contained a chuckle, even more of a patronizing bastard now. "A ski chalet, second-rate resort, not the best snow, so it'll be quiet. About 100 miles. A couple of hours. And no, we can't stop for a burger, fries and a shake."
"Where's the airport?"
"Give it up, Mulder."
"Fuck off. Where the hell are we?"
"Only if we're on our way to Denver International."
"They'll be waiting for you. They've got people, comm units, helicopters. And all you've got is..."
"I was going to say, something they want. And if you want to get strapped down on another plastic bed while they take it, just get out of the car now." Krycek slammed on the brakes for emphasis, making the car's nose dip and its wheels spin before it skidded to an untidy stop. Krycek leaned across Mulder to open the passenger door. "Go for it. See how far you get."
Mulder breathed in heavily and might almost have mustered up enough bravado to do exactly that, before the reality of bare feet, shaking limbs and the fact he'd not seen another car or a house light for the last 15 minutes broke through.
Krycek seemed to appreciate his dilemma. Not saying a word, he started up the engine again while Mulder pulled the door shut. They were back up to fifty before Krycek spoke. "Tomorrow, Mulder. When you're sober and you've got some fucking clothes on."
Mulder turned away, leaned his face against the window and didn't even try to reply.
Of all the fantasies Mulder had come up with about his return from the abduction, this had to be the worst. It made perfect sense that it looked like this was the real thing.
Real humans had organized the reception committee when "They" dropped him off. Real doctors and nurses had ripped him apart and stolen his blood. And a real asshole had tried to interrogate him. And succeeded?
And now he was Krycek's house guest.
Just fucking great.
And, giving it that added twist of the surreal, he could smell bacon frying.
Mulder wondered if the absurdity of the situation was an advantage. It was alarmingly easy to accept that his next move should be to get cleaned up, get dressed and eat breakfast.
More than three months since he'd last been able to do any of those things. At least, according to Krycek's timetable. The last month had been at that clinic, with those "humans." The months before had been with "Them."
Mulder turned to face the sound. Alex Krycek was leaning against the doorframe, his expression bland and gentle, reminding Mulder of a psychologist trying to talk down a desperate patient.
"Finish pulling on your jeans, then come and get something to eat."
Mulder tensed, frozen to the spot, startled rabbit in the headlights.
Krycek continued. "It's OK. I've been right where you are. Freedom. You've just forgotten how it works."
Mulder shook his head. "I'm not free."
"Clothes. Food. Then we talk."
The room spun and Mulder could feel his knees start to fold. It took him a few seconds to realize that he hadn't actually hit the ground, and that the reason he hadn't was that Alex Krycek was holding him up, by pinning him to the wall.
"Kiss me, Krycek," he offered quietly, pushing himself back upright by leaning into Krycek's shoulders, "and I swear I'll fucking kill you."
And Krycek laughed, left Mulder with a delighted smile and a gentle admonition to, "At least, fix your zipper."
Mulder slumped back against the wall, closed his eyes, and tried to keep breathing.
When Mulder finally took his place at the breakfast table, Krycek was careful not to look directly at him and Mulder was grateful for that, despite the fact he knew he ought to find it insulting.
Krycek pushed a cup of coffee and a plate of bacon sandwiches towards him. "If you need something easier to digest... I just thought..."
"...That I'd want to try." Mulder nodded. "You're right."
Half an hour later and he hadn't really made a lot of progress. No real food in months, hardly surprising that his stomach wasn't very accommodating.
"There's plenty of snack food in the fridge. Change of clothes in the bedroom. Clean towels in the bathroom."
Mulder looked up at the sound of Krycek's voice and saw Alex fastening his ski jacket. His new jailer was obviously going out.
"Only for a few supplies, anything you want?"
"So you can 'phone home'?" Alex suggested, supplying his best E.T. mimicry.
Mulder didn't need to reply, so Krycek continued. "If you want to be a lab rat for the rest of your life, be my guest." He threw his cellular to Mulder. "They're waiting for you." He paused as Mulder turned the phone over in his hands. "Don't rush this. Think about it. Give yourself time."
Mulder shrugged, sucked in a deep breath and put the phone on the table. "Nice gesture." He waved at the unit. "No signal."
Krycek shook his head, half-smiling. "Unplanned."
"Sure." Mulder turned his face away, looked back at the phone, tried to focus on what he could do and what he should do, and how to resolve the irreconcilable. His words came out as a whisper. "Not a lab rat."
Krycek slid a gun across the table towards Mulder. "Just in case."
"Another gesture?" Mulder pronounced automatically. Despite his doubts, he still picked it up, found it a familiar fit in his hand. He swallowed, released the clip and confirmed what his hand had already told him. Fully loaded. "Hmm. Thanks."
"It's yours, anyway."
"I took it from your apartment."
"I assumed that."
"I'll be about an hour. I'll knock twice. Don't shoot."
"Certainly not by mistake."
Krycek pulled the zipper up high on the jacket and headed out.
Mulder slid his thumb gently over the Sig Sauer, found mindless relaxation and odd reassurance in the feel of it against his fingers, in its smoothness as he stroked it across his cheek. Realized that he was perhaps enjoying it a little too much.
He locked and bolted the front door before heading to the bathroom to take that shower he'd promised himself.
Every new sensation was another shock, a fresh dose of fear as half-remembered feelings crept back into his brain and reminded him of what was missing. Why the hell hadn't he insisted on going with Krycek and making that phone call?
As he dressed, his own words haunted him, "not a lab rat." And as long as that thought dominated all else, he was paralyzed. Just as surely as if he were still strapped down on some operating table. Ironic.
He slid his fingers into the soft gray of the T-shirt, suddenly aware of another aspect of this mini- world Krycek had created. The clothes were freshly laundered. The brands were the ones he would buy. The styles and sizes were the same ones that would have been hanging in his closet at home. The seam of the much-loved sweatshirt that he knew was starting to fray had a neat line of new stitches.
He dug through the rest of the drawer. They were his clothes, a bit of a loose fit now, but his. Krycek had brought him his spare gun and either laundered and repaired, or else cloned his clothing. Jesus, it was like having a fucking stalker. A stalker who cooked him breakfast and left snacks in the fridge. What the hell was Krycek up to, anyway?
When Krycek knocked twice, Mulder was already sitting, facing the door and ready to welcome him home.
Krycek kept his eye on the gun in Mulder's hand as he slipped out of his coat. "Problem?"
"Why are we here?"
"Ah, a philosophy question."
"You're in hiding. I'm helping you hide."
"Because if I don't, you'll be on the next black helicopter out of the valley."
"Cute doesn't suit you."
"OK. You're ready to talk. Fine. You've been through a life- changing experience. I think I can show you how to fight back, I think you may be ready to listen."
"You're full of it, Krycek."
"Which bit did I get wrong?"
"Tone of voice. Sincere doesn't blend well with pond scum."
"Ungrateful bastard." Smiling, Krycek pushed his way past Mulder and into the kitchen. "Coffee? You ready to eat some more? I've got fresh bread, fruit, soup."
Speechless, Mulder sat back in the chair, lifted his eyes to study the ceiling. Followed Krycek obediently into the kitchen as soon as he smelled the toast.
In the evening, nibbling on a chicken leg, Mulder realized that Krycek's mothering was starting to work. He'd just drunk an entire glass of water, was eating his fourth tiny meal of the day, and he actually felt warm.
All just a little too comfortable, Mulder concluded. Time to move on. "Why did they want me?"
"Why did those 'doctors' want me?"
"I thought when you picked up that mind-reading trick, you'd have 'asked' someone what you are."
Mulder ignored the innuendo in Krycek's words. "I'm asking you."
"You could be the difference between assimilation and resistance."
"Why didn't they want the other abductees?"
"They're just hosts for the next generation. When the kids grow up, you'll have more company..." Mulder leaned forward, his eyes demanding the answer to a question he wouldn't ask out loud. Krycek obliged. "You're second generation, not many of you survive to adulthood."
Samantha hadn't. Mulder struggled over the words. "Why did I?"
"Early prototype, they thought it hadn't worked. Your mom and dad hid you well."
Mulder shook his head to demand more explanation.
"Drugs, minor brain surgery. But you know what they say - breeding will out. A few holes in the head, a dose of black oil, a coded parchment or two, and up it popped."
"The telepathy? It went."
"The smoker took it. Your kid'll have it in spades."
"Scully's first generation, you're second, the kid should be hot stuff."
"You didn't know?"
Mulder turned away, too stunned to talk. His mind flashed back to that last night with her. A drab motel in Bellefleur, his body wrapped around hers, telling her that it had cost her too much. And now it was going to cost her even more. He gulped in a lungful of air, almost drowning in the memory before he pushed it far enough away.
Krycek was mercifully silent as Mulder walked shivering into the bedroom.
The night went too slowly for Fox Mulder. Too tired to sleep. Too wired to think. He was grateful when he smelled bacon frying and knew that he could escape into the mundane.
It took a while for Mulder to clear his head enough to concentrate on anything at all, too many thoughts and emotions competing for the same space. By the time he was able to try again, they'd both been up for hours - eating, drinking, tiptoeing around anything important. Mulder was tired, Krycek was just getting more irritated by his refusal to sleep.
"I've got to talk to Scully."
Krycek carefully mimicked beating his head against the wall. "Here we go again. Deja fucking vu."
"The Gunmen then. Or Skinner."
"You're right. We have been here before."
"And we'll keep ending up here. They - are - being - watched. One phone call and you sign your own death warrant."
Mulder turned his head away, eyes glistening, desperate to keep his voice from breaking. Bitterly aware that he really had been here before, and determined to get at least one step further. "Then - I've got to get a message to her."
"To tell her that you're alive? And then? What? She'll run to you? She won't grieve? Tell me, how many people told you Samantha was alive, that everything was going to be OK?"
"Come on, Mulder. Did you believe them?" A pause as Krycek paced, saving his next words for when he was standing directly in front of Mulder. "Oh, sorry - you just wanted to believe."
"If she knows I'm out, then she won't waste her time looking."
"Don't worry, she isn't."
"Forget it. Forget I said anything. Look, no problem, I can get a message to her. Marita."
Mulder wasn't nearly so ready to forget it and move on. "What did you mean about Scully? Not looking." He had to pause for breath. "Is she ill, the baby?"
"She's fine, radiant if you're to believe what Skinner tells her." Krycek turned away, when he looked back, the anger had disappeared from his eyes. Soft-spoken now, like a man begging to be understood. "When the ship dumped you - who found you?"
"They knew where to find me."
"They knew fuck. They chased satellite IR shadows, monitored rogue radar alerts for months. They were there first because they were looking. They wanted you bad."
Mulder kept his head down and let his eyes drift closed. His memories of being returned were vague, but one stood out. For a moment he'd been free to run, then he'd been taken down. He had not been handed over, he'd been captured. By someone who wanted him. "They had the resources."
"You stood in a room with her, with Skinner, with those conspiracy geeks of yours, and we looked at the same shit."
Mulder's reply was a whisper of disbelief. "It's been months."
"And for one of those months you were in a private clinic in Colorado that suddenly felt the need to transfer out twenty of its patients and stick armed guards at its gate, the night you were helicoptered in. I found you when the local cops got excited." Krycek paused, giving Mulder time to take it in. "Yeah. One of the patients complained he'd been threatened by a Uzi-toting doctor for walking on the wrong corridor."
"You said - Marita helped you."
"She's been working at the UN for the last six months. All she gave me was the name of the people who'd installed the alarms and video security."
Silence, broken only by the hitches in Mulder's breathing.
Krycek stopped pacing, wrapped a single arm protectively across his chest. "Look - call them and you're good as dead. They're almost through with your brain. Your body, that's another matter - they'll keep it alive, with or without your cooperation."
"I can't run forever."
"Jesus. Who said anything about forever? Think about it. You're not even back on solids. You're out of breath just sitting there. And you've got no fucking clue whether to shoot me or shoot yourself."
Krycek headed for the door, grabbing his coat as he went. "I'm going out."
It took time for Mulder to find the strength to rise from his chair. He locked the door and sank back into the couch. His body demanded the illusion of security that came from curling up into a tight little ball.
He gave into it. After all, it had been a while since he'd had the luxury.
The place was uncomfortably silent without Krycek, and Mulder didn't even want to think about the implications of that. It was OK. That was not a problem. Not yet.
It was early days, Krycek was right; he had to learn to think again. Daydreams and fantasy weren't good enough, not now that he was back in a place where thoughts could lead to actions, and actions to consequences. All of that would take a little getting used to.
Krycek was right? What the fuck was happening here?
He grubbed around for some suitably clinical terminology to account for the mess in his head. Failed. Opted for the story of baby chicks hatching, looking for mother and imprinting on the farmyard duck instead. A relationship destined for tragedy, especially once mom headed back to the river.
Since he'd staggered into the chalet a couple of days earlier, he'd scarcely even looked outside. He certainly hadn't tried to go out there and look around. He'd made no attempt to understand the lay of the land, or even to get his bearings.
Potentially disastrous inaction, what the hell would he do if someone other than Krycek did knock on that door? Analyzing his reasons for staying inside, his only rational explanation was that it looked too damned cold.
Excuses. So many fucking excuses.
He hadn't even switched on the TV. No wonder the place was too quiet.
Tomorrow. Whatever Krycek said, or did. Tomorrow, Fox Mulder was heading out.
He fell asleep watching the television. When he woke up, the living room lights were turned low and Krycek's jacket was hanging by the front door.
Tomorrow, he was moving on.
Krycek's car was not quite what Mulder remembered from their late night run from the clinic. He was pretty sure that had been a dark sedan. This was a small hatchback, equally nondescript, but different.
Krycek responded to Mulder's unspoken question. "What?"
"Nothing. You've changed the car."
"We're on the run." Slowly, as if talking to a small child.
Mulder sank back against the headrest and saw the signs pointing to the interstate, signs that Krycek ignored. "We're going cross country? Why?"
"Which part of 'in hiding' didn't you get?"
"The one that appointed you as my nanny."
"You think I want the job?"
"Who are you working for?"
"Myself. It's a war, we fight or we get assimilated."
All heads turned as they entered the diner, voices trailed off and Mulder almost walked straight back out again. Only the need to visit the restroom, and the knowledge that walking through the front door would be no easier the second time, stopped him.
Krycek seemed to be oblivious, both to the curiosity of their fellow diners and to Mulder's reaction. He just walked directly to the counter and ordered coffee, flirting politely with the waitress as she listed the specials.
Mulder was almost running by the time he reached the men's room, and breathless by the time he bolted the door of the cubicle.
Clinical analysis - don't take it personally, he reminded himself as he choked for breath. He sat quietly, elbows resting on his knees, hands clenched into the tightest of fists, supporting his head as it spun and screamed for air.
A mild agoraphobic response, that was all. Mild? Yes, mild, he reminded himself - he'd made it across the room, hadn't he? He hadn't collapsed or fainted or thrown up. Give it time, a snide new voice in his head suggested.
The bathroom door slammed shut as someone walked in, and Mulder had to work hard to stop his hand from shaking too badly as he went for his gun.
"You in here?"
Krycek? Jesus, no way could he let Krycek see the state he was in. Krycek already had too much power in the relationship. Mulder wasn't going to hand him any more. "This some perverted brand of voyeurism?" Mulder was just relieved that his voice didn't give out.
Krycek's disembodied voice replied instantly. "See you in five."
Yeah. Five minutes and he'd be fine.
When he was finally ready to leave, Mulder actually dared to look at himself in the mirror. It was a mistake. Red-rimmed eyes screamed exhaustion against chalk-white skin. Blister scars marking the locations they'd hooked into his face. Hollow-cheeked from too little food, no exercise and no daylight. He looked like what he was - someone who'd escaped from being strapped down on a hospital bed.
A slow deep breath, and another, until breathing became an automatic thing again. Mulder turned and walked calmly through the door. He avoided looking at the other diners and joined Krycek, taking a stool at the counter.
The waitress gave him a sympathetic smile. "Here you are." She pushed tomato soup and soft bread in front of him.
Mulder glanced across at Krycek. "I said you had a stomach bug and she came up with that."
Mulder nodded. "Smells good."
Krycek smiled. "She does, doesn't she?"
Mulder looked nervously away and Krycek shook his head, leaned close to Mulder, forcing him back to attention by whispering in his ear. "There's ten people in here. That's all. Count 'em. We could shoot the lot of them before she gets to the end of her regular-or- decaf speech. And you're shaking. What chance have you got in D.C.?"
"What chance have I got anywhere else?'
Knowing he was a mess and doing something about it were two different matters. Krycek was right, back in D.C. he was going to be as helpless as a baby. Where was he going to stay? He couldn't go to his apartment, did he even have an apartment?
Scully's. Scully's was the most obvious place to go. And if it was obvious to him, then it would be just as obvious to them. Helpless as a baby. And Scully had a real baby to protect. He couldn't ask her to protect him, it was a ridiculous idea. But what was even more ridiculous was that he couldn't shake the thought that it still sounded like the best option.
The drive across country had been a matter of expedience, it was essential to avoid airports, they weren't even taking a direct route. The side effect of the delays that had made Mulder accept the plan without much comment, was that it would give him time to think. But he was now halfway home and still no wiser.
When Krycek had said it was time for them to stop for the night, Mulder hadn't even argued. Krycek booked the rooms, ordered the food, and brought the ice to go with the beer and soda he'd picked up at the store.
Mulder watched as Krycek busily organized the room, making sure that they had a clear view of the door and that the windows would allow them easy escape routes, yet simultaneously present a noisy obstacle course for anyone trying to break in.
Exhausted, despite the fact that he had done nothing today or yesterday, or for the last few months for that matter, Mulder caved in to the feeling, collapsed untidily onto the bed. He was tired, of his weakened body, his easily panicked brain, his confused and patchy memories, but above all he was tired of not knowing enough.
"Mulder? We'll take the trip slower, double back to the cabin if you like. Or somewhere else. You need more time."
"I've got to see her."
"We don't need to go D.C. for that."
"Hit me, Mulder." Krycek paused, waiting for Mulder to look up at him, before mimicking his quiet monotone of an earlier confrontation. "And I swear I'll fucking kill you."
Mulder puzzled for an instant before shaking his head and falling back into the pillows, averting his face from Krycek. "I'm harmless, Alex."
"Sure." Krycek headed for his bag, dragging out the latest technology from in among shirts and jeans. "We can work from the laptop. Resolution will be crap for live stuff. I've got some old video, though. But we can get the latest case reports. Hospital records."
"Why didn't you show me this before?"
"How?" Krycek waved the PC's modem cable at Mulder to emphasize the fact that earth technology hadn't progressed that much in Mulder's absence. "Plus, since I got you out, you've either been eating, sleeping or sitting in a car."
Mulder crawled back along the bed, then rose to look over Krycek's shoulder. "Hospital records?"
Krycek took it as an instruction, and a few seconds later Dana Scully's recent medical history was scrolling up onto the screen. "I'll save it. Motel phone lines - we may lose the link."
Fox Mulder watched, horrified and fascinated as Krycek took him on a fast tour of Dana Scully's world. Swallowing as the image flicked to the basement office, almost violating that order from Krycek about not hitting him as it switched to a good clear view of Mulder's own apartment. "No one's home. You want me to bring the daily reports back?"
Mulder nodded, let himself slump back to his previous place on the bed, no idea what he wanted, bitterly aware that again he was placing himself in Krycek's hands but unable to come up with anything better.
And then finally he did have a thought of his own. It took him a few minutes, but Mulder was mildly gratified to see Krycek jump when he spoke. "See what they've got from the night the ship brought me back."
Krycek smiled, and confirmed the job was good as done.
Mulder picked at his food, the safe bland food that Krycek had chosen for him. How come Krycek was such an expert on the nutritional needs of abductees?
By the time Mulder had eaten as much as he could, Krycek had already closed down the connection and was heading for the door. "Bedtime reading," he suggested, pointing at the laptop. "I need a steak. Want me to bring anything back?"
Mulder shook his head, wondering if maybe he should be annoyed by Krycek's assumption that steak was not on Mulder's agenda. Instead he was just grateful that Krycek had opted to give him this moment of privacy, however illusory. He bolted the door and trapped it with a chair.
Careful, almost on tiptoe, he made his way back to the table and chair, and started to read.
Nervous fingers struggled with where to go first, before finally getting up the courage to open Dana Scully's medical history.
He read it too fast the first time, reached the end of the file and had to start over to convince himself that he'd understood its contents. Near enough five months pregnant and doing OK despite a couple of hospitalizations from injuries sustained during investigations and a couple more from scares relating to the pregnancy.
Cautionary warnings to eat better, sleep more, not work so hard, and avoid stress. As if.
Avoid stress? Like that was going to happen if she was hunting for him. After 25 years his blood pressure had still lurched at the mention of Sam's name.
Injured during investigations. Wounds in the back. How? Had she been hunting too hard, too recklessly? No partner to back her up?
He closed his eyes, body stiff with tension and mouth dry with words he'd never been able to say, might never be able to say. Keep moving, he told himself. Krycek would be back soon. Important to move on.
He switched to the folder where Krycek had dumped the files describing the night he was returned. A police report detailing the discovery of three men and two women, near-naked and extremely confused, wandering in freezing conditions.
Mulder opened the next file. It was on FBI letterhead, a fax asking for details of the abductees and their medical condition. Followed by a reply from the locals documenting the raw facts about those who'd been returned.
He could have been on that list, would have been on that list, if those people hadn't come and taken him. And Scully would have come. And Krycek wouldn't be knocking twice on the fucking door. He looked down at the clock on the screen, Alex had been gone for more than an hour. Mulder knew he couldn't really complain. It was just that time kept moving on and leaving him behind.
He pushed the furniture away and let Krycek back in.
The slice of cherry pie in the paper bag was a gift, and Mulder accepted it without comment, uncertain whether he was going to laugh or cry and positive that he should do neither in front of his benefactor, his rescuer, his enemy.
Krycek glanced down at the screen. "Ah, yeah, that was what got me interested in Colorado."
Mulder looked at the list of names and addresses, he could see why it had set Alex on the trail. Most abductees got dropped back pretty much where they'd been found, but not these. "They weren't locals."
That was when Mulder noticed who the message was addressed to and who had asked the original questions. No wonder Scully hadn't noticed the anomaly. "John Doggett?"
So matter-of-fact, so obvious. But it hadn't really crossed his mind until then. The last new partner she'd had, had shot her. "Who is he?"
"Some cop in a suit. Kersh appointed him. Deputy Director Kersh."
Better and better. "Where's Skinner?"
"Watching his step."
Mulder shook his head wearily. "I don't understand. Why did Doggett send out the inquiry? Why not Scully, or Skinner?"
"No, you don't understand." Krycek's tone was almost... sympathetic? "Short version. After you 'disappeared' there was an investigation. John Doggett was appointed to head it. Skinner and Scully were asked for statements on your recent behavior, your state of mind, that kind of thing. But Doggett was given the job of finding you."
Krycek continued his narration as he started to get ready for bed. A move that Mulder interpreted as a warning - once Krycek had told his tale, no discussion would be permitted.
"Of course, there was no way he possibly *could* find you, Scully and Skinner knew that. Skinner and those geeky friends of yours tried to track anomalous satellite transmissions at first, but in the end Skinner had to protect his own ass. Trying to convince the FBI that they should be directing their search heavenward wasn't doing his promotion prospects any good."
Mulder raised his eyes, ready to interrupt, but Krycek just shook his head. Another reminder that Krycek's words were not the opening argument in a discussion, they were a statement.
Krycek continued, his eyes glowing brighter with fresh energy. "Kersh assigned Doggett to the X- Files. And they've been busy chasing mutants and bat-crap ever since. It'd be laughable if it wasn't so sad, what they've turned your precious files into. If you thought people didn't take you seriously before, well, it's worse than a dog and pony show now."
It was too much to digest, and a hell of a lot to argue with. Where to start? Job or no job, Scully wouldn't just stop looking. And Skinner? He'd have found a way to let her choose the cases, or to disguise them. They wouldn't just let Kersh or Doggett set the agenda, would they? And if Scully was pregnant, then what was she doing getting hurt?
Mulder couldn't quite decide how he felt about that. He'd hated to think she'd been hurt in some futile snipe hunt, looking for him. Was it worse that she'd been injured when she wasn't?
The questions churned inside his head, but Mulder didn't have a clue how to begin. He watched dumbly as Krycek settled himself down in the other bed and flipped off the light.
"Get some sleep, Mulder. It's another long drive tomorrow."
Unable to find the words, Mulder accepted that the discussion was over. Not that it had ever actually started. Careful and slow as he shifted to lie in the bed, curled up quietly on his side, afraid that if he moved too suddenly he might shatter entirely.
All that he'd read, all that Alex had told him, it hovered above him, spinning crazily around his head until he felt dizzy. Trying to sort it into some semblance of order did him no good, each spin leaving him a little more exhausted and no wiser.
He was still trying to make sense of it when the sun rose the next morning.
Krycek pulled the car into the parking lot of another seedy highway diner. It took a few moments for Mulder to realize that they had stopped. He slowly lifted his eyes to focus on the building in front of them.
"Why have we stopped?"
"Lunch," Krycek announced happily, "and a bathroom break."
Mulder's eyes lost focus again and he slumped further down into the upholstery. "I'm not hungry."
With a resigned sigh, Krycek opened the car door and pulled Mulder from his "nest" on the back seat. "You hardly ate any breakfast. You *need* to eat."
The combination of exhaustion and confusion was making it hard for Mulder to maintain even the pretense of control. The nearest he could get to it was a kind of sullen passivity mixed with the occasional temper tantrum.
He cringed at the thought, acknowledging that it put him right up there with the sulky kid who'd screamed insults at his mom for the inadequacy of the burgers, when they'd stopped for gas and "breakfast" that morning.
He stretched his neck, trying to rock a little life back into its muscles by slowly moving his head.
Too slow for Alex Krycek. Alex's eyes had lost a little of that damned all-knowing patronizing reasonableness that had started to make Mulder's nerves jangle and his pulse skip. Mulder had seen the change in his face this morning, just a little of the old Alex breaking through.
Having seen it though, he'd ignored his own findings. Or maybe he hadn't. Maybe he needed Alex to jolt him from his stupor. The other Alex. The Alex who was advancing on him now.
Mulder tried to slide back into the seat, and Krycek responded by grabbing him by the shirt, and hauling him roughly up against the car. "Now listen to me, you little fuck! I didn't risk my neck to get your sorry ass away from those sadistic bastards so you could starve yourself to death just because life goes on when you're not around."
Some of the fight came back into Mulder's eyes as he tried to pull loose from Krycek's grip. "Get the fuck away from me."
"Or else?" He abruptly let go of Mulder, who almost fell to the ground at the loss of his unwelcome support. "Look at you," he spat. "You can hardly even hold yourself up. How are you going to get the better of me? Huh? Well, suit yourself. I'm hungry, so I'm gonna go eat."
Krycek made his point crystal clear by striding off towards the diner's entrance, leaving Mulder slumped against the car and trying to breathe.
By the time Krycek had finished ordering, Mulder had slid reluctantly into the seat opposite him in the booth. They sat for a few minutes ignoring the strained silence until the waitress came back with the order. She put a banana smoothie and plain toast down in front of Mulder. Krycek was having a burger with fries.
Mulder looked longingly at the burger, it seemed like forever since he'd had "real" food. Maybe if he could actually eat something that tasted like food, he wouldn't be in danger of starving to death. In any case, Krycek was exaggerating. Not starvation, risk of malnutrition maybe. Nitpicking didn't seem that worthwhile an occupation.
He nibbled on the toast and managed to swallow more than half the smoothie, which was actually rather good. He even stole a couple of Krycek's fries.
Mulder risked looking at Krycek, and Alex replied with a glance that was pure evaluation. Mulder didn't turn away and was relieved when Alex seemed to accept his reaction as an improvement. Krycek's muscles had relaxed a little, and the vaguest twinkle of a knowing smile had returned to his eyes.
More like the Krycek he knew and... well, not exactly "loved." Krycek had a plan, that much was clear. No surprise there. Krycek had always claimed to be the man with a plan.
Maybe Alex was right. Maybe this time he ought to listen.
Mulder kept his eyes locked on Krycek's. "I think we should get a room."
They only had about a thousand miles to go, a couple of days' drive and he'd be home. Mulder felt his breath catch as he tried to remember exactly what home was.
Home, he noted grimly, wasn't really something as vague and amorphous as Washington, D.C. It was specific, just a handful of specifics really. Scully, Skinner, the Gunmen, a few friends and comrades. A basement office in the FBI, a pretty generic sort of apartment that he shared with some fish. The Knicks! Well, they'd only be a few hundred miles from the target he'd set himself of getting to D.C. Why exactly was he going to D.C.?
Scully? She might as well be a million miles away if he couldn't approach her.
Krycek slammed the door shut behind them as they entered the motel room. "So?"
Mulder shook his head as if he didn't understand, then immediately flinched as he saw the irritation that flashed through Krycek's eyes. Krycek was right, such self-pitying evasion was not attractive. Mulder decided that he'd better start, at least, acting like himself again. "We need to talk."
Mulder's first reaction was a "don't tempt me." A thought which he didn't bother to vocalize but which he could tell from Krycek's brief smile had been heard and understood. Mulder decided to start at the beginning. "Why did you rescue me?"
"If we have blood like yours, they can't use us as hosts."
Dry-mouthed, Mulder tried to lick his lips. "So I become your personal lab rat?"
"Nice of you to offer. But, we also need money, access, resources." Krycek waved a dismissive hand to outline Mulder's body. "A couple of pints and we could go into the brewing business. But not without backers."
"These people." The words came out too loud, Mulder took a deep breath to quiet his voice, even though he could do nothing about the way his thoughts were screaming. "These people have 'backing' - they've had it for years. I broke into the DoD to get an implant. Scully rescued me from their fucking basement after a little brain surgery."
"And now they're working out of a private clinic in Colorado? Get real. They're dead in the water. Corrupt, lazy, stupid and vicious. They're like rabid dogs, they can kill just fine, but they can't create anything. And now they've split into a thousand squabbling pieces."
"So who took me?"
"Goons. They wanted to milk you, Mulder, sell you by the pint to the highest bidder."
"But you don't?"
"Jesus. I'm talking about winning a war, not becoming a wealthy corpse." Krycek smiled, acknowledging the cold amusement in Mulder's eyes. "Though naturally, I'm expecting a fair reward from a grateful world."
"And you want me as a partner, because...?"
"You're more than a lab rat. Wave the flag as the heir to the Mulder and Spender empire and they'll recognize you as the unity candidate. We can shake them up. And with your FBI history to get me through the right doors, I can give the money people the evidence they need to get off their asses."
"And do what?"
"Develop a vaccine. Isolate the important factor in your blood. Grow it. Manufacture it."
"And find test subjects for it?"
Krycek sighed, weary and long-suffering. "Naturally."
Mulder had always known that it would come to this. Always known that one day his "family" would come back to haunt him. Krycek's words had possessed a horrible ring of inevitability.
And underlying it all was the same old fear that Mulder had always known. He'd always considered himself to be one of the good guys, but he'd never really known enough to put that theory to the test.
And Krycek, of course, knew more about what was really going on. Seemed to, anyway.
Krycek talked knowledgeably about the splits among alien factions, the battle between those who planned to colonize by using humans as incubators, and those who sought only the privacy to coexist in racially pure isolation.
And Krycek knew more about the human consortium, not just here but globally. And more about what was happening within Mulder's blood, within Mulder's own fucking body.
Mulder looked up, startled to hear Krycek's angry question. He'd forgotten Krycek was in here, put the TV's erratic behavior down to a remote control with a mind of its own. Had he groaned out loud just now? Mulder kept his own words soft. "I'd like to read those X-Files you were telling me about."
Krycek's nod was surprisingly formal, as if the words in the computer were a message he didn't want to deliver. The laptop had no such qualms, alive and ready to talk in seconds.
After six hours of silent reading and rereading, Krycek's insistence that it was time to go and eat came as a relief, even to Mulder.
Krycek, in the diner, was a mass of restless energy and Mulder couldn't help but sympathize. If he had any energy himself, he'd be climbing the walls by now. They'd spent days at the cabin and now days on the road, not a lot of opportunity for exercise. "Why don't you go for a run?"
Krycek almost snorted coffee out of his nose. He laughed, shaking his head. "Fuck. I'm impressed. You've got this element of surprise thing down pat. So how come you still get your ass kicked?"
"I've got this innate faith in human nature."
"So you became a criminal profiler!"
Mulder shrugged. He even managed a tentative smile for the waitress who took his order. He studiously ignored Krycek's questioning gaze until she'd walked away. "What? You don't approve of my menu choices?"
"You're waking up."
Mulder swallowed and was grateful for the distraction of the cup of coffee in front of him. Not that he'd risked taking more than a couple of sips, but it smelled good, and it looked like real life.
He pushed his fingers back through his hair. Odd, it felt like it hadn't been cut, for how long? - a month or so maybe? The aliens had kept it trimmed but the humans hadn't? Or maybe they'd cut it when he'd first been returned, or maybe it doesn't grow out there - speed-of-light travel and all that? Hell.
Waking up was hard, every question triggering another hundred. He was suddenly very tired again. He tried not to sigh as he spoke. "Tell me about Scully."
Krycek spoke softly, conspiratorially calm. "She's keeping the memory alive, picked up your banner, saying your lines. It's painful to watch, but she talks a good game."
"She doesn't think I'm coming back."
Krycek didn't reply, just smiled at the waitress delivering their food. When they were alone, he picked up his theme again. "She's got a baby to think of."
Mulder didn't need the reminder, he'd been thinking about the baby, too. "I'm a liability."
"To her." Krycek kept his voice mild, even though his body was tense with expectation. "But not to the rest of us."
The food didn't look as good as it had sounded. Either that, or Mulder had lost his appetite.
The sound clip that had assumed the status of fixation for Mulder was the innocuously titled, SSk0029.
Ironic really, given all the video footage carefully saved on stacks of DVDs that he hadn't even looked at yet. To get stuck on the sound clips, and moreover a sound clip that had been recorded only days after he'd been taken, seemed so pathetic.
Of course, it would be such an easy thing to fabricate, but Mulder knew it was real. He wanted to dismiss it as simply the bald statement of the only practical way forward, but it kept sticking in his throat.
He listened to it again, Skinner's voice. "Look... I saw what I saw. I have to make a statement in there. I'm not going to tell them it didn't happen."
And Scully's oh-so-sensible reply. "Well, you heard Kersh. They don't want the truth. You give them the truth, and they'll hang you with it."
"They can hang me with a lie, too. I'm not going to sell Mulder out."
"What good are you to Mulder if you give them the power to ruin your career?"
It was all so very reasonable. Every bit as reasonable as a very young Dana Scully meeting Mulder outside a Baltimore courtroom and pointing out how stupid he'd sounded for telling the truth about Eugene Victor Tooms.
Mulder found it easy to believe the audio was legit. He blamed himself for listening, really. Spying on someone else's private words was asking for trouble. He just wished he could stop himself from doing it.
Even wearing headphones, Mulder could hear the excitement in Krycek's voice. He was almost grateful for the distraction from the computer. He shifted to look at the TV.
Krycek turned to face Mulder. "Seems you're dead."
The item was over as quickly as it had begun. Apparently, the search for missing FBI agent Fox Mulder was over.
Krycek was on his feet and packing their bags before Mulder's brain had a chance to take in what had just happened.
Krycek had to scream in his ear to get his attention. "Move it! They've just declared you dead. Anyone sees you, and you will be."
Mulder tried to follow the reasoning but wasn't quite up to it. Instead he paid attention to Krycek's body language that was screaming, "Emergency!"
"Move!" Krycek's hand locked around Mulder's bicep.
This time Mulder did as he was told.
They drove for the rest of the day and into the night, stopping only long enough to grab food from fast food outlets and 7/11 stores. When he became too tired to drive, Krycek pulled off the road into a secluded rest stop hidden by a thicket of trees and slept for a few hours. It left Mulder with few options. He could stay in the car and sleep or take a wander in the deserted countryside. Krycek had chosen the spot well for its isolation.
Krycek woke after three hours of light yet restful sleep, stretched cramped muscles and noticed that Mulder wasn't in the car beside him. Getting out of the car, he saw Mulder lying sprawled on top of a lone picnic table, staring up at the stars. He walked to the edge of the tree line, unzipped and relieved himself.
The task completed, Krycek turned and opened his mouth to yell out to Mulder, but stopped before any words could escape. Mulder hadn't moved at all, hadn't even acknowledged his presence. He stood for a moment, watching this man who was neither enemy nor friend, a man trapped in a place where he'd often been himself. A man stuck with few options, none of them appealing. In some small way, Krycek could admit to himself that he felt sorry for Mulder, for what he had had to do to him in order to gain his cooperation.
Mulder's methods were vastly different to his, and Mulder's pursuit of answers he couldn't have had cost Krycek a lot over time. Yet, Krycek still found him worthy. He couldn't help admiring Mulder, not least for still hanging on when the dues Mulder had paid - dues paid to Krycek himself at times - were high. Mulder, like himself, was a survivor.
He walked over to the picnic table and looked down on Mulder.
"Are you okay?" Krycek's softly spoken question seemed loud in the silent countryside.
Mulder's only reply was a slight shrug of one shoulder. It effectively stopped any conversation before it could start, and Krycek found himself feeling uncomfortable just standing there while Mulder was lying prone, staring up at the stars. He had turned to walk back to the car, when he heard Mulder speak.
"Do you know why?"
Krycek turned around to find Mulder still gazing heavenward.
Mulder finally sat up and perched on the edge of the table. He shifted to face Krycek. "Why did they take me? And why was I returned? Do you know, Krycek?"
The intense look in Mulder's eyes was visible even in the subdued light. He wanted an answer, and an honest one.
"I don't know, Mulder. If I knew, I'd tell you."
Mulder looked at Krycek, then dropped his eyes to the ground. "Yeah, sure."
Given their history, Krycek knew he shouldn't take offense, but for some reason he found himself a little upset at Mulder's distrust. Which, of course, was laughable.
"Well, come on. We've gotta get you someplace safe as soon as possible."
At around ten the next morning they pulled up for gas. While Krycek pumped, Mulder headed to the restrooms inside the building. Just outside the men's room was a pay phone. Mulder paused and regarded it for a moment. He'd never really been tempted to call Scully or Skinner, or anybody, to tell them he was back. Krycek's insistence that it wasn't safe had been reason enough, but that was before the people he cared about thought he was dead. Again.
He'd passed any number of motel phones and pay phones before without giving calling a single thought, but this time it was different. Someone had left a quarter in the coin return. This was almost like a sign, an open invitation. A temptation too great, but was it also a Pandora's Box?
With a shaking hand, Mulder retrieved the coin and lifted the handset. The familiar hum of the dial tone startled him momentarily, and he was sure that his thudding heart was loud enough for Krycek to hear outside. He glanced furtively around the store display that hid him from outside view and noted that Krycek was still filling the tank. Hopefully it was a slow pump. He could do this.
Mulder dropped the coin in the slot and dialed the operator. He asked to be connected to the Hoover Building in Washington, then asked the FBI operator for Agent Scully's office. He spoke quietly, trying to keep his voice neutral and unrecognizable.
The extension rang four times, Mulder becoming more and more nervous with each ring that Krycek would come in and catch him on the phone, or that he'd lose his nerve entirely. On the fifth ring it was answered, and Mulder's, "Scully, it's me," died on his lips when an unfamiliar male voice spoke.
"Agent John Doggett."
Shit. Scully's new "partner." Mulder didn't want to talk to him, but was at a loss as to how to ask for Scully without giving away his identity. His ragged breathing was all that could be heard for long seconds. What should he do?
"Hello? Can I help you? Who is this?" Doggett's voice startled him and he was about to hang up when he heard another voice in the background.
"Who is it, Agent Doggett?"
Oh, God, she was there. Mulder's thoughts raced. Was he right to call her? Was it fair to put her in unnecessary danger? Krycek's warning came back to him and froze his voice.
Doggett's voice again. "There's someone on the line, but they're not talking. Maybe it's a crank call." Then back into the phone he said, "Is anybody there? Talk to me or I'm gonna hang up."
In a panic, Mulder almost spoke, but heard Scully again.
"Give it to me." A rustle of changing hands, then, "Hello?"
"I..." Mulder began, but it was all too much, hearing her voice - realtime. He hung up quickly and looked out again at where the car stood at the pump. Krycek was pushing on the door to come in. "Oh, shii..."
Mulder quickly ducked into the men's room, scrambled into one of the stalls and fumbled to lock the door behind him. He sat, trying to get his breathing back under control, and heard the outer door open.
"Mulder? Are you done yet? Come on, we don't have all day."
With a calm he didn't feel, Mulder shot back. "Fuck, Krycek, can't I even take a dump in peace?"
Back in the car again, Mulder mentally berated himself for the stupid mistake he'd almost made. Even if his own future meant nothing to him right now, he should have thought more about Scully's and the baby's.
It was after dark when they entered the outskirts of Washington, D.C. Mulder had no idea where they were headed and wasn't sure he should even ask. As Krycek turned the car towards the seedier side of the city, Mulder let out a snorted chuckle.
"What?" Asked Krycek.
"I should've known that the Rat would head for the sewers."
Krycek looked offended but said nothing. "What were you expecting? The Watergate? We'll be low- profile in this part of town. It's only temporary, until I can get in touch with a few people I can trust to help us."
Mulder wondered exactly what kind of help that would be, what type of person someone like Krycek could actually trust. The prospect of being resident raw material for whatever Krycek's contacts had in mind didn't thrill him at all, but at least he was becoming less resistant to the idea.
That classic line from his favorite Star Trek movie came to mind - "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one." He found himself wondering whether he still had the Spock ears he'd had as a kid. But then memories of those led him down paths he didn't want to traverse right now. He shut the thought off as quickly as it had come.
Krycek made several hushed phone calls, but Mulder didn't really pay attention to the conversations. He was tired, physically and emotionally. He wondered if he'd ever feel strong again. He tried to tamp down the growing depression long enough to get some rest. Closing his eyes, he willed his mind to shut off.
Restraint. No movement. Air across his body. Exposed. So exposed. Hands gripping. Gripping metal. No. Not metal. Organic. No.Something... something not real. Lying prone. Air on skin. Skin. Tight. Tight. Pain. Pain... and...
Mulder sat up quickly, hands outstretched, breathing labored, his eyes opened wide to ensure his whereabouts. He looked straight into Krycek's eyes, was captured by them as he fought to get his breath back.
To his surprise, Krycek did nothing more than continue his telephone conversation. That, and pass Mulder the glass of water Krycek had sitting beside him. Mulder took the drink, quickly downing the lukewarm contents of the glass.
Placing the glass down, Mulder settled back once more, this time tuning into the cadence of Krycek's tones as he spoke, using the melody of the words as a focus for his own thoughts.
The next day, Krycek announced that he was going out for several hours. He knew it was risky leaving Mulder to his own devices for so long, but he was sure that Mulder had enough to keep him occupied, going through the remainder of the files and surveillance recordings on the computer.
For his own part, Mulder didn't want to believe what he was reading and seeing, but the evidence spoke for itself. Scully and Doggett had taken over *his* files. He read the case reports with disbelief. Where was the usual skepticism and rationality, the questioning in the name of science? All the cases were wrapped up in neat little bows, explained away as logically as possible with as little reference to the paranormal as possible.
One more area of his life neatly boxed up and put away. Maybe it really was time to move on. He had a sudden, irrational need to put final closure on his previous existence. Mulder pushed the laptop aside without even bothering to turn it off, grabbed his jacket and took off.
42. Was it an answer? Opening that door was as much as acknowledging he had a life to which he could return, and right now he wasn't sure that information would serve him well. Or Krycek. It was laughable in itself that he would consider the man. But so much had happened, and so much had been learned. And he suspected there was more behind it all, but had no way to find the answers.
42. Using Krycek's tools, he picked the lock, opened the door and stepped in before indecision could reign. The room was dark, predictably, but turning a light on was not an option. Enough street light came through the far window to allow navigation. Street light and the light from the fish tank.
One question answered, though the consideration of these small creatures was amusing, given the last few months. Still, it did matter. And it raised a few more questions, ones he found he'd rather not ask.
Mulder moved from room to room, just... scoping. Trying to get the feeling back. Some feeling of belonging. Everything seemed to be as it had been, as much as he could remember of the time before. Jacket on the coat tree by the door, books beside the little-used bed, clean plate and cup sitting in the drainer.
It was as if somebody had plucked him out of the room and left it, waiting for him to return. That was exactly what it was. The question was, who had been waiting for him? Doubts. So many doubts now.
He picked up a book from the table in front of the couch and sat down. Leafing through the pages, he tried to re-familiarize himself with the last words he'd read. He couldn't. It all seemed new. Page after page turned as if he were searching for anything to give proof of his previous existence in this place.
Nothing. He let the book drop from his hands. Slumping down on the couch, he leaned forward, resting his face in his hands, elbows on his knees, dejected. He had to think about leaving soon. And yet he wanted this place, this time.
Mulder leaned back against the couch, rubbed a hand over tired eyes before he surveyed what had been his world - and what apparently never could be again.
So tired. Just so damned fucking tired. From space to earth, from city to city; always on the move. And if he were to believe Krycek's words, if he were to do what Krycek said was right, what he himself thought was right, he would forever be on the move. And he was too tired to move.
He awoke suddenly, checked his watch and realized an hour had passed. He had to leave. There was too much danger in staying, both from outside and from Krycek himself. Though he liked to think he could handle the temper tantrum the latter would throw.
He stood quickly, and started to head towards the door, then stopped. Turned back to stand in front of the fish tank. He picked up the fish food and dropped in some flakes, pausing afterwards to just gaze into the clear, bubbling water.
"They're all there."
Startled, he turned to face the familiar voice. He couldn't see Skinner clearly, but he knew those tones. A tall, dark shape in the corner stepped out, and the light from the window revealed the man.
Mulder stood still, watching as Skinner cautiously moved forward, reached out a hand as if to touch, only to withdraw it.
"I'm only 'spooky' by name."
Skinner almost smiled. "I don't doubt you're real. My problem is, is it you? Or is it not you?"
Mulder laughed. "Well, if it isn't me, I'm probably somewhere pissed off that someone has taken my body." He glanced down at himself. "Such as it is, right now." Mulder sat down. "This really isn't the place for this conversation."
Skinner's reply was immediate. "There's no surveillance."
The statement surprised him. As stupid as this visit may have been, Mulder had expected other interest given Krycek's view of the world. "None?"
That answered one question. But raised others. Skinner apparently sensed his thoughts.
"I've had this place swept regularly. Except for initial monitoring after your disappearance, there's been no interest." A noticeable pause before Skinner continued. "And there's supposed to be no reason for it now."
"Not my choice - or my doing - this time."
"Do you know who?"
"Would it make a difference?"
There was a long moment of silence as each man looked at the other. Finally Skinner moved, sat down on the table in front of the couch, left of Mulder's position.
He inspected Mulder from head to toe, trying to come to some decision. The unkempt hair. The face that was pale even in this subdued lighting. The head thrown back, the eyes now closed, speaking of a weariness and tiredness that would be difficult to fake. The thin body.
Skinner reached out a hand, grasped Mulder's left knee. "Christ, it is you, isn't it?"
Mulder's eyes opened slowly as he turned his head to face Skinner. "I'd bleed for you to prove it but frankly, Walter, I've done enough bleeding in the interest of scientific verification. Or whatever the fuck the reason was. Is. Was. Whatever." Mulder paused, then smiled. "But if you like, I have a birthmark on my ass...."
They looked at each other for a few moments more before Mulder stood.
"I need to leave."
Skinner stood immediately. "What?"
"I'll be missed."
Mulder walked swiftly towards the front door.
"Mulder, wait! What about... God, I have so many questions. And what about Scully?" Skinner's voice was pleading. But the "S" word stopped Mulder in his tracks. He turned.
"You can't tell her, Walter."
"Why? What the fuck...?"
"It's too dangerous." Mulder looked around at what had once been his, chagrined to realize he'd let sentimentality overrule common sense. "I shouldn't... I shouldn't have come here."
Skinner's voice was soft. "It's your home."
"Do you doubt it?"
"I doubt a lot of things."
"Mulder, stay. Please. Talk to me."
"I can't." Mulder glanced at his watch, suddenly horrified at how much time had passed. He looked at Skinner, eye to eye. "You can't tell her. Not yet. Maybe not ever. Give me time."
Skinner sighed, resigned himself to the inevitable. "How long?"
"I'll contact you. We need to talk. I..." Something coalesced in Mulder's brain. "I need to talk to you."
"Tomorrow, Mulder." It was almost a command.
Mulder acknowledged it... and the plea that underscored it.
Mulder turned away again, open the door slowly and checked the corridor. He started to slip out, then stopped. Turned back to Skinner.
"It wasn't your fault."
"Where the fuck have you been?" Krycek was royally pissed, throwing the towel he held in his hands across the room.
Mulder's monosyllabic reply only served to piss him off further. Krycek grabbed Mulder and spun him around, pushing him back. Mulder's head made a hollow sound as it hit the back of the door. Krycek dug his fingers into Mulder's upper arms as he hissed into his face. "Don't fuck with me, Mulder. Where have you been?"
Lying seemed pointless, particularly when the truth was fairly harmless. He looked into Krycek's eyes before responding.
"I wanted to see my fish."
"Are you fucking kidding me?" Krycek shook him again, banging Mulder's head once more.
"Ow!" Mulder pushed back, forcing Krycek to release him. "Christ! Get over it, Krycek."
Mulder walked away, headed into the kitchen. Pulling the milk from the fridge, he poured himself a glass. Sensing Krycek's presence, he turned.
"Pack your stuff, we're leaving."
"Because your apartment is wired. Because your damned stupid stunt tonight has made this place a risk." Krycek moved forward and grabbed the glass out of Mulder's hand and threw it into the sink, spilling the contents and breaking the container. "Because I'll be fucked if I'm going to put my ass on the line again to save yours if they catch you. That's why."
"I'm not moving."
"You don't have a choice."
"You can run and get caught. Or you can fight back with me. They're your only choices."
Before he could say anything in reply, Krycek moved in closer. His voice dropped, and his breath was warm on Mulder's cheek.
"Or do you think Scully would appreciate you dragging her and the kid behind you? Do you think she cares enough about you and your cause to do that?"
Mulder attempted to back away, but was stopped by the kitchen counter. He was trapped. And Krycek knew it. And Krycek knew it was time to play dirty.
"Let me tell you something about the little woman, Mulder. Before a month was out after you disappeared, she moved Doggett and herself into your office. She shoved your nameplate in a drawer like so many used paper clips."
Krycek could see the effect his words were having on Mulder. He pushed on.
"And she was falling into Doggett's arms before the ink was dry on his transfer orders." Leaving out the "why" was always a good tool in these circumstances. "She may have cared once, Mulder. But she's got your position, your office, your life, and your sperm. Why the hell would she need you now?"
Krycek backed off suddenly, and started to walk out.
Mulder's response was barely audible. "I don't believe you."
Krycek turned, smiling inwardly as he thanked whatever Gods gave him the right set up to drive home the final nail.
"I tell you what, Mulder. You come up with a good explanation for why she'd release your body for a funeral the day after tomorrow when there's been no autopsy, and I'll take it all back. But until then, you pack your fucking bag."
He walked off, satisfied with seeing a somewhat pale Mulder go paler.
"Where are we going now?" Mulder asked petulantly. He was getting tired of being carted from pillar to post without much say in the when or where.
"Someone who owes me a favor manages a small residential hotel. We can hole up there until all the final plans are made. Provided you don't go doing anything stupid again."
"I can't stay inside four walls, Krycek. I just want a little freedom while I can still get it."
"You don't *have* to stay locked up in the room, but it was dumb to go back to your apartment after I told you the risks. You can go out, but I'd just prefer that it was with me for now. If you got into any trouble, you couldn't protect yourself."
Mulder sighed. He looked out the window and watched the people on the street as they drove by. A few moments later he noticed the background - the stores interspersed with the occasional dance club or bar. Not an area he went to himself a lot, but he'd known a few people who raved about the clientele of the bar they'd just passed.
When the car started to slow as Krycek turned onto a side street, Mulder looked over at the man driving with different eyes, amused.
"Relax, Mulder. We'll blend in here. Kind of like hiding in plain sight."
There was no response from Mulder, so Krycek took his eyes off the road for a moment to chance a quick look at the man beside him. He found Mulder just staring at him.
Krycek smiled to himself. "Relax, will ya? Christ, Mulder, I'd never have pegged you for being homophobic."
"I'm not. I'm just concerned about how well you think we should try to blend in."
Krycek laughed out loud, he laughed so hard that Mulder thought he would run the car off the road.
Mulder had hung quietly in the background while Krycek registered them under false names in the small residential hotel that would be home for the next few nights at least. He'd fidgeted nervously when the manager and Krycek had shared some joke at his expense, grinning and gesturing in his direction.
Finally, they made it upstairs and Krycek flopped onto the double bed - the *only* bed.
"I'm gonna get an hour's sleep, then I'll go to the store." His eyes were already closing.
"I could go." Mulder ventured.
Krycek snorted. "I don't think so. And don't try sneaking out, I'll know if you set one foot out that door."
Anger that had been simmering now boiled over. "Fuck you, Krycek. I thought you'd just told me I wasn't your prisoner."
Wearily, Krycek sighed and cracked open one eye. "I'm too tired for this shit. No, you're not my prisoner, I keep telling you that. It's just not safe for you to go showing your face around the streets, especially without me to protect you. You're dead, remember? Now shut the fuck up and let me get some rest."
Mulder sat down on the threadbare sofa and flipped the TV on, turning it up just loud enough to be annoying to Krycek, then settled down to do some thinking. He needed to get to a phone and let Skinner know he couldn't meet him as planned. Mulder had no idea how that was going to happen with Krycek watching his every move.
The opportunity came a lot easier than Mulder thought could have been possible. Krycek decided it would be more prudent to take Mulder with him than to leave him alone in the hotel. Outside the small supermarket, Krycek told Mulder to go and pick out enough food for the next three or four days while he went and met a guy who would take care of switching the car for them.
He pressed a handful of bills into Mulder's pocket, said he'd be back in a few minutes and blew him a kiss, much to Mulder's acute embarrassment. As soon as he was out of sight, Mulder made a beeline for the checkout and asked for change. He headed for the pay phone by the entrance to the store, but pulled up short when he spotted the "out of order" sign taped to the phone. He swore, then he spotted another one on the opposite street corner. He narrowly dodged a taxi as he dashed across the road. This one was working, so he quickly dropped a coin in and dialed Skinner's home number.
"Come on, pick up, pick up," he whispered as a mantra, while frantically keeping an eye out for any sign of Krycek.
A heavily made up drag queen leaned on the phone stand. "Ain't no one home, honey. Try again later, I need to use the phone."
Mulder turned away with a scowl. "Piss off, I was here first."
The phone rang several more times until the call finally connected. He heard Skinner's voice mail answer. He waited until the welcome message ran through, was about to speak and leave a message when the line went dead. He spun around in time to see one scarlet- tipped finger release the phone hook.
The drag queen growled, "I *said* I need to use the phone, *precious*, now take a hike."
Mulder was running out of options, he didn't have time to find another phone and couldn't afford to get into an argument with a guy three inches taller, 60 pounds heavier and wearing inch-long razors on each finger. Plus he thought he saw Krycek a block away. He made it back to the supermarket and tossed random items into a basket, managing to look fairly nonchalant by the time Krycek came up behind him and began pulling the items back out of the basket with all the good grace of a mother chiding a wayward child.
Walking through the bowels of the DoD in search of life-saving microchips when everyone thinks you're dead was one thing. Getting ready to go to your own funeral was another matter entirely.
"I don't want to go."
Krycek found he was almost susceptible to the depressed tones in Mulder's voice. But he wasn't going to budge. Getting Mulder to go his own funeral would serve several purposes - all of them Krycek's. Mulder would be able to close out his former life. And if Scully played it the way he suspected she would, her actions and reactions would only make Krycek's task so much easier.
"You need to see this."
"Why? What sick pleasure do you get out of this, Krycek?"
"None. But you have doubts, Mulder. I think you've got ideas that you can just go back to your old life, and I want to put an end to those. Where we're going, doubts will get you killed."
Under different circumstances, Mulder would have been able to admit to a morbid fascination of seeing the scene before him played out. But right now he wasn't fascinated at all. It was disturbing, on more levels than one. From their vantage point, and with the aid of a little technology, he and Krycek could clearly see all who arrived, where they stood and the expressions on their faces.
Skinner looked - apprehensive was the only word that came to Mulder's mind. Stern and controlled as usual, his eyes and the occasional glance around the immediate vicinity were the only clues to the knowledge he held. Doggett was obviously there to show the flag and support his partner. While they had met before, Mulder hardly knew the man, so couldn't claim he was upset by a lack of emotion in the man's visage.
Langly, Byers and Frohike just looked... he couldn't quite grasp what it was that disturbed him. Surrounded on all sides by representatives of their government, they looked... God. They looked normal. Somber, for sure. But their ease among those near them, the nod from Langly to Doggett... what the fuck was up with the universe?
Then there was Scully.
Dressed in a dark suit, with those heels that seemed impractical in the office, let alone walking over the uneven grass of the cemetery, she was the picture of stoic perfection. No tears marked her face. No smudged makeup gave evidence of their prior presence.
She stood between Skinner and Doggett, eyes downward to avoid watching as the pallbearers placed "his" coffin beside the gaping hole in the earth. So close. She was so close. He wanted to reach out to her, to talk to her.
This was too much. It was just too fucking hard.
A few moments later the minister began to talk. Mulder was more than grateful that Krycek hadn't seen fit to rig some sort of sound.
"I want to leave."
"Come off it, Mulder. This is good stuff! It's not every day you get to observe your own funeral from the earthly plane."
Krycek couldn't help smiling to himself to see Mulder's discomfort. Everyone was playing according to his script, right down to Skinner's not-so-subtle looks around the cemetery. Skinner's discomfort at being at Mulder's funeral was apparent, and would serve his needs well. Krycek checked his watch surreptitiously. The timing was just about right.
"What the fuck is Skinner looking for?"
Mulder attempted to keep a blank face. "What are you talking about?"
Right on cue the man appeared from behind a far tree. Krycek spotted his signal and grabbed Mulder's arm.
"Oh, Christ. Come on."
"What? I thought..."
"Move it, Mulder."
Mulder's eyes found what Krycek saw. A darkly-dressed man was heading in their direction. He paused a moment, looking towards the funeral gathering, and saw Skinner looking in his direction.
No. It wasn't possible.
He didn't have time to think about it. Krycek grabbed his arm and pulled him along until Mulder found his own feet and ran. He moved quickly, never looking back, never seeing Scully finally collapse under the weight of her own grief into Skinner's arms.
Krycek was almost ecstatic at his success. He watched as Mulder lay on the couch, in jeans and nothing else, staring blankly at the TV screen.
"I'm going out for food. What do you want?"
"Go to hell."
Krycek decided not to push it. "I'll be back soon."
Krycek was halfway through his meal - a meal Mulder had ignored - before Mulder finally spoke.
"Where do we go from here?"
Krycek looked up to find that Mulder was still intent on the television. "You've decided?"
Mulder finally looked back at him. "You said I didn't have any choices."
Krycek thought for a moment as he chewed. "Two days' time. I have to put some wheels in motion - get you a new name for one - then we can leave."
He didn't expect a reply. And didn't get one.
After a restless night, tall and black was the order. Opening the door of the car, Skinner was about to climb in when he noticed a word etched into the lid of the styrofoam cup he held. A simple 'back,' followed by a small 'M.'
Resisting the temptation to look around, he got into the car and backed out onto the street. A couple of minor detours around the small shopping center, and he turned the car into the alley behind the coffee shop. Near the back door he slowed, enough to allow Mulder to open the rear door, climb in and lie across the seat, out of sight.
Skinner increased his speed quickly but conservatively, not wanting to draw attention. "Where to?"
A muffled reply. "Anywhere. Somewhere we can talk."
"How much time do you have?"
"All day." The next words were barely discernible. "I think."
Forty minutes later and finally heading into the Virginia countryside, Mulder emerged from the back seat and joined Skinner up front. He glanced at the man driving.
"I was beginning to think you'd given up coffee."
Skinner took his eyes off the road briefly to give Mulder a glance.
"How long have you been there?"
"Long enough to make employee of the month." Mulder glanced out the window. "Where are we going?"
"Some friends of mine own a place out here. It's safe. And no questions asked."
Mulder didn't acknowledge the reply, just continued to look out of the window. After a few more minutes of silence, Skinner spoke again.
"Why did you wait?"
Mulder's eyes remained riveted on the passing scenery as he answered. "The rat got pissy that I went out on a school night."
"Christ." A single word and the tone gave Mulder a clue to the barely controlled rage. He turned away from it, not wanting to acknowledge it right now.
A few seconds, then a softly spoken question.
"Are you okay, Mulder?"
Mulder looked down into his lap, smiled. Skinner's spoken concern was almost a relief, his question almost laughable, given everything that had happened to him before Krycek had "rescued" him. He looked up again before he spoke.
"I'm fine, Walter. Krycek wouldn't dare. Apparently my blood is worth bottling."
"I don't understand."
"I wish I didn't."
And with that, his eyes returned to the scenery.
They drove on in silence for the next half hour until Skinner pulled off the highway into the driveway of a small motel and diner. Mulder glanced around the deserted parking lot before smiling at Skinner.
"Why is it all the men in my life keep taking me to dingy motels?"
With a terse, "Wait here," Skinner exited the car and headed for the manager's office. When he got back, Mulder was out of the car, leaning against the hood. In daylight, he could see Mulder more clearly. He was a lot thinner than he remembered. And there was a noticeable weariness around the eyes. His concern must have shown on his face, given Mulder's words.
"Bullshit. Have you eaten this morning?"
The speed of Mulder's, "I'm not hungry," gave Skinner an idea of how often those words had been spoken recently.
"Wrong answer." Handing Mulder the room key, he headed towards the diner.
Muttering a "nobody ever listens to me," Mulder headed for the motel room. Inside he turned the television on, the volume low, and pulled the curtains shut. He sat down heavily on the bed, putting his back against the wall, waiting for Skinner to return.
Skinner placed the container and bag on the faded maroon bedspread in front of Mulder.
"Eggs, if you're up to them. Or a bagel and cream cheese. I wasn't sure what you'd want."
Mulder smiled. "Anybody ever tell you you're bossy?"
Skinner smiled back as he sat down on the second bed. "I used to have an agent who had trouble with taking orders. I think you might know him."
The smile vanished just as quickly as it appeared. "He's dead, Skinner. You were at his funeral yesterday."
"If that's the case, what are you doing here?"
"Looking for the truth. And advice." He paused before continuing. "I need to know one thing before we have this conversation."
Gesturing at the food he had placed in front of Mulder, Skinner's reply was a simple, "Eat."
Mulder's immediate reaction was to protest, but one look from Skinner and he knew he'd get no answers until he at least made a pretense of eating. He picked up the bagel and began to pull it apart, popping one small piece into his mouth before giving Skinner what could only be described as a smart-ass "happy now?" fake grin.
Acknowledging his satisfaction with Mulder's small concession, Skinner asked, "So what's the question?"
Mulder looked up from contemplation of the bagel directly into Skinner's eyes. In a quiet but serious voice he asked, "Have you told *anyone* you've seen me since the night I... since that night in Oregon?"
Skinner's face was a mask as he looked into Mulder's eyes. Mulder had to admit the silence which dominated for what seemed like forever was unnerving.
The reply was shocking. Krycek had tried to convince him that Skinner was responsible for them being spotted at the cemetery, that Skinner was still walking the gray line which made him privy to Consortium knowledge. Mulder knew better. Or thought he did. He waited as patiently as he could for Skinner to explain.
"I told Kersh I'd identified your body at the morgue last week."
Mulder swallowed dryly, relieved. "That isn't... wasn't me."
"Obviously." Skinner placed his coffee down on the bedside table, got up and walked away. When he turned, his anger was all too apparent.
"Christ, Mulder, of course I haven't told anyone! Now can we get past this shit and get to the point where I start understanding what the fuck happened?"
Anger he could appreciate. Needing answers he was all too familiar with. Being stood over while he was yelled at he could normally have handled. But after so much and so long, he'd had enough. With a calm he didn't feel, Mulder put the bagel down and got off the bed. He walked towards the door of the motel room and was reaching for the knob when Skinner spoke.
"Where are you going?"
Without looking back, Mulder replied. "I need some air."
Skinner stayed where he was, stunned for a moment, cursing his anger, cursing this whole situation. After a few moments he headed out the door, grabbing Mulder's forgotten bagel at the last second.
Behind the motel, Skinner found Mulder sitting on the steps of the laundry room, silently contemplating the landscape before him. Largely underdeveloped, tangled, unkempt green dominated the view.
Space. Space Mulder was beginning to feel he'd never see again.
Looking to his left he saw Skinner standing there, watching him, wondering what to say. He smiled to himself and looked down at the ground.
"You know, sometimes I wish I still smoked."
Hearing no querying response, he looked up.
"Nicotine isn't a stress reliever, Mulder."
Mulder grinned. "Who said I was talking about tobacco?"
Skinner smiled in return, unable to hide his pleasure at seeing a hint of the Mulder he used to know. "As an officer of the law, I'd have to arrest you."
"What if I promised not to inhale?"
"From what I remember, not inhaling kind of defeats the point of smoking the stuff."
Mulder couldn't help laughing. It seemed to be taking years, but the more time he spent with Skinner outside of the office, the more he liked the man behind the suit and tie.
After a moment, he looked up into Skinner's face.
"I don't doubt you. Not really. But I have some decisions to make and I'm not sure I've been given all the facts. And while I suspect you're still compromised by Krycek's hold on you, I trust you. I just... I needed to be sure."
Skinner avoided reacting to Mulder's words. There was no point in denying the nanocyte situation. After the events of last year he realized Mulder knew his mind now, knew the position he was in. But his actions then had proven his ultimate loyalty. And that loyalty had not changed. Skinner decided to focus on the other thing that Mulder had said.
"What sort of decisions?"
"The decisions I'm having a hard time making right now. That's why I wanted to meet. Of all the people I know, yours is probably the only objective opinion I could get."
Skinner bristled. "You think I don't care?"
Mulder shook his head slightly. "No. No. It's precisely because I know you do care."
Skinner accepted the acknowledgment in silence. Looking down for a moment, he realized he was still holding the bag with the bagel inside. He handed it to Mulder.
Mulder smiled, took the proffered bag, then held it up. "See? You can't help yourself."
Skinner smiled and sat down on the steps beside Mulder. "I just don't like seeing food go to waste."
They sat in silence for awhile, Skinner contemplating the landscape while Mulder pulled the bagel apart and ate a few small portions. After only a half-dozen bites he gave up the notion of eating. Mulder looked at Skinner, then turned to gaze at the landscape as he spoke.
"A couple of weeks ago, Alex Krycek broke into a clinic in which I was being held and rescued me from a bunch of Mengele types who were getting their kicks out of cutting me up and sewing me back together again in the name of scientific necessity. I'd been there about a month, subsequent to them being the first - and apparently the only - people to be looking for me when E.T. decided *he'd* had enough time playing doctor and dumped my ass in Colorado." Mulder turned to give Skinner a brief look. "I guess from space one forest looks like another, eh?"
Mulder stood up and walked forward a few steps. He turned, placed his hands on his hips and continued his tale while a rapt audience listened.
"After a few days' recovery time for me we hit the road. Since then we've been on the move. Krycek tells me the Consortium, no matter how fractured, is still after me. Or more specifically my blood. That something in it is of value in the fight against colonization. He believes we can fight back ourselves, but that doing so would endanger anybody with us. Most particularly Scully and our... and her child. For whatever reason they did it, the provision of a dead 'Mulder' by these people seems to be advantageous to us. I can disappear without anybody being the wiser."
Mulder stopped, and looked expectantly at Skinner.
"And you're looking for what exactly? Confirmation from me that you're making the right choice?"
"Something like that."
"I can't give you that without knowing more. And even then I'm not sure."
Mulder pushed a hand through his hair before rubbing his forehead. "Somehow I didn't think it would be that simple."
Skinner found he couldn't sit still for this. He needed to pace. He stood up and walked forward beyond where Mulder was standing, looked out beyond the motel grounds for a short time, then turned to face Mulder, finding Mulder had taken the seat he had just vacated. His concern for Mulder's well-being rushed back at the sight of Mulder sitting with his face in his hands, looking forlorn and alone. In a soft tone he spoke.
"I'm not sure which question to ask first, so I'll just ask what comes to mind."
He got no acknowledgment from Mulder other than the raising of Mulder's face from his hands in anticipation of the first question. The first was a one-word query. A name.
So many questions in that one name. But Mulder thought he knew what Skinner was asking.
"Because despite our past... history... I believe he's telling the truth about the need to fight back."
"You're trusting a man who was responsible for the death of your father, who's been behind a lot of the events which have put yours and Scully's lives at risk."
Mulder was quick to include what Skinner had omitted. "And yours."
Skinner accepted the acknowledgment. "And mine."
"I don't trust him completely. The fact that I'm here right now talking to you proves that. But I can't deny he saved my ass back in Colorado."
Skinner stood still for a moment and contemplated what Mulder had said. Weighed it up against what he knew of Krycek, what he knew Mulder and Scully had suffered because of this man and the Consortium he worked for from various sides of the playing field. He looked back to Mulder, wondering how to broach this subject. He took a deep breath before he started.
"You need to consider something, Mulder. You need to consider that Krycek rescued you for his own ends, that it has nothing to do with any concern for you personally."
Mulder couldn't help laughing at Skinner's remark. "Oh, I know that. The rat has made it quite clear that my primary use to him is as a blood donor."
"Then why...." He didn't get to finish his sentence.
"Because it may be the only choice I have. And while it's not much of a life, at least Krycek won't strap me down while he milks me." Mulder's voice lowered slightly. "At least I'd be free."
Mulder couldn't contain the shudder his memories of his time in the clinic in Colorado evoked. No. There was no way he was going to risk going back to that.
"How much do you remember?"
Skinner's voice pulled Mulder out of his unpleasant reverie. He looked up, surprised to find Skinner crouched before him.
"Not a lot. Not from... not from before I was picked up in Colorado. But... I have a feeling if I did, I would want to find a way to let Duane Barry know that I really do understand now."
He smiled sadly at the memory of a man who had been so tortured by his memories and fear of ever being taken again. And while he couldn't forgive Barry's part in Scully's abduction, he could understand now the fear that drove him.
As if tuned into those thoughts, Skinner asked his next question.
"Mulder, what about Scully? What's made you so convinced you can't go back to her? To the X- Files?"
What, indeed. How to confess to a man that you've watched and listened to tapes of conversations you were never supposed to know about. Which have provided proof of apparent disloyalty from some quarters. He hadn't found the answer before Skinner spoke again.
"What about your child? Are you going to leave Scully to raise it on her own?"
For some reason that question annoyed Mulder. He pushed himself forward off the steps, forcing Skinner to stand up and move out of his way.
"This isn't about Scully."
"Why isn't it?"
"Because she doesn't need me. She just needed my sperm."
The words rang false on his ears even as he spoke them.
Skinner's voice became terse at Mulder's harsh statements. "You don't believe that."
And Skinner was right.
Mulder shook his head slightly, then looked down at the ground. "No. No, I don't." Looking up again into Skinner's face he continued. "But I've heard the tapes, Walter. I've seen video footage. A lot. Enough to know that Scully seemed to get over my absence pretty damn quickly. I can't help thinking it's better for both of us if I don't make a comeback appearance. Especially if there are people still after me."
Mulder turned away from Skinner and looked out over the horizon again. His next words were almost a whisper.
"But I don't know for sure. I just don't know."
The mid-morning sun was warm on his face. He turned to face the rays, soaking in the heat, his head thrown back, eyes closed. Weariness overcame him momentarily and he swayed, stilled immediately by the hand at his elbow holding him steady.
Silently Skinner nodded in the direction of the motel rooms, and guided Mulder towards them once more. When they were inside, Skinner left Mulder to sit on the bed while he went to the small sink at the back, found a plastic cup and brought Mulder a glass of water. He sat on the opposite bed and waited until Mulder drank the water, then leaned back against the wall.
Skinner contemplated the man before him. What could he advise? What could he tell him when so much was at stake? He got up from the bed and walked towards the open door. His arms stretched out above him, hands gripping the door frame, he looked out towards the highway. Cars drove by infrequently, but their presence spoke of people living lives beyond this room, of having concerns beyond the fate of mankind, and of one man in particular who'd been through so much already. If only those people out there knew what he'd been through.
If only they knew.
Skinner turned, and returned to sit down on the second bed before he spoke again.
"Mulder, no matter what any tapes Krycek has may tell you, there is more to the story. No tape from months ago could undermine the truth of the grief that caused Scully to fall apart in my arms yesterday."
Mulder's head shot up at that remark, but Skinner ignored the younger man's reaction.
"What lies between you and Scully is personal, Mulder. How you deal with it is your choice. Neither Krycek nor I, nor anyone else has a right to force the issue. But you need to give her a chance. You owe her that much. And you owe your child that much."
"And risk exposure to them both by giving her that chance?"
"Mulder, think about it. What's wrong with exposure? You always wanted the truth exposed. You believed the people had a right to know what the government was up to. You believed exposure would prevent the Consortium from fulfilling its plans. Why has that changed because you're the secret now?"
Skinner could see Mulder was floundering for an answer.
"Because... because it's personal."
Skinner's answer was a simple question.
"Hasn't it always been?"
There was no immediate reply, just a long, direct look from Mulder as he thought over the words Skinner had said. Finally, after long minutes of silence, Mulder put his head back against the wall and closed his eyes.
Skinner spoke softly. "Mulder, are you okay?"
Without opening his eyes, Mulder responded, "Just tired. Hard to sleep well when you're surrounded by vermin."
"Listen, I need to make a few calls and I could spend some time catching up with my friend here. Why don't you catch a few hours' sleep before we head back to D.C.? I'll make sure you're safe."
Mulder opened his eyes and turned his face towards Skinner. "Would you read me a story before I go to sleep?"
Skinner smiled. "Not in this lifetime."
Skinner pushed off the bed and headed for the door. "I'll be back in a few hours. Rest."
He was almost out the door when he stopped and turned back, seeing Mulder settling down on the bed, the pillow under his head, his back to the door.
"Yeah?" A muffled response.
"Did you go willingly?"
"Spooky, Walter. Not insane."
Skinner nodded his silent understanding, then left the room, quietly closing and locking the door behind him.
As promised, a few hours later Skinner returned, bearing more food and drink; sandwiches, soda - simple food for a simple diet. He stole quietly into the room, not wanting to surprise Mulder out of sleep if he wasn't already awake.
The room was stuffy, the sun coming in through the closed windows, making it almost unbearably warm. Skinner could easily see Mulder was still asleep, and that at some point during the last four hours Mulder had attempted to get more comfortable, taking off his shoes, socks, sweater and T- shirt. Lying on his stomach, his arms stretched to either side of him, head turned towards the far wall, Mulder was the picture of complete relaxation.
Placing the food on the table near the wall, Skinner went to the other side of the bed and looked down, wondering how best to wake Mulder. He reached forward with his hand to touch the forearm nearest him, then stopped.
Stopped by... by shock. From the forearm to his shoulders, to Mulder's back, Skinner's eyes moved, tracing every inch of skin. Under other circumstances he could have felt like a voyeur. These were not those circumstances.
Scars. Fresh marks of wounds a few weeks old and still healing. Mulder wasn't covered in them, but there were enough of them on his back and arm for him to know the man must have been in a lot of pain recently. And possibly still was at times.
Fuck! Anger. So much quick anger. He was going to kill Alex Krycek when he saw him next, no matter how many fucking Palm Pilots the man shoved in his face! Alex fucking Krycek was going to pay. He was... he...
Skinner stopped his contemplation of Krycek's mortality as his brain finally registered what his eyes had seen. Or not seen. There were no knuckle-shaped bruises here. The marks on Mulder's body were not random. They spoke of a pattern. He looked more closely, and saw the marks of restraint on Mulder's wrist. The other marks - straight cuts, almost like...
Oh, Jesus Christ.
These weren't the scars from a brawl. They were incisions. Calculated, planned and invasive probes into Mulder's body. The clinic. And... before? Mulder's body bore the marks of experimentation. Of tortures unknown.
Skinner sat down heavily on the bed behind him. Despair overtook him, despair because of what his carelessness had cost Mulder.
"They'll heal, Walter."
Stunned, Skinner looked over to see one sleepy hazel eye observing him. Mulder's head was still buried mostly in the pillow, muffling his voice somewhat, but Skinner had heard him. He shook his head, denying Mulder's dismissal of the importance of this new knowledge.
With a deep breath, Mulder moved, turning over onto his back and stretching his arms above his head. Skinner tried to ignore seeing a few similar marks on the front of Mulder's torso. He tried, and failed.
"How can you not blame me?"
Mulder sat up slowly, leaning back against the wall. He regarded Skinner with understanding eyes. "The same way I no longer blame myself for my sister's disappearance. Or Scully's. I wasn't responsible. And neither are you."
Neither man spoke for a moment, until Mulder moved to stand up and head towards the bathroom, discarded T-shirt in his hand. As he walked past Skinner, he spoke.
"I need to get back."
"We can go whenever you're ready."
The door to the bathroom shut before any reply was forthcoming.
Not long the toilet flushed, Mulder exited the bathroom, now wearing his shirt. His hair bore signs of wet hands being rung through it, a few stray drops of water sliding down the side of his face. He looked refreshed, if a little pale still.
Skinner motioned to the containers on the table. "There's food, if you're hungry."
"Can we eat on the go?" Mulder asked, as he sat down on the bed and began to pull on his socks and shoes.
Skinner watched silently as Mulder continued to get dressed. After a few moments he spoke.
"Mulder, do you know what you're going to do?"
Tying the last of his laces, Mulder sat back and regarded Skinner.
"Yes. No. Maybe. But I think... I need to think about it."
"Do you have the time?"
Mulder smiled. "Not really."
The journey back to D.C. was filled with small talk... or what passed for small talk between men who had the sort of history Mulder and Skinner shared.
"Did you know CGB is dead?"
"Yeah, Krycek told me."
"Did he tell you he'd been pushed down some stairs?"
"That's a little 'Bette Davis', isn't it?"
"Did Krycek do it?"
"You think he looks like Bette Davis?"
"What's the deal with the chipmunk being promoted?"
"I like it."
"Why was he promoted over you?"
"I don't grease the right wheels."
"I don't suppose you taped the Knicks games? The reception up there kinda sucked."
"I thought you didn't remember."
"I've been getting.... flashes, I guess. Of something. Not much, but enough to know I missed a lot of games."
"Actually, yeah, I do have them."
"Don't suppose you'd like a roommate for a few weeks?"
It was late afternoon by the time Skinner pulled up a few blocks south of where Mulder and Krycek were currently residing. As Skinner pulled over and stopped the car, he looked over at Mulder.
"Interesting neighborhood to hide out in."
Mulder smiled: "Maybe he really is Bette Davis. Or Marlene Dietrich."
Skinner returned the smile. The silence was heavy for a moment before Mulder started to exit the car. Skinner's voice stopped him.
Mulder looked back, pausing midway out of the car.
"I'll get in touch again soon."
Skinner didn't like the answer. It was too ambivalent, and a strategy at risk given the company Mulder was keeping. "Won't that be against the rules?"
Mulder smirked. "When did that ever stop me?"
Skinner found it too hard to see the humor. There was so much at stake.
"Mulder, be careful. Whatever else he may have done to help you, don't forget the history." He reached out to grip Mulder's forearm, hesitated momentarily at the thought of the healing wounds, then gently placed a hand on Mulder's arm. He looked directly into the man's eyes before he continued. "History, Mulder. His. Yours. Hers. Mine. Think about what used to make sense. Not much has changed."
Mulder was silent, a small nod his only acknowledgment of Skinner's words. He exited the car and shut the door, and started to walk away without looking back.
Skinner was watching him as he walked, and was about to pull out into the traffic when he saw Mulder stop and turn back. He let the car idle as he waited for Mulder to reach him and lean into the open window of the vehicle.
"Walter, I..." Mulder found himself speechless.
Skinner smiled. "You're welcome. Now get out of here before somebody thinks I'm picking you up."
Mulder smiled in return. "You think you could afford me?"
Skinner's smile turned suddenly sad in a way. "No. No, I don't. You're a rare individual, Mulder."
"Too rare, apparently. I've gotta go."
"Call me, Mulder."
With that, Mulder turned and walked away, never looking back. Skinner quickly pulled out into traffic and headed back towards Crystal City.
By 10 p.m., Krycek had had about all he could take of double- dealing scumbags who overpriced their services and sold themselves to the highest bidder. Coming up with fake IDs and the other things he and Mulder would need over the next few months was far more difficult in these fractured- Consortium times than he wished. He had to admit, he was actually glad to be "home," no matter how much of a dump the place was.
Entering the apartment, he immediately noticed Mulder in his normal position, lying on the worn couch, apparently asleep while the television droned softly in the background.
Krycek took off his leather jacket and threw it over the back of the chair. His sweatshirt followed before he walked into the kitchen alcove. Grabbing a beer from the fridge, he took off the cap, threw it into the sink, and sat down in the chair, watching Mulder sleep as he drank and contemplated their next moves.
From the faint glow of the television, he could see the marks on Mulder's upper body, fading quickly - well, quickly compared to most people - but still visible even in such subdued lighting. Though he had to allow he knew where to look, had seen quite a number of those marks inflicted. Had seen Mulder fighting, even while drugged, against the pain.
Ends and means. Krycek shook off such thoughts, and turned his mind to the next steps to be taken. He reached into the pocket of his jacket and withdrew several small packets of papers - IDs, maps, assorted documents needed for the next steps on the road.
Ten minutes later he was engrossed in reading when he heard Mulder murmur. He looked up, but was unable to see Mulder's face clearly.
"Mulder? You awake?"
The reply was incoherent.
More murmuring in response, and now that he listened more closely, heavy breathing. Krycek started to get out of his chair to approach and wake him from the latest memory attack, but was startled back into his seat - spilling some of his beer in the process - when Mulder sat up quickly, gasping once, eyes wide.
Krycek couldn't help yelling as he wiped the spilled beer from the crotch of his jeans, beer which only just missed damaging the documents he had spent all day gathering. "Fuck! Christ, Mulder. What the fuck is wrong with you?"
Mulder blinked slowly at Krycek before answering. "Bad dream."
Krycek stood up and walked into the kitchen alcove, grabbed a cloth and wiped his jeans down as he walked back into the living area. Mulder was now sitting on the couch, his elbows on his knees, head in his hands.
Mulder looked up, startled to see Krycek. He had forgotten where he was, and who he was with.
"Yeah. Just..." He looked away, unable to complete his thoughts while Krycek was looking at him so intently. He felt disoriented, trying to understand the images in his dream, and what it meant. "I was buried alive, and... nobody was there to get me out...nobodyknew... except then I was dead, but I wasn't, and I could hear Scully crying and...." Panic was starting to set in as his words and images of things he hadn't seen meshed.
Krycek could see the panic, and while sympathetic to the cause, he realized it was a good opportunity to drive another nail in. "Must have been a dream."
Mulder quickly turned his face back to Krycek, shaking his head in denial of Krycek's accusation against Scully. "No. No, she did cry. I know she did." Mulder stood up and headed into the bathroom. Krycek heard him say it again, softly. "She did cry."
Krycek was surprised at Mulder's open, honest... insistence. Mulder was... convinced was the only word, he was convinced that Scully would mourn his death. Krycek looked from the now empty couch to the doorway through which Mulder had just walked.
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
There was only one way Mulder could know what Krycek himself had only just found out today.
Mulder's wet hands slid down his face, pulling his skin slightly as he looked in the bathroom mirror. History. Scully cried and Skinner said to remember the history. But what about the future? What about the truth in what Krycek had said? How could he battle the future while he acknowledged the past? How could he do that and still remain in the shadows?
He couldn't. He had to come out from the shadows. Dammit, Skinner was right. Krycek was right, too, but there had to be a way. His mind whirled with possibilities, and he berated himself for not realizing what he should have known all along.
With a greater sense of purpose he walked out of the bathroom, needing to talk to Krycek, to find a way to reconcile their divergent points of view.
"Krycek..." Mulder started talking as he entered the living area, and stopped abruptly when he found it empty. A quick glance into the kitchen area confirmed what he knew... Krycek had gone.
Mulder replayed the recent exchange, trying to get some sense of where Krycek could have gone. Now that he had made his decision, he didn't want to waste time. Too much time had been lost already. Months gone. The dream... the memory of things he knew for certain, and those.. those he had been told.
Mulder quickly grabbed his T-shirt and jacket, slamming the door as he ran out.
There are far more pleasant ways to be awakened from a deep sleep than by having the end of the barrel of a gun pushed against your jaw, and someone's beer-laden breath stealing your fresh air. But right at that moment Walter Skinner was having a hard time thinking of any. He didn't move, didn't even attempt to say anything. Years of experience had taught him to realize that either he was soon to be dead, or his silent assailant would reveal himself when he was ready.
"When, Skinner? When did you two meet?"
Krycek. He should have known. But now knowing, he felt less threatened.
"Unless you're going to fuck me, Krycek, get the hell out of my bedroom."
Except for the sound of both men drawing breath, it was silent. One man contemplating what to do, the other wondering what would be done.
As quickly as it had appeared, the gun against his jaw was removed, and a light flicked on moments later.
Squinting in the sudden brightness, Skinner saw Krycek leaning against the wall, his right, gun- bearing arm raised in his direction. He sat up, threw the sheets back, and turned in his bed to sit on the edge.
Krycek's next words were delivered in a hiss. "Brave words for a dead man."
Skinner snorted. "It's not bravery. Just impatience. Now are we going to talk about this or are you going to prove to me you're the complete bastard I think you are?"
Each man regarded the other. There was no reply. After a moment, Krycek lowered his gun.
"How long have you known?"
It wasn't the first question he expected from Krycek, but pretty close. Was there much to be gained from lying? Dead was dead, wasn't it? Mulder was safe given Krycek's interest and need in the man, so he went for the straight response.
"Before the funeral."
He saw Krycek turn his mind inward, no doubt tracing back the days. He saw Krycek smile in what appeared to be sudden understanding.
"You fed his fish."
"And you've been surveilling his apartment?" Krycek was trying to connect the dots.
Skinner couldn't help the dry humor in his tone. "It seemed like a good idea. He's disappeared before."
"He was dead."
Skinner smiled. "He's died before, too."
Krycek couldn't believe it. He just couldn't fucking believe it. After so much planning, after so much put into motion, to have it fail now because Mulder was sentimental, and Skinner was too... He banged his head against the wall behind him in exasperation and disbelief.
"Both of us?"
Both Skinner and Krycek's heads jerked in response to hearing Mulder's voice coming from the doorway. So intent had they been on their discussion, neither man had heard Mulder's approach.
Skinner saw Mulder leaning against the doorway, almost casual in his stance.
Mulder regarded the two men in the room. Skinner was sitting on his unmade bed, pajama bottoms and bare torso revealing just how suddenly he had been awakened by Krycek. Krycek was leaning against the wall, staring at him, a gun held loosely in his right hand.
Mulder spoke again.
"Are we going to stay like this all night?"
His words seemed to break Skinner out of his temporary paralysis. He watched as Skinner stood up, grabbed his jeans from the bed and headed in the direction of the bathroom, pausing for a moment to address both men. "Mulder, get some coffee going. Krycek, either leave or put the fucking gun away and go downstairs."
Mulder and Skinner watched as Krycek pocketed his gun, pushed out from the wall, and walked out of the room. Both men looked at each other, acknowledging the small victory inherent in Krycek's capitulation - no matter how temporary.
Skinner jerked his head in the direction Krycek had taken. "I'll be right down. Will you be all right?"
Mulder nodded. "I'll be fine."
Skinner headed towards the bathroom again, but stopped when he heard Mulder speak.
He turned to face the man. Mulder was smiling.
Skinner looked down at the yellow pajama bottoms he was wearing, then looked up again, to find Mulder had already gone. He shook his head, smiling to himself and the strangeness of life.
Ten minutes later, Mulder, Skinner and Krycek were standing around Skinner's kitchen. Mulder silently handed around the coffee, then sat, waiting until each had taken a sip before he spoke.
"I've made some decisions."
"You've made...??!" Krycek's voice rose quickly.
And Skinner's halted him.
"Shut up, Krycek."
"Skinner, you don't..."
"Shut up, Alex."
Mulder's use of his first name achieved his objective. Krycek looked at him, almost stunned.
"It's simple. It's my life. It's my decision. I've earned that choice." And suddenly Mulder was angry. Krycek watched as he stood up, pushed his chair back hard enough to knock it over. "Dammit, Krycek, I've earned it!! Now either listen to me, or leave and stay the fuck away from me from now on."
The look on Mulder's face communicated the man's seriousness, and Krycek conceded silence was his only option now. He watched as Mulder walked past a silent Skinner, stopping in the archway of the kitchen before turning to face them both.
"I'm taking the battle to a different ground, Krycek. I'm taking it public. You were wrong, Krycek, pretending I'm dead doesn't make it any better than being alive. In fact, I'm safer alive. People will know. They have a right to know."
"Scully doesn't give a fuck about you, Mulder. You've seen the fucking tapes. What more proof do you want?"
"It isn't about Scully, Krycek."
Krycek stood up, as angry as Mulder now. "Isn't it?" Krycek gestured to Skinner. "This asshole tells you she cries at your funeral and suddenly all the plans we made are thrown out the window? Suddenly you think it's safe?"
"What does safety have to do with it? Have you always been safe? What about your arm, Krycek? Did living in the shadows stop you from losing your arm?"
Krycek's fist was too quick for Skinner to prevent the impact, and too accurate for Mulder to dodge the blow. Mulder fell backwards, banging his head on the floor behind him. Krycek kicked out against him, kicking Mulder in the ribs once before Skinner could restrain him. But while his body was restrained, his voice wasn't.
"You fucking bastard. I risked my life for you - then and now - to save your ass." Krycek spat at Mulder. "I should have left you in that fucking clinic."
Krycek felt his right arm twisted up behind him as Skinner hissed in his ear. "Shut the fuck up, Krycek."
Mulder stood up carefully, feeling a little off-balance. He wiped the blood from his nose as he regarded the now restrained man.
"That wasn't about saving my ass. You left me to rot in that fucking Russian jail. Or have you forgotten that little detail?"
Krycek struggled against Skinner's hold on him. A nod from Mulder, and Skinner released him. Krycek started to walk away, but Mulder's hand on his arm stopped him.
"Listen to me, Krycek." Krycek felt the pull on his arm as Mulder emphasized his words. "For fuck's sake, just listen. This isn't a rejection. I'm not saying I won't work with you. I'm just saying I will do it on my own terms. For my own reasons. Not yours. Not Skinner's." Mulder paused for effect. "And not Scully's."
Krycek regarded Mulder in silence, then glanced at Skinner, before looking back at Mulder. He searched Mulder's face, his eyes, searching for - and finding - truth. He felt Mulder release his arm, and with that release started to walk away.
He was almost at the door when he heard Mulder's voice again.
"There's one condition."
Krycek turned slowly, silently, determined not to ask.
He didn't have to.
Mulder glanced back at Skinner briefly before looking at Krycek again.
"If you want me, you release him."
Skinner was stunned.
And Krycek was furious. "What the fuck...?"
Mulder's voice was calm, soft, yet demanding. "It's simple, Krycek. You want my blood, you free his."
Mulder saw Krycek's eyes flick to Skinner.
"He didn't tell me, Krycek. He didn't need to. I've known for over a year. Only now I'm in a position to do something about it." Mulder walked forward to stand directly in front of Krycek. "You want my help, you release him. Now."
Mulder maintained his stare into Krycek's eyes for the next minute. Maintained it as Krycek reached into his pocket and pulled out...
The Palm Pilot. A second later Mulder had it in his hands. He looked down, wondering what to do now.
Mulder looked up again, to find Krycek's eyes on Skinner.
"File. Deactivate. Enter."
Krycek's eyes returned to Mulder.
With that, Krycek turned and left.
Mulder turned around to face Skinner. "Well, at least it wasn't Donkey Kong."
"Because I could." Mulder offered up the Palm Pilot to Skinner. "I think you should do this. "
Skinner took the proffered object. "You trust him?"
"I trust his need for my help. "
Skinner nodded. "All the same, I think I'll call those three friends of yours."
Two hours later Skinner closed the door on a departing Langly, Frohike and Byers, locking it before returning to his living room. He noticed the sliding door to the outside balcony was open, and Mulder was standing outside, looking up at the clear night sky.
Skinner walked forward, and stood in the doorway of the balcony. Though Mulder must have heard him, he didn't seem ready to acknowledge his presence. He stood there patiently, watching Mulder, thinking of all the man had been through, thinking of the gesture which resulted in the freedom he now had.
After a moment Mulder turned to face him. "Tomorrow I want to go into the office. I think it's time Fox Mulder returned from the dead."
Mulder smiled. "Again."
Skinner asked the most obvious question. "What about Scully? Don't you think you should warn her first?"
"I think... I think maybe you'd better handle that. Do you mind?"
"Not at all. I'll call her first thing, tell her I'm picking her up."
"No. Thank you, Mulder. You..."
"I did what you would have done." Mulder leaned back against the railing of the balcony, crossing his arms over his chest. "Now, I seem to be without a roommate. And I seem to remember you have Knicks tapes."
Skinner smiled. "I'll set up the VCR."
X-FILES OFFICE - SATURDAY
The office was too bright with all its lights on. Scully had always complained about him not getting the tubes replaced. With him missing, she'd taken the initiative. Mulder dismissed the comparison with rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
More startling was the idea that she'd apparently cut her ties to the normal world and moved in here completely, an idea that she'd always resisted in the past. The desk was filled with her things. And his.
Mulder opted to save the analysis of what had been hidden away, and what had remained on view, for later.
He turned off half the lights and started to read. He'd already seen the computerized records, courtesy of Alex Krycek Surveillance Services. Somehow it was more real on paper. Plus, the files contained the actual photographs, the references to other information sources used and blind alleys investigated. There was a lot to look at. He put on his glasses and settled down to the task.
The sound of somebody trying the door brought him back to attention. He had left it unlocked and watched with interest as his visitor discovered that fact for himself. He was impressed by their caution. The delay between that first attempt at the lock and the door being pushed open was certainly long enough to draw a weapon.
Someone was clearly entering, ready for action. Here in the FBI building? And they called him paranoid.
"Got it in one."
John Doggett breathed out heavily. Mulder sat absolutely motionless, his empty hands clearly displayed. Doggett gave himself a few seconds to regain his composure, then lowered the gun to his side. He didn't put it back into its holster. When he finally spoke, he was working hard to make his voice sound matter-of-fact. "You're not going to jump off another cliff, are you?"
Mulder shrugged. "I didn't jump off one."
"That's what Agent Scully says."
"I've seen stranger things."
"Than a dead man walking?"
Doggett attempted a smile, shaking his head. He moved stiffly across the room, and Mulder watched closely as Doggett tried to keep it looking casual, and failed. He stopped in front of his desk and opted to rest his weight against it, half sitting, half standing.
Doggett's eyes roamed across the walls of the dimmed basement office, taking in the contents of the posters and the bulletin boards, a long slow scan, almost as if he were seeing them for the first time. He moved his full attention back to Mulder. "Have you spoken to her?"
Doggett fumbled with his jacket for a minute, trying to fish his phone out of his pocket without putting his gun down, and without taking his eyes off Mulder.
As soon as he spotted the phone emerging, Mulder shook his head, gave a quiet but very insistent, "No."
Doggett looked down at the gun, and then at the phone. He turned his gaze onto Mulder, and supplied a raised eyebrow to ask, "why the hell not?"
Mulder answered the question. "She'll be here soon."
It was Doggett who lost interest in the standoff first, and shook his head in disbelief. "Where the hell have you been?" When Mulder ignored the question and turned his attention back to the papers on his desk, Doggett moved both the volume and the anger up a notch, and tried again. "What the fuck are you doing here? You owe us an explanation."
"It's my office. And what exactly do I owe you?"
"OK," Doggett raised his hands in acknowledgment, pausing as if he realized he had only one shot and he had to get his words exactly right. "It's what you owe her. For a start, you owe her time to compose herself before she sees you."
Just the barest spark of amusement in Mulder's eyes. "By hearing the news in a phone call from you?"
"You don't know how it's been for her."
Mulder waved his hands over the files strewn across the desk. "She's been busy." He pushed the folders around, hiding some, revealing others. "Batman! I wish I'd been there. And I've met some ass-kissers in the Bureau, but as for crawling up someone else's butt." Mulder sighed. "Actually, it's just as well I wasn't there, I'd never have been able to keep a straight face. Did Scully nail you for laughing?"
"Agent Scully hasn't found much to laugh at. She..." Doggett paused.
And Mulder's response had just an edge of bitterness. "Come on, John. You can tell me."
The use of his name made Doggett flinch. Mulder offered the briefest of sardonic smiles in reply, before adding, "Fancy meeting you here."
Doggett's tone was somewhere between disappointed and apologetic. "I couldn't believe it when I heard you'd quit Behavioral."
"And become the FBI's most unwanted? Bet you never expected to find yourself down here."
Doggett shook his head, suddenly boiling over with the need to tell his side of the story, and to get Mulder's attention back to the real business. "You know she's pregnant? You know she nearly got herself killed trying to do everything herself? That she broke down on that case you want to laugh at because she couldn't be you?"
"She was so sure it was her UNSUB that she shot a thing that looked like a kid, but it turned out she wasn't so sure after all."
"So why did she shoot?"
"Because she thought you would."
Mulder laughed, a brief, sharp, humorless bite of laughter. "Really? Bet that went down well with OPR."
"What the hell's wrong with you? She's trying to kill herself by acting like she's you. She's pregnant and doesn't know whether to be delirious or terrified. And you're sitting there like it doesn't matter, like it's all a big joke. She's sick with grief. Just where the fuck were you when she needed you?"
Mulder rocked back in the chair, rested his feet on the desk, wondered again what had happened to his chair. His voice was casually conversational. "I guess Skinner mentioned the alien spaceship? Well, first I got to be the house guest of some morphs. Alien bounty hunters. I believe you've met one? And when they dropped me off in Colorado, seems like some people had carried on looking for me."
Doggett stiffened, preparing to launch himself into a defense, but Mulder waved him back to silence. "So, anyway, these people needed me. Fortunately, an old partner of mine - Alex Krycek - you may have seen his name in the files? He was looking for me, and after a month he showed up and broke me out."
"A private clinic. I had a job as a lab rat. Shit pay and conditions - but no qualifications required, so what do you expect?"
"She thinks you're dead."
"I should hope so, she was there when they sealed the coffin."
"Jesus, Mulder. Don't..."
"What? Don't tell the truth?"
"Don't hurt her again."
"By being alive?"
"By making it sound like an accusation."
Mulder flicked his hand back through his hair, glad that he'd summoned up the energy to get it cut and show up in the basement at least looking like a Fed. What was he going to do when he saw Scully? It had all seemed so clear when he left Skinner. No accusations, just the truth. And if that sounded like an attack, so be it.
He could really risk it ending here just to get in a few cheap shots about how she'd spent her time and how he'd spent his?
No, he couldn't.
He took a gulp from the bottle of water that had become his constant companion, resenting the fact he still had to be so cautious about what and how he ate and drank. Cautious about everything else, too. And if Doggett kept looking at him as if he was the Creature from the Green Lagoon.... "Put the gun away, John."
Doggett checked his hand as if surprised by its contents. He put the Sig gently down on the desk by his side.
Mulder smiled. "Close enough." He took off his glasses, officially declaring the end of reading time. "So, what are YOU doing down here?"
"Kersh sent me. Punishment detail."
"Odd, it was the other way around with me. Having fun?"
"Fun's not the word." Doggett paused, reading the walls again. "This stuff..."
Doggett chuckled, an almost guilty expression on his face, frowning when he spoke again. "Who knows you're here?"
"Why? Gonna shoot me and bury the body?"
"One burial's enough."
Mulder nodded. "I've seen Skinner."
"Ahh, and he's telling Dana?"
Dana! Mulder closed his eyes, even her name made the butterflies in his stomach swirl. Soon. He took a deep breath and asked Doggett to tell him how life had been for him, the X-Files, and Dana Scully. Mulder drew the line at discussion of his death and the funeral.
By the time Skinner arrived, Mulder was almost relaxed enough to be asking Doggett the right follow-up questions. Doggett was replying to the best of his understanding.
Skinner seemed relieved by the easy calm between the men. "I'm surprised to see you here, Agent Doggett."
Doggett balked a little at that. "Because it's a Saturday?"
Mulder intervened. "Where's Scully?"
"Bathroom." Skinner shrugged, Mulder could draw his own conclusions.
Nobody down here but the FBI's most unwanted. Mulder felt his throat tighten. He took another drink of water, a minor displacement activity, necessary to burn off a few more seconds.
Mercifully, Doggett did the talking for him. "You've told her?" At Skinner's look, Doggett sighed. "How'd she take it?"
Mulder couldn't help but respond to Doggett's unapologetically obvious approach. Mulder glanced up at Skinner, a glow of nervous amusement fluttering above the dampness in his eyes.
Skinner avoided Mulder's look and tried to keep his focus on Doggett. "How do you think?"
Mulder summoned up a smile. "Sorry, John. You'd better ask her yourself."
The silence that fell was uncomfortable, heavy with unspoken hopes and fears.
Skinner's frustration won out. "Mulder. Don't." He waited until Mulder demonstrated his willingness to pay attention by easing himself up a little from his slumped position. "Don't do anything you'll regret."
"Anything else, you mean?"
They lapsed back into their waiting game.
Mulder shuffled to his feet as soon as he heard her footsteps. Skinner and Doggett stood at attention, and Mulder wondered if he should have asked them to leave. Too late now. The door was already opening.
She took a step into the room, her eyes alive with something that Mulder couldn't name. She stood, her mouth open as if the words she had carefully prepared were ready and waiting, but wouldn't come.
Only her hands moved, her fingers stretching towards him. Mulder took it as an order, moved silently to within a couple of feet of her. He touched her fingertips, and some of the stiffness in her shoulders eased. He accepted that as permission and made the final step, wrapping his arms around her and burying his face in her hair.
He lifted his head for long enough to gesture towards the door. Skinner and Doggett took the hint, Mulder gently steered Scully a little further into the room to allow them to close the door as they left.
Her hands shifted up his arms, gripping him so tightly through the thin white cotton of his shirt that he almost expected to see blood. She was crying, gulping for air against his chest. He could feel her jaw shaking with tension, pressing into him.
And he could feel her, feel every inch of her pain and confusion, and yet his mind couldn't move past the first and most selfish possible reaction, as petty and redundant and shameful as any emotion he'd ever felt. Her fingernails were sharp, and her jaw was hard, and she was hurting him again.
Jesus. Mulder swallowed, hating his own responses, unable to stop the assault from them. He could feel the dampness building against his chest and wasn't sure if it was the flow of tears, her moist heavy breathing, or his own sweat as his temperature and blood pressure rose.
If he let the barriers down, what then? It would be so easy to slide his fingers through her hair, whisper platitudes about everything being OK into her ear. So easy to let his tears mingle with hers.
Of their own volition his hands started to move, outlining the contours of her shoulder blades. He found himself nuzzling her; he had to gulp for air at the shock of remembering this, the smell of her, the reality of her.
The spell was broken as she tensed beneath his fingers, as if the spontaneity and openness of her first response had turned, in an instant, to shame. As if the fact that he'd eventually reacted to her touch had told her that she'd done enough.
What the fuck was happening to him here? She wasn't the enemy. How could he even think of her tears as a weapon that she might use to control him?
He recognized it as misdirected anger, knew and understood it intellectually. Not only cruel and inappropriate but dangerous, too. But by now, even his own body was disobedient. Insistent on its self-centered pursuit of physical contact, it held her. Even though he could feel her turn from flesh and blood to wood and stone in his arms, even as he sensed her need for space.
And he'd always tried to give her that. Always known that his incessant demands overstepped her boundaries. Always tried to back away before he took too much.
Damn it, he wanted it all. He always had.
He forced himself to accept her verdict, released her, took a step back as he did. Squeezed out a smile as he spoke. "I've missed you."
She swiped a hand across her eyes in a vague attempt to brush back tears which had stopped flowing but which still glistened on matted eyelashes. She blew her nose. Presentable again.
She took a slow lungful of air, clearing her throat as she did. "Where have you been?"
And Mulder almost choked at that, a single bark of laughter. Funny, he'd imagined asking her that exact same question. Where had she been?
When those people had captured him? When they'd run their tests? When they'd drained his blood? When Krycek had come to rescue him? Fucking Krycek, for God's sake.
How could she have let Krycek save him, coddle him, coax him to eat, tell him when to sleep?
Of course, having read the files, he knew exactly where Scully had been. And it sure as hell hadn't been in Colorado.
Mulder's jaw moved before he had the words to say. He tried again. "You already know."
"That was months ago."
Yeah, it was. Just what was she accusing him of? At least it sounded like an accusation. "When they brought me back, I was captured."
"And Krycek got you out. Skinner told me."
"I don't know what you're asking."
"Krycek! Go ahead, tell me he kept you shackled the whole time."
"No. He didn't. But I couldn't..."
"What, couldn't get to a phone? Couldn't tell me you were alive? That it wasn't your corpse I was burying?"
Mulder just stood, head bowed, too stunned to move. This wasn't the script. This was his chance to ask her how much she really cared. Not her chance to berate him for indifference.
She stroked a hand across her belly, indicating a curve that as yet was surely only visible to her. "I thought it was over. This is the only reason I'm still here."
And Mulder gasped at that. Here? Here, the FBI? Or *here*?
Scully saw his confusion, "I could have tried to move on, new job, new life."
Whether the clarification was intended to be merciful wasn't obvious from her voice or body language. To Mulder, she just sounded angry, white hot and indiscriminate. Well, now that she mentioned it, he wasn't feeling so very differently himself. "Really, so maybe you were better off with me dead."
She froze, silenced by her partner's words and maybe even more so by his tone of voice.
Fox Mulder, bright-eyed and hypersensitive to every shift in temperature or mood, suddenly recalled Doggett's words. The cautious request that he should not make his return from the dead sound like an accusation.
He walked slowly back to his desk, pushing files aside so he could find a comfortably empty space to perch. He took a sip of water, both an act of necessity to ease his aching throat and a way of giving himself a few more seconds to think this through.
Mulder looked at her, so proud and beautiful even with the red lines outlining her eyes and the tear stains marring the porcelain perfection of her cheeks. Radiant. "How's the baby?"
He couldn't bring himself to ask the next question, just noted that the word "ours" hadn't appeared. "I can be dead for you, Scully. If that's what you need. You don't have to be me any more." He sighed, struggling his way through what had to be said, and avoided looking at her as spoke. "You can be you. Here, if it's what you want. Somewhere else, if that's better."
Charitably, Mulder knew that he should write off the delay in her reply as recognition of his offer to free her and her understanding of how much it had cost him. Instead he envied her ability to evade the emotion and jump straight to the action. She murmured her response. "And you'll do what?"
OK, strictly the facts, ma'am. "Krycek says we can develop a vaccine. One that could keep humans from being used as incubators for them."
"Krycek told you?!"
"As did the bounty hunters. They believe in racial purity, species purity, whatever."
"What did they do to you?"
"Took out the bits that didn't belong."
"So you can be used as genetic reference material?"
Well, that was a nice way of phrasing it. He noticed the glasses he'd removed, picked them up. Forced a smile, tried for sheepish and mischievous. "Still need these, though."
She nodded, and he tried not to remember a time when there would have been a smile, or at least a raised eyebrow for that. She hadn't smiled since she'd seen him. Had he given her anything to smile about?
Mulder closed his eyes, determined not to let self-pity or even guilt drive his actions. "I've things to do, it may mean leaving the Bureau. But first, I've got to focus. Get allies, research funding. Knowing what I know, I can't chase..." He waved a hand over the file folders.
"Bats, slugs, metal men?"
Leave them to Doggett, Scully. He couldn't bring himself to say it out loud.
She heard his message, despite his lack of words. "You're angry that I couldn't find you?"
Say it, Mulder, his thoughts screamed. Every quack psychologist he'd ever met had lauded the advantages of disclosure. "I'm angry that Krycek could."
The instant Skinner and Doggett got the nod from Mulder that they were allowed to return, they almost tumbled over in their rush to enter the room. Skinner looked expectantly at Mulder; Doggett looked nervously at Scully.
Mulder, arms quietly folded, focused on the wisp of hair that had escaped from Scully's neat grooming. Probably ruffled during that bear hug they'd indulged in earlier.
He spoke quietly but full of intent. "I'm going public, with as much as I can get hold of. Starting with the fact I'm alive. I need the body exhumed - if it's still there."
Skinner swallowed. "Sure, but - if Krycek was telling the truth, YOU may be the best evidence."
"We need everything we can get on the clinic. I want the doctors. How did they know where to find me? They had a way to spot the ship. We need it, too. Next time, we need to be there first."
"We tried, Mulder."
"Not hard enough. I need to know how Krycek found the clinic. OK, he knew to look at Colorado, but even so. Was it really a needle in a haystack? What resources did he have, that we didn't? Or was it just a matter of will?"
Scully stared straight ahead, eyes unfocused.
"We're so close now, it needs more than ad hoc investigation. Consistency's critical." Mulder was thinking aloud, and the words came slithering out. "Just because it's difficult doesn't mean it's impossible. Krycek proved that." He paused, his hand moving as if it were dragging the words out of the air. "You just have to know where to look."
Scully exhaled sharply, a warning that the pressure relief valve had tripped.
Skinner talked vaguely about Kersh and Cassidy and the rest of the brass and how pushing water uphill wasn't that easy but how he'd be there at Mulder's side.
Scully boiled over, hissing the words between clenched teeth. "We weren't looking." All eyes turned and Mulder stopped breathing. "I thought you'd gone away to die."
Finally. It was out in the open and Mulder was oddly relieved by that, even if he didn't quite understand the details. Calm, controlled voice. "What?"
"Are you still dying, Mulder? Did you expect them to cure you? Or did you just not care any longer? Fox Mulder, human sacrifice, martyr for the truth. A little something for your gravestone?"
Mulder pushed back the confusion and tried to hear the words. "Dying?"
"I've seen the doctors' records, the brain scans." Her hand brushed lightly over her belly. "Just when were you going to tell me?"
"What the hell are you talking about?"
Doggett intervened. "The doctors you were seeing. We've read the files. A brain condition."
"What's that to do with dying?"
Scully choked in exasperation. and Doggett tried to take over the questioning, almost screaming his reaction. "Mulder! I met your Soul Eater, the one you went to for a cure."
Mulder froze, suddenly too stunned to talk, too horrified to move. Three sets of eyes locked on him and he almost rocked under the pressure.
Doggett brought him up to date. "It's dead, Mulder. But you didn't kill it. I did."
Mulder sat down, shoulders hunched, eyes averted, voice quivering with panic under the surface calm. "I didn't see that in the files."
Skinner was gentle but certain. "I asked him not to write it up. It would have hurt you, hurt Scully. No one would have understood. No one would have believed."
Mulder replayed the words, recalled his favorite sound bite from Krycek's files - Scully advising Skinner not to talk about the ship. The words slipped from him, bitter and forlorn, and so fucking tired. "I see. So no one files reports now?"
JOHNS HOPKINS HOSPITAL - NEUROLOGICAL UNIT - LATER THAT DAY
This wasn't a smart move. Knowing what had brought him here, and with the benefit of all-knowing hindsight, Fox Mulder could conjure up a hundred better moves. Unfortunately, it was a little too late for that.
When Scully had told him that having a few tests done at the hospital would clear the whole thing up, he'd accepted her words. One brain scan and she would know that he was well and that what she'd read in those files, and seen on his gravestone had been invented to discourage her from searching.
It had sounded like such a small thing to do to reassure her, to prove that he hadn't been planning his own funeral. But as the minutes ticked by, as she made her phone calls to people who owed her favors, as they drove along the I95 and as they sat in the waiting room - Mulder's passive acceptance had turned first to grudging obedience, and now to a kind of low-level resentment.
Maybe he should just make the best of things and go along with their suggestion of a shallow dose of Valium. He'd never been claustrophobic, but the thought of being pushed into the scanner and told to lie completely still had proved terrifying.
Their helpful suggestion that they could adjust the neck padding to further discourage him from moving had left him gagging.
Or maybe that wasn't the reason why he felt sick. Maybe it was the smell of antiseptic, the touch of latex-covered fingers and the mob of white-coated medics that was making his flesh creep.
Why the fuck had he agreed to this?
"I'm not doing it." Quietly the first time, then much louder. "I'm not doing this."
He started to roll off the table, and was greeted by Dana Scully blocking his path. The only route out would be over her.
Mulder was growling his words. "You can't make me do this."
"It's nothing, Mulder. It'll be over in a few minutes."
She sounded so damned reasonable. So fucking rational.
And Mulder took that as his cue to explode. "No. It won't."
It never was. Just say he had the brain scan, like she wanted. And it gave him the all-clear, like he knew it would. Then he'd be off the hook. On this charge.
But it would prove zip about what had happened. It wouldn't tell her that he hadn't gone out hunting for that alien ship in the hopes of finding a cure. Or in the absence of a cure, then at least a spectacular suicide.
In fact, given that Scully seemed to have bought everything in his so-called medical records, a clear brain scan would probably be evidence for the prosecution. Confirmation that he'd been handed a cure by them. Proof that he'd lied by omission.
Well he had, hadn't he? But not the way she'd assumed. Who the hell had written up that stuff anyway? A couple of real scans in case she checked against his dental records, then a whole bunch of fakes. After seven years she'd still believe anything as long as it was on some official letterhead? Maybe he should have written a letter instead of meeting her today?
Boiling over now. "Let me out!" Doggett, Skinner and a stainless steel trolley full of instruments blocked the route to his left; Dana Scully stood to his right. "Don't turn this into a fight."
Scully stood her ground. Skinner frowned, rubbing a hand over his eyebrow, unable to find an answer to the question in Mulder's eyes. Finally, he took a step back, touching Doggett's arm to demand that he do the same. Scully pressed her fingertips to Mulder's forehead, willing him to stay.
It was already too late, Mulder rolled rapidly from the table past Skinner and Doggett and didn't stop moving until he'd bounced to a halt by almost colliding with the wall.
He stayed where the maneuver left him, staring into white paint, and focusing on the reflection of the fluorescent lights in the metal fittings of the door. Hands clenched into fists, he pressed his weight into the wall, muscles stretched so taut that his hair stood proud against the back of his neck.
Small, rushed breaths gasped through clenched teeth. Why the fuck had he agreed to them taking him to a hospital? Hadn't he spent enough time having his body fucked with by men in white coats and morphs in badly fitting suits? For fuck's sake, even Krycek had given him more space than this.
"Mulder?" Scully rested a hand against his shoulder blade for emphasis.
He shrugged away, recoiling from her touch, edged along the wall when he heard her breaths too close behind, shivering away from her until he reached the corner of the room.
There was nowhere else to go, so he stood. Arms outstretched above his head, one hand pressed flat against each wall, face hidden from prying eyes.
Scully's voice was precisely tuned, charged with picking its way through the minefield. "Tell us. If you weren't sick - why the doctors, why the trip to Pennsylvania?"
He almost smiled at that, would have done if he could have summoned up the energy. A trip to P.A., huh? Not a visit to a Soul Eater.
He pushed himself upright again, but didn't turn around. He tried to keep it matter-of-fact, as if he were talking about someone else's problem. "I was seeing things, Scully. Hearing things."
He owed her this much explanation, didn't he? "It started when I saw Sam." He sighed, uncertain of whether this was helping or just digging the hole a little deeper. "Earlier really, ever since you got me away from the smoker's brain surgeon."
"Hearing people's thoughts?"
"Hearing. Seeing. Glimpses. Flashes. Like deja vu but about something that wasn't happening - well, not happening to me."
"Why didn't you say?"
"What? That I could see people die? That sometimes I could hear you? Jesus, Scully. I couldn't tell you. For the first time in years it seemed... like you might be finding some peace."
"And now, are you still seeing things?"
And now? His brain was flying high without a pilot and he wasn't planning on giving it credit for anything.
And now, the idea of seeing anything that wasn't stained with doubt, red-tinged with pain was appealing. Even the thought that he might get a glimmer of what Scully was really thinking and feeling seemed attractive in a masochistic sort of way.
But the fact was, so far as he could tell, it was over.
In any case, the scans he'd had done months ago when he had been seeing those flashes of other people's thoughts had shown nothing, except that his brain was working hard. So, whatever way he looked at it, this test today was pointless.
Who the fuck was that? Mulder turned, suddenly finding himself face to face with one of the whitecoats. Shit.
He'd been so out of it that he'd forgotten that anyone except Scully was in here. Skinner and Doggett didn't count, they'd lied on their reports. It was a four-way conspiracy. The trouble was, there were more than four people in the room. Why hadn't they warned him to shut up?
Mulder stared down at the man's rubber-soled shoes, moved onwards and upwards, and focused on freshly laundered white cotton. Fight or flight? He exhaled, a single cluck of joyless amusement as he finally lifted his head. He smiled as he studied the doctor's face, suddenly shamefully aware that he hadn't even really noticed the man until now.
Mulder's arrival in the room had been subdued, head bowed and listless. He'd let Scully haul him in here, been almost oblivious to his surroundings. Scully and her entourage of Skinner and Doggett had filled his thoughts, left no space to put new names to strangers' faces, and no desire to know anything about white-coated bodies and latex-coated fingers.
Which surprised him a little. Hadn't he wanted to know everything about the white-coated fuckers who'd kept him strapped down for weeks?
"Mr. Mulder. Please come through to the other room; I'd like to talk with you."
Mulder nodded, bowing to the inevitable, despite the fact his fists had clenched in anticipation of action. He was alert enough to know better than to pay attention to his body's demands.
The white coat led the way and Mulder tried to follow without shuffling, without slumping, without looking like someone heading to the psychiatric ward. He kept his head up, his eyes fixed carefully forward and his thoughts safely under wraps.
What now? The safest thing to do would be to make a run for it. But maybe now wasn't the moment to start running again. Maybe this was where he started seeing things through. For better or worse, maybe he needed to know where he stood, time to find out how he appeared to strangers and perhaps even to friends.
They didn't have to walk for very long. Just far enough along the corridor to guarantee the safety of the expensive instrumentation that had surrounded the scanner. The room they entered housed a bed dressed in antiseptically white sheets and pretty much nothing else. Couldn't do much damage in here.
The orderly placed a plastic chair in the center of the room and Mulder almost laughed at the staging. What next? Was somebody going to shine bright lights in his eyes and demand a confession?
Mulder ignored the chair and perched against the edge of the bed.
The doctor was polite, only just a little too heavy-handed in his soothing bedside manner. "I'd like you to meet a colleague of mine."
Mulder nodded. "I'm sure you would."
It was going to take a while for the 'colleague' to arrive, and Mulder resented the raised eyebrows he provoked when he insisted on coffee. Not that the coffee in here was actually drinkable, but there was a principle at stake. He was not going to be decaffeinated for their benefit.
The silence went on for too long, Doggett sounded almost apologetic when he broke it. "Mulder, the Soul-Eater. Why did..." John looked across at Scully, who was paying rather more attention to the question than he had hoped.
Well, Doggett had said that he'd read the files, and the only other people in the room were Skinner and Scully. Mulder shrugged, why get hung for a lamb when there was a whole sheep available? "I was getting flashes of other people's thoughts, just the hot spots. Screaming, crying, dying. Funny, there's a lot more lows than highs out there." Or maybe that was just a problem with the way he was tuned in.
Doggett shook his head and tried again. "No, I meant... Why did you shoot it?"
Wasn't it obvious? Perhaps not. "I could feel his thoughts." Mulder shivered a little, feeling the creature again. The pain, the helplessness, the pleading. Doggett nodded, as if a long-standing suspicion had been confirmed. Mulder remembered Doggett's earlier comment. "He came back though, didn't he? You said you killed him?"
"I died, he took my place."
"Small world, huh?"
Scully's breathing looked a little labored, and Mulder felt the nausea of sudden and total recall. A man with a camera had taken her death away. The bile burned the back of his throat, and he almost crumpled under the assault before recognizing the sensation as memory, mingled with empathy, not some sort of psychic hook-up.
After all, that was why he'd ignored the flashes at first. They hadn't seemed that different from normal. Or maybe it just meant he hadn't ever been normal.
The door swung open and a flurry of white coats arrived.
Mulder took a deep breath. He should have run while he had the chance. But then he'd never know what would happen next, and maybe he really did need to know.
Funny how the duty psychiatrist had no problem identifying his potential patient. Mulder sighed a greeting.
"Perhaps your friends should leave?"
Mulder smiled. "Perhaps they shouldn't." Mulder looked at the other whitecoats, the two orderlies and the original doctor from the neurological unit who were following the shrink into the room. "But you really don't need an escort."
The psychiatrist nodded, stepped forward to offer a hand to Mulder, and politely asked his colleagues to wait outside. "I'm Alan Simonsen." He pulled the plastic chair into position, facing away from Mulder. Simonsen chose to sit the wrong way around on the chair. Folding his arms to rest on the chair back, he studied his target.
"Dr. Madeley asked me to talk to you."
Ah, Madeley. So that was the scanner doctor's name. Mulder moved straight to the meat. "Let me guess. He says that I'm distressed, and possibly delusional."
"And possibly armed," Simonsen added. "You're an FBI agent?"
Mulder looked briefly at his colleagues. "We all are."
"Perhaps you can tell me why you came here today?"
"My partner asked me to." Mulder waved a hand in Scully's general direction.
"Yes, Dr.. Scully. She asked for the scan as an emergency. Pulled a few strings to jump the line. Very insistent, I'm told."
Mulder didn't see the need to reply.
Simonsen frowned. "Why did you refuse to have the scan?"
"I withdrew my consent." Mulder paused to make sure that Simonsen got the message that he was here voluntarily.
Simonsen nodded politely and, taking Mulder's lead, opted for the direct approach. "Does Dr. Scully think that you're delusional?"
"I don't believe so. Ask her."
Simonsen glanced back at Scully. She shook her head, her face impassive except for the moisture that had pooled in her eyes. He turned to Mulder again. "But she's concerned for your health?"
"And your point is?" Mulder kept his voice crisp. "That her concerns outrank mine?"
Simonsen backed off, recognizing that he'd already lost that particular argument. "You've been hearing things?"
"Dr. Madeley says..."
"Dr. Madeley got the tense wrong. I had been hearing things. I'm not any more."
The psychiatrist was struggling to stay in the game, the relaxed pose he'd struck on arrival looking more artificial with each passing moment. That was when Simonsen got his first lucky break, he tried another question. "When did you stop hearing things?"
Mulder closed his eyes and wondered if he knew the answer.
When the aliens chose me, Doctor? Though given their penchant for telepathy, that wouldn't be a strictly accurate response.
When they'd returned him, then? When the white-coated fuckers strapped him to a table and started cutting? His brain had defended him back there, carefully blurred the whole experience, flipped some switch and let him slide down the rabbit hole into dreamland. Did that count?
And then the cavalry had arrived. Alex Krycek had come crashing in on his white charger. Dark sedan. Whatever. The whole thing sounded like a bad dream. And what do they call it if you dream while you're awake?
Since he'd returned to D.C., then? Surely he could give himself a clean bill of health for the past week? He almost laughed. Yes, doc - all clear for days! Truth's a bitch.
Mulder struggled for a reply. "I'm trying... to remember."
The assurance was back in the psychiatrist's posture, the bounce had returned to his voice. His eyes flicked towards Scully, but she didn't look up. He turned to Skinner instead, made sure he was paying attention. "Mr. Mulder, did you talk about it with anyone?"
How could he have? Why rock the boat when it had finally started to move forward again? When Scully had finally found some peace? When Skinner had Krycek trouble to worry about? When the FBI frowned on agents experiencing hallucinations?
Simonsen nodded sadly at Skinner. His voice was calm and precise as he spoke to Mulder. "I think you need more time." He rose to his feet. "Mr. Mulder? Can you do that? Can you let us help you?"
Mulder shook his head. They couldn't help him. But they could kill him trying.
To get stuck here would be the worst possible outcome. Neither on the run and trying to work something out with Krycek, nor public and trying to work up as high a profile as possible with Skinner and the FBI. Even a couple of days in here, and whatever credibility he might still have would be blown.
Fit only for a lab rat after that.
The psychiatrist was already preparing to head for the door, and Mulder knew that in a few seconds he'd be asking the orderlies to come in and help "Mr. Mulder" to relax.
And if they strapped him down in here, then there would be no going back. Because surely insanity would be a more attractive place than awareness.
Mulder's eyes flitted around the room, looking for options. Scully was so pale, he wondered if she was going to fade away. Doggett looked too stunned to talk.
Mulder focused his attention on Skinner, ignoring Simonsen's gentle entreaties and admonishments to talk. Skinner finally rewarded him with a brief nod of the head.
Suddenly, Walter Skinner, Assistant Director of the FBI, was on his feet, an instant later and he was at Agent Mulder's side. "Dr. Simonsen. What I'm about to tell you is strictly confidential. It's to go no further than this room. It's the basis of a Federal case. Understood?"
The psychiatrist nodded, despite the fact that he didn't understand at all.
"Agent Mulder was abducted several months ago. He's been held prisoner ever since. Kept in restraints, drugged, starved and tortured, physically and mentally. He escaped a couple of days ago."
Sudden recognition in Simonsen's eyes. Hadn't he heard about a missing FBI agent on the news, was that where he'd heard the name before? Wasn't the FBI claiming that he had been found dead?
Skinner left no room for questions. "The Bureau is well aware of the need for psychological support. We came here solely to make use of the additional facilities in your neurological unit. We appreciate your concern, but the situation is under control."
"And I appreciate your candor." Mulder could hear the 'but' coming. Sure enough, Simonsen obliged. "But - I'm professionally and legally bound to consider any danger posed by Mr. Mulder, whether that's to himself or to other people."
Skinner nodded, all professional calm and managerial authority. "It's being handled professionally and legally by the FBI."
"Agents carry guns."
"Not when they're suspended. Now, if you'll excuse us." Skinner turned to look at Mulder, who quickly stood and tried to look as confident as his boss sounded.
Doggett suddenly emerged from the shadows where he'd been sitting. He walked across the room to stand at Simonsen's side, creating an effectively private corridor for Mulder and Skinner to walk to the door.
Simonsen looked eagerly at Dana Scully, a vague hope in his eyes that he might find encouragement in hers. She didn't oblige, just moved crisply to the door and opened it.
Seconds later and they were heading to the elevator. Mulder scarcely dared to breathe until they were safely out into the parking lot.
No one spoke until the foursome reached the car.
Skinner leaned against the car, breathing heavily, mouth tight with anger. He stared at Mulder as the agent slumped into the back seat and tried to look as small as possible. Mulder licked his lips. "Regretting your decision, sir?"
There was just a little pain and a lot of frustration in Skinner's voice. "I'm just surprised it was mine to make. Why did you stick around and see the shrink? You've skipped hospitals before."
"Always with good reason."
"And you didn't have a good reason this time? You knew how it would sound. Why take that sort of risk? He would have locked you up. He was going to do it. You knew that would happen, didn't you? Before we ever got into that room."
Mulder shrugged. Known was a little strong, but he'd certainly anticipated it as a possible outcome. "Maybe I needed to know exactly what would happen."
Skinner slammed a hand into the door frame and was suddenly oddly grateful that Mulder was safely inside the car. Mulder had confirmed his worst suspicions. "A test? You were testing us? To see if we'd still back you up, once he started talking about delusions? You bastard, you stupid fucking bastard."
Mulder looked out of the car window, biting his lip, relieved that Skinner had forgotten to add sanctimonious and self-centered to the insult.
Scully indicated to Doggett that he should take the passenger seat. She loaded herself into the back of the car with Mulder. She kept her eyes down as she settled into the seat. He studied her cautiously.
Once the car was safely under way, she looked up at him, reached out tentatively towards him. "Are you OK?"
Mulder stared down at the place where their hands met, and gently entwined his fingers with hers. "Fine. Better than I've felt in months. And you?"
The car's occupants were silent on the journey back to the FBI offices. An informal agreement had been quickly struck to drop off Doggett and then move on.
The Hoover Building's security staff were plentiful and highly visible as Skinner turned to enter the parking lot. It was obvious that they were on alert, rather surprising at 5 p.m. on a Saturday - a bomb threat, maybe?
He had already rolled the window down by the time he stopped at the barrier. "What's happening?"
"Sir. We're checking all movement in and out. There was a report that... Jesus." The guard backed away, shouting in panic to those few guards who hadn't already started to walk towards the car, "It's him! He's here!"
The reception committee carried shotguns.
Skinner sighed. "Welcome home, Mulder." His next words were delivered loud and clear, for the benefit of the armed men who surrounded the car. "We're coming out. One at a time."
The man who identified himself as the team's leader looked scarcely old enough to have a badge. He was certainly more than a little embarrassed to have bagged himself an Assistant Director. He sounded guiltily relieved as he responded to Skinner with a, "Thank you, sir."
Skinner turned to look at his backseat passengers. "OK?"
Scully's hand moved to the door in anticipation.
Skinner's voice was conspiratorially quiet but was unquestionably an order. "Right. We've got a bunch of kids waiting out there. Don't spook them."
Mulder raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
Carefully and not too fast, Skinner left the car first, his empty hands held in plain view.
John Doggett moved next.
Dana Scully paused to squeeze Mulder's hand and received an encouraging nod in return. She cleared her throat but he shook his head. This was neither the time nor the place for whispered words. She opened the door and made a graceful exit.
It was Mulder's turn next, and he was embarrassed to discover that he found the maneuver a little difficult, his fingers clenching around the door handle rather than operating it. His more melodramatic nightmares about recapture had looked awfully like this, even if they hadn't featured the FBI parking lot as the venue.
Skinner nodded to the team's leader to warn him that he intended to move, and got a quick wave of acknowledgment in reply.
Skinner took a step over to the rear door and opened it in a single smooth move. Mulder shrugged apologetically, and Skinner cautiously offered him an arm for support. Mulder shook his head. "It's OK, I can do it."
Skinner moved back a little and Mulder eased himself out of the car. He tried not to count the number of guns trained on him. He ignored the nervous, excited expressions on the faces of their owners. Desperate to run, he stood absolutely still.
Skinner did the talking for him. "What are your orders?"
"Sir. Agent Mulder's ID card was used to get access to the building. We were told to apprehend whoever was carrying it."
"Fine. Agent Mulder has already been apprehended. By me. You can stand down."
"Sir. Deputy Director Kersh said that we were to bring in anyone we found with him."
Mulder jumped in first and sounded surprisingly self-assured. "OK, where to?"
Skinner insisted there was no need for cuffs, but did reluctantly agree that the team was welcome to move in and collect the guns that their new prisoners were wearing.
Mulder smiled at Doggett. "What can I say? Welcome to my world."
Kersh surveyed the faces of his surprise catch. "Agent Doggett, I guess I should be congratulating you. After Agent Mulder was found dead, I didn't expect you to bring him in." He paused to enjoy their irritated silence. "Why wasn't I informed immediately of Agent Mulder's safe recovery?"
Skinner tried to make it into as plausible and vague a story as possible. "There were some medical tests we needed to do."
"At Johns Hopkins? The Bureau has just received a call from a Dr. Simonsen. Fortunately, the alert had already been raised, so the switchboard patched him through to me."
Kersh turned his attention to Mulder. "Agent Mulder. Just in case you were wondering. You're suspended. I'd like your weapon."
"One of your drones has it."
"Remind me to congratulate him." He glanced across at Doggett. "Good to hear that some of my agents still obey orders."
Skinner's face was a warning in red, frustration and anger doing battle with professional restraint. "Is it necessary to do this today?"
"That depends, doesn't it? On whether there's been a crime committed. Of course, if Agent Mulder's just been AWOL for the last few months, then we can call it a day. Agent Mulder, do you have a crime to report?"
"I was reporting it to the agent leading the investigation....Sir."
Kersh chose to ignore the delivery of the sir. "That's good. How about clueing me in a little?"
Mulder kept the delivery fast and impersonal. "I was held against my will by unknown subjects, experimented on and released. I was then captured by another group who repeated the process. I escaped."
"Who and where?"
"The only thing I know for sure is that the second group held me in Colorado."
"When did you escape?"
Skinner saw Mulder's hesitation and jumped in. "Agent Mulder contacted me yesterday and he came in as quickly as he safely could."
"That wasn't my question. Just when did you get away, Agent Mulder?"
Hell of a question. Had he escaped from anything yet? How did the lost time on the run with Krycek factor into the story? "I'm not sure."
Kersh shook his head, gave Mulder's words a brief dismissive snort. The underlying sarcasm broke through to the surface. "Two groups? Why are you so popular?"
"I don't know."
Humor exhausted, Kersh just looked exasperated, his cheeks full, his mouth tight. The words came thundering out. "Where have you been, Agent Mulder?"
Good question, sir. Damned good question. Mulder leaned back in his chair. What was that plan again? Get as much evidence as he could quickly scramble together, and go public? After months of silence, even the physical act of speech had been hard at first. After weeks with Krycek, he knew better than to try and vocalize his actual thoughts.
How many people had spoken to him today? And how many had stopped him in his tracks with the most obvious question imaginable? And he was really expecting to stand up in front of people and tell it like it is? Or, at any rate, tell them how he guessed it might be.
When? Not today, that was for sure. When then? When was this numbing all-pervasive paralysis going to wear off?
Panic had been a continuous companion for months. It billowed around him like a cloud, swirling up whenever he moved. It built and surged. It hovered in waves, looking for weakness, waiting for the moment when his back was turned, then came rolling in, sweeping him off his feet, leaving him gasping for air.
Mulder didn't move, didn't even hear.
Kersh turned to Doggett, and barked out an order. "Get him a drink of water."
Skinner had already moved from his seat, he was standing directly in front of Mulder now. He crouched to meet him at eye level. "Mulder, come on. Just breathe. You're OK, you're safe."
Scully took the paper cup from Doggett's hand, and Skinner backed away a little to give her enough room to reach her partner. She sat up on her heels and rested a hand on Mulder's knee. She held the water in his line of sight. Well, what would have been his line of sight if his eyes could remember how to focus. "Mulder."
Kersh was on his feet and pacing, confused and concerned. "Walter?"
Skinner looked up at his Deputy Director. "What the hell did you expect?"
"I didn't know."
"He's been held hostage for months. And you send a SWAT team to welcome him home? He's an agent - who's been tortured - not the goddamned Unibomber."
Mulder's panic faded slowly from spiky black and white down to some quieter shade of gray. Bad enough going through this shit when he was alone, worse when he was with Krycek. Absolute fucking misery to have it happen here with Scully and Skinner fussing over him. And Kersh? Shit.
All in all, Krycek had been a much easier ride.
But then again, the ease of the ride had never really been that important.
Doggett fussed, trying to be useful in the only way he knew how, by bringing more water. Mulder caught a little gleam in Scully's eyes as John cautiously handed her a cup, and Mulder wondered what that was about.
Mulder licked his lips. Took a slow experimental deep breath. Good enough. Time to move on. He cleared his throat. Patiently rejecting offers of help, he rose to his feet.
He stood up tidily straight, just the barest hint of an apologetic smile as he spoke to Kersh. "Can we stop there for today?"
Mulder turned quickly away, eager to leave the room before the mask slipped again.
Mulder resisted the urge to run though he wasn't able to stop the tension from racing along his spine and into his shoulders. He stopped moving but couldn't force himself to turn back and face Kersh. He didn't need to, he could feel the weight of the man's eyes without actually looking at him. "Sir?"
Mulder shifted his weight between feet, his cheeks hollow in anticipation of the lie, platitude or whatever they chose to call it, that he could feel being prepared.
Kersh took a long time to come up with anything, finally delivering a quiet, "Take care."
Mulder nodded, a single sharp staccato move. Swallowing his reaction he walked out of the office and headed directly to the elevators.
Skinner, Scully and Doggett were close to running when they finally caught up with him, and well aware that they only got the opportunity to do so at all because Mulder was forced to wait for the doors to open.
He moved smartly to the back of the elevator and avoided eye contact.
Doggett was shaking his head as the doors closed, and mumbled, "Fucking fly boys," as the elevator started to move.
Mulder surprised them all by being the first to laugh.
By the time they reached the basement, Mulder was already giving orders.
Doggett attempted clarification as they walked into the X-Files office. "OK, so you don't just want to know who was there and when. You want to check the route this Krycek guy used to find you?"
"He claims that I was taken there by helicopter in the middle of the night and they moved a group of patients out. There's supposed to be a police report - a patient complaining that someone held an Uzi on him."
"I'm on it." Doggett looked up from the chair he'd automatically sat in when they'd entered the room. The others had remained standing, and they showed no signs of discarding their jackets and rolling up their sleeves. "And you'll be?"
Mulder hesitated. "I'll call you." The instant he said it, he turned on his heel and started walking away.
Skinner nodded his goodbyes to Doggett.
Scully gave him a tiny but distinctly apologetic smile and offered him a concession. "I'll have my cell phone with me."
Though no discussion had taken place, it seemed like a plan of sorts had been hatched. Skinner and Scully would let Mulder decide what happened next, but would not be letting him out of their sight. They walked either side of him. After all, it was difficult to know if news that Mulder was no longer to be considered dangerous had filtered through the whole building.
They headed for the parking garage. Mulder turned instinctively towards where he knew Scully's car would be parked. Skinner could pick up his car from the guards another day.
By the time they reached the gate, the team who'd captured them was long gone. The regular guards manning the barrier looked vaguely embarrassed, though one of them did manage to mumble out a, "Welcome home," as they drove away.
Scully's fingers dug into the wheel. "My apartment?"
Mulder's reply was definite. "Mine."
She pulled out onto the street and turned to head along a comfortingly familiar route.
The journey was mostly conducted in silence, Scully and Skinner asking the occasional question and Mulder supplying only monosyllabic, conversation-stopping replies.
Mulder's full attention was directed to the world outside the car, both remembering this trip from a thousand times before and memorizing it afresh. The world was still a beautiful place. Even the contrast between drab house fronts and the messy mishmash of traffic signs, tackily illuminated advertising, and brightly colored street furniture seemed worth celebrating.
He was smiling by the time he opened the apartment door, walking automatically to the fish tank as soon as he arrived. He flicked a pinch of food onto the surface of the water and was greeted by a swirl of tiny pouting faces.
Next stop - the kitchen. He checked the cupboards, knowing they should be empty but for some reason hoping for something better. He got his reward. Perishables had been disposed of, but there were ample supplies of still-sealed cans and boxes.
The coffeemaker had supplies of its own, and it was noticeable that the countertop didn't have the thin layer of dust that lingered over most of the other flat surfaces in the apartment. Whoever had fed the fish liked to pause awhile and have a cup of coffee here. The idea made him oddly proud.
He set the coffeemaker working, headed back into the living room and was greeted by two sets of nervous eyes. He smiled easily, suddenly certain that he was right to have come back to them."Thanks."
Off their uncertain looks, he added more explanation. "The fish. The shopping." There was a tingle of laughter in his voice. "For drinking the coffee. Speaking of which - do you want some?"
They nodded in unison. He could see the uncertainty in their eyes and he didn't blame them for that. Today had been a roller-coaster, and in all honesty there had been far more lows than highs. Those nightmare scenes at the hospital, that panic attack in Kersh's office. He could see why they'd be suspicious of a suddenly buoyant Fox Mulder.
OK, he couldn't promise anyone, least of all himself, that the lows were over. After all, he had trained as a psychologist. But he recognized that they were going to have to get used to the highs as well. He almost laughed as a faux-Eastern European voice supplied his imagination with the phrase manic-depressive, before immediately switching it to a more modishly American bipolar disorder.
Shaking his head, he wandered back into the kitchen to get out the mugs and stand guard over the coffeemaker.
When he returned to the living room, Skinner and Scully were sitting on the couch and talking, their words stopped abruptly on his arrival. "Coffee." Having stated the obvious, he put the mugs down in front of them and retreated quickly to the kitchen.
He sniffed at his own cup. The taste still didn't seem quite right, and his stomach rebelled against the liquid if he tried to drink too much of it, but the smell was wonderful. And he couldn't help but see that as a metaphor for this new life of his - the need to take pleasure from the details.
Their eyes locked on him as soon as he went back in, and he wondered what they were expecting. Hysteria? Anger? Tears? Well, much as he hated to disappoint them, he was afraid that he couldn't oblige. Not right now, at any rate.
He smiled again and sat down facing them. "You seem anxious."
Skinner stroked his fingers over his eyebrow. "I've been talking to Scully. She... We feel that you need a full medical exam. Physical," he added quickly. "There may be evidence."
Mulder nodded, his smile fading to a look more akin to contentment. "Understood. Next week." His next words were for Scully. "Can you find a doctor?"
She swiftly agreed, and Mulder enjoyed the looks of relief on his colleagues' faces.
Scully's voice was soft and tentative, but it still sounded courageous to Mulder. "What did they do to you?"
"Too much." He closed his eyes for an instant, hunting for the words. "Too much to carry on as if nothing happened."
Scully shivered a little before curling back into the cushions.
Mulder talked, shifting easily between his vague recollections of being sliced open, to visions of looking up to see a whole team of identical alien bounty hunters surrounding his bedside. The hardest thing to talk about was his handling by the human doctors and nurses who'd apparently repeated some of the tests with less skill and rather more pain.
He wondered if that was actually true. Did the humans hurt him more? Or was that just a subjective thing, a reaction to the who rather than the what?
In reality, it was the whole business of the "thing" in his blood that had hurt the most, and it was still too hard to talk about that. Maybe next week, after the medical exam. Maybe the Lone Gunmen's pals could come up with something about the blood. His breath caught at the memory of the Gunmen - they still thought he was dead. He ought to call Frohike. Tomorrow, perhaps.
After the first hour, the discussion slowed and shifted to food.
Take-out was the obvious solution. Mulder ignored Scully's worried expression as he ordered the blandest dishes on the menu. After all, she hadn't seen him the first week, when a piece of toast had looked like a challenge.
Still, it was true. He'd been free for weeks and he was still far from normal, even physically. He'd bounce the question off the doctor at the exam next week, but honestly, it really had been getting easier. And his current queasiness was probably more psychological than physical.
He had to smile when he realized that Scully's dinner choices were almost identical to his.
He kept forgetting that she was pregnant. The fact that she was having a baby was never far from his thoughts. But pregnant! The idea that their baby was growing inside her, that she was feeding it, protecting it, breathing for it, feeling it, loving it already - that still shocked him.
He'd missed so much.
He looked at her. It was easy to forget that she was pregnant. She didn't look pregnant. Had she been eating properly? Looking after herself? Just what had she been doing? There weren't many signs of concessions to light duties in the case files.
Mulder tried a question he'd first attempted back in the office. "Tell me about the baby."
She seemed startled to suddenly be the center of attention. "According to the ultrasounds...."
Mulder shook his head. "No, I've seen them. Tell me about the baby, can you feel it move? Does it talk to you?" He grinned as his imagination started to fire. "Did you start craving pickle-flavored ice cream?"
Skinner suddenly felt distinctly superfluous, and shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
Mulder caught Skinner's discomfort and shrugged apologetically. "Maybe I should save the questions until after we've eaten."
Skinner looked grateful for the stay of execution.
Once the meal was over, there was an awkward pause before Skinner asked if it was time for him to look for a taxi. Mulder denied that there was any such need, and claimed that he was welcome to stay. But there was a look in Dana Scully's eyes that seemed to contradict the message.
Skinner wasn't so confident. Mulder and Scully couldn't have shared a hundred words so far. Scully just looked dazed. Mulder? Mulder was operating on raw adrenaline, skipping lightly around a place that looked like what - joy? And some other place, the one where he was the poster boy for post- traumatic stress disorder.
Skinner wondered if Scully really knew what she was letting herself in for. "If you need anything...."
She was insistent that they would be just fine. Skinner found himself respecting her territorial rights, even as he doubted her wisdom.
Mulder found him a number for a taxi company and was only temporarily fazed when he picked up the phone and found it wasn't working. The bank had been under orders to automatically pay the apartment's rental each month but that was about as far as the emergency plan had gone.
Before Skinner headed out he checked that Scully's cell phone was working.
The apartment was oddly empty when Skinner left.
Mulder was scarcely able to believe that so much could have happened in a single day. Moreover, he knew that he was flying on an energy high that he would surely pay for later. Happily, later could wait.
He was still buzzing as he gathered up the plates from the table and carried them through to the kitchen.
He returned with an iced tea for himself and an herbal tea for her. He hadn't recognized the box of herbal tea he'd found in the kitchen. It wasn't even the brand she normally drank. Normally was a relative idea. Had anything in her life been normal in the last few months?
She sipped at her drink and smiled in recognition.
And Mulder almost stopped breathing. She'd smiled. Finally. She'd looked at him and smiled. An honest-to-goodness smile. Not the smile that lit up the room, the one that he'd almost come to expect as his reward for returning from the dead. But still, it was a smile.
Her smile faded and she was biting her lip. "I thought I'd never see you again."
Mulder slowly shook his head. "I've missed you so much."
She reached for him and he pulled her in close. She shivered in his arms and he whispered nothing words into her ear. Beautiful, perfect, missed, wanted, loved.
They lay there, in the eye of the storm, until sleep claimed her. Gone from him. He wondered what she dreamed about. Beautiful wanted babies? Hurt and haunted Emilys? Monsters?
How much did she know about her pregnancy, the how and why and who of it? Not much, according to those medical reports. She'd once told him that the truth was in her. Did she still think that? Is that why she couldn't look?
Mulder listened to her breathe, while his hand stroked tiny, gentle circles on her belly, searching for the life within.
It was 3 a.m. when Mulder woke up, and for an instant he panicked at the thought that he'd tumbled into a too-real dream. The smell and feel of leather under his cheek, the glow of the fish tank. His apartment? His couch? If he woke up now, he'd be screaming.
He recalled the night before. Reality then?
So, where was Scully?
The bathroom door opened and answered his question. She spoke without approaching. "Sorry. I didn't mean to wake you."
His mind flashed to another time she'd fallen asleep on his couch, and then slipped away without saying goodbye. "Are you leaving?"
"I'll stay if you want."
That really hadn't been the question.
She shuffled her weight between feet, her tense smile an apology for the evasion. "This time yesterday I was crying into my pillow because you were dead." She stopped, unable to complete the comparison.
He did the work for her. "A lot's happened. You need time to think."
Her eyes were wide and bright, her eyebrows high. She took a few careful breaths. "I'll see you later."
Mulder followed her to the door, waiting as she slipped on her shoes. He helped her into her coat; task complete, he turned her in his arms. She kept her head bowed and he made no move to force her to look at him, just leaned down to rest his head against hers. He closed his eyes. "I can wait."
They stood like that for too long. Scully gave a little cough as she finally pulled away. She opened the door and almost ran from the apartment. Mulder listened to the fast tap of her heels and the swoosh of the elevator doors. When he finally opened his eyes, the hallway was empty.
Mulder switched on the TV, but with no cable payments made for months, he knew he shouldn't really be surprised to find nothing except interference on most channels.
He slid in an unmarked video, which he guessed had to be the last recording he'd made. Vampire Night on the Bravo Channel. All vampires, all the time. It would do.
He brought a glass of tomato juice from the kitchen and sank back onto the couch, leaving misty, unfocused eyes to watch the screen while his mind freewheeled.
It was just after ten in the morning when Skinner arrived at his door. Mulder welcomed him in.
Skinner felt the need to explain his arrival. "I couldn't call you, so I spoke to Scully. She said you were here."
Mulder shrugged. He'd called Scully, too, had to wander out to a phone booth to do it. She'd quickly told him it wasn't a good moment. He'd made a special plea that she suggest a better time. She said she'd stop by his apartment just as soon as she could.
Skinner was bearing gifts, he held out a cell phone. "I borrowed this for you."
Mulder wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry, but was quite certain that neither would be appropriate. Had he ever doubted that he should come back? He must have been stupid. How the hell had Krycek kept him away from his friends for so long?
Skinner wandered into the kitchen, a route that seemed very familiar to him. "OK if I fix some coffee?"
Mulder turned the borrowed phone over in his hands, remembering a similar, albeit meaningless, gesture by Alex Krycek the day after they'd run from the clinic. He'd let Alex get away with that, too.
Whatever happened to Trust No One? Had there really been weeks when he'd trusted only Alex Krycek?
Skinner was sitting on the couch, and two mugs of fresh coffee were resting on the table.
Mulder's flinched in surprise. Just how long had he been standing here, zoned out again? He made his way across the room and sat down. Skinner looked straight at him, eyes full of concern, his whole body tense with anxiety.
Mulder sniffed the coffee, enjoying a favorite thing without putting it to the test. "I was thinking about Krycek. How he controlled me."
"You're free of him. Thanks to you, we both are."
"No. No. I don't believe any of it. It was all too convenient. The timing. The escape. Everything."
"What are you saying?"
"The tests were over, the physical stuff. They were still drawing blood but it didn't seem like such a big deal anymore. I remember thinking that it was an awfully expensive setup just to keep me pinned down while they took another pint. They had some cartoon character interrogating me, drugs in every color of the rainbow, so enthusiastic he knocked me unconscious. Then, up pops Alex."
"When they'd finished with you?"
Mulder scrambled for the words to pin down the thought. "When Phase One was over?"
"Was Phase Two."
Mulder's attempts to contact Scully were thwarted initially by her answering machine, then by her cell phone's voicemail service. He dutifully left messages including his new phone number, courtesy of Walter Skinner, on both - but something made him doubt that she would call back. He wrote off the thought as paranoia.
Doggett's search through police reports on the clinic in Colorado had turned up little of note, except what could be gleaned from the absence of evidence. Certainly, no patient had complained about Uzi-toting doctors.
But it was definitely true that part of the clinic had been emptied of patients just a few hours after Mulder's arrival, the clinic having declared itself concerned about fumes escaping from a boiler in the basement. No harm done, but better safe than sorry.
The clinic had a reputation for quality and discretion. Most of its patients were high-ranking government officials and foreign diplomats - the location especially favored because of its distance from Washington and prying eyes.
The local police had provided escorts for a couple of ambulances. None of them had believed that stuff about boiler fumes, they didn't need to. The betting circle had been in full flow trying to guess the identity of the new patient, there hadn't been a winner.
Attempts to contact clinic staff by phone were met with stony silence. Patient confidentiality was an essential element of their service and it would take a warrant to get the names of the patients. As for the staff working on the closed wing, the same thing applied - some patients had their own medical teams, consequently there would be no voluntary disclosure of their identities, either.
A warrant probably would come, in due course, provided the FBI pursued the case. The imprisonment and torture of an FBI agent was a serious matter. Meanwhile, though, plenty of time for everyone to bury the evidence a little deeper.
Not that it was actually required. Mulder's little side trip with Krycek had given them more than enough time to cover their tracks. Mulder groaned in recognition - what the hell had he been thinking?
He hadn't been. That had been the point. If Krycek had approached him off the alien ship, then Mulder wouldn't have given him the time of day.
No, it had been the weeks at the clinic, his treatment at the hands of humans that had left him malleable. How awfully convenient for Alex.
Mulder's mind was racing now, and his body reflected the same excess of energy. But it was working, each iteration of the story made the pieces fit a little better.
Skinner was getting tired of watching Mulder pace. "Mulder. Just stand still for a minute."
Mulder stopped moving, but his toes continued to flex as if determined to be ready for any demand. He stared at his boss, acknowledging the anxiety he'd heard in the man's voice and determined not to add to it.
Skinner was grateful for the consideration, the tension in his face fading a little. "You think someone told Krycek about the clinic?"
Mulder shook his head. "I think he took me there."
MULDER'S APARTMENT - MONDAY
Skinner hadn't been surprised by Sunday's phone call informing him that Mulder's preliminary OPR hearing was scheduled for Monday morning. Kersh's offer to go ahead with the meeting in Mulder's absence made it pretty clear how the event was intended to play out.
Mulder had just shrugged off the hearing and its timing as not only inevitable, but also logical.
Kersh might have felt guilty about backing Mulder into a corner on Saturday, but that didn't mean his opinion on whether the agent was an asset or an embarrassment had changed. And even Skinner conceded that the Bureau had to get a plan in place for handling both the investigation and the inevitable publicity that would follow news of Mulder's return.
Even so, Skinner couldn't help but look apologetic when he arrived at Mulder's apartment to drive him to the office.
Mulder pulled on his jacket. "It's not your fault."
Skinner shrugged, acknowledging Mulder's success as a mind reader, then immediately felt guilty about wondering just how often in the past the description had been accurate.
He found himself staring at Mulder, and wondering what was wrong, before realizing that Mulder looked absolutely normal. Apart from the tiredness that still shone from his eyes, Mulder was at his picture-perfect best.
Regal in sleek Armani gray, hair neatly groomed, shoes freshly polished - Mulder didn't look like a victim of anything. Even the tie was in perfect harmony.
Mulder caught the appraisal. "You think it's a tactical error?" He paused, took a slow, shallow breath and released it. "I need to get in character. They want a zombie. They can't have one." He rubbed a hand along his forearm, following the line of a particularly itchy scar. "I haven't been able to get hold of Scully. I wanted to talk to her before the hearing."
"I stopped by her place on the way over. Landlord says she hasn't been home."
Mulder's nerves, already stretched taut, spasmed at that.
Skinner was quick to add, "So I called her mom, Scully had already left."
Mulder tried her cell phone again, but got put straight through to her voice mail. Just how many messages had he left?
The drive to the Bureau was largely silent. Setting aside his nerves, Mulder was enjoying the daylight too much to stop smiling at the view from the window. Maybe he'd rent a car for a few days. Freedom. It tingled under his skin. He shook his head, knowing that the dip that would surely follow this high would make his stomach roll. Later.
This time, he wasn't escorted into the building at gunpoint. Reaction to his return ranged from the genuinely warm through to poorly feigned disinterest. Their progress along the corridors was spiced with nervous muttered asides delivered between people he didn't even know. Not that he blamed them, obviously Spooky was today's water-cooler special.
Easier to walk the walk with an assistant director at his side, though. They turned the final corner to the meeting room.
Now to find out if he could talk the talk.
Skinner's secretary was waiting outside the room. She stood up as soon as they arrived, and tried to tell them everything at once. "Agent Mulder, I'm so glad... Agent Scully's in the hearing at the moment. They started early."
Mulder felt his stomach perform a brief flip. Deciding to tell the truth was one thing, but so much was dependent on the position of the observer. And what was absolutely certain was that no one in that room shared his perspective. Not even Scully.
He had absolutely no idea what Scully might have told the committee. They should have discussed it beforehand. He shifted uncomfortably, concluding that it was his own fault that they hadn't. She'd run, but he'd let her stay away and then used a few messages on her answering machine as an alternative to genuine action.
The door opened and Deputy Director Kersh strode out. If Mulder didn't know better, he'd have sworn Kersh was smiling. His expression changed as soon as he set eyes on Mulder.
Kersh looked surprised. "Agent Mulder. Are you sure you're up to this?"
"I'm pleased to be here, sir." Let him take that however he chose.
"Then we'll take your evidence next."
Skinner tried to give Mulder a reassuring nod as he walked in, but wasn't sure if he'd managed to get past Mulder's fixed-focus gaze that seemed to be aware only of Kersh's back and the open door.
Mulder held his head high as he walked across the room, and actually managed to stand up straight as he halted in front of the panel. What was the collective noun for a gathering of the FBI's high command? A couple of A.D.s, Kersh of course, and a few lesser mortals. A gabble of brass?
"Please sit." A.D. Jana Cassidy was doing the talking, Kersh was a scowling presence at the end of the table. "Firstly, I'd like to express our pleasure at your return and to wish you a full and speedy recovery."
Of course they would. He wondered exactly what they imagined he was recovering from. No matter. "Thank you."
"Agent Mulder. The purpose of today's meeting is not to pre-empt the outcome of any legal action arising from your absence. Rather it's to consider your fitness for duty and the conduct of your fellow agents."
Mulder nodded in acknowledgment.
The questioning that followed was predictable and he dutifully supplied the Cliff Notes version of his time with a collection of identical alien bounty hunters. Did the term "identical" have a meaning when it applied to morphs? It didn't matter. Strictly the facts, ma'am. He stuck to his observations and studiously avoided interpretation.
Describing his time at the clinic proved rather harder. Not because his observations sounded more fantastic, actually the difficulty came from them sounding altogether more plausible. To Mulder, as well as to the panel.
"You escaped from them?"
Had he? Had he really? He'd imagined that Krycek had broken him out. But with the benefit of hindsight and yesterday's meandering session of intuition-spiked logical analysis with Skinner, he wasn't so sure. "I had inside help."
Cassidy checked her notes. "Alex Krycek?"
Mulder nodded, his jaw tightening as he prepared himself for whatever would come next.
"And Alex Krycek prevented you from contacting the Bureau?"
Yes. No. Either? He wasn't quite sure.
Cassidy continued her line of questioning despite his silence. "You journeyed cross-country from Colorado? And at no point did you have the opportunity to reach a phone?"
"I didn't think it was safe to try."
"Because of what this Alex Krycek might do?"
No. Because of what the Consortium might do? Shouldn't that be, because of what Krycek's allies might do? "At the time I considered that it might endanger both myself and anyone I contacted."
"At the time?"
"My fears may have been overstated."
"Why not contact the local FBI office?"
Why not indeed. Panic? In honesty, it hadn't even crossed his mind. Had he slipped that far from feeling like part of them? "I wasn't sure who I could trust."
"So you trusted a man who you are on record as believing murdered a ski-lift attendant and who you accused of assaulting Assistant Director Skinner?"
Well, when they phrased it like that, it didn't sound like the smartest move. "I didn't see any alternative."
"Then you'll be willing to give evidence at Alex Krycek's trial for the abduction and unlawful imprisonment of a Federal agent."
No, he wouldn't. Even with his eyes wide open, Krycek still looked like an ally. Ugly and unappealing as the thought might be, Krycek might just be his best hope for discovering more. For now, at least.
His thoughts drifted to a time before, to a young woman shivering in his arms. He'd told Lucy Householder that she was a young girl's best hope. She'd proven him right but died in the process. He doubted that Krycek would be so obliging.
At any rate, right now, he needed Krycek. Even if Krycek did deserve some sort of payback for what he'd put him through. That wasn't important.
"Krycek didn't imprison me."
"Agent Scully said he did."
"Agent Scully wasn't there." Agent Scully was nowhere near. Krycek, however. Krycek had been up close and personal. And even if Krycek had been complicit in his imprisonment and torture, at least Krycek had bothered to look for him.
Shit. He had to be out of his mind. How the hell did he explain this new manifestation of the truth to anyone? Least of all to the gaggle watching him so intently now.
Yes, Krycek had abducted and imprisoned him, and handed him over to be tortured, but honestly it was all in the best interests of the human race. Apparently. And frankly, compared to that global perspective, what did a few scars and nightmares matter?
He almost laughed. Go directly to the psychiatric unit, do not pass go.
He looked up at the panel, noted their puzzled, condescending frowns.
Jana Cassidy shuffled the papers in front of her. "You haven't spoken with a doctor, have you?"
"Perhaps you'll see Mr. Krycek differently later."
Cassidy changed tack. "How long have you been in Washington?"
"A few days." Vague was the only escape.
"You don't know?"
"And you saw Assistant Director Skinner when?"
"And before then?"
Where were they going with this, did they know something? No point getting caught in a lie when the truth was easy. Embarrassing, though. "I saw the funeral, through binoculars." He noted the absence of a "my" in his own statement.
Oh, hell. What now? Admitting that Skinner had been in on the story even before the funeral would guarantee repercussions. Mulder might get away with claiming extreme stress as a reason for not acting like a sane, responsible, little Fibbie and reporting his whereabouts. No way could Skinner do the same. Lie. Just suck it up and lie. Did they actually know something? He gambled. "No."
"Please think carefully."
His fingers tensed against the arms of the chair. "I don't have anything to add."
"Then Agent Scully was wrong?"
"A.D. Skinner told her that you'd met him, a week ago, at your apartment. Was she wrong about that, too?"
Mulder didn't reply, just cursed his stupidity in not discussing the evidence with Scully beforehand. He could have done something, even if it had meant pursuing her to her mother's place. Had he lulled himself to sleep by pretending they could just tell the truth and live happily ever after?
Cassidy made another attempt. "Agent Scully is a medical doctor, is she not?"
For dead people. He guessed that met the criteria. "Yes."
"She wanted you to have a brain scan?"
"You don't trust your partner's judgment?"
About? He sighed, opting to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, but only some of it. "I trust her with my life."
Two minutes later and with steadily fewer answers emerging, Cassidy told him that he could go and wait outside. He accepted the instruction to use the room's other entrance without comment. Clearly even a five-second chat with Skinner was off-limits.
He probably shouldn't have been surprised when the door led him out into another hallway, and the agent waiting there directed him to the door of a much smaller interview room. Scully was already inside.
He wasn't ready for confrontation, might never be ready for confrontation with her, but it was going to be hard to avoid. They still hadn't spoken. Either there had been other people around or else they'd been hiding in one another's arms. And beautiful as that had been, when she'd walked out yesterday, at three in the morning, it had proven that a temporary hiding place was all they'd found.
He didn't bother to sit down, just leaned back quietly against the door and waited for whatever was going to happen.
She broke the silence. "What did they say?"
He ignored the question, replied with one of his own. "Did you get my messages?"
"I couldn't talk to you."
"But you could talk to them?"
Her voice was tense. "I had to talk to them."
"You really think that Skinner deserves to be hauled over the coals for respecting my wishes?"
She looked up at him, her eyes damp, her jaw set too tight. "I only told them the truth."
Her pain should have disarmed him, but all it did was make his indignation flare. "That I needed a brain scan because I'm a liar?"
"Because I was concerned for you."
"And I guess that's why you want Krycek arrested."
"And this concern is why you couldn't answer my phone calls, yesterday or today?"
"I had to do what I knew was right."
Mulder's patience was stretched paper-thin. "Oh yeah, you've got such a good track record on knowing what's right for an OPR hearing, haven't you? Like you knew not to mention them stuffing you in a tub of green slime and sticking a feeding tube down your throat in the Antarctic? Or you knew that Skinner shouldn't mention that I got taken from right in front of him? Or that you almost got caught by that same force field I did?"
She was shaking her head, eyes focused on the table as she pushed out the reply. "They wouldn't have believed. They'd have fired us both. We wouldn't have been able to keep searching."
He looked back at her in disbelief. "Right. Because searching's been so important to you? Taken up so much time? Or because you knew you were right and I wasn't worth looking for?"
Her voice faltered over ever word. "I had to carry on - for you."
In Loving Memory?
She looked up at him, the tears pooling ready to fall, her speech a series of hiccups. "I was waiting for a break. Hoping."
Waiting - was something he knew well. Hope - was something he'd maintained for twenty-odd years. Except. Except, Krycek hadn't waited and hoped, had he? He'd been there first. Mulder knew he couldn't wait any longer.
And he didn't know how Scully could, either. Couldn't she feel the time ticking away? Wasn't the heartbeat of the life inside her a constant reminder that waiting wasn't an option?
He shook his head. "You're still waiting for a miracle? The baby..." Still hoping that between men like Spender, doctors at military bases, implanted chips, aliens, and second generation blood there was still space to have a child, and not a... He refused to complete the thought.
And even in this mood, he couldn't say any of it out loud, not in some bleak little windowless room in the middle of the FBI building.
But from the look in her eyes, he was quite sure she'd felt it coming.
The breath hissed out of her lungs, and her chin betrayed her in a quiver of weakness.
Mulder choked to a halt, shocked by his own words, the ones that were spoken and the ones that weren't. In a single unsteady breath, his anger faded, and with it the energy that was holding him upright. He collapsed into the chair, facing her across the table, breathing hard. He rested his elbows on the polished wood, letting them take most of his weight. "I can't do this, Scully."
His adult existence had contained little space for a personal life beyond the professional. The two sides had been inextricably linked, never static, forever merging and separating and jockeying for position, but always entwined.
He let his hands support his head. He allowed the silence to build, waiting until Scully's breathing had returned to normal and his own pulse had stopped pounding through his ears. If he carried on along this track, he would say something impossible to forgive and too painful for either of them to hear.
She'd been through agony in the last few months. He knew that. Skinner had given him enough to understand the life she'd led. In any case, he knew Scully. He could remember her cancer, Emily, even her own abduction. All handled in basically the same way, nine parts denial to one part agony. A stoically brave face for the world and a terrified resistance to finding out more about what had hurt her.
He'd always pushed her further into the darkness than she wanted to go. It was time for him to stop pushing.
When he finally spoke, it was to a Scully who had recovered her outward poise. He swallowed hard. "I can't fight you. I don't want to. You've got things to do, Scully. And God knows." His voice was fading away. "I want to be part of your life. And the baby's.But..."
"That panel today taught me a lesson. And I should have already known it, because you've taught it to me often enough."
"It took you seven years of living with the paranormal, working with me, reviewing the evidence, seeing things - before you were ready to accept Skinner telling you that I'd been taken by a UFO." Mulder spoke so quietly now that she was straining to hear him, even though she was only a couple of feet away. "And even then, you told him to lie about it. And I still expect to walk into a room full of FBI bosses and win them over in seven minutes. I must be fucking stupid."
"It's not like that, I..."
Mulder shook his head, stopping her in her tracks. "I need a new way to fight. I can't let Cassidy or Kersh or any of them stop me from doing what's needed. And I can't let you stop me either."
"I would never try to stop you."
He looked up at her, nodding. "I know." He'd always known. It was just that he'd always imagined that he could take her with him.
Skinner actually knocked before entering the room, and Mulder could see the funny side to his discretion, their boss's respect for their privacy. He'd have to thank him some time. For everything.
Skinner stood stiffly in the doorway. "They've made their decision."
The trio walked back into the main room; the hearing was over a couple of minutes later.
Unsurprisingly, Mulder was suspended pending the outcome of the immediate criminal investigation, and of course a full physical and psychological evaluation.
Skinner would have to attend another hearing to consider whether failing to report Mulder's whereabouts was misconduct or merely a misjudgment. Meanwhile, he was suspended, as well.
Scully and Doggett were cleared of any impropriety, their assistant director's involvement effectively absolving them of all responsibility.
It was obvious to Mulder that the panel was rather more interested in such embarrassments as the Bureau cheerfully burying a missing agent, having waived such conventional processes as an autopsy, than in understanding who or what had died in his place. Certainly the greatest crime appeared to be the fact of Mulder's return and the indignity of the FBI being forced to "capture" him in its own garage.
Not the sort of thing that the Bureau wanted in the public domain.
Mulder assumed that the phrasing of their decision was intended as a warning not to discuss anything with the press.
A couple of hours later and Mulder was leaning against the living room wall, arms folded, feet pawing restlessly at the carpet. He really needed to start running, or swimming. Something. He chose to take that reaction to this latest buildup of nervous energy as a good sign.
Which was more than he could say for the way he'd again drifted off into dreamland while in mid- conversation with Skinner and Scully. Though actually, maybe it was for the best. Because the urge to fight fire with fire was threatening to destroy his intention to burn no bridges.
It was hard, though. Mulder had listened as Scully had declared her horror at his blindness, and howled down his reasoning as he claimed that Krycek was a necessary evil.
The mood had become far worse when Mulder received a phone call from Krycek and, after a couple of minutes wasted by talking in ambiguous circles, had decided to take the conversation into the privacy of the kitchen.
When he'd come back into the living room, Scully had looked truly alive. Her gaze steadier and more penetrating than he'd seen since he'd returned. It was almost a delight and certainly a relief to see that the fire had not yet died. The fact that the fire and anger were directed firmly at him seemed insignificant compared to that first breakthrough.
So he'd parked himself in this position and watched with no small pleasure as she growled menacingly at him from the couch.
After everything they'd seen from Krycek in the past. After everything Krycek had put Mulder through in the last few weeks. After everything he'd done to her, to her sister, Mulder's father, Skinner - after all that, how could he ally himself with Krycek?
How could he? Because it was the next twist in the road. To try to go back in time would be a betrayal. To stand still would mean that he'd gone through months of hell for nothing. There had to be a payoff. And if Krycek was another blind alley, then so be it. But, at least he would know, he would have tried.
She continued the assault.
How could he be so blind?
Surely he knew that he was in denial about his experiences?
Which was comical in its way, given how easily he could throw the same allegations at her.
Hadn't she gone looking for answers to her pregnancy from military doctors? Hadn't she chosen to ignore both the dates and the impossibility of coincidence before deciding that the baby's conception had been a miracle and therefore not to be questioned?
Hadn't she managed to treat not only his disappearance but her own pregnancy as a mystery incapable of scientific analysis or active investigation?
It was all too close to home.
She'd once told him that the personal was all she had.
And if the personal was too hard to investigate? Then it was time to let go.
He could do that for her now. But that was all he could do.
He would help her with the baby, when she was ready. And God knows, he hoped it was a baby. If it wasn't...
Well, if it wasn't, he would help her with that, too.
"Mulder. You're not listening."
He shook his head. "No. I'm just not answering."
She stared at him, open-mouthed, breathing hard. Her chin raised in stubborn and stunned rejection of his reply.
Skinner, who'd been mostly silent through Scully's questioning, couldn't remain quiet any longer. He rose from the seat he'd taken at Scully's side. He walked only far enough to stand behind the couch, leaning his hands on its back and looking carefully across the room at Mulder.
With Skinner on his feet, Mulder gave in to the sudden urge to stand up straight. Skinner's cheeks looked hollow as if he feared to even say the words. "So what are you going to do next?"
Mulder nodded. It was a fair question and one that he could only barely answer. He went for the literal reply. "I'm going to New York tomorrow. I'm meeting some of Marita's U.N. contacts."
Scully's features that an instant before had looked flushed and red, suddenly drained of blood.
Mulder could see her point. "I don't know if I'll work with them. But I have to know them. You're welcome to join me."
Scully's voice fizzed with tension. "And Alex Krycek?"
Would be there. And after Mulder had finished slamming him into a couple of walls, Alex would be performing the introductions. OK, Mulder admitted, there was an element of wishful thinking in that scenario, but Krycek would be doing the introductions.
Skinner cut back in quickly. "I'll come with you."
Mulder acknowledged the words with a blink. OK, so maybe Walter could do the wall slamming stuff. "Thanks."
Scully was shaky with confusion. Her hand resting on her belly, her fingers tensing until the veins rose in ridges on her knuckles. Another shiver as she drew in a cautious lungful of air. She folded her hands neatly in her lap, and Mulder held his breath to wait for the verdict.
It was not forthcoming. She stood up carefully, her face, already pale, faded to ghostly white. Skinner moved forward to offer an arm in support but she waved it away. She walked slowly, head up and shoulders back, to the bathroom, slamming the door behind her as she entered.
The sound of the shower running was the only practical concession to privacy.
Skinner looked uncertainly at Mulder. "Is she OK?"
"She won't let us do anything, even if she isn't."
Skinner shook his head, grim and with so much pleading. "It's been hell, Mulder. She's had months of nothing but pain - she's been so lonely."
Mulder shrugged, knowing that it was the truth and self-consciously aware of his own isolation and what it had done to him.
Skinner carried on talking. "When she found you - dead. It broke her. The way she cried. It... " He shivered. "And then at the funeral. God. And I couldn't tell her that you were OK, because I'd promised you."
"I'm sorry, I wasn't ready then. I shouldn't have put you through that."
"You shouldn't have put her through that."
"I know. I wish I could turn the clock back. But I can't. Not on any of it."
"She couldn't believe that it could end like that." Skinner's lips tightened on the memory. "And I can't believe you'll let it end like this."
"It's not an ending."
"You didn't see her. She broke down in my arms. In Doggett's. You can't imagine. She needed you. The baby... She wouldn't let us help her."
"You think she would have let me?" Mulder lifted his eyes to study the ceiling before locking again on Skinner's. "So many things have happened. Her abduction. Cancer. Her sister. She had a child die. And yes, she broke down in my arms." He paused, took a slow breath. "And then she picked herself up and walked away. It's how she copes."
"She's not coping now."
"Whatever she wants from me, she can have. But I'm not going to stand still and I'm not going to force her to come with me. She's always found her own way. She'll find it now."
The silence was penetrating and all-embracing. The sound of running water had stopped. Scully was hovering in the bathroom doorway. Neither man was quite sure how long she'd lingered there. They watched her now as she walked hesitantly back to the couch.
She sat down and picked up a pillow, hugging it as if it could ward off the fear as well as the cold.
Mulder kept the question as simple and open as he could. "Do you want to come to New York?"
She squeezed the pillow a little tighter.
Mulder slipped across the room to sit next to her on the couch. It was too soon for this. After all, just two days ago he'd been dead, as far as Scully was concerned. Scully didn't like to be rushed. After seven years, he knew that.
She swallowed, and he knew that she was having to force out the words. Not what she wanted to say, not what he wanted her to say. But right now, the only thing she could say. Her voice was steady, but there was an undercurrent of regret. "I'll be working. I've got things to finish."
Mulder nodded, soft-spoken and absolutely certain as he looked into her eyes. He smiled. "I can wait."
We made this!