As life departs the senses fail: vision is clouded by pain, the cold of the concrete floor is nothing, the pain in his limbs less. He thinks he hears footsteps, but they may be illusion. The taste of blood in his mouth--the taste of death--lasts a moment longer. And at the very end, the ghost of a familiar scent, gone before it can carry meaning.
He wakes to nothingness: absence of pain, absence of thought. He opens his eyes to a cold, white room. He is lying on a narrow, white bed. He cannot move. He tries to sit up, to raise himself onto one elbow, finally just to raise his head. He can imagine the actions but he cannot feel his muscles move. His heart is beating faster now, he is sweating and his mouth is dry. But the fear itself is reassurance that this must be Hell, he must be dead, free in the end from the long struggle. There is no one else in his head.
He can't keep his heart from racing but he forces his mind to relax. If this is Hell, its ruler is all-powerful within it. There will be an order, someone whose responsibility it is to know that he is awake. The torment will begin when it is time. And if no one cares and no one comes? He will lie here, paralyzed on the bed. Stillness is a luxury: he has been running his entire life. Solitude is a luxury: he is free of the Other who tried to devour him.
It may be wrong not to be terrified in Hell, but the sense of freedom is relaxing him. He counts heartbeats until his pulse returns to normal. Whatever he suffers here, he will suffer as himself. His crimes are his own; so is his punishment.
Unless the punishment will be to suffer again what he suffered in the last four months. The creeping awareness of the Other, the loss of free will, the realization that his brain was being used to control the replicants. The slow defeat by the alien planted within him. Maybe the paralysis is the first sign of this: the monster within him could fight for control of his limbs, his voice. His nerves and muscles betrayed him so often that he hoped to die.
At least he succeeded at that. Did you get extra points in Hell for being proud of suicide? Two sins for the price of one?
But the fear that the Other is still there is gnawing at him, making him tense his unresponsive muscles. He cannot feel the thing in his head any longer, but maybe that doesn't mean that it's gone. Maybe it means it's already won. He concentrates on one thing: when he woke up he could open his eyes. Now he imagines making a fist, bending his fingers, tightening the muscles in his arm. He knows what it should feel like, but not whether he feels it or not. Can he make his fingers twitch or is it just illusion?
The effort exhausts him. He is asleep before he can frame another question.
When he wakes up again he is hungry and his bladder aches. Hell is not all it's cracked up to be. But then he tries to open his eyes, and he can't. Terror at his inability to move takes hold of him and he is sorry, so sorry he thought that, because he was wrong, he can't move and oh God this is Hell. He is trapped in his body. He can't move. He feels nothing. It is the worst thing he has ever felt.
How long does he lie there? There is no time in Hell.
He only knows that he slept when he wakes up. This is different from the other times. There is someone with him. Someone is touching him; he feels the pressure on his right shoulder, the rocking as he is shaken. He doesn't want to disturb the illusion that he can feel, so he keeps his eyes closed.
"Alex," he hears. Does he know the voice? He is not sure. "Alex, open your eyes." He squeezes them tight, not wanting the fear to come again. But he feels the muscles in his face moving, and it's so real, such a surprise, that he opens his eyes in shock. He knows the face he is looking at; it is a young face, the face of a boy hiding behind his glasses. The boy looks almost as frightened as he feels. His skin is gray and his mouth is a thin line.
He didn't know that Gibson Praise was dead. He wonders why Gibson is here in Hell with him.
Gibson looks past him, as if there is someone behind him. Alex rolls his eyes but can't see anything. Then hands are lifting him into a sitting position, pushing him up. It is only when he wonders why his head isn't lolling forward that he realizes that he is holding it up on his own.
"You aren't paralyzed, Alex," Gibson says. He can see that. He holds up his hand to make a fist. He is very weak; how long has he been in Hell, anyway? "Alex, you aren't dead, and this isn't Hell."
He barely hears that. He's too busy watching his toes. He can make them wiggle. He flexes his hand again and rotates his arm. Besides, in Hell they probably don't come right out and admit that that's where you are. Who cares? Bring on the hot coals. Bring on the pools of fire and all the torments of the flesh. He can't wait for the pain to reassure him that this is his body.
"He isn't listening," the boy complains.
The other person moves from his position behind Alex. Alex is too pleased at being able to sit up to give him more than a cursory glance. He's dead now: how cautious does he really have to be? He rolls his shoulders, arches his back, twists his neck back and forth. Does he recognize the man who is now kneeling in the floor in front of him? He looks familiar. He might be someone Alex killed. That's the sort of person he expects to see in Hell.
He is an old man, with white hair and gentle eyes. He takes Alex's one hand in both of his; that catches his attention. He tugs away but the old man holds him tight. "Mr. Krycek," he says. "Please pay attention. This is not Hell. You are not dead." His gaze holds Alex's eyes as firmly as his hands are holding his wrist.
Something about the man's certainty, his calm, makes Alex pause in his denial. It isn't an expression that makes sense in Hell. He opens his mouth to ask a question but all that comes out is a croak.
Gibson takes a cup of water from the floor by the bed. The old man releases his hand so that Alex can take the cup and drink.
The water is good, because he is thirsty, but Alex hardly notices. What if the old man is right? If he isn't dead, the Other is alive as well. It will return and start to control him again. His hand is shaking so much that Gibson has to take the cup from him.
"You didn't know," the man says softly. "I wondered. I thought perhaps that was why you forced the Assistant Director to shoot you like that." He raises one hand to brush Alex's forehead. "The final bullet killed it, Mr. Krycek. You're free of the alien. You defeated it."
"But..." he begins, not sure what he is asking.
"Yes, the bullet should have killed you as well. As it was I had some trouble saving you."
"Why?" he asks. And who? Who is this man? He has seen him before; he is sure of it.
"That's kind of the bad news, Alex," Gibson says. "None of us are exactly free."
It's dizzying: free and unfree, dead and not-dead. He tries to focus on the important thing. He is free of the alien, and not dead. But why does Gibson look so sad?
"He is concerned for you, Mr. Krycek."
The man's face was familiar to Alex, yet his brain seemed so slow to identify him. This is a new worry: is he brain-damaged? How would he be able to tell?
"I assure you, Mr. Krycek, you will recover fully," the man says. It is as if by saying it he makes it true. His name, Alex knows, is Jeremiah Smith, and he is not a man at all. He also knows what Smith has been doing to him. He pushes at it with his one weak hand, catches the creature off-balance and makes it fall backwards. He grabs the empty cup and throws it at its head; the cup clatters and rolls around on the floor next to it. He would have hit it if he wasn't shaking so hard. "Get the hell out of my mind," he tries to shout, but it comes out more like a whisper.
Gibson catches at his arm. "Alex! He wasn't hurting you! He can listen but he can't control you."
Alex tries to push Gibson away as well, but the boy's grip on his arm is too strong. Smith scrambles to its feet and backs away to the door. It looks away from the two of them, still struggling on the bed. "We're out of time," it says, staring at the door as if it can see through whatever is behind it. At the words, Gibson drops Alex's arm and pushes himself up off the bed. He stands against the wall, leaving Alex alone on the bed, shaking with rage and fear.
The door opens, and he remembers the familiar smell, just before he died.
"Hello, Alex," the Smoker says.
They were wrong. This is Hell. Here's the devil to greet him.
He tries to control his shaking because he knows how much it pleases the devil to see him frightened and in pain. He is saying something and Alex tries to concentrate because in the past the things this man has told him have been important. "Aren't you going to thank me, Alex?" the man says. "I saved your life. You used to value it."
Did he? He must have, but all he can remember is wanting to die.
He can remember sitting hunched over, his gun in his mouth, unable to pull the trigger. That was in the first days, when the Other had more trouble controlling his body. The stalemate lasted for hours, until one of the replicants arrived and wrestled the gun away from him.
He tried to surprise it, stabbing himself with a knife he was cleaning; it jarred his aim enough to make him miss the major organs. The replicants stitched him up anyway and all the time the Other was a high-pitched singing in his ears. He struggled against the way it wanted him to move and the things it wanted him to say: if he was stubborn enough it might find a better host.
There is no better host, it sang, or buzzed, or whined. The sense of it communicating was like a mosquito in his ears, but flying in his skull, beating against it and crawling around on it. He ground his teeth at the feeling. The worst was when it used his brain to transmit its commands to the replicants: the whining, buzzing song resonated through his whole body until he thought his brain would burst through the bones of his skull.
It tried to soothe him, telling him that no other host would do. No one else had been possessed by the Oil creature. No one else's brain had been stretched the way his had then. He bit back the hysterical laughter.
They grew accustomed to each other. He learned how to surprise it enough to gain possession of his body, but better, he learned how to persuade it to let him do what he wanted. It learned to let him handle his own day-to-day life. Maybe it learned to persuade him as well. It promised him release, if he would bring it a new host.
The Other knew what it wanted, but not how to get it. That was up to Alex.
Of course it came down to Mulder and Scully. Didn't everything in his godforsaken life? Scully was pregnant, and the child would be a perfect host. It was more powerful than Alex would ever be and, if the Other possessed it early enough, it would never develop the independent personality that made Alex so unreliable.
He managed to hide his disgust. The Other couldn't always recognize his emotions but it knew that they were trouble. Instead he gave it the perfect trade: Mulder's life for Scully's child. It hummed with satisfaction and let him set it up.
He told Skinner to kill the fetus, instead. The Other hurt him for that, playing with his nerve endings like the keys of a piano. He spent the next week in a spiral of pain, his only respite the times when the Other needed his mind clear to transmit orders to the replicants.
He had tried, had tried so goddamned hard but when it showed him the image of its foot soldiers gathering in the town they had sent Scully to he knew it was over. The months with the Other had taught him self-control. Even if the Other left him, what kind of world would he be in? He'd be as much of a slave as any of the replicants. It was never going to be over.
He told the Other what a danger Mulder was, how Mulder would never let it control the child, that he would never rest and that he knew too much. It agreed to let him kill Mulder.
The thought filled him with a dark satisfaction. The final confrontation with Mulder was here. He promised the Other that only one of them would walk away. How could the Other know that it wouldn't be Alex?
He should have known that Mulder wouldn't cooperate. What was wrong with the other man? Mulder threw some tired accusations at him but he hardly heard a thing in his fight to control his own body. He spoke as well, some mixture of truth and nonsense. Anything to distract the thing in his brain. And all the time he was thinking, what kind of final betrayal was this? Mulder could have knocked away the gun at any moment.
The sudden pain in his arm was a relief, although it made him lose control over his body. That was fine. That would work. If he killed Mulder--kept trying to kill Mulder--they would kill him. He would be free. It was all over and he had no desire to live in whatever world the Other was making.
His only fear was that some misplaced shred of mercy would make Skinner spare his life. He had to keep trying to kill Mulder. He couldn't give them a reason for compassion. "Shoot Mulder," he hissed at the end, reached again for his gun, tried to stand. He never heard the final shot. If Skinner had only known that the cruelest thing he could have done was spare him...
But no, that cruelty is reserved for the man in front of him. Cancerman, the Smoker, Spender: who has saved him to live on in defeat.
"I'd like to thank you, Alex. You've saved my life twice now. Don't you want to know when, and how?" It isn't worth the effort to shake his head. "The first time is one you must be aware of. You sent Mulder to Oregon and got him onto the ship. He would never have done that at my urging."
He continues, but Alex is no longer listening. The Smoker is right; these are things they figured out for themselves. He and Marita returned to the apartment and found no body there. They sat together in a dark bar for hours, piecing the story together: Mulder's abduction, Scully's pregnancy, the return of the Bounty Hunter, the old man's disappearance. Then, frightened by the implication that they had played right into the old man's hands, they parted. He hasn't seen her since. He has assumed that she was in hiding somewhere. Maybe not. Maybe the Smoker has caught her too.
Now it is time to concentrate; he is tired from being dead, but makes himself pay attention. "The second time, though," the Smoker says. "This time you have my respect. I never dreamed you had this in you, Alex, to sacrifice yourself like that, set up your own death to destroy this new threat. I'm impressed. And grateful, of course. That new breed of alien represented a threat to my own agenda for Scully's child. Really," he says, "I had to save your life. It was only fair."
Fair, Alex thinks. What's fair about this? How can he be pleased by this victory--a victory he didn't even plan--when all it got him was a new master? He knows the pleased look in Spender's eye, the look he gets when he sees something he wants to own, and does.
He should have died. What good is it to be alive without his freedom? Some emotion is driving his lungs up, crowding his heart; he can't hold it in. His hand is in a fist. If he doesn't get his body back under control he is going to scream. Smith, standing beside the door, takes a step back. Gibson slumps, as if the force of Alex's anger was pushing him. Only the Smoker is unmoved, watching him.
And then Alex thinks, he won. He did win. The Other is gone. Gibson and Jeremiah Smith felt his anger but Spender, his real enemy, only knows what he can see. He has no idea, not like the Other who was so very hard to deceive. Old man, old man, he thinks, you should have let me die. Not for my sake, though. For yours.
Gibson is standing straighter now, but the Smoker cannot hear his threats. He is waiting for some other response.
Alex forces himself to smile. He is so tired that even this is difficult. But he knows that once this one thing is done Spender will leave him to rest. He will regain his strength: he still has business with the world.
"Fair," he says, knowing the old man will hear and approve of his bitterness. "What do we know about fair?"