I met God today.
Perhaps "met" is too strong a word. "Met" implies something casual and two- sided, a friendly greeting, an introduction. You know, "Hi, I'm Alex," and "Hello, I'm God."
Maybe a better word would be "encountered."
Although I'm sure it means something vastly important on the great cosmic scale, to me it was just a very bad end to a very bad day. My life in general had been sliding down the gutter for almost a year, ever since the fucked-up mental patients in Tunguska sent me home missing an arm and a good chunk of my self-esteem. I mean, if you spend most of your formative years trying to become a top-notch assassin/ruler of the free world, the last thing you need are some peasants drunk on rebellion going after you with a cleaver.
But I've survived. I've moved on. I cried my bitter tears, went home, got completely wasted and shot at some traffic signs. I sobered up. I found out I could survive without a left arm. Of course, I had previously been almost entirely left-handed, but hey, what's the big deal? That's life. You roll with the punches. I learned how to write again. One night I got drunk and crafted a makeshift prosthetic arm, which consisted of a harness and a long, rusted metal pole. It was actually quite useful - I could wander the streets freely, unafraid of the ne'er-do-wells that hid in the alleyways, waiting to beat me down. One quick thrust of my arm and they doubled over, succumbing to the sweet sweet kiss of tetanus.
I started out the day in less than the best of moods. I called in to work and asked for my daily assignment, faintly optimistic. I was hoping for something gritty and sinful to take my mind off my growing depression. Shooting at puppies, or something. Anything relatively evil would do.
Instead, however, I was informed by Cheerful Consortium Operator Debbie that my instructions were to drive the British guy around for the day. They had an 'elegant luxury sedan' waiting, which was Secret Consortium Code for 'an elderly car roughly the size of Arkansas.' I remember spluttering a lot and violently insisting there must be some mistake, and then Debbie cheerfully saying "Fuck you, asshole!" and hanging up.
Of course. I, Alex Krycek, world-class assassin, would-be ruler of the free world, would spend the day playing Jeeves to the damn British guy. I, Alex Krycek, the one-armed man, would steer an enormous car through the narrow city streets.
I should have realized then that something was just cosmically Not Right.
So. Sure. Reported to HQ, grabbed the giant car, grabbed the British guy, drove around. Nearly hit a lamppost while attempting to both change lanes and make an obscene gesture at the motorist next to me. Met up with old Ciggy and watched him and the Brit dicker over a little kid. I knew the instant we showed up that the two were going to argue cryptically for at least fifteen minutes, so I allowed myself a little time to daydream, mainly of gunning the car to the obscene speed of 55 and hurtling over the edge of a bridge into the sea. By the time the Brit won custody and tumbled the kid into the car, I had died peacefully of oxygen deprivation and was feeling rather serene.
So. Drove them to the airport. Kid turned out to be a telepath and went to great lengths to explain how my depression was merely a subset of a false self-image problem, and that once I realized my basic adequacy as a person I would be free of all inner conflict. I told him to go fuck himself and he lapsed into silence.
So. Dropped them off at the airport, and that was it. Returned the company car. Drove to my tiny apartment and ordered a pizza. It was bland and greasy and just generally unsatisfying. I spent the rest of my evening exercising my laudable assassin skills by standing on the fire escape and shooting at the rats in the alley below.
So. Life was basically a deep black hellish pit, devoid of hope and light and love, and when God decided to announce his presence by smacking me sharply on the head, I really wasn't in the mood.
One moment I was hanging off the side of the fire escape, targeting the little plague carriers and making hissing noise in my throat, and the next I was crumpled on the ground with a goose egg the size of Cleveland rising on my skull like freshly baked bread.
"Alex!" The voice was a hideous, mind-boggling mixture of Darth Vader and Nathan Lane.
My reply was an inarticulate moan and something resembling but not technically a sob.
"Alex!" the voice insisted, thumping my shoulder.
Pain sliced through me in gleaming electric bolts, and I took the opportunity to scream "Holy FUCK!" at the top of my lungs. I cradled my head gently and attempted to sit up, then decided vomiting would be an easier and more beneficial course of action.
When I had gotten most of the semi-digested pizza out of my system, a hand grabbed hold of my collar and swung me to my feet. My hand flew to my head, still clutching the gun, hovering protectively over the bump. "Who *are* you?" I managed waspishly.
A few thoughts rumbled through my abused head at that point, including "Ah" and "Perhaps I should shoot at him." Unfortunately for me, God was as much a telepath as the tyke in the car and he gave me a brisk, skull-rattling shake. The gun slid neatly out of my hand and fell to join the pizza below.
"I've had it up to here with you, Alex," the voice said. He slapped the top of my head to give me an accurate measurement.
"Fucking HELL!" I shrieked. My brain was declaring mutiny and threatening to leak right out of my ears. "What do you want?"
"What do you want?" he mocked, giving me another hearty shake. "I should ask *you* that question, Alex! What do *you* want?"
I briefly considered turning around to look at him, but my neck was threatening to follow my brain into the abyss. Instead I mumbled, "I want you to put me down."
"Tough shit." My sensibilities were mildly offended, given it was God and all. "If I'm going to go from one preposterous length to another to keep your sorry ass alive, what do plan on doing with it?"
"Wasting it on decadence and booze." I tried to make it sound lighthearted and jestful, but apparently God wasn't in the mood for my little jokes. He jerked me back and my knees struck metal with a satisfying crack. The two fresh slices of pain rendered my tongue inoperable.
"Listen to me, Alex," the voice whispered. "Listen good. I've saved your worthless hide time and time again, hoping you'd get the hint. But that skull of yours might as well be a radiation shield for all that gets in!"
He dropped me and my knees forgot how to lock. I found myself hugging the floor quite gratefully.
Something small and hard dropped onto my skull and clattered next to me. My eyes went to the right as far as they could go and just barely discerned the tip of a pencil.
"Think about it, Alex," the deep-sweet voice said. "The silo? I thought maybe you'd learned your lesson after a few days. But what do you do? You run right back to killing and destruction and mayhem. I get your arm chopped off. I think, 'Maybe this will give him pause, teach him that sinful actions have harmful consequences.' And so you go parachuting around, aiding and abetting known criminals." He inhaled deeply and let his aggression out via a swift kick to my lower back.
I reached out tentatively and grabbed the pencil. "Just to avoid any further confusion," I mumbled, "I'm also a bisexual hedonist."
God made a small sound of exasperation. "Alex, if I intervened in the lives of all the bisexual hedonists in this world, I wouldn't have time for anything else. Now listen to me!"
I tried to sound humble. "Yessir."
"You," God began, "have the potential to become a great, productive, happy member of your society, sans killing and larceny and wanton violence and destruction. I am taking a personal interest in you, which is a very big deal. Normally I'd just send you straight to Hell and forget you ever blighted my Universe."
"However, I believe in you. I believe you have the power to make changes for the better, to right your wrongs. I just think you need a little direction and some tough love."
Another kick thudded into my back for emphasis.
"As I see it, you've got inner potential, strength, and my guidance. All you need to do is haul your ass out of the gutter and utilize it!"
Something light fluttered down and landed in the dip of my neck. Muscles screaming, I reached back and picked it up.
A blank piece of paper.
"I'm sending you on a Quest," God said. "You succeed, you live. You fail, you suffer."
I propped myself up gingerly on my elbow, clutching the pencil in my hand. I snuck a glance out of my peripheral vision, but I can't even begin to describe what I saw. Whiteness and purity like gleaming stars, and those were only his teeth.
"Take this down," he ordered.
I poised the pencil above the paper, my hand unfamiliar and shaky. "Do me a favor, go slow," I rasped. "I used to be entirely left-handed."
God made a sound that suspiciously resembled a snigger.
"Yes," he said. "Rather clever of me, I thought."
TASK 1: You Make Loving Fun
I woke the next morning in my bed, relatively free of pain and half a minute from succumbing to heatstroke. I vaulted out of my bed deftly, yanking on my collar. Cool air flooded down my torso and I let a contented sigh ease its way from my lungs. I felt unseasonably good and couldn't quite place the reason why.
Hunger growled in my stomach, demanding a sacrifice of Cap'n Crunch and 2% milk. I padded over to the kitchen, noticing the cheerful way the sunlight slanted through the window.
I was halfway to the cupboard when a slip of paper on the counter caught my eye. After noticing with a certain childish delight that the kitchen was clean and all the dishes had been washed, seemingly of their own accord, I focused my attention on the paper.
"Shit," I said, my tone very mild.
The paper was in my own strangely slanted, affected writing. Rather messy, sure, but it was clear enough in its message.
"STUFF TO DO TO EARN GOD'S FAVOR" was written boldly across the top, with a smaller subtitle: "or he'll kick my ass."
That's right. My visitation with the Lord, last night. I allowed my hand to drift curiously up to my head, but the goose egg was gone and all pain was strictly of your typical garden variety.
Stuff To Do. A Quest, he had called it. Right, like Indiana Jones and all the other Spielbergian heroes. Go on a Quest, maybe save the World.
Or, in this case, your own Ass.
I counted down the list. Eight simple steps to salvation. Well, perhaps 'simple' isn't correct. 'Completely fucking ludicrous' is perhaps the more apropos term. But the most frightening line by far was the very last one.
"You have one week."
I sighed and continued on to the cupboard. One week. One week to right my wrongs, start anew, whatever. Repent.
I hauled out the Cap'n Crunch, grabbed a handful, and jammed it directly down my throat, dry. I began to choke violently and spent the next five minutes distracting myself with the prospect of death by asphyxiation. Of course, when I finally swallowed, my problem hadn't left, but I felt as though I had at least done something faintly productive.
I glanced back at the list. It stuck its metaphorical tongue out at me.
"Fuck fuck fuck," I said in a quirky, sing-song sort of way, turning the normally coarse words into a charming little ditty. I swept the paper up and stared at it again.
"TASK 1: Tell Mulder the truth about what happened to his father."
"Fuck fuck fuck," I sang again, this time with a bit of a jazzy touch. Something decidedly spider-like was inside my throat and creeping menacingly upwards toward my eyes. I swallowed hard. Now was not the time to get emotional.
"I don't want to," I said aloud, addressing the list. "I - I can't face Mulder with that kind of information."
"Too fucking bad," the list said, metaphorically.
And that, indeed, was that. When inanimate objects fling obscenities at you, you know you've scraped the bottom of the barrel.
From birth to about 16, I was considered a 'good' child. This wasn't surprising. My community had a fairly relaxed view of things, so as long as you didn't commit arson or incest you were pretty much guaranteed a standing of 'good child.' "Every kid takes a little heroin now and then," was the community's feeling, "but so long as our family trees remain properly forked, why complain?"
When I was twelve I committed my first petty theft. It was no random, spur of the moment affair - no no. At twelve I was already intelligent enough to know that the key to success is planning - being one step ahead of the game - knowing the rules better than the rulemakers. My first theft was a Hershey bar, and I plotted and planned for weeks before even setting foot in the store. Watching, waiting, taking notes. Tracking employee schedules, seeing who was attentive, who was lazy. My friends thought I was an idiot and started avoiding me on the streets, but my day came. Oh, did it come.
My first trip was pure success - I shared the fruits of my efforts with my friends, who ate all the chocolate and promptly went back to shunning me. I stayed up all that night in the dark grip of depression, my soul tormented and grieved.
The next day I went back to the store and casually walked out with a bottle of tequila, and my problems from there on were pretty much solved. Aside from achieving overnight popularity, I had also learned an important life lesson. Once you knew how to walk the walk, you really could get away with murder.
That first brush with crime was the foundation on which I built my career. Plan carefully, and everything will work out. Know everything, so you'll never be surprised. Don't ask questions unless you already know the answers - I actually stole that one from a John Grisham novel, but the guy knows his shit, all right?
So when I found myself on the sidewalk in front of Mulder's apartment building, leather-bejacketed, one sleeve breezing languidly back and forth in the wind, I realized with a flush of panic that I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do or say. The truth, of course - I was going to tell him the truth, which was going to be painful enough in its own right - but how could I make him believe me?
'Tell Mulder the truth about what happened to his father.' God had dealt me a cruel and cutting blow with this first task, and I had no doubt that it was intentional.
A whisper of an idea blew seductively on the back of my neck. I slapped at it. It blew harder.
Somewhat numbly, I unlocked my car door and opened my glove compartment. Among the tapes, dead spiders, and random ammunition clips was a small, thick packet of papers. I drew it out and unfolded it, slowly, my breath caught in my throat with something akin to reverence. Which was amusing, I guess, since when had I ever had reverence for the dead?
The folds creaked open, sighing with age, and a faint, mystic scent floated into the air - brandy, cigarette smoke, mildew. I inhaled deeply, savoring it.
It had been a long time since I had allowed myself this memory.
The Task List, as I had come to call it, metaphorically shouted "TICK TICK TICK!" from my pocket. Of course. Time was sliding irrevocably into the past. Now was not the time to dwell and second guess. It was time to leap, boldly, into the very forefront of my problems and resolve them with my sweeping (and of course mandatory) regret.
Unfortunately, I had a feeling that Mulder was more the type to dwell and second-guess.
I took the elevator up to his floor and walked down the ever-familiar hallway. The letters had joined the Task List in my pocket, and except for the List's occasional muffled whines, the building was silent.
The floorboards directly in front of his door creaked ominously under my weight, and I curled my hand into a fist. The peephole stared at me like an unblinking eye, and I could just imagine Mulder pressed up against the door, watching. Salivating.
The boy really does like to knock me around.
I rapped twice on the door. The dark eye contemplated me with cunning, and I tried to look grave, hoping that some sort of shining, luminescent Kiss of God would appear on my forehead and dissuade Mulder from shooting me on sight.
There were muffled thumps from within. I heard all the familiar, tell-tale sounds - shuffling feet on the floor, a gun yanked from its holster, and of course the upsetting, meaty crack of a forehead against wood as Mulder attempted to squint through the peephole. Then silence. Dangerous silence.
"Mulder?" I called, tentatively.
Then there was the sudden thud of a decent-sized human body crashing against the door in utter, utter exhaustion.
"What the fuck do you want, Krycek?" he groaned.
It was a reasonable question. What the fuck did I want? I wanted to be back home, shooting wildly at innocent people in the almighty name of Evil. I wanted to be over at Consortium HQ, drinking imported beer and snacking on their limitless supply of fattening hors d'oeuvres. I wanted to be on a fucking cruise ship with Kathie Lee Gifford in the middle of fucking Antarctica, or back in Russia suffering more minor amputations at the hands of homophobic peasants, or anywhere, anywhere but here, telling Mulder the truth about his father's death.
"I have to talk to you."
"About your father."
The door swung open and caught me smack in the nose. The sudden darkness of the room swirled black and violet and a hand shot out, grabbing me by the collar and yanking me forward.
The door slammed shut. There was something suspiciously cold and metallic pressed against my forehead.
"All I ask is that you hear me out. Okay?" My voice had an ugly, embarrassing squeak in it, which I could only hope lent me some sort of credibility.
Mulder gripped my shoulder and spun me around. I jumped when I saw him - it was a rude gesture, but I couldn't help it. He looked like hell. Random chunks of hair jutted like icicles out of his skull, and his rumpled clothes were matted and stained with God-knows-what. Under different circumstances, I would've liked to sit down with him, give him some styling tips, maybe experiment with a few competing brands of laundry detergent, but now was not the time.
Bill Mulder had some whispered secrets that only I could tell.
"So you've come back to gloat?" Mulder's voice rasped with hate. "To see if you can get me to believe your little lies?"
"No - " I tried, but he ground the gun even deeper into my forehead.
"You *murdered* my father, Krycek!" His voice rose to a shout. "You *murdered* him and you think you can prance back like it was no fucking matter?"
There was a succession of loud thumping sounds above our heads. "We don't care who the fuck killed your father, KEEP IT GODDAMN DOWN!" someone shouted.
This deterred Mulder not an iota. In fact, it seemed to make him even more angry, as though his history of verbal excess could somehow be traced back to me. He couldn't grind the gun any deeper into my flesh, so instead he elected to poke me with it, harsh little jabs that penetrated my skull and began to build themselves into a most spectacular headache. "WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO SAY FOR YOURSELF?" he bellowed.
"I didn't kill him." My voice was trembling now. Actual-goddamned-trembling. Hysteria was playing me like a poorly tuned piano, and she was a bad-assed harpy who liked to bang on the keys.
Mulder fell silent, staring at me with a suspicion that would've done Ken Starr proud. He eased up the tiniest bit on the gun, more for his wrist's sake than my skull.
"Then why are you here?" he asked after a moment, his voice just a few octaves shy of Satan. "Why are you pleading innocent to a crime that I know you committed?"
Something happened just then. I would like to say I calmly proceeded to explain the truth of the matter to Mulder, and that he nodded, gave me a fraternal and entirely heterosexual hug, and escorted me politely to my car, no worse for the wear. Unfortunately I would be lying, and I'm sure that lying would just get me into even more trouble, so, what really happened was this:
The Task List, crowded and unhappy in my pocket, decided to hurry things along by biting me directly in the upper thigh. Given that its teeth were completely metaphorical, I may have overreacted, but the pain stabbed through me - I jumped a little - and then, completely inexplicably, I started to bawl.
Yes, bawl. Crying wasn't good enough for practiced professional Alex Krycek. The little lump that had been resting oh-so-peacefully in my throat decided that if ever there was a good time to express long-suppressed grief, by God, that time was now.
Mulder forgot about his gun entirely. He stared at me with almost childlike amazement as I hunched over, gibbering pathetically, trying to decide whether to remain standing with some dignity or simply collapse to the ground in a sniveling heap.
"What the fuck is your deal, Krycek?" he asked, marveling.
Something in me snapped. Maybe it was the violent wriggling of the Task List - maybe some sort of axon-terminal-nerve-type-thing popped in my brain - maybe it was just my natural inclination to cut through the bullshit and get to the point. Whatever it was, it made my decision clear. I stood up as straight as I could, scrubbed violently at my eyes, and hollered right into Mulder's face.
"I didn't kill your father! I WAS IN LOVE WITH YOUR FATHER!"
Silence. Crickets chirped. Mulder stared at me with blank, unfixed eyes, his gun dangling from an unthinking hand. His jaw drooped at a messy angle. The little computer behind his eyes experienced a total system shutdown.
The person upstairs thumped on the ceiling again. "When I said SHUT THE FUCK UP," he yelled, "I meant both you AND YOUR QUEER-BOY FRIEND!"
I took a deep breath, calmly reached over and took the gun from Mulder's hand, and shot into the ceiling five times.
Silence. Mulder didn't seem to have noticed anything. His brain appeared to be rebooting, and, given the lengthy wait time, I could only assume it was running a shoddy Microsoft product.
I stuffed the gun into my back pocket. Finally something glimmered in his eyes, dark and faint and slightly upsetting. I was glad I was the only one armed. "You weren't in love with my father," he said, his voice low.
I ducked my head, rubbed at my nose. "Yeah, I was."
That set him back a good fifteen seconds. "But," he said finally, "my father wasn't in love with you."
My head was still ducked. Slowly, very slowly, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the letters.
Mulder took them from me. I didn't look at him.
"Oh my God," he whispered.
Tears began to leak from my eyes again. That scent was floating on the air once more - ancient cigarettes, ancient whiskey, the hint of the moldering beach house, eaten away by time. Bill Mulder had penned those letters over six short months, each a treatise of the heart and soul, each a declaration of the deepest affection and love. For six short months he had been my sole bright light in a world of darkness, my sole comfort in a world gone mad. I loved him. More than life itself, I loved him.
"Gaahh!" Mulder suddenly dropped the entire packet of letters to the floor, backing away in horror. Of course, Bill was also something of an old lech, and most of his letters contained passages of such lewdness that even I got creeped out. Mulder raised his arm and blew my head clean off my shoulders before realizing that he no longer had his gun.
"I don't know what kind of sick game you're playing, Krycek," he said, artfully disguising his mistake by leveling a finger at me, "but I'm not falling for it. I'm not going to let you tarnish the name of my father just so you can allow yourself some twisted justification!"
"But it's *true*!" I snatched up the nearest paper and shoved it at him. He cringed and drew back. "It's *his handwriting.* You know it is. It's his words! It's the truth!"
"My father was NOT a homosexual!" Mulder sputtered.
I gritted my teeth. "Well, he was when I was around!"
I easily ducked Mulder's first messy punch and shoved him to the floor. I had to pin him down by sitting on him, but I can safely say that I got very little sexual gratification out of it.
"Look, Mulder," I said, looking straight into his snarling face, "I'm not doing this because I want to fuck up your life any more than I already have. I'm trying to make a clean break of it, and you needed to know the truth."
Mulder writhed. His brain was obviously having problems upgrading to GayFather for Windows 3.1, but I didn't mind having to wait. Especially if he continued to writhe.
After a moment, something crafty stole over his face, a shadow. "Let us say, hypothetically, that you're telling me the truth," he began.
"Okay." I could see where this was going and I didn't like it.
"You - " he swallowed " - loved my father. And he, his mind terribly warped by years of alcoholism, sort of..."
"Reciprocated," I prompted.
He nodded heartily, glad to find a word that mentioned neither love nor anal sex. "He reciprocated the...sentiment. Then," Mulder's voice shook a little, "who actually killed him?"
God. This was a moment of reckoning if I had ever had one. I closed my eyes briefly, seeing the picture in my mind that haunted me to this day. Bill Mulder's body sprawled before me on the bathroom floor, his blood staining my hands, his assassin blinking at me in the reflection of the mirror. Smiling.
"Truth?" I asked.
"Hypothetically speaking." He held his breath.
I let mine out. "Brian Pendrell."
His entire body bucked violently under mine, nearly throwing me off. Fortunately, I had strong thighs. "What the FUCK kind of MADNESS IS THIS?" Mulder yelled. "You're lying. You're lying! Hypothetically speaking, what the FUCK do you mean, 'Brian Pendrell'!"
"He was my ex." The words were tight in my throat. "We went out for a year, and I dumped him for your dad. He was kind of upset."
Mulder's expression failed to relax reassuringly. "Brian Pendrell was *not* your 'ex'!" he hissed. "You lying sack of shit! You don't know a goddamn thing about him!"
I snorted, despite myself. "Oh, yes I do."
Mulder's eyes narrowed, that crafty look reappearing just below the surface. "If so," he said quietly, "then what was his first name?"
I stared at him in disbelief, but he was completely serious. "BRIAN!" I yelled.
His face fell. Obviously, something had been lost in the translation. "That doesn't prove anything," he muttered.
Frustration and grief suddenly boiled to explosion in my head. "You want proof?" I clenched my thighs around Mulder's midsection to prevent any further insubordination and dug around in my pocket. I fished out a crumpled business card and dropped it on his chest. "There's his home address. Go ask him yourself."
Mulder poked at it briefly but didn't look at it. Those slitty eyes were trying to shred me, metaphorically speaking.
"Pendrell's dead," he whispered.
I stared at him for a minute, something like panic flickering down my spine. "Since when?"
"Almost two years." Mulder's voice was hushed.
I snorted again. "I just saw him two weeks ago. He stalks me every time I go to the supermarket."
Mulder blinked at me. Little gears were grinding behind his eyes, and from the looks of it, they were grinding hard. His body suddenly tensed beneath mine, and quietly, deliberately, he picked up the card and put it in his pocket.
"I don't know if you're lying or telling the truth, but I'm going to find out." His eyes were flinty. "Don't get in my way. Don't come anywhere near me. Just get the hell out of my life for good."
I stared seriously back at him, as if I were giving the matter thorough deliberation. Frankly, I was just glad he was giving in so readily. It would be the first time in a long time that I'd walk away without some sort of crippling, Mulder-inflicted injury, and at this point I was welcoming any change I could get.
"All right." My voice was dull and raspy, just how I liked it.
I yanked the gun out of my pocket and staggered to my feet. I made a little gesture to the letters on the floor. "I'd pick those up, but..." I let my empty sleeve sway a little for effect. "Um, enjoy them."
Mulder bared his teeth at me and I strode quickly to the door. I turned back just as I passed the doorframe, trying to think of something pithy and appropriate to say as a goodbye.
About thirty seconds passed and nothing came to me, so I just muttered "Bye" and left.
I jogged to my car and drove a few blocks away, out of gunshot range. The List was wiggling and squirming in my pocket, and when I finally parked next to the curb and yanked it out, it growled and hissed and danced about in fury for a good half a minute.
"God is very displeased!" it shrieked, waving its tiny metaphorical fists angrily. "You completed your first task, but you KILLED A MAN while doing so!"
Inwardly, I couldn't help but be proud of my accuracy, but I made myself look concerned. "Bigotry is an ugly, ugly problem in this world, and I deal with it the only way I know how."
The List threw itself flat on the passenger's seat. "Have you never thought of involving yourself in local politics?" it seethed.
"Anyway, there's nowhere on..." I swallowed "...you...that says I have to stop killing, or even stop any violence whatsoever. Perhaps you should have thought of that in advance. I finished my first task, and that's all that matters."
The List flipped itself over. Emblazoned across the line where the first task had been was the new phrase: "TASK 1: Refrain From Killing Or Any Violence Whatsoever."
My jaw tightened. "Extremely humorous, but that isn't allowed. You can't just make this up as you go along."
The List smirked. "On behalf of God: Bite me, mortal."
TASK 2: Sweet Girl
I've always hated the snotty sense of superiority some people can get, just because they're God.
Despite my misgivings towards the legitimacy of the revised first task, I agreed to avoid any killing, mutilation, or general mayhem for the duration of my Quest. I tried crossing my fingers behind my back but it didn't work - the List gave me several ill-tempered paper cuts until I vowed it honestly.
Well, as honestly as I could, being Alex Krycek and all.
The counterfeit first task disappeared and I focused on the second one. The Task List permitted me to pick it up, so that I might seethe at it more efficiently.
"TASK 2: Tell Scully about your involvement with her sister's death."
A moment of silence passed.
"You're not happy, are you," the List observed.
I attempted to crumple it into a small paper ball, but it turned out to be annoyingly resilient.
Instead, I shoved it into my glove box, turned on the radio to drown out its screams, and tried to figure out what the hell I was going to do. I put my car into drive and started wandering aimlessly through the streets, trying to jump-start my brilliant strategic mind into action.
After about half an hour, I could only conclude that I must've left my brilliant strategic mind back on Mulder's floor.
The next best option was complete and total panic, so I did that for about an hour. I drove around looking for potential bridges to hurl myself from, or, even better, an office building with a large plate-glass window to smash spectacularly through. I found neither, however, so I took some deep breaths and tried to think again.
My involvement with Melissa's death. Very simple. I was supposed to meet up with Luis Cardinal, kill Scully, and then maybe go out for some beers or something. We hadn't really decided - we figured we'd just wait and see what we were in the mood for after we were done killing Scully. Unfortunately, due to Luis' stupidity and my naive faith, he shot Melissa Scully instead. Whoops, damn, there went any plans for beers or pizza. We ran like fools, I thoughtfully let him take the fall, and the Consortium decided that it was just another sign that proved decisive action should be avoided at all costs. Eventually Scully found Luis, shot him, and we all went home happy.
End of story.
Scully never knew I was in the room at the time of her sister's death, and why should she? I didn't kill anyone. I just stood there and mentally criticized her choice in wallpaper. Luis was the killer - I merely observed. If God was going to insist there were two sinners in that room, I would concur - Luis, and the wallpaper. Me? I was as pure as driven snow.
So why the fuck couldn't we just let sleeping dogs lie?
I half-wished that I could express these views to the Task List, which was murmuring quite piteously over the sounds of "Woolly Bully," but I decided against it. It would simply argue and disagree and ridicule me until I was enraged, and then it would smirk. I'd attempt to kill it, God would accuse me of going back on my vow, and I'd end up shoveling coal into the furnaces of Hell.
Of course, confronting Scully would very likely end the same way.
Although I was always wary of facing Mulder because I knew he'd beat the crap out of me, I was also pretty sure that he would never kill me. I was the little catnip mouse of his life, metaphorically speaking - every time he got near me he'd go a little crazy, clawing and hissing and loving every minute of it. While it wasn't the healthiest relationship around, it was at least predictable.
Scully, on the other hand, would probably shoot me on sight. I'm not sure why, exactly - I mean, so I betrayed Mulder, stranded him in Tunguska, and did everything within my power to make sure he remained an utter failure in all aspects of life. HE didn't seem to be all that overtly upset. Why should she?
Well, never mind that now. Given my superlative efforts in completing the first task, I allowed myself a little breather in which to have some lunch and plot my next strategy. I was in a completely unfamiliar area of town, but after a search I found a slummy little place labeled "RESTAURANT." Brevity being the soul of wit, or something, I decided it was a good omen.
"RESTAURANT" turned out to be fairly remarkable. Not in the sense that the food was any good, because it wasn't. It was remarkable because when I walked in, I found a thin, owlish little man laying on top of a scaffold, painting a large mural on the ceiling. This wouldn't be altogether too noteworthy, except for the fact that the mural's basic theme was: here are some clouds, and here are some nude men frolicking among them.
Now, I wasn't complaining. At all. These nude men were of your typical Greek god variety - finely built, well-muscled, erections the size of bowling pins, etc. The thin little man was painting one such man feverishly, obsessively, crafting the chiseled face, the smooth abdomen. After a few moments I recognized that he was actually just trying to get the top half out of the way so he could focus lovingly on the bottom, and a little wave of unease scurried down my spine. Sex and lunch weren't usually things I liked to mix. Not in public, anyway.
Someone grunted to my left. I turned to see a swarthy man in a ridiculous little chef's hat wave a spatula at me. "Order or get out," he rumbled.
I was about to tell him which orifice his spatula might be most comfortable in when a prissy little "Tsk tsk!" showered over the two of us. The thin little man, his artistic fervor temporarily halted, was glaring at the swarthy man over his spectacles.
"Politeness," he enunciated clearly, "is the key to good business."
The swarthy man looked back at me, his spatula faintly trembling.
"Welcome to Restaurant," he said. "Please order. Or get out."
I snuck a quick glance at the thin little man, but he had retreated back into his trance. The swarthy man permitted himself a small smirk at my expense.
I looked up at the small cardboard sign above the counter, featuring what appeared to be Polaroids of the dishes of the day. Nothing looked even remotely recognizable - the artistic genius for nude human bodies didn't translate well into food, apparently.
"I'll have the #6," I said finally, dropping a five onto the counter. The picture appeared to be some sort of bread with a darkish substance inside, presumably meat.
The man didn't move an inch. "Take a number," he said.
The restaurant was completely empty save for the three of us, and the paper tab jutting from the dispenser was a proud #1. The idea of taking a number was not only completely ludicrous, but it was an obvious test - his annoying little method of revenge. Rage bubbled through me, and I suddenly found myself wishing that I could follow my instincts and shoot him between the eyes.
I took the number. If I was going to go to Hell, it might as well be for something more gratifying.
I took a seat at a corner table and tried not to stare too obviously. The thin little man had successfully completed the top half and was now painting the man's penis with obvious relish. I tried to focus my thoughts on the next task, but it was hard. Forgive my choice of words.
Scully. My best option, at this point, was to simply show up at her apartment as I had Mulder's. If she wasn't there, I'd wait for her to show up. If she was, I'd burst into tears again and pray that her maternal instincts would kick in faster than her reflexes.
"Number 1." The swarthy man peered around the empty restaurant, as if he expected a throng of slavering customers to accost him. "Number 1, your order is ready."
I went to retrieve my tray. The Polaroid hadn't been lying. Even on the tray, I had no idea what the hell it was - bread of some sort, and some darkish filling that looked extremely suspicious.
The swarthy man looked like he wanted to hit me with his spatula. "Enjoy it," he said.
He disappeared into the kitchen and I sat back down. The thin little man was doing the requisite legs and feet, but his heart had obviously gone out of it. I turned my attention back to the food, which had no obvious signs of spittle on it. I wasn't relieved.
By the time I managed the courage to fork some of it into my mouth, the thin little man had completed his task and descended down to take a little break. He smiled pleasantly at me as I took my first bite, watching my reaction. I managed not to retch audibly.
"How is it?" he asked.
I swallowed, letting my stomach deal with it. "Hideous. Someone should ashamed."
He recoiled visibly, his hands clutching at his chest. "Are you quite certain?"
I pushed the tray to the edge of the table, fighting an overwhelming wave of nausea. "You're welcome to see for yourself."
He eyed the food over his tiny spectacles, as if it might attack. Delicately, he pulled a clean paintbrush out of his pocket, dabbed it on the unidentifiable substance, and tasted it.
His thin little body suddenly began to convulse wildly, his mouth opening in a silent, tortured scream. I was beginning to get the impression that something was a little bit odd about the whole situation.
A thin, reedy sound emerged from his throat. He staggered backwards, clawing at the air, fighting for balance. I stood abruptly, more from the desire to get the hell out of there than to help.
Finally, he found his words. "Roscoe!" he screamed, a soprano sound two decibels away from shattering glass. He lurched back another few steps, steadfastly avoiding any semblance of calm. "ROSCOE!"
For a moment, I felt a brief, flickering sympathy for the swarthy man, which was quickly replaced by a surge of warm triumph. Typically, the great wheel that is karma never approaches me - those who get in my way tend to be dead or incarcerated before the wheel has a chance to exact revenge. I had no doubt that the upcoming Castration Of Roscoe was God's way of extolling the benefits of nonviolence, but I also had to applaud his method. This was very cool. There's something to be said for having Fate on your side - timely gratification, for one.
The thin little man was still moving tirelessly backward, his lean little face turning an ugly shade of purple. The swarthy man peered briefly out of the kitchen, slaughtered me with his eyes, and ducked back inside.
I laughed. It felt good - strong and loud and amazingly free of cynicism. Suddenly, going to Scully's and telling her about my involvement with her sister's death didn't seem all that difficult a task. Fate was kind. So was God, when you were on his good side.
I laughed again, just for the hell of it. "Thank you," I told the man. He gaped soundlessly at me for a moment before staggering backward into the kitchen, out of sight.
I left my meal for the rats and jogged out to my car, a peculiar lightness in my step. Perhaps I was getting overly cocky - after ten minutes in Restaurant, I was bound to be highly susceptible to mood swings. I greeted the Task List pleasantly, although I wasn't stupid enough to let it out - I listened to its muffled thumps and screams and nodded politely. The day was young. The sky was blue. Dana Scully and the world were mine for the taking.
Life was maybe actually somewhat good, for once.
By the time I figured out where the hell I was in relation to Scully's house, it was almost dusk.
I drove onwards, slightly subdued - a couple of hours wandering in a blissful daze, completely and totally lost, had taken most of the spark out of me. Suspicion and nagging doubt had entered my mind right on schedule about twenty minutes ago, and they were damn persuasive. What if Mulder had called her about our little get-together? Somewhat unlikely, since he rarely thinks before he acts. What if she really did shoot first and ask question later? Well, I supposedly had the divine intervention of God on my side - whatever that was worth. A wrathful Dana Scully was a creature like no other.
And her taste in decor could drive a seeing man insane.
The drive to her house was a little over an hour long, and between the tortured moaning of the List and the upsetting abundance of Paul Anka songs on the radio, I was growing irritable. When I finally reached her house I didn't bother to sit in my car and make some perfunctory plan - I just got out, knocked on her door, and waited for the Apocalypse.
Dana Scully was not one to disappoint.
There was a cool, gentle, cricket-infested silence for all of 30 seconds. The little hairs on the back of my neck began to prickle again, as if they knew full well what was coming. I rubbed at them idly, trying to appear relaxed and unthreatening.
The door exploded open and I took an involuntary step back. Scully stood doorway, motionless, staring at me. She was illuminated starkly, her gun raised, her eyes alight with dull blue fire. Unlike Mulder, she looked fantastic. I wanted to applaud.
She bounded forward and attempted to jam her gun up my right nostril.
"If now's not a good time, I can come back later." My voice, while slightly nasal, sounded pleasingly assertive.
"No." Her voice was husky and violent. "No, now's not a good time. What the fuck are you doing here, Krycek?"
Her unwavering grip on the gun was making me nervous. "I, ah, needed to tell you something. Some information." Her expression didn't change. "Um, maybe you've heard from Mulder? About what's going on?"
She snorted, briefly. I felt a warm rush of affection for her just then, inexplicable but solid. Yes, her and I both knew the idea of Mulder calling her with important information was entirely out of character. It was something only we would know - a kinship we shared, of sorts. Perhaps someday, when her utter hatred of me faded, we would look back on this scene. We'd laugh, fast friends, sipping designer coffees. Someday.
Presently, her utter hatred of me definitely had the upper hand. "Since Mulder has failed to tell me the important news, why don't you go ahead?" Her voice dripped like melting ice. "It's no doubt of the utmost concern and drama. Let me guess - imminent colonization of the Earth by aliens? Even more deranged alien/human hybrids?"
I went for broke - I always have been a suicidal bastard. "It's about Melissa."
Let me tell you something. Scully has a very pale complexion, which is pretty typical, from my experience. You get red hair, you get pale skin - it's a two for one deal, and everyone walks away happy. Well, her expression didn't change - her hand never wavered - but the color of her skin slid directly from pale to brutal white.
Perhaps the subject was still a bit more sensitive than I had assumed.
A breath rasped out of her throat, a hurricane wind. "You're pushing all the wrong buttons here, Krycek. You're - " She set her jaw. "Put your hands behind your head."
I glanced at my empty sleeve for a moment. She rolled her eyes. "Don't quibble over semantics. Do it!"
I shrugged and put my hand on the back of my head. She frisked me, making sure that her gun remained firmly jammed into my nasal passage. Which was too bad, because otherwise I would've enjoyed it more.
I had left Mulder's gun back in my car, so after a thorough check Scully grabbed my wrist, twisted it spitefully, and pushed me into her house. As soon as I walked inside I saw that her wallpaper was still alive and well, and a little involuntary shudder whispered through me.
The pressure of the gun relented briefly, but I knew it was too good to be true. Scully swept up a pair of handcuffs from a nearby table and clicked them around my wrist. I would've been mildly annoyed if my attention hadn't been suddenly distracted.
"What the hell IS that?" I asked, staring at the aforementioned nearby table. It looked like a combination end table and umbrella holder, which was eccentric enough in its own right, but attached to the back of it was a large, roughly carved wooden crucifix. Jesus was predictably splayed across it, and he looked none-too-happy. He probably didn't like the idea of an end table/umbrella holder either.
Scully was holding the empty cuff, looking a bit lost. She glanced at the table. "My mother gave it to me. To make sure I didn't forget my faith or have wet umbrellas laying all over the place."
She looked again at the empty cuff, again at the table, and in a sudden decisive motion attached the cuff diagonally across the crucifix.
"Uh..." I was momentarily at a loss for words. "Scully, I really don't think I can handle this much symbolism so late in the evening."
"Fuck you." She sounded tired. "If you're going to try and escape, you'll have to take the damn thing with you. That way we both win."
I guess it was nice of her to even contemplate letting me win. She kept the gun trained on me. "Now. You are going to tell me exactly what you mean. You are going to start from the beginning, and if you lie..." The look in her eye more than emphasized her meaning.
I started from the beginning. "Yesterday, I had a visitation from God."
Her swift backhand alerted me to the fact that I had said something wrong. "Don't screw around with me," she growled, poking the gun against my chest. "I have had a very bad day. I have had a very bad year. In fact, the last five years of my life have tended to be exceptionally bad, and a lot of it has been due to you." I felt that was a tad harsh. "Now tell me the truth. Or make me angry. Whichever you prefer."
I took a deep breath. "Yesterday, I had a visitation from God."
Mistake. I should've known better, really. Karma is a never-ending wheel, and it doesn't play favorites for very long.
Scully leaned in close to me, soft and glowing in the lamplight. "All right," she said quietly. "If that's how it is."
That's when I belatedly remembered the Number One Rule when dealing with an irate Dana Scully - always wear a protective cup.
When God was trying to put the fear of, well, God, into me, he at least had the tact to avoid kicking me directly in the crotch. Dana Scully, on the other hand, seemed to be firmly entrenched in a state of religious apathy, as evidenced by her swift and calculated blow directly to my testicles.
I experienced what could mildly be described as an "explosion" of pain. That's really not an accurate description, unless you wanted to try to work the concept of "nuclear" in there somewhere. My legs turned to jelly and I fell to my knees, gasping for breath, my wrist pulling the crucifix over at a dangerous angle. Very suddenly the roasting flames of Hell weren't looking like such a bad alternative.
Scully stood above me, gun poised, a fallen angel in sharp business attire. "Tell me now!" she shouted.
Red dots were flickering in front of my eyes and my body couldn't produce the endorphins fast enough. I pulled my legs together, closed my eyes, and started to gibber. "I was here with Luis Cardinal when he killed your sister. It was a complete accident. He was supposed to kill you, but he was a fool and he mistook Melissa for you. I'm sorry it had to happen. Really. Really."
There was that deceptive silence again, full of crickets and my own heavy breathing. I decided to live dangerously and let one eye creak open.
"You..." She was barely audible. Rage and confusion were fighting for control of her face. Rage appeared to be winning. "You were going to kill me?"
"Yeah." I bit my lip and drew myself up into a pained crouch. "I mean, believe me, it wasn't anything personal. You were just some stupid random woman we were supposed to knock off."
Even I could agree that I deserved the kick she levered into my stomach. "Misogynistic pig!" she spat.
I attempted to raise my arm in a casual display of negation, but it didn't work. "Whoa!" I negated aloud, instead. "I never once said I hated women. I love women! I just sometimes have to kill them because I'm a professional assassin!"
She did something highly erratic then. Moreso than her unseemly kick of a few moments previous, if you can believe it. She knelt down to my level, all slowness and sleek deception, and touched my chin gently. From out of my haze I could hear all my internal warning sirens begin to wail, but there wasn't much I could do. She drew my face in close to hers, her fingertips gentle, and shoved fully three-fourths of her gun down my throat.
"You seem to think I won't kill you, Krycek." Her eyes danced, pain and fury in a crazed tango. "I will. I would've killed you before you told me any of this, and now all you've done is absolve me of any guilt. Response?"
The metal was cold and bitter and tasted strangely of certain death. I squeaked.
Tears were beginning to form in the corners of her eyes. It wasn't a good sign. "You've ruined my life," she whispered. "You've ruined Mulder's life. You've destroyed so much, and I don't even know half of what you've really done. You're a bastard without a conscience and you have the gall to say it was all in a day's work."
I tried to squeak a little in my defense, but she wasn't listening. "Really. Why should I let you live? What possible redemption could you have?"
The phone rang.
God, I could only hope that was some sort of omen.
Scully froze as her answering machine clicked on. After the requisite beep, Mulder's voice fluttered wildly into the air. "Scully?"
She looked at me, her eyes narrowing. Mulder's voice sounded panicky. "Scully, it's me. Um, there's been a lot of crazy stuff going on, and I need your help. Krycek was here, and he told me something incredible, but then he ran off with my gun, and that's the fourth one I've lost in the past six months, and it's all just a big mess and I'm going to try your cellphone."
He hung up. Scully and I stared at each other, equally amazed. She pulled the gun slowly out of my mouth, wiping it off a little distastefully on my jacket.
I swallowed gingerly, wishing I could pat protectively at my throat. "I - " My voice croaked. "I actually got him to call you for once."
Her cellphone shrilled and almost instinctively she pulled it out of her pocket. She didn't take her eyes off me.
"Fortunately for you," she said, and hope crept quietly back into my mind, "very fortunately, I love him more than I hate you." A whole host of questions stormed into my throat at that but I swallowed them. She stood up. "I'm going to answer this. I'm going to hear what he has to say. And when I hang up, you will be gone from this room."
I panicked briefly before I realized she meant to let me escape. I stood on rubbery legs, letting the crucifix rock back into place. She pressed the answer button on her phone but didn't lift it to her ear.
"Get out of my life for good, Krycek," she whispered. "And take the damn table with you."
She turned her back on me and spoke into the phone. Relief washed through me right alongside the steady stream of endorphins, and I inhaled deeply, thankfully. I wrapped my arm around the crucifix as best I could and hauled it upward, lugging it towards the door.
I was almost outside when that feeling hit me again, of something unfinished, incomplete. I hadn't found the words for it at Mulder's house, but I suddenly knew what they were now.
I turned back. Scully's head was bent as she listened patiently, an incomprehensible mixture of sorrow and strength.
"I'm sorry," I said.
She looked at me, nodded, and looked away.
It was probably the best thing that had happened to me all day.
By the time I managed to fit the crucifix and end table into my car, Scully had left the house and sped off into the night. I closed the car door with my teeth and collapsed against the back of the seat. My crotch still burned and ached, my wrist was badly chafed, and my stomach was ready to call the whole thing quits. Nevertheless...I felt good.
A tiny, sorrowful little squeaking noise echoed to my right. I flipped open my glove box and pulled out the Task List.
It was sniffling, limp and soundless. The second task had disappeared, but in its place was a new line. "TASK 2: Do Not Lock God's Messenger Into A Small Airless Box For Several Hours At A Time."
I bit my lip. "Look, I'm sorry," I said. It folded its metaphorical arms and slumped against the seat. "Really, I am. I won't do it again."
It turned pointedly away from me and refused to speak.
Then, hesitantly, it turned back. Its small metaphorical hand was touching the carved, wooden face of Jesus.
"What on earth *is* this?" it asked wonderingly.
I started the engine. "Penance, I'm guessing."
TASK 3: Tusk
One of the big problems with being a professional assassin is the fact that you have no close friends to run to when you're handcuffed to a large crucifix.
The Task List refused to let me try bashing it to pieces against a stone wall - not that it would've done any good, anyway. It was extremely well-constructed and the wood was solid and godlike. The only option would be to find someone to remove the cuffs, and I was rapidly running out of both energy and acquaintances.
I was on the verge of just giving up and driving home when the List suddenly perked up. "Your third task!"
I groaned, rubbing discreetly at my genitals. "Please, not tonight. I finished two in one day. I deserve some goddamn sleep."
"No, you don't understand," the List explained patiently. "While you're completing your third task, you can also ask him to remove the cuffs for you."
I was so tired that it took me a good thirty seconds to become suspicious. "What exactly is my third task?" I asked.
The List clambered up onto the steering wheel and puffed out its metaphorical chest. I squinted at it in the darkness.
"TASK 3: Apologize to Brian for emotionally deserting him."
I stared at it. It stared back with equal graveness. "You've got to be fucking kidding me," I said.
It didn't answer, so I stuck my head out the window and directed my vulgarity heavenward. "Fuck you!" I yelled. "'Emotionally deserting' him? What kind of weepy New-Age crap is this?"
The List bit me solidly on the thumb. "Blasphemy!" it chirruped.
I shook it off angrily. "Look, Mulder and Scully I can understand. I may have been reluctant to approach them, but that's just because I knew I'd get what I deserved. Brian Pendrell is a murdering, sadistic bastard and I refuse to go anywhere near him. Let alone apologize!"
Somewhat predictably, a huge flash of lightning erupted from the sky, followed almost immediately by a jolting boom of thunder. The List gave a tinny little shriek and jumped back into the glove box.
"You don't scare me!" I shouted, although I didn't stick my head outside to say it. "Not only is this car grounded with rubber tires, but I've also got the biggest damn crucifix this side of the Rockies with me! You're powerless! POWERLESS!"
The List peered at me from its hiding place, shaking its head sadly. "You really do have a lot to learn."
The car suddenly switched from park to drive, entirely of its own accord, and with a jerk it took off down the street at seventy-five. I'll admit I screamed a little in surprise, but I think I was entitled to it. The List clutched desperately at the edge of the dashboard and closed its tiny metaphorical eyes.
"Just sit back and enjoy the view," it said. "You know how he is when he gets this way."
As the old proverb goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him get out of his car and apologize to his murderous ex-lover.
God parked my car pointedly in front of Brian's house. Actually, he parked directly in a fire lane, but I had a feeling that the minor infraction would be overlooked. I sat there for a long time, my silence just as pointed. I would've crossed my arms, had I more than one, which I didn't. I tried instead to give off the aura of one who is crossing his arms, but after awhile it got tiring.
The Task List was rooting through the old junk in my glove box, steadfastly refusing to get involved. It finished sweeping the dead spiders into neat little piles and began to stack the tapes in the corner. "I never pegged you as an acid rock fan," it remarked conversationally.
I blinked at it. "I'm not."
It blinked back, uncomprehendingly. "I know. That's why I never pegged you as one."
I let my head thud quietly against the steering wheel for a few moments. The whole situation was a stand-off of the worst kind, because whatever happened, I would lose. If I got out and approached Brian, I would lose. If I stayed put, Brian would eventually find me, and I would lose. If I drove away, God would probably attempt to smite me, and I was beginning to worry that the whole "rubber-tire-insulation" thing was just a lie my mother told me to keep me quiet. Any way you looked at it, I lost. It was just a matter of by choice or default.
There was a clicking sound and a sharp intake of breath. "Now, maybe I'm just a poor judge of character," the List called, "but I *never* pegged you as a Jeff Foxworthy fan."
I wrapped my arm around the crucifix and opened the car door. If there was one thing I couldn't stand above anything else, it was personal ridicule by inanimate objects.
I dragged the table along the ground, my wrist raw and aching. There were two steps in front of Brian's door, tasteful and sculpted, and I stood there for a long time, staring at them. I didn't have the energy available to drag myself up those steps. I didn't have the energy, the strength, the will, or the desire. I didn't want to do any of this. I really didn't.
The door made a quiet clicking sound, and suddenly his face appeared from out of the darkness. Same as it was before, same as it always would be - red hair, pale skin, gentle smile.
"Do you need some help?" he asked, and I vaulted the steps and heaved the end table directly at him.
Given my previous lack of energy and the whole one-arm thing, my heft was excellent. It landed about half a foot away from him and sent a killing pain through my wrist, but it was all worth it for the expression on his face. It was a wonderful blend of startled fear and inane politeness, and he spent several moments simply opening and closing his mouth at me.
"Yes, I could use your help," I said, brandishing my wrist. "But please bear in mind that I hate you with all my being."
Brian looked at my wrist, then at the Lord Jesus Christ. "I've got some keys," he said faintly, and disappeared back into his house.
I made a show of tapping my foot impatiently as I waited, and when he emerged with the keys he didn't look at me. After a few fumbles the cuffs snapped open and I rubbed my abused wrist against my neck. "Thanks," I muttered.
He glanced back up at me, his gaze intense. "Alex," he whispered, "your arm..."
He reached for my empty sleeve and I took a step back. "Don't pretend it's a big surprise," I said, exasperation creeping into my tone. "I know you follow me around whenever I go shopping."
His face brightened, glad that hurdle had been cleared. "Speaking of which, your dietary habits have become very erratic lately. You're intaking far too many carbohydrates and nowhere near enough protein."
I cringed. "You do realize how completely fucking creepy that is, don't you?"
"I'm just looking out for you." His voice was carefully hurt.
I briefly considered hurling the table at him again, but my energy really was beginning to falter. "Look. I think we need to talk. I don't really want to, but I know that if we don't get things settled you'll just keep stalking me and my car will be struck by lightning."
He looked confused, but I pushed relentlessly forward. "Let's just talk, okay, Brian? Let's talk."
I brushed past him decisively and went into the house. He stood in the doorway for a moment, looking lost.
"What should I do with Jesus?" he asked finally.
"Whatever you want," I said tiredly. "Whatever the hell you want."
Brian's house hadn't changed at all since the last time I saw it. The furniture was exactly the same, as was his large collection of 70's-era sexual sculpture. I spent about five minutes looking for a place to sit down, but every time I approached a couch or chair I'd inevitably recall some time in the past when we had had violent, mind-blowing sex on it. Eventually I realized that the whole endeavor was futile and I collapsed on the nearest seat.
Brian lugged the end table into the room, scanning the decor with a professional eye. He found a little niche between one of his sculpture displays and the wall, and with a grunt he fitted the table in. I looked at it and groaned.
"Yes," he said impatiently, "I realize that crucifixes and penis art don't mesh well. At least give me some credit for trying, would you?"
I leaned back and closed my eyes, wondering if I could get away with feigning sleep. I heard him sit down on the chair across from me. There was a brief, blissful moment of silence.
"Hey," he said slyly, touching my knee. "Remember the time we were on that chair and - "
"Shut up," I snapped. I opened my eyes and tried to ignore his obvious pout. "I'm not here to rekindle anything, or reminisce, or whatever. I'm here because you shot Bill Mulder and I need some sort of closure."
His jaw dropped. He seemed genuinely surprised, the asshole. "You're still hung up on that?"
I nearly flung myself at him and he scooted back a bit in alarm. "What?" he protested. "I wrote you the letter about it. I told you what happened. We agreed that it was as much your fault as mine!"
I filed that last sentence away for later indignance. "What letter?" I spat.
"The letter I sent you! Two days after it happened!" Brian was beginning to panic. "I told you why it all happened! I said you never had to speak to me again, and that I would take your silence as a tacit acceptation of my apology!"
I thought back, but nothing was clicking in my memory. "I never got this miracle letter," I said.
His hands began to flutter slightly in agitation. "I - I sent it - " His voice faltered. "You mean you've spent all these years completely hating me and wishing I was dead?"
A tiny part of my mind began to feel slightly abashed. "Well, yes."
He blinked terribly at me for a few moments, his breath hitching in his throat.
"Oh, God," I moaned. "Don't cry. You know I can't stand it when you cry."
"I - I can't help it." His voice wavered. "I thought this was all in the past. I thought we had both moved on."
Tears began to streak from his eyes and I shifted uncomfortably. "Look," I said, and in a sudden brilliant burst of inspiration I took one of his hands in mine. "Why don't you go ahead and tell me what happened, and we'll figure out what to do from there."
He smiled bravely through his tears and squeezed my hand. "Okay."
He cleared his throat and wiped his eyes. I willed God to give me patience and tried to smile back.
"You know how I have to take Zoloft to control my hysteria and rage and irrationality," he began.
I wanted to roll my eyes. "Yes."
He looked at me resentfully. "And you remember how you kept insisting that it was pointless for me to be taking it because I was still hysterical and vengeful and irrational?"
Clever boy, putting me on the defensive. "Yes, and I think I made a good point. You were *always* hysterical around me, no matter how much of that damn stuff you took."
His eyes narrowed, that maniacal glint I knew all-too-well shining out from the blue. "I was *always* hysterical around you because you never had any patience for me. Is it my fault you were always an insensitive bastard?"
I probably would've punched him then if he hadn't used his two-hand advantage to restrain me. "Anyway," he said pointedly, "when you left, you took all the prescriptions with you. Including my Zoloft. I didn't know whether it was an accident or some sort of subtle hint, but I decided to go ahead and take your advice. I was completely and totally without medication for six months."
I stared at him for a long moment, trying to think of something to say that wouldn't utterly condemn myself. "What happened?"
His eyes bulged. "What do you think happened? I got hysterical and vengeful and irrational and I shot an innocent man!"
"Ah." I made sure to say it carefully. "And so...how is this my fault?"
This time I had to evade his wild, lunging attack. "You *never* take responsibility for your actions, Alex!" He was almost screaming. "I have a *mental disorder*, and you deliberately caused me not to take my medication. You treated me like dirt, mocked my problems, and dumped me for a 65-year-old man!"
I grabbed his wrist just before it launched toward my skull. "So you're saying I emotionally deserted you, is that it?"
Of course, he lapped that right up. "Yes. That's exactly the phrase I'm looking for. You emotionally deserted me. I am desperately sorry that I killed Bill Mulder, but I wasn't myself!" He paused. "Or, well, I was, but - you know what I mean!"
I sighed. "All right. Okay. I - I'm sorry I...emotionally deserted you." I gritted my teeth. "I'm sorry I was so insensitive to your problems, and I apologize for my behavior when I got here." Something was catching in my throat again. "Only - I really did love him, you know."
Brian's faced softened a little. "I know."
And that, apparently, was that. We lapsed into an uneasy silence, unsure of where to go to next.
"But, you know, me and you - we just weren't working out," I said finally. "We're too different. It's amazing we lasted as long as we did."
He considered that. "You're right. I mean, I care about you deeply, Alex, but I tend to care about you more when you're not anywhere near me."
I laughed, despite myself. Stupid God, turning my pure hatred into benign amusement.
A yawn tugged through me and the exhaustion of the day suddenly hit me full force. "I should get home," I said quietly, stretching my arm out. "It's late, and I've still got a lot to think about."
He nodded, but there was something in his eyes again. Something I didn't trust. "Why did we last as long as we did?" he asked suddenly. "We really aren't compatible people. I mean, everyone told us that. And they were right. So why...why did we last a whole year?"
I frowned slightly. For the first time since the death of Bill Mulder, I allowed my mind to go back freely to the days before I found his love. Days when assassination still meant something in the Big Game, when you were lucky if you could find one breed of alien anywhere, as opposed to twenty-seven. The days when the sun always seemed to be shining, when everything was reasonably happy, provided it was heavily medicated. The days when I had two arms, high self-esteem, a ravenous sexual appetite. The good days.
Brian caught my eye, and in a single blossoming moment we were both grinning.
"Yeah," he said, and when his hand crept out to touch my knee I didn't protest. "It was the sex, wasn't it?"
"Pretty much," I said, and I swear to God Almighty that he started to purr.
The rest of that night's events should probably remain unsaid.
Needless to say, I didn't end up going back home. Around 3 o'clock I woke up and wondered what the Task List was thinking about the whole situation, but before I could worry about it too much, Brian woke up and we had sex again. I apologize - I meant to let it all remain unsaid, but frankly when you have it eleven times in six hours, you develop something of a fixation with the subject.
Around 7 a.m. I realized I was too wired to actually fall asleep, and Brian was beginning to eye me meaningfully again, so I decided it was time to lock myself in the bathroom and get a firm handle on reality. Brian pouted in a very persuasive manner and almost convinced me to come back for "lucky number twelve," but I casually mentioned that seven was the universally accepted lucky number and managed to escape in his resulting confusion. The door locked behind me with a satisfying click and I stared into the bathroom mirror, trying figure out where I had gone wrong.
So Brian's cold-blooded murder of Bill Mulder had been partially my fault. Yes, I could grudgingly accept that - Brian's Zoloft habit had been what eventually caused us to break up. That and his constant needy possessive hysteria, of course, but it had mostly been a matter of the pills. So perhaps my earlier assessment of him as a sadistic murdering bastard was a bit off - murdering, yes; sadistic, only in bed; a bastard - not really.
Brian's bathroom was also untouched by time, I discovered - his tasteful color-coordinated washcloths were stacked neatly on the counter, as they always had been. I picked one up and began to wash my face briskly.
So I had emotionally deserted him. The phraseology continued to irritate me, but I could accept that the sentiment was true. I also couldn't help but notice that a common thread was beginning to emerge in the Quest Thus Far - the fact that I was an insensitive murdering bastard. On a normal day I would just agree and move on, but now -
Well, dammit, I was feeling guilty.
It was exactly what God wanted, of course. His plan was working superbly. By the time the week was over I'd be a quivering mass of humble jello, weeping and apologizing and maybe painting large sexual murals on restaurant ceilings. I didn't want that. I didn't want any of this.
I just wanted the image of the tears in Scully's eyes out of my mind.
I hung up the washcloth on Brian's color-coordinated towel rack and stole some of his mouthwash. Also, in retrospect, it probably hadn't been the wisest decision to stick around and have hot wild sex with him for most of the night. The last thing I wanted was to rekindle our disastrous relationship, for both my sanity and his. But it was a hell of a lot more fun than going home and weeping into my pillow, although I must admit that a night of weeping into your pillow doesn't make it difficult to sit down for the next two days.
Scrubbed and minty-fresh, I opened the door and carefully evaded the lampshade Brian threw playfully at my head. "Where are you going?" he whined as I picked my jacket up off the floor.
"Busy day today," I said vaguely, shrugging the jacket on. "I've been thinking, Brian. We should probably agree never to see each other again."
His face fell and he collapsed back into his nest of pillows. "Yeah, you're probably right."
Something occurred to me. "And when I say never, I include my trips to the grocery store."
He snickered under his breath and nodded lazily. "I understand."
Against my better judgment, I walked back over to the bed and stuck my hand out. "It's been...interesting, Brian."
He smiled without malice and shook it back. "It's been fun."
Something else occurred to me, curdling in my mind. "I - I heard from someone that you supposedly died two years ago. What was that all about?"
He rolled his eyes. "I got shot in the shoulder in this attempted assassination, and when they transferred me to a hospital on the other side of town, everyone just got the impression that I died. I mean, I'm still working for the FBI. I'm still down in SciCrime. People come up to me all the time and gasp and act shocked. Let me tell you, it's damn irritating."
I laughed. "Enjoy it, Bri."
"I will." He smiled. "Take care."
I almost made it to the front door before he remembered.
"PROTEIN, Alex! Red meat! Peanut butter!"
TASK 4: Rhiannon
When I got into my car, the Task List smiled pleasantly and motioned for me to be quiet. Jeff Foxworthy was just completing his routine and the List was soaking it up.
I sat down rather gingerly, closing the car door as quietly as I could. The List was giggling spasmodically, but I could still tell that Task 3 had disappeared from sight.
Jeff's routine ended to thunderous applause and the List hopped up and pressed the stop button. "Good morning," it said cheerfully.
"Hi," I said, a trifle uneasy. "Um, how are you?"
"Good, good." It watched me smilingly. "And you?"
"Fine." The car started without a hitch - praise be to God, I guess.
I pulled out of the fire lane and onto the main road. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the List looking at me expectantly.
"What?" I asked.
It frowned innocently. "What?"
"Why are you looking at me?"
The frown deepened. "I wasn't looking at you."
"Oh." I tried to sound casual.
We drove on in silence. Unfamiliar streets flickered past.
"I noticed you were walking rather strangely when you came outside," the List remarked.
"All right!" I yelled, despite myself. "I stayed over at his house and we had sex! Stop judging me!"
It recoiled a little, folding its metaphorical hands with a bit of a huff.
"It was just an observation," it muttered.
I hadn't purchased flowers in several years, so when the florist rang up my order it took a lot of willpower not to collapse into a dead faint.
The List, snug in my pocket, tugged on the lining of my jacket. "Pay it!" it hissed discreetly.
My patience was almost entirely depleted. I glared at it. "Sixty-five bucks for roses?" I whispered, angrily. "It's ridiculous!"
The florist observed me carefully for a moment. "Feigning insanity will not cause me to lower the price, sir."
I moved my glare from the List to him, but he was too level-headed to be provoked. Muttering angrily, I hauled out my wallet and hunted for bills.
When I had gotten over my humiliation back in the car, the List had leaned back on his metaphorical elbows, humming lightly. "Ready for the next task?"
My gut instinct had been to smash him with my fist and run shrieking into the middle of traffic, but I was trying to think before I acted for a change. "Lay it on me," I said, attempting to sound jaunty and cool, and, predictably, failing.
The List craned its neck, trying to read itself. "TASK 4," it said haltingly. "Apologize to Melissa for your participation in her death."
I had been all ready and prepared to yell and scream, so I was a little disappointed. "How the hell am I supposed to do that?" I asked finally.
"Hey, don't ask me," it had said, raising its hands. "I don't writes 'em. I just lists 'em."
I pawed violently through my wallet and scraped up three twenties, two ones and a handful of change. I dumped the pile on the counter and tried to make my breathing sound violent. The cashier must've given me credit for trying, because he merely scooped the pile up and said "That'll be fine, sir."
He spent a few moments busily putting the roses into a box of tissue paper, humming cheerfully. The List gave me a discreet thumbs-up and I sighed. A headache was beginning to thud monotonously behind my eyes, I was officially out of cash, and the first penciled notation on my To-Do list for the day was "Go apologize to a ghost."
And me without my Ouiji board.
The florist shuffled my money about and pushed the box across the counter. "Enjoy them, sir."
"Right," I muttered, and slunk outside before he could politely mention my strange limp.
The Task List had flatly refused to use his Lordly connections to figure out how I was to go about apologizing to Melissa. Eventually, through some intense brainstorming, we decided that I should find the place where she was buried and pay my respects. The List insisted on flowers as a 'token gesture,' a phrase that now infuriated me even more than 'emotional desertion.'
The drive to the cemetery took a little over an hour, so the List plugged in another Foxworthy tape and we bonded via mutual laughter. A little feeling of unease occasionally tapped its fingers down my spine, but I brushed it off as nerves. I had never been a big fan of cemeteries, despite my professional habit of stocking them well.
When I pulled into the small dirt parking lot just outside the cemetery, I couldn't help but notice that the place was entirely deserted. There were no other cars, no other people - not even a requisite employee driving around on a giant lawnmower. Unease played a few more chiropractic tricks on my shoulders before skittering away, laughing.
"I'm not too sure about this," I said aloud.
The List hopped into my pocket as I picked up the box and stepped carefully out of the car. I settled into a slow, mincing stride and walked through the dramatic wrought-iron gates.
I realized once I was inside that I had expected someone to be here - someone I could walk up to casually and say "Melissa Scully, please?" Without this person I would be forced to wander the rolling stretches of graves, looking for her name, letting unease try to correct a major scoliosis problem in my back all the while. The List was hanging halfway out of my pocket, scanning the landscape alertly, and just looking at its tireless efficiency made my headache surge to new levels. "Where to now, Oh Sage?"
"If my sources are correct..." It brandished a metaphorical finger straight ahead. "Through that clearing, on your left."
I started forward, obligingly. "Your *sources*?"
It jerked its thumb up toward the sky. "Oh," I said, feeling foolish.
The morning dew was still heavy and undisturbed on the grass, and I sloshed through it with as much reverence as I could muster. The List kept its finger pointed outward like a compass, and after a few moments it began to drift to the left. "Wait a minute," it said, frowning. "There. Right there."
The smooth slab of stone he pointed to was in the shade, sheltered by the branches of a healthy young tree. The List tucked itself quietly back into my pocket, letting me move forward on my own.
I approached it very carefully, mindful of the atmosphere, mindful of where I placed my feet. The List had been right - the slab was elegantly engraved "Melissa Scully. Beloved Daughter. Beloved Sister."
I knelt down off to one side, cold water seeping happily through the knees of my pants. I opened the box and lifted the flowers out of their graceful bed. I wouldn't admit it aloud, but I was grudgingly thankful the List had conned me into buying them. Anything less than the best would've really made me nervous.
I set the flowers against the stone, trying to make them splay artfully. The silence was deep and full, devoid even of the ever-present crickets. I needed to say something.
It was just a matter of where to begin.
"Look, Melissa," I began, than inwardly cursed myself for sounding like a fool. "I didn't really know you that well, except for the fact that you were Scully's sister - " A thought struck me from out of the blue. "Unless - you were - I think we were actually in that pottery class together a few years back. Were you? The one with that Jed guy as the teacher?" It was a memory back from the Brian days, when I had been convinced I could create my own inexpensive dishes via pottery and thereby Stick It To The Man. "You were the one who always sat in front and flicked clay at him when he tried to hit on you."
The memory was vivid. The red hair, the laughter, the good nature that had settled over everyone like a warm blanket. Melissa Scully. I looked at the slab again in a sudden new light, guilt hacking away at my stomach with ginsu knives.
"Well, Jesus, Melissa," I said. "I didn't realize it was you. I'm sorry."
It wasn't the most graceful apology ever uttered, but deep down, I really did mean it. What had Scully said to me? That I had the gall to say it was all in a day's work - well, it was. When it didn't have to be personal.
When it was personal, I was almost nearly as human as anyone else.
I reached out, a little awkwardly, touching the stone. "I don't know if you can hear me, Melissa, but I really mean it. I'm sorry."
"Thank you," someone whispered, and a hand erupted from the earth and shook mine briskly.
I shrieked like a baby and launched myself backwards, instinctively reaching for a gun that continued to be in my car. The cold dew attacked with gusto and I began to scramble backwards madly.
Melissa Scully's disembodied spirit burst from the ground, looked at me briefly, and fell into hysterical laughter.
It took a good thirty seconds to convince my body that the danger was over and the wild flailing was no longer necessary. Melissa had fallen to the ground behind her tombstone and was laying on her back, kicking her feet with glee.
Indignance coiled inside me like smoke. "Fuck you!" I fumed, trying to sit up.
"Go ahead and try!" she howled cheerfully. "I'm nothing but light and corporeal air!" Her heels battered against the spot on the stone that said "Beloved Daughter" and great gobs of laughter poured liquid-like from her throat. I had never previously had a big problem with blasphemy, but for some reason this scene made my stomach turn.
The Task List was making little pained moaning noises from my pocket. Both it and my entire back were annoyingly numb and damp, and for awhile the List couldn't decide whether to whine or cry. Finally it decided to simply doze, and in a burst of sudden optimism I decided that a numb ass was preferable to a raw, painful one, so I focused my attention on the spectacle before me with decidedly renewed vigor.
"Melissa," I said loudly. She was tilted back, her feet still kicking, her face contorted in wildly ecstatic glee. "Melissa!" I shouted, creeping forward on my knees in what I hoped was a threatening manner.
"You should have SEEN the look on your face!" she wailed happily, heaving herself to a sitting position. "My wittle-precious bad boy was soooo scared of the big mean scary ghost!"
She leaned over and pinched my cheek, her fingers cold and unreal. I didn't have enough nerve to try and push her away, mostly out of my newfound guilt. She pinched harder and scrunched her face into an obscene baby coo. "Poor widdle murdering bastard Krycek! He's so sad and scared and put upon by our Almighty Lord!"
I really couldn't think of anything witty or succinct to say in response, so I just let my lips flap nonsensically and tried to wrench out of her grip.
No go. Her scrunched face became impossibly flat and smooth, her eyes narrowed to evil little slits. "You know what I'm going to say, Alex. Nevertheless, I'm going to say it. You are an insensitive murdering bastard, you cut my life off in its prime, and you sure as hell can't take a good joke." She snorted. "You have to admit, this was a really good joke."
"Hysterical," I muttered, and she reluctantly released my cheek.
Despite her ghostly luminescence and the fact that I could faintly see through her, she looked just as I remembered. Same laugh, same smile - although they were a little bit more willfully macabre than before. She saw the flowers and picked them right up, sniffing.
"Well, at least you made some sort of token gesture," she said, and I glanced involuntarily at the List. She separated them all from the bunch and began to strew them around, her back casually against the stone slab. "Anything you have to say for yourself?"
She tossed a rose into my lap and I caught it, wincing as the thorns bit into my skin. "I really am sorry, Melissa. For the insensitive murdering bastard part and my, uh, coarse reaction a minute ago. You startled me."
"Good." She didn't make any specific reference to what was good, so I took it to be a blanket statement. "Actually, when I was talking about my joke, I was referring to both the clawing hand thing and everything else."
"Everything else?" I set the rose gently on the ground.
She grinned suddenly. "This. The Quest thing. It was my idea to start with, and everyone involved in making it work seemed surprisingly eager to help."
I graced her with my dull bovine stare for a few moments, my mind taking the information in and twisting it into listless rags. "You - " I sighed. "Yeah. Whatever. Damn me to hell, I get what I deserve."
She leaned forward, peering at my pocket. "How's the List doing?"
"It's fine," I said, twisting my hip away from her protectively.
This time she sighed, reaching over and placing a cold hand on my leg. "It's working though, isn't it? You're learning. I can tell."
"Yes." The adrenaline was leaking out of me and I started to slump a little. "Raw guilt, 24 hours a day. Abject humiliation. Hostile ghosts. I'm just loving life, yes, thank you."
She smiled, the smile of old. "Glad to hear it."
She stood, proffered a hand to me. I stared suspiciously at it until she made an impatient little sound and hauled me up by my empty sleeve.
"I realize it's hard," she said, brushing dirt particles off her non-existent clothes. "And it's not going to get any easier, let me tell you. But it'll be worth it."
She leaned over and picked up the nearest rose, that smile back on her lips. "Just trust me, okay?"
And she disappeared, quietly, without fanfare.
I blinked for a little while, looking around me, as if she had disappeared behind a tree or under the ground and was just waiting for me to make a wrong move. But nothing happened - the air was still again, nothing but my breathing and the imperceptible wind.
The List stirred in my pocket, peering blearily around. "She's really nice when you get to know her," it said sleepily.
I patted at it absentmindedly, and with a sigh let the guilt carry me away with the tide. "I know it. God, I know it."
TASK 5: Temporary One
The list and I went out to have some depression a la carte.
I refused to take my chances with another nameless restaurant, so I drove about grimly until I found a well-lit McDonalds. I ordered myself a Big Mac Extra Value meal and tapped my fingers against the counter in an irritating manner to speed up the process. I shoved myself into a corner booth and began to eat ravenously, reveling in good old-fashioned meat and grease.
The List climbed out of my pocket after awhile and snacked absently on some of my fries. I studiously avoided looking at, although I did check to make sure Melissa's task had disappeared. It had. I continued to eat.
"What's your deal?" the List asked after awhile.
I thought about it. "Guilt," I said finally, my mouth full.
The List, better-versed in the art of manners, swallowed before replying. "Yes, I imagine you have a lot of that."
I didn't find the comment particularly helpful, so I just ignored it. My stomach was swelling rapidly with food and soda, but the knotted sensation remained the same. Guilt, massive and heavy. For Melissa, for Brian, for Bill Mulder and his poor abused son. For Scully.
And I had apologized to all of them, almost. Still it remained.
"What'm I supposed to do?" I asked abruptly. I ran out of soda and began chewing on the ice. "When does the guilt go away?"
The List tried to sound cheerful. "Oh, it's different for everybody. Hopefully, it'll be soon."
I glanced at it reluctantly, trying to smile, and my eyes lingered a little too long. Damn my curiosity.
"TASK 5: Apologize to Marita for using her."
The List quickly angled its body away from me. "Did you see it?"
"No," I lied, and let my head smack against the table with a satisfying thud.
It groaned, patting my hair reassuringly. "It won't be that bad," it said enthusiastically. "She's only a few miles away, and when you're through with her, you're more than halfway done! And it only took you two days!"
I looked up, hazily, protests and excuses running tired laps in my head. "She used me too," I whined, feeling like a child.
"Yes, well," the List sounded distressed, "her day will come. In the meantime, you get to make the first move. It's just the way it is."
"I hate the way it is," I said petulantly.
In a sudden fit of parental-type wrath, the List began to gently box my ears.
"Yes, well, tough," it said.
The List allowed me to go back and order another Extra Value Meal, after I cited my lack of food the previous day and my alarming need for protein. After I attempted to order a third one it began to get suspicious, and with a noise that sounded a lot like "This will hurt me more than it will hurt you", it jumped on top of my head and began yanking on my hair.
I was really at the end of my rope at that point, so instead of trying to reason with him I just started shrieking, running out of the restaurant and clawing at my hair. I got into my car and was pleased to note that my antics were causing other patrons to run outside in a complete state of panic, glancing about wildly and clutching at their throats. Yes, that was me, Alex Krycek - bringing panic and mayhem and murderous insensitive bastardtry wherever I went. The Anti-Santa.
The List swung down from my head and slapped me briskly. "Just start driving."
I obliged without comment, feeling a bit put-out. After a few moments I recognized where I was and sighed, starting the journey to Marita Covarrubius' apartment at the healthy speed of 45.
Ah, Marita. If ever there was a girl that a guy like me could be interested in, it was all embodied perfectly in Marita. Conservatively attractive - low, cultured voice - and a backstabbing traitor to boot. We had only encountered each other once before, but when we did we made the most violent, passionate love I'd ever experienced. We were kindred souls, fellow traitors, searching for a little humble meaning in a world that had turned its back on us.
Of course, all the information that I gave her was patently false, and I just happened to use the encounter to infect her with the Black Oil, but I knew that when she woke up (if she woke up), she'd understand. She would've done it herself.
And really, everything had worked out just fine in the end. I produced the cure, the Consortium welcomed me back with open arms, and Marita lived. She was going to have consistent inner-ear problems for the rest of her life, but at least she lived.
So to see her again - it didn't have to be a bad thing. Provided she was at home, which I knew she was. God was running the show under Melissa Scully's very thorough plan. Provided she wasn't armed and wrathful, which I was a little worried about, but not much. Provided she didn't get weepy and emotional and start to cry, which, deep down, I almost expected. It seemed to be one of the many popular reactions to Alex Krycek, Anti-Santa.
"What're you thinking?" the List asked quietly from its perch on my shoulder.
I sighed again. "That maybe this won't be quite as bad as I originally implied."
The List's voice was warm and rich with pride. "I'm glad, Alex. Really, I'm sure it will go wonderfully. You've done it four times before - you'll survive this one, no problem."
I nodded, trying to get my spirits up, although there was a tiny nagging voice in the back of my skull that started repeating itself quite incessantly.
Namely, "Famous last words."
Marita came to the door wearing only a white bathrobe and a smile.
Amazingly, when she saw it was me, the smile widened. I took that as a good sign.
"Hello, Alex," she said, her voice silken and pleased. "It's so good to see you again."
She proffered her hand and I had the sudden mad desire to kiss it. She seemed to realize it and laughed, tossing her head back as I instead shook it gently, as if it were a delicate bird.
"So, what brings you to my humble abode?" she whispered, leaning in close. I was momentarily at a loss for words and she giggled again, tracing the collar of my shirt, enticing me inside.
"I - I - " I was a stuttering fool, for one. "I wanted to talk to you."
"Of course." She shut the door gently behind her, her movements subtle and liquid. "It's been so long since we last saw each other."
The suggestion in her voice was unmistakable and I bit my tongue, trying to focus. "Yeah. I actually, uh, wanted to talk about the last time we saw each other."
"Oh?" She opened her eyes wide, fluttering sculpted eyelashes at me. She took me by the hand and drew me further into the room, soft and caring.
"Tell me," she whispered.
I took a deep breath. Everything seemed to be going fine - she obviously had no harsh feelings, and she didn't seem like she was ready to either cry or kill.
"I..." I swallowed. "I just wanted to apologize. For everything."
Her lips curved upwards, a smile of warm tenderness. "Oh, how utterly terribly precious of you!" she exclaimed, giving my cheek a little pinch. "I'm so touched. It's fine - I've had much worse before."
I looked at her for a moment, a wan smile on my lips, little levers and cogs pulling and rotating around suspiciously in my head. "What exactly do you mean by that?" I asked finally.
She blinked at me, those perfectly frosted eyelashes both conservative and attractive. A demure allure. I suddenly had a feeling I wasn't going to like her answer.
"I'm just saying..." She picked her words with thoughtful deliberation. "I'm saying that you did fine! There's no need to beat yourself up over the matter. You performed with great...vim, for one of your...particular..." Her eyes angled delicately toward my crotch. "Erm. Stature."
A small, wildly suppressed sound erupted from the vicinity of my pocket. The List, which had come along for moral support, was pressing its metaphorical hands tightly over its mouth.
The little hairs on the back of my neck stood to attention once again. "I wasn't..." My voice rasped painfully in my throat. "I wasn't apologizing for my..." I took a deep breath. "Performance."
She blinked at me for a few more moments, the epitome of calm and poise. "Well, you should have," she said after a moment, "it wasn't very good."
The List began to vibrate madly, helpless little asinine giggles leaking out of its metaphorical mouth. I slammed my fist against it without hesitation, devoting my full attention to trying to comprehend what the hell she was trying to say.
"What the HELL are you trying to say?" I growled, aloud. There was a flush in my cheeks that I hoped to God was nothing more than pure masculine rage.
"Look, Alex," she said quietly, fluttering those great winged insects at me. "I have been with many men. I have been with men of great talent, great skill, and great size. I emphasize 'great size.' Alex, we are talking about horse-meat, here. We are talking about the circumference of aluminum cans. We are - "
"What the hell is your *point?*" I shouted.
She placed a manicured hand on my wrist, her voice damningly gentle. "Alex, your penis is five inches long."
The Task List began to unapologetically whoop, beating its tiny metaphorical fists against my thigh in utter delight.
"That - is perfectly - typical - for the average - American - male," I managed through clenched teeth.
Her poised look faltered at that, her upper lip curling. "You're *Russian,*" she said, almost distastefully. "You're supposed to be *huge.* My God, you're even circumcised! When did that come about?"
"Oh, so now we're getting into stereotypes, are we?" I yelled, glad to at last have the upper hand. "Just because I speak Russian and have parents of Russian descent, I'm supposed to fall conveniently into your simple set of labels, right? Well, by all means, let me go put on my little fur hat, swig down some vodka and waggle my intact foreskin at the livestock! Why don't I go ahead and do a traditional folk dance while I'm at at it! Will that make you happy? Huh?"
"Listen here, buster!" she snapped, thrusting a glossy fingertip dangerously close to my eye. "I never once mentioned fur hats, liquor, bestiality OR traditional folk dancing! All I wanted from you was a big dick and some classified information! And all you gave me was five inches, some unconvincing lies, and a major smog infestation!" Spittle was beginning to dance on her lips. "If anyone should be upset, indignant, or SHOUTING around here, it should be me!"
"That's why I'm apologizing!" I screamed.
"GOOD!" she screamed back, and the vindicated expression on her face was dampened only slightly by the bullet that exploded through the window and caught her in the shoulder.
She collapsed to the ground heavily, her jaw dangling, blood seeping in rivulets down the white cotton. "And now I've been shot!" she hissed, accusingly, before losing consciousness.
I allowed myself only two seconds of dull bovine gaping before vaulting to the phone, dialing 911. I flattened myself against the wall and peered out the side of the window, but there was no sign of the gunman.
The List, silent and wide-eyed, hopped out of my pocket as the operator came on the line. I gave her the address and as much information as I could. The List pressed itself gently against Marita's wound, as if it would help.
"I told you," it said, and its voice was trembling and shocked. "Piece of cake."
I followed the ambulance to the hospital, even though Task 5 had technically disappeared from the List. When I got there the medical professionals tried to keep me away from her, but fortunately I was able to wheedle a little divine intervention out of the List. Marita was reclining in her bed, conscious and pale, when I slipped into the room.
"Hey," she said, and her voice was a bit more subdued than it had been the last time I heard it. "What a day, huh."
"Yeah." I wished belatedly that I had brought her something. "I'm, uh, sorry for upsetting you so much. And, you know, for you getting shot."
She smiled, waving a limp hand dismissively. "Don't blame yourself. I get shot at least twice a week. Too many stabs in the back, you see. Let it be a lesson to you."
"Okay." I could tell my smile was getting slightly dopey. "Are you going to be okay?"
"Pah. They only nicked me." Her voice was soft and breezy. "It's all right, Alex. I don't want you to worry about me anymore."
She extended her hand again and this time I did kiss it, a little awkwardly, but with great vim.
"Until we meet again," she said. "Just remember - the timing is the key."
She winked at me and promptly lost consciousness.
I walked out of the room as quietly as I could, my face a vibrant, burning red. Still, the knotted feeling had loosened a little - obviously, Marita would be fine. Despite my insensitive murdering bastardtry.
That was good, at any rate.
The sky was brilliant orange when I walked outside, the sun creeping behind the horizon. I stopped to look at it for a moment, enjoying the unapologetic purity of motion.
After awhile it occurred to me that I might go blind and I continued on to my car.
The List poked its head out of my pocket, its smile tentative. It had wiped off most of Marita's blood, but it retained a slight pinkish tint. "Well, that was hell in a bottle, wasn't it?"
"I'm not speaking to you," I said tightly, sliding into my seat.
"Oh, come on!" it protested. "I apologize for my laughter, but if our situations were reversed, you know you'd do the same!"
I didn't speak and it hopped onto the steering wheel, trying to appear contrite. "C'mon, Alex," it wheedled. "I'm an inanimate object. I don't even *have* genitals. Why be embarrassed?"
"It's the principle of the thing!" I spat. "One minute you're lecturing me on being responsible, the next you're mocking me and making me feel extremely insecure! Commit to a sentiment, would you?"
It watched my face carefully for signs of humor and found none.
"Oh - " it grumbled, and clambered spitefully down to the seat. "God, Alex. You never let me have any fun."
TASK 6: Go Your Own Way
To celebrate passing the halfway mark on my Almighty Quest, I took the List out to a seedy bar three blocks from my apartment and attempted to get it drunk. Unfortunately for me, its metaphorical stomach was as solid as iron, and it just drank and drank my money away while failing to get amusing and giggly.
I, on the other hand, got amusing and giggly almost immediately.
"Let me tell you," I said, enjoying the delicate way the words slurred on my tongue. "This whole Quest thing is just some crazy shit, all right? I thought my life was made. I mean, I'm a great shot, I've got serious job security, kind of, and I didn't ever have this giant bowling ball of guilt to lug around inside my stomach." The last phrase struck me as particularly apt and I happily repeated it under my breath a few times.
The List continued to lap at its scotch. "Alex, you weren't happy."
"Yes I was!" I protested. "Let me tell you, there were these rats in the alley below my place. And I shot at 'em. All the time. Like this great arcade game right in your own backyard, only for real." I took a sip of my beer. "Fucking fantastic."
"So the highlight of your life was shooting at rats?" the List asked casually.
Suddenly it didn't sound so great, when it said it in that careless tone of voice. "Oh my God," I groaned, putting my head down on the bar and starting to weep.
"Alex," the List soothed, taking a final swallow and pushing its glass aside. "Let's get you home. Okay?"
I staggered out to my car and the List insisted that I give it my keys. "Friends don't let friends drive drunk," it said, and I really couldn't argue with that logic. I climbed into the passenger seat and curled into a happy little ball.
The List somehow managed to get the keys into the ignition and the Divine Spirit seemed to take it from there. The ride home was bumpy and jarring and only served to remind me to get my shock absorber looked at. The List attempted to parallel park and actually did a pretty good job.
I staggered up the stairs and into my apartment, glad to see it. I gave the living room couch a big friendly hug in greeting, and it hugged me back so tightly that I couldn't find a way to move.
The List scampered off to my closet to find a blanket, which it then dragged across the floor to me. I worked my arm out of the couch's grip and pulled it up, smiling a little.
"Have a good night's sleep," the List whispered. "But keep in mind tomorrow's task, okay?"
"Whazzat?" I asked, closing my eyes.
"Um, hold on," it said. It made a disturbing folding sound. "TASK 6: Quit the Consortium."
The words rattled around my skull for a few moments. "Well, shit," I mumbled, and fell asleep.
Unfortunately, when I woke up, the world had failed to explode.
My head, on the other hand, felt like it had exploded a good four or five times during the course of the night. I cradled it gingerly, rubbing at my temples, wondering how I could get rid of the large, persistent ringing in my ears.
Eventually, I discovered it would go away if I answered the phone, which was ringing. "Hello?" I said hoarsely.
"Krycek!" Cheerful Consortium Operator Debbie sounded far from cheerful. "Where the fuck were you yesterday?"
"Getting my affairs in order," I said, liking the sound of it. "What's going on?"
"The Elders all flip-flopped again. Now the smoking guy's back in power, the British guy is in disgrace, and we're back on a decaf-only policy at HQ."
I sighed. "What does this have to do with me?"
"Ciggy wants to talk to you. Something about his son and pyromania. Don't hassle me, Krycek, I just work here." She hung up.
I set the phone down in its cradle and peered around the kitchen. The List had made itself a little nest of Kleenex and was snoring on the counter. The Cap'n Crunch started serenading me from the cupboard again, so I decided I might as well begin the day.
The List woke up as I poured the cereal into a bowl, wisely electing to forgo the suicide attempt this time. "What's going on?" it asked, rubbing its eyes.
"My boss wants to talk to me at work," I said, finding a spoon. "Power struggles, cryptic messages, all that."
"And you're going to tell him you quit, right?" The List seemed strangely adamant about it.
I shoveled cereal into my mouth. "Something like that."
It glared at me.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," I muttered, taking the bowl with me as I escaped into my bedroom. "Take away my livelihood."
I showered and got dressed, taking some Tylenol for my head. Plans whirled pell-mell through my head, each trying to figure out a scenario that didn't end with old Ciggy shooting me in the head. I had no doubt that he would want to shoot me in the head, just because he seemed to enjoy it. My quitting the Consortium would give him a good excuse.
I went into the kitchen to find my jacket. The List was in the sink, trying to scrub itself free of the pink. "There's no time like the present!" I hollered in a cheerful, devil-may-care manner. "Let's go get me killed!"
The List scrambled out, rolled around on a paper towel for a few moments, and jumped onto the palm of my hand. "You're not going to get killed," it said as I playfully vaulted down four stairs. "What, you're not allowed to go pursue more meaningful aspects of life?"
I shook my head. "Do you even know anything about the Consortium?"
It shrugged. "Old guys. Playing God. Overly obsessed with aliens."
We went outside and the bright light did a little tap dance on my abused head. "Yeah," I said, climbing into my car, "but you forgot the fact that they're violent. And closed-minded. And short-tempered."
The List and I sat down, and I closed the door behind me. "Wait a second," I said. "Where are my keys?"
The List produced them seemingly from nowhere and dropped them in my lap.
"Don't bother asking," it said serenely.
When I opened the door to HQ, the first thing I heard was the snoring.
Even though it was just past noon, the light level inside was low and hazy and full of smoke. I coughed as quietly as I could, but it didn't really matter. The elegant furniture was piled high with various Consortium Elders, all dressed in expensive suits and polished shoes, all fast asleep. The power struggle between the Brit and Ciggy was as boring as it was predictable, and the initial switch from regular coffee back to decaf always left most of the older guys incapacitated for 24 hours. Within about a week the Brit would regain control, and the resulting switch back to regular would cause everyone to get jittery and panic, often with dire consequences.
Debbie waved casually at me from her desk. "It's like a fucking mausoleum in here, isn't it?" she called loudly. I nodded politely and escaped through a door to my left.
Ciggy's office was at the end of a long, narrow hallway that he insisted be left unlit. He liked the idea of people creeping through the dark, terrified and uncertain, lulled only by the single orange spark of his cigarette through the frosted glass of his door. Fortunately Debbie had gotten the bright idea of placing flashlights at both ends of the hallway, to give us lowly underlings a fighting chance.
I tapped on the glass and waited. After a significant pause, I heard him rasp, "Come in."
I walked inside, preparing my lungs for the worst. The smoke was fresh and thick and I tried to make my cough as polite and friendly as possible.
"Alex..." he said softly, that casual, deadly smile appearing on his face. "How are you?"
I swallowed. "Fairly poor, sir, thank you."
He nodded. "I needed to talk to you about...things."
Steeling my courage, I took a step forward. "Actually, I need to talk to you first. It's a matter of the utmost importance."
He was surprised, but he hid it well. "By all means, Alex."
I took a deep breath. "I'm going to need to take a leave of absence from the Consortium."
He looked at me, sucking thoughtfully on his cigarette, and reached down for his gun.
"Um, please wait!" I exclaimed nervously, trying not to sound shrill. "Let me explain. I - I - "
I had no explanation. "I'm seeking out other professions!" I yelped suddenly, deciding that maybe the partial truth would work in this case. "I've been going through a lot of grief and guilt lately over the state of my life, and I just need some time to go and...work it out of my system."
Ciggy's face was almost completely inscrutable, except for the faint lines of confusion on his forehead. "Grief? Guilt? Whatever for?"
"Er, you know, killing...and stuff," I finished lamely.
He exhaled and tapped his cigarette into an ashtray. "I see." After a moment of deliberation, he lifted his gun again.
"Wait!" I screeched, letting my voice go as damn shrill as it wanted to. "Look! I, uh, I'm going to come back! Really! I'm not going off to backstab you or sell you out or anything, I just need some time for personal reflection! Time to explore my dreams!"
Ciggy's face suddenly turned to stone. "Really, Alex? Like the last time you left to 'explore your dreams.' When you sold us out, betrayed us, went to work for the Russian government. Do you expect me to be so stupid this time?"
"No!" Ah, blissful Hysteria was back to play an encore. "I swear to you! You can keep tabs on me all the time! It's not a problem! It's just - I need to - " I threw my arm into the air. "You know!"
"No, I don't know." He blew smoke vengefully through his teeth. "What exactly is this miraculous dream of yours, Alex? Enlighten me on what is going to fulfill your dark, empty world so much better than the Consortium."
"Uh - " I glanced about wildly, looking for a profession somewhere. "I - " Inspiration struck like lightning. "I'm going to be a hockey player, sir."
He made no effort to conceal the surprise that bounded cheerfully onto his face. "A what?"
Relief washed through me. "A hockey player. You know that baseball pitcher, you know, with the one arm? Well, uh, my dream is to be the first one-armed hockey player to win the Stanley Cup. You know, and I'll play for charity, and I'll work through my guilt, and it'll all be good and I'll come back as soon as its done!"
I mentally congratulated myself in the silence that followed, glad to have found such clever grace under pressure. Ciggy stared at me with stony eyes, contemplating.
He finally exhaled. "That's the most pathetic thing I've heard in my entire life, Alex."
He raised his gun and my heart jumped into my throat, trying to save itself. "The truth, Alex," Ciggy said coldly. "Or death. Your choice."
I sent a single panicky look down into my pocket, but the List was curled at the bottom, hiding.
"God, sir," I said abruptly, looking him in the eye. "God came down from heaven and ordered me to reform my life."
I waited for the blast, but it never came. Ciggy lowered the gun a few inches, then, incredibly, began to smile.
"You too?" He chuckled. "You should've just said so. Come here."
My heart remained in my throat cautiously, but I crept forward, terrified. Ciggy motioned for me to lean forward and I did, never taking my eyes of the gun.
He whispered into my ear. "Happens to the best of us, Alex. No way you can avoid it. Here." He pressed a piece of paper into my hand. "Come back when the Big Boy looks away, eh?"
I glanced at the paper. It read, "Never lose hope. Evil will always triumph."
"Repeat that once a day," Ciggy whispered. "You'll be fine."
He sat up and cleared his throat, sucking busily on the cigarette. "Anyway, Alex, enjoy the rest of your Consortium-free life," he said loudly. "And really, next time, keep your warped, inane lies to yourself, all right?"
He waved me towards the door and I managed to get out of the building without once breaking into a panicked sprint.
The sunlight exploded onto me with a punch, but I ignored it. That was it. I was free.
The words struck me oddly, and a strange giddiness seemed to overcome me. I was free, really and truly. No more snapping Debbie, smoky rooms, chauffeuring or pots of decaf. No more crazed missions to obscure little countries or cryptic conversations about nothing of any importance.
I was free.
I pulled open my pocket, peered inside at the List. "I'm free," I whispered, and the smile that stretched my face was wide and real.
The List glared up at me. "Yeah, well, I don't know about you, but I wet myself."
TASK 7: Everywhere
I zoomed down the street at 95 miles per hour, high on bliss.
The List had retreated back into the glove box, citing the lack of a reliable seatbelt. "I understand that you're happy," it called over the roar of the engine, "but couldn't you please be happy on a slightly lower speed limit?"
"Never!" I hollered, the wind whipping my words into a froth. "You don't understand, List! For the first time in years, I can actually make a goddamn choice about what I want to do with my life!"
The car in front of me studiously kept its speed at 55. I swerved into the next lane, shrieking, and the List shrieked with me.
"You always had a goddamn choice about what you wanted to do with your life!" it screamed, momentarily forgetting itself. "And you did it at reasonable speeds! Don't make me take away your divine intervention. I could get cops on your ass so fast it'd make this seem like nothing!"
Its glare was laserlike and deadly, and reluctantly I settled for a sedate 70. "Jesus," I entreated. "Let me enjoy my glee."
The List was huffy. "And who exactly manipulated you to this point so you'd be here to ENJOY this glee?"
"MELISSA!" I screamed, gunning the accelerator again. I stuck my head out the window. "I LOVE YOU, MELISSA!"
"Oh, and I suppose me and God are chopped liver?" the List screeched. It jumped out of the box and sunk its metaphorical teeth into my arm. I started and the car swerved a little, tires squealing.
"BE CAREFUL!" The List held its hand up. "One snap and your ass is toast!"
I braked steadily, taking a deep breath. "Sorry. I've never been able to handle ecstasy well."
"Yeah." It sounded spiteful.
We drove on in an uncomfortable silence. "Where are we going?" the List asked after awhile.
I thought about it. "Beats me. I was just driving for the hell of driving."
I glanced at the clock. It was only one o'clock. "Task 7, babe. At this rate I'll be done before tomorrow."
"Get a job," the List said.
I frowned and rolled up my window. "Pardon?"
"TASK 7," it emphasized pointedly, "GET A JOB."
Dark anger crept through my natural high. "Well, make up your fucking mind," I said irritably. "I just had a job."
"Get a 'respectable' job," it amended. "I apologize, I omitted the 'respectable' part to make it sound more angry."
I shrugged, my temper simmering down. "It's all right."
Get a job. This quickly? I supposed I could put it off for a day or two, but there really wasn't any need - I felt so good right now, I'd be better off finding one soon and happy than later and slightly more dismal. Get a job.
"Really, I can do anything," I said conversationally. "I could be whatever I want to be. I can go anywhere I want to go."
"That's what everyone says," the List grumbled. "And I suppose your dream is to become an astronaut, yes?"
"Fuck you," I said cheerfully. "No. I want..." I thought about it. "I want..."
We traveled six miles before the List bit me to get my attention. I looked at it in a panic.
"I have no idea what the fuck I want!" I exclaimed.
"Yes," the List sighed, "that's fairly typical."
"What we need," it explained to me three hours later, "is some sort of list."
For the past three hours I had swerved about in a state of total emotional distress. My high had hit rock bottom in such an outstandingly short amount of time that I was thrown completely off-guard. The List tried to reassure me and calm me down, but I was far beyond its limited wiles. I was officially in the Deep End, and there was no life preserver anywhere in sight.
When my breathing became slightly more relaxed and regular, the List started barking out various professions - woodsmith, barber, postal worker, teacher - supposedly with the intent of finding one that I liked. Instead I got even more scared and had to pull over into an industrial parking lot and weep.
After an hour and a half had passed and my panic attack showed no signs of abating, the List eventually resorted to crooning soft, unfamiliar lullabies into my ear. It did the trick - I practiced some deep breathing exercises and listened to the unearthly music, rapt. As soon as I was calm it stopped abruptly and grabbed me by the nose.
"Look, Alex," it said. "We need to find a place to sit down. We'll list all your skills, likes, and dislikes, and we'll figure out what to do together. Then we'll look around for some jobs, go searching. Calmly. You still have the rest of the week, you know."
I nodded, not letting myself speak. It let go of my nose and sat back down. "Thanks," I muttered.
The List smiled faintly. "All in a day's work."
I pulled back onto the main road and started scanning for a restaurant or cafe. I also began to mentally tabulate my skills in my head, trying to figure out how they would translate to a job in the working sector. I mean, world-class assassins had to have something when they retired, right?
Yeah. Like rule the world.
"Pull over!" the List exclaimed. He pointed to the right side of the street. "Park here!"
I did as he asked. "What's going on?"
"There." He pointed out the window. "We need to go in there."
I looked outside. "Fuck no," I said briskly, starting the car again.
"Alex! I'm getting very strong...suggestions that we go in there immediately." The List attempted to open its door. "If you know what I mean!"
I turned off the car, my face scrunching in disgust. I peered outside at the bland, faceless front of RESTAURANT.
"If you mean what I think you mean," I said, "I'm going to kill myself."
It struggled futilely with the door for a few more moments. It looked so sad that I finally reached over and picked him up, shoving him none-too- gently into my pocket.
"Fine," I spat, kicking my door open.
RESTAURANT's door was wide-open, and the aroma of paint fumes drifted out, giving me a delicate kiss. The front window had been soaped clean, and painted in bold, bubbly red letters was the phrase "A CLOUDY DAY IN ATLANTIS."
The little "Help Wanted" sign in the corner did nothing for my nerves.
I looked at the List. "I don't want to."
It sighed. "Look. A piece of general advice. It's not very often you are confronted with a premonition of such magnitude and strength as the one I just felt. When you do get one, you should follow it."
I frowned. "But I don't want to."
"ALEX." The List, in a remarkable display of dexterity, ascended my jacket and grabbed me by the collar. "Don't - fuck - with - God."
Of course. How could you argue with that?
I walked inside. The scaffold was still planted in the middle of the room, but the thin little man was sitting glumly behind the counter. There was no sign of the swarthy man, although his spatula was resting on the floor, abandoned.
"How are things?" I asked abruptly, careful not to look upwards.
The thin little man jumped. "Oh, hello!" he said, bravely attempting to be jovial. "Not so good. I was unfortunately forced to terminate the employment of my previous cook, Roscoe, and I have yet to find any sort of replacement."
Hope suddenly glimmered behind those little spectacles, but I pushed purposefully away from that venue. "Uh, the name in the window. What's that all about?"
He brightened. "A Cloudy Day In Atlantis! Yes, it's the theme of the restaurant, as depicted by my murals!" He swept his arm into the air. "I hope to have a proper sign made as soon as I begin making money, although of course with no cook, that's unlikely." He eyed me significantly.
I snuck a quick look at the Task List, who had slid back into my pocket, but it was staring at the ceiling in frank, innocent amazement.
"Um. A cook, you said?" I took the bait as casually as I could.
"Yes." He smiled widely. "Do you cook, by any chance?"
"Ah, some," I said evasively, casually looking at the ceiling. "What's the job like, just out of friendly curiosity?"
He clapped his hands. "I'm so very glad you asked! Why don't you come into my office?"
With a lithe little leap, the thin man vacated his seat and disappeared into the back. I followed him, my teeth clenched, wishing I could run and run and never come back.
The thin little man's office was more accurately a "broom closet," but he had managed to smash a desk and two chairs inside. He busily sat down and started sorting through his desk drawers, ruffling papers in a light-hearted manner.
I took a seat and tilted back a little bit, staring at the ceiling.
"Now, sir, my name is Cyrus, and I am extraordinarily glad you came back to my humble little restaurant. Let me invite you to look at these papers."
I didn't look at him. I couldn't look at him. If God himself had descended out of the ceiling and asked for my attention - which wasn't all that unlikely, at this point - I would ignore him. I would completely and totally ignore him.
There was a mural on this ceiling as well.
"Now, the job description is technically that of a short-order cook," Cyrus said. "This involves the preparation of raw ingredients, the cooking and arranging of the food, and menu planning."
The mural on the ceiling was not entirely unlike the ones out in the dining area. It was a man, of course, and he was in the clouds, nude, of course. However, it was obvious that Cyrus had saved this particular man specifically for his own enjoyment, as evidenced by his massive, glistening, foot-long penis.
Cyrus began writing something. "You'll also have to do kitchen work, unfortunately, since I don't have the resources to hire a busboy of any kind. However, I can tell you that I will more than compensate you when business picks up, as I'm sure it will as soon as we start getting actual customers."
The name of the man, scrawled in cursive in the corner of the room, was Adonis. I had to admit it fit perfectly. Adonis wore an expression of gentle love, a face any romantic soul could adore. Not that anyone within their right mind would be looking at his face. Really, I thought, my neck starting to ache, even Marita would be perfectly content with this man.
"So I've filled out this form and all it requires is your name, signature, and the answers to a few brief questions." Cyrus finished. "Ready?"
The sudden pause startled me. I squinted at him. "What?"
"Your name," he prompted.
"Oh." The Task List popped briefly out of my pocket, gaped at me in terrified horror, and hid again. "Alex Krycek."
He wrote it down carefully. I wanted to look back up, but I fought it with every ounce of my willpower.
Cyrus finished his laborious scrawl and peered at me over his spectacles. "And have you had any previous experience short-order cooking?"
"Yes, but not on a professional level," I said, trying to sound breezy.
"How refreshing! And has that been fulfilling?" He watched me expectantly.
My eyes had jumped guiltily back up to Adonis and I really couldn't look away. "Um, just a little piece of advice," I said, distantly. "Maybe you should conduct these interviews in a room with a more, uh, genital-free atmosphere."
"Oh? Do you think so? Is it distracting?" He craned his neck and examined Adonis with intense concern.
After a minute and a half of silence I began to worry. "Cyrus?" I asked. His jaw had gone slack and a little trace of moisture was traveling down his chin. "Uh, Cyrus?"
He jumped guiltily, focusing on me and grinning. He discreetly wiped off his mouth and adjusted his pants. "What was I saying?" he asked.
I did my best to suppress the shudder that ran through me. He obviously was suffering from some sort of mental disorder, or at least some severe sexual repression, and even though I had only known him for a combined total of ten minutes, he already irritated me. But, then again, a job is a job, a premonition is a premonition, and my eternal soul was getting a bit tired of all the strain.
"You were saying you wanted to hire me immediately," I said.
His face brightened. "Did I? I don't actually recall saying so, but I have faith in your innate sense of honesty!" He pushed his papers forward and extended a thin hand. "Welcome aboard, Alex!"
I shook his hand, picked up a pen, and looked at the List. "I'm never going to forgive you," I muttered.
It was busy swooning, so I just signed the damn papers.
TASK 8: Silver Springs
"End of the line, buddy," I shouted.
The man looked up and I slid his tray down the length of the counter. It came neatly to a stop in front of him and he grinned. "Thanks."
Cyrus peered waspishly over my shoulder. "Be careful!"
"Fuck you!" I replied cheerfully.
My second day at the newly christened A Cloudy Day In Atlantis was actually going well. The first day had been pure hell, and it wasn't because of the job itself. The job itself was easy - all I knew how to cook was barbecue chicken, eggs, and hamburgers, so that's all I put on the menu. No, the real difficulty was having to be in such close proximity to Cyrus.
Cyrus meant well. He had ambition and dreams and lofty artistic fervor, but in conversations he seemed to be lacking something. The first day, every ten minutes, he'd approach me cheerfully and begin to talk. I didn't have to talk back - it wasn't necessary. He'd just babble until something shiny distracted his attention and broke his train of thought.
Ten minutes before closing, I had snapped.
"Atlantis is well-known for being located under the sea," he was saying proudly. "Placing it in the *clouds* not only tickles our innate sense of absurdity, but it also questions our assumptions of what is normal and what is merely intellectually above our reasoning. I find this very thought- provoking and I'm sure our customers will too, provided we ever get any."
Without thinking, I whipped my spatula around and brandished it in his face. "Cyrus!"
"Wh - what?" he asked, startled.
I suddenly had a glimmer of understanding as to why Roscoe had been so swarthy and ill-tempered. "I DON'T FUCKING CARE," I pronounced loudly, several centimeters from his face.
He had looked hurt. "No one does."
But the second day - the second day was going well. I had convinced Cyrus to add an addendum to the sign in the window, as a ploy to generate more customers. He had steadfastly refused, insisting the customers would come on their own, but by the lunch rush even he had to notice the dank, hollow emptiness of the place.
So he got out his little paints and wrote underneath the title, "Featuring Nude Men."
And sure enough, by dinner time we had enough single women and gay men to make any NBC executive proud.
This frightened Cyrus immensely. He hid in his office for half of the day, leaving me to deal with the hungry masses. I held my own pretty well, and even began to enjoy myself a little. A very little.
The Task List, completely and total scarred, curled catatonic in my pocket for the entire two-day period. I briefly considered unrolling it and looking at my last task, but I decided to get accustomed to the new job before messing with any more Godly plans.
By closing time the second night, Cyrus had emerged white-faced from his office and went to mingle with customers. They uniformly praised his artwork, which did wonders for his self-esteem, and said that the food wasn't all that bad, which I guess was better than nothing. By the time the last guest had left, he was radiant and sparkling and just full of words.
"Oh, Alex!" he exclaimed, dancing about like a sprite. "Success is in our hands! I can feel it! I can taste it!"
I shuddered a little. "Just stick to observing it, Cyrus."
He suddenly stopped in mid-glide. "We must celebrate."
My shudder was significantly larger this time. "Um, maybe another time."
"Tsk tsk!" Cyrus grabbed me by the hand and attempted to twirl me about. I weighed about 3 times more than he did, so needless to say I won. "I know of a wonderful little establishment with fabulous beverages, just down the street. I insist!"
"Um..." He fluttered his eyelashes at me in a way that reminded me chillingly of Marita. "Jesus, Cyrus! I'll go, but swear to me you'll never do that again!"
"On my honor!" he said happily, and twirled out of the room to find his coat.
I glanced around, startled. The Task List had poked his head out of my pocket, pale and shaken. "Are you okay?" I asked, concerned.
"Not really," it said. It looked up and cringed. "Can we go outside?"
I walked out into the cool of the night. Cyrus began to shut down all the appliances and lights. "What's wrong?"
"Oh..." the List moaned. "I really just don't have the stomach for the earthly life. Too many nasty surprises, and far too much abuse."
I blushed a little. "I'm really sorry."
It waved a metaphorical hand, faintly. "Not your fault. Anyway, we're almost done." It struggled to get out of my pocket. "Last task."
I helped it gently onto my palm and stared at the last penciled line.
"TASK 8: Love."
The List leaned over, read it for itself, and looked up. "Love."
"Love," I repeated, more mystified than irritated. "Kind of vague."
"Yeah." The List sighed. "Good luck."
A mild sense of panic thrilled through me. "You're not leaving, are you?"
"Naw," it said, but its voice was faint. "I'm sticking with you 'til the end, buddy."
As a general rule, any establishment called "Titty Town" is not somewhere you want to go with your new employer.
Cyrus waved jovially to a group of people as we walked in, a few of whom waved back. The rest of them carefully averted their eyes and continued drinking, which was, in my estimation, very wise.
The theme of this "establishment," as he called it, was breasts. Lots of them. Everywhere. Unavoidable. It seemed to me a very unlikely place for a person like him to go to, but then, I tried as hard as I could not to think of Cyrus as a sexual being.
All the light fixtures in the room were shaped like breasts. All the signs featured large-chested, nude women. For an additional $8.99, you could purchase a large sip cup shaped like a breast, although after glancing at one I could tell the quality and workmanship was quite poor. The bartender, however, was a large, bearded man, with not a small pair of breasts himself.
Cyrus sidled easily up to the bar, grinning happily. "What'll you have?" he asked.
I looked around. There was a woman sitting next to us, along with her husband, who was having an animated sports-related conversation with what looked to be a transsexual prostitute. The woman was gulping her drink like Kool-Aid.
"Hey," I said to her, trying be friendly. "What's in that?"
She swallowed, eyeing her cup suspiciously. "Alcohol," she said after awhile.
I nodded. "I'll have one of those," I told the bartender.
He rolled his eyes and walked away. Cyrus laughed, bouncing a little to the blaring overhead music, and slapped me fraternally on the back. "Are you as happy as I am?" he shouted over the din.
"Oh, indeed," I assured him, wondering how drunk I would have to get him before I could sneak away. "Nothing like a successful business and millions of breasts to cheer a guy up."
The bartender slapped our drinks in front of us, and Cyrus made a big production out of paying for us both. I ignored him entirely and sipped my drink, jumping a little as it slid down my throat. Well, at least now I could breathe fire.
"Strong stuff," I managed to the woman next to me, who looked like she was on her third.
"Not strong enough," she vowed, and raised her finger for another one.
I turned back to Cyrus, and to my amazement, he had struck up a conversation with the man next to him. Well, perhaps this wasn't so amazing. What was amazing was the fact that the man was talking back, eagerly, some blather about the early Renaissance. Cyrus argued some point and they both laughed.
I was about to feel upsettingly jealous and slighted when I saw Fate out of the corner of my eye.
I paused. Looked back. Yes, it was him. I blinked a few times, just to be sure. Yes.
I tapped Cyrus on the shoulder. "I'm gonna go mingle," I shouted.
He nodded absently and forgot about me entirely. Thank the good Lord for small favors.
Or large ones.
I picked up my drink, turned around, and headed directly for Fate's table. There was no hesitation in my mind, just faint, simple hope.
Fate drew his gun and pointed it lazily at my head.
"What happened to that stuff I said about leaving my life for good, Krycek?" Mulder's tough persona was dimmed a little by his brief pause to take a drink. "Fuck you. You wanna sit down?"
"Sure." I took a casual sip of my drink, my heart pounding. I sat. He stared.
"Went to Pendrell's house," he said vaguely, waving the gun in a flimsy manner.
"Oh?" I belatedly remembered that I hadn't warned Brian about that.
"Yeah." The slur in his voice was evident. "Said something about being on drugs, or something. Scully talked to him, mostly. Said it was your fault too."
I picked my words carefully. "Yeah, a little bit. I'm sorry."
He took another drink, resting the gun on the table. "Anyway, we decided to let him live, since, you know, he was already, dead, sorta. You know."
"Yeah, I know." I stared into my drink.
"Krycek." Mulder said it with surprising gentleness. "What's been going on lately? Why've you been all the sudden telling the truth and acting all sorry?"
The Task List stirred gently in my pocket.
"Um," I said. "It's a long story."
Mulder waited in patient silence.
"Oh." I set my drink down. "Well, I, uh, sort of...I've been trying to change my ways. You know. Apologize to the people I've wronged, make myself a better person. Change my way of life."
The List stirred again, and with deliberate slowness I began to reach for my pocket.
Mulder frowned. "And it's been working?"
I drew the List out quietly, set it on the table. "Yes, it has," I said. "There's really nothing better than the knowledge that you've been forgiven."
Mulder took in that little factlet and pondered it silently for a few moments. Discreetly, I lifted the List up.
It was blank.
I jumped. "What happened?"
The List smiled, weary but radiant. "You're done."
"What?" I turned halfway around in my seat, trying to look casual. "What do you mean? I'm just talking with Mulder. Trust me, there's no love here. Well, nothing consensual, at least."
"No, no," the List murmured patiently. "It's not him, although if you choose to pursue that vein, you might be fortunate. No. Yourself."
"What?" I didn't get it.
"Yourself," it repeated. "You and your life. You've come to accept that your life has changed - you've accepted the fact that you can't go back - and you've accepted the fact that you can be happy without being evil. You have love for yourself and the kindnesses you can find."
I couldn't help but frown. "Sounds like a bunch of sappy shit to me."
The List chuckled, faintly.
Someone started tapping me on the shoulder. I turned back around and saw Mulder frowning at me, the drunken gears grinding away behind his eyes.
"Who are you talking to?" he asked finally.
I looked at the List. "This piece of paper," I said, trying to sound nonchalant.
The lines in his forehead deepened. The computing skills required for this situation were staggering.
Inspiration struck him with an audible gasp. "Why?"
"Because I'm drunk," I said.
That was exactly what he wanted to hear. "So you are," he said, reaching over and patting my shoulder in a reassuring way. "So you are."
He went back to nursing his drink and I couldn't help but smile.
The List gave a tinny little cough. "It's time, Alex."
Without warning, pained emotion tugged at my throat, my eyes. "Do you have to go?" I asked, trying not sound overtly piteous. "I mean - this is all still really new - I don't know how I'll get by, you know. Without you."
"Oh, Alex," it whispered, and it patted my hand gently. Tears were lurking behind my eyes and I fought them dully.
"You'll be fine," the List whispered. "Just remember."
It pointed its small metaphorical fist towards the ceiling, and I looked up.
"I'll always be watching."
And with a tiny shudder and sparkle, the Task List disappeared, leaving nothing behind but fine granules of dust.
I looked up, stunned, and saw Mulder staring at me again. Suspicion, pure and vile, echoed in his eyes.
"The paper disappeared," he said, a bit incoherently. "Why?"
My jaw was hanging open a little bit. With as much resolve as I could muster, I drew it shut and smiled. "Because you're drunk," I said.
His face cleared, and in a sudden burst of sad, aching happiness, I reached over and patted his shoulder reassuringly.
"So I am," he muttered, "so I am."
"My little demon, comin' on down
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Yes, yes, I know, I'm going straight to hell for all of this. It's all meant in lighthearted jest, and if I've offended you, I apologize. (Well, if I offended you, I imagine you left right around the second sentence)
Comments and criticism are greatly appreciated. If you've gotten this far, thank you from the bottom of my heart.