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Playing With Fire I thru III

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Playing With Fire I: Vivaldi by Jami Wilsen

TITLE: Playing With Fire: 1-Vivaldi, 2-Mahler, 3-Tchaikovsky
AUTHOR: Jami Wilsen
WARNING: Contains major spoilers for the end of Season Eight, as well as minor and major spoilers for the entire series.
DISCLAIMER: If CC took better care of these guys, than WE would be out of a job. [g]
ARCHIVE: RatBK, NickZone-The Alex Annex, DitBasement, LGM Slash
RATING: NC-17 for m/m slash, language (you have been warned).
SUMMARY: Byers' new contact is not what he seems. Byers attempts to understand Mulder's psychological problems. Mulder tries to deal with his psychological problems. Krycek is sick and tired of Mulder's psychological problems... ad infinitum.
SERIES: A new attempt to repair the DAMAGE done to my heart and soul by CC in Season Eight. [heavy sigh].
BETAS: Jennie and Candace [without whom I don't know what I'd do!]
SPECIAL THANKS: To Lorelei, Shelley and Cattnip, for being there for me!! And to Sebastian, for inspiring me.
DEDICATION: To Sue, who needed cheering up and sweetness.
Note: This song inspired me so heavily for this fic!!! I think I based the whole fic on it, except for the Madonna lyric ref. [g]. I was listening to the album the entire time I wrote it. Suggestion: try listening to this song while watching the lovely-lovely scenes from Dead/Alive with Doggett/Krycek in the car park - I DARE you. heheh! ::fans self desperately::

Savage Garden: Chained To You

We were standing all alone
You were leaning in to speak to me
Acting like a mover shaker
Dancing to Madonna then you kissed me
And I think about it all the time
Sweet temptation rush all over me
And I think about it all the time
Passion desire so intense I can't take anymore because

I feel the magic all around you
It's bringing me to my knees
Like a wannabe
I've got to be chained to you

And when you looked into my eyes
Felt a sudden sense of urgency
Fascination casts a spell and
You became more than just a mystery
And I think about you all the time
Is this fate is it my destiny
That I think about you all the time
I no longer pretend to have my hand on the wheel because

I feel the magic all around you
It's bringing me to my knees
Like a wannabe
I've got to be chained to you
I feel the magic building around you

And I think about it all the time
And I think about it all the time
Tell me it's madness I barely know you
We were standing all alone
You were leaning in to speak to me
Ten steps back you're still a mystery
Acting live a mover shaker
dancing to Madonna then you kissed me
I can't take anymore because

I feel the magic building around you
I feel the magic all around you
It's bringing me to my knees
Like a wannabe
I've got to be chained to you

Tell me it's madness
I barely know you

Playing With Fire 1: Vivaldi

The Four Seasons Hotel
Downtown Houston, Texas
19:45 PM

Byers strode purposefully up to the reception desk, checked in and found that his contact had already left a message that he'd be there at exactly eight o'clock, and to meet him there at the hotel.

Byers took the key from the receptionist and picked up his briefcase, turning to go to the elevator.

That was when he caught sight of a man out of the corner of his eye, sitting across the room in a dark business suit and green shirt. An emerald silk shirt, to be exact. Arntzen had told him that's what he'd be wearing. The man was sitting in the lounge of the hotel lobby, obviously awaiting Byers' arrival.

Byers frowned, wondering why Arntzen would choose to meet in such a public place rather than in the hotel room, considering the sensitive nature of the information they were exchanging. Then Byers realized: paranoia was the best and only friend for people in Arntzen's position. Byers could well understand, as being a relentless pursuer of the exposure of secrets gave him an insight into the world of the same shadows he fought so tirelessly to bring to the light of public knowledge.

Arntzen had dark hair and there was something about him that Byers found remarkably familiar. He was about ten feet away from Arntzen when he suddenly realized who his contact really was. Shit. *Shit*. He found himself standing frozen in indecision, wondering if he should continue with this rendezvous or make a run for it.

Krycek looked up and saw Byers, and his brilliant eyes narrowed in recognition. After a few tense moments of deliberation, Krycek muttered, "*You're* my contact?"

"I-," Byers mouth was dry, "yes." This was Alex Krycek; he couldn't begin to fathom in this moment what it could mean, apart from the obvious compromising of both their positions. Arntzen was Krycek. He'd been exchanging information with Krycek all this time and hadn't even realized it. Krycek was one of the most dangerous people he knew. And Krycek appeared to not have realized it had been him, either. Mulder would be furious if he found out that all the data Byers and the two other Gunmen had been providing him with recently, on the latest oilrig snafu concerning the oiliens on the offshore drilling platform off Galveston, had been coming from Krycek. It immediately rendered the information suspect. Byers' credibility was shot, both with 'Arntzen' and with Mulder. He just hoped he'd be able to get out of this without getting shot, himself.

Byers gulped, wondering how he could get out of the hotel, away from this terrifying meeting. Deal with the repercussions afterward. Try to minimize the damage. Figure out how to verify the quality and validity of the information somehow. Damn.

Krycek looked pissed off. "Did Mulder put you up to this?"

Byers swallowed and licked his lips. If he said no, there was no guarantee that Krycek wouldn't simply eradicate him just for the sake of security, and besides Krycek probably wouldn't even believe him. If he said yes, Krycek would undoubtedly have to cover his tracks to ensure the anonymity of his Arntzen alias and eradicate him for the sake of security, on principle...

Krycek sighed and passed his hand over his face. "Stop looking so terrified. I'm not going to kill you," he added, as if reading Byers' mind. "Come on, let's go upstairs and sort out this mess somewhere less visible." He got to his feet, and Byers swallowed as he was reminded of just how big Krycek was. At the moment Krycek seemed larger than life, like a panther, but then Byers could still feel his heart pounding in his chest and throughout his veins as if it was trying to leap out of his body altogether.

Walking past him with a slight smirk lifting the corners of his mouth, Krycek said, "Small world, isn't it?"

Somehow, the thought of Alex Krycek taking him seriously seemed remote at best, especially considering Krycek's level of involvement with the Resistance. If anything, the entire outfit and endeavor of the Lone Gunmen seemed paltry compared to the circles Krycek cruised in. Indeed, the comparison was apt, for like any shark Krycek was not to be trusted. Mulder had ranted about the man for so many years that it seemed all the epithets were second nature to Byers now and they came easily to mind. 'Rat-bastard, liar, traitor, *murderer*...'

Even as he woodenly followed Krycek into the elevator to go to the seventh floor, he felt like a lamb obediently allowing himself to be led to the slaughter. As they stood there, the elevator lifting them up towards whatever fate Krycek had in mind for them, to the same room that Byers had imagined would afford him a conspiracy-revealing illumination, Byers found himself steadfastly avoiding looking at the man.

An inadvertent glance, though, revealed Krycek was watching him out of the corner of his eye, that slightly mocking smirk ever-present on the man's face.

Byers stood up straighter, his spine stiffening. He'd be damned if he was going to let Krycek get to him. After all, Byers knew that he was on the side of the angels - something Krycek could only ever dream of, considering Krycek's involvement with the Syndicate and the heinous deeds he'd committed against Mulder, Skinner, Scully and others over the years. He'd be damned if he let Krycek's amusement over his initial doubts and dread leach him of the dignity that was left him.

Byers held the passkey in his hand and Krycek let him precede him down the hall towards the room. A simple swipe and Room 404 was open. Krycek quickly went to the window, looking out of it by seeming force of habit as Byers placed the briefcase on the bed.

Byers cleared his throat. "Mr Krycek, Agent Mulder has no idea that I am the one providing him with this information that you've given me. And I had no idea that it was you, or else I would have reconsidered my answer when you contacted me two months ago."

"Yeah, that's obvious." Krycek seemed to feel more at ease and confident about their surroundings and location now. He turned his gaze upon Byers fully, leaving Byers feeling slightly awkward at being the focus of that intense attention. "Ex-Agent Mulder - I understand he was fired." Krycek smiled almost bitterly. "So, no one knows you're here?"

Another pang of doubt and misgiving went through Byers at these words. He'd thought Krycek was dead, as had everyone else. But Krycek merely snorted at Byers' expression and he went to sit down in one of the seats by the window. "Come on, stop looking at me like I'm an ogre. I don't enjoy eating people - even when they beg me to," he commented, rather obliquely.

Byers chose not to pursue any understanding of what Krycek might have meant by that.

Folding his arms before him resolutely and standing tall, Byers said, "Considering that neither of us was truly aware of each other's identity, this whole operation has been compromised now that we've met. You probably believe that you were set-up, whereas I have no reason to believe that anything you've given me so far has any real validity whatsoever, now."

Krycek stared at him. "You must be more rattled than you look. It's precisely because we didn't know who we were that proves the veracity of my information to you, and your sincere intentions in this sorry enterprise. It's just inconvenient, is all." He cast a disparaging look around the hotel room. "Look, I contacted you because you were sending out clear signals that you had a direct line to a federal public dissemination point. When you said it was the FBI, I figured it made more sense to do this through a middle-man than to go stirring up Mulder's hornet's nest of a psyche by taking it to him directly."

Byers found himself nodding. "It... has become a little more tedious and officious doing things through him. Being dead for three months seems to have left him even more sarcastic and cynical than before. Still, he's the only one who seems to care about the truth, or stopping the extraterrestrial threat," Byers added, not wanting to do Mulder an injustice by responding too readily to Krycek's very salient point regarding Mulder's psychological bull-in-a-china-shop mentality.

Krycek stopped and regarded him with a seemingly new expression, one that seemed almost warily respectful. "You're a good man, a decent man, aren't you, John?"

"Compared to some, perhaps," Byers responded, not entirely sure what Krycek was getting at.

Krycek snorted. "Don't get flustered. I only mean that you really believe in the purity of your intentions and your goals, like Mulder does."

Stiffly, Byers replied, "Well, I don't think Mulder or myself belong on pedestals. We're just doing what little we can in a fight against a slow-moving but evil behemoth. Neither time nor the government are on our side."

"Right. 'Fight the future' and all that crap." Krycek grinned, tightly.

"I thought you were supposed to be dead," Byers stated, just as curtly.

Krycek regarded him, expressionless. "Well. Let's just say that I have friends in high places. Very high. Shall we get on with it?" Krycek nodded towards the briefcase on the bed. Whether he was referring to his guardian angel or to extraterrestrial intervention, Byers wasn't sure.

A simple exchange of information: 'Arntzen' had promised to supply him with proof positive of the presence of various aliens who had assumed their host-bodies' identities as specified within the Census Bureau's data. Aliens in strategically chosen positions; human hosts with roles that afforded the aliens the best possible placement for their objectives. In return, Byers had brought detailed files downloaded from the Department of Defense archives, recent data on the major projects currently headed by the Department of Agriculture and the FDA, hacked and obtained by Langley and himself over the course of the last week. Of course, knowing that it was Krycek who wanted this information changed the slant of the data, in Byers' mind. Suddenly he wanted to understand what Krycek's real interest in these projects could be. Suddenly the projects had gained a suspicious flavor. He could see no reason why he shouldn't go ahead with the trade. But knowing that it was Krycek also made him wonder how trustworthy the evidence really was, that 'Arntzen' had promised him, and just what Krycek intended to do with the DOD files.

Krycek didn't seem to have anything printed out, on hardcopy, on him as far as Byers could tell. He cursed himself for allowing himself to be railroaded, swept along in Krycek's wake without fully examining the circumstances downstairs.

He too threw a glance towards the briefcase and then back over at Krycek.

Krycek merely grinned and stood up, reaching into an inner jacket pocket to withdraw a capsule that he tossed to Byers.

Byers caught it, fumbling for a moment, then stared down at it. "Microfilm?"

"Take it out and have a look." Krycek had gone to the briefcase and was opening it, rifling through the contents with a sharp eye. After having satisfied himself with it, he snapped the lid shut.

Byers peeled off the lid of the capsule and shook out a rolled up film into his palm. Holding it against the light of the window, he peered at it, scrutinizing the tiny print. It was impossible to see what was on it. He sighed, inaudibly. There was no way to tell if he'd been had.

Without looking over at him, Krycek was sitting back down in his seat. "Check the ID code printed on the tab on the edge of the film."

Byers scanned the edge for it and saw the code as directed. Then looked back up at Krycek. "The same password you used to contact me, in your communications."

Krycek shrugged. "Unoriginal, I know. But I didn't have the luxury of time. It was the only thing that sprang to mind."

And just how is that supposed to convince me of its authenticity? Byers wanted to ask. But he didn't dare, at this point. He could check it out later. Maybe that was Krycek's point, all along. Byers took a deep breath and put the film away, sliding it into his coat pocket. "So, what happens now?"

"Well, there is the little unfortunate matter of my 'death'," Krycek commented. "Right now, I can't think of any reason why you would keep silent about my continued existence to, say, AD Skinner, or even Mulder himself."

That sounded slightly, vaguely, threatening to Byers. With a nonchalance he didn't feel, he shrugged. "I can't think of any reason why I shouldn't. It isn't necessary and in fact my involvement with you would only cast my own motives in a suspicious light. I would have nothing to gain by blowing the whistle on you now."

Krycek smiled, this time almost benevolently, kindly. Byers could hardly trust it; it was a wolf's grin and Krycek had no reputation for compassion. "And I have nothing to gain by intimidating you. I don't even have to try, after all."

"If that's a warning, then I accept it as such," Byers said awkwardly, feeling like he was way out of his depth, fencing with someone far more skilled than himself. Not only that, the combined fear and sheer vicariousness of this little meeting with Krycek was leaving him in a state of nervous arousal. He just prayed it didn't grow too obvious to the other man.

Krycek tilted his head and had the temerity to actually look taken aback. "What *has* Mulder been saying about me behind my back? Let me guess: I'm the devil himself. All good little conspiracy-hounds should avoid contact with me, because I might give them some real answers and cause them to question some of the crusader bullshit."

"Why don't you, then?" Byers said, wanting to call his bluff. Some little demon inside his head was pushing him to see how Krycek would react.

"Would you believe anything I told you?" was Krycek's immediate reply.

Byers moved to the bed and sat down on the edge of it. "I'm more open-minded than you seem to take me for. Certainly, I'm more open to possibilities than Mulder is. He discards things that don't seem to instantly validate his current theories, particularly where you're concerned."

Krycek blinked, obviously not expecting this from him, one of Mulder's little sideline supporters and fellow acolyte in paranoia training. Byers smiled, slightly. Genially.

Finally, Krycek answered, "I'd tell you, but I really would have to kill you, afterwards."

"A little too pat, don't you think? Why haven't you killed me already?" Byers nearly bit his tongue. He hadn't meant to come across so challenging.

But it had an extraordinary effect on Krycek, who seemed to shrink back within himself, withdrawing behind an impersonal mask, and didn't appear to be enjoying the encounter anymore. His eyes narrowed. Finally, when he did reply, his tone had an almost complaining note to it. "Why does everyone think I'm this cold-blooded killer, this deadly assassin who goes around bumping people off when I cross their path?"

Gee, I don't know; maybe because so many people die after meeting you, Byers wanted to say. But he managed to remember that he was treading the razor's edge at the moment and however much the adrenaline thrill was rushing through him, he'd end up regretting it -for perhaps a few seconds before he became another hotel-slaying statistic.

"If the shoe fits," he said. And quickly continued, "We can't afford to blindly trust anyone, in this business. I understand that. But not all exchanges have to end in disillusionment. I have my own cause, my own goals. There's no reason why they can't converge with yours on this occasion. Why else would I be here; why else would I happen to be your contact under these circumstances?"

Krycek sniffed and looked away from him, towards the door. "Are you suggesting that we not terminate our, ah, connection? But keep an open line of further communication?"

"Why not?" Byers conveniently and temporarily forgot that Krycek was every bit as manipulative and devious as Mulder was always raving.

Krycek reminded him of it in the next breath, however. "Why do you trust me? How can you? And if you do, tell me why I should believe you?"

Byers stopped, wondering if anything but the honest truth was going to get him through this with his skin intact. Before he could worry about what he was about to say, and if it was too much, he blurted out, "Because I know why you are always sending information to Mulder, why you inevitably show up in the middle of things just when things are getting interesting. Why you keep turning up like a bad penny in his life, even where you couldn't possibly have any interest in the events but playing the wild card, just because you can."

Krycek's eyes widened and he looked honestly startled.

Encouraged, Byers threw caution to the wind and continued, "Also, why you don't mind letting them think the worst of you even when you have put yourself at great personal risk in seemingly altruistic, heroic deeds."

He began to worry that he'd gone too far this time. He hadn't meant to sound so much like he was trying to flatter him. He hoped Krycek wouldn't take it that way. Nor as a threat, that Byers might try to use what he'd observed against him. After a few moments of fast thinking and quick conclusions during which Byers imagined he could see the wheels spinning in Krycek's brain, Krycek chuckled under his breath. "Mulder underestimated you, didn't he? They all have."

Byers shrugged, feeling the sweat trickle down from his armpits and soak his shirt beneath his jacket. "I notice too much, I guess. It's easy to dismiss someone when they aren't shouting their two-cents' worth at crucial meetings." He decided to go for broke. "Why do you think I haven't said anything until now? I've never once spoken with Mulder about this, about what I've seen, what I've discovered, all that I know. Maybe I know him a little too well, but I'm pretty sure he'd throw the baby out with the bathwater in his eagerness to beat the 'truth' out of you."

Krycek licked his lips. "And you figure, what, that you, and I, can help him far more effectively from a discreet distance?"

Byers smiled. "Isn't that the only way to tell someone something when they can't hear it from someone too close to them?"

"Fine. I'll take that at face value, for now. Now tell me why I should trust *you*." Krycek's face took on that familiar mocking expression from before.

Damn. In a roundabout way, they'd managed to circle completely back around to Byers having to plead for his life. "Because I do the right thing, even if it doesn't seem to fall in line with Mulder's particular philosophies, with the hypocrisy of the federal justice system, or with a preset standard of public morality. Especially when the same public refuses to see what's going on under their very noses." Byers let his voice color with the exasperation he had felt growing over the last several years of his own quest for justice and truth. People, it seemed, needed to be beat around the head with the truth before they'd take heed.

"Big words for someone who's been knocking rather empty-handedly on the door of the Defense Department for the last nine years," Krycek quietly said. "You've got yourself a rather notorious reputation, too. As a member of an annoying, high-profile conspiracy-theorist group that no one takes seriously unless they need a scapegoat or a patsy."

Byers almost felt hurt by this; but compared to being able to continue breathing past this encounter, he felt his ego could stand the bruising. Besides, anything was better than Krycek getting even a moment's glimpse into the truth of what Byers found himself looking at, each time he looked at Krycek. Krycek's eyes were far too beautiful to be on a man's face... His lashes were too long. "Don't tell me *you've* underestimated me, too?"

Krycek smiled at him, that wolfish compassion again, humoring the lamb. "If the shoe fits, as you said. I didn't say I believed it." He shook his head and sighed. "Why do you still think I'm going to kill you?"

Byers swallowed. "Aren't you?"

"*Please*." The sarcasm dripped from his words, "Like killing you would achieve anything."

But there were things unspoken behind his voice, things that Byers knew Krycek would much rather remain hidden. Hurt, for one; hurt that people actually believed he killed for no purpose. A bone-weary disappointment with the world and human beings in general for continually proving his own certainty that there was no such thing as real trust - or anything worth trusting. And most painful of all, the longing, suppressed over a lifetime of battles and sorrow, for a few moments of believable camaraderie.

Byers winced. His own life was indeed a picnic in comparison. Krycek might be a survivor, but at what cost? Any curiosity he might have had previously as to Krycek's life and what he had been through fled as he raised his eyes to meet Krycek's gaze. "I'm sorry."

But Byers' quiet apology seemed to shake Krycek more than anything he'd said before. Krycek looked surprised and caught off-guard. He obviously hadn't expected Byers to understand his position, his point of view. He dropped his eyes to the floor.

Trying to help, Byers pointed out, "It's not a question of trust. The stakes are too high to get caught up in ideals or platitudes right now. No matter what side we think we're on, the priority remains the same: to stop the advancement of the aliens' plans."

"Ever the crusader, aren't you?" Krycek observed, obviously grabbing the way out that Byers had offered.

"I'm not the idealist that people take me for. Not anymore, not after all I've had to witness and endure," Byers pointed out. He shrugged. "Everyone has to grow up sometime."

Krycek smiled twistedly, with a measure of irony. "Ignorance isn't bliss."

Byers nodded. "So, I'll take this back, and you've got what you came for. I can't afford to blow your cover, nor can you afford to take me out without alerting them to your presence. I'd say we're at an impasse."

Krycek looked relieved that Byers had stated it as he had, instead of playing the buddy-buddy 'alliance' routine. "Agreed." He stood up once more and took a breath, regarding Byers thoughtfully. "I'll be in touch," Krycek said, and walked past him, leaving him sitting dazed on the side of the bed, wondering why Krycek had, without speaking, accepted his word. Trusted him.

The Lone Gunmen HQ 2:07 AM, a week later

Doesn't he ever get tired of pretending that he doesn't want him?

John Fitzgerald Byers awoke with this single sentence running around and around in his head. He lifted up to see what time it was. Hell, he'd only slept for an hour. He sank back down with a sigh. He'd been thinking of Mulder. And... The other one.

His strange, new, unspoken, tacitly-agreed alliance with Krycek all those days ago had left him haunted and distracted throughout each passing day, and twisting and turning with a nameless yearning echoing through him by night.

A cocky, darkly brooding and dangerous person; Mulder's nemesis. The 'enemy'. Was it possible however that not only was he blinded by his own idealistic need to believe in the best potential of each being he met, in true Byers-style, but that Mulder was too afraid to give Alex Krycek the benefit of the doubt?

Since when did the pursuit of pleasure become something meaningful, beyond the desperate need for release? Since when did the possibility of sex become an expression of love? And since when had it mutated from a distant, naïve and philosophical issue to one of fateful, consequential desire?

The lost child behind those eyes, brilliant green eyes with far-too-long-and-lustrous lashes, that seemed to say, 'whatever you think you're reading here, you're wrong - I don't want to need anything or anyone', and 'too much pain to believe, too much pain'.

And then the inevitably quiet and sinking knowledge that it was just a fantasy, no matter how many times he indulged in it. Seeing him again. Wanting to. Waiting for it. To discover on that first night that he was mulling over that fateful exchange earlier that evening, over and over again, instead of just walking away from each other, sealing their deal with a kiss. More than a kiss. A silent, wordless agreement on a pact that went far beyond any lexicon John could imagine. And then, shamelessly, happily, in the dark, the obvious conclusion to that thought which included a measure of solo friction and solitary hasty breaths but always ended in empty aching. A poignant repetition every night that always ended in a terrible sadness. Because his heart, and logic, dictated that it was a wholly impossible wish. That was all it was, in fact. Just a whim. A fantasy. Best to keep it buried.

But dreams refuse to ignore things the conscious mind wants to leave forgotten. By the fourth night, John found himself waking in sweats and feverishness, clinging to the bed as if to a life raft. He hadn't thought it possible to experience physical yearning like pain. He tried to compare it to the tenderness and depth of his love for Suzanne...

Suzanne Modeski was his angel, his bright star and aspiration. She made him feel clean and want to strive to be worthy. This was different. Alex Krycek was temptation, forbidden and deadly. A definite no-no. Unnatural, different, and entirely too inflammatory. Not if he valued his life. And besides, it was far too obvious to him even in the midst of this new discovery of his own physical reactions to their 'enemy' that he was far more likely to be rejected and humiliated and end up wishing he'd never approached him than to have any dramatic scenes involving guns or other weapons.

Mulder was right to fear this. For the first time, John realized Mulder's view of Alex Krycek was not motivated by hatred at all.

His mind chattered in disbelief: it can't be love, it can't. But his heart was thrumming in perfect rhythm: love, love, love. Something to feel, something to believe in. Hope and distant siren calls, beckoning to indulge in whispers of fantasies alone and safe in the dark.

And all he could do was sit and wait for Mr. Dangerous to contact him once again.

Somehow, a tiny voice inside of him reminded him that it was just an infatuation, that forbidden fruit is always the most tempting of all. That's all it was. A fascination. Cruel, true; but fascinating and lovely at the same time. A strange new symphony of dark music that pushed and pulled at his body, at his heart and mind with it's inherent mystery and promise of physical sensation and emotional pain. A beautiful, bad, bad boy. Too beautiful to be anything but pain for a dreamer like himself. A dark master who seemingly effortlessly played upon the weaknesses of the unfulfilled.

John pulled the pillow over his head and tried to get back to sleep.



Playing With Fire 2: Mahler

A small cafe, in Washington DC
2:30 PM

John Byers strode into the cafe, looking around him. Mulder sat at a table by the window, with his reading glasses on as his magazine shared table space with a sandwich on a plate.

Byers took off his coat and walked up to where Mulder sat, oblivious. "Late lunch? I'm lucky I managed to catch you here."

Mulder looked up, peering at him through the glasses. They lent him a birdlike quality. "Actually, I keep my own hours now. One of the perks of being self-employed. Sit down, have a sandwich."

"So why do you still come here for lunch?"

Mulder took off his glasses and folded them away, then did the same with his magazine. "Force of habit. I like the food here. You wanted to see me?"

Byers nodded. "I've come into the possession of some rather startling information. I don't think it should go through official channels, but since you still have contacts in the Bureau, I thought you might know what to do with it."

Mulder stared at him. "What is it? And where did you guys get it?"

Byers handed him the microfilm and a document folder. "An anonymous source on the inside, a member of the Resistance. I've analyzed it. It's good. It's the real thing."

Mulder snatched up the folder and read the front page. His eyes widened. He flipped through several pages. "This is a list of every name that we were trying to get hold of from the Census Bureau."

Byers cleared his throat. How to approach this? "Mulder," he began, "Billy Miles is in there. And so are you."

Mulder grinned slightly. "Yeah? Well, I'm the one that got away."

"Well, that's just it. I was also given a medical file that describes detailed experimentation on an unknown subject who was targeted for hosting the alien virus. The gestation period appears to be approximately three months. I'd say that you got in just under the wire."

Mulder shot him a look. "*You* were given? Isn't this... you mean this is an outside operation, outside the activities of the Lone Gunmen?"

Damn. Too sharp... Byers shifted uncomfortably. "Yes. But the source is impeccable. I can vouch for the contents personally. Look, Mulder, it's just - the virus -" he fell short.

Mulder considered him. "What about the virus?"

Byers continued quickly, "Mulder, the virus had already taken over Billy Miles, and Knowle's name is in that file too. You know, Agent Doggett's contact. And you were all infected onboard the grays' ship during your abduction. They wouldn't have brought you back unless they were already certain of your infection. And once you were -buried," Byers paused, assailed for a moment with the memory of standing there, solemnly *watching* Mulder's casket lowered into the ground. "Three months gestation. And you were dug up and then saved within days. But in the medical file, it states quite specifically that ordinary medicine doesn't have anything resembling a cure or even a preventative measure to slow down the process. Apparently they tried, desperately. In fact, the only thing that works is a vaccine that wasn't even developed by anyone down here, in any government lab. Apparently it was outsourced - and given to a few select members of the Resistance."

"Which explains how Krycek got hold of it. The Rebels? Or Jeremiah Smith's group?"

"The Rebels. Smith apparently didn't need it; his powers are more than ample in dealing with the virus and his followers relied on him and their healing methods instead. But Mulder, this means that simply taking you off life support and giving you a course of standard anti-virals is *not* what reversed the action of the virus in your body. In fact, it looks like the only way you could have survived this is if someone had administered the vaccine at some point when you were laying in the hospital."

Mulder calmly regarded him. "I know."

Byers stared. "You do?"

"Yeah. I already know all that. What's important is this list of names. Every single person contained here is an abductee, and every single one has been infected with the virus. We now have a chance of reversing the effects of the virus, possibly, on those who are still infected, and pinpointing the people who are now simply hosts for the aliens. Byers, you need to tell me where you got this information."

Byers could hear the gravity in Mulder's voice. "Why? What is it?"

"Because whoever has this knowledge is also holding the keys to reversing the damage. They have the vaccine *and* they have the identities of the hosts. It doesn't make sense; why would they give it to us? Why not just get on with it? There's something we're missing here, something -"

Byers closed his eyes. "Of course. They don't have the access to the official channels; they have to do it through us. They're relying on us to find a way to take care of the infected hosts on a large scale, and to take out the ones who are already lost to us."

Mulder was shaking his head. "By now, they could already have done it themselves. Why come to a fringe group like the Lone Gunmen, and an already discredited and fired ex-employee of the FBI? We don't have access to the resources necessary to deal with this. Even the FBI doesn't have the resources to pull off an operation of this size. And this is a big one. We're talking thousands of people. No, I think someone is jerking us around. And I know who it is."

"You do?" Byers felt a curious misgiving go through him.

Mulder was nodding slowly. He looked back up at Byers, chewing his lower lip. He added, "I smell a rat." And smiled knowingly, but not pleasantly. "I watched him get shot in front of me - I should have known he'd have back up. Probably had the aliens revive him the moment we left."

Byers sighed, heavily. "Look, Mulder, what *is* it with you and Krycek? Why is he always hanging around in the thick of things, just when the shit starts to hit the fan? And why are you always fighting with him?"

Mulder blinked. "He has issues about me. He can't leave me alone. And now he thinks I owe him a favor because he gave me the vaccine. And now he is feeding us this information - I can't really do anything with it because I'd be doing exactly what he wants me to."

Carefully, Byers paraphrased. "So *he* saved your life? Why would he want to do that? Why not just kill you, get you out of the way?"

"I just told you. He has issues -"

"Seems to me he's not the only one," muttered Byers.

"What?" demanded Mulder. And then he laughed. "Byers, I don't believe it. Are you calling me out?"

"No, of course not. I'm just -"

"Well, it sounds like it to me. Christ, you're worse than Scully."

"There are three sides to every story. I'm not defending his actions in the past, but so far, he's proven that he wants to stop them as much as we do."

Mulder sat back and whistled slightly under his breath. "Byers, my God; I didn't think you had it in you! Now why would you be defending Krycek all of a sudden unless he contacted you and gave you all this information? And you had bought into his lies, bought his whole bullshit story he undoubtedly concocted just for you?"

Feeling trapped and not a little out of his league, again, Byers defended both himself and Krycek by replying, "I'm not saying I trust him, or that anyone should. But he has the vaccine, he has the information, he has the contact with the Resistance and the Rebel force. Whatever his motives are, or his relationship with you, he's still an important player and we shouldn't be dismissing him just because you don't like him."

Mulder's eyes narrowed as he watched Byers speak. Slowly, he said, "He got himself involved just because he can. He doesn't have any higher motivation than that. He helped to bring down the Syndicate - for personal reasons - and now he's at a loose end. So he keeps sticking his nose into things because he wants to be part of the game. But it's still just a game to him. And frankly, I'm surprised that you're speaking for him."

"Mulder, the only one judging things from a personal angle here is you."

Mulder raised his voice. "He's a liar and a murderer! He tried to get Skinner to kill me! I should have known the bastard wouldn't die," he added, under his breath.

Byers raised his hands and said, "Please, I'm not defending him. Believe me, I know he's a clever manipulator. A smooth operator. I don't trust him anymore than you do. But I understand him better than you do, because you're blinded by your reactions in his case."

"Oh? Enlighten me, why don't you?" Mulder's voice was cutting.

"I understand his behavior, especially with regards to you. And the only reason you can't see it is because of the way *you* behave towards him."

"And just exactly what are you implying?"

Byers shook his head. "I'm not implying anything. He likes you. And you like him, but you can't afford to examine that too closely so you try to hate him, instead."

Mulder was quiet for a while. Then he looked back up at Byers. "A little out of your field, aren't you? Psychology isn't really your area. Are you dabbling, now?"

"Have you ever profiled him, Mulder?"

"No. I don't want to get anywhere near his head, let alone inside it." Mulder grimaced.

"Maybe you should. Except of course that would mean examining yourself as well, wouldn't it?" Byers stated this calmly, matter-of-factly.

Mulder pursed his lips and regarded him. "Why do you care?" When Byers didn't reply immediately, Mulder continued, "He has the vaccine for the Black Oil, too. In fact, he has it all. And I'll be damned if I'm going to crawl to him and beg for any of it. He has all the answers to the questions I've been asking for years and he won't volunteer anything, just keeps playing us like fish on a line."

"Maybe he believes that you expect him to give it to you as recompense for all his past crimes. To, sort of, make up for all the things he's done. "

Mulder looked away, frustrated. Angry. "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch," he muttered. "I know that everything comes with a price. But with that son of a bitch, the price is too high."

"What *is* his price? What exactly does he want from you? If he's as smart a player as you say, he can't be doing this just because he wants to jerk you around. He understands the severity of what's at stake; he has to. We're talking about human hosts being absorbed and taken over by alien invaders from the inside out... It's like 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' or something. Come on, Mulder, the possible outcome is too horrible for anyone, even Krycek, to ignore."

Mulder didn't respond. He looked caught; the temptation to let Byers try to get some answers from Krycek was too much for him. Byers was counting on this to make Mulder accept Byers' continued association with Krycek.

Byers shrugged and took a breath. "I think he wants you to go to him for a change, and not expect him to come running to you and bail out the situation every time there's a crisis. I mean, here we are, yet again." Byers motioned to the files on the table before them. "He's giving you the goods, another freebie. Another token gesture towards the cause, to try to show us that to accept an alliance with him, however shaky, is still the smartest thing we could do at this point. Like you said, he has all the answers. He keeps proving it over and over. But he isn't in a position to do much except from behind the scenes. It's up to us to take a proactive and more public approach."

Mulder still didn't speak, but it was obvious that he was carefully mulling over everything Byers had said. Byers continued, "He knows that you have too strong a reaction to him, for the past or whatever reason, and that's why he must have decided to contact me instead. Believe me, he didn't know it was me, at all. All he knew was that I was some unknown agency who had a connection with the FBI. And then he found out and he thought you had set him up somehow, putting me up to it. He doesn't trust me, or you, and we don't trust him. But that makes it all very clear, doesn't it? We at least know where we stand, right now."

"No, we don't," Mulder scoffed. "How can we believe anything that he tells us? Sure, he'll throw us a few scraps now and then, if we beg properly."

"He's the one holding the cards," Byers reminded him, gently. "We don't really have a choice. And besides, whatever the price, we're still talking about the truth - *your* truth, that you've been pursuing for so long, that you've invested so much time and energy in trying to find."

"The price is my soul," Mulder said, suddenly. "I'm not going to sell myself, even for the truth. He doesn't believe that truth exists. He said as much to me, once. It's a game to him."

"Maybe that's why he respects you," Byers commented. "Maybe he knows that you have the integrity and the belief, and that's what makes him acknowledge your importance in all this. Plus you have the drive and the ambition to do something about it. I don't think he's stupid enough to think he could ever have you working for him; your agenda exists on a parallel to his, not inside it. And whatever else, you have to admit that both of you understand the scope and the stakes of this situation, from whatever viewpoint, despite all your differences."

Mulder shifted in his seat. "I cannot believe I'm sitting here discussing Krycek with you. All right, do whatever you need to. But remember, he's an immoral bastard with a predilection for mindfucking everyone he works with. He could have someone like you for breakfast. And I'm not," Mulder stressed this with an agitated finger, shaking it in front of him, "I'm *not* prepared to deal with him directly. You let yourself into this; it's up to you to get yourself out. Jesus, I just hope you don't end up paying for it too highly."

Byers silently wondered just what it was about Mulder that Krycek liked, anyway. Could it merely be the man's single-minded, idealistic pursuit of the truth? His innate belief in what was right and just? There was an undeniable level of selfishness in Mulder's approach, but he also had a definite moral center, regardless of whatever neuroses he suffered. "I don't need you to hold my hand through this. I can take care of myself. Don't you see; I have to do what I can, where I can? I can hardly ignore what's going on, myself."

Incredible. Mulder looked like he was pouting slightly. "When will he contact you again?"

Byers frowned. Mulder sounded almost...envious. Oh well. Served him right really. After all, Krycek was obsessed with him. No one else stood a chance in hell - with either of them. No wonder Scully was pissed. Byers sighed. "I don't know. It's been two weeks since we met."

"You *met* him?"

"Yes. That's how we found out who we were. I thought he was someone called 'Arntzen'. Believe me, it was a shock for both of us to recognize each other."

Mulder threw his eyes to the ceiling and shook his head.

Byers cleared his throat. "Ah, Mulder? There's one other thing." He wondered how this was going to go down with Mulder when the ex-agent was so touchy about Krycek already. "He thinks that you're unaware he's still alive. He thinks I won't tell you that it's him giving us this stuff, or that he's my contact. I - sort of promised. Although, he'll probably figure it out anyway. He can hardly expect you not to work it out eventually. But what should I do? Will you stay quiet about this - for a while, at least?"

"Don't worry, Byers. I won't endanger you." Mulder looked pensive and a little distracted. "Be sure to get back to me, though. He'll expect you to have given me this information, and you should tell him that I was quite excited about it. I have every intention of acting on this. Like you said, the stakes are too high. What choice do I have?"

The Marriott
Sacramento, California
21:09 PM

Byers checked at the reservations desk at the hotel. Sure enough, there was a message for him. Krycek was already up in the room and had brought the package with him, as promised. Krycek had contacted him two days after Byers' discussion with Mulder, and told him to meet him here in Sacramento. Apparently, he'd come into more information regarding the off-shore Texas oil-rig that Doggett and Mulder had investigated.

When Byers had alerted Mulder, Mulder had only smirked and said something about already knowing what had happened on the rig. Byers was dubious. He knew Krycek would hardly want to set up a meeting unless it was something a little more vital than mere confirmation of what Mulder already knew. The Black Oil had been involved, apparently. All the workers on the rig had been infected, and had departed by unknown means as the rig exploded around them. Doggett and Mulder had barely escaped in time to leap off into the dark, swirling waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

For the duration of the flight from DC to Sacramento, Byers had been going over the hardcopy printouts that Langley had insisted he take with him for the journey. Extra credit, Langley had said. He'd promised Byers that he would be glad he'd gone over it before meeting Krycek again.

Frohike and Langley had reacted quite strangely when Byers had told them he was going to meet a contact on behalf of Mulder in California. When he told them the name was Arntzen, they had both exchanged a look. "Alex Krycek," they'd both said, in unison.

"How - how did you know?" Byers had asked.

Langley had thrust a disk at him. "Read this. The dude's biography."

"Forewarned is forearmed," Frohike had said. "Mulder asked us to dig up something on him and said it would come in useful someday soon. Said to give it to you when you needed it."

"Jesus, man, why didn't you tell us?" Langley had said, then.

Byers had sighed. "I'm sorry, you guys, I really didn't want to involve you if it wasn't necessary. He's dangerous."

"So is getting up to go to the toilet in the dark, in the middle of the night," Frohike said. "Come on, we're friends. Friends need to stick together."

Byers had been quite astonished at the amount of detailed information on Alexander Krycek. He found himself wondering just how Langley had managed to come up with these files. They were extensive. He wondered if Krycek even knew they existed. They were insider documents from within old Syndicate archives somewhere. God knew where Langley had managed to scrounge them up. But, his kung fu *was* the best. Byers couldn't believe that Mulder hadn't been curious enough to ask them to dig up Krycek's files before now. Except of course Mulder had been repressing any curiosity about the man for years on end.

Sitting and reading about Krycek's life and times on the flight over had been enough to help Byers shove the secret fluttering of nervous anxiety at the thought of seeing Krycek again into the back of his mind. Now that he was to meet him again, he realized that all the thoughts and dreams he'd been exploring since that fateful, initial encounter were purely in the mental realm and hardly anything he wanted to pursue. He just hoped he wouldn't make too much of a fool of himself again.

Besides, any other thought was simply crazy. After all, he knew Krycek and Mulder had unfinished business and that it didn't matter if one or both of them died and was resurrected a hundred times over, their peculiar little dance would never end.

If anything, Byers contented himself with the knowledge that he was able to watch the play as it unfolded, both of them sublimating like mad and desperately trying to remain within that safe little circle of denial. Mulder would have to be insane not to be fascinated by Krycek, just by the man's looks alone. Of course, Mulder remained completely convinced that he knew what he was doing with regards to the 'rat-bastard', but Byers knew better. Mulder was completely gone on him and couldn't handle it.

Admittedly, Krycek could *not* be trusted and was entirely dangerous. What was it about the man that had people falling for him on sight, even as they railed and ranted against him and his 'evil' intentions? Simple charm? Charisma? The inevitable fascination of someone dark and shadowy? Mysterious?

Of course, having read the man's life story, however accurate he could trust it to be despite its Syndicate origin, Byers now regarded Krycek with a little more sympathy. The man wasn't just a survivor; he was simultaneously a hero of the Resistance *and* a self-serving rat-bastard. And it was just lucky for Byers that Mulder wanted nothing to do with him.

But once Byers was standing outside the hotel room door, he realized he was panicking. Larger than life, and entirely too perilous to have in anyone's life. He remembered the first time he'd seen Krycek in the flesh, just before Mulder's abduction in Oregon. A secretive hot flash went over him. He'd felt it then too, if he were perfectly honest with himself. And to stand there, watching quietly as Mulder circled around like a barely-restrained hunter, coldly ignoring Krycek's presence as much as possible and making it plainly obvious to everyone else in the room that he had so many problems with having the man there with them that it wasn't even funny.

The door was suddenly pulled open and Krycek stood there, frowning slightly. "Were you planning on staying out in the hall?"

"No. Sorry," and John slipped into the room past him. Taking a breath, he turned to face Krycek who was regarding him a little quizzically. "Do you have it?"

"What do you think?" Krycek went to sit back down in his seat where he had been drinking a Coke.

A volatile, liquid thirst; that's what it was. To drink in the nearness of Krycek's presence after waiting to see him again. Krycek was wearing black jeans and a plain dark coat, not leather, and a dark shirt. Nondescript and actually a little overdressed for the climate. Still, the attire flattered him. John dropped his gaze, suddenly aware he'd been staring.

"You told him." It was a statement.

"I didn't have to," John replied, quickly. "He figured it out for himself."

Krycek was impassive, silent. Gauging him. Then, he thoughtfully rested his hand against his chin, leaving his black-gloved prosthetic on the left arm of his chair and abruptly conspicuous. "Who's paying your travel expenses these days?"

Byers stopped short, wondering why he felt caught all of a sudden. "What do you mean?"

With a half-smile Krycek sat up, saying, "Flying in from the east coast to Sacramento can't have been that cheap."

Stiffly, Byers responded, "I have a bit set aside for times like this."

"Right, of course you do. All this cloak and dagger must appeal to you."

"Look, Mr. Krycek, you called *me* here. You set this up. You said you had further information, that it was crucial to the investigation into the events on the offshore drilling platform."

There was a knock on the door. Byers reacted, startled.

"It's only room service. I got here half an hour ago. Why don't you get the door?" Krycek was unfazed.

Byers went to open the door, revealing a large trolley and an eager young man who quickly observed that it was a single bedroom, occupied by two men. Byers realized it looked either like a 'business' meeting or a tryst. Maybe even both. The kid didn't seem surprised. He felt his face go hot as he thanked the kid and gave him a tip. A broad smile and thanks was returned and the young guy left them to themselves.

Krycek had stood up and stretched. "I don't like plane food. How about you?"

Byers shrugged. He *was* hungry. "So. Why here? Or shouldn't I ask?"

Krycek lifted a brow at him. "You don't like the Marriott?"

"Sure. But Sacramento?"

"Are you prying, by any chance?" But Krycek sounded calm, and merely continued to lift covers off of dishes.

Byers nodded slowly. "I get it. Neutral ground. It's not Mulder's turf. And far enough out the way to be an inconvenience."

Krycek was loading a plate. "Inconvenience?"

"I didn't mean to me, I meant for Mulder..." Byers replied quickly, trailing off as he realized he was sounding entirely too defensive. Like the man had said, last time they met, what did he really have to be nervous about?

What, indeed. The thought of eating at the moment, however hungry he was, seemed unappealing - mostly because the butterflies in his stomach had grown worse after the food had arrived and the door was closed on the two of them once more. Being in the room with Krycek now was even more agitating than he had imagined it would be. He was just glad for small favors at this point; the temperature of the room was at a manageable level.

At the stillness, he looked up quickly. Krycek was regarding him with a slight smile and something of a knowing look. "See anything you like?"

Byers gulped. "W-What-?"

"From the menu," Krycek added, with a little wave of his fork over the food.

Depends what's *on* the menu, Byers thought. But didn't dare say this aloud. Stiffly, he approached the trolley and began to help himself, avoiding looking at Krycek who actually chuckled and then went to sit back down.

Damn it. He's drawing me out, thought Byers. He's playing with me, like a cat with a mouse. Serves me right, I suppose. I've been far too free with my observations so far.

His resolve strengthened, Byers took his plate and went to sit in the other seat, which was on the other side of the coffee table and the lamp beside Krycek.

A silent game began though, at this point. Byers refused to comment further and Krycek wasn't volunteering anything. They ate in silence until the air grew so thick between them that Byers found he could barely swallow, his mouth was so dry and his teeth were on edge. And his hands were shaking, slightly. And, hopefully, imperceptibly.

Unfortunately, Krycek had apparently decided that the ball was in Byers' court and merely finished eating in his own good time. Byers found himself wondering what was expected of him at this juncture. He put the plate of half-eaten food down on the table. "I'm still not clear on why you believe it necessary to get the facts on the oil-rig disaster to Mulder. Although he's quite excited about what you've given us, his activities are severely hampered now that he's operating outside of the FBI."

"Who would *you* suggest? He has a tendency to leave explosions in his wake. What better way to get attention?" Krycek stood and went to the trolley to retrieve the bottle of wine from the bucket of ice. He examined the label. "Not bad. Here, open this and I'll get the files." He held the wine out to Byers.

Byers got up to take the bottle from him, noting that Krycek had managed to get him to open the bottle in a way that didn't call attention to the fact that he might have found it a little awkward. Krycek went to a bag that he'd stowed on the floor by the bedside out of the way and retrieved several document folders from it to place them on the bed.

As Byers poured two glasses of wine, not daring to even begin contemplating what this little scene was supposed to accomplish, he mentally patted himself on the back for not spilling a single drop and pouring with a steady hand. Well, relatively steady. Krycek was standing near him, too near for Byers' presence of mind, and obviously waiting for him.

Byers sighed soundlessly. And picked up the glasses, handing one to Krycek. As his fingers brushed Krycek's, albeit accidentally, he couldn't help noticing how... warm they were. And perfect. In fact, Krycek's hand was a masterpiece - the man's hands were simply beautiful - and then Byers nearly jerked away as he realized again that Krycek only had the one. A shame... hell, a *travesty*. And he didn't dare lift his eyes to meet Krycek's undoubtedly smirking face now because his own face was probably scarlet. At least, it certainly felt that way.

And during this swift interlude where Byers' mind had fled far down the path of impossible considerations discarded and lost, Krycek had taken his glass and smoothly clinked it against Byers', saying, "To the truth."

That was a little too tongue-in-cheek for Byers' taste at this point but he was getting used to Krycek's needling and evasive attitude. Byers wondered if Krycek had any idea that his surface act began to betray too much hidden beneath it after a while, betraying the existence of a deep undercurrent. He echoed the toast and then sipped, praying as he did so that the wine would at least settle him a bit. He couldn't have said at this point whether it was a good vintage or cheap, and it didn't appear to matter. Going to the files on the bed, holding the glass in his left hand, he opened the top one and glanced at a few pages, rifling through them.

Then something dawned on him. Turning back to Krycek, he asked, "What do you get out of this? What do you want in return?"

"I don't recall mentioning a trade this time. I distinctly remember telling you only that I had something on the Black Oil." Krycek sounded bored.

Byers sipped from his glass again. He was glad he had eaten as much as he had; this wine going down on an empty stomach would have left him feeling a little too muzzy. His paranoia kicked in for a moment and he wondered if Krycek had drugged him... A few moments later he examined the little twinge of something that went through him as disappointment that he hadn't. "So, I'm the go-between? I can't help noticing that you're using me to get to Mulder, and he's using me to get to you. It would save a lot of trouble for us all if you two just met up somewhere yourselves and got it over with."

Krycek gave a short, little snickering laugh. "Try telling Mulder that."

Byers regarded him gravely. "I wouldn't presume."

Krycek's eyes narrowed. "Why do I get the feeling that you already have?"

Byers felt the tension mount in the room. He sipped again, a larger draught this time, for courage and... fortification. "I'm working on it."

"I don't need a campaign manager." Krycek's growl was startling, the velvet roughness of it shocking Byers with the sensuousness as it resounded throughout his head, tiptoeing over his body, even as he couldn't find himself surprised at Krycek's reaction. Especially considering what they *weren't* saying.

"No," Byers agreed. "But you do need a middle-man." Which was overstating things, really. Quick, quick - what could he say? Grasping at the first thing that sprang to mind, he added, "I'm wearing him down. I daresay he'll want to see you in person, next time."

"After what happened last time?" Krycek snorted. "Dream on; it's not gonna happen." And he drained his glass.

But Byers was slowly growing accustomed to looking past the brusque shell, Krycek's cold façade, and he heard the tiniest hint of a self-deprecating bitterness in his words. "It would be more than a fair trade, don't you think?"

Krycek's eyes glittered at this. Byers knew he really *was* presuming too much at this point, to keep involving himself in their relationship, such as it was. He tried to ignore the cold frisson of fear that ran down his spine. He covered it well though, moving to drain his own glass.

The moment passed, however, and Krycek had placed his glass down to refill it, smoothly, with a graceful ease that spoke of long practice using just his one hand, so smoothly in fact that Byers found himself admiring it even from purely a motor-dexterity view of his skill. Combined with the elegance of the motion, as it called no attention to itself whatsoever, it blended in as though he had adapted completely; Byers doubted anyone else would have noticed. For some reason, Byers couldn't stop wondering what it would feel like to have that hand touching him with the same effortless surety.

Krycek stopped to remove his jacket and toss it over on the bed. Byers tried to swallow the accompanying thud of arousal that thumped through him. He took a breath and looked up, realizing Krycek had begun speaking again.

"I see. Mulder must be champing at the bit, to have you involved to the extent you are."

"Well, I figure it's time someone cut you a break. It can't be easy juggling all the balls in the air, the remnants of the Syndicate, the Russians, the UN. Even the FBI. Let alone Mulder."

"It would be nice, even at this late date," Krycek agreed, almost familiarly.

Relaxing a little, Byers continued, "I guess it's just as well that no one else has any pieces of the ship. I mean, those artifacts from the craft submerged off the Ivory Coast. The one that Scully was investigating a couple years ago? God knows what effect it would have on Mulder, after his abduction experience."

Krycek's reply was downright mild. "Indeed. You think it would *have* an effect on him, now?"

Byers realized with a shock that he'd said far too much this time. Krycek was undoubtedly wondering just how the hell Byers knew that much about it - and him. To buy a few seconds, he moved to the wine and poured himself another glass. Halfway this time. He'd betrayed that he knew too much. Jesus, how could he fix this?! "Isn't that why you took it? It would hardly be prudent to have just anyone running around with something like that."

Krycek was dry. "I fail to see how it has any bearing on us here."

Byers replied uncomfortably, "Well, you could still use it to put the 'whammy' on him, as a last resort."

Krycek swirled the wine in his glass contemplatively. "Don't you think it would be smarter of you to come clean at this point?"

Byers went quite still. "About which part?"

"You've been doing your research on me. I think I'm entitled to know just how much you know." He grinned, a little toothily for Byers' liking. "You know, purge that guilty conscience and all. Besides, I've run my own check on you. Hell, if you're really cooperative, I might even tell you where Ms. Modeski is located."

Byers nearly dropped his glass. "She's alive?"

"Fair exchange," Krycek reminded him.

His mind whirling, Byers went to sit back down. The last he'd known, Suzanne had fled as 'Holly Fitzgerald'. He should have known that they would eventually catch up with her though. A pang went through him as he realized that all this time he'd believed her to be free, she had in reality been ensconced back with the same people. This really was like making a deal with the devil, but now he had no choice. He had to do what he could to get her out. Which meant dealing with Krycek. "We managed to obtain the Syndicate files on you, through access to one of their archives."


Byers groaned silently to himself. Well, there wouldn't have been any way of hiding it for long, anyhow. Krycek had to know that he had the others help him; how did he expect him to work? "The Syndicate plant in the UN, Marita Covarrubias, had made detailed reports on her contact with you over the years, and also on a meeting in St Petersburg soon after you recovered the artifact." He tactfully neglected to mention that the Syndicate had also included some details of personal notes on Ms. Covarrubias' involvement with Alex Krycek. And in omitting them, he found himself also having to swallow an abrupt surge of jealousy at what she'd had. Particularly in the light of her own duplicitous behavior toward him later on; the bitch hadn't deserved him.

Krycek paused, and then swore under his breath, his own thoughts undoubtedly following a similar vein. The gaze he turned on Byers was razor cold. "Exactly how extensive are those files?"

Byers knew he was so deep in shit now that it really didn't matter; he owed it to Krycek to at least let him know, considering how revealing the files were. "It was a full biography. They were dated up to sometime before the demise of the Syndicate Elders. I don't think anyone was around to update them much after that," he said, quietly.

Byers couldn't stop the knowledge of the man's life from surging to the forefront of his mind: the death of Krycek's parents, the orphaned boy growing up in Russia with the man who'd ordered their execution... His subsequent absorption into the inner circles of the Syndicate and unfortunate, varied relationships with people like Mulder and Marita and the CSM, the Brit... Byers couldn't help feeling a measure of pity. He was all too aware that this was probably what Krycek wanted the least. And he wondered how on earth he'd moved from feeling simultaneously attracted and afraid of Krycek to feeling sorry for him and wanting somehow to comfort him, despite the serious and even menacing nature of this exchange.

Krycek's voice was ominously quiet. "Has Mulder read those files?"

Byers licked his lips. "Not yet. He will." Byers felt trapped; he didn't owe Krycek anything, actually. But neither could he agree with the way Mulder had handled things, on his side. It really wasn't any of Byers' business, exactly. Yet here he was, inextricably involved and getting deeper in with every sentence he spoke aloud. What the hell am I *doing*, he thought, and how the hell am I going to get out of it? As if reminding Krycek of his end of things, he prompted him, "Suzanne Modeski?"

Almost absently, staring at his glass as he held it, Krycek replied, "Los Alamos. Where else?"

Byers closed his eyes. Of course. Where else, indeed? She'd told him herself the last time he'd seen her, in Las Vegas. And of course, he hadn't been able to confirm where she might have gone afterwards, either, although Los Alamos had remained a possibility if they'd caught up with her again. Still, it was nice to have it confirmed from someone who probably knew better than anyone. For some reason, he didn't doubt that Krycek was telling him the truth. For all his prevarication and games, Krycek had his own code, even if it didn't quite match Mulder's idealistic notion of honor.

He opened his eyes and solemnly regarded Krycek, who looked as if he were lost in thought. "I suppose at this point it would be more appropriate to bring out the vodka and mourn our respective losses."

Something flickered in Krycek's eyes, something Byers didn't really know how to interpret. "When's your return flight?"

"In the morning. I wasn't sure - how long this would take," Byers dissembled, not wanting to elaborate.

Krycek nodded. "In that case, let's not waste the bottle." His voice had regained that slippery, confident tone that he'd had before. The silk, curling one that kept Byers on the edge, wondering if he was scared of Krycek or fascinated or both. "We've wined, we've dined. We've even commiserated, and reflected on the relative stupidity of the choices we've made in the past."

"Yes. I guess television would be banal, at this point," Byers agreed, wondering how in the hell he had moved from being suspect and not trusted to being considered one of Krycek's drinking buddies. Although expensive wine hardly constituted 'drinking'. Not to mention also having his own losses considered on a par with Krycek's, when they both knew that Krycek had been through far, far worse - and that his actions had been far more severe and long reaching than Byers'.

"Television?" Krycek shot him another look, this time it was laden with a little more humor, although he hadn't lost that dark edge that warned against taking him too lightly. "I was thinking more along the lines of sleep."

Byers didn't fully comprehend what Krycek meant by this until it hit him a few moments afterwards. There was only the one bed in the room. Byers blinked, holding his glass numbly. Trying to think. He should get another room, that's it. After all, there was nothing whatsoever that Krycek had even slightly implied throughout their meeting tonight that Byers could interpret as anything resembling something more than-

His train of thought was derailed completely as Krycek added, "Are you sure you don't want to reconsider this, John?"

There was no avoiding what Krycek was referring to, now. Not with that sharp look that flayed his ability to hedge around the fact that he found Krycek irresistibly attractive. For some reason. Byers' throat closed up and he couldn't have spoken even if he'd managed to find an appropriate response. Mulder's words came back to him. He hastily took a swallow of wine. "I got myself into this; I'll find my own way out."

But Krycek was back to the cat and mouse tactics. "Give me one good reason why I should let you."

Despite the return of the fear that Krycek's words brought over him, Byers decided to take this at face value. With a sudden burst of insight, Byers realized that Krycek wasn't threatening him at all; he was actually offering him the way out, whether he knew it or not. Krycek didn't want to exploit him. But why? As he asked the question, Byers next realized that he was lost. Utterly. No way back; no way out. Because somewhere along the way, he'd committed himself to proving himself to Krycek in some subtle way that went far beyond the kinds of games that Mulder liked to play. It wasn't about avoidance at all, but an unspoken collaboration that bound them with nuances of understanding each other's positions too intimately to discuss them aloud.

Slowly, he matched Krycek's gaze evenly this time. "Is there anything that could gall Mulder more?" And then held his breath, wondering if he'd pushed things past the limit yet.

But Krycek merely looked thoughtful. And quite oblivious to the sight he presented, wearing his dark colors and his strength like some kind of shield, unaware that to someone with the capacity for forgiveness and caring he was completely transparent - his insecurity, his pain, even his despondency.

Byers now found he was holding his breath for other reasons entirely and his pulse quickened. Somehow they'd moved from dancing along a knife-edge of danger to one of mutual collusion. He felt lightheaded from adrenaline and the wine. And if he was honest, the pure electricity engendered from being sequestered, *alone*, with Krycek in a hotel room in the closing hours of the day. For a moment, he felt a wave of panic rising inside again; he knew he must be completely obvious. Had been from the beginning.

Krycek smiled, almost reflectively. Apparently, he approved of Byers' reasoning. The glint in his eye was one of appreciation, this time. When Byers finally met his eye again, Krycek held it without speaking.

Byers couldn't look away, even as the seconds began trickling by far too fast and too long. And still he couldn't look away. Krycek wasn't even blinking. The sensation of lightheaded anxiety grew to unbearable proportions. Though he still had the choice of backing out, he knew he couldn't, wouldn't. Cat and mouse, he thought suddenly, wondering why Krycek would bother with a mouse in the first place, now that they came down to it.

Krycek broke the tension. "Drink up." He got up to retrieve the bottle for a refill and then put it on the table between them so Byers could do the same.

Nerves. This had to be the most excruciating sensation of anticipation he could ever remember having experienced before. Filling his own glass up once more, carelessly, he considered the facts. He wasn't going to back out. And Krycek knew it. He wondered if he was supposed to be feeling any mortification that the supposed motivation for this little pact was to provoke Mulder into a resulting jealousy - and hopefully a self-realization regarding his unreasoning reactions of violent hostility towards Krycek. At the moment it now seemed like just a rationalization - an excuse.

He guessed they'd progressed way past the suitability of further discussion. That would render the excuse unusable. This one encounter was safer than any kind of commitment or future relations. Any extension of this would hardly provide either of them with a desirable outcome. He was glad. He didn't want anything more than this. He still couldn't understand what Krycek could possibly be getting out of it, actually, apart from the consequences with Mulder. He doubted Krycek would 'whore' himself to the likes of him -especially with an understanding like the one they were sharing here. He didn't want to read too much into it, or into the almost comradely way that Krycek was sitting there across from him, as seemingly committed to following this through as Byers was.

But Krycek seemed to sense that he needed some kind of rational reassurance beyond imbibing, for he looked over, catching Byers' eye once more. That knowing look again, but daring him. It was -inviting. Encouraging.

A rush of hunger curved around his insides and clenched in his belly, squeezing him with furtive pleasure. There was enough of a warm abandon running through his bloodstream that John was able to finally let go momentarily of his apprehension at his undeniable response to Krycek's nearness now. John smiled back, completely unaware that he looked wide-eyed, flushed and guilelessly cheerful.

Krycek turned back to his glass, chuckling again, evidently enjoying himself. John wondered how often Krycek had found opportunities to indulge in an encounter like this, without finding the sex twisted into a bargaining tool to bring to the table, or as a means to get something out of someone. Something honest, where it was simply a mutual expression of satisfaction and experience. And both were going to get some kind of benefit from the results. *Meaningful* sex, rather than an empty one-night stand.

In a way, despite Krycek being the dominant presence, John had the upper hand. Because he cared. Genuinely. Krycek wasn't just being gracious; he was making himself vulnerable by accepting John's concern and regard for him. Which meant it wasn't a game.

The only proviso John could imagine Krycek insisting on was that it had to be a voluntary exchange, because the shock of intimacy was most likely to be overwhelming for someone in John's position... And Krycek presumably never opened himself like this for anyone, particularly after having been burnt in the past.

Of course, at this point, John was completely addled with lust and his chemical response to Krycek and so he didn't know that what he was offering was unconditional, non-judgmental love, and that Krycek couldn't even recognize that's what it was either, having absolutely no faith in such a thing ever being laid at his feet.

Krycek finally got to his feet and stretched, saying, "I'm going to have a shower."

"After you," John agreed, glad that he'd packed an overnight bag. He couldn't even begin to think about the possibilities after they'd both finished. Still, he also couldn't help watching Krycek's ass as he walked away and retreated into the bathroom.

John was accosted with mental images of Krycek undressing. He shook his head slightly, and finished his glass. He weighed the possibility of getting undressed himself and joining him in the shower against simply waiting until they were in bed. Assailed by a shudder at the thought of the bed, then the shower as he heard Krycek turn it on next door, followed by the thought of leaning over in the dark under the sheets, John stood frozen in indecision.

The temptation to take advantage of the opportunity of having a naked, wet Alex Krycek in the shower was enough to ensure that John's cock was too hard for him to worry about softening anytime soon. But the illicit pleasure of considering it was impacted by the accompanying nervousness at baring himself and doing something so impulsive. Krycek probably expected it. What would happen if he didn't, and merely went in to shower after Krycek was done, waiting until they were in the security of darkness and closeted beneath the covers to... Hell, at this point, both options were so overwhelming to him that he began to worry that he'd even interpreted it correctly, despite the electric signals that had passed between them not five minutes before.

Fortunately enough for him, the decision was taken out of his hands when Krycek finished in the shower relatively quickly and came out with a towel draped around his neck and wearing a bathrobe. Hotel issue. White, fluffy, thick and... setting off his pale skin and tousled, wet, dark hair nicely. Droplets of water still showing, dripping down his neck to disappear beneath the casual chevron fold of the robe in the front. The fresh scent of his wet hair. For some reason, his lashes and his eyes made darker from being splashed with water. And the way the robe hugged his body, encasing his figure; such a token gesture at covering that for some reason it seemed to afford no modesty at all, despite not showing anything but contours beneath. The nearly decadent suggestion of untying the robe and throwing it back off his shoulders -

Holy *fuck*- how - how was he supposed to -

John gulped, and tried to not behave like someone completely stranded with no ability to think or make sense of who he was, where he was, or what he was doing. His heart was pounding. Lamb to the slaughter, indeed, he thought savagely to himself.

Krycek cast a glance at him. "Your turn."

Trembling, John fled to the relative safety of the bathroom. He stripped fast and climbed into the shower to try to scrub away his feelings of inferiority while allowing the hot water to pound away his reticence and uncertainty. Trying to ignore the near-ache of the stiffness of his erection, which he dared not touch in the shower beyond the most necessary and cursory attention to hygiene; it would have seemed almost unfaithful to *not* leave it now.

He almost didn't want to wear the hotel bathrobe; it seemed too voluptuous a luxury considering his circumstances. Still, the alternatives were wearing a mere towel, his suit, or nothing. He donned the robe and brushed his teeth, then gathered up his clothing. Then he took a deep breath and put his hand on the doorknob, preparing to leave the bathroom, feeling absurd and out of place and trying to ignore the real reason for his trepidation. Who was mostly likely lying naked in the bed by now. His hands were still shaking. Damn it! If anything, his tremors had grown more pronounced. Fear and desire warred and raged and he bit his tongue slightly in an attempt to try to regain some semblance of dignity.

Krycek had wheeled the trolley outside the hotel room door and turned off the light. There was a small amount of light coming in from the streetlights and the city below, but only enough to allow John to make out the indistinct shape of the bed, the vanity and the chest of drawers in the room.

A stifled yawn told him where Krycek was: already in bed. Christ. Just - just go with it. Move. One foot, then the other. Desire so strong it was almost oppressive. Anticipation and dread both strangling each other in their attempts to gain superiority over the butterflies in his stomach.

"Hey," Krycek murmured, in the darkness. "Get in." He sounded matter-of-fact, and a little tenderness as well as gratitude went through John at the note in his voice. Krycek didn't necessarily mean to be as mercenary with him now as he was before. Maybe because the rules had shifted. Or something. Certainly the safety of the dark is a double-edged sword because one feels strangely secure in personal revelations when wrapped in it.

As he divested himself of the robe and climbed in between the covers, attempting not to bump into Krycek just yet, he realized the reason why this might just work between them was because they shared an unspoken, indisputable parallel. They both had a distant beloved, each set up on their respective pedestals. Krycek had Mulder, John had Suzanne. In a way, it made it perfectly honest and safe for them to take comfort in each other's offered company, considering the relative unlikelihood of either of them ever attaining their heart's desire, anyway.

Still, he wasn't prepared for the moment when Krycek suddenly moved against him, pulling him to him, or for the startling reality of warm lips against his. It was different in the dark, wordless and nameless. Urgent and possessive, a tidal wave of sudden onrushing flames. He couldn't stop now regardless of the consequences because there wasn't anything else in the universe but this hard, longed-for body against his. The surprising sweetness of the taste of Alex's mouth, his remarkable beauty and the sensation of their tongues tangling together. John found himself responding with boldness and fever, surprising himself with the intensity of his passion and yet also surprised by Alex's tentative affection and caring behind the power, the need to keep up those defenses.

Surprising himself too with the certainty of his desire despite never having felt the need to explore his sexuality down this avenue before. John suspected that it might have been different if it had been someone - anyone -else. He shared a level of kinship, loyalty and affection with Ringo, understood him even as he didn't quite share that particular identification with the gay element, but this, Jesus, not this. Never like this. Not this engulfing surf of heat and excitement. Maybe it was the danger, the feeling of stealing moments, a stolen night in the arms of someone else - stolen not only from Suzanne but from Mulder too.

It didn't even seem to be an issue - the truncated stump of Alex's missing arm; if anything it was irrelevant - out of tact, sensitivity and more pressing matters. But it was one grand exercise in discovery, exploration and forging a way through to unknown lands to continue because the sheer delight of running his hands over Alex's chest, down his sides to clasp at his waist, and lower, as Alex conducted his own mapping of John's neck and down his chest to his nipples, was not enough. Not nearly enough as he strained upwards against Alex who was already sliding against him, their hard cocks meeting in accidental brushes with each other. It was just as suddenly almost too much and he sucked in a breath, having to cease his attentions momentarily.

Alex read him, knowing he was too close and not wanting it to end there, with them humping against each other. Both of them lay there, panting, waiting, and allowing their senses to come back briefly while thinking of their options.

Feeling enervated and emboldened, John managed in a tone so husky he was taken aback by it, "Will you - are you, you know, thinking of..." he trailed off. Mulder. After all, he was thinking about him. Mulder's ghosted image was there, simply because they both knew how Alex felt about him.

"*You* have a beard," Alex pointed out, his voice devoid of his earlier sarcasm and sounding so much freer and younger that it caused a heavy twinge within John's chest.

But he was right; it wasn't that easy to get them confused. Still... John realized that maybe he could help Alex this way. "I want you to," John replied, not sure why he was suddenly so certain about this. "You can, with me."

But Alex was wary of this kind of generosity. "I don't need to. Anymore than you do." Hardness crept back into his voice.

He hadn't meant it that way, hadn't even really meant anything much at all, except that he *wanted* to hear Alex lose it. Really lose it. Not just with him, alone here in this place, but to give up the barriers for once as well. To let down his guard and actually accept what John was offering him. Not to 'use' him, but to be safe with him. For Alex to let go, with someone who really did understand his need to. Besides, who could understand Alex's feelings better than someone who actually knew both of them, and knew that Alex was in love with Mulder?

In an odd way, John felt if he could get Alex to let him in that far, to let down his guard, John's entire infatuation with Alex would be validated, resolved.

He could feel the fight waging inside of Alex even now; the anger and the bitter reproach against making himself that vulnerable to anyone, let alone John, and the little fluttering hope of Alex's that had never died - the one that sang of sad but yearning, wistful dreams of one day finding forgiveness and mercy in the heart of that one, special other person in his thoughts. Long since given up as a hopeless endeavor. A lost cause.

Angrily, Alex grabbed both his wrists with his one hand and held them up above his head, breathing hard. "Don't go there. Just don't."

But he didn't need to anymore because he'd already taken Alex there. John could feel it instinctively. And leaned upwards to kiss him again. To reconnect with him. Alex responded, fiercely. He was still angry; John could tell. But the trembling in Alex's body mirrored his own now and there was only one practical conclusion, one logical resolution to this. Alex seemed to give in to it at this point, as well.

Hungry hands and mouths, blindly seeking each other out, tracing a fulfillment of their pact in the trails of pleasure that somehow negated their loneliness for this short while. Trying to swallow each other and lose their need in the snatching of each other's desires.

And then Alex was reaching up under the pillow beneath them and kneeling back to rest on his heels. And John could hear the grin in his voice as he ordered, "Lift your legs."

Swallowing around his sudden fear and dread, he clung to the heat and desire for it even as he heard the sound of a condom being torn open and then almost inaudibly being unrolled. Alex pressed overly slick fingers to the crack of his ass and slid them along, pausing at the tight pucker of his hole to slide in, just barely. John found himself moaning and making the most abandoned, strange noises he'd ever made. He could feel Alex smiling in the dark as he continued to work on him, stretching him with first one finger and then more. By the time Alex withdrew them, John was inflamed, pleading. And then Alex was steadying himself with his hand on John's leg and had pressed the blunt wideness of himself against John's ready opening and he was pushing forward...

Full, aching, tight, so full, wincing pain and lancing through him, but so good, so good, "Oh *God*, Alex," and then feeling the slick thickness sliding in deeper and deeper and harder until it came to rest. Inside of him. He wasn't penetrated, he was *invaded*, conquered, taken. Owned. And yet, Alex was trapped now in tight, silken, welcoming heat and pressure and John had no intention of letting him off the hook.

He was at once both relieved and dismayed to find Alex had stopped, and was waiting for some sign from him that he was all right. He wriggled slightly under him, trying to get him to move and Alex gasped aloud. "Fuck! Just - God, just wait. Wait a minute." Alex's voice was strained. When he'd seemed to recover his poise somewhat, Alex began to move once more. That magic rhythm, John had never realized just how specific, how wonderful and exacting it was until now, as each thrust and grind of Alex's cock shoving into him, shallow at first and then more deeply and fully, began to reveal to him why. Not until now. Until he was giving open-mouthed cries with each one, each time Alex thrust against that spot that caused sparks behind his eyes.

And then he couldn't stand it anymore and reached down his hand to grasp his own cock, eagerly pulling in time with each building wave crashing, of Alex inside of him. And he felt it begin to crest in the tone of Alex's groans and his little sobbing, vulnerable noises, and as John began to tip over the edge, he said desperately, "Alex, say it. I want to hear to you say it. Please. Just - let go. *S-Say* it!"

With a final jerking, fast bucking of his hips as he drove into John's ass, Alex followed him over into that drowning moment and moaned, "Oh, God, *Fox*!" in a poignant, sobbing wail. John hardly heard him as he also erupted in a burst of white-hot release, pushed over the point of no return by the sheer thrill and stimulation of having Alex come inside him, with him, because of him, letting go, finally dropping the pretense and the walls.

When he finally felt the pounding madness in his head abate and the bright ringing in his ears begin to subside, he became acutely aware of Alex slumped atop him, resting against him.

And very silent despite the heaving chest.

John closed his eyes. I love you, he thought. Even though I know you don't want that, don't want to hear it. All I can give you. This. Just this. And he wrapped his arms about him where Alex lay on him, close and embracing. It was all he wanted to give, everything; it made him feel like he'd achieved something beautiful, to offer a safe haven for someone's heart for a little while. Particularly someone as dark and bruised inside as Alex was.

Somewhere along the way the sheets had been cast back, to the foot of the bed, and now he realized they needed them again... for cocooning against the urgent press of the passage of time and the looming of tomorrow, for however many hours they might have left.



Playing With Fire 3: Tchaikovsky

Apartment 42, Hegel Place
Alexandria, VA
10:10 AM

Byers knocked on the door. "It's open," came the call. He entered, wondering if he was doing the right thing.

He'd only returned from Sacramento the day before, having spent most of the flight back and the ensuing afternoon in his room poring over the information in the files that Alex had given him. It appeared that the origin of the oiliens aboard the Texas rig had been the wreckage of a submerged UFO under it.

John supposed he might still be in shock, actually.

He was still trying to make sense of the fact that *Alex Krycek* had trusted him at all, let alone turned their business meeting into a tryst. Somehow, it made him trust Alex far beyond the limits of honor, loyalty or even affection. He wondered if he'd been had. It was possible, considering the CIA and KGB agency operatives in the past, throughout the duration of the Cold War, and the honeytraps, stings and the CIA's Orchid operations. It was hardly a secret that agents had used sex as a way of securing relations - still, the personal nature of his own experience had been a little too candid for him to consider Alex a purely cold and ruthless person now. Sure, the coldness and ruthlessness was still there. But there was no denying that he was human.

Mulder was at his computer and looked up. "Byers! Hi. How are you? How did it go? Did you get anything useful?"

Byers couldn't help smiling at Mulder's enthusiasm and he held up a hand. "Yeah, hi. It went - fine. It was fine. He gave me some information on the X-File on the oilrig that you and Agent Doggett visited. You're going to like this, Mulder." He went to the table and placed the files down, sitting on the couch. "It turns out that the way the oiliens got aboard that rig was via the earlier underwater explorations that yielded the discovery of a downed, submerged UFO."

Mulder stood up from his computer and went to join him, sitting beside him on the couch and snatching up the files.

Byers sat back and waited, knowing that Mulder was going to get completely wrapped up in it. Mulder was already lost to the world as he pored over the pages of hardcopy from the disk that was included, the original files that Krycek had made from various sources.

"Shall I make some coffee?" Byers interrupted him.

Mulder distractedly grunted, "Yeah, sure. Go on. I have some in the kitchen."

Sometime later, after Mulder had also sat back and heaved a long sigh, Byers ventured, "We have to do something. We can't just leave things as they are."

"We?" asked Mulder. "Don't take this the wrong way, but you're going to get killed if you keep actively involving yourself."

"*You're* going to, as well," countered Byers. "You already have, once. And there might not be anyone like Krycek conveniently around to save you again, next time."

"And I have years of experience chasing after aliens in the field, on active duty as a federal agent. I'd be happier if you let go of it, for now. I'm not trying to steal your thunder. Besides, I can't believe I let you go and place yourself in harm's way, meeting Krycek. I should have done that myself."

"I don't think you could have convinced him to meet up with you," Byers reminded him. "He chose an uninvolved contact over meeting you face to face for a reason."

Mulder regarded him thoughtfully. "So, what happened?"

"Not right now. Mulder, this is highly important. We can't just leave this - we have to do something."

"I'm not saying we won't. But it's going to have to be done undercover; I don't want anyone in the FBI finding out what we're up to. Scully would have my head, and she'd blow the whistle on us. I'm pretty sure that Skinner would have a coronary."

"They're not the Black Oil, the ones we're trying to stop, nor are they grays."

"Precisely. They are far more powerful. They have the ability to somehow use powerful bursts of radiation to stop anyone who gets in their way. We met one a few years ago that had been waiting in a submerged craft underwater. A French crew liberated it when they salvaged the Piper Maru, which was when the plane and the diver's suit Scully and I ended up finding had the oil residue that gave away its presence. The French diver was possessed by it and then it took over his wife. Then it went to Hong Kong and took over Krycek. I didn't even know that I was sitting beside one until much later. Meanwhile, it took Krycek and the DAT tape he had -"

"*That* DAT tape? The MJ tape?" Byers asked.

"The very same. Delivered him and the tape right into the cigarette smoking bastard's hands, in exchange for being returned to its ship, which they had placed in a silo in North Dakota. Scully and I went there but we were too late. Come to think of it, I never did find out how Krycek got out of that one."

"Mulder, Scully isn't going to be very happy about your involvement in this. And you know she'll find out. After the ordeal she has been through over that baby-"

Mulder coughed, spluttering on his coffee. "Byers, I'm begging you; leave Scully's placenta out of this. That's one mental image I don't need floating in my head over breakfast."

"Why hide it at all? Why can't we take this to AD Skinner? He's just as aware of the importance of this as we are. And he's less likely to respond in a maternal or overprotective fashion. He would know what to do, who to mobilize."

"Because then he'll assign Doggett to the case and I won't be able to get near it without 'violating protocol' again. They'll try to stop me from having anything to do with it. 'Thanks, Spooky, for the warning about the aliens in the government. We'll take it from here'. This is turning into an international incident, for God's sake. Come on, Byers; you know that there isn't anyone else more qualified to deal with this than I am, regardless of my employment status with the FBI!"

Byers was nodding and sighed, "Yes, I know, I know. Okay. I'll contact my lead at the Russian Embassy."

"No. Have that mercenary girl, Yves, do it. Try to avoid involving yourself wherever possible at this point. Someone might be able to trace this to you, and you'll end up paying for getting caught up in it. And impress upon her the need for secrecy. We don't need gossip flying along the grapevine. And try not to involve Frohike or Langley either."

"Right. No sense in endangering them, as well."

"And don't tell Krycek."

Byers frowned. "I wouldn't know how. I have no idea where he is."

"He's around. If the Russians are involved, you can bet he'll be skulking about somewhere."

"The Russians are aware that one of their diplomats here was a host infected by the alien virus. Do you think they might have any idea that the Resistance does too?"

"Yeah. I'm willing to bet that's where Krycek got this stuff. Even though he betrayed them, too, he's still in with them." Mulder turned to him. "Didn't he tell you where he got it?"

Byers shook his head. "That - never really came up in the conversation. But I'm pretty sure he's a member of the Resistance, probably the Russian division."

Mulder stared at him. "What did you talk about? What did he say?"

Byers shifted uncomfortably. "I think it would be more along the lines of what he *didn't* say."

"Alright. But you could still tell me what you actually discussed." Mulder seemed as though he was suppressing a substantial amount of exasperation at this point.

Byers shrugged. "By the time we finished eating and had moved on to drinks, there really wasn't that much left to talk about. It isn't like we were old friends catching up on past times. I mean, come on, Mulder. I was only there to collect the material from him. And we didn't even talk about the files he was giving us - I read those on the flight back, yesterday morning."

Mulder was staring at him now with a dazed look on his face. "My God," he said, slowly. "You *slept* with him!"

Byers blinked. How -

No, Mulder's famed intuitive ability was legendary and he'd had too many instances to see first-hand how Mulder could piece together the most bizarre, yet accurate, rendering of any questionable situation, seemingly out of thin air or from the most incredibly lean pickings of clues. The penny dropped heavily for Mulder, as Byers had suspected it might. Mulder's voice had been slightly accusatory but mostly just stunned.

"Well, it *was* only a single room," Byers replied, hoping that neither confirming nor denying the accusation would lead Mulder away from the rather personal and still distressing incident. He had absolutely no intention of discussing it with Mulder if he could possibly help it. "Our return flights weren't until the next morning."

But Mulder was sitting without moving at all; he was in shock. He was obviously trying to grasp the implications of the concept.

"I don't know what to tell you, Mulder. Krycek was cagey and quiet. He certainly wasn't any more forthcoming with me than anyone else. I'm not sure why you expected him to be. He knows that I'm working with you, that Mel and Ringo and I have always been your lesser counterparts on the edge. The only reason he takes me seriously at all is because I offer him a connection with you. I'm just a carrier pigeon."

Mulder didn't reply. He was still sitting with that stunned expression. He was starting to assimilate the actuality but somehow Byers couldn't see him really able to deal with the thought of Alex Krycek, his long-time nemesis, as a sexual being without some difficulty. After all, Mulder had felt safe for so long simply denying the man had any validity beyond his status as villain and maverick.

"Mulder? Are you alright?"

Mulder turned a curious gaze on him. "Walking on the wild side, aren't you, John."

Byers straightened. "Look, you didn't want to meet with him and he certainly didn't want to meet with you. I don't think we had any other option, do you?"

Mulder's eyes slid away to stare sightlessly at his coffee on the table. "It's alright. Forget it."

"I'm more concerned with how we're going to get word to the Russians about the oiliens that were released from the new deposit offshore in the Gulf. The ones you saw. I don't think they realize the danger. Even the Resistance won't understand the high-risk nature of getting close to them. And the fact that the corporation who discovered it wants to continue drilling there... Besides taking a Greenpeace approach and going out ourselves in boats to sabotage their efforts, I don't see how we can stop them, and we still aren't any closer to knowing how to stop the infected hosts, short of killing them."

Mulder shook his head. "There's something else going on, something we haven't learned yet. We need to know why the aliens would target a Russian diplomat here in the US. And why the Russians should be so concerned about the contaminated oil deposit in the Gulf. It's not Black Cancer. But maybe that's why. They don't have a vaccine against the oilien introducing itself into the body."

Byers sat up suddenly. "Scully had the medical data on the two Mexican Indians who were able to resist the oil - maybe she could come up with something to combat the introduction of it to the rest of us who don't have the natural immunity."

Mulder shook his head. "*That's* what the Russians are really after. The medical records on the two rig workers."

Byers countered, "But Krycek would have asked, I think. He would have told us that that's what they wanted in return for the information he was giving us."

Mulder gave a sickly smile. "Not necessarily. Maybe they already have it. Otherwise he *would* have asked for it, like you said. And he is working for himself, not for anyone else. He only works with the Russians or the Resistance where it meets his needs in any given situation."

"How do we know that what Krycek knows, the Russians know?"

"Exactly. Krycek would have obtained the data so that he could bargain with the Russians."

"So why bother getting us involved? Why tell you? What does he want from you in this scenario?"

Mulder snickered. "He expects me to do exactly what I always do. Go looking for the answers. He wants me in position, on the board."

Byers finally got it. "The aliens are taking advantage of the oiliens' entry into the game - they're using this as a way of drawing out the Resistance."

Mulder looked grave. "Right. Which means that as soon as the members of the Resistance get involved, they're in danger of walking into whatever trap the aliens have set. Maybe even..." he fell short.

Byers finished it for him. "The Russians. The aliens *know* that the Russians and the Resistance have a vaccine against the virus and the Black Cancer. They're going to use the oiliens to get rid of them *for* them, so there won't be anyone else to stand in the way of their invasion. Because no one really understands exactly how powerful the oiliens really are - or what their agenda is. Or just how cooperative they are with the grays."

"Yeah. The Russian diplomat is just the tip of the iceberg."

"Well, now that we know their plan, we can do something about it." Byers had to agree that at this point, he was *way* out of his depth.

"The moment I get involved, and we start showing our hand, even though we have to do something and can't just stand by as observers, they flush us out into the open and can attack us as well. Maybe that's what Krycek had in mind in the first place." Mulder was still trying to accredit negative intentions to Krycek.

Byers was sick of it. "If he considered you a threat and not an asset, he'd have killed you in that hospital and not saved you by giving you the vaccine," he pointed out.

"I know." Mulder had a self-satisfied look on his face. "I just wanted to watch you defend him again. You're really taken with him, aren't you?"

"Not as much as you are," Byers replied. "I read the Syndicate file on Krycek. The Brit as much as said so. Several times it mentions that one Special Agent Fox Mulder is Krycek's only weakness, and vice versa. And that the best way to manipulate said Agent is by sending in Krycek to deal with him. The Brit apparently knew exactly how to distract you, using your own reactions to Krycek against you, in their favor. I guess it's the same as starting a land war in the Middle East with stakes as high as the world's primary oil reserves so that they can conduct secret activities elsewhere when no one is looking." Byers was deliberately referring to the Gulf War, because he knew Mulder must have read Krycek's file by now, too. And it specifically stated that it was through Krycek's placement in the Gulf War that he came into contact with the Syndicate, through Marita Covarrubias.

But Mulder wasn't rising to Byers baiting at this point; he seemed to take it in stride and merely grinned at him. "I'm not jealous, John. If anything I feel sorry for you, for having fallen victim to his manipulation."

Sure, Mulder. Byers could hear the usual denial-sublimation-repression response in Mulder's words. He dropped it. And tried to concentrate on the far more important matter at hand. The grays' plans of using the oiliens to distract and entrap the Resistance and the Russians.

But it was interesting how Mulder couldn't stop talking about Krycek, always bringing the conversation back to him. Byers' collaboration with Krycek in trying to make Mulder jealous and have to face his problem about it was working far more effectively than they could have expected. A sense of relief went through Byers at this; he wasn't sure he could handle even one more meeting with Krycek without losing all perspective or sense of self-preservation. It was bad enough that he couldn't think of anything but Alex whenever he had a moment to himself. Poor Mulder: he had no idea what he was missing or how caught he still was; how completely distracted by Krycek he was. Well, it was understandable, insofar as Mulder had already watched the man die once but Byers would have thought Mulder would be more upset than he was, to learn that his one-time nemesis was still alive.

But Mulder had beaten him to getting back to the matter at hand. "We have to find out what the grays plan to do to get the Russian-organized Resistance to get too close to the oiliens."

Byers stood up. "I can have Yves find out. I can ask her to get the latest from the Embassy. She's good; she has to be, she's a professional. I trust her to do it competently without leaving any trace."

"I believe you. Get back to me, all right? I'll be waiting. Meanwhile, I'll tell Scully and the others that I'm taking a little out-of-town trip. I have to give myself an alibi so I can go wherever it is that they're going to make their move."

"What about backup?" A knowing look at Mulder; the ex-agent was famed for charging in, leaving others to go in after him and bail him out.

Mulder just smiled, gleefully. "Don't worry. I'll be careful."

"What should I do if Krycek contacts me again?"

Mulder shrugged. "Find out what he wants, I guess. Anything he gives us at this point will also tell us what he knows, and what he wants *us* to know, and give us a better means of knowing how to navigate this situation."

The Lone Gunman HQ
A day later

Byers received an email from Rhoda Wele-Svelya, telling him that he was lucky not to be dead. The Russian Embassy was in a state of security lockdown; they'd received warning that one of their diplomats had received a death threat and they were looking for the guilty party. The compromised diplomat was being protected now by the best the Russians and the Americans could provide, making it impossible to get to him. This was undoubtedly part of the aliens' plan to ensure the effectiveness of the execution of their plot to entrap the Resistance.

Wait - Svelya? It sounded Russian, vaguely. Wele? Or South African. Strange. Rhoda? It had to be -Yves. Yet another one of Yves' 'Oswald' anagrams. He shook his head and sighed at the girl's affectation. Such an idiosyncrasy made her entirely too easy to trace. But maybe she only did it when she wanted to leave tracks. Still; it was as silly as when he used the name JF Kennedy when checking into hotels...

He emailed her back, requesting a news update on the Russians' intentions.

'Rhoda' promptly told him that the Russians had tracked down the terrorist party to a subversive revolutionary group working from within the Mordovian government. A secret faction operating out of the Republic of Mordovia. A ship called the Red Star, working under the guise of working with a program that offered eastern Europeans the chance to join the Merchant Marines... The Red Star had apparently docked in a port on the coast of the United States, on Galveston Island, Texas, there intending to pick up cargo.

Byers was willing to bet that part of that cargo would involve the transfer of one of the oiliens to the crew, and infect them with the alien virus too. Galveston was where Doggett and Mulder had gone, after all, to the offshore rig.

The captain of the ship and his officers had been told to go on shore leave, when in actuality they had been summoned to the Mordovian Embassy in Washington DC. The ship was still awaiting a release from the port authorities and the crew was still aboard, although the Americans had found nothing aboard the ship other than ordinary cargo in a thorough search.

Byers was thrilled; this was precisely what they had been waiting for. He thanked Rhoda profusely and got an immediate post that stated this was the last free job she was willing to do for him. After this, the only way she was going to go sticking her nose into the Russians' business was if she were paid for the risks.

He logged off and picked up the phone. "Mulder? Are you there? Pick up, if you are. We've struck gold."

Pier 34, The Docks
Port of Galveston, Texas
Saturday, 5:36 PM

The harsh cries of boat-tail grackles and crows intermingled with those of seagulls as Mulder pulled in to park near the terminal. The smell of saltgrass marshes and the seacoast blended into a remarkable sweetness in the air. It was stifling hot though, even with the sea breeze blowing in. The effect of the car's air conditioning had rendered him comfortable for the drive down but now the heat hit him like a wall.

He left the car parked outside an abandoned industrial complex of warehouse buildings and old shipping offices. As he walked towards the dock, he scanned the waterfront for the ship. It was a little distance away from the port proper, docked beside a large series of old grain elevators. They were testimonials to Galveston's entry into agricultural exporting of wheat in the 1900s; huge columns that rose side by side, two rows of them next to tall, ancient office buildings and equipment. It resembled a massive, post-modern industrial Temple of Karnak. One of the elevators had been damaged years before, a gaping wound in its thick concrete side where it had possibly been deliberately opened up and rendered useless. There was one light in a high window - the broken glass revealed a single, naked hanging light bulb. That must be the office of Concourse Grain LLC, who operated the elevators. The buildings and structures were suffused with history.

As he made his way across the open space, he could hear the distant crowds of small birds, shrieking and chattering from the highest floors of the buildings towering above. The early evening was torn with the cooler sea breezes and the hot currents of the Texan landscape. Galveston had been baked throughout the day and now the heat was being released to swill around. A bank of dark clouds had gathered and were moving across the sky, inland from the west and going out to sea. The air was tense as the storm continued building.

Dwarfed under the huge columns, Mulder took shelter under them, going to stand under the protection from possible rain offered by the covering over both rows of grain elevators. He checked his watch; it was getting close to six o'clock. He'd arrived with plenty of time to await the arrival of the Resistance. He wanted to be there to warn them about the compromised ship. Mulder was certain that one of the oiliens was aboard even now. As the brewing thunderheads roiled overhead, Mulder fished out sunflower seeds from the stash in his pocket from the jacket tied around his waist, and settled down to wait.

A couple hours later, thunder rumbled as the evening darkened around him. The flash of the headlights of an approaching car alerted him to the arrival of someone parking in the empty warehouse terminal of Pier 34. Mulder suddenly wished he'd parked the rental car somewhere less conspicuous. It was obvious that he was here. The fact that the car was empty didn't necessarily mean that the occupant was here for the Red Star. Still, it was a miscalculation on his part. He began to walk towards the edge of the dock.

The Red Star was flying the Mordovian and US flags. The only sounds were of birds and the slap of water against the railings, the concrete waterfront and the sides of the ship. A light rain was falling.

Mulder crept around the side of the building and waited behind the corner for someone to show.

A dark figure was silently making its way towards the ship, edging forward cautiously, obviously on guard after having noted Mulder's car.

Mulder knew he had to get to the member of the Resistance and warn them before they attempted to go on board. He quietly began to approach them, not wanting to raise any alarms but also not wanting to sneak up on them and either send them into a scramble for cover or put them on the offensive.

But in the gloom and the rain, the new arrival lifted his head as Mulder's approach brought him near enough to make out who it was. Krycek. Of course. Mulder sighed to himself. It had to be, didn't it? He was cursed to run into the man every time anything big came down. Of course, this *did* betray the man as still a leading member of the Resistance. But it was hardly surprising.

Continuing up to him, Mulder said dryly, "Krycek. Why am I not surprised?"

"I could say the same to you." Krycek's rejoinder lacked much emotive effort however.

"I thought you were dead. You should've stayed that way," Mulder replied.

"Mulder - I really don't have the time to sink to your level just now. I have to assume you're as aware of the importance of this ship as I am."

"It'd be harder to sink any lower, Krycek, seeing as you're already on the bottom."

Something flashed in Krycek's eyes before he could cover it. "Mulder, I wouldn't bottom for you even you were begging for it."

"I find that hard to believe. Except of course, you like being in charge. You really pushed Skinner past his limits with that whole blackmail gig you had going. Let me guess; you've got something similar in mind for me. What's it to be: torture?"

Krycek chuckled under his breath. "After all the opportunities I've had, why would I start now? Besides, why should I bother, when I can have the aliens do it for me?"

"Afraid to get your hands dirty, as usual?" Mulder snapped.

"Hey, I'd love to stand here and discuss this with you, but I have a much bigger problem to take care of first. Maybe if you're good, later on I can show you the sound of one hand clapping." Krycek moved away, obviously intending to climb aboard the ship.

"Wait," called Mulder. "You don't know who's in there."

Krycek stopped. "And I suppose you do? What, are the grays beaming you telepathic messages now?"

A flash of light lit the sky and a booming, rolling echo of thunder interrupted them.

Krycek was about to continue on, when Mulder quickly caught up with him and grabbed his elbow. Krycek whirled on him, snatching his arm away angrily. "Mulder, this is none of your business. Stay out of it. Or you might end up dead again - and we wouldn't want that, would we?"

"If you go charging on board now, *you'll* be dead, and we don't want that either."

Krycek stopped. "We don't?" A feral grin crossed his face.

"It's not what you think, the alien on this ship. It's an oilien, the same kind that we met before, in Hong Kong. The one that left you stranded in North Dakota, in that silo."

If Mulder had doubted that anything could get to Krycek, he was enlightened at Krycek's reaction to his words. Krycek went stock-still and something akin to revulsion went visibly over him. Mulder recognized it a second later as fear. Terror, he corrected himself.

Krycek recovered enough to say, "How do you know?"

"Because the grays are trying to draw out members of the Resistance, the Russian faction you're with. They've infected one of the Russian diplomats at the Embassy in DC, deliberately leading your people to suspect the Mordovians. It's a trap. The whole point of getting you here was to lead you straight into the path of the oilien on board where *you'd* be neutralized in an attempt to take it out, not realizing its true nature."

"Thanks for the tip," Krycek said, an edge of anger in his voice. "But I have to go anyway, because whether alien or oilien, its on its way back to Mordovia. The ship is departing tomorrow, to put into port in Russian territory along the way, where it's going to make its way into the country."

"Tunguska?" Realization flooded Mulder. Plans within plans; the oiliens could stop the Russians and remove their involvement in the Resistance, by neutralizing their operations there at the source. Remove the production of both vaccines to the alien virus *and* the Black Cancer... Of course, that was assuming what the oiliens' intentions were. They didn't really know for sure. The oiliens were inscrutable. They'd previously had the chance to take over Doggett and Mulder on several occasions aboard the oilrig, and hadn't.

Krycek shrugged. "Does it matter?"

"You're not going on that ship without me," Mulder stated, resolutely.

Krycek snorted and merely continued on his way. Mulder followed him aboard and into the interior.

The ship was deserted. Not a single soul appeared to be there. Maybe the crew had sloped off to party in the town of Galveston, but Mulder doubted they'd so flagrantly disobey orders.

"I don't like this," Mulder muttered. "And how come there's no security around here? It's too deserted for a ship that's been held under this much suspicion."

Krycek lifted his chin and motioned back the way they'd come. "This might be what they were waiting for. Let's get out of here."

They quickly made their way back through the ship, but as they came back out on deck, beside the narrow walkway that led down to the edge of the dock, a swarthy man appeared behind them. A little too close for comfort. "Are you looking for me?" he said, in a clipped, accented voice. The swirl of black in his eyes was more than enough confirmation.

Mulder quickly brought up his gun to bear on him but Krycek quickly knocked his hand back down. "*Don't*," Krycek warned. To the oilien, he said, "Where's the crew?"

"Gone. I dispatched them."

"Why?" demanded Mulder.

The oilien cast its dark eyes upon him. "You," it said, recognizing him from the rig. "Why do you follow us?"

"We have every right to know what you're doing here. You should have stayed below. In stepping into this war, you've made yourself a target, just as the others have."

The oilien cocked its head to one side and regarded him. "Two of the crewmembers of this vessel had been changed. They are now dead."

Krycek inhaled sharply. "Where are the others?"

"It was necessary. They were unfortunate enough to be in the way."

"Where are your friends? Where have they gone to?" Mulder rounded on the oilien.

"You should go," was the only answer it gave. "Others are coming here. They will be here soon."

Krycek stepped back, taking Mulder's arm. "Come on, let's get out of here."

"Wait a minute. What about-"

The oilien interrupted him. "You must beware of leaping to conclusions, Fox Mulder." And it turned around, going back inside the ship.

Mulder stood staring after it had left, before turning to follow Krycek down the stairs and back to shore.

Catching up with Krycek who was striding purposefully back to his car, Mulder walked beside him. "They must be in the hospital; no doubt with radiation burns. And the two that it killed were infected with the virus, hosts for the aliens."

Krycek didn't respond, just kept walking.

"But why would the oiliens care what happened to the Resistance?"

"Maybe they don't, except where it interferes with their own plans," Krycek offered, quietly.

Another shock of thunder boomed around them and then the rain began to pelt down hard. They walked faster, finally making it back to their cars. Krycek had parked some ways away from Mulder's. Some strange impulse seized Mulder. He went with Krycek towards his car instead. "Krycek, wait."

With his hand on the handle of the door of his car, Krycek stopped and looked over at him.

Aware of the fact that he had a window of little less than a few moments, Mulder quipped, "After putting myself at great risk in showing up to warn you and save your ass, the least you could do is buy me dinner, don't you think?"

"Sorry, *Fox*. I have a natural suspicion of dining with people who want me dead. Besides, I already saved *yours*... You owe me."

"Then we're even," Mulder stated, dryly. "I'll buy you dinner instead, and you can owe me for that."

Krycek gave a little snicker of disbelief. "No thanks. I'd need a food-taster and I can't afford one right now."

Mulder stood there, feeling a little angry at making these overtures and being rebuffed when he was trying so hard. He remained where he was, helpless, not really knowing how he could get Krycek to play along, and not bothering to examine why he was bothering in the first place. "Come on, give me a break here. I haven't tried to kill you. I could have just let you go on board without warning you that thing was there."

In the passage of a few heartbeats, Mulder could see Krycek deliberating this. But then, Krycek shook his head briefly. "Sorry. I have a prior engagement." He opened the car door.

"Fine, we'll play it your way," Mulder said, swiftly drawing his gun and moving in to place himself against the inside of the car door, holding the gun on Krycek and taking the safety off. "Move over. I'll drive."

Angrily, Krycek pushed Mulder's arm upwards, knocking him off-balance slightly so that he bumped against the car door behind him, and took advantage of this to grab him by the front of his jacket. With a surprisingly strong movement, Krycek reversed their positions, swinging Mulder around to slam him back against the car, leaving him leaning with his back against the door to the backseat.

Mulder was so taken aback he didn't stop him, surprised at Krycek's rather frighteningly formidable display of superior strength, quickness and skill - the man moved like a cat... The strength, with which Krycek had slammed him back against the car and had him pinned there under the force of his arm across his upper chest, had nearly knocked the wind out of him.

"Mulder," Krycek gritted out, breathing harder, a mixture of chagrin and anger on his face. But he didn't say anything else, just gave up on trying to talk to him. And then, with a darting, fluid motion, Krycek moved his arm away. He grabbed the back of Mulder's neck, leaning in against him sharply to press his lips to Mulder's.

For the first initial moments of finding another warm mouth against his own, Mulder instinctively closed his eyes, a flash of surging heat moving over his body and crackling along his skin. Instead of pulling away though, Krycek remained there, and the kiss deepened. Words and feelings were rushing in Mulder's head like a spinning, sloshing torrent. But he didn't pull away, either. It would have been a simple thing to turn his head to the side, break it off.

The rain was drenching both of them, and the pealing crash in the sky accentuated the storm, and it seemed so perfect. The hand against the back of his neck was hot and trembling slightly, in time with the trembling of the lips on his. Mulder opened his mouth a little, but he regretted it instantly as Krycek jerked away from him and took a step back, almost involuntarily. Krycek was looking at him with an expression that seemed all at once to be regret, dismay, longing and mockery.

Finally, Mulder found his voice. "If you go again, you're still just playing Judas."

The cynicism and menace in Krycek's voice reminded Mulder that there wasn't any relationship to salvage to begin with. "And if I don't?"

A variety of possible answers suggested themselves but Krycek merely regarded him for a moment and then said quietly, "Go home, Mulder."

Snatching an idea from the corner of his mind, Mulder said, bitterly, "You can tell me, Krycek. What has Byers got that I haven't?"

Krycek stared at Mulder in undisguised shock; a moment later, a mask of marble ice settled over him. But Mulder could still see the pain in his eyes. In a voice that burned with a measured but furious and somewhat justified threat, Krycek said, "Don't try to stop me again." He moved back to the car to climb inside and slam the door.

As the engine started, Mulder moved quickly. He flung open the back door and jumped inside as Krycek began to pull away, reversing.

"You started this, Krycek. You can finish it," he stated calmly from the back seat.

In the rearview mirror, Mulder saw Krycek sigh as he angrily stopped the car. In disgust, Krycek opened the door and got out of the car, slamming the door behind him hard enough to cause a ringing in Mulder's ears.

Laughing a little, Mulder leaned forward to remove the keys from the dashboard and then got out of the car himself.

Krycek stiffly said, "If you want my car that badly, take it." He began to move towards Mulder's car.

"Alex," Mulder called, "I've got the keys. Both of them."

Krycek continued to move towards the car, obviously intending to hotwire it if necessary.

"And the doors are locked," Mulder continued, hoping he wouldn't just break the window.

Krycek paused, turning on his heel. It was too dark for Mulder to make out his face, despite the light from the nearest floodlight by the pier. "What do you *want*, Mulder?"

Floundering, Mulder said, "I don't know. A chance, maybe."

Exasperated, Krycek walked back to him, stopping just out of arm's reach. "To what?" he prompted. "A chance to do what?"

"It's pouring down. At least let's get in the car and talk about this out of the rain," Mulder stalled, for time. He didn't really know what he wanted, himself; how could he explain it to Krycek?

Why had Krycek stopped? Why hadn't he just smashed the window and carried on? Mulder suddenly remembered: he'd called him 'Alex'. For the first time in years. With a shrewd insight he realized this was a subtle point but it had been the one thing that had convinced Krycek that maybe Mulder wasn't just screwing him around. Indeed, Krycek looked torn with indecision.

Returning to Krycek's car, Mulder went around to the passenger side and got in, shutting the door pointedly.

A few moments of soul-searching later, Krycek got into the driver's seat. "Okay, Mulder. It's your hand; play it. What do you want?" he repeated.

The darkness and closeness of the atmosphere of the two of them sitting there together, particularly with what had just happened between them, raised a heat to Mulder's face in the dark. He licked his lips. "Dinner. I'm hungry. Aren't you? You can order for yourself, if you don't trust me."

Krycek sighed and leaned his head back, closing his eyes. "We don't have time for this. People are going to start arriving any minute now." With no small amount of frustration and aggravation, Krycek said, "What about your car?"

Mulder replied, "No way. The moment we get out of here, you're gone. I'll lose you on the way back."

Krycek snorted. "I don't suppose my word is good enough."

"Maybe not, but mine is. I'll behave."

Krycek turned to him in the shadows. "Fine. Where are you staying?"

"Downtown. At the Four Seasons."

Krycek sucked in a breath.

"What?" Mulder complained. "Isn't it good enough? What, were you expecting a cheap motel? Mind you, Super 8 isn't too bad."

"It's fine," Krycek said, curtly. "Are you getting out, or what?"

"Just a minute," Mulder murmured, turning in his seat and leaning over to kiss Krycek's startled mouth. Indeed, Krycek didn't move, not even to pull back.

Mulder didn't linger, moving back once more and murmuring, "I owed you that one. I've still got one left too. I'm counting."

Tautly, Krycek managed, "Are you through?"

"I don't know," Mulder replied, truthfully. Somehow, he felt he could happily remain here with him in the car. "How would you feel about fooling around on the backseat?"

Krycek replied, slowly and coldly. "No, thanks. I'm not into quick fucks and juvenile groping."

Just long, slow lovemaking, eh? But Mulder didn't say it, merely grinned.

"Get going. I'll follow behind you." Krycek wasn't in a playful mood. Not that Mulder could blame him.

Mulder opened the door, saying as he began to climb out, "It's Room 98. But I'll meet you in the lobby, okay?"

Krycek didn't answer, and Mulder shut the door. He walked back towards his car, in the driving rain that was now pelting down in a fair impression of a monsoon.

Not surprisingly, Krycek drove off before Mulder had even reached his own car.

Apartment 42, Hegel Place
Alexandria, VA
10:48 PM

Mulder lay slumped on his couch, languishing in a blue funk. He hadn't expected to find himself feeling quite so depressed, especially after the events of the day.

Suzanne Modeski had been liberated from her keepers and she'd sought out Byers who was now in a state of bliss. Mindless, pre-marital bliss, Mulder corrected himself. The man was floating on cloud nine, walking around with her hand-in-hand, unaware of the eye-rolling and plaintive sighs that followed in their wake from Frohike and Langley. Mulder had stopped off at the Gunmen's place to congratulate them.

And the new kid, Jimmy, was sunny, of course; the young man seemed ecstatic with the two lovebirds' newfound happiness. It almost hurt to see someone who actually believed in true love to the naïve and innocent, trusting level that Jimmy did. Let alone the glow of contentment that Byers wore on his face whether he was looking at Suzanne or not.

It had been close to two weeks since Krycek had driven off in the rain, leaving Mulder to wonder just what the hell he had expected from him.

Mulder had cornered Byers and asked him if Krycek had contacted him again at all, or if he expected him to. Byers had looked grave and said that he hadn't, and then expressed concern for Krycek's welfare, which had both turned Mulder's stomach in a flip-flop of anxiety, hoping nothing *had* happened to him, and equally angered him with the reminder that Byers had something he couldn't even ask for. Krycek's trust. Mulder had never imagined that he might one day actually believe that he wanted it, let alone envy someone else for having it.

Mulder had asked Byers to ask Yves if she could dig up Krycek's whereabouts, but Byers had phoned him up later that very evening and told him that Yves had said, "There isn't a fee high enough you could pay me, to ask me to do that."

In the aftermath of their encounter with the oilien on the Red Star, Mulder had since heard rumblings about an attempted alien coup on one of the Resistance headquarters in Moscow, and that they had been successfully defeated.

He'd been glad to hear it. Even though he'd had to suppress an undeniable and curious mixture of regret and yearning when he'd learned of it.

Now he sat alone, occasionally fidgeting but mostly moping. He was at a loose end, not really knowing what to do next. He didn't have any further leads on the oiliens, and everything that had been hot or interesting had either gone cold and was now old news, or had been provided by Krycek and he wasn't showing.

Mulder felt sick as he identified the reason *why* he wanted Krycek to show up with more leads... He wanted to see him again.

True, after all these years, to not even have his work in the X-Files to throw himself into, to be cut off from the busy hum and pulse of the FBI's basement activities - it hurt. But most of all, he was bored.

And now, with too much time on his hands, Mulder began to understand the hell that some people go through after retirement. What could he possibly do, to fill the empty gap that yawned so massively in his life? He didn't have a career in medicine to fall back on the way Scully did. Literature? Psychology? He supposed he could do something along those lines but he ached for the electricity and throbbing pulse that he felt when engaged with dealing with the alien threat, and pursuing leads to alien activity on the planet.

Now he was just an unwanted ex-employee - without any good references either. Oh, he had no doubt Skinner would refer him, but certainly Kersh and the rest of them had breathed a collective and deep sigh of relief when he'd left.

All his previous plans had been concocted in such naïve good spirits. Now he listlessly and aimlessly wondered what the hell he was supposed to do with his time. Nothing really sprang to mind, or excited him anymore. He'd gone from having his finger on the nerve center of the conspiracies and the alien threat to watching Oprah and Jerry Springer.

Of course, there was also the problem of the memory of those soft -*softest lips* -

It replayed over and over in his mind all the time, despite his attempts to push it away.

Turning on the television with the remote, he sank back even farther into the couch and ended up falling asleep.

Teena Mulder's house
Greenwich, Connecticut
Three weeks later
8:42 PM

"I heard you were looking for me."

Mulder raised his head to stare at the owner of the vodka-on-ice, husky, ought-to-be-captured-and-commercially-sold voice, barely remembering to contain his joy at seeing him again. Krycek had let himself in, probably to avoid a confrontation on the porch.

"You rescued Suzanne Modeski for him, didn't you?" It was almost an accusation; 'how dare you go and do something so noble and selfless?' Such a 'nice' gesture. No doubt Krycek had felt indebted to Byers for the one-night stand, Mulder thought sourly. And tried to reject the feeling of envy that crept over him. He didn't want Krycek, he didn't.

Krycek gave a slight smile. "It was the least I could do." He stood there, both of his hands shoved in the pockets of his long leather jacket, the real one and the prosthetic. It very nearly made his missing limb unnoticeable except that Mulder found himself unable to stop wondering suddenly how Krycek managed without it.

"You wanted to see me?" Krycek prompted again, coming to stand in the middle of the room, carefully and noticeably keeping the low, glass coffee table between them.

"Not much for small talk, are you?" Mulder grumbled, ignoring Krycek's ready stance. He remained slouched on the sofa, comfortable in his jeans and long-sleeved shirt. "Have a seat. Want a beer?"

Krycek hesitated, considering for a moment or two, then moved off towards the kitchen, saying, "I'll get it," and pulling off his jacket as he did so.

So. Mulder grinned to himself. The rat-bastard had finally emerged from wherever he'd gone to ground.

Krycek returned with two cold beers from the fridge and handed one to Mulder. He sank into one of the wingchairs flanking the sofa. He raised the bottle and with a mocking tone, said, "To the aliens. We owe them our lives, after all."

"Ah, but which ones?" Mulder asked, his voice flat and uncurious. "We have so many to choose from." He still hadn't moved from his place on the sofa.

Krycek was watching him. "Word is you've been sulking out here for the past month or so."

"It hasn't been *that* long," Mulder corrected.

"Why'd you pick this place to retreat to?" Krycek sounded like he actually wanted to know.

Mulder turned his head to look at him. "Because I figured if I picked my father's house, in Martha's Vineyard, you wouldn't show up." He waited for the implications of that to sink in. He was sure that Krycek would have been a bit leery of coming to see him in the same rooms that Bill Mulder had died in.

"You've been waiting for me, here?" A note of disbelief crept into Krycek's voice.

"Eye for an eye, and all that. I guessed that I really deserved you ditching me like that, at the pier. After all, you seemed pretty put out back when I ditched you, when you were still my trusty sidekick."

"*This* - is what you wanted to speak with me about?" Krycek sounded like he was getting ready to throw in the towel again at this point.

Mulder shook his head and drank from his beer. "I really disappointed the Syndicate. I read your file. I guess you disappointed them, too. As well as the Russians. Of course, that's where I draw the line. That's the only similarity I can make between us."

"That's one of the intriguing things about you, Mulder. One never knows if you're being insulting or just stating an observation."

"In your case, it's both." Mulder wondered how much it would take to make Krycek snap at this point.

Krycek sipped from his own bottle and said, "Well, it's been fun. Thanks for the beer." He leaned forward, set the bottle down on the coffee table and stood up, picking up his jacket and shrugging into it.

Mulder sat up straighter. "You still haven't let me buy you dinner."

"I'll pass. Thanks." Krycek was already moving to the door.

Mulder swiftly got up and followed him, catching up with him before Krycek could open it. Grabbing Krycek's right arm, he pulled hard, spinning him around to face him and then shoving him against the door. It was a near imitation of what Krycek had done to him before. "I still owe you one, Alex," Mulder reminded him, a little triumph coloring his voice as he leaned in towards him.

But Krycek obviously was having none of this. Not tolerating Mulder's body pressing against him, he pushed Mulder away, almost savagely. "I really don't think you want to go there. If we're going to talk about debts... I owe you more than a few blows."

Defiantly, standing with a confidence he didn't actually feel, Mulder said quietly, "Go on; take your best shot."

With a slight sneer, Krycek replied, "I really don't think you could take it."

Considering, Mulder realized that Krycek could actually have taken him at any time in their long yet sparsely scattered acquaintance. He leaned in again, this time not quite close enough to touch him. He only paused when they were face to face and then murmured, "Prove me wrong."

And slowly, slowly leaned forward to bring his lips to Krycek's, quietly deliberate, noting how Krycek wasn't breathing at all, had frozen and wasn't trying to move away. Mulder resisted the urge to lick those trembling lips under his, feeling a wash of heat go over him, engulfing him. He didn't want to make Krycek bolt again. He pulled away from Krycek's mouth and pressed his lips to the warm cheek instead, briefly.

It suddenly felt so right to be making the moves, taking the initiative. Mulder took a breath and found himself putting his arms around the other man, holding him, waiting for the tension he could feel in Krycek to either break or relax and fade away.

"Maybe we were both wrong," Mulder whispered.

Krycek pushed him backwards again, this time nearly knocking him off balance; if he hadn't been expecting something he would have stumbled. Darkly, Krycek said, "It's a bit late for this, don't you think?"

Mulder shrugged. "I'd say it's long overdue. I'm not expecting anything, but I will say that when... when you were dead, gone, I -" he stopped, hardly able to believe he was actually saying it, "I missed you. I didn't handle it very well, back on the pier, either."

Krycek gave him a quizzical look. "Is that an apology?"

"If you like." Mulder was filled with a certainty nearly horrifying in its scope and intensity; that he couldn't let Krycek leave again, not this time. Not without resolving this spark that ignited every time they found themselves in proximity to each other. "I got one thing straight back there, though. One chance. Give me one chance, that's all I want."

Apprehension, hope, distrust and finally resignation crossed Krycek's face, swiftly following on each other's heels. "There isn't anything left to salvage," he responded, his voice low.

"If that were true, you wouldn't have come," Mulder pointed out.

"Why should I believe you?" Krycek was toneless, unemotional. But there was a hollow quality resounding behind his words, leaving Mulder with the unmistakable impression that he had long ago reconciled himself to never being given this chance himself.

"If you didn't want to, you wouldn't be here, Alex."

"This isn't about me," countered Krycek, ignoring the use of his first name - although Mulder could see that he had to suppress the inclination to be glad. "You're the one who's always pushing me away."

Mulder couldn't help a chuckle at this. "I'd say you've done your share of pushing me, here. What do you want? A passionate declaration? Should I go down on one knee, send you flowers? Come on, how plain do I have to make it?"

Krycek considered him thoughtfully, mistrust still apparent on his face. "It might help. You have a lot of catching up to do."

Mulder licked his lips, trying to keep at bay the wave of nervousness that Krycek might still leave at this point. Slowly, he got down on his knees, saying, "We both do." He looked up at Krycek, meeting his eyes, not daring to analyze the adrenaline rush that went through him in doing it, and the accompanying pounding of his heart.

Krycek opened his mouth but didn't say anything; he seemed to be teetering on the edge of either breaking away or following Mulder into this madness. He remained standing, however and closed his eyes, breathing hard. Bitterly, he said, "I don't want to play this game with you anymore. I didn't come here to play games."

"No games. No revenge. It's too late for us to change what's happened. I can't be anything but what I am. But I know you can't either. Let's just accept each other, now, as we are." Mulder heard the slightly pleading tone in his words and cringed a little.

Krycek's eyes narrowed and he let out a breath. "Why?"

"Come on," Mulder said, embarrassed. "Don't make me say it. For God's sake, I'm kneeling here at your feet, Alex."

Anger and then frustration went over Krycek and he sank to his knees as well, his hand going to the back of Mulder's head to steady himself. And then Krycek's mouth came crashing down upon Mulder's again.

It wasn't sweet this time; Mulder was surprised to find Krycek's mouth on his was demanding, hot, remarkably sure and then there was the expected and yet still shocking sensation of their tongues meeting for the first time, sliding against each other, slick, even hotter and more overwhelming than he could have imagined.

There was a startled moan and Mulder found he was blushing as he realized it was his own. Oddly enough, they were lying on the floor, Krycek on top of him, still kissing him with a fierce, wild possession -as if he expected Mulder to change his mind and was taking everything these few moments would yield.

Mulder pulled away, gasping, "Wait, wait... just...hold on. We -we're on the floor."

"So?" Krycek - *Alex* - was still atop him, moving purposefully down over his chin now to mouth at his neck, the sensation striking a deep, melting chord of excitement and liquid fire all through him.

"At least, let's - get to the couch," he managed, trying to get his hands on the floor to balance himself to get up.

But as Alex stopped and went still, finally moving backwards to pull himself away, he got to his feet and took a step back. Swallowing, Alex said, "This... is a mistake."

Groaning aloud, Mulder lay back, letting his head fall back and he sighed expansively. "Alex, what do you *want*? Why can't you believe that- that I want this as much as you do?"

Alex's eyes narrowed. "That's assuming that I want it."

Mulder sat up. "You're going to tell me you *don't*, after what just happened?" Mulder exclaimed incredulously, getting to his feet.

Alex tilted his head slightly and regarded him with a little frown. "I already told you. I want you. And I don't think you're ready for that." Alex sighed and looked away. "I don't think you'll ever be."

"Not capable, you mean," Mulder retorted, stung.

"You have yet to show me that you feel anything for me but hatred or contempt," Alex said, his tone hard.

"I want *you*," Mulder said, now angry himself, and out of sorts that he was being forced to defend himself, to try to prove his sincerity.

"Yeah, that's loud and clear, Mulder," Alex said, his gaze pointedly dropping to the hard evidence of Mulder's jeans. "But that isn't really what I had in mind."

"What, you want me to profess my undying love? Get the flowers and poems ready?" Mulder asked, in a desultory voice. "I'd hardly call your behavior 'romantic'! You betray me, shoot my father, lead me into a gulag, then kiss me on the cheek at gunpoint, and I'm supposed to believe that your little heart's been breaking over me? Not to mention the fact that you save my life - but only in exchange for Scully's baby, and then try get Skinner to *kill* me." His fresh outrage at this last point swept coldly over him, forcing the heat and desire into the background once more.

"That's an impressive score card, Mulder, but it's getting a little old, don't you think? And for the record, I knew I couldn't get Skinner to kill you, anymore than I thought he would be willing to trade Scully's baby for the vaccine." Alex's voice had gone just as remote as Mulder's now, obviously retreating now that he'd tested the waters, and actually seeming a little glad that they were back out of the danger zone. "As usual, you take everything at face value where I'm concerned, and never give me the benefit of the doubt. Christ, you must think I'm dumber than I look."

But Alex's uncharacteristic volunteering of his claim hadn't gone unnoticed. Mulder stopped, and said, wonderingly, "I knew it. But then, why? Why drive him to shoot you?"

A ripple of regret passed over Alex at having said anything, obviously not believing it would do any good either now or in the long run to try to defend his actions or explain himself to Mulder.

"Unless you wanted out," Mulder continued, slowly. "Why would you want us to believe you were dead?"

Alex turned and moved to place his hand on the door handle. "I don't have time for this crap."

"But you couldn't stay away, could you?" Mulder said, going to him again and putting his hand on his arm, to stop him. "You missed me, too," he said, certain of this and willing to bet that stating it so clearly would garner some reaction.

He wasn't disappointed. Alex shrugged off his hand, violently. "You can tell me," Alex hissed. "Was this little scene preplanned, Mulder? Did you have this whole thing rehearsed, beforehand? Or are you just improvising?"

"Well, you have to admit, you're giving me mixed signals here, Alex. A few kisses, a little bump-and-grind on the floor, and with a couple betrayals and lies thrown in for good measure - it doesn't exactly paint a picture of true love to me, either," Mulder said, stiffly. But he couldn't keep the hurt out of his voice either, or his expression.

Alex paused. But the helpless anguish in his eyes couldn't be extinguished, no matter how flat he tried to appear. "The question is, what do *you* want? From me?"

"I told you! I want you!" Mulder exclaimed. "But if you won't believe me, then what the hell are we doing here?"

"Yeah, like I'm supposed to believe that," Alex said, scornfully, that customary sneer back on his face.

Wounded, and feeling defensive as well as angry, Mulder ground out, "I never asked you to betray me! I never asked for you to keep popping up in my search, or to keep feeding me lies! How can I believe this isn't another elaborate game to you, even now? Or that it's not just another lie? I *missed* you, damn it, and I didn't want to!" Mulder was shouting now. "You want to know how hard it is for me, every time you show up, with your goddamn smug looks while you flaunt the answers in my face, the truth to the questions I've been searching for all my life?! Fuck; Alex - you turn up out of nowhere, wave things in my face, feeding me scraps here and there and I can't believe anything you ever tell me! How am I supposed to suddenly believe that you *care*?!"

Astonished at his outburst, and yet not looking very surprised that it had happened, as if he'd been waiting for Mulder to break, Alex said, "What did you expect? Every time I've come to you, you've threatened to kill me! It's always fists first, questions later, and a lot of macho posturing with your gun and your self-righteous 'truth'." Alex continued, acidly, "You sit here sulking in self-pity, crying for the loss of your *job*, your precious *truth*, your family. Well, fuck; if we're going to compare sob stories, let's break out the booze and get down to it because we're going to be here all fucking night! I'd like to see you try to get through *half* of what I've had to bear, Mr. Silver-Spoon-fed, Oxford-educated, Golden Boy."

A red tide of rage had surged through Mulder as Alex had begun speaking but by the time he'd finished, it had dispersed, leaving an empty and lonely sorrow in its place. Sorrow and regret that neither of them had much capacity for forgiveness or trust left inside, even when the undeniable phenomena of their unrequited and enduring attraction had been so palpable between them earlier. But was it just a mutual, chemical attraction, or was it more?

"Okay, okay. You may have a point, there." Dissolute, Mulder said miserably, "All I know is that both of us have died and come back, and we still haven't learned from it. I don't want to waste what's left to me, at this point. However long I've got. I don't want to lose you again without having healed the past - or at least having tried."

Alex swallowed thickly and muttered, "My thoughts exactly."

"So let's get back to the booze and stop screwing around. Or start. Or something." Mulder couldn't help an involuntary grin at this.

Alex pressed his lips together in exasperation and cast a glance about the room. "Don't tell me you expect to have some kind of normal conversation."

Mulder went back to the table and picked up his beer; Alex's too. He handed it to him. "Here. Let's start over, okay? We won't talk about the past, or the future, or our plans, or *their* plans, or anything else."

Alex lifted his brows. "What do we talk about, then?"

"Do we have to talk at all?" Mulder sat down, heavily, wearily.

Alex stood, absently drinking, appearing to be considering the relative sanity of taking Mulder up on his invitation to simply sit with him.

He seemed to come to the decision that it wouldn't hurt anything, for he took off his jacket once more and sat back down.

Mulder had to squash the sigh of relief that he nearly let out. Jesus, at *last*. "D'you want to watch something?"

Alex briefly shook his head with a slight frown. "How long do you intend to be here?"

Mulder shrugged. "Depends. How long are *you* going to stay?"

Alex didn't reply, merely finished off his beer and got up. "Want another?"

At Mulder's nod, he stalked off to the kitchen once more. Mulder's eyes followed him out of the room.

Mulder found himself resolving to not nettle Alex when he came back. He was sure that Alex cared more than he wanted him to know. Oddly, he had to admit to himself that he felt the same way. Hell, maybe they always had. The future suddenly revealed itself as a bright vista in his mind's eye; a careful, precarious alliance with the two of them cooperating instead of fighting. Mulder found he was tired of the battles. He fought more out of habit than anything else, except for the insecure need to defend himself from Alex's insidious ability to manipulate him, every time. But if he was honest with himself, he knew that Alex didn't actually want him dead - *had* saved his life and was vulnerable to Mulder's barbed repartee as always. Maybe there was something they could recover after all.

They couldn't trust each other, but maybe they could agree not to immediately try to beat the other to the offensive position.

By the time Alex had returned with two ice-cold beers that he'd already opened and had handed one to Mulder before sitting back down, Mulder was sure he could convince Alex to stay.

"Thanks. You know, I was thinking that we could probably accomplish a lot more if we were working on the same side, for a change." Mulder's voice was deceptively mild.

Alex shot him a pitying look. "As if we could expect something like that to last."

"I'm not saying we should pretend that we can trust each other. I'm just thinking we'd be more effective if we joined forces, is all."

"Mm. There is that. But you know, this 'trust' issue keeps rearing its ugly head, doesn't it?" Alex asked, dryly.

"Neither of us wants to die again, Alex. I'll trust you not to kill me, and you can trust me not to shoot you, okay?"

Alex shrugged. "Betrayal, blackmail... I don't suppose you'll be looking for a way to give me a taste of my past sins, then."

"I'm calling a truce." Mulder snickered into his beer. "I'll settle for an apology. A real one."

"You'd *believe* me?" Alex grinned back at him.

"Traitor." Mulder was still smiling.



"Actually, I'm not. But I could say a few things about your parentage," Alex replied, smoothly.

"Invertebrate scum-sucking son of a bitch."

"Hey. Leave my mother out of this," Alex warned. "She wasn't involved - she was a nice person."

"Yeah? What a coincidence. So was mine."

Alex snorted. But he didn't elaborate on why he found this statement unbelievable.

Mulder sat up. "You know, there's something we're going to have to face. Full disclosure. If we both lay all our cards on the table, everything we've got, then we can proceed from there with a clearer idea of where we both stand."

"The full Monty, eh?" Alex was smirking.

"I've made it a personal endeavor of mine to never turn down anyone with exhibitionist tendencies. If you want to unburden your woes, I'll listen. You can even cry on my shoulder."

"That's so thoughtful of you, Fox. Really, I'm touched. " Alex took a swig of his beer. "You can go first," he said, pointedly.

Mulder opened his mouth, paused for effect and then chuckled. "Alex, I get the feeling that there isn't anything I could say that would surprise you. I'll bet you already know my life story, my favorite color, when I lost my virginity and whether I'm a lefty or a righty." Mulder threw him a look, daring him to reply.

"Lefty." Alex's lip was turned up in a knowing smirk. "You forget, I was partnered with you in the beginning."

"I *thought* you were checking me out," Mulder said, triumphantly.

Alex choked on his swallow in mock amazement. "Are you kidding? I wasn't sure how much more obvious I was going to have to be without simply jumping you."

"And after?" Mulder queried, referring to the times they'd met up after Alex's departure from the FBI.

"Mulder, -" Alex stopped short and gave him a look of authentic disbelief. "I'm beginning to think you wouldn't have got the message unless I'd nailed you there on the floor of your apartment instead of just kissing you. Christ." He shook his head. "You really don't get laid that often, do you?"

"At least I wasn't so hard up that I thought I had to make do with Byers," Mulder retorted, feeling needled.

Alex stopped and stared at him. "God, it really worked, didn't it?"

"*What* worked?" Mulder snapped, knowing that whatever it was, it had.

Alex merely smiled tolerantly, watching Mulder. Alex waited, lifting the beer to his lips again.

Swiftly, the realization of what Alex had done swept over Mulder and he said, "Poor guy. He didn't stand a chance, did he?"

"Believe me, he got more out of it than you give me credit for." Alex looked away, regarding the coffee table. "I didn't hurt him."

But the turn their discussion had taken had left Mulder with an uneasy erection again. "You can tell me, Alex. Did you bottom for *him*?"

"I don't kiss and tell," Alex replied, shortly, obviously not wanting to talk about it.

Mulder licked his lips and took a further swig. "Was he any good? You can tell me that at least, can't you?"

Alex's eyes narrowed. "If you want to know if I'm any good, you'll have to find out for yourself, won't you?"

That was really what Mulder was getting at, and having Alex call him on it sort of left him feeling deflated. "What will it cost me?"

Alex snorted lightly. "Your soul, what else?"

Mulder grinned. "Is that all? No passionate declarations or signing away of my integrity, my inheritance - or my porn collection? I'll tell you what though; I was thinking of selling this house. I'll settle down with you here if you'll agree to go picking out curtains with me. Laura Ashley, Martha Stewart... we'll redecorate."

Alex growled, "You really *do* want to humiliate me, don't you?"

Mulder moaned slightly. "Stop it; you're tormenting me. Don't say things like that."

"I think I preferred it before, with you on your knees in front of me, actually." Alex was looking at him thoughtfully.

Mulder's mouth was pleasantly dry now, and that warm, melting sensation had returned along with the slight glow of the alcohol. "Don't tempt me."

"Tempt you?" Alex leered. "I'm ordering you."

About fucking time, Mulder thought with some relief. "What makes you think I'll bottom for *you*?"

"Well, I do recall some mention of a 'price', not a few minutes ago. Besides, you should be so lucky."

Mulder raised his eyebrows. "You do have a high opinion of yourself, don't you?"

"Well, we are talking about Fox Mulder, here: the Agent-least-likely-to. I don't think you have any idea just how many hopes you've crushed over the years. Did you know that some people think you can't get it up except for alien grays? You should have heard some of the jokes floating around after your abduction."

"Is this some kind of roundabout way of trying to tell me you want to probe me, Alex?" Mulder finished the last of his bottle and put it on the table next to the first one. He got up. "I need another. How about you?"

Alex nodded. "Yeah." As Mulder regarded him briefly before going to the kitchen, he noticed that despite Alex's attempts to appear unshaken, his eyes were noticeably dilated and he seemed to be slightly uncomfortable, shifting in his seat.

As Mulder brought out the last two beers from the six-pack they were going through, he considered the options. The sofa? Too shallow, uncomfortable. His mother's bed? He shuddered. No way. It just didn't feel right. The spare room where he was staying? Maybe. That seemed to be the best option, although the bed was a little small. It was only a double, and neither he nor Alex could be called diminutive. Still, it was something. Now, how to get him in there? He tried to examine exactly when he'd decided that he wanted nothing more than get Alex naked and into bed... He shook his head. He couldn't determine when it had happened. Just that it was the only thing he *was* certain of, now.

Suppressing the sudden slight cold twinge of anxiety that panged through his stomach he went back into the living room but breathed a sigh of relief when he saw Alex hadn't moved and had remained in the armchair.

The tension in the room seemed to have jumped up by several notches between them. Mulder found himself feeling like a nervous teen on a first date. There had always been the innuendo, the not-so-well-disguised sexual references and the unspoken awareness of the chemistry between them but he didn't want Alex to think he just wanted to rut on the floor again. It admittedly meant more to him than he wanted to say. Alex had already said as much to him earlier, but their past was still a minefield that was best left alone and the future was too dangerous with the whole trust versus truce issue looming...

Mulder deliberately sat in the corner of the sofa closest to Alex's chair this time. And held out his beer bottle for a toast. "To our mothers, without whom we wouldn't have met."

Alex regarded him a little puzzled. But he brought his own bottle to Mulder's with a clink. "I've always thought you were strange, but I never agreed you were spooky, until now."

"What? What's wrong with drinking to our mothers? I'm sure yours was a stunner."

Alex's brows lifted alarmingly high. "Really. How d'you figure?"

Whoops. Hadn't meant to say that, actually. Oh well. "Well, just look at you," Mulder said, trying to cover his sudden embarrassment. Somehow he felt as though complimenting Alex might be misconstrued as coming on too strong, superficial, or even indicative of a ploy of some kind. He hadn't actually said anything remotely kind or flattering to Alex in years. In fact, he couldn't remember ever having actually said aloud any of the nicer things he'd ever thought of him.

"Are you giving me a compliment, Mulder? This is way out there in the Twilight Zone, now."

"I'm just getting started," Mulder smiled at him.

"Please, stop before I go into sugar shock," Alex complained, sarcastically. But Mulder saw that it was based on the fear that he didn't mean it, or that he did... in fact, both were disturbing to contemplate. Interesting.

Mulder realized he had to compliment him more often if he wanted to have the upper hand. The insults had always given the ground to Alex. His smile broadened. "Well. You *are* a sweetheart inside, aren't you? I think I'm finally seeing past your tough, leather exterior." He blinked. "Actually, the leather isn't bad. It does a lot for you."

"Are you drunk or something?" Alex was watching him with more suspicion now.

"Not at all. I'm finally understanding the truth about you. You're really just a soft, marshmallowy creature, aren't you, Alex?"

"Except where it counts," Alex reminded him.

"You know, it might help if you made up your mind. Do you want me to be insulting or not? Up 'til now, I thought you got off on it. Then you made out like I was going too far. But when I sweet-talk you, you don't like that either," Mulder complained.

"Maybe you talk too much. Maybe you could find something more useful to do with your oral fixation," Alex pointed out, quietly.

"Sure, Alex. We can go into the bedroom whenever you like."

"Why? Is there something you haven't told me? I thought we were alone out here." Alex's eyes twinkled along with his grin. He didn't realize it, but it actually made him look a lot younger.

"We are - apart from any residual bugs left lying around. It's my mother's house, after all."

Refusing to rise to the bait of Cancerman's past Syndicate surveillance of the Mulders, Alex leaned forward to put his last empty beer bottle on the table. "I'm going to use the toilet."

"Help yourself."

Mulder took advantage of Alex's absence to slip into the spare room and turn down the covers. And make a few little preparations.

But as quickly as he'd disappeared, Alex was standing in the doorway, saying, "Getting a bit ahead of ourselves, aren't we?"

Mulder spun around, startled although he'd thought there was a possibility Alex would follow him. He shrugged. "I prefer the sofa. I thought you might be staying, what with the beers you've had."

"We had three apiece. You think I can't hold my alcohol?"

"Don't get snippy," Mulder said, with a half-smile. "I was trying to be nice."

"I think I like you better when you're honest."

Ouch. That hurt. A little. "Why do you think I'm not being honest?"

"Well, unless I'm mistaken and that's a gun in your shorts, I'd say you had other plans for this evening." Alex sauntered into the room, slowly, and came to stand before him, at the side of the bed. He waited. "It's your call this time, Mulder."

Without taking his eyes off Alex's, Mulder began to get undressed. With a grin, Mulder began, "I don't know if you-"

He abruptly found Alex's hand on his mouth, shushing him. "Mulder, before you put your foot in your mouth again, try to think what else you might prefer."

At a time when he didn't have both alcohol and desire singing in his bloodstream, and he wasn't thoroughly distracted with the warm sensation of Alex's fingers against his lips, Mulder might have stepped back and made another one of his famed, dead-pan, backfiring comebacks. As it was, he just opened his mouth and caught Alex's middle finger gently in his teeth, and began to nibble... Then he began to suck on it, using his tongue to taste the faint salt-taste of his sweat. The errant thought wandered across his brain: had Alex washed his hands after -

Alex drew in a shuddering breath and then Mulder, shirtless, in just his jeans, found himself being borne backwards onto the bed, forced off-balance with Alex on top of him.

Mulder chuckled in spite of himself. "Who's the impetuous one, now?"

"Shut *up*, Mulder," Alex breathed, before bending his head again to ravage Mulder's mouth with his own.

Mulder brought both his hands up to lay them on either side of Alex's face, returning the force of the passion Alex was displaying almost desperately. He could feel and hear Alex's heart beating loudly, which made him focus on the fact that Alex's chest was covered. He dropped one hand down to pull the dark sweater up, and then pulled the t-shirt out from the jeans it was tucked into. Then cursed the move as Alex abruptly pulled away from him and stood over him. There was a pause and then Alex moved away. But he was worried about nothing for Alex merely went to the light and turned it off, and then came back towards him while pulling the sweater over his head.

Mulder quickly shucked his jeans off, and his shorts, before sliding between the sheets of the bed and moving over to make room for Alex.

Standing in the darkness of the room, barely lit by the light from the covered window, Alex didn't speak, just removed the rest of his clothes. And probably his prosthetic, too. At least, the sound of Velcro came to Mulder's ears and he assumed that's what it was.

Mulder was glad he'd surreptitiously secreted the condoms and the little tube of lubricant under the pillows when he'd come in before Alex had finished in the toilet. Everything was going smoothly, so far.

Alex joined him on the bed, getting in on Mulder's right, and the mattress dipped slightly under his weight before he settled down beside Mulder. Turning and putting his arm easily around him, almost casually draping it on him between his arm and his side, Alex said, "Just keep in mind that I'm not bottoming for you."

Mulder couldn't help a gulp at this. He was actually nervous about being penetrated. The ominous reality of it was freaking him out a bit. More than a bit, if he were honest. He cleared his throat. "Then we're in a stalemate, because neither am I."

He could hear the grin in Alex's voice in the dark. "A compromise then." And he felt Alex feeling about under the pillows.

Mulder felt the heat color his face as Alex found the lube and condoms and said, "Well, well. What have we here?"

"I thought one of us might get lucky."

"Then isn't it lucky for you that we both did." But Mulder could still hear the humor in his voice.

"So, what's this compromise you have in mind?"

Alex dragged his hand down over Mulder's hip, down to his flank and then behind to clasp his left buttock. Alex moved in closer until they were pressed close to each other, feeling the mutual cool sensation of slightly dampening skin.

The awareness of this magnetic, drowning whirlpool that sucked the ability to think right out of his head was the only thing Mulder could recognize, barely comprehending Alex's response. Alex was saying something. The feeling of Alex's body, hard and supple and entirely exquisite against his own, obscured all other considerations. His mind spinning, he managed, "W-What? What'd you say?"

And then Alex was chuckling under his breath against him, a delicious little shaking followed by the velvety, silken rasp of Alex's voice in his ears, "I said, I'm going to make this the experience we've both been waiting for."

Mulder was still apprehensive. "Meaning what, exactly?"

Alex stopped, his hand still on Mulder's ass, his arm around him, his knee sliding up between Mulder's legs to rest against his crotch and the underside of his erection, against his now over-sensitive and drawn-up balls. "Stop worrying."

Mulder said, wonderingly, "I guess I'll just have to trust that you know what you're doing."

It was the wrong thing to say. Mulder regretted saying the word as soon as it left his mouth. Trust. It echoed between them with all the heavy weight of too many years and too many fights, close encounters and harsh words.

Afraid he'd gone and done it again, Mulder tightened his hold on him. Brokenly, he said, "Alex - I want you. Please."

"It can't be easy, can it?" Alex asked, roughly, and it was clear he wasn't really asking a question at all. He didn't move.

"Don't you dare leave me like this," Mulder warned him, keeping his arms around him and trapping Alex's leg between both of his own.

And it should have been easy, in the dark, close and the friction heating up so greatly between them that their skin was getting slippery against each other. With a lost and rather despairing groan, Alex appeared to acquiesce against him with a return of the same pressure of his own hold and held Mulder tighter, if such a thing were possible.

Mulder swallowed, suddenly aware that he understood exactly how Alex must feel. He felt just as scared, himself, just as unsure about the relative wisdom of what they were doing. Or the possible repercussions afterward. He wouldn't be able to pretend that he hadn't wanted this, and it was all just going to hit the fan. As for Alex - no doubt he was afraid that Mulder would yawn afterwards and say, thanks for the great sex, I'll see you around maybe.

Alex cleared his throat. "Look, Fox, if you're getting cold feet -"

Mulder interrupted him. "If I do, you can keep them warm. I'm not a coward."

"Sure. But just so you know, I want *this*," he squeezed Mulder to accentuate what he was talking about, " as much as the sex, okay? It was never just about screwing around with you."

"I know, you've said that before."

Alex bucked his hips against him, bringing both their hard cocks into contact, draining Mulder's brain of thought. "Then it's *your* call this time, lover boy." He leaned to catch Mulder's arm with his mouth and bit him slightly, immediately washing it with his tongue.

"What's this compromise you were talking about?"

"Oh, that." Alex grinned in the dark again and he pushed Mulder over onto his back.

"Whoa, Alex - I'm not bottoming either. You said it was a compromise."

Straddling Mulder's upper thighs, Alex said, "You are going to have to trust me on this one." His hand on Mulder's cock was nearly a revelation in its own right.

Mulder saw stars, accompanied by a low moaning - again, it was his own. He *was* drowning, this time. Alex's skin was like warm satin; the sensation of strength and softness combined was enough for now to shut out any residual fear of intimacy with this particular man.

There was a rustle of movement and then Alex's hand was on his cock again, this time unrolling a condom onto it. The realization of what Alex planned sent a shaft of unwanted tenderness through Mulder's heart. Despite the deftness of his movements, Alex's hand was shaking. It was withdrawn as Alex took up the lube and then applied his slicked hand to Mulder's sheathed cock.

The gentle but firm touch was drawing the pleasure up higher and higher... Mulder worried he'd just shoot into Alex's hand. Everything else seemed to have disappeared; all that was left was each heartbeat following the last, the comfort of dark helping with a discreet veil over respective accusations of the past.

Mulder was gasping as Alex moved up to impale himself slowly, God, too slowly... Mulder realized Alex was giving to him even in this. He always had. That swift twinge of - something - affection? tenderness? - cut through Mulder again and he found he could no longer pretend that he didn't know exactly how Alex had felt towards him. From the beginning, even...

It was too much, too soon. And not enough. And it would all be over too quickly. But he was helpless to do anything but lie there as Alex finally came to a halt, pinioned on him, leaning over in a curious mixture of pain and pleasure. It was hard to tell if this was too easy because they weren't fighting it anymore, or if it was difficult because the combined weight of guilt and longing brought down out of the past years was now inescapably present.

Maybe we waited too long, Mulder thought absently, wondering also if he'd last much longer. Alex was slowly riding him, fucking him in a reversed and perfect decadence of possession.

Mulder found himself wishing he could see Alex's face, and cursed his earlier fear of this union. They'd been wanting each other for so long - what the hell had been the problem?! They could have been doing this for years now. It was clearly separate from judgments of their respective actions and affiliations. He made a silent assertion to do this with the lights on, from then on, as many times as possible.

And then there was absolutely nothing left to do but hold on to some shred of sanity as the increasingly hard and thrusting motions Alex was making absorbed Mulder into his body, each forced slide forward into him sending shattering little rivers of pleasure to crash around in their bodies.

He was part of Alex now. To be held in that tight, hot, pulsing channel was somehow the center of his world but everything else seemed too real, the open-mouthed cries and harsh breaths that Alex was making, the shaking, the thin trickle of stray droplets of sweat... Mulder couldn't take anymore and was holding onto Alex's hips while he drove upwards into him again and again, fiercely, his own voice somehow terrifyingly loud in his ears.

The rush of gratification that swept over him rocked all his presumptions of what it would be like. It was sweet, and so hot, so good. Addictive. And the sounds Alex was making as he followed him into his own climax were even sweeter.

He couldn't tell which of them had won or lost. Discarding finally any preconceived notions of what he wanted, Mulder lay there, spent, his softening cock twitching even now from the feeling of Alex laying on top of him, the slick evidence of Alex's orgasm trapped between them on Mulder's belly.

"Fuck," Alex muttered with feeling, lifting his head in the dark and catching his breath.

"Yeah," Mulder agreed. "And that's an understatement," he added, letting his hands rest on Alex's back to trail over his skin.

But Alex was quiet, and Mulder could tell that he was *too* quiet, so he gently asked, "Hey. You okay?" He let his hand wander over to admire Alex's chest, and the smoothness there that yielded a sensitive nipple.

Alex sank down to rest beside him, carefully, on Mulder's right. "I'm not sure. That depends on you, doesn't it?"

There was too much unsaid, there. Gathering Alex to him, into his arms, Mulder kissed him on the forehead. "How can I bribe you to stay? Do you want to stay?"


But Mulder got the feeling yet again that there was something Alex wasn't saying, something he was afraid to say. He sighed, quietly, through his nose. Snuggling up against him under the covers, he pressed a more lingering kiss on Alex's neck, breathing in the scent of him. "Then you're always welcome." He cleared his throat and swallowed. "Alex?" He waited.

There was merely an answering, "Hm?", quiet, subdued, thinking.

"I think I'm addicted to you." Mulder stated as a confession. It was, after all.

Alex sighed, almost resignedly, the breath tickling Mulder's cheek, by his ear. Then Alex caught his ear lobe between his teeth and began nibbling on it.

Mulder squirmed involuntarily. "Why... do you always end up biting and chewing on me?"

"I'm not, I'm tasting you. There's a difference." But Mulder could hear the smile return to Alex's voice at last.

He breathed a silent prayer of thanks that the after-sadness had passed. "Will you stay, then?"

"Do I have a choice?"

Mulder tightened his hold on him. "No."

"Then I will."

Something akin to gratitude went over Mulder at this; and it was laced with tenderness and trust. He didn't care to analyze it, specifically. He just liked the feeling. It was what it was. But for once, he felt he could simply allow the future to come.


Archived: May 27, 2001