Phantom Pain by Merri-Todd Webster
by Merri-Todd Webster
(10 October 1999)
Dammit, it was starting to snow. Mulder hated himself for the panic he felt as the first fat, wet flakes began to fall from the sky. It's nothing, it's nothing, it's just a few flurries. He made himself smile at the young cashier, a cute strawberry blonde with blue eyes, who handed him his change and his grocery bags; then, he got a fresh grip on his cane and headed out to the parking lot.
He put the bags in the back seat of the driver's side, and then eased himself slowly into the car. Thank God he could still drive. He tossed his cane aside, impatiently; it bounced against the passenger-side door. He didn't have to sit helpless while someone else negotiated the storm; he could choose to go out or stay home any time he pleased. Of course, his eyesight wasn't getting any better, and his knee hurt whenever he drove. If it was cold and damp, like today, his knee hurt anyway, and driving would only make it worse. He'd have to prop it up when he got home.
Mulder adjusted the rearview mirror and squinted into it. He supposed he didn't look so bad for a man in his seventies; his hair was still mostly brown, his eyes were still pretty clear. The cute cashiers still smiled back at him, despite the lines in his face, the deep grooves that made his nose stand out like a big beak, the permanent pout induced by the disappearance of his upper lip. Carefully, he pulled out of the parking lot and into the already slightly frantic traffic, watching with anxious eyes the road, the other cars, the distracting swirl of the snow flurries. The snow wasn't coming down heavily, probably wasn't going to, but the wind was blowing harder, and besides, this was Baltimore, people went crazy over three flakes of snow. It wasn't like winters in New England when he was a kid. If this kept up, people would be in the stores, buying enough toilet paper to last through the apocalypse. Thank God he'd gone out early and gotten everything he needed for the moment.
By the time he got in the apartment, took off his coat and scarf and hat, put away the groceries, and made a pot of tea, his battered knee was singing the Queen of the Night's big aria from _The Magic Flute_. Hobbling painfully, Mulder fixed a cup of tea, put on some nice soothing Baroque music, and got the ottoman into position. It took grunting and cursing and using his cane and his good foot to move the heavy ottoman; he should have listened when his neighbor, Mrs. Bromwell, told him to get a good recliner, maybe even one of those things that lifted you to your feet all by itself. Then it was agony to lower himself into the big armchair--his knuckles burned cold with the effort--and prop up his leg on the pillow on top of the ottoman. Finally, finally, he cradled the warm mug of tea in his chilled hands and let his head fall back against the chair.
Here they come again, Mulder thought. He turned his head restlessly from side to side, the leather creaking with the motion. The memories. Whenever he sat down like this, for a moment, when he had to pamper the bad knee, whenever he gave himself a moment to *think*, the memories came back. The memories made him keep the television on, or the radio or the stereo, almost twenty-four hours a day. The memories made him go walking when he didn't feel like it, ambling around and around the neighborhood, or driving aimlessly in his old clunker of a car, looking for new sights to see. Anything, almost, was better than remembering... but sometimes, the memories had to be given their say.
Mulder sipped his tea, hot and strong with just milk, no sugar, and gave in to the memories.
Scully. Scully the first day she had walked into his dingy basement office and given him her hand, firmly, confidently. That handshake had won his heart. Scully with her gun at the ready, her stance perfect, ready to defend herself or protect him. Scully in her pathologist's scrubs, frowning dubiously over the latest lump of dead flesh, her mind a sharper blade than all the saws and scalpels. Scully weeping in his arms, sick with cancer, sick with fear, sick with her need of someone. Scully's smooth white skin and crisp blue suit stained by the telltale nosebleeds, her eyes like lightning. Scully, in the most expensive suit of her life, a very small smile on her lips as she tirelessly, ruthlessly gave testimony at the Senate hearings. Scully holding his hand, smiling, gripping more and more tightly as her life ebbed away, her body giving in to the dormant cancer at last, a final defeat after so many victories. He had stood alone at her funeral, next to her brother Charlie and her sister-in-law Tara, and wept like a child, unable to be comforted by the burial service, by the religion she and her family shared. He was weeping again now, the grief still fresh after nearly twenty years without her.
Skinner. Skinner frowning, Skinner scowling, Skinner clenching his jaw and spitting out words like bullets between his teeth. Skinner, eyes lowered, haltingly telling him about dying and coming back in Viet Nam, seeing his own injured body from above. Skinner, angry, helpless, baffled, like a cornered bull, needing his help after waking in bed next to a dead woman he hadn't killed. Skinner restraining him physically, more than once. Skinner, an immovable mountain at the Senate hearings, holding on to nothing more than his loyalty to his two rogue agents, and theirs to him. Skinner, holding him for the first time, that first kiss, how tentative they both had been. Walter cooking, washing dishes, mopping the floor to a high gloss, taking on the role of house-husband as though he'd been born to it and not even taking the bait of his lover's teasing. Walter had given him the stability, the normal life, he'd never known. Had he told him often enough how grateful he was? Neither of them had been good with words. Walter, slack and lifeless in his arms, heavy as a mountain, after the bullet sank into his brain. The pregnant woman he'd been trying to protect had lived; she still wrote to Mulder from time to time. There was a drawing by her son, Walter, on the fridge right now; it was about five years old.
Names and faces floated across the old man's mind, like leaves torn from a book, swirling in the wind like the snow. Albert Hosteen, the old Navajo codetalker... Agent Pendrell, whose first name Mulder had never known... Eddie Van Blundht, shapeshifter and nebbish... Senator Matheson, wheeler and dealer... the smoker, Spender, and his doomed wife and son, Cassandra and Jeffrey, their life even more a Greek tragedy than the Mulder family's... the old British man who had inexplicably helped Mulder, saved Scully's life, and died in an explosion before Mulder's shocked eyes... Frohike, dead of untreated pneumonia, he'd refused to go to the hospital... Langly, mugged and killed for a leather jacket... Byers, who'd married Suzanne Modeski at last, only to die with her in a plane crash on their honeymoon... grainy as an old photograph, the eight-year-old sister he had lost and never found... and Alex Krycek. Whatever had happened to Alex Krycek? Nobody had ever been sure. He had helped them, in the end, been granted amnesty, and then vanished.
At the sound of that raspy voice, Mulder opened his eyes and was certain he was seeing a ghost. But no--ghosts don't age. The ghost of Alex Krycek would have black hair, black as a raven's feathers, would wear a black leather jacket and black leather gloves, might have a gun in his hand. But the Alex Krycek who leaned in his living room doorway, sprinklings of snow still visible on his stooped shoulders, had hair that was silver-white like an Arctic owl's wing and was dressed in a heavy brown tweed coat, with bulky brown suede gloves.
"I did knock." The voice had not changed, nor the rarely seen smile--charming, guileful, full of even white teeth. "But there wasn't any answer, so I broke in." A low chuckle. "Old habits die hard."
Mulder cleared his throat. "Well, it seems you have me at a disadvantage."
Krycek laughed, and took a couple of steps into the room. He didn't limp, unlike Mulder, but like Mulder he no longer moved with the easy grace of youth. He was heavier than he used to be. "I didn't come to kill you, Mulder. Really, if I'd wanted to do that, would I have waited until we were both old men?" He took another couple of steps. "Mind if I sit down?"
Mulder waved a hand. "Go on. Have a cup of tea if you like--there's a pot in the kitchen."
Moving slowly, Krycek unwrapped the layers of winter clothing, coat, scarf, and gloves, then headed into Mulder's kitchen. Something about the way he walked suggested back pain to Mulder--were all old people as keen on other people's troubles as he'd become?--but Krycek moved as silently as ever, if not as smoothly or quickly.
Krycek came back with a cup of tea and sat down on the couch to sip it. "Bad knee?" he asked, sympathetically.
Mulder nodded. "Tore it up when I ran the New York marathon, two years after the X-Files closed."
Krycek nodded in turn. "I remember that. I remember seeing you on television." He sipped tea and grinned. "You did good, old man."
Mulder snorted. "I wasn't that old, then."
"No. None of us were."
The pain in his knee had eased up enough that Mulder thought about putting his leg down. Old habits die hard, as Krycek had said, and he just wasn't comfortable looking this vulnerable in front of his old nemesis. He wouldn't put it past Krycek to be wearing a gun under his sweater and turtleneck, even now, and if he pulled it....
But when he started to move, the pain sang out again, so sharply that Mulder cried out despite himself. At once Krycek was on his feet, hovering over him. "What's wrong?"
"God--damned--knee--" Mulder gritted his teeth.
Krycek wasn't as graceful, Mulder noticed, when he tried to move faster. He tried to gloat over that to distract himself from the pain. A couple of minutes later, Krycek returned, puffing a little with his exertions and bringing an icepack and another pillow.
"Here. Don't fight me, ya fucking idiot. Let me help."
Mulder groaned and Krycek muttered in Russian as Krycek lifted the bad leg, tucked the second pillow under it, set the leg down carefully, and settled the icepack into place. "Here? is this where it hurts?"
"A little to the left... ah...." Mulder leaned back, sinking into the old chair. The pain was starting to recede, and the relief and--and gratitude he felt made him weak and dizzy.
Krycek straightened up, rubbing unself-consciously at his lower back. "Christ, Mulder, fuck the tea, haven't you got any painkillers? Or at least some liquor?"
"Liquor cabinet's in the kitchen." Mulder closed his eyes.
Again Krycek hobbled away and returned, carrying a tray with exaggerated care. Mulder stiffened when he saw the bottle of scotch that loomed over the two tumblers.
"That was Walter's."
Krycek stopped, glanced at the tray with an oddly guilty expression. Obviously he knew about Mulder and Walter. "What--oh, the scotch? You've had it that long?" He licked his lips. "Do you want to..."
"Forget about it, fuck, let's drink." There wasn't much in the bottle, yet somehow it seemed right to finish Walter's scotch in the company of Alex Krycek. Friends, enemies, lovers, they were all woven into the same braid of memory. Walter would understand.
Krycek poured. His hands were shaking a little, as Mulder's did, and they were covered with the same fine, papery skin, pale and easily torn, the veins like little ridges. No, his right hand was shaking, not his left. The left hand was steady but stiff, and it was smooth, unnaturally smooth. Artificial. "When did you lose your hand?"
"Tunguska," Krycek said briefly. "Almost up to the shoulder."
Mulder's hand shook as he accepted the tumbler of scotch. He hadn't known about that--Krycek had lost his arm almost forty years ago? Unbelievable. The one-armed assassin--and he'd survived it.
"Old Russian proverb," Krycek said hoarsely. "If you drink, you die. If you don't drink, you die. So you might as well drink." He hoisted the glass. "Nazdrovye."
"L'chaim." The scotch rippled through Mulder like an orgasm, like the way it felt when Walter was deep inside him. He shuddered, wondering if his worn-out old body could stand to feel something this good.
"So what are you doing here, Krycek?" The pleasure from the scotch made him reckless.
Krycek shrugged. "I wanted to see you. I thought, now, it might not matter so much if you didn't want to see me. After so long... you might even be glad to see me. To see someone." He gulped more scotch and looked straight at Mulder. His eyes were still the same smoky green, fringed with impossibly thick lashes--a young man's eyes in an old, tired face, the fine bones blurred with extra weight. "We're the only ones left. The only ones who remember."
"I know." Mulder took another slug. "I didn't know you were still alive."
"Didn't want you to know. Didn't want anybody to know." Krycek sipped his drink this time. "Once I had the amnesty, I did my best to disappear. Had a lot of money, you know, too much money. Went out and spent some, did some things I'd never done."
"Like what?" Mulder was intrigued.
The old roguish grin. "Went on vacation someplace warm. Got a tan. Saw whales and coral reefs. Visited museums and art galleries, went to plays and concerts and shit." He chuckled. "There's a hell of a lot of museums and theatres and concert halls with Consortium money in them now. And schools and hospitals, too. Fuck, I could never spend all that money. And who would I leave it to? So I bought the best tv and stereo systems money could buy--and the best security system, too--and then started handing it out. Figured I might as well do it now, while I'm alive, not wait to be a philanthropist till I'm dead."
"Alex Krycek, philanthropist." The idea struck Mulder very funny, and he began to laugh, with an old man's wheezing laughter that turned into coughs. "Alex Krycek, assassin and philanthropist."
Krycek took it in good part. "Yeah, well, I didn't exactly use that name, now, did I? In fact," he snickered, sounding weirdly like Walter Brennan, "I endowed an institute of paranormal research in your name. The Fox Mulder Institute of Paranormal Research."
"You did?" Mulder blinked, then choked. "So that's why I always get mail from that place!"
The two of them laughed, laughed at nothing for long minutes. Mulder felt better than he had in ages. The pain was gone, thanks to the icepack and the scotch, and he had *company*--somebody who remembered, like he did. Somebody else with memories.
Krycek finished his scotch and seemed abruptly sober, at least in the emotional sense. "You know, Mulder, I wanted to say I'm sorry. I mean, I heard about Scully's death, and Skinner's. I, I think I know how much they meant to you. I'm sorry. I know what it's like to be alone...." He was almost blushing.
"Thank you." Mulder didn't know what else to say.
Krycek got up with the air of someone who *must* move or else get unbearably stiff. His left arm hung heavily at his side. "One reason I've stayed away from you, all these years... I wanted to give you some room. Maybe even some peace. Let you have a life. A real life, without me in it, screwing it up."
"But you always come back." Surprised, Mulder felt the truth of his own words. Krycek *did* always come back, no matter how long the absence--like a homing pigeon to its roost, like a needle swinging round to the north. And he had come back now.
Krycek turned, head tucked into his sweater in that turtle-like way of old men. "I can go now, Mulder, you'll never have to see me again--"
"No." Slowly, painfully, Mulder bent forward, removed the icepack, and lowered his bad leg with both hands. It wasn't so bad--his hands hurt more than his knee did as he pushed himself up. Krycek stood still, like a child awaiting punishment, as Mulder limped toward him, and Mulder thought of all those times when the armed assassin had stood still, letting Mulder beat up on him, not turning away or retaliating.... They were both idiots. With silent apologies to both Walter and Scully, Mulder took hold of Krycek's shoulders and kissed him.
It wasn't like his old fantasies. Krycek's full lips were almost as dry as his own, and his response was even more hesitant than Mulder's was the first time Walter kissed him. But when he looked up, there was a familiar swirl of emotion in the dark green eyes, and Krycek's silver hair was as thick and as soft as he'd imagined, as if it were still the raven's wing and not the owl's.
"I don't want you to go," Mulder said quietly. "Not if you want to stay. Stay as long as you like."
Hesitantly, Krycek's arms wrapped around him, one warm and frail, one hard and heavy. "As long as that?"
"As long as that."
Krycek's head bent, stiffly, to rest on Mulder's shoulder. Mulder laid his cheek on the white hair, stroked it, and allowed himself to remember.