The factory complex was too quiet. Mulder found himself hunching his shoulders as if waiting for a shot from the nearest roof.
Oh, not literally quiet. There was the generator, the fans, some ungodly racket from equipment in Buildings 2 and 3, even the pigeons that rose suddenly from the pavement as he walked towards them, their wings catching the last sunset light in a flicker of red. Their shadows moved across the sign painted neatly on one concrete wall: Apex Medical Products of North Carolina. It didn't say "Latest Front for Pinck Pharmaceuticals," but he already knew that.
The place wasn't empty; he'd seen the evening shift go in half an hour ago. But he knew from days of surveillance that there were usually more management types around, even this late, more suits out enjoying a cigarette or trading snide jokes. This evening, only a couple of the cars in the lot were new and clean.
Something was wrong. Had he been spotted? He'd have sworn nobody noticed his surveillance--ten years in the X-Files division, he ought to know what he was doing. And these faked-up coveralls should make him look as if he were just another worker late to his shift.
Damn, he missed his team. He'd gotten used to having experienced backup: first Scully, and then the rest of them. But without them, he had to do this alone; he didn't dare drag a new, untested group into something this touchy.
Wait, something about the sound had changed. What was that engine buzz, getting louder even through all the plant noise, almost roaring--
And a motorcycle swerved around him and stopped dead, still running. The rider was yelling something--did he know that voice? He couldn't see the rider's face through the visored helmet.
"Mulder, get on the bike!"
"--What?" He'd thought he was prepared for anything, but this didn't make sense.
"MULDER, GET. ON. THE. BIKE!"
Confused, he swung one leg across the back. "What's going on?" He yelled at the back of the featureless helmet.
"IT'S GOING TO BLOW. HOLD ON, DAMN IT!"
And the bike nearly took off from under him, and he automatically grabbed the nearest handhold--the rider's waist, hard and masculine under his hands--to keep from falling. It took him a moment longer to realize that he could have stayed, could have tried to warn the workers, could have--
But then they were out of the compound and down to the road, and the rider laid the bike down almost on its side and they were sliding into the ditch. Grasshoppers exploded out of the way, rank winebrown water soaked into his coveralls, and above them the concussion wave of the blast drove the air like a battering ram before it and tore apart the sky.
The rider grabbed him across the shoulders and pinned him to the ground, face into the long grass, as debris slammed into the far side of the ditch. He seemed to be yelling something, but Mulder couldn't hear anything over the white noise that screamed through his ears.
Finally, the lethal rain of shrapnel lightened, and he raised his head just enough to see the column of smoke pouring up into the sky, blotting out the last of the sunset. The body on top of him shifted, and the helmet turned towards him. Was the rider trying to talk?
I can't hear anything, Mulder yelled, or mouthed--he couldn't hear his own voice.
And the rider pushed back his faceplate visor, and it was Krycek. The late Alex Krycek.
Let's get out of here, Krycek mouthed exaggeratedly, and flipped his faceplate back down. Then his weight was off Mulder's back and he was lifting the bike upright and grabbing Mulder's wrist to help him out of the ditch.
With his gloved but very real left hand.
Shit, was this an alien shapeshifter? A hybrid clone? But if it meant him any harm, it could have just left him to the bomb, or handcuffed and drugged him while he lay stupefied by the explosion. None of this made any fucking sense. Whoever this was, he had to go along and find out.
The muddy workboots of Mulder's disguise slipped on the grass, but that impossible hand steadied him, and he managed to stagger astride the motorcycle as Krycek kicked it awake.
This time, Mulder tried to find handholds under the seat, but those black-gloved hands reached back for his own, pulling them forward around Krycek's waist and drawing his face into the old navy pea-coat in front of him. For a minute, Mulder resisted, and then he realized that Krycek was trying to shield him against his body and keep his face hidden from any observers.
What the hell?
And then the road shot out behind them and it was all he could do to hang on. They passed the first firetruck eight minutes later, and a helicopter overhead two minutes after that. Krycek didn't slow down. Was it an EMT helicopter, news, or some Consortium quick response? He couldn't see it well enough from between Krycek's shoulderblades to begin to guess.
It was a long ride, most of it on back roads only half-lit by the bike's headlight in the growing dusk. Battered, confused, jolted, Mulder fell into a sleeping daze against the solidity of the rider in front of him and stopped even trying to remember their route.
The shift in balance as they slowed to a stop woke him again. For a confused moment, he enjoyed the simple warmth of the body he held. Then awareness shocked him and he sat back upright in revulsion.
Before the headlight cut out, he saw a small clearing under the trees; ragged weeds; a half-fallen shack, and a battered old RV camper. What--?
When the engine stopped, he could hear barking, and then felt a large furry body brush past him to greet the rider. A dog. And Krycek. Who was dead, and one-armed anyway, and--
Mulder swung a leaden leg off the bike and nearly fell as his knee refused to hold his weight. But that strong arm caught him and steadied him, and the dog nosed curiously at his hand as Krycek set the kickstand and dismounted.
"This way, Mulder," --he could hear now-- and a small flashlight beam pointed to the camper door.
It wasn't until the door clicked shut behind them that Krycek flipped on the light. A shotgun beside the door, but God, it really was an RV camper and not just a cover shell for a surveillance team or a war wagon. There was a kitchen, a work table bolted to the floor, a rack of battered paperbacks bungeed to the shelf over the neatly made bed. No spare room anywhere, but room for everything there, and the only free corner had a nest of moth-holed woolen blanket whose folds were worn into a dog-shaped curve.
But he didn't see anything more then, because Krycek unstrapped the helmet entirely and pulled it off.
My God. This had to be the real Krycek. No clone or shapeshifter could have pared that face down to this clean perfection, age and use cutting away the merely pretty and leaving the beautiful, weathered bones beneath. Mulder was no expert on masculine beauty, but this was a pure aesthetic shape like chiseled stone.
And his hair--his hair was down past his shoulders, tied back in a casual ponytail, curling slightly now that it was long enough to hold its own shape. Black next to the skin, sun-paled to brown on the top strands and the ends, with the first few notes of silver catching the eye like the flash of a drawn blade.
Stop staring, you idiot.
For a moment, he met that pine-green gaze, which darkened in challenge or something else as it stared back. And then Krycek removed his gloves and Mulder couldn't stop his eyes from shifting.
His left hand--the differences were minute, but Mulder could see them. The fingers of the transplant were a fraction longer, bonier than those of Krycek's own hand; the dust of hair at the wrist a lighter brown; the nails flatter, the wristbones a little heavier, the knuckles more prominent--
Krycek was grinning, and those disconcerting eyes were camouflaged again under his long lashes. "You done with the peepshow, Mulder?"
"Tricodine-C, that new drug to prevent tissue rejection. Ironically, it comes out of early Consortium research on human/alien hybrids. Works a lot better with standard human transplants."
"I volunteered for the second round of trials. Not under my own name, of course. They thought I was one of the victims of that Northern Air crash. A lot of records-hacking for that one, I can tell you."
"But--didn't they see the scarring was too old--"
"Nope. Fresh new cut," Krycek said with finality, raising an amused eyebrow at Mulder's horrified comprehension. "So, Mulder, you want coffee, whiskey, vodka, or Mountain Dew? The soft drink, I mean. I don't know the local moonshiners."
"Coffee. I want to stay awake long enough to get some explanations out of you, Krycek."
"Well, I'm going to sleep, but please yourself. I'd rather not leave the lights on in case we're spotted, and it's been a long day for both of us. You can have the bed."
The dog, which looked like a shepherd/husky mix, settled in the corner with a long contented whuff. Krycek vaulted neatly into what looked like a cargo hammock and thumbed a switch to douse the light again. Mulder had to feel his way blindly to the bed, and was sure he heard Krycek snicker when he slammed his shin into some obstacle and swore.
And then despite himself, in the enemy camp and at the mercy of his father's killer, Mulder fell utterly into sleep.