Chapter 1: The Sea Is Calm Tonight
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.
Chapter 2: Ebb and Flow
God, where was he, and what was that awful noise? Hadn't been this stiff since sliding down a thousand feet of bumpy ice shaft, and that was years ago. And what was weighing down his feet and eating through his side like lava?
Oh, God. Mulder, never ever ever fall asleep in boots again, and above all else, never fall asleep with your gun still holstered and then roll over on it.
Why--? Oh. The camper. Krycek. Jesus, what was he doing here?
He finally made sense of the clashing sounds that had woken him. Krycek's radio alarm clock must be set to a shrapnel station. Not Mulder's taste in music; he preferred things that at least still sounded like musical instruments, even if they were mostly synthesized.
Krycek looked remarkably lively for someone who'd also fallen asleep fully dressed, and curled up in a nylon spiderweb at that. The dog was nowhere in sight; probably outside.
Krycek. He ought to be arresting the rat bastard at gunpoint, but it's surprisingly awkward to draw on the man who just saved your life, let you keep your weapon even when you were out cold, and is now frying something that smells remarkably like ham.
"So, Krycek, how's the traitor business?"
The cocky grin that answered him was familiar, at least. "Stale," Krycek said after due consideration. "Well past its shelf life."
Behind him, the radio switched from the so-called music to a news station. Krycek must have programmed that in; did he listen to it every morning?
When the international news gave way to a piece about a wonder poodle in Florida, Krycek gave Mulder his full attention again. "How do you like your eggs?"
"I don't care. Whatever you're having. I didn't know you could cook." Stupid remark, Mulder. Get your balance back and do your job.
"I can't," Krycek said with satisfaction. "So I just heat things up. Usually on grease so I don't have to scrape the food off the bottom of the pan. But if you want, you know, ingredients, it's up to you."
It was indeed ham he had smelled, with hard-fried eggs and toast. Amazing. Mulder decided he couldn't manage coffee this morning, and went for a can of Mountain Dew instead--cold caffeine, for a change. "Thanks," he said automatically, and then hated himself for being courteous to his father's killer.
"So," said Krycek, setting the pan into the sink with an air of finality. "Do you want to go through the usual pissing contest? Or should we get down to business?"
"How about business, Krycek. How are you still alive?"
"Mulder, Mulder. Still focused on trivia. Sure, we can get to that if you want, but I'm not headline news here. Let's stay with the bomb and the big boys, shall we?" A chiding tone, and a derisive flick of those long black lashes.
Take a deep breath, Mulder. It won't help if you hit him. "All right, Krycek, then tell me about the bomb."
"Been paying attention these last few months, Mulder? It's all going to hell. For the Consortium, that is. Shit, between your investigations and those truly amazing leaks over the Net... Langly knew his stuff."
"And paid for it," Mulder said. "They got to him. You know he's gone?"
"Yeah. Actually, I got him away from them--"
"Hey, I needed him. But they'd done him too much damage. A couple of months coughing blood, and by the time he agreed to see a doctor, it was too late."
"Damn," said Mulder, missing the lanky hacker all over again. Still, it was a relief of sorts to know he'd died free and out of those bastards' hands, instead of in one of the nightmare scenarios that haunted Mulder's dreams. Assuming Krycek was telling the truth, of course.
"Anyway. He'd guessed right that the Consortium would overreact and try to crush the Net backbone, but people were prepared for that and the bucket brigade went on. And Christ, the bastards actually made the situation worse with such an obvious cover-up, using such massive power and little judgment.
"And Mulder, are you the one who decided to publish the vaccine process the same way? 'The antidote to a secret US bioweapon whose primary symptom is a mobile inky film over the patient's eyes.' Most people thought it was a joke, but enough of them didn't. Especially after a few reputable witnesses said they'd seen someone with eyes like that. Damned good idea...
"This whole thing destabilized the Consortium's power standoff--I hope you've never thought they were united in anything, Mulder--and now half of them are eating each other alive and the other half are running for cover."
"And which half do you work for, you son of a bitch? Or is it both?" To his surprise, he saw Krycek's face tighten for a moment, as if he cared what Mulder thought of him.
"The rebellion, Mulder. Human survival. Did you think I was lying about the war? Or do you really think I'm too shortsighted to care whether this world lives or dies? No, scratch that, Mulder, I don't want to know."
God, all the old sparks were there, the unexpected edges and the flares of furious energy that were, must be, based on mutual hatred, but warmed like fire. Admit it, Mulder, you missed this. Nobody spars like Krycek; nobody else gives you that lethal workout that leaves you more alive. Scully used to, but it's been a long time since you spoke as equals.
"And Mulder, I'm sorry. I heard about your team. But did you really think that fire in Boston was an accident?"
"Actually, we only lost two of them." God, Mulder, are you starting to see them as numbers now? "Thompson and Ramirez. But the rest are out of Intensive Care, and should be back on duty soon." Two deaths, and it was his fault for not seeing, not warning them. Just like he didn't see yesterday's bomb, didn't warn the workers, didn't--
"It's a free-for-all right now, Mulder. Conspirators killing each other, destroying projects, fighting every wave when the whole tide's coming in. Someone tried to kill your team; someone tried to kill you. And that's why you're gonna stay dead for a few weeks until things cool down."
"I can't." He was definite. "I've got to stay on the job, and if this is true, I have to warn the others. Oh lord, Scully--"
"AD Scully? Don't worry; she's been warned. But you've still got some weasels in the woodpile, so we can't risk telling her you're alive."
"Another leak? Are you sure?"
"Mulder, how the hell do you think I knew you were at that plant? I hacked into someone's briefing notes, and I don't mean the boy scouts."
"Damn it!" Shit, he hadn't known it went that deep.
"It's probably Nangi or Malkins. But I haven't wanted to tip them off by looking too hard." Mulder winced; he had wondered about the recent recruit, but hadn't even begun to suspect the security chief. Damn.
"So if we can send some message to Scully that nobody else can understand or even recognize as a code, fine. Otherwise, she gets the wrong kind of attention, and so do we."
Krycek shrugged. "Neither of us wants them to succeed in covering it all up. But if you really can't work with me, I could drop you at the nearest firing range so you can practice being shot at.
"Anyway, think about it. I'm going to take a shower."
Chapter 3: Confused Alarms
Actually, Mulder had already thought of a message. After the moth-men case, he could address her "by mistake" as Dr. Jeremiah Singer (he'd better leave the bullfrog out of it) and she'd understand. But to send that message now, he'd have to trust Krycek. What if the traitor used that phrase to make her believe some other message instead?
Krycek didn't push the issue. Turning away, he started to shuck off his clothes as if Mulder wasn't there. The pea-coat, and the holstered gun--God, Krycek was trusting him enough to disarm in his presence? Then the tie from his hair, and the shirt, and Mulder would have turned away if his eyes hadn't caught the still-dark welted band of scars near the shoulder where the transplant joined Krycek's own flesh.
"--How does that feel, anyway?" He heard himself say.
Krycek looked back, his face slightly flushed. Then he raised an eyebrow with a faint smile. "Like coming back from the dentist when the anesthesia has half worn off. You know, tingling, numbness, some areas normal and others completely dead. I can feel pressure pretty well, and heat and cold, but not much else. The control's good, though; I got my left-handed firing score back up."
"So it doesn't hurt?"
"Not usually. Except I still get the same phantom-limb pains."
His eyes suddenly shifted, and Mulder knew he regretted saying anything so revealing. Krycek turned away and tossed the dirty shirt into a drawer.
Was he always this neat? Mulder would have expected him to ignore housekeeping as trivial, but maybe it was the professional's need to keep his tools in order, or just that the camper was too small to be able to have mess in the way.
The minor puzzle distracted him enough that he forgot to look away until those worn jeans dropped to the floor, and Krycek's naked body bent to add them to the pile in the drawer.
Mulder's head jerked away so quickly he almost hurt himself. He damned himself for being embarrassed, but stared at the far wall until he heard the snick of the bathroom door. The image took a while to fade: that taut and elegant motion, those long muscled limbs--
A shower. God, what a good idea, especially when he still smelled like ditchwater. He freed himself from the boots as if from a prison cell, flexing his half-numbed feet as if it were the greatest pleasure in the world. And the coveralls, mud-stained and flecked with grasshopper bits and holed with tiny burns all across the back.... Lord, he never wanted to see them again.
A half-resentful embarrassment kept him in his undershirt and boxers. With a brief moment of guilt, he went over to the storage wall to look for clean clothes. Here we go, a white tee. Well, what do you know, he's still got a leather jacket even if he wasn't wearing it yesterday. The jeans weren't quite the right proportions--Mulder's legs were longer and leaner--but since Krycek apparently liked them too tight, they fit well enough.
Scratching his stubbled chin, he settled down to clean his handgun while he waited for the shower. The Browning bluenose was pretty reliable, but there was no reason to tempt fate after yesterday's rain of debris. Meanwhile, he listened idly to the radio. What was--
A moment later, he knocked on the bathroom door. "Krycek? Local news says the police are looking for a motorcycle seen in the area of the explosion."
"Damn it!" a muffled voice responded, and the water was abruptly shut off. "We'd better get it inside." The bathroom door banged open, and Krycek streaked dripping for the camper door.
His urgency startled the dog, who barked excitedly but had the sense to stay out of the way. Mulder watched Krycek muscle the bike over, and finally asked: "Krycek, what IS your problem? It's just a fucking motorcycle, and it can't be the only one around here."
"Mulder, if I wasn't paranoid, I wouldn't be here. Just give me a hand and shut up."
He helped Krycek push the bike up a narrow ramp into the camper and tie it down. Then he looked at them both--Krycek in nothing but soap bubbles, himself undignified in boxers and a tee--and couldn't help laughing.
Krycek followed his gaze and snorted, but then turned serious again, though his color was high.
"We'd better pull out, Mulder, in case some coonhunter happened to see us here. Unless the radio mentioned a roadblock?"
"Nope. Just said 'the motorcyclist might have witnessed,' and so on. And the real risk isn't coonhunters; it's those damned moonshiners you said you don't know. 'Wal, Jed, thar's somethin' you don't see ever' day; a guy who ain't yore cousin. And he's got hisself a pretty ridin' machine, don't he?' "
Krycek's teeth flashed in a brief grin. "Then let's get out of here. Grab me a towel, would you?" He opened another door and vaulted up into the cab of the camper, closely followed by the dog. A minute later, Mulder felt the engine start.
Still chuckling, Mulder got him a towel, and shoes, and a faded tee-shirt for good measure. God, how could this cold killer leave him laughing helplessly as if they were old friends?
Krycek took the clothes without comment, and the camper veered dangerously from side to side as he dressed himself while still accelerating.
Mulder made himself relax; after all, the man had survived this far, he must not be a complete lunatic behind the wheel. "That shower still work when we're on the road?"
Krycek tossed him an amused look over one shoulder. "It better. You're filthier than the dog, and I'm already going to have to wash those sheets. Just keep it under five minutes; the tank's getting low."
The tiny shower cubicle was barely wider than his shoulders, so it was easy to brace when the camper swayed. For a moment, the remaining steam and drops of water made him uncomfortably aware that a naked Krycek had occupied this shower before him. But the water felt too good on his back to let Mulder remain uneasy: the luxury of scalding heat and soap, and a hard scrub with one of the washcloths from the nearest cabinet....
He made himself stop after a few minutes, remembering Krycek's warning, but even a rough toweling-off was a pleasure, as though he could scrub himself free of the explosion, the deaths--
A rechargeable electric razor. Odd, he'd have figured Krycek for the sharp-edged type, but this probably made it easier to shave on the run.
He could hear the news station echoing from the cab, and the squawk of a police scanner. Putting on his borrowed clothes, he grabbed a couple of Mountain Dews and went to join Krycek up front.
"So what's the dog's name?"
Krycek gave him a sidelong grin. "You were expecting something Russian? I try to keep a low profile. Hey, duck down while we drive through this town. No need to advertise."
"Where the hell are we going, Krycek?"
"Later. Get your head down."
That put Mulder nearly face-first into the dog, who was curled up over his feet in complete serenity. "Hello, Dog." The tail stirred, and Mulder swore as his face was suddenly cleaned a second time. Better distract himself.
"So you're Russian. KGB?"
"Trivia again, Mulder. Does it matter? Yes, I'm really Russian, and really American. And both sides and the Consortium took turns planting me on each other. You really don't need the play-by-play, trust me."
"Trust you?" God, how could he joke with this man? It's being rescued from the explosion, Mulder, you're too susceptible. Especially when you miss your team. This guy's a cold traitor and the enemy. Remember your job.
Chapter 4: And Then Again Begin
"So, Krycek, why aren't you dead?"
"Not that again, Mulder. Stay on target." Good, Krycek was beginning to sound a little curt. That was a positive sign.
"Humor me." The town was past, and he sat up and shook the kinks out of his neck. Now if he could just unclench his jaw before he cracked a tooth.
"Why does it matter? I'm here; I survived; what else?" Shrugging, Krycek swerved onto an interstate ramp and changed directions again.
"Krycek, I saw the goddamned security tapes. That shotgun blew half your head off before the camera was broken."
"Yeah, I saw those tapes too. Maybe I should play them every year to celebrate the occasion. Lucky for me, I was half a mile away"
Krycek's mouth twitched in a sidelong grin. "The benefit of having too many enemies, Mulder. I didn't even know they were onto me--a couple of the collaborator factions--but they both picked the same day to try to kill me."
"And so the hit man pretending to be a crazy took a shot at the shapeshifter." He turned his full attention back to the road ahead, as if that was all there was to say.
"Bullshit! Besides, you can't kill the damned things with a shotgun."
"I know. The camera got broken when the shapeshifter threw the hit man at the wall. Incendiary clean-up, too. Lucky for me, the taping was remote. And even luckier, the film color was so bad you couldn't even tell the blood was green."
"But--" A semi roared past them on the left, and Mulder's protest was lost in the noise. Krycek picked back up as if nothing had happened.
"And when it figured out where I was, I wasn't using a shotgun. Icepick city, right in the sweet spot."
"Fuck it, Krycek, I never asked even Skinner to put up with a bullshit story like that."
"Believe it or don't, Mulder. You're the one who asked." Krycek paused to navigate through a construction zone, and when he spoke again, his tone had changed. "Quite something about Skinner these days, isn't it."
Hell, let him change the subject; you're not going to get any further on that one. "Yeah. Presidential Advisor. Not exactly what I expected."
"No. Of course, it doesn't exactly have job security."
"The next elections, you mean?"
"That too, Mulder. But there've got to be a lot of people worried about what he may be telling the President." Krycek sounded surprisingly concerned about the possibility.
"I know." God, he knew. He'd started having nightmares about some of the ways Skinner could die. "His choice, though. I guess he thinks it's worth it."
"Yeah. Well, Mulder, now it's your turn to answer some personal questions."
"What, after all those polite questions you've been asking me? Here's some payback: How do you feel about Scully's promotion?"
Lonely. Scared. Hurt. "Delighted. I'm the one who encouraged her to take it."
"Shit, I knew that, Mulder. And I bet you're even the one who made her stop fraternizing too, just to keep your freaky reputation from getting in her way." Another grin, and Krycek put his sunglasses on, masking his eyes.
Son of a bitch-.
"Being noble hurts like hell, doesn't it, Mulder? That's why I never touch the stuff."
"You wouldn't know noble if it bit you in the ass, Krycek. You fucking traitor--"
Krycek tapped on the brake just enough to slam him into his seatbelt, giving him that infuriating smirk he remembered from the old days. "That's enough, Mulder. I don't give a flying fuck what you think of me, but stop yelling. You'll upset the dog."
Chapter 5: This Distant Northern Sea
Mulder took a deep breath and forced himself to relax. Mostly.
"And that's another thing. What the hell is with all this, anyway? The camper, the dog, your goddamned ponytail--"
Krycek leered. "Like it?"
"Fuck you." Damn it, keep your temper, Mulder. Don't let him bait you.
"Great repartee, Mulder. You take debate classes for that?" Yet another change of highway, and a slow sequence of cars held up by a lumbering tractor.
"I'm not going to let you distract me, Krycek. Tell me where you've been."
"God, Mulder, anything to shut you up. Get me another soda and I'll talk."
The cold liquid felt good on Mulder's throat, still raw from yesterday's smoke and ash. The tractor must have turned off; traffic was picking up speed again. "The camper, Krycek."
"Just part of the insurance plan. Hell, after that little incident with the hit man and the shapeshifter, it was time to get the fuck out of Dodge. And nobody looks for a dead man."
"So where'd you go, Disneyland?"
"Alaska. Only left there last week." Another sidelong smile, sunlight reflecting off the dark glasses. "Back of beyond. Nobody up there asks questions."
"What, you become a hit man for the Eskimos? 'You kill wife, I give much seal fat?'"
"Skipped your sensitivity training again, Mulder? No, I did basic labor. Construction, oil rig, fishing crew, you name it. Don't bother to take notes; I'm not going back."
"And the dog?"
"He's not going back either."
The truck stop that afternoon had a restaurant, but Krycek insisted on frying up a steak he said was caribou. "All that fatty beef'll slow you down, Mulder."
Odd flavor, but not too bad. "So Krycek, are you actually trying to tell me you've retired?"
"I've just gone digital."
Mulder stared at him.
"Hey, I was already pretty good with computers, or they wouldn't have planted me on the FBI in the first place. And after my 'death' I had damned good motivation to learn more."
"Yeah, I bet. Survival always was your first priority, wasn't it, Krycek?"
For a moment, those green eyes tightened with something--hurt? anger? Then the hesitation was over, and Krycek continued smoothly: "I keep close tabs on...things, and drop a little data where it will do the most good. The fun part is keeping it untraceable.
"Langly--once he knew what I was doing, he gave me some good tips and contacts while he could still talk."
"At gunpoint, right?"
"Damn it, Mulder! I did not hurt your fucking friend. I rescued him from the big boys and took care of him as long as I could."
Mulder pushed away his empty steak plate, with a mean feeling of satisfaction at seeing Krycek lose some of his smugness. "Yeah, Krycek, you're an altruist."
Krycek slammed his soda can down on the table hard enough to spill. But when he came back with a dishtowel to clean it up, his face again looked remote and calm.
Silence, except for the engine noise, for hours. If he'd been with someone he trusted, someone he liked, he'd have talked about baseball or the man-eating Wendigo. But somehow, the thought of chatting at Krycek had no appeal.
He ignored the shrapnel music and stared out the window, tried to put the pieces together, and sometimes scratched the dog behind the ears.
But his patience finally ran out at the next change of highway. "Damn it, Krycek, where the hell are we going? I feel like I'm in a video game. We've headed--let's see, all four directions now, plus some fascinating diagonals. You can't think someone's still following us!"
The dark sunglasses turned towards him, and the brow twitched. Krycek actually sounded slightly surprised. "Oh. No, I'm just marking time. Did you want to go somewhere?"
"Fuck you!" But Mulder's gun was only halfway from its holster when the casual backfist stung his knuckles, numbing them and making him drop the gun. Krycek didn't even swerve.
"Mulder, would you put a leash on it and try taking the long view?"
Mulder scowled at him and rubbed his hand.
Krycek sighed in exasperation. "Mulder, it does not matter one fucking bit whether you like me, or whether I'm driving in circles, or whether your boxers get too tight every time someone laughs at you. Get some fucking perspective, would you? We're both trying to stop the same thing."
"Do you really want to tell your boss, 'Sorry I've been missing, but Krycek kidnapped me, and he would have told me something useful if I hadn't stomped off.' Or shot him. Or whatever the hell you have in mind.
"So Mulder, leave the trivia out of it or shut the fuck up."
Mulder took a deep breath. Krycek was right; he was letting himself get distracted. He swallowed down the hot rage and felt the cold of the true anger below.
"Krycek." God, was that his voice? "My father's death was not trivia."
Krycek turned and gave him a long stare, and Mulder could see him register the real threat behind his words. Between them, the dog growled uneasily and got to its feet.
"No, Mulder," he said at last. "It wasn't. But do you know why your father died? Why I killed him? Not because I was paid; I could have fucked up that mission and blamed it on Luis Cardinale without breaking a sweat, and not have needed to deal with you afterwards.
"But your father was going to blow it all. He was losing it; we barely intercepted some mail packets that could have destroyed everything. The problem with you, Mulder, is that you've always seen the Consortium as the enemy.
"After all these years, can't you get your head around the fact that they're the only people trying to stop the fucking aliens? Sure, they're real sons-of-bitches and a lot of them turned collaborator when they didn't see any other chance. But they're the ones who created the vaccine that may save us."
"And tested it on innocent people," Mulder's voice was dry.
"Yes. And tested it on innocent people. But does that really compare to the thousands, the millions of innocent people who will die if we lose?"
"Krycek, the real people have to matter too, or why bother to save the world?"
"They do matter, Mulder. Why the hell do you think I tried to get you out of that gulag, before you fucked everything up and cost me an arm? I risked my fucking life to get that vaccine out of Russia, and in exchange I got blows and mistreatment and a barrel of laughs from you. And I don't care. You get that, Mulder? I don't care about all the little shit, because the vaccine got spread.
"And without that, Mulder, your Scully would have died in Antarctica. Died after hatching out a thing that would kill more innocent people than those tests did. Yeah, I know about that; who the hell do you think helped my patron set up his car bomb the way he wanted? I've been there; I've seen those bodies and what they hosted, and I know what they mean.
"We did what we had to. And so will you, or you're a useless piece of shit who should never have left your mommy."
And Mulder ground his anger down to the cold core and said nothing, even when Krycek took a U-turn at the next exit ramp and doubled back the way they had just come, with a tilt of chin that make it clear it was a challenge.
The dog settled back down on Mulder's feet, but its ears flicked warily at every sound.
Chapter 6: Nor Help For Pain
But Krycek did not change directions again. West now, and west, and west, as if he finally had a destination.
Mulder did not comment.
They drove through the afternoon. As traffic began to thicken, Krycek again switched the radio to a news station. His finger withdrew from the selection button, and Mulder noticed him lightly miming a sequence half an inch out from the row of buttons.
"What's that?" He asked, hearing his voice creak from disuse and the long tension.
"Mmm?" Krycek's head cocked towards him, but didn't turn.
"What you just did. With the radio."
Krycek was silent for a minute, as if he was trying to remember. Then a sharp laugh. "The self-destruct sequence."
"The camper. You don't think I'd leave evidence and fingerprints all over a vehicle I might have to leave behind, do you?"
Despite all his experience, Mulder felt his spine tighten and his testicles try to climb inside him and hide. "Uh," he said. Suddenly, the camper seemed to loom in around him, a weapon more dangerous than even Krycek's gun.
"That would have been, let's see, the delay sequence." Krycek was smiling again. Could the rat bastard tell he'd unnerved him? "There's three options: remote, three-minute delay, and immediate."
Say something. With a level voice, damn it. "Nice of the manufacturer to provide that option with the floor-mats and the AC."
"Standard package on the family model, Mulder." This time his voice sounded genuinely amused.
"How do they set up the key sequence if you get the CD player instead?"
Krycek laughed outright.
Mulder was satisfied with his deflection. "So," he said, "Where are we going?"
Krycek considered the question for a moment. "Little place called Shit Creek. Please note that we do not have a paddle."
It was around 9:00 that night when Krycek finally pulled into a rest area and turned off the engine. "I'm thinking about some dried salmon. Or do you want caribou again?"
Dried fish. Uck. But it was a challenge, and Mulder refused to beg off. "Dried salmon it is. Is this the solid bacony type, leather filets, or tough shredded wheat?"
"Tough shredded wheat."
It was greasy and hard to chew, with the rich rank taste of fish long out of the water, but Mulder was damned if he would let it defeat him. "Nice," he lied, and then wondered from Krycek's wry smile whether he had caught and smoked it himself.
There were fried onions and potatoes to go with it, and just a little vodka. "Can't eat salmon without vodka," Krycek commented. "Wouldn't be right."
Around them, they could hear the faint roar of semi-trucks pulling in to rest, or steaming out again into the night. After the long hours of the road, it seemed quiet and almost peaceful.
But the dog still flicked wary ears whenever they spoke, and its tail was still. Finally, Krycek let it out to sleep under the camper, and they finished the meal in silence.
"Well," Mulder said at last.
"Why all of this?"
"What?" Krycek's face tightened somehow, becoming a remote mask without having moved.
"This trip. You. Me."
"I thought we covered that already, Mulder."
Mulder set the empty vodka glass down with a sharp click.
"No. You told me how you knew about the bomb, Krycek, but you never said why you cared if it killed me, much less why you rescued me in person and took me on this luxury cruise instead of just dropping an anonymous e-mail to the FBI."
"Well." Krycek seemed to be having trouble finding words. "Wanted to find out what you were doing these days. I've been out of the loop too long."
"Bullshit," said Mulder, feeling his mood sharpen to a weapon in his hand. "I think you're just going soft. Langly, the dog--it's nothing but a dog, isn't it. Not a carrier for some antivirus, not a hybrid clone or a shapechanger, just a dog you've picked up along the way. You've lost your edge."
Krycek's jaw tightened like the snick of a safety going off. "Mulder--"
"And that's why you brought me along. You're going soft, you can't do your job right any longer, you couldn't keep a friend if you held him at gunpoint, and you're probably just fucking lonely."
Krycek stood up sharply. "Lonely! You pathetic motherfucker, who's lonely? I bet you haven't been with a woman since that bitch Scully, if then. Hell, I bet you haven't even been kissed since I gave you that peck on the cheek, back when I tried to tell you about all this and you were too busy being a fucking asshole to listen!"
Don't react to that crack about Scully, or he'll never drop it. "I bet you haven't been with a fucking woman in your whole fucking life unless you paid her, Krycek. All this jerking people around, and kissing men who can't stand you--"
"Got to you, didn't it, Mulder? Did you treasure that moment for years, or run off and clean your face with a belt sander? Can't even handle a fucking kiss!"
"I'll show you--" and he was on his feet and slamming Krycek into the wall, driving the air out of him in one hard grunt, and then howthehell did it happen Krycek's mouth was breaking under his and there was blood on his tongue even before he tore that lying lip with his bared teeth.
"Motherfucker!" And Krycek couldn't have lost too much of his edge, because he shoved Mulder back into the table so hard it knocked the shotglass off the table to smash into the wall. The shards were still falling when Mulder's knee glanced off Krycek's crotch. Then they were on the floor, Krycek's hand closing on his throat and his fist driving into Mulder's gut as Mulder tried to break him in half.
A vicious roll slammed Krycek's spine into a table leg, and Mulder pried that hand off his neck by almost breaking one of Krycek's new fingers. His elbow sank into Krycek's side below the ribs, but Krycek's head smashed his chin up and banged his head on the floor, and for a moment Mulder couldn't see. A rush, another roll, and he felt his arm burst into sudden fire as the broken glass sliced through shirt and flesh. Krycek was clawing desperately at Mulder's wrist as he bent that unnatural hand back and back--
He felt Krycek's nose give under the driving palm of his other hand, and the torn lip flattened further over the bloody teeth. But Krycek had pulled free of his grip and was pinning him against the wall, and those lethal hands were at his throat--
And he caught the traitor's wrists and they fought to force each other back, fought grip to grip as their feet drove against the floor for purchase and they slammed at each other, body against body, hardness against hardness, with the only weapons they had left.
His rage was hot and hard, yes, he could feel Krycek drive his denim-wrapped, swollen cock against his own but Mulder sank his teeth into that bloody lip again and he was winning, he had the traitor writhing and crying out but Mulder was shaking too, raging at himself for feeling this heat as he drove him towards the end--
Mulder wanted so badly to pound his triumph up Krycek's ass and fill him with his spilling rage, but the rat bastard was still grappling at his throat and Mulder couldn't let go as he drove seam against hard seam in a race to break, to kill.
And this too must be hate, this fire, this unbearable moment of victory and loss as Mulder hurt him and slammed him over the edge and Krycek came, the hot proof of his surrender spilling against Mulder like blood as Krycek cried out his name. But it was too much, Mulder couldn't stop now, and he exploded too in mortar fire, still battering him with all the force he had, and Mulder too was crying out until he had no voice left, nothing but the fire of body against body, moving--
Breath forced out in harsh bursts, and a long moment, a truce at knifepoint and then an unspoken stand-down as they both drew back, still snarling even as they fought for breath.
"You fucking son-of-a-bitch--"
And then there were no words as they stared at each other, face toward bloodied face, hate against hate, and the fire below it. One breath, and then another, not yielding against each other's stare--
And they knew it was over at the same time and sagged, still raging but out of strength to continue, out of strength for anything but this fire of hate and more than hate. This victory and loss, this triumph in surrender. This double-edged truth.
Next morning, Krycek was already up working on his laptop when a stiff and aching Mulder stumbled out of bed to reach for the steaming coffee.
Krycek's hair was loose, falling half across his face but unable to disguise that swollen, wounded mouth, the bruised cheek and broken nose and lacerated jaw. Without comment, Krycek slid a small bottle across the table at him. Aspirin with codeine.
"If you're as stiff as I am, Mulder--"
"Thought we'd proved that last night."
"Funny." Krycek's eyes met his fully, and Mulder was damned if he was going to fail the challenge by looking away, even though he could barely force his right eye open. What the hell was that spark in those deep green eyes, anger or curiosity or something else?
"Mulder, go take a shower. You're bleeding on my floor."
"Wouldn't want to tax your housekeeping," Mulder said, and slowly, deliberately, emptied two aspirins into his hand and swallowed them with a gulp of scalding coffee. Then he felt he could safely turn away.
The bathroom mirror was small, but not too small to show him the ruin of his own face. A black eye, his own collection of scrapes and bruises, his neck so swollen and dark he was amazed he had been able to swallow the coffee without screaming. He didn't actually seem to be bleeding on the floor, despite Krycek's words, but as he painfully lifted the shirt off his aching shoulders, he could see that his arms and torso looked as battered as his face.
Jeans now, peeling the stained and sticky denim away from his skin. Damned if he was going to blush, even when he was alone.
The first shock of the water was pure hell, every cut and scrape raw and screaming, but then the pounding heat of the water began to loosen the rigid knots of his shoulders. Yes, heat on his back, and his side, and down across his face, washing him clean only of the outer stains, but leaving the others somewhat eased as well.
Cautiously, he flexed his back to loosen the joints, then his arms and legs. Still the painful warmth soaked into his bones, and he stood at last unmoving under the flood until the water began to cool.
Shit! No clothes; he hadn't brought any clean clothes in with him. And he was damned if he was going to amuse Krycek by being shy with a towel. At the thought, his balls tightened in challenge, and his cock stirred.
Stripped and clean, he marched back into the main room and headed for the cabinets. "Sorry, Krycek, I used up all the hot water," he said smugly, ignoring the eyes that must be on him.
"Typical," said Krycek, but made no other comment.
Once dressed, Mulder lounged against the wall to look over Krycek's shoulder at the monitor. Damn. He couldn't read Japanese.
Krycek closed the laptop with a look of annoyance.
Mulder smirked. "Go get clean, Krycek. Don't want to scare the dog."
Breakfast was sharp-edged. Mulder didn't speak until it was over.
"So," Krycek echoed his tone, pulling on his shoes for the day's upcoming drive.
"Now tell me where the hell we're really going." Yes, you lying fuck, tell me the truth or I'll know you're not tough enough. And I'll win.
Krycek met him stare for stare. This was still war. "I'm taking you to see some people."
"Your side? If you've still got a side, you son of a bitch?"
But the dog lay contentedly at their feet as if there was no anger in the air.
"Yeah, you could call them my side."
"They know we're coming?" Another challenge.
Krycek drove that long sweep of hair back with one hand and sighed with exaggerated patience. "No, Mulder. I've been *dead* for five years, remember?"
"How charming. I wonder what Miss Manners would suggest."
"A grenade. No, you need to meet these people; you put a similar value on truth and human life, though your methods are different."
Mulder smiled narrowly. "And once they find out you're alive after all?"
"My life becomes a lot more interesting."
"So, Mulder, you better not fuck up."
"Nice. So I'm a self-destruct device like this camper. If I go, I can take you with me."
"Like fuck you can, Mulder." But that was a smile fighting its way through the cold killer face, and Mulder knew he'd won another round.
"All right, Krycek, let's do it."
Krycek clapped a hand on his shoulder, daring him to wince or protest, and he met the challenge by catching the back of Krycek's neck in one hand and shaking him gently. The clean hair moved like wet silk against his palm.
This time, Krycek's smile was his own. "Let's hit the road, then."
Mulder headed for the cab, snagging the last slice of bacon. But there was one thing more to say.
"I just want to make one thing clear. Whatever happens with these people, or even between you and me, this isn't over. You're right that I have to stop focusing on the trivia, and I will. You can trust me to do what I need to do.
"But Krycek, the day it's over--the day we win, or lose, or you stop being useful against the colonists--I'm going to kill you. For my father; for Scully. And for myself."
Those green eyes met his. "Okay, Mulder, I can live with that. But I don't promise not to shoot first."
"Fair enough," said Mulder, knowing his eyes said: No, you fucker, you won't have a chance.
The eyes locked to his said: We'll see.
And Mulder swung the cab door open and followed Krycek inside.
With immense gratitude to my beta-readers: Eltanin, K Feyerabend, Geoffrey2, Alexa J, Spike, and Jane St Clair, and most of all to my late brother-in-law, Brandon D. Ray, who also contributed a straight male's insight into both Mulder's characterization and the emotional dynamics of male-male alpha fights. Thank you all!