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"Joys are often the shadows cast by sorrows."
  -- a fortune cookie

Ice cover crunched beneath Alex Krycek's boots as he hurried. The sunset cast snow crystals on fire and played havoc with his vision. A gentle snowfall started, glittering with pastel color and casting a soft blanket of calm stillness over the woods, but Krycek couldn't let himself be lulled. He quickened his pace.

He could see the top layer of his boots shredding from the ice his feet broke through. Dry, crisp air burned his throat and sucked the moisture out of him. The large, twirling snowflakes settled on every surface, erasing the delicate tracks of deer and rabbits. Just starting, the snowfall had less success hiding the deeper bootprints. He saw more and more of those, telling him that he had the right direction.

When he saw drag marks and splashes of crimson in the pastel snow, he knew for certain. Alex accelerated to a run when he saw a large puddle of vibrant blue lying in the middle of a clearing covered in churned and bloody snow.

He crouched next to the large blue lump and turned it over. Mulder's head rocked as Alex rolled him over onto his back.

Mulder had been extremely lucky. Lucky that the bullet had only creased the side of his head, hard enough to draw blood and knock him out, but not enough to kill. Lucky that his attackers hadn't shot him to finish the job, leaving him to the elements instead. Lucky that he had fallen on his arm instead of directly on the bare skin of his face. Lucky that his rescuer found no signs of concussion or frostbite.

When Krycek pulled his former partner up to rest on his prosthesis, Mulder mumbled, "Let me sleep. I'm warm," through purple lips. The snowflakes studding his damp hair looked like small, white feathers. The blood stood out as a darker color against his reddened skin.

"Can't. You'll sleep to death." Alex opened a channel on his radio and said, "Krycek here. Found him. Need a pick-up. Krycek out." He then tried to chafe life and warmth back into frozen skin.

Mulder tried to return to consciousness, but it felt like trying to swim through freezing, murky water. He couldn't find the strength to reach the top, to break the ice and breathe free. So dark and so cold. Oddly enough, he also had the impression of being trapped in the white light, but this light had shining crystals studding it. Blinding.

But something warm held him and stroked his hair. Fortunately, the something touched his hair on the side of his head that didn't hurt. Someone, then. The unknown person started to rub Mulder's hand. The cold began to fade a little, and Mulder faded with it.

Later, as he felt someone moving him, Mulder opened his eyes to a blur of darkness and light. He saw the vague outlines of people. They seemed to have brought him from the bright cold to a warm dimness.

The blankets that cocooned him could be seen as comforting or entrapping. Right now, they brought a pleasant, lazy heat into his body. Comforting, then. For now.

Mulder finally felt himself starting to come up out of his haze. He welcomed it but had no intentions of letting his captors or rescuers know. He needed to figure out who they were first.

Mulder felt his sleeve being pulled away, and the deep pain of something puncturing and forcing its way into his flesh. "No," he moaned softly, and did it again as he felt the increased pressure against his skin. Mulder had enough experience with the process to recognize the feel of a needle pressing in because the plunger had been depressed. They'd injected him with some drug.

Mulder felt the undertow dragging him under into deep, obsidian water. The voices faded away.

After a moment or an eternity of void, Mulder rose from the bottom of the ocean a little and heard the voices shouting at him. Demanding things. He couldn't make out the words completely, at least not consciously, but could feel himself answering. He knew he shouldn't but couldn't help himself. His heart started to pound.

Once again, he had the comforting sense of someone stroking his hair. Just beneath the insistent noise, Mulder made out a voice whispering soothing nonsense to him. Something in him trusted that voice, or wanted to. Once in a while, he heard it say, "It will be over soon."

Finally, it all stopped, and something carried him away. Mulder panicked again, especially since he still couldn't move or see, but the person with the soothing voice went with him, saying it would be all right. He faded away again.

Mulder woke under warm comforters that smelled pleasantly of a kind of fabric softener. In the darkness he could make out the dim outlines of bedroom furniture. He was lying in a bed. No wonder it felt strange.

No, that wasn't it at all. He rested with something warm and solid spooned against his back. Someone. //Another thing I haven't done in a while.// It felt good, safe.

Hot breath stirred the fine hairs at the nape of his neck. He instinctively snuggled back and heard a contented sigh in response. A hand stroked down his bare chest before stopping to cup him through the material of his pants. Between the circular motion of the hand at his front and the hardness rubbing insistently at his back, accompanied by kisses at his neck, Mulder could barely think and just melted into the embrace of his unknown lover. The pleasant languor that made his mind and body feel like warm honey no doubt contributed.

Unknown lover. No, not quite. He had to remember something.... Winter sun blinding on ice. A red-tinged explosion at the side of his head. Falling, pine needles, and burning cold. Restless, dream-filled sleep broken by a motion and a familiar voice. Warmth and a dark undertow of drugs followed by demanding questions, while someone.... he knew soothed him with words and petting. Someone.... Alex Krycek.

Mulder tried to pull away, but a pounding in his head and Krycek's arm, gentle but confining, almost loving, around his neck stopped him. "What kind of game are you playing, Krycek?" Mulder asked in a dry rasp.

"No games, Mulder. I saved your life."

That warm, smoky voice threatened to undo him completely, but Mulder fought against the urge to lie back and just accept what it had to say. "Like hell."

"Everything costs, Mulder." As the thought of how they were pressed together and what they had almost done pierced Mulder's fuzzed mind, he started to struggle, but Krycek's arm tightened a little around his neck. "That's not what I meant. I had to find you,and I didn't know if you'd need a doctor when I got there. Then I had to get you away. I'm just a single, one-armed man. I needed help, and help costs."

"And I'm paying for it." He still paid for it in a way; he still felt the grip of the drugs in the slow, syrupy feeling in his muscles and the way his mind felt so horribly wide open, as if anyone could just walk in and take things. Or leave new things behind... Krycek could hurt him effortlessly while he was like this.

The confining arm loosened its grip a little. "Do you think it was easy watching them shoot you up and interrogate you? If I hadn't been there, they would have been much harder on you."

"I wouldn't be here if not for you!"

"That's right. You could be dead in that forest."

"You want me to thank you, don't you?"

Krycek sighed and stroked Mulder's hair. "You were so good on the drugs. You even called me 'Alex.'"

"What!" Then a more horrible thought occurred to Mulder. "What else did I say?"

"Only a few important things."


"It went on for hours; how am I supposed to remember? But you mostly gave them misdirections. I was coaching you a bit, whispering the things you could tell them."

Terror constricted Mulder's throat. What did Krycek do and say around him while he was in a suggestible state? Was this why Krycek's voice kept hitting him so powerfully and every touch already felt so comforting and familiar?

Everyone messed with his mind, and it always left him wondering how much of it was really his own....

"So, they gave me to you so you could take what you want from me before they get me back?" Mulder kept his voice as flat as possible.

"They're done with you. I had to take out seven bugs and five tails before I got you here."

"And 'here' is?"

"Somewhere you can recover in private. If I dropped you off at your apartment stoned as you were, someone else would have picked you up and tried to find out what you told the last guys. Then the original folks might pick you up again when they found out...." Mulder shivered at the information and the feel of Krycek smiling against his skin. "It could turn into the never-ending interrogation that way."

"So where am I?"

"A little cabin in the woods I built ages ago."

It boggled the mind. A sudden, inescapable mental picture of Krycek in pioneer homesteader garb felling trees with an old-fashioned ax flashed through Mulder's mind. When a flood of desire accompanied it, he tried to blank the image out as soon as possible.

It took him three minutes, and he was glad Krycek couldn't see the effect it'd had on him in the darkness.

Mulder dragged his mind in another direction. //I don't even remember the trip to get here.// The thought didn't make him feel better, but at least it didn't make him feel so damned complicit. //It's the drugs! It has to be the drugs! He did something to me while I was under!//

"All this out of the kindness of your heart."

"Not quite." Warm lips teased Mulder's ear. "If you don't want this, just tell me so."

Here was comfort and companionship and pleasure and.... //And this is the man who gave you to them and stroked your hair as they picked your brain.//

Mulder pulled away so hard he fell out of bed and hit thin carpeting. He felt like he had anvils sliding around in his head, beating the insides. Dizziness hit him like a riptide shock of pain. It was cold away from the covers and Krycek, the kind of cold that hurt, that made his flesh crawl and his hairs stand on end. His convulsive shivering made the pounding headache worse. His teeth felt like they should have shattered from the force of their chattering.

The light came on, and Krycek's spiky head loomed above him, looking at him upside-down. "You could have just said, 'no,' dummy." Krycek's eyes were the color of the pine needles that had flashed by Mulder's face as he fell, bleeding, to the snow.

"When has 'no' ever meant anything to you?"

Besides, the cold and pain centered him, cleared his mind. //I came so close...// Krycek himself had said that everything costs. Mulder knew what comfort and companionship cost.

"You'll freeze your ass off out there. Your virtue is safe with me." When Mulder still refused to move, Krycek's eyes flared with anger. He sounded almost bitter as he said, "I've never been a fan of rape, asshole."

The show of anger eased Mulder's mind. This Krycek he knew. "I always thought you enjoyed the struggle."

"Not that much, Mulder. Not that much." Krycek laughed darkly. "Besides, you're not that irresistible, and I'm not that desperate."

Mulder couldn't let himself believe. He couldn't afford to trust anything Krycek said. It hurt too much. He remained slumped on the floor, shivering, while Krycek watched. Not sure what he would say, Mulder didn't answer.

Krycek's head disappeared. "Fine. I won't force you to do anything. If you want to freeze, that's your decision. If you change your mind, you're welcome to come to bed, and I won't," Krycek snorted, "molest you."

The bed creaked a little before the light went out, plunging the room back into darkness. Mulder heard the whisper of sheets and Krycek's yawn, then nothing.

Mulder thought he should have become accustomed to the cold, but it hurt just as badly now as it had when he'd first plunged into it. With the light gone, the temperature seemed to have fallen a little more. Mulder shivered miserably. As stupid as it seemed, he felt like a family pet put outside for the night for misbehavior. //I didn't do anything wrong...//

Aside from the cold, he couldn't make himself comfortable on the floor, even with the thin carpeting. Maybe another room had a couch he could sleep on. He stood carefully and waited a few minutes for the painful anvil concerto in his dizzy head to subside before he went looking for the door. Despite using the wall as a guide and slowly placing one foot out to test each new step, he stubbed a toe twice. Something that might have been a chest of drawers banged his thigh so hard he briefly saw flaring stars.

Once he found the door, he opened it. The hallway was, impossibly, darker than the bedroom. Anything could be out there: furniture, a flight of stairs... He didn't even know if the cabin had more than one floor or if he was on the second if it did. Dizzy //pathetic// and losing hope, Mulder closed the door and slumped against the wall.

Mulder heard the bed squeak, then the floorboards creak as Krycek came to get him. A strong hand closed around his arm. "How 'bout you come with me before you kill yourself? Idiot."

Mulder let himself be led. The bed rocked a little as Krycek got in beside him, and he couldn't help smiling when his former partner pulled the covers up to tuck them in. He blissfully sank into Krycek's heat and flinched only a little as he was pulled in closer. Nothing else happened, and Mulder had to deal with the utterly frightening thought that Krycek might not have been lying to him.

The only one that frightened him more was that he now realized how open, raw, and vulnerable he'd felt on the floor without this weight near him, like a sea creature ripped from its protective shell. //It's only the drugs making it feel this way. Things will be normal again in the morning... I hope.// The warm, one-armed embrace soothed him against all his expectations, and Mulder drifted into a peaceful sleep.

Mulder awoke, alone and comfortable, to the smells of breakfast cooking. It spoke of home in a way he had never known in his adult life and only experienced in his childhood before Samantha had disappeared, taking all sense of home and family with her. //Brought to the edge of tears by the smell of eggs, toast, and coffee. Get a grip. I fucking hate drugs.//

Mulder got up slowly, and his head banged less than it had last night. A good sign. He grabbed the thick robe left at the foot of the bed and put it on before the cold hit him too hard. As he looked at himself in the mirror, he took off the bandage to check his wound. It didn't look too bad, so it had been the force more than penetration that had hurt him. At least the bullet had hit him on the right side of his head this time. His right arm hurt like hell too, so he pulled up the sleeve of the robe and saw five puncture marks along the vein. //What is it about me that invites needles?//

He still had his pants from... yesterday? on, and Krycek had left a crisp, white dress shirt, socks, his shoes, his blue trench coat, his cell phone, and his gun //That's either trust or cojones at work,// lying on a nearby chair. He dressed quickly, figuring he could take a shower when he got home, and felt an odd disturbance when the shirt turned out to be broader in the shoulders than it should have been. Then he remembered all the blood he'd been lying in. Head wounds always gushed, and he tended to be a bleeder anyway. So the shirt was Krycek's.

It only took Mulder two minutes to reach the kitchen; the cabin only had one floor after all. Krycek deftly made breakfast one-handed, singing softly to himself the whole while. Mulder heard him croon, "I sure could use a vacation from this / Bullshit, three-ring, circus sideshow..." He had a gun holster clipped to the back of his faded blue jeans.

"'Morning. How do you like your eggs?" Krycek asked. He sounded crisp and briskly professional.

It wasn't what Mulder had expected from a man who had propositioned then held him like a baby last night. What a relief. But also strangely disappointing.... "Sunny-side up."



Krycek set a mug down on the table. "I know how you take your coffee. Have a seat."

Mulder then had a surreal and quiet breakfast with his former partner. It confused the hell out of him. A similarly surreal and quiet drive home followed. After the first hour Krycek took the blindfold off Mulder, so Mulder watched in fascination for the next hour as Krycek drove as deftly one-handed as he cooked.

The closer they got to Mulder's apartment building, the more his mind started to kick into gear. He started to wonder how long he had been missing.... The ride ended with curbside service.

As he got out of the SUV, he said, "You kept your word," with a wondering tone he couldn't keep out of his voice.

Krycek smirked. "Told you so."

"I don't appreciate the interrogation or drugs, but... thanks for getting me here safely."

From Krycek's smile, Mulder could tell he'd heard the unsaid "thanks for not taking advantage of me last night." But he only replied, "Take care of yourself. I won't always be there to save your ass."

Mulder stood at the curb and watched Krycek drive away before he walked into his building in a near-trance. The first thing he did when he got to his apartment was turn the computer on to see the date. December 20. Mulder felt his throat close up and the dizziness start to pound through his head again.

He'd been missing for four days. He only remembered a few hours. //Scully must be worried sick. Maybe she should be...

//I have to find out what happened over that time. I have to find a way to get Krycek to tell me.// Memories of the night before rose in his mind. //Maybe there is a way...// The thought sickened and excited him.

Mulder picked up the phone to call Scully, and only partly because he knew she'd worried over his long disappearance. He desperately wanted to return to a world he at least partially understood.

Alex's smile kept widening until he was afraid it would consume his face. Life was pretty damned good. He remembered near-surrender and a pleasant armful of relaxed Mulder. It would all be his soon; he was sure of it.

The look on Mulder's face when he came to breakfast this morning had almost been worth the years of annoyance. The "thank you" had been more than Alex had expected to hear at this point, but oh so appreciated.

Alex couldn't help feeling some disappointment that Mulder hadn't put out last night, but reminded himself that the impatient hunter never netted his prey. You had to slowly move up on a skittish target, calm it. He'd gotten so close last night...

Alex wanted Mulder willing, wanton, and unable to blame anything for it. Completely complicit in his own debauchery. Alex wanted Mulder to drop to his knees and beg... //I want him to need me...//

And he would. It was only a matter of time.