M
issing Pieces

by Courtney Gray

 

K

rycek gazed down at the body on the slab. John Doe #34. Even for a dead man, he looked bad. The man had been living too long and too hard on the streets. Still, it was definitely his missing person. The military tattoo was the clincher. For a moment, #34's sallow, emaciated face faded, replaced by a kaleidoscope of dead faces, swirling through Krycek's consciousness. So many dead faces, he couldn't possibly count them all.

Footsteps approached and he blinked the images away.

"It that your man?"

Krycek turned to the Morgue attendant and nodded. "Yes. That's Samuel Kessler."

The attendant, whose name was Harry, glanced at the stiff form. "You ID'd him just in time. He was scheduled to be processed out of here as a John Doe right after Christmas." Harry scratched at his neatly cut beard. "Gets busy around here during the holidays. Bad time for homeless people. Well, as if there was a good time, right, but the cold weather, you know. Lots of overtime to be had, let me tell you. Regular staff wants the time off, can't blame them. Me, I don't mind it. Good place to meditate." He moved around to the front of the slab. "Can I close him up now."

"Yes, I'll be notifying his family today."

Harry was busy removing the "John Doe" toe tag and making some entries to the clipboard that he carried. "I'll give you a card with a number for them to call. Do you think they'll want him?" At Krycek's raised eyebrow, he continued. "Sometimes they just leave them here, even after they're identified, y'know?"

"His wife hired me to find him. My job's done. I don't know what she'll do but I'd guess she'd officially request the body."

Pale blue eyes framed by laugh lines gave Krycek a curious glance. "Must be exciting being a Private Eye," he said.

"It has its moments, but not many," replied Krycek.

"But you get to investigate all kinds of stuff, meet all sorts of people."

Krycek gazed at the steel slab doors that lined the wall. "Yeah, but your clients are a lot more cooperative."

Harry laughed, the sound echoing in the chilly room. "Hell, yeah, ain't that the truth. They sure are well behaved by the time they get to cold storage. Can't argue with you there."

A few hours later, after a thankfully short weather delay, Krycek was on a plane out of Detroit. He'd already called Mrs. Kessler, told her the bad news though it seemed she was more resigned and relieved than surprised. She would claim the body. "At least we won't spend another Christmas wondering where he is," she'd said.

The flight was filled with noisy holiday travelers, families and friends, chatting and laughing as they looked forward to long-planned vacations or festive reunions. For Krycek, it was just the end of another relatively simple job. He was looking forward to going home and getting out of the snow. The temperate climate was not the only benefit of living in San Francisco, but it was pretty high on his list. He settled back in his seat and closed his eyes, wondering if there were any new jobs waiting for him back in the office.

A sharp pain stabbed along the length of his left arm. Phantom pain still bothered him on occasion. He rubbed at his shoulder, down to where the stub of his arm met his prosthesis. It didn't help much. With a sigh, he shifted a little and tried to sleep as the young couple next to him stole kisses and whispered dreamily to each other.

When his plane landed at SFO, it was early evening. The skies were clear; the air was bracing but not anywhere near as bone-chilling cold as it was back East. Krycek walked passed the throngs of people waiting to welcome loved ones and family, and headed for the long-term lot where he picked up his car and began the drive into the City.

He thought about stopping by the office to check the mail but after picking up the couple of voicemail messages on his cell, he decided the office could wait. Instead, he headed for his townhouse in the Noe Valley.

'The Noe' was a former working class neighborhood that was now an eclectic mix of older single family homes, small apartment buildings, new townhouses, and classic Victorians. At this time of the year, at least half of the houses were trimmed with lights and ornaments, their windows, doors, and rooflines sparkling and glowing with holiday decorations.

Krycek's feelings about the holidays were ambivalent at best. Mostly, they made him uncomfortable. As he drove up the steep hill and turned into his driveway, he gazed up at the windows of his townhouse. They were dark and unadorned, a sharp contrast to the glaring testament to the season next door. Mrs. Traverso's house had a massive fir tree in the center of her big bay window, blinking and shimmering under a heavy weight of colored lights, tinsel and glass ornaments. At the base was a carefully arranged manger scene, complete with crib. Crystal snowflakes decorated the edges of her windows. Her front door was papered with huge red and white candy canes, pots of fake poinsettias on either side of the steps. Even her mail slot was topped with a sprig of holly.

Krycek had never made any effort to get to know his neighbors. After four years, he had a nodding acquaintance with one or two on his block and that was as close as he wanted to get. The Widow Traverso was the exception. A force unto herself, she made sure she knew all her neighbors whether they liked it or not. Once Zorro took up residence with him, she became even more impossible to ignore. Not that he really minded the old lady, for the most part.

As he pulled into his garage, he felt a vague tingling along the back of his neck. Suddenly uneasy, he hit the remote to shut the door and quickly got out of the car. He looked around methodically as he walked to the small storage room near the stairs to the living area. He hadn't brought a gun with him because of airport security, though he actually had a license for each of the three guns he currently owned. He was carefully law-abiding these days. At least, most of the time.

In the storage room, he pulled out the Glock hidden in the cubby behind his toolbox, and flipped off the safety. Silently, he climbed the stairs to the first level. He kept the lights off, his eyes quickly adjusting to the glow through the windows from the streetlamps. The open plan of the house made it easy to verify that no one else was there. He made his way upstairs and checked out all those rooms as well.

Back down on the first level, he still held his gun at his side as he turned on the lights. Something just didn't feel right. He walked over to the small foyer and checked his security panel near the door. Everything seemed in order. Then he looked down and spotted the white edge of an envelope that peeked out from under the front door. Slowly, he pulled it through. It was the size of an average greeting card; "Krycek" was written in the middle of the sealed envelope. The little warning tingle prickled over his skin again. He flipped the safety back on his gun, tucked it into his pocket, and tore open the envelope.

It was a Christmas card with a rotund, rosy-cheeked Santa hauling a sack of presents and bellowing a "Ho, Ho, Ho." Inside was a predictable, "Have a Jolly HO-HO-Holiday!" greeting. On the opposite side, written in a jagged script he recognized all too well was the message: When you come back from wherever the hell you are, call me. I need to talk to you. I don't want to waste any more time staking out your place, so save us both the trouble. Beneath that was a cellphone number. The message was signed, Mulder.

Krycek slapped the card against his fake left hand. Well, it wasn't as if he'd been in hiding for the past five years. There wasn't anything left to hide from, for one thing. Not if he didn't count Mulder anyway.

He walked into the living area and sank down into the big, overstuffed sofa. So, Mulder had searched him out. That should have taken him a hot five minutes, if that. Shaking his head, he gazed down at the card. Five years, Mulder, why couldn't you just let it lie... let it go? Why now, why bother? Sure, he could understand Mulder's rage when he'd found out how well he'd been duped, but that was over five damn years ago. Back then, Krycek had been forced to wrestle with some personal demons of his own, so he had already left the scene. It was Skinner who had had to explain their actions and be the one to take the brunt of Mulder's fury. At least Scully had reacted better, too preoccupied with her baby to muster more than a token shot of anger before it was quickly replaced by relief at being able to build a normal life for herself and her 'miracle' child.

The brief, sporadic communications he'd had with Skinner after the remains of the Syndicate had finally been dispatched and the Aliens had high-tailed if off the planet, had indicated that, despite his bruised ego and belligerence at finding out he'd been the unknowing star of their intricate years-long charade, Mulder had grudgingly accepted the necessity of what they had done. In the last email Skinner had sent him, he said that Mulder was finally speaking to Skinner without shouting and had even made amends with the 'resurrected' Lone Gunmen. Krycek had noted that in all the messages, he was never mentioned. Surprisingly, that had stung, but in the end, he realized it was better that way. Mulder had worn out his anger on those close to hand and had simply dismissed Krycek from his mind like a bad taste that was best forgotten.

Skinner had also informed Krycek that he could come back to D.C. His file had been formally reclassified and now reflected his true actions in the Secret War, along with a commendation or two, and both the FBI and NSA were anxious to use him again. Even the Russians had a high-ranking position to offer. Krycek had replied that he'd had enough of being used. He was through with deep cover assignments and Conspiracies that tore a man's soul to shreds. His complete breakdown after the war had put him into a psychiatric hospital for six months and then into considerable outpatient therapy. Tell them to stick their offers up their asses, he'd told Skinner. He was retiring.

His access to one of the Syndicate's orphaned Swiss bank accounts was more than enough to secure a comfortable new life. If the Feds knew about it, they maintained a blind eye. With all the fallout, they'd had enough to cover up and rebuild as it was. Krycek considered the money a well-earned payment for one lost arm, and one mostly lost life.

Except that he soon discovered that retiring in your early 30s was not as ideal as he'd thought it would be.

A year after his 'retirement' began, and with what he first thought of as a whim, though his therapist encouraged it, he started his own one-man Private Investigation business, specializing in missing persons. Over three years later, he'd gained enough of a rep that even the cops were starting to give him referrals to cases they had neither the resources nor the jurisdiction to follow up on.

As it turned out, the work gave him more than a sense of satisfaction. After years of living a life that required him to deliberately deceive both the guilty and the innocent, to deliberately hide the truth from those who desperately searched for it, the work was a kind of restitution. Applying his not inconsiderable skills to solving his clients' personal mysteries, finding the truth for them and giving them closure, helped him to feel... decent again.

He gazed down at the card, frowning as he remembered the last time he'd seen Mulder. It was not a good memory. But then, most of his encounters with Mulder had been little more than nightmare fodder.

The jarring sound of the doorbell pulled him back from the past. With a relieved sigh, he got up and went to the front door and looked through the peephole. The gray-haired woman waiting on his doorstep was squinting back at him through her horn-rimmed glasses.

Well, that didn't take long, he thought to himself. Drawing in a deep breath and pasting on a smile, he opened the door. "Hello Lidia," he said, just as a large flash of orange dashed by his legs and immediately galloped up the stairs.

The Widow Traverso smiled and brushed by him at a more sedate pace. "I'll just be a minute, Alex," she said, gesturing towards his kitchen with the covered Pyrex dish in her hands. "Zorro knew the moment you were back. He started scratching at my door and put up such a fuss, I had to let him out. I have lasagna for you. Four cheeses. There's more than enough for two." She glanced around as she headed for his kitchen.

"Uh, Lidia, there's no one else here," he told her as he followed.

"A man came by looking for you two days ago. I saw him waiting in a car outside. My goodness, he sat there for hours before he finally came to your door." She tilted her head towards him. "He should have done that in the first place, don't you think? Seems very stupid to me."

Krycek gave her a shrug and a half-smile, her description confirming what he already suspected. "Did you talk to him, Lidia?"

"Well, as it happens, I came out to sweep the steps. I thought it best to ask him if he was looking for you. I didn't mention your name, of course. These days, it seems as if everyone is selling something. Like sharks, those salesmen. They lie in wait for days." She touched a fingertip to the poinsettia pin on her navy blue cardigan. "He knew your name, said he wanted to talk with you. Asked me if I knew if you were in. Well, I looked into his eyes. He has rather nice eyes, a pretty hazel, not as lovely as yours, of course. He seemed troubled, but not dangerous. I have a good sense about people, you know."

Krycek suppressed a grimace. "Did he tell you his name?"

"Yes, an odd name. Fox Mulder, he said. Imagine parents naming a child 'Fox'. It's as bad as that newsman, Wolf Whathisname. Terrible."

For a woman half way to seventy, she was still as spry and energetic as someone half her age. She could also out-talk a roomful of teenagers once she got started.

He stuck his hand in his pocket and patted his gun. Ah, the good old days, he mused, only half-jokingly. Still, he loved her four cheese lasagna. Damn woman made the best fucking lasagna. He took his hand out of his pocket as she bustled around his kitchen. Setting the lasagna dish near the oven, she began opening drawers and shaking her head. "You need to shop, Alex. You're running low on everything. It's a wonder you haven't starved to death."

"You know I've been away on business, Lidia."

"Nonsense, you should always have staples in the pantry. Why, you don't even have any pasta or Arborio in here. Not so much as a can of tomato paste. Cat food, that's all! It hurts my heart to imagine what I would see in your refrigerator," she continued, zeroing in on it. She opened the door and sighed dramatically. "Terrible, not even enough here to feed a flea. You're out of milk, Alex."

"I'll shop tomorrow. Did Mulder say anything else?" he prompted.

"Oh, eh, yes, he asked when you were coming back and I told him I wasn't sure, a few days I thought. Then he said a very bad word and said he'd try and reach you later." Her voice lowered to a conspiratorial whisper. "He was wearing a very nice suit. Good quality, pure wool looked like. Oh, but his tie. Terrible. Little green and burgundy squares. Can you imagine?"

Krycek didn't know whether to scream or laugh. "Is that all he said, Lidia?"

She met his gaze, her lips pursing thoughtfully for a moment. "You know this man Fox Mulder and he knows you," she stated. When he remained silent, her brown eyes rounded behind her glasses. "Yes?"

"Yes," he admitted, knowing she'd already made up her mind about it

"Is he an old friend?"

Krycek sighed. He'd already learned to avoid piquing this woman's formidable curiosity, so he certainly wasn't going anywhere near explaining his convoluted history with Mulder. "He's someone I worked with briefly, years ago. We didn't really get along. He probably thinks I owe him money."

He could see by the pursing lips that she wasn't going for it. Fortunately, a loud meow interrupted them both. Krycek turned his head to look down at the large mound of marmalade fur that was staring back up at him with big golden eyes. "You," he muttered in an accusing whisper. The cat meowed back at him.

"I just fed him an hour ago, Alex. Your cat eats like a horse."

Zorro rubbed his considerable bulk against Krycek's calf. A reluctant smile growing over his face, he bent down and picked up his cat. Zorro rubbed a furry jowl against his chin. Krycek chuckled, relieved by the distraction, and scratched the cat behind his ears, making him purr.

"Hmmm, I won't keep you. It's a good thing I had the lasagna for you. Goodness knows there's nothing else to eat here. Maybe I should go home and make you a salad to go with it."

"No! Uh, no, thanks, Lidia, I'm really tired... from the long flight. Time zone change and all." He tilted his head and gave her his most affected little boy lost look.

"Ahh, poor bambino, of course you need your rest." She came up to him and patted him on the cheek. "But eat some lasagna first, to keep up your strength. You're still too thin. The lasagna's warm. If you reheat it, use the oven, not that horrible microwave. One day, you'll see, they'll prove it causes brain cancer or heart disease. Wait and see," she told him with a firm wag of her finger.

She started walking away, stopped, tapped her forehead with her fingertips. "Oh, yes. That Mr. Mulder wanted to leave a message. I gave him one of my extra Christmas cards. I had all these Santa cards left over. I never seem to use those. Anyway, I went back into the house after that. I didn't see if he left it."

"Yeah, he left it."

"So, are you going to talk to him?"

Zorro wiggled out of his arms and began a slow circuit of the kitchen. "Mulder was always a pain in the a--, eh, neck. Probably the quickest way to get rid of him. Thanks for taking care of Zorro," he told her as he began herding her towards the front door.

"It's nothing. He's a good cat, except for the door scratching."

He almost had her out when she paused on the threshold and looked up at him. "I'll be going to my daughter's in Sacramento for Christmas, you know."

He nodded, opening the door a bit more. "I'm sure you'll have a nice visit."

She rolled her eyes at him as if he was just a little dense. "I don't understand how a sweet boy like you can be alone at Christmas. It's just not right."

"I'm an atheist, Lidia. It's just another commercial holiday to me." He knew she disliked hearing him say it; but maybe it would hurry her along. "I like being alone."

She waved a disbelieving hand in his face. "Nonsense. We'll have a talk after you've had a good night's sleep. There's a new manager at The Cheese Shop on 24th Street. He just moved into town and he's single. Seems like a very fine young man. I'll tell you all about him tomorrow." She kissed him on the cheek and then placed her hand over his chest, concern showing in her eyes. "Sometimes we cannot tell the difference between being alone and being lonely. Maybe it seems safer to tell ourselves it's what we want. But choosing loneliness is like making empty spaces in your heart, and that is not right. You should not have missing pieces. Sometimes you must open yourself and allow others to find them for you." She patted his chest gently, then turned and walked out the door and down the steps.

Closing the door quickly, he snapped the bolt lock and put on the chain. He still wasn't used to the concept of having neighbors that actually spoke to him, let alone one who'd made it her personal crusade to ensure that he didn't wind up a miserable old hermit. Even his declaration that he was gay hadn't fazed her. "I've lived in San Francisco for 46 years, dear. Did you think that would shock me?" she'd told him.

Fuck, he muttered to the world in general. He looked down at his chest, touching the place over his heart with the tip of a finger, Lidia's parting words echoing in his mind. Missing pieces. He glanced down at his left arm, as lifelike as money could buy. He thought about those months in that private little nuthouse in the mountains with its neat gardens and sunny, suicide-proof rooms. He thought about the days, weeks, lying in a bed, nearly catatonic, staring at the cream-colored ceiling and wondering if he'd lost his mind forever. If he'd lost his courage. If he'd even lost the will to live. Wondering if a cold-blooded killer could ever turn back into a human being.

Missing pieces. Yeah, he had a few of those. In the last few years, he'd come to understand and accept that there had always been 'pieces' missing in his life, in himself. And there always would be.

Letting out a tired breath, he went back into the kitchen, filled up Zorro's water bowl and gave in to the feline's bellowing by pouring a little of his favorite dry food into his bowl. He pulled the bottle of Grey Goose out of the freezer, grabbed a glass and headed back into the living room.

After a couple of swallows of vodka, he stretched out his legs and stared at the card that lay on the sofa cushion beside him.

Unless he was willing to give up everything, change his name and go into hiding, he wouldn't be able to shake Mulder. Since he wasn't about to throw away a life he was finally settled in, that left only one option. He put down his drink and reached for his phone. Assuming Mulder was back in the D.C. area, a quick glance at his watch told Krycek that it would be almost midnight there. He wondered if Mulder still spent most of the night with his insomnia and porn tapes. After five years, a lot could have changed. He realized that he didn't even know if Mulder and Scully were finally living together, especially now that they had a kid. Skinner had never told him and he'd never asked.

He winced as a sliver of pain shot down his arm. He looked down at the flesh colored hand, memories flickering through his mind. Roads not taken. Regrets and hard choices. He drew in a deep breath. Time didn't always ease the pain, phantom or otherwise. He switched the phone to his fake hand and flipped open the card. Slowly, he punched in the number.

On the fourth ring, Mulder answered with a muffled "hello." Krycek felt his throat tighten and wondered why he couldn't seem to make his mouth work.

"Hello, anyone there?"

Krycek finally forced out the words. "You told me to call you."

The silence stretched and he almost hung up.

"Krycek."

At least his name didn't sound like a curse. He swallowed. "What did you want, Mulder?"

"It's time we talked."

"About what?"

"I need some answers from you."

Krycek looked up at his ceiling. "There isn't anything you could ask me that Skinner or the Agency couldn't have answered by now."

"I need to talk to you."

It was always pointless to try and argue with Mulder. "Go ahead then, Mulder. Spew forth."

"Face to face, Krycek. I'll be there tomorrow."

"Why bother? Just say whatever you have to say to me right now and let's just put an end to it."

"Oh, no. No. I'll be there tomorrow before noon. Don't go anywhere."

"Wait, Mulder, listen!" But all he heard was the click on the other end of the line. Damn him. He tossed his phone on the sofa and sank back against the cushions. His heart was pounding. Two minutes on the phone with Mulder and his heart was pounding. He quickly considered leaving town, just for a few days. Maybe see what Christmas was like in Mexico.

He squeezed his eyes shut. Mulder would just follow him down there. When the man made his mind up about something, he was as reasonable as a tsunami. That was one of the reasons they'd all been forced to keep Mulder in the dark all those years.

The sound of a meow had him glancing at the sofa arm. Zorro was perched there regally, his fat tail flicking back and forth. He looked at the cat and shook his head. "Tomorrow is going to be a fucking bitch of a day." Zorro responded by carefully climbing onto his lap and bumping and rubbing his head against Krycek's chin. "Yeah, well, I bet even you can't charm Mulder." He reached for his glass as the cat meowed his protest, then settled back to finish his vodka. Zorro circled his lap and curled into nap position, purring loudly.

He sipped slowly at his drink, feeling calmer, and wondered if Mulder was coming to kill him. It didn't seem likely. If Mulder wanted him dead, he would have tried long before now. He wished he knew what Mulder was doing these days. Did he go back to the X-Files after all? Did Scully go back with him?

He hadn't done much more than listen to Skinner's update right after he'd left Washington. At that point, they were all exhausted, like battle-weary soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress. They'd triumphed over a monolithic Conspiracy that spanned more than half a century. As a key player in the counter-conspiracy, Krycek had seen too much and done too much. At that point, he had had nothing left to give, and that's when it hit him. He fell apart and wound up in a very nice loony bin.

So he wasn't around to witness the cover-up that was meticulously put into place. The new powers-that-be had decided that the Secret War was going to remain a secret forever, for the greater good. Krycek had been too busy drowning in his own dark nightmares to know or care.

But now, with the prospect of Mulder's arrival, he wanted to have some idea what to expect; he needed answers to a few questions of his own.

He glanced at his watch again. First thing in the morning, he'd call Skinner.

H

e ate a plateful of Lidia's lasagna for breakfast with a mug of black coffee as he watched the dawn paint itself over the City skyline from his kitchen window. One of the reasons he'd bought the townhouse was the spectacular hilltop view. Half of the city was spread out before him, from nearby Dolores Park all the way to the cluster of jagged skyscrapers downtown to the steel gray spires of the Bay Bridge. The fog would be rolling in later in the morning, but at the moment, the horizon was slowly turning from a smoky gray to a hazy coral.

He hadn't slept very much. Pushing aside his plate, he looked down at the phone numbers he'd written on the inside of a wrapper from a pack of Morleys. The cigarettes were long gone, along with the malevolent man who smoked them. He'd kept the crumpled wrapper in the pocket of his old leather jacket. It had been hanging in the back of his closet since he'd moved into the townhouse. They were both a testament to his survival and a reminder of a past he never wanted to revisit. He never wore the jacket anymore, and he wasn't even sure why he'd kept the numbers. Now he was glad he had.

There were three phone numbers written on the wrapper. One was a number that reached the geeks who called themselves the Lone Gunmen and the other two were Skinner's, a direct line for his office and another to his home. Of course, Krycek didn't even know if any of the numbers still worked. It'd been years since he'd used any of them.

It would be past nine a.m. in D.C. If Skinner was still with the Bureau, he'd have already been at work for at least an hour, unless he'd drastically changed his habits. Krycek picked up his cellphone and dialed Skinner's office. It rang several times and then a woman answered. "Deputy Director Skinner's Office."

Well, at least he still worked there, and he'd held on to the promotion they'd given him, too. "I'd like to speak with him, please," replied Krycek politely.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Skinner isn't coming in today. May I take a message?"

Krycek frowned at the phone. "No, that's all right. When do you expect him back?"

"He'll be back in the office tomorrow."

Krycek murmured a thank you and hung up. It sounded like Skinner had taken the day off. Skinner? Taking a Wednesday off? That really would be a change of habit. He glanced at the other phone number, considered for a moment, and then dialed it.

It was picked up on the third ring. "Skinner."

Krycek sat up straight. It was what he thought he heard in the background that startled him.

"Who's calling?" Skinner prompted brusquely as the seconds ticked by.

"It's Krycek, Skinner."

There was that sound again. Unmistakable. A child laughing and a woman talking. Telling the child to stop playing with his food. Alex remembered that voice all too well.

"Hold on a second, Alex." The phone was muffled, then he heard the sound of a door closing and Skinner came back on the line. "Well, I didn't think I'd be hearing from you again."

Krycek's mouth was hanging open. He didn't bother beating around the bush. "What's Scully and a kid doing over there? Was that William laughing?"

Skinner sighed. "Yes, I'm fine and how have you been?"

"C'mon, Skinner, what the hell is going on?"

"You called me. I think I'm the one who should be asking the questions."

"That was Scully's voice I heard."

Krycek waited through the long pause that followed, figuring Skinner would either tell him or not.

"Dana and I were married just before Thanksgiving."

Krycek pulled the phone away and stared at it as if it had just bit him. He swallowed and held the receiver back up to his ear. "You and Scully got married?" he repeated dumbly, the words not quite sinking in. He could just sense the smile in Skinner's voice when he answered.

"I haven't spoken to you in over three years, Alex. Life goes on. Life changes. I'm a lucky man."

"Shit." Krycek was shaking his head slowly, finally absorbing the news. "Uh... congratulations."

Skinner chortled. "Thank you. We're getting ready to move into our new house right after New Year's. This condo is crammed with boxes. Will is having a great time using the place as his personal jungle gym. We've tried to keep the living room clear for the Christmas tree and some decorations so Will can have a fairly normal holiday. So, why are you calling, Alex? Everything okay with you?"

Krycek ignored the question for the moment, his mind still reeling. "I thought Mulder and Scully... " He let the question trail off. He heard Skinner sigh again.

"Umm, yes. I thought so, too. After you... left and things settled a little, they tried to make a go of it. Even moved into an apartment together with Will. It didn't take long before they both knew it wouldn't work for them. I think Dana knew it before Mulder did." There was a pause as if Skinner was looking for the words. "Mulder... well, he's anything but average, as you know. They both wanted different things. Dana wanted a regular life, a normal life for herself and Will. Mulder can take anything but an ordinary, normal life. The idea of a nine to five job, a house in the suburbs, PTA meetings, and mowing the lawn is like being buried alive for him."

"But he loves her," cut in Krycek. Oddly, the statement felt like a knife twisting in his chest as he said it.

"Yes, he does. And she loves him. Always will, but it's not the kind of love that makes a marriage. Fortunately for me."

Krycek sank back in his chair and gazed out at the view beyond his window. The sky was turning a soft pink and gold. The sun was rising. "Mulder is flying out to see me today. Do you know why?"

Suddenly, he heard some sounds in the background and then Scully's voice saying. "Walter, I'm taking Will to daycare now. Don't forget to pick up the presents from my Mom's." There was some shuffling and the phone was muffled again, but not before he heard Skinner saying, "It's Krycek... " There was another long, silent pause before Skinner came back on the line."

"Did you say that Mulder was coming to see you?"

But Krycek couldn't resist. "She's leading you by the balls, huh, Skinner? Got you running errands for the mother-in-law already?"

Skinner actually laughed. "You'd be surprised how pleasant that can be. And I happen to like my mother-in-law very much."

Eyebrows rising, Krycek smiled. "You've really got it bad."

"Yes I do, and damn thankful for it, too. Dana and Will have given me the kind of life I never thought I'd ever be fortunate enough to have. I've never been happier, Alex, and that's god's truth."

It all sounded pretty hideous to Krycek. "To each his own, I guess."

"You can say that again."

"Did you ever imagine we could have this conversation five years ago?"

Skinner snorted. "Five years ago, I was just amazed any of us were still alive." There was a beat of silence and then Skinner continued. "I'm glad you called, Alex. I've wondered how you were doing these past few years. You had a rough time after it was finally over. Are, uh, are you still in therapy?"

Krycek smiled to himself. Skinner was one of the few people who knew about his unscheduled stay in the Treatment Center. "No, no more regular therapy for a while now. I'm doing fine." He figured Skinner's FBI clout could have provided him with a complete dossier of Krycek's whereabouts and activities over the years. Yet, somehow, he didn't believe Skinner would have asked for one, respecting Krycek's wish for privacy. "At least, it was fine until Mulder decided to come calling." Krycek fiddled with the spoon by his mug. "Is he still pissed? How did he take your... wedding?"

"Well, it wasn't a surprise. Dana and I had been seeing each other for almost two years after she'd taken the teaching position at Quantico. Mulder was reconciled to it. In fact, he told me he thought I'd be a better father for Will, that I should legally adopt him. That must've taken him a lot of soul-searching. He even said that Scully was better off marrying me. He meant it sincerely, too. Mulder is a good man, Alex. As complex as a Chinese puzzle, unpredictable, frustrating, and irritating as hell sometimes, I admit, but he's also a man whose friendship I value. He's had a helluva a lot to adjust to since the War ended. I think he's still trying to figure out where he belongs. In his way, Mulder's still searching."

"Did he go back to the X-Files?"

"No, he didn't want anything more to do with the FBI after it all came to light. He taught a class on parapsychology at one of the local colleges for a couple of semesters, but he didn't like all the paperwork and the rigid schedule. He's written a few magazine articles."

Krycek frowned at the table top. "So he's just... drifting."

"Pretty much."

"So, maybe Mulder's just bored and can't think of anything better to do than come out here and harass me for old time's sake?" When Skinner didn't respond right away, Krycek sensed something, a hesitation that sent a little alarm bell ringing in the back of his mind. "What is it, Skinner? What aren't you telling me?"

As the silence stretched a moment longer, the alarm grew louder. "Give, Skinner," he growled.

"Well, he finally started talking to his fa-to Bill Mulder a few months ago."

Krycek's frown deepened. For Mulder, that had been one of the hardest aspects of their subterfuge to deal with, the fact that the man he thought was his father had not, in fact, been murdered. That it had been a necessary part of the deception to free Bill Mulder from the Syndicate and allow him to work full out for the Resistance. Despite being a ruthless bastard, Bill Mulder's knowledge of the Syndicate had been as invaluable as his motivating hatred towards Spender. Krycek would utilize the same kind of clone that they used for the elder Mulder a few years later to set up his own 'death' in the Hoover garage.

To realize that even Bill Mulder had deceived him so profoundly had been almost too much for Mulder to bear.

"It took him, what, over three years?"

"Took him that long to work through the resentment he had for him. His mother's suicide was another blow. From what I could tell, he and Bill Mulder are still as distant from one another as they ever were. In that respect, their relationship hasn't changed, but at least I think they cleared the air between them."

"What does any of that have to do with me?" snapped Krycek.

"I can't see how Mulder can ever move forward with his life until he gets some closure with the people he thinks have significantly impacted on his past. You're one of those people. You... went away right after the Syndicate went down and the Aliens left." Krycek could almost hear the shrug as Skinner continued. "You're the only other major player that was involved with him through those crazy years that he hasn't confronted face to face. He's come to an understanding with Dana; he's made his peace with me, the Gunmen, and I suppose to some extent with Bill Mulder. Frankly, I think he's been avoiding you long enough."

"Fuck. I must be the worst of the bunch to him."

"I think that he needs to talk to you. And you need to talk to him. The war's over and the two of you really need to finally work out your other issues," advised Skinner.

Krycek just rolled his eyes. "Other issues? I don't have any issues with Mulder." He thought he heard a disbelieving 'harrumph' from the other side of the line. "Well, I don't," he insisted.

"Mulder's a damn genius and a psychologist to boot, and you are as astute and resourceful a man as I've ever known. But, I swear you both can be as thick as bricks about some things. Only the obvious escapes you two."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

Skinner's sigh was heavy. "Just talk to him, Alex."

There didn't seem any point in arguing. "Okay, fine. Thanks for, uh, talking to me." He started to hang up.

"Alex."

"Yeah?"

"Have a Merry Christmas. Listen, is that old cell number you gave me still good?"

"Yeah."

"As soon as we've settled in our new place, I'll call you with the address and the new phone number. You're welcome to stop by whenever you're out this way. You know, have dinner with us or whatever. You can meet Will. I think he'd liked you."

Bemused, Krycek couldn't help but smirk at the phone in his hand. "Well, yeah, thanks for the invitation," he replied, his mind imagining Scully's reaction. "Maybe I'll take you up on it sometime," he lied politely. It was about as likely for him to pop in for dinner with Skinner, Scully and the kid as it was for him to marry Mulder. "Hey, give Scully a shock and tell her I wish her and Will a 'Merry Christmas,' okay? Just make sure she doesn't have anything sharp in her hands at the time."

Skinner's warm laughter had him shaking his head. "Yes, I'll tell her and I'm pretty sure she'll be glad to hear it."

Damn, the world really had changed. "Take it easy, Skinner."

"Same to you, Krycek."

Krycek put his phone back on the table slowly and gazed out the kitchen window at a sky that was turning a crisp powder blue. It was the start of a new day.

He spent the morning working on his computer, paying some bills. He wanted to swing by the office but that would have to wait until after he saw Mulder. Around half past ten he decided to change out of his sweats.

Zorro sat on his bureau watching him as he walked back and forth from the closet, opening drawers, pulling out sweaters and tops and shoving them back; picking a shirt, trying it on, then changing his mind.

After he'd completely dressed and undressed three times, he stopped and dragged his hand through his hair. "What the hell am I doing?" he said aloud. He was acting like some jerk trying to get ready for a big date.

Zorro angled his furry head at him and yawned. Krycek looked into the enigmatic golden eyes and nodded. "Yeah, you're right; why the fuck should I care what I look like when Mulder comes over here?" He angrily gathered up the pile of clothes on his bed and started putting them away. "I couldn't care less what he thinks of me." He was about to put away his favorite, cream-colored turtleneck sweater when he stopped himself again. He'd habitually worn black clothing during those awful years after the end of his brief partnership with Mulder. It had been as much a reflection of his state of mind as a means of blending into the darkness that he seemed to have perpetually inhabited during those grim days.

"Okay, so maybe I don't want him to see me looking like I've just stepped out of some dingy back alley." He gazed at the sweater and then at Zorro. "Why remind him of all that any more than I have to, right? It's just... sensible," he added. Zorro responded by jumping off the bureau and heading for the kitchen, tail flicking dismissively in the air. "Go on, whaddya you know, anyway?"

A few minutes later, Krycek regarded himself in the full-length mirror. He'd settled on his best pair of beige, brushed jeans, the cream knit turtleneck that he'd bought at that Irish Imports shop, and brown suede boots. He smoothed the sleeve over his left arm, glad the newer prosthetics didn't require any more bulky straps. His phantom pain was gone for the moment, too.

He touched his jaw and wondered if he'd put on too much aftershave. Instantly annoyed with himself, he turned his back on the mirror and left the room.

I

t was almost noon and he was starting a second pot of coffee and trying to read the same newspaper article for the fourth time when the doorbell rang.

His throat tightened and a flutter started in his belly. Damn. Shit. Damn. He rubbed his suddenly sweaty palm on his jeans as he headed for the door, taking several deep breaths along the way. He'd left his nearest gun where it lay, in its holster, in the lower drawer of the entry hall table. If Mulder got violent, he'd handle it some other way. The doorbell rang again and with one last deep breath, he grabbed the doorknob and flung it open.

The Widow Traverso met his startled look with a smile. "I just had to come by, Alex," she began.

"Lidia, uh, this really isn't a good time-"

"That man is back," she interrupted, inclining her head towards a car across the street. "That man with the animal name. He's been sitting in that car for almost an hour. He may have been there longer, for all I know, but I noticed him as I was rearranging some of the ornaments on my Christmas tree this morning. Every time I checked back, he was still there. Isn't that strange? When he was here before, he said he wanted to talk to you. Whatever is he doing just sitting there like that? I thought I should let you know." She turned around and stared pointedly at the car.

Krycek followed her gaze to the silver Ford Taurus on the other side of the street. Mulder was sitting in the driver's seat, staring right back at him. A moment later, he spit something out into his hand.

"Mama mia, what is he doing?" asked Lidia.

Krycek shook his head slightly. "Eating sunflower seeds." He continued to watch as Mulder spit out another seed and got out of the car. He glanced at his neighbor. "If you don't mind, Lidia, I can handle this by myself."

She didn't budge. "Yes, of course, I'll just say 'hello' and then I'll be on my way."

Fuck, just perfect. Krycek gritted his teeth. Mulder waited for a car to pass by and jaywalked towards him. Somehow Krycek had expected to see him dressed in an Armani suit and a designer trench coat, with just a splash of eye-blasting color around his neck. Instead, Mulder looked disconcertingly casual in dark blue jeans, hooded all-weather jacket and running shoes.

The butterflies in his stomach went on a rampage as Mulder came to a halt at the bottom of his short set of steps, only a few feet separating them.

The late morning fog had crept in over the hills and lay draped over the horizon, stirring up the wind. It ruffled Mulder's brown hair, thick chestnut strands falling over his forehead. Krycek focused on the face he hadn't seen in five years and found himself inordinately pleased that Mulder looked so well. Strain and fatigue no longer hung over his features like a shroud. And his eyes; the hopelessness was gone. Even the blind rage that came later was missing. They had a clear fire in them now, an intensity he hadn't seen since Tunguska.

He realized that those hazel eyes were examining him just as minutely.

"Krycek."

"Mulder."

Their gazes locked as if a spell had been cast, neither of them moving until a distinct, impatient cough had them both turning their heads toward Krycek's elderly neighbor.

"Well... Mr. Mulder," she said, giving them both a pointed, speculative glance. "We met when you came here before, remember?"

Mulder inclined his head and smiled. "Mrs. Traverso, of course I remember you. Nice to see you again." He held out his hand to her.

She hesitated for a moment before taking it and returning his smile. "I hope you'll have a pleasant visit, Mr. Mulder." Then she turned to Krycek. "I'll be going now." To his embarrassment, she added. "Did you eat some of the lasagna I brought you, Alex?"

"Yes, thank you, Lidia," he muttered, wishing she'd just leave. Instead, she patted him gently on the cheek. "You're a good boy. I'll come by for my dish later." With that she shot a sharp glance at Mulder. "Happy Holidays," she told him, in a tone that held more command than greeting, and marched back to her house.

Krycek thought he heard a snicker from Mulder but when he looked, Mulder's face was studiously blank. He stepped back inside, holding the door open and watched Mulder walk up the last two steps and into his home.

As Mulder passed him, he said, "That's an interesting surveillance system you got there, Krycek. First one I've ever seen that comes with lasagna."

With a roll of his eyes, Krycek decided there were some things about Mulder that would never change.

Mulder was already wandering around, poking his head into the kitchen and then heading for the living area, making a slow circuit of the place. Krycek sat down in his favorite chair, an old Victorian rocker that was the first piece of furniture he'd ever purchased when he'd moved into the townhouse. It was a little out of place with the rest of his things, with its burgundy cushions and dark walnut frame, but it was very comfortable and oddly calming. It sat near the windows, to one side of the white brick fireplace. Rocking slightly back and forth, Krycek followed Mulder's movements around the room. He watched as Mulder paused to examine his sound system and music collection, the contents of the built-in bookshelves, pausing again to peer at the trio of small clay sculptures on the narrow fireplace mantle before ambling off towards the formal dining area. He perused the two framed Hiroshige prints on one wall and the bottles in the wine rack. He seemed to look at everything.

Krycek decided that if Mulder headed upstairs, that would be it. Even as the thought formed, he saw Mulder glancing at the staircase. "All right, that's enough," he said. "Sit down and ask whatever the hell questions you came here to ask, or get out."

Mulder turned towards him with a slow grin. "Nice place you've got here." He walked back to the living room, shrugged off his jacket to reveal a blue-checked flannel shirt, and took a seat on the end of the sofa, nearest to Krycek. He eyed the rocking chair for a moment. "I feel like singing 'Stormy Weather.'"

Krycek frowned, bewildered by the non sequitur.

"You know the line from the song, 'When he went away the blues walked in and they met me; if he stays away, that old rocking chair's gonna get me'."

Krycek gave the ceiling a plea for patience. Talking to Mulder was like having a conversation with the March Hare. Since he had no idea where Mulder's train of thought was taking him, he just kept silent. This was not the hostile, driven Mulder of old. His mood was indecipherable.

Mulder gave him a probing look that, as the silence grew between them, made him feel like a bug under a microscope. When Mulder reached into the inside pocket of his jacket, Krycek almost bolted out of his chair.

"Take it easy," drawled Mulder. "I'm not carrying a gun." He fished around and brought out a brown manila envelope and then dug into his outside pocket and took out a packet of sunflower seeds. He put the envelope on the cushion beside him and gazed down at the bag of seeds in his palm, a faraway expression growing over his face. "When it all came out and I realized that you and Skinner and the Rebels had been using me all along, I could've happily killed you. Really killed you." He picked a sunflower seed out and cracked it between his teeth. "I nearly busted Skinner's nose after he explained it to me. Doggett had to pull me off. Tried it again a few weeks later, but Skinner was expecting it by then. He gave me a black eye."

Krycek tried to gauge the other man's expression as Mulder munched on a few more seeds, spitting the shells into his palm. "So, is it my turn to waltz down memory lane with you?"

Mulder leaned over and deposited the shells on Krycek's coffee table. "No, I've danced back and forth along that road long enough."

"Then why are you here? You said you wanted answers."

Mulder frowned at him, as if he wasn't quite sure what he wanted to say, or maybe it was reluctance. To Krycek's surprise, something like sadness settled in his hazel eyes. "I had to get away." The words were barely audible, as if Mulder was whispering to himself rather than answering the question.

"Get away from what?"

Head tilting slightly, Mulder drew in a breath. "The holidays. I thought Will should have-" With a quick shake of his head, he paused, glanced at Krycek. "Figured it was about time for me to find out how you were doing... how you were living. Wanted to see for myself."

"Why don't you want to be with your son?" asked Krycek bluntly.

Anger flashed in Mulder's eyes for just a moment, vanishing almost as quickly. He looked away, towards the windows. "You've talked with Skinner." It wasn't a question.

Krycek was pretty sure that Skinner hadn't spoken to Mulder about their phone call. Mulder's instincts were always extraordinary, yet another reason the Resistance had had to be so elaborate in their planning over the years. "I called him this morning," he admitted.

"Had a nice chat?"

"He brought me up to date."

Mulder tossed the packet of sunflower seeds on the coffee table along with the shells, and started walking around the room. "Skinner's... okay," he began. "They're happy. They're a family now." He paused near the window, hands tucked into the pockets of his jeans, head lowered, a silhouette against the sunlit sky and fog draped hills in the distance.

He looked younger, thought Krycek. Lonely. He shouldn't be lonely, not after all he's been through. It wasn't fair. Krycek mentally shook himself. What the hell are you thinking?

"Will is a good kid," continued Mulder at last. "He takes after Scully. Level-headed, strong, bright. Funny thing is, a little piece of me freaks out every time he calls me 'Daddy'. He calls Skinner 'Papa' now. You should see the smile on Skinner when Will runs to him. I never thought he had that much smile in him." His voice was the same steady monotone that Krycek remembered and yet it was as if the words were bleeding.

Krycek gripped the arm of the rocker, almost alarmed at Mulder's openness.

"I told Will I'd see him after New Year's. I gave Scully their presents. Bought Will a superdooper train set, one of those new computerized storybooks, and a kid's basketball and hoop. I hope he likes them."

"He'll miss you," offered Krycek gently.

Mulder turned towards him, shrugged. "Maybe a little, but he adores Walter. Feels safe with him. So does Scully, for that matter." A wistful smile flitted over his face. "Not that she can't take care of herself; she always could, but she needs someone she can rely on. Someone Will can depend on to be there when he needs him. I was lousy at that. He's my son genetically, but Skinner's his father in every other way that counts. I know that. I wanted to give them all some space. And give myself some space, too."

Mulder's gaze drifted around the room before returning to Krycek. "Looks like you've settled down yourself. How do you like the private dick business?"

For once welcoming a change of conversation in his direction, Krycek relaxed his grip on the chair arm and flexed his fingers. "Private investigations, Mulder," he corrected, pleased to see a genuine grin blossom over Mulder's face. "I like it well enough."

"Why a PI? Why work at all? I bet you've appropriated more than enough unmarked cash from one or more of the old Syndicate coffers."

Meeting Mulder's grin with one of his own, Krycek started the chair rocking slightly. This was better, easier. "I'm a Dashiell Hammett fan," he answered.

"Just wanted to be Sam Spade?"

"It's a helluva an easier job than what I used to do." He regretted the words as soon as they'd left his mouth. He hadn't wanted to remind Mulder of his past, even obliquely.

"Shit, Krycek, anything's easier than working as a secret agent within a Conspiracy wrapped in a Conspiracy disguised as another Conspiracy," replied Mulder deadpan.

The sarcasm wasn't edged with bitterness as it often had been in the bad old days. Krycek drew in a breath. "It's probably not worth much now, but I... I'm sorry for... " He met Mulder's unblinking gaze. He'd wanted to say it years ago. He'd left before he'd had the chance and now that Mulder was obviously willing to listen to him, he wasn't sure if he could even put it into words. "I... I wish it could've been different, Mulder." There, perhaps that was the crux of it, the underlying truth to the tangle of feelings he bore for the man before him.

Mulder moved away from the window, taking slow steps until he stopped right next to Krycek's chair. "Neither of us can change what happened."

Krycek knew there was something in his own face, in his eyes, that he couldn't mask; maybe because he'd lost the knack in the wake of his own mental meltdown, or maybe just because Mulder was so close. So close he could just lift his hand and touch him. Whatever it was, it made him feel like he was waking up from a deep, cocooning sleep. How easy it was for Mulder to make the rest of his life, the rest of the world, seem colorless and vague, like a half-formed dream.

It wasn't until that moment that Krycek finally realized, despite all he'd been through, that he never felt more completely alive than when Mulder was near him.

Yet the harsh truth of Mulder's reply sent a pang of regret through him and he lowered his head.

The feel of Mulder's cool fingertips against his cheek startled him, his head jerking back. "You have a little premature gray near your temples," said Mulder softly, his hand reaching out again to brush the hair near his ear. "Other than that, you look the same. I guess we all look pretty much the same, don't we? It's only been a few years, after all. The most profound changes aren't usually the ones we can see."

Krycek swallowed, the touch of Mulder's hand leaving a tingling trail of sensation over his skin. He looked up at Mulder again and rose hesitantly from his chair, turning until they were standing face to face. Their eyes met again and held for the longest time, and for Krycek, it seemed as if years of rationalization began to fall away.

He was deeply attracted to Mulder, had been for years. And he had denied it for years. Even when he was in therapy, he kept the subject of Mulder at a safe distance. He'd almost convinced himself that he'd never felt anything other than a certain amount of respect and admiration for Mulder's brilliance and sheer tenacity. All the moments of intense, near combustible emotion between them was just a byproduct of their mutual fight against the Alien Conspiracy and the malignant Syndicate that cloaked it. That's what he'd told himself, over and over again, as he concentrated on suturing the wounds on his psyche left by the war.

But now, he felt himself leaning forward, as if drawn by some finally unleashed, invisible force. "I... you... " He tried to warn Mulder, but Mulder didn't move. He just kept looking at him as if he was... waiting. Closer, closer. And then their lips touched. Warm. Pliant. He could feel Mulder's sigh against his mouth and it seemed to penetrate right through his body. It was a discovery. A circle closing.

They pulled apart slowly, their eyes opening to a different world.

Krycek balled his fist at his side to keep from reaching out and pulling Mulder against him. He realized he was panting and his heart was pounding. He didn't know what to expect, but it certainly wasn't the first, whispered words out of Mulder's mouth.

"Scully was right."

Krycek stepped back in surprise bumping his leg against the rocker. He started to tip backwards, balance lost when Mulder's arms went around him, steadying him on his feet. And in the next moment, Mulder was kissing him, hard and deep. Krycek opened his mouth with a needy moan, feeling Mulder's tongue slip inside. He felt Mulder's cock pushing against his crotch. They rubbed against each other, hands stroking over clothing. Krycek gripped the back of Mulder's neck, fingers tangling in silky brown hair. They kissed, near bruising kisses that were raw and urgent and wildly passionate. Mulder didn't even seem to mind his arm, his fake arm, at all, stroking over it along with all the rest of him without missing a beat.

Mulder sucked the soft skin beneath his ear, tongue licking a wet line back to his mouth. Long fingers found their way under his sweater, raked up and down over his back. His senses went on overload, their bodies grinding together, their groans and whimpers filling the air. Sharp and sudden as lightning, Mulder cried out, palms pressed tight against Krycek's ass, the sensation driving Krycek over the edge.

They swayed together, barely holding themselves upright, clutching at each other as they sank to their knees on the thick carpet.

The room was still spinning around him as he fell back flat, Mulder stumbling to land with a gasp on top of him.

"Damn, we're a couple of horny teenagers. Haven't come that fast since I was 14," panted Mulder against his cheek as their harsh breathing slowly settled to a normal rhythm.

Krycek was smiling. His jeans were stained and sticky with cum; he smelled like a whorehouse. He was lying on the floor, for godssakes, and Mulder was near smothering him with his body. He felt wonderful.

Mulder started chuckling, the sound a warm rush near his ear. "A big orange cat is staring at us."

Tilting his head slightly, Krycek spotted a pair of golden eyes peering at them curiously. A paw slowly lifted, then batted at Mulder's hair. "Stop that, Zorro."

"Zorro?" Mulder snorted and slid to his side, rolling onto his back. The cat scampered away to sit and observe them from a safer distance.

A minute passed and then another. There was just the sound of their breathing.

The loss of Mulder's warm weight sent a sliver of apprehension running through him. Would Mulder regret what happened between them now that rational thought was returning? He glanced over and saw that Mulder was staring at the ceiling, suddenly very still, his kiss-swollen lips drawing into a tight line, a frown forming over his face.

His euphoria faded. His stomach clenched. Oh god, oh god. It was like a sudden drop off a cliff.

He wanted to crawl away. He didn't want to see the embarrassment, the loathing in Mulder's eyes. He started to roll away, to get up and just get out, quickly, go somewhere, anywhere.

"Don't!" Mulder's arm clamped over his waist, pulling him back. "Stay."

Krycek drew in a shaky breath and hesitantly looked into Mulder's eyes.

Mulder's eyes were soft, shining with something very much like affection. "Look, I guess I zoned out for a minute. Sorry. I... it was just sinking in that my life has up and changed on me... just like that." To Krycek's amazement, Mulder ducked his head and snuffled against his shoulder, his next words almost muffled. "Can't promise to make much sense right now. This... the way it felt... it's a challenge to be coherent." He paused, raised his head to give Krycek a Puckish grin, his eyes darting to the rug around them. "See, I'm floored."

Krycek's eyes rounded at the pun, his stomach flip-flopping at the sweet smile on Mulder's face. It took him a minute to find his voice again. "Maybe... maybe we should get up then." God, was that the best he could come up with?

Nodding, Mulder sat up, grimacing as he glanced at his crotch and then at Krycek's. "Good idea." As he stood, he held out his hand to Krycek.

Still trying to process Mulder's responses as well as his own, he stared uncertainly at his outstretched arm.

"C'mon, before the semen dries."

Blinking at that, Krycek took hold of Mulder's hand and let himself be pulled up. He looked at the large dark stain on his beige jeans and the matching one on Mulder's.

"Can I take a quick shower?"

His stomach did another little flip flop at Mulder's shy expression. He nodded. "Sure, um, okay. "I have some sweats you can borrow," he offered. "I-I'll show you to the guest bathroom." He led them towards the stairs.

"Zorro, huh?" asked Mulder as they the cat shot by them and trotted up the stairs.

"He showed up on my front step a few months after I moved in here. He wouldn't leave. I tried to put him outside, see if he'd go back to wherever he came from. He started scratching and scratching at the door. Finally, I couldn't take it. I let him back in. He'd scratched right through the paint, the wood. The marks looked like an angled 'Z'."

"Ah," replied Mulder sagely.

When they reached the upstairs hallway, Krycek directed him to the bathroom next to the second bedroom. "I'll get the sweats for you while you shower."

Mulder paused, chewing on his lush lower lip. "You wanna join me?"

Krycek's cock twitched at images of Mulder naked under a hot spray of water, droplets sliding down long, lean muscles and smooth skin. "Uh... uh... "

Mulder met his lust-glazed eyes and nodded slowly with a sad exhale. "Yeah, okay, you're right. We should talk first."

"Uh."

"I'll just be a few minutes." Head lowered, Mulder shuffled into the bathroom.

You dumb bastard. Krycek wasn't sure whether the thought was aimed at Mulder or himself. His cock gave another twitch and he decided the thought was definitely for himself. Have you forgotten how to talk, you idiot!? One word: yes. YES. Three fucking letters, one syllable, you dumb bastard. Sighing, head hanging lower than Mulder's, he went into his own bedroom, dug out his favorite set of soft navy blue sweats and some white boxer briefs, and went back into the guest bathroom, relieved that Mulder hadn't bothered to close the door, let alone lock it. He gazed wistfully at the swaying shadow behind the steamy, opaque shower door, listened to the off-key humming, then placed the folded clothes on the side of the vanity and left before temptation got the better of him.

By the time he was in his own shower a few minutes later, with the cool water helpfully pounding his libido into submission, he realized that Mulder was right. They really should talk first. At least to lay some ground rules for whatever the hell was going on between them. What would it be? One more quickie, this time without clothing and then a 'this never happened'? Mindless hot sex for the rest of the day and then bye-bye? Bi-coastal fucking visitation rights if either of them should feel so inclined? Some combination or variation thereof? Disconcertingly, all the options only left Krycek feeling glum.

He finished his chilly shower with alarming speed and dressed in his oldest, faded blue jeans with the knees and crotch almost worn to a chalky-white, and a dove gray cotton Henley. Pulling on sweat socks and his old, laceless Adidas, he practically ran to the other bathroom.

Mulder was tying his running shoes as Krycek came to a stop at the open door. He gave Mulder a brief smile. He's wearing my underwear, he thought inanely, wanting nothing more than to divest Mulder of all his clothing immediately.

Hazel eyes traveled studiously up and down his body. Mulder cleared his throat as if something was caught in it. "Those jeans l-look mighty... c-c-comfy."

Krycek wondered at the stutter, shrugging his shoulders, too entranced by the long tendrils of damp, brown hair over Mulder's forehead and the pink tint to his kiss-swollen lips. His own lips still felt tender, too. "Um." Damn, was he going to be permanently inarticulate in Mulder's presence? Mentally shaking himself, he struggled for the clarity he had in that chilly shower as he stared into those warm hazel eyes. "Um, I can throw your clothes in the washer with mine... if you like."

"Thanks," replied Mulder with a smile. He turned and gathered his jeans, shirt and black jockeys and followed Krycek the few feet to the laundry closet.

As Mulder stuffed his clothes in the Maytag and Krycek added the detergent, it occurred to him that what they were doing was as outrageous as any of Mulder's old X-Files. They were, after all, triumphant survivors of an apocalyptic, worldwide Conspiracy that had had the very fate of humankind in the balance. They'd survived near-death situations countless times. Hell, they'd survived death. And now? They were doing laundry.

As the washer began to whir, Mulder gave him a wide grin as if he'd had the same thought. "Yeah, this is even stranger than making out with our clothes on. Of course, we could regard it as a continuum, of sorts."

"Uh, um."

"You know, you're starting to say that a lot."

Krycek turned and headed for the stairs. He wasn't sure where he was going exactly, but he was pretty sure a little distance between them was a good idea.

Unfortunately, Mulder trotted up right behind him. "Do you mind if I have a cup of coffee? Maybe something to eat?"

"There's a pot of fresh coffee in the kitchen. As for food, all I've got is lasagna. I haven't had a chance to pick up any groceries since I got back."

"Is that Mrs. Traverso's lasagna? Is it good?"

"The best."

So, they wound up sitting at the kitchen table, watching each other as Mulder gobbled up the rest of the lasagna and they both drank coffee.

"You're right. This is the best lasagna I've ever tasted."

Krycek's eyes were fixed on the splash of tomato and mozzarella on the corner of Mulder's mouth. He handed Mulder a paper napkin he had left over from some takeout order. "Sauce on your mouth," he said and watched as Mulder slowly dabbed at his lips. Krycek envied the napkin.

They sat back and finished their coffee in silence, observing each other with a mixture of awkwardness and desire. If they 'had to talk,' Krycek was determined to let Mulder initiate it. It took a while. Finally, Mulder cleared his throat and leaned forward, elbows propped on the table.

"I had an X-File some years ago, a guy who could change his appearance," he began, pausing to let out a sigh.

"A Shapeshifter?" prompted Krycek.

"Well, no, definitely one of a kind. His name was Eddie Van Blundht. He'd had sex with all these women by changing his appearance to look like their husbands or boyfriends. Impregnated quite a few of them."

Krycek raised an eyebrow. "Couldn't get a woman as himself?"

"He didn't seem to think so. Anyway, after we caught him and had him incarcerated, he asked to see me. He told me he was a born loser, but he thought it was funny because I was a loser by choice."

"You're not a loser, Mulder," Krycek replied without hesitation.

Mulder smiled softly at him. "That's what Scully told me, too. But I still got the feeling that ol' Eddie was a lot better at being me with Scully than I ever was."

Confused, Krycek leaned forward, too. "This guy pretended to be you?"

Mulder nodded. "Yeah, he, Scully and a bottle of red wine spent an evening together. By the time I got to her place, the wine was gone and he was about to put a liplock on her."

Mulder shrugged at the bemused expression on Krycek's face. "After that, I started to think about why I never really considered a, well, romantic relationship with Scully. Sure, it was against Bureau regs and all that, but as just a man and a woman who care about each other and who are constantly in each other's company... hell, the first thing Eddie Van Blundht did was put the moves on her. I mean, it's sort of natural. She's a beautiful woman, after all."

Krycek's jaw tightened as he felt a pinch of an old jealousy he knew he had no right to feel.

Mulder ran his hand through his still-damp hair. "I think I convinced myself that I was supposed to be attracted to her that way, almost as if I... owed it to her. So much for the benefits of a doctorate in Psychology." He picked up his coffee cup and took a long swallow.

Not knowing quite what to say to that, Krycek turned to look out the window. The fog was slowly obscuring the powder blue sky. It was going to be a cold night.

"Scully told me I had issues concerning you and I had better work them out."

Krycek's gaze snapped back to Mulder. "What?" He felt like he'd missed something somewhere even as Mulder's statement seemed to echo Skinner's words to him earlier.

"During our Happy Ever After that Went Thud period, as I now like to call it, when Scully and Will and I tried to live together; she said I'd say your name in my sleep."

"Yeah, well, I'm sure I featured prominently in your nightmares, Mulder. It couldn't have been that big a surprise to her. You must've pissed her off with all the screaming."

But Mulder was shaking his head. "She said I'd call out 'Alex,' not 'Krycek'. And what pissed her off was that I wasn't screaming in terror; I was moaning, growling. Erotic dreams, not nightmares." Mulder gave him a tight smile, head tilted at an angle, brows lifting.

"Uh." Damn. Krycek fought for coherence. "W-were you really dreaming about, uh, do you remember dreaming?" His voice trailed off at Mulder's nod.

"Oh, yeah, I remember. Some real doozies. And I was even more pissed off about them than Scully. I didn't want to feel that way about you. I refused to even consider the possibility. It wasn't about sexuality; I've always been... flexible. No, it was about you and everything that happened between us. It took nearly three more years before I finally realized I had to face you and find the truth." Mulder paused, smiling wryly at his familiar turn of phrase. "Frankly, I expected, I hoped, that my first impulse would be to punch your lights out."

Krycek gave him a solemn look. "I've finally gone beyond the 'let Mulder beat the hell out of me' stage, so it's a lucky thing for you that you didn't."

Slouching back against his seat, Mulder seemed to consider that for a moment as he wiped a hand over his mouth. "I certainly didn't expect to jump your bones like that. And I wasn't expecting as... enthusiastic a reception either."

Again unsure if Mulder was regretting it or not, Krycek drew back his chair and got up. He took his mug to the sink. Unaware that he was gripping the rim with his hand, he kept his back turned and fought to keep his voice coolly indifferent. "What's the problem, Mulder? So, we had a little hot monkey sex. No big deal."

He nearly jumped when he felt Mulder's hand cover his own. Damn, he was really losing it; he hadn't even heard him.

Mulder slowly pried his fingers off the sink rim and turned him around. Without a word, he leaned forward and kissed Krycek on the mouth, a methodically sensual kiss that was exquisitely drawn out as Mulder wrapped his arms around him and held him close.

The sensible voice of caution and self-preservation in the back of Krycek's brain was firmly muzzled by the irresistible taste of Mulder's lips. The only thing he could do was kiss him back.

When they finally pulled away a little, Krycek kept his eyes shut, savoring the warmth lingering on his lips and the comforting pressure of Mulder's arms around his waist.

"You're still a liar."

Krycek's eyes opened wide. But Mulder was smiling. "Yeah, a liar. I'd say this is as big a deal for you as it is for me."

"For... you?" The words were barely a whisper on Krycek's lips.

"Yeah, and though I can certainly appreciate the pleasures of hot monkey sex as much as the next man, it's not that simple between you and me. Hell, nothing has ever been simple between you and me."

"That's because we're both fucked up."

"A cogent and concise observation, but I would venture to say, not as applicable as it once was."

Unable to resist Mulder's smart-ass smirk, Krycek grinned back. "Okay, so what do you... what are we... gonna do about it?"

Mulder seemed to ponder the question, teeth scraping distractingly over his lower lip. "Whenever we crossed paths, it's always been like a hit and run accident. Hit and run. Figuratively and... literally." With the last word, Mulder dropped his gaze, a guilty flush coloring his face.

Krycek felt a little dazed by the remorse in Mulder's voice. Without realizing it, he lifted his right hand and stroked Mulder's shoulder in a tentative, soothing gesture.

Glancing first at Krycek's hand, Mulder looked up and met his eyes. "I think we need to finally stop and see if we can pick up the pieces. Maybe put them back together again into something for... both of us."

Despite the cynical voice in the back of his mind that insisted he couldn't possibly be having this conversation with Mulder, Krycek threw off his caution and replied, "We'd need time together."

Mulder's arms tightened around his waist for a moment. "I don't have any pressing engagements at the moment. How about you? No... personal commitments?"

Inching back slightly, Krycek angled his head in surprise at the anxious expression on Mulder's face. "No, no personal commitments. And it's the slow season for P.I. work." Then he grinned. "Not that I would take any job, at the moment."

They stepped apart reluctantly. "Okay, good," returned Mulder with a sigh of relief. He made a show of gazing about the room. "I guess I better see about finding a hotel or motel." He gave Krycek a pathetically pleading look. "Unless... " he let the rest hang.

"Oh, very subtle. There's the guest room upstairs. Stay here," answered Krycek, not bothering with any further pretense.

"What an excellent suggestion. Thanks. Well, I think I'll get my bag out of the rental and bring it in. We can relax and... talk. Find out more about each other. Discuss the tabloid news of the day. International Politics. The Super Bowl odds. Philosophy. Favorite Sesame Street characters."

But neither man moved. Their breathing seemed louder in the room. Krycek managed to remain still for five more seconds before he grabbed Mulder around the neck and pulled him forward for a devouring, open-mouthed kiss. Five seconds after that, they were frantically rubbing together, lips playing over each other's faces, necks, hands stroking every bit of flesh they could touch.

With his last shred of willpower, Krycek drew far enough away to moan into Mulder's neck. "Bed... this... time. Naked. Want you... "

"Naked," finished Mulder with a growl, his teeth scraping over Krycek's small earlobe.

Thirty minutes later, they were sprawled out over Krycek's brass bed, nude and sticky.

"So much for discussing the tabloid news of the day," announced Mulder with a goofy, sated smile.

"At least we didn't come in our clothes again," replied Krycek, drowsy with satisfaction.

Chuckling, Mulder ran his hand down Krycek's chest, stopping to rub slow circles over his stomach. Krycek hummed as Mulder's fingers dipped lower to caress his happily gratified cock. Slowly, Mulder's touch traveled upward again, over his bellybutton, his ribs, his left nipple, a fingertip playing over the bud until it stiffened. The day still seemed like a dream, a crazy, out-of-left-field, strictly-Over-the-Rainbow dream.

Krycek held his breath as Mulder's fingers moved towards his shoulder and what remained of his severed arm. He remembered his brief moment of fear as he'd thrown off his shirt and then removed his arm. He'd done it without thinking; he'd been incapable of thinking. He just wanted to be as close to Mulder as possible, didn't want the artificial arm to be between them. A sudden, horrible fear had gripped him then, but it faded into the air when Mulder dipped his head, his lips brushing tenderly over the scarring. And then the haze of lust had wrapped tightly around them both.

But now, in the aftermath of sex, in the sharp light of day, as Mulder's palm closed over his stump, Krycek became acutely aware of the ugliness of it.

"I'm sorry it happened, Alex."

Alex. Krycek swallowed at the name. Mulder's voice was as gentle as the touch on his truncated arm.

"I mean it, you know. Even when I thought we could never be anything but enemies, I never would have wished for that to happen to you."

Krycek felt Mulder's mouth on his scars in a soothing kiss. His own throat tightened and he swallowed hard. He felt some of the pain he'd carried for years, far worse than any phantom aches, finally easing. He drew a shuddering breath, blinking away a sudden blurriness, and watched as Mulder raised his head.

"Why didn't you ask one of the Alien Healers to try and give you back your arm?" There was no pity in Mulder's voice, only curiosity.

Krycek thought back to those turbulent days. "There was too much happening and before I could contact him, Jeremiah Smith was killed along with his Resistance unit. I didn't trust any of the other Healers. After that, there was no more time. The Aliens were either gone or dead. But I've made my peace with it. Hey, I'm still alive and," he couldn't help smiling as he continued, "things are looking up."

A slow, answering smile grew over Mulder's face, his eyes dancing with recollection. "Yeah. Yeah, finally, I think they are."

By the time they made their way downstairs again, the fog was thicker, the sky grayer. Krycek knew he had to get some groceries in. "Do you want me to get you anything?" he asked, even as a part of him was quietly astonished that he and Mulder were behaving like two ordinary people. Like friends.

"I've been known to live on cold pizza for weeks at a time. I'm easy," replied Mulder with a wink.

"One of your better qualities," smirked Krycek as he threw on his jacket. It was then that he spotted the brown envelope on the sofa, the one that Mulder had brought with him. He walked over and picked it up. It was thick. He held it up. "What's this?"

Mulder raked his lower lip with his teeth like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. "Oh. That. The Gunmen gave me it to me. Actually, it's yours. They said you left it behind with some clothes in a duffle bag when you left their hideout that last time." He scratched at a sideburn. "All of you were pretty damn active for dead people."

Krycek winced. "The Rebels contacted me and I had to leave in a hurry. I got word from Byers that they had to abandon their place a couple of weeks later. Never did get together with them after that. Uh, how are they doing?"

"They miss being dead. They said it was a lot more exciting." Mulder's eyes softened. "It's okay, Alex. I do understand what you all had to do. It may have taken several years, but it's finally sunk in. I just enjoy being bitchy about it now and again."

Relieved, Krycek opened the unsealed envelope and pulled out a handful of money. U.S. hundred dollar bills and Russian rubles. And, at the bottom, a dog-eared photo he'd carried those last few years before the war ended. His breath hitched as he tossed the envelope and money on the sofa, his fingers trembling slightly as he looked down at the photo.

"Was that a surveillance shot?" asked Mulder.

It took him a moment to answer. "Yes," he replied softly.

"Why did you keep it?"

Why? There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of surveillance shots of Mulder taken over the years. Krycek had seen most of them. He'd taken a good chunk of them. He wasn't sure why he'd kept the one he held in his hand. It wasn't even a very good picture. Black and white and a little blurry, it was a close-up of Mulder standing at his apartment window, looking down at the street through a rain-dappled window. His hair was mussed, as if he'd been running his hands through it. But it was his expression. Unguarded, it was the face of a man who had lost too much, a man haunted by the shadows in his eyes.

Krycek felt a strange little tug in his chest every time he looked at it. Part of it was regret at his own role in the grand deception that, by necessity, had created even more pain and loneliness for Mulder. But more than that, it was a sense of connection; Krycek understood loss and he understood loneliness. The look in Mulder's eyes was much like the one he saw in the mirror almost every day of his adult life.

His gaze still on the photo, Krycek shrugged his shoulders. He wasn't sure he could explain. He wasn't sure he wanted to.

Mulder walked towards the sofa, stopping beside Krycek, their shoulders not quite touching. He stared at the photo in Krycek's hand and shook his head slowly. "That doesn't look like one of my better days," he quipped.

Then Mulder turned and looked at him, and as their eyes met, Krycek realized he didn't have to explain anything. "I don't feel like that anymore, Alex. I haven't felt like that in years now. And I don't want you to feel like that anymore either." Mulder reached over and plucked the photo from his fingers and let it flutter to the carpet.

Krycek's reply was a near whisper. "Some of it never goes away. It just becomes a part of you." For a moment, he saw all the faces of the dead rising from his memories, flickering behind his eyes like a grim, silent movie.

And then he felt Mulder's hands cupping the back of his neck, drawing him forward. The images faded as their mouths touched.

"Go on and get those groceries, and then I can find out if you're as lousy a cook as I am," chided Mulder when they finally pulled away.

"No one's that lousy," returned Krycek in kind, struggling to keep his voice steady as he threw his arm around Mulder and stole another quick kiss before he turned to go.

By the time he was on his way back home from the supermarket, it was already getting dark. The sky was overcast, no stars to be seen. As he approached his driveway, he looked across the street, the cynical part of him genuinely surprised to see Mulder's rental still parked there. Lydia's house was already ablaze with holiday lights.

Back in his garage, Krycek sat staring at the steering wheel. He almost felt like pinching himself. Mulder's Taurus was still across the street. That meant that Mulder was still upstairs. Despite the incredible day of being with Mulder, despite what Mulder had said to him... done to him, he still couldn't quite believe it all. Blowing out a breath, he decided to simply enjoy it while it lasted.

He was pulling out one of the three large bags of groceries when he heard Mulder's footsteps on the stairs. "Hey, are you lost down here?"

Drinking in the sight of Mulder still dressed in his sweats, walking towards him, Krycek jerked his head towards the other bags. "Can you get those for me?"

"Aha, I see, just waiting for me to do the heavy lifting," grumbled Mulder good-naturedly as he grabbed the other two bags and headed back upstairs. "Damn, did you leave any food in the store?"

"Unlike you, Mulder, I stock my kitchen with more than a sack of sunflower seeds and a six pack," returned Krycek as he followed up the steps, his eyes fixed on Mulder's pleasingly firm ass.

After everything was put away, he fixed them a simple dinner of steaks, salad, and butter-drenched garlic bread. He opened his best bottle of cabernet and they opted to eat in the kitchen table by the window, the rolling hills of the city spread before them. Sprinkled over the landscape, holiday lights seemed like splotches of iridescent color and street lamps were fuzzy golden halos through the thin, shifting layer of fog that draped the hills.

They talked of inconsequential things, shared opinions, likes and dislikes, getting a new sense of each other, both men feeling a little insecure at the sheer prosaicness of the situation. They cleaned up the dishes together, deciding to finish the remainder of the wine in the living room before the fireplace where Zorro had already splayed out contentedly on the warm white bricks.

Krycek picked up Mulder's photo from where it lay on the rug and placed it carefully on the coffee table.

"You don't need that anymore, you know. You've got the genuine article right here," Mulder told him as they settled together against the plump cushions.

Krycek stared at the photo with a brief smile. "For sentimental reasons."

"A remembrance of things past," returned Mulder.

Krycek snorted at the literary pun. He wasn't going to tell Mulder that he wanted to keep it because he didn't believe Mulder would really be staying. Instead, he started talking about his detective work, not wanting to dampen their easy mood. "I get contacted by my share of wackos, too," he said, after describing some of his cases.

"Wackos?"

"Yeah, like this guy who's called me a few times, wanting me to find a ghost. His son was just sent to San Quentin for manslaughter and he says the ghost can prove that he's innocent." Krycek rolled his eyes and took a sip of his wine. "Must be something in the air around here, because I swear I get more than my quota of bizarro calls." He chuckled, shaking his head, until he saw the thoughtful frown on Mulder's face.

"Did the guy say that the ghost was the killer?"

It was Krycek's turn to frown. "Mulderrr," he intoned.

"I'm just curious," replied Mulder with a shrug. "Really, did he say anything else?"

Krycek thought back. "Mmm, I think he said the ghost was a witness, some crazy line about the ghost hitchhiking, getting a lift from his son and being there when the homicide took place. It's crazy, Mulder."

"Instances of hitchhiking ghosts are well-documented, you know."

Krycek's took a healthy swallow of his wine.

"Hey, I thought you were open to paranormal phenomena, extreme possibilities. C'mon, after all we've gone through?"

"I-I am, it's just that, hell... hitchhiking ghosts?"

"Did you question him about it, get the details?"

"For god's sake, Mulder-"

"Well, maybe I can talk to him. Tell him I'm working with you and see if there's anything to his story. You know, apply my keen intellect and vast knowledge of non-corporeal entities. Did you get his number?"

Krycek just stared at him. Mulder stared back.

The hazel eyes were vibrant, shining with excitement. Practically twinkling. Then Mulder's lopsided grin made an appearance.

Krycek melted. "Okay. I think I still have one of his calls in my voicemail. I'll hunt up the number for you tomorrow. Just, if you call, don't make any promises. He could be a nut, you know. I've built a good rep as a P.I. and I'd like to keep it."

"Leave it to ol' Spooky," replied Mulder, tapping his temple with a fingertip.

With a shake of his head, Krycek topped off their glasses with the last of the wine and slumped back against the cushions, leaning against Mulder's shoulder, their thighs pressing together. He watched as Mulder gazed into the fireplace, admiring the way the firelight cast a glow over his features. "Do you miss the X-Files, Mulder?" he asked after several minutes of easy silence.

"Yeah, I miss it sometimes," admitted Mulder. He sipped at the wine and set his glass on the coffee table. Half-turning, he rubbed a palm over Krycek's thigh. "The X-Files were my whole life for a long time. The aliens are gone and the Conspiracy is finished, but there are still plenty of mysteries, spooky mysteries, left in this world. They still fascinate me. Always will." He was quiet for a moment. "But I can't work for the Bureau any more. Too much water under, over and around that old, crumbling bridge." He dipped his head and kissed Krycek on the mouth. "Besides, I'm beginning to appreciate what Scully meant when she told me there's more to life than the basement of the Hoover and an endless stack of files."

Headier from the touch of Mulder's lips and his massaging fingers than from the wine, Krycek broke away for a moment to put his own glass down.

"Isn't it time for bed?" asked Mulder.

Krycek looked back over his shoulder, wrestling with a grin. "It's not even 9 yet."

"Huh. Well, you know that time-honored saying, 'early to bed, early to rise, makes a man... yadda, yadda. And, let me point out, there's nothing in that cliché that specifically mentions sleeping."

Krycek sputtered with laughter.

"Do I have to stay in your guest room?" continued Mulder.

"Do you want to?"

"Hell, no."

Without another word, and with their eyes on each other, they got up and walked towards the stairs.

T

he next day, they both slept right through a glorious sunrise and half the morning. When he finally opened his eyes, Krycek realized in amazement that he was waking to a secret fantasy come true. He was in his own home with no need to run, hide, or pretend. The late morning sun was streaming in through the open shutter slats on his windows, spilling over in bands of warm sunlight across his big brass bed. The sheets were tumbled around him, and beside him, gently snoring, distinctive nose snuffling against his neck, a long leg thrown over his thighs and an arm wrapped around his chest, was the consuming paradox and passion of his life. Mulder.

He ran his tongue slowly over his upper lip, remembering the feel and heat of Mulder's cock thrusting into his mouth. Even more amazing was the memory of Mulder's sensuous lips sucking his cock, taking it deep into his throat, teeth gently scraping, mouth coaxing, teasing, then demanding, until all he could do was cry out from the overwhelming pleasure of it.

He thought he could still taste Mulder in the back of his throat, like a hint of bittersweet cream. Their musk lingered in the air, in the sheets. His eyes drifted shut as he breathed in the scent.

The bed dipped slightly. "Mrroww."

His eyes popped open.

"Mrrowww." Zorro stared back at him from the foot of the bed. "Mrrroowww!"

Krycek winced, waving his hand towards his obstinate cat, hoping to scoot him off before Mulder woke up. But Mulder was already shifting beside him, warm genitals brushing against Krycek's thigh as he pushed himself up and away to lie back against the pillows.

"Zorro, you little bastard," grumbled Krycek as the cat padded confidently down the middle of the bed to step onto Krycek's stomach and sit like a potentate on his throne.

"Mrroww."

Since he never won a staring contest with Zorro, he didn't bother to try. He turned instead to look at Mulder. "Sorry he woke you. I don't shut the door because the little bastard would've carved 'Z's into the wood all night."

Mulder gave him a sappy, still half-asleep smile. "What does a cat that lives near the beach have in common with Christmas?"

"Uh. I don't know."

"Sandy Claws."

Krycek groaned. "Damn, that's awful."

Mulder leaned over and kissed him on the nose. "Hey, that's a classic. And, by the way, good morning, Alex." He nodded towards the cat. "Morning to you, too, Big Z."

Seemingly accepting his new nickname, the cat allowed Mulder to reach over and give him a luxurious scratch under his chin before jumping off the bed and scampering out of the room with one final "Mrroww".

"Ah, alone at last," quipped Mulder as he suddenly rolled over on top of Krycek, giving him a consuming, wet kiss that left him gasping.

Krycek felt... open. His careful walls and defenses were falling apart and, shockingly, he didn't seem to care. For him, this was paradise. "Want to fuck me?" he asked in a husky whisper.

Mulder seemed to freeze above him and the deer-in-the-headlights expression on his face almost made Krycek laugh. He might have been a little worried had it not been for the excited pulse of Mulder's cock against his groin.

"Uhhh."

"You're starting to talk like me, Mulder." Krycek raised his head slightly and ran his tongue slowly over Mulder's lush lower lip. "There's lube and condoms in the nightstand. Might not even have expired yet, but if you just keep staring at me like that, they're going to."

Mulder swallowed hard, moaning a little.

"C'mon, Mulder, fuck me. Put that big, thick cock right up my ass. Fuck me hard until all I can feel is you. Fill me up and make me fly." Krycek murmured the words like a secret, his voice low and breathy.

Mulder's erection jumped. His head dipped and his teeth fastened on the top of Krycek's shoulder, biting down just hard enough to make Krycek whimper before he let go. "Not fair, Alex," he growled.

"W-what?" Krycek's cock was making demanding little leaps of its own.

"Reciprocity."

"What the fuck-"

"Fuck being the operative word." Mulder lifted his head, hovering over him, almost nose to nose. "Not fair offering me... something like that when I'm not sure I can... return the gesture."

Krycek smiled. "I want it. For the first time in a very long time, I want it. Not doing it to barter, you asshole." He pulled Mulder's head down into a kiss. "Stop thinking so much and just do me, okay?" He emphasized the question with a bump and grind of his hips that had Mulder growling an emphatic, "Okaaaay."

Desire swept them up like a powerful storm. They didn't need foreplay. They were both so hard it was near painful. Krycek wanted to stay on his back so he could watch Mulder's face and work his own erection. Mulder used too much lube. Krycek laughed, his hips propped up on a pillow, legs spread wide, his hole, his crack, and part of his butt smeared and glistening. Mulder cursed, making Krycek laugh even louder. The condom package slipped out of Mulder's slick fingers twice before he managed it.

For all Mulder's hurry, he entered Krycek with excessive care. Slowly, inch by inch, with much more control than Krycek could have thought possible. He tried to push himself up, take more of Mulder's cock, but Mulder held him in an iron grip.

"Push it in, Mulder... c'mon, damnit, faster!"

Sweat sheened their bodies as Mulder just grunted and took his own sweet time, drawing out the exquisite torture for them both. Their breathing grew more labored, their bodies rocking together, their eyes locked.

God, it felt so good. Every time with Mulder was more mind-blowing than the last until Krycek couldn't imagine anything better. He'd expected a quick, hard fuck. Mulder was giving him so much more. He didn't want to put a name to it. Didn't dare.

As his body moved in time with Mulder's quickening rhythm, as he felt every thrust like exploding stars, words fought to escape. Dangerous and frightening words that would reveal the core of his feelings. When his body took flight and climax began to shake him, his lips almost let the words escape between heaving breaths. He had to bite down hard to stop them. He couldn't, wouldn't, dump that unwanted burden on Mulder. It was his last coherent thought as the pleasure ripped through him and he heard Mulder scream his name.

When he blinked back to awareness it was to the touch of a warm washcloth stroking over his genitals and his belly, cleaning away the trails of semen. He shifted to his side, a little soreness making itself known. He wasn't used to be taken any more.

"How do you feel?" asked Mulder solicitously, running the washcloth lightly between his asscheeks before tossing it onto the rug.

Krycek considered the question for several heartbeats. "I feel... great." And it was true.

Mulder gave him a frown, hazel eyes fixed on his lips. "You're bleeding."

He swiped the tiny drops of blood away with his tongue. "It's nothing. Just got carried away. How do you feel?"

A big grin broke out over Mulder's face. "I think I found the Promised Land."

Eventually, they got out of bed and took a leisurely shower. Mulder got his clothes out of the dryer but opted to wear Krycek's sweats again while Krycek threw on a pair of old black cords and a thick white sweatshirt.

By the time they went downstairs, they were both ready to raid the kitchen. "Sex does wonders for the appetite," announced Mulder as he tore into a slice of buttered toast while Krycek whipped up a couple of generous, bacon, mushroom and cheese omelets. He held out the toast to Krycek who took a healthy bite.

Once again, they sat at the kitchen table by the window. The day's morning sunshine had disappeared, replaced by the usual winter overcast. Soft silver light settled over the hills through the clouds.

"I like this view even with the fog," remarked Mulder as he sipped at a glass of orange juice between mouthfuls of omelet and toast.

"This city is beautiful from just about every angle," agreed Krycek as he stared out at the rolling landscape and the distinct outline of the skyscrapers in the distance.

"Yes, beautiful," echoed Mulder thoughtfully, but his eyes were focused on the man across the table.

When Krycek turned back to him, Mulder seemed to be blushing, his gaze suddenly focused on his almost empty plate. He wondered what Mulder was thinking. Before he could ask, the doorbell rang.

Both men looked towards the front door. "Are you expecting someone?" asked Mulder.

Krycek sighed. "No. That means it's Lidia." The bell rang again. With an apologetic shrug, Krycek got up and headed for the door.

"Alex, I came to pick up my lasagna dish," she began as she strode into the house heading for the kitchen, her head turning this way and that. "You know, I noticed that Mr. Mulder's car is still across the str... " She stopped abruptly at the archway to the kitchen where Mulder was rising from his chair.

"Mrs. Traverso, nice to see you again," he said.

Stealing himself, Krycek walked past his neighbor and quickly gathered the cleaned lasagna dish. "Here you go, Lidia," he said handing it to her. Of course, she didn't take it.

"Ah, Mr. Mulder, you're still here," she said pleasantly, as she adjusted her glasses over the bridge of her nose while her eyes inventoried his clothing. Lidia often saw Alex wearing his favorite sweats around the house. "Did you try any of my lasagna, Mr. Mulder?" she asked, ignoring the dish that Alex was holding out to her.

To his chagrin, Mulder came forward and took her hand, bowing to kiss it. "Yes, I did, Mrs. Traverso, and may I say it was the finest lasagna I have ever had the privilege to enjoy."

"My, aren't you the bambino dolce," returned Lidia with a smile. "I'm so glad that Alex shared it with you. And please, call me Lidia."

Mulder gave her a boyish grin. "Well, um, you can call me Fox."

Her smile faltering a little, Lidia stared up at him. She rolled her head a little, lips working as if she was trying to ever so politely suck a lemon. Finally, she gave him a deep sigh. "No, no, I am sorry. I cannot call you... that. It's too... " She shook her head. "No. I call you Mulder. Is that okay?"

Krycek bit down on his lip as Mulder's eyebrows shot up. After a moment of apparent stupefaction, he threw back his head and laughed. A big, beautiful, all-out laugh.

Lidia was looking carefully at both men with a little smile of her own as Mulder's laughter finally subsided with a chuckle. "Sure... Lidia. I'd be delighted if you called me Mulder."

"Good, good." Then she turned towards Alex and took her dish. "You two have had lunch I see, or perhaps a very late breakfast?"

"Alex makes a mean omelet," Mulder told her.

"You use the half and half in the eggs like I showed you, Alex?"

Krycek tried not to grimace. "Yes, Lidia, just like you showed me."

"No wonder it tasted so good," piped in Mulder with smirk.

Krycek gave him a roll of his eyes and then attempted to herd his neighbor towards the door. "Well, Lidia, thanks again for the lasagna."

"So, Mulder, I would love to make you both my cannelloni. My Enzo loved it, said no one could make it better. Ah, but like I tell Alex, I'll be going to visit my daughter and her family for the holidays. My son-in-law is picking me up today, in fact. I won't be back until the day after New Year's. Will you still be here perhaps?"

What subtlety, thought Krycek with a twist of his lips. And, Mulder, the bastard, seemed to be enjoying it immensely.

"Well, as a matter of fact, Lidia, Alex said I could stay here for... a while. Give us a chance to really get... reacquainted."

"So, he doesn't owe you money?" she asked with a pointed look in Krycek's direction.

"Huh?"

Krycek squeezed his eyes shut.

"Oh, it's nothing. A little joke that Alex was telling me. So, this means you will be here for sure when I get back?"

Waiting until Krycek finally met his yes and they shared a look, Mulder replied. "Yes."

Lidia clutched the lasagna plate to her chest. "Very good! I will make you both cannelloni when I am back." She caught sight of Zorro weaving his considerable bulk around Mulder's legs. "Zorro likes you. Isn't that nice, Alex?"

"Yeah, very nice," replied Krycek, but he was still looking at Mulder.

Lidia's gaze swept the room, her mouth puckering thoughtfully. "Yes, I know just what you need! I'll be back in a few minutes," she said with a definite smile in her voice as she headed for the door.

"Uh, Lidia, you really don't have... " Krycek began, but she was already closing the door behind her. He drew in a long-suffering breath, shaking his head as Mulder began to chuckle.

The doorbell rang about fifteen minutes later. "I want you to have this," Lidia informed him when he opened the door. She was carrying a small Christmas tree, not much taller than two feet cradled in her arms and a round tin gripped in her hands. The tree was covered with decorations: colored lights, miniature ornaments, and gold garlands. Tiny silver bells tinkled as she moved. "Oh, it's heavy, here." She thrust it into his arms. "I know just the place for it. That window seat in your living room, it would fit there perfectly." And off she went, before Krycek could even utter a word. It was an artificial fir, but very life-like all the same, set in a weighted woven basket tied with a colorful red velvet bow. The top branch tickled his nose. Bells jingling with every step, he followed her to the window, catching sight of Mulder as he tried to smother a laugh.

"Right there, where the cord will reach the outlet," instructed Lidia, pointing this way and that to get him to position it just so. She unwound the green cord and plugged it in. A rainbow of tiny lights came to life, sparkling from every little branch, casting a pretty glow over the various miniature ornaments and the crisscrossing garlands of shimmering gold beads. She reached into the pocket of her long cardigan and carefully drew out a delicate hand-painted white and gold angel which she placed on the top of the small tree. "Ah, bellissimo." Then she opened the round tin and the scent of chocolate and hazelnut wafted into the air. Nestled inside, lined in parchment paper, were at least two dozen plump chocolate balls. "Spumetti," she told him, placing the confections on his coffee table.

Krycek cleared his throat. "Lidia, ah, you really shouldn't have... "

"Nonsense," cut in his redoubtable neighbor. "I make too much spumetti. Besides, you're both too thin. As for the other, I have my big tree. This one was upstairs, no one to see it. I thought about bringing it to my daughter's, but they already have two trees." She paused, smiling smugly. "She's my daughter, after all. Anyway, you have a... friend staying with you now. You have no excuse not to have a tree."

As she spoke, Zorro had jumped up on the window seat and stopped to sit in front of the tree.

"Don't you dare," she admonished with a wagging finger. "You know this tree from my house, Zorro. You left it alone there and you'll leave it alone here, understand?"

Golden eyes stared at her solemnly before flicking to the little tree mere inches away. Pink nose twitching, the cat raised a paw fractionally and then turned away and hopped down to stroll off towards the kitchen. Krycek had the feeling that he'd be hearing a bell or two hitting the floor in the middle of the night, but kept that opinion to himself.

"He'll be a good cat, you'll see," Lidia assured him. She moved closer. "It is the holidays, even for... atheists." She whispered the last word cautiously. "A holiday tree is an object of joy and celebration and beauty, to be shared with everyone around you." Her brown eyes glanced over at Mulder who was leaning against the mantle, gazing at the twinkling lights. "Your house needs a tree now." She reached out and tapped his chest with her fingertips. "I don't think I need to introduce you to that young man at The Cheese Shop any more," she added with a warm smile.

Krycek covered her small hand with his. "Okay, I give up. You win."

"Naturally."

He laughed and brought her hand up to his mouth for a brief kiss. She cupped his cheek with her other hand. "You are a good boy, Alex. I like to hear you laughing." Once more, she glanced over at Mulder who was now looking at them both. "You be a good boy, too, Mulder," she told him sternly.

"Yes, ma'am."

Nodding she stepped back and headed for the door. "I must go now. My son-in-law will be here soon to pick me up. I'll see you both after New Year's. Remember, I'll make cannelloni for you when I get back." She surveyed the room, nodding again with satisfaction. "Buon Natale, ragazzi dolci!" she called as she closed the door behind her.

M

uch later that evening, the two men sat on the comfortable living room sofa. A big, near-empty bowl of buttered popcorn, the now half-eaten tin of spumetti, and two bottles of Samuel Adams were on the coffee table around their propped, sock-clad feet.

Mulder was telling him about his conversation with the man with the hitchhiking ghost. "There are some very interesting, and I think plausible, aspects to his story. I told him we'd contact him after Christmas. I can do a little preliminary research in the meantime."

"What?!" squeaked Krycek

"Alex, Alex, Alex, open mind, remember?" Mulder ran his thumb over the little frown line that had appeared between Krycek's eyes.

Krycek let his eyelashes flutter downward as Mulder's long fingers played lightly over his face for a moment. "Damn, it's a good thing you're such a great lay," he groused half-heartedly.

The last couple of inches of space between them on the sofa disappeared.

"You know, the midget tree really looks nice. That Lidia has bigger balls than Scully, but she's still a sweet old broad," announced Mulder as he wrapped his arms more securely around Krycek.

Krycek smiled at him indulgently, taking the opportunity to lick a path over Mulder's ear before settling into a long kiss.

When they finally pulled back a fraction, Krycek had only a passing regret that he couldn't hug Mulder back with two good arms. He decided it was a fair price to pay for the emotion that was welling up inside him, filling up his heart. No more missing pieces there, he thought.

"Mulder?"

"Yeah?" The word a breathy hum against the side of his face.

"I... I don't know if this... whatever this is between us, is going to go anywhere, or if we'll wind up at each other's throats tomorrow or the next day or a week from now." He paused, trying to find the words and finding it almost impossible.

"Look, Alex, I'm no genius when it comes to relationships." Mulder shifted for a moment to give him a gentle smirk. "It's not like either of us has much of a track record at it, right? Blind leading the blind here. All we can do is take it a day at a time. So, yeah, no guarantees. No sure things. Well, except for death, taxes, and bad politicians. And that last one's probably an oxymoron." His smirk turned into a tender smile. "Still, when it comes to... us, well, I want to believe."

After a moment, Krycek nodded, feeling Mulder's silky hair brush his temple. "Mulder, I... I just wanted you to know... Aw, hell, this'll sound so fuckin' maudlin."

"What, Alex? Tell me."

Krycek drew in a breath, took a chance and spoke with his heart. "I wanted you to know, no matter what happens, I... I've never been happier in my life, in my whole damned life, than I am right now, right here, with you."

He felt Mulder's mouth turning upward in a smile as he spoke. "Hell, that is fucking maudlin. Now who would've thought that two hip guys like us could be maudlin in the exact same way, at the exact same time. Not very cool, huh?"

Krycek felt the warmth in Mulder's voice washing over him, mingling with his own growing sliver of hope. "Hey, we'll always be cool," he said, his own voice rough and husky, his eyes closing as Mulder turned his face slightly and their lips met in another kiss.

On the window seat, the little Christmas tree twinkled brightly against the cold winter night.

THE END
 

Please click here to send Feedback to the Author
 

© These pages are copyright to their authors and may not be reproduced without permission of the author.
All rights of others in characters and names remain the property of those authors. No attempt is made to supersede or infringe upon the copyrights held by the television and film companies upon which these materials are based