by C.M. Decarnin
"In my office. Now."
Skinner hung up on him.
It must be something pretty bad.
Most likely involving a large sum of money.
The bill for the Lexus couldn't possibly have reached Skinner yet. Too bad, because Mulder could prove that absolutely wasn't his fault. No one could have predicted that the problem with the dashboard cigaret lighter would turn out to run so deep. It also wasn't his fault the Bureau never let them get the rental agency's insurance package. Though whether that package covered a car that wasn't actually being driven when it burst into flames, he wasn't sure.
It might be the dry cleaner's bill. That had to be an allowable, unavoidable expense. Besides, the dry cleaner's own insurance had agreed, that for the extent of the damage on the actual premises, they could not after all define Fox Mulder as an act of God. It was only the costs of evacuating the surrounding blocks due to release of noxious fumes that the litigation focussed on. Ballistics would show it hadn't been his bullets that plowed through the chemical pipes. But it had been hot pursuit. They were covered for that.
Mulder had become something of an expert on insurance.
The Minneapolis per diem might have bounced. Options on the travel vouchers were ridiculously limited. He hoped Accounting wasn't going to quibble about semantics. The twenty-odd pounds of fish roe and caviare were the only food items in the deli section at the Mall of America Byerly's that had kept the thing with the luminous tentacles distracted so he could hot-wire the ventilation duct its spawn lurked in. "Client Entertainment" had clearly been the category most closely describing the circumstances. They couldn't seriously expect him to put it under "Host/Hostess Gift", could they? He was prepared to argue the point in the highest comptroller's office in the land.
Mulder rolled down his sleeves and pulled his suit-jacket on. He straightened his tie in the reflective surface of the new brushed-aluminum elevator wall. They'd finally given up on getting the blood and ichor-stains out of the previous panelling.
Skinner's new temporary office was down two block-long, august, echoing hallways from the elevator, on the second floor. It was a public area with vaulted ceilings. You always felt like you were riding the tumbril to your decapitation. Except you had to walk. Conditioned response made his palms begin to sweat.
He rubbed them down his pants-hips. As he let his arms fall loose again at his sides, he felt a hand slip into his left palm.
He hadn't known anybody was --
Nobody was there.
The hand squeezed his lightly.
A thrill went all through him.
He stared to his left.
Stumbled on three consecutive strides...
He slowed his walk.
This was so scrotum-tighteningly wrong.
He was strolling the J. Edgar Hoover Building hand in hand with Krycek's ghost.
Krycek had died in this building.
A tremor of grief he had never felt before answered the memory.
When he saw Krycek fall, emotion all shut down. The double-agent had died soliciting Mulder's death. He wasn't worth thinking about and Mulder had had important things to do.
Now he could see the way Krycek's one hand wavered aiming the gun at him. Hear the ragged grief in his voice. Live the endless moments as Krycek couldn't -- couldn't -- didn't shoot him.
He had died for that inability.
Eyes so dark green they looked black had never left his own. Filled with tragic intent.
Lips opening, twisting in pain. Still he hadn't fired.
No thousand lives had yet been lost, as far as anyone knew, because Fox Mulder lived. If that was even what Krycek had meant.
He looked left yet again.
Invisible hand in his.
Krycek had never done things the way Mulder would. Had had no trust in anyone or anything. Had had a real mean streak as likely to hit the innocent as those he hated. Black to Mulder's white, white to his black. And yet he had been a wild thing to the Consortium, passionate against their accommodation even while he shot the rapids of their whirlpool politics. They had tried to kill him. No one had been able to. He left them gripping on nothing, as if still coated with that black, black oil. If all he'd wanted was survival, he should have left this game. No. He was a high-stakes player. Intent, even more than Mulder himself. As if nothing else mattered, as if he couldn't see anything else.
As soon as he did... As soon as he let something get in his way... then Skinner murdered him.
Shot down when he was not a threat, when he might be dying, simply because they all knew... he would never quit.
The hatred between him and Skinner had been vicious.
But how could Skinner know? Mulder had told no one. Not even he could see Krycek. Skinner couldn't possibly know.
So why was Krycek holding his hand here... as he marched toward his doom...
He felt a slight pressure, the hand swinging his a little.
Could the ghost see everything he did? Could the ghost know his thoughts and feelings?
Or did the ghost just have a very one-track mind?
He waited to see if the ghost would try to pull him into a niche or something and have its way with him.
They turned the corner and started down the second long hall.
No one seemed incommoded by the ghost's walking beside him. People passed close without seeming to bump into anything.
A case could be made that he was completely out of his gourd.
A lot of people, also, would be afraid if they thought something supernatural had its hand in theirs. The shade of their second-most hated enemy, particularly. Running and screaming would be a popular response.
Had he been conditioned, like a rat with a chip in its brain, in only two visits to consider the spirit of Krycek the source of all earthly bliss?
Of course not.
He would defy anyone, anywhere, to find him a better lay. But no one could claim he was the only person on earth who'd be overjoyed by proof of life after death. Lots of people would be. Overjoyed.
The hand didn't seem to drag on him at all. Yet he could feel its movements. He couldn't remember the last time he had walked along with someone, holding hands. Though he knew for certain that it hadn't been in the J. Edgar Hoover Building on his way to a meeting with Assistant Director Skinner.
Krycek hadn't tried anything yet and they were almost there.
A thrill of real horror shocked every cell to awareness.
Krycek wouldn't --
Not in Skinner's office --
They reached the door.
The ghost hadn't done anything to hurt him. It must know he could never live down an episode of hot wraith sex in front of Walter Skinner.
"I think you'd better wait out here," Mulder said out loud. Because he had no proof that the ghost could read his mind.
The hand still held his.
He had a sudden image of a Krycek with a totally anticipatory grin on his face. Aw, Mulder, live a little, he might be saying.
He wondered who was talking to who, here.
"Seriously," he said. Some people passing by glanced at him as he stood in front of the shut door like a boob, talking out loud. "I'll be right back."
He felt a sensation of fingers interlacing with his. A kindly touch, gentle, the phantom hand bonding to his.
Skinner knew exactly how long it took to walk up here.
Groaning inwardly, Mulder reached out and turned the doorknob. The door swung inward, with, in Mulder's imagination, a deep sepulchral creak.
Skinner was sitting writing at his desk. He did not look up.
Mulder stepped in and closed the door behind him.
"Sit down, Agent Mulder." Skinner was still writing, as if against a deadline. Mulder edged between two chairs and sat in the right-hand one. The fingers between his unlaced, the spirit-palm shifted against his. He kept his hand in a neutral position on the arm of the chair as Skinner finally looked up. "Agent Mulder, you didn't check in with Kim in my outer office. That's because I currently have no outer office. My secretary is housed two floors away behind a bank of dead-files ten feet high. I'm not blaming you for that Agent Mulder," Skinner said, boring into him with eyes that accused, convicted, sentenced and hung, "I'm just pointing out that it makes my job harder, on a daily and hourly basis."
"Then I get this." From a stack on his left the AD plucked up a 302 folder and dropped it on the desk toward Mulder as if it stank.
The 302. He hadn't thought of that.
"You want to investigate an anonymous tip that aliens are exerting mind control over Congress from the sub-basement of the House Office Building." Skinner's voice had gotten calmer. "With no other evidence."
"Last year's legislative session? Think about it, sir."
He saw a darkening of thought, for a moment, in Skinner's eyes. Then the AD shook himself. He said, "Agent Mulder," and bellowed, "there is no sub-basement in the House Office Building!"
"That's what they want you to think, sir! But if you look at the architectural drawings from eighteen seventy-f--"
"Mulder!" Skinner's temporary office had no windows, but the frosted glass in the door rattled. In the silence, Skinner said brittly, "You remember our discussion."
"But this is a clear and present --"
Skinner came up out of his chair and seemed to dangle over Mulder like a particularly terrifying Jack-in-the-box. Mulder jerked back, and for the first time became again aware of the hand in his. It tightened slightly on his. He felt supported.
"It's a usually reliable source, sir."
Skinner's voice took on the sound of a flamethrower. "He signs himself 'The Crusading Cog'!"
"Agent Mulder, you do realize that there is such a thing as a fruit-loop in this world, or is that extreme possibility simply beyond the scope of your limited imagination?"
That hurt. It threw him off his rhythm.
"It may surprise you to learn, Agent Mulder, that you are not going to be given unlimited authority to investigate Congress."
"You are not going to be given limited authority to investigate Congress."
"You are not going to be given authority hog-tied and with a ball-gag in its mouth to investigate Congress."
"And if I hear that you even ask what day Congress is next in session, or hail a cab to Independence Avenue, or check out a book from the Library of Congress --"
"You can't check out --"
"-- I'll have your badge so fast your head will spin like something from The Exorcist do I make myself clear?"
The hand in Mulder's held his sympathetically. He could feel little swells of encouragement up his arm.
"No ifs. No ands. No buts. The Congress of the United States is not an X-file."
Mulder was sure, looking narrowly at Skinner's mouth, that he could see him holding himself back from wanting to add another phrase to that. As who wouldn't.
Clearly Skinner was really on his side. He just didn't dare admit it. They were probably being surveilled.
Confidence rising, Mulder said, "I understand, sir."
"Let me hear a wilco, Agent."
"I won't investigate Congress."
"Good. Then we're clear."
The aliens in the sub-basement could by no stretch of semantics be defined as members of Congress.
"Turning to the subject of your hors d'oeuvre budget." Skinner sat down, reaching for the next multiply-flagged item in the pile at his left. Mulder looked at the stack, an appalled light dawning.
"Caviare, Agent Mulder. And salmon roe at twelve ninety-five an ounce."
They walked back down the hall in complete silence. Mulder engrossed in his plan for the assault on the House Office sub-basement, the ghost just holding his hand.
Surprising what a difference it made having someone hold your hand in the Assistant Director's office. He'd only heard about half of what Skinner said to him, distracted by the light pressure of the thumb across the back of his hand, the strange no-temperature of the palm turned up against his. He'd perspired more wondering if Krycek was going to try and turn him on than at anything Skinner had dredged from his checkered financial past.
But Krycek hadn't. He'd behaved like the ghost of a perfect gentleman.
Only one elevator in this bank went to his basement. The indicator showed it was on the third floor. Going up. He wondered if Krycek would try to do him in the elevator -- stop it down there in the short trip between floors, push him to the wall, kiss him into unconsciousness, as he had once heard a woman writer put it, or suck face as his fellow Fibbies would more likely say, slowly pull off all his clothes while driving him completely wild with ghost touches all over his skin and then get him down on the floor and -- and --
Or, if he would wait till they got to the office, shut the door -- lock it -- Scully was at Quantico all week, no one else was likely to come down -- he wondered suddenly if ghost ass lent itself to being fucked -- bent across his desk, taking his cock up its tight incorporeal cornhole -- he blushed, all of a sudden, really hoping Krycek couldn't read his thoughts. That had been pretty crude, with rising excitement behind it making it cruder even than it sounded. God, it would be awful if people really could read each other's minds. No one might ever fuck again.
But Krycek was a guy. He'd understand. It was hard to fantasize perfectly respectfully. Krycek kissed like a face-hugger and fucked like an angel of God, he had to have some pretty unceremonious fantasies of his own.
The elevator was at the top floor. Starting its interminable meander down the numbers.
The hand let go of him.
He started to say "No!" Caught himself as the people waiting to get to the first floor glanced.
Which way had the ghost gone? Lifelong reflex made him look, both ways down the hall, useless as it had to be. Don't go! he thought, desperately, but couldn't say.
Had he pissed the ghost off?
Or -- it hadn't occurred to him before, because he was so taken up with what the ghost might do -- had Krycek only come to literally hold his hand through the indignities of a dressing-down from Skinner? Oh... wow. That... that would have been really nice of him. Mulder swallowed. He wouldn't have admitted to anyone how the idea of someone coming from beyond the grave just to help him over an emotional rough spot made him feel. Even Scully, loyal and valiant as she was, had to pick her battles. Unless the fate of the actual world was at stake that week, she sometimes had other things on her agenda. The merely bureaucratic skirmishes, that made him feel as if he were being trampled to death by lemmings, he often faced alone. Now someone had come, though silently and without clout, to his support. Not because lives depended on it, not because it was time to stand up and be counted, not to testify to the truth.
Just for him.
He swallowed again. He hoped that was why Krycek had left without sex, and not that thoughts from his primal lizard-brain had caused offense.
With a last searching look, he turned to get on the elevator. Down a floor, the door opened, and everybody got off except him. As usual, he was the only one that was going farther.
He wondered if he should tell someone about this ghost thing. Reality check.
Who could he tell? he thought. And realized that almost everyone he knew, these days, was dead.
His entire family. So many friends. His sources. And his enemies.
The Reaper had come through, and reaped the entire grain-field of his life. Leaving Scully, who was his other self; and a few stalks standing here and there.
No wonder he was lonely.
No wonder ghosts would come and hold his hand.
Not seeing, he went down the basement hall, into his isolated office. Buried, he thought, as he glanced up at the ceiling, where people walked on the floor above.
The ghost had made him happy.
He didn't understand why. He and Krycek had hated each other. If Krycek's ghost wanted to come out to play, why pick someone he had displayed so much contempt for, someone who justly loathed him, someone he had tormented, taunted, betrayed, wounded unbearably. Mulder felt himself again kneeling by his father's bloodsoaked body, begging for forgiveness, bent over, crying. Now Krycek came to hold his hand.
He had never understood Krycek. Why he'd kept coming back. Why he'd brought Mulder his weird gifts of intel like a cat would bring you a dead songbird.
It never had made any sense.
Right up till the night he died.
Mulder had deliberately played him. Tried to hypnotize him. Called him Alex. Stared him straight in the eyes. Once he saw the dead, decided, fait-accompli expression let in the first living shadow of desire, of dread, of preference, heard the sound of the silken blade in Alex's voice tighten into pain, to protest, pleading, he'd been possessed with a need to push it, part shrink, part something very feral, will to survive bonded with will to...
To make Krycek back down. To break him. Open him, once and for all see what truth was in there.
He'd known he was playing with death, but had felt he could not lose. Loaded. Powered. Words in his mouth as if in the mouth of God.
He'd never know if he had been simply full of it. Once Skinner had blown them apart, even shot in the gut Krycek had seemed to think there was some point to playing on. Mulder's hazard unanswered, Krycek trying to turn back to whatever deadly bet he had on Skinner; trying at least to make it seem there was a virtue in pointing a gun at Mulder's face.
It wasn't worth thinking about. He'd told himself. No one could know why Krycek did anything. Not now. Not ever. If there was a creator behind all this, Mulder doubted if even He knew.
How could Krycek play with supersoldiers and survive?
How did Krycek know the things he knew?
The more Mulder had thought about it, the more inexplicable Krycek's ricochet course through it all had been.
What in the hell had been his motivation?
Mulder stood in front of his poster reading "I want to believe." It had always made him smile internally, the irony in the stout declaration. Krycek didn't believe in aliens... Krycek knew. Looking back, Krycek's passionate knowledge had been a cornerstone of Mulder's own belief. No one could know as cynically, as flatly, with as much deep access as Krycek had, and be mistaken. He always gave off that impression of knowing so much more than anyone.
What had he been, exactly?
At least as powerful in the Russian army as in America's shadow government.
And at least as scared.
Why was he thinking like this? Krycek's ghost sexed him up like a harlot, fine, no problem, now all it did was hold his hand and it plunged him into existential maelstroms. The man had been a bundle of paradoxes. Always afraid yet always daring more, always first in the fight but with loyalty toward none, knowing everything yet losing everything. Time after time. Mulder shuddered at the last two of those losses, bloody and irrevocable. A blackmailer. A liar, a traitor. A murderer. That ultimate act of cowardice his stock in trade. Murdered in his turn, and so deservedly.
Mulder sank down in his chair, covering his face with his hands. The whole thing hurt. It hurt to think about, it hurt to never understand.
The ghost he understood. He understood that there was nothing there to understand. A WYSIWYG phantasm, the only thing it wanted was to bring to Mulder happiness and joy. He didn't know how he knew, but he was sure.
But to accept such pleasure from that black unknown... They were the same, this simple ghost, and that so complex man. He felt himself push up against that solid body in Hong Kong, black leather, muscle, fear, and under everything, a... ticklishness, that he felt from the muzzle of his gun, below the diaphragm, almost an anguish like that fear of death, that thing that Alex couldn't stand, uncertainty. Sweaty, funky smell of him. His body's heat. Climbing the wall to get away from him, his face bloody, labored breath, that gasp of "Finish it!" He should have known that there in public Mulder couldn't finish him, couldn't even let his gun be seen, but he didn't, didn't know, because he knew Mulder was out of his control, of anyone's, Krycek so well knew that everyone, except himself, could be pushed beyond a point where they would snap. Mulder had known himself on a high wire, known he wouldn't fall.
Like the night he let Skinner kill Krycek.
The concentration broken when Krycek was shot.
A shock of being still alive.
A numbness of not getting his objective.
Silence in him.
He hadn't said a word. Let Skinner fire. Again.
The shot that tortured Krycek, made him scream.
Had known how it would end. The look on Skinner's face. Had let Skinner commit a murder in his name, from anger, from frustration, tiredness. He let him finish it. Let Skinner close the darkest X-file of them all, unsolved.
If he had spoken. Even moved.
Picked up the gun. Or said, "Don't shoot."
Krycek was dead and Skinner, the man whose government expected him to mind their petty pennies, was a murderer. Because he'd stood there sick of it, and shirking his responsibility. For just the moment that became eternity.
Krycek had been buried like all unclaimed criminals while Rohrer and Crane... god knew where they might be.
How had Krycek thought he could survive with them? What had he thought he could do to stop such supersoldiers? Had he been alone, by then? The last who knew where it all came from, what it was?
A single word; a single move.
He had done nothing.
Left the impossibility, the mess of it, the crap, to Skinner to decide. Because to take any more of Krycek's shit was just so goddam hard.
He had lived that fugue a thousand times since then.
If there was one thing he thought he'd never do in his life, it was to voluntarily stand by while something... terrible was done.
He breathed in deep, and sighed.
Krycek had suffered brutally before. It hadn't stopped him then, either.
He would never understand him.
He just wished the last memory of him alive was not fixed in a moment of such shame to him. He had wondered if his passivity had been from fear. There had been that instant wondering if Skinner had some secret shared with Krycek that would make shooting Mulder make some sense. He had looked at Skinner to see. But Skinner only stared, remorselessly, at Krycek. And raised his gun.
Logically, he knew it had all gone down in only seconds. But it lived in his memory as he had lived it, with ages stretched between each move, each word, and each inaction. Voids when he could have saved his enemy.
He had had to get to Scully.
Could never know what words in Krycek's mouth could be believed.
Whatever the traitor would have done in the end, Krycek had tried hard to pull the trigger.
And somewhere in the building might be supersoldiers who could come down here.
It was just easier to let him die.
And because it had been his own decision, because it had been in his control, that had been the hardest thing he had ever had to live with: that he had taken a life, let it be taken, just out of cowardice. Out of convenience.
The kind of decision Krycek couldn't make about him.
Anyone might call it justified.
But he had been there. And he knew.
He wondered if Krycek's spirit did.
Krycek had always had the deepest intel.
He smiled ironically, only a twist of his lips.
Would that mean Krycek had forgiven him?
Or called them even?
But it wasn't Krycek he needed absolution from.
That low spot in his soul would always be there. Maybe the only thing you could do with your personal-worst moments was use them to understand another person's. Know where they'd been. How much they'd want not to remember. But he already knew that perfectly, in theory, used it in his profiles all the time. So maybe this was no damn use at all.
He dropped his hands from his face.
You went back, on with your life, its dumb quotidian details. Unless you ran off to be a monk or join the Foreign Legion, and even there, he bet, the daily stuff was just as dumb. He should be grateful he lived on the part of the map labelled "Here there be dragons".
Heavily, he sat up in his chair, and let it slowly turn him toward his desk.
His computer was on.
He always turned it off --
The luminescence of the monitor called up light in answer from in him. Delight like laughter blossomed without thought at what had waited for him just to look.
Typed across his screen, a row of little ASCII hearts.
Go on to Wanted