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I wake up alone to the eye-twitching irritation of sunlight streaming through my dusty windows, and like every time I wake up - alone - it brings me back to the last time waking up mattered, when the shattering awareness of my solitude was a punch in the gut surpassing every other betrayal I've ever experienced in my life.
Of all the things he could have done, leaving me that way was the worst.
Just like every morning since then, I turn my face toward my pillow, or rather toward the object covering my pillow, bury my face in the jacket's lining and inhale - but it's been almost a month since then, and the scent of him is fading, leaving only the feel and the smell of cold, unyielding leather.
Just like every morning, I wrap my arms around the pillow and the jacket, hold on tight, and try not to give in to the tears.
Curiosity killed the cat, and it's made my life a living hell. That's all it was, really: curiosity. A cellphone, forgotten and half-hidden beneath a pile of debris, registered under a false name, with a bunch of preprogrammed numbers that couldn't be traced - and one that could. Blood next to the cellphone, and a witness reporting an unconscious man with one arm bent under him at an impossible angle and the other so badly broken that bone was protruding ... and enough time to think about what that might mean, if the witness's description of the victim was accurate. Curiosity, leading me to follow up on these slender leads, as I absorbed the unwilling realization that the thought of such an injury to him left me with no pleasure, no satisfaction at all. And finally, admitting to myself the compassion, and the vague hope that I might be able to put the past to rest, rid myself of the bitterness that had haunted me for so long.
Until the moment I saw him, so pale and so helpless, and those eyes ... oh god, the look I remembered from Before, part pain and part panic and all wide-eyed longing, reaching out for me, as tangible as a kiss ... the look I'd come to believe was just part of the act, but suddenly I knew that it was real.
It happened then, between one breath and the next, as that look in his eyes seized me and ripped years of heartache away from me in a single silent moment, leaving me startled and not a little dismayed. It took me years to get over him last time around, and the last thing I needed was to fall in love with him again.
But then he was melting into my arms, and it was as if we'd never been apart. All the years, all the pain, all the anger, all the betrayal, all gone in that one perfect moment of surrender.
That night I took him into my mouth and into my soul, and knew that no matter what happened, no matter what it took, I was never going to let go of him again.
The next morning I awoke in a nearly-empty apartment, and he was gone.
I could have learned to live with that. I could have let the abandonment harden my soul against him, this time for good, let the rage build a cold wall that he could never again breach, except for one minor detail.
The leather jacket had hung in the closet of one Agent Krycek, well-worn even then, one of his most treasured belongings. He'd kept it and worn it for all the intervening years; running scared, hiding in the shadows, living the life of a gypsy, somehow he'd managed to retain that single prized possession. Until he'd left it draped over me, as if to protect me, or keep me warm in his absence.
Now the jacket is my most prized possession. A symbol that I wasn't the only one to fall.
Except that all my searching hasn't turned up a single trace, not one clue as to where he might be, or if he's safe, or whether he's healing or hurting, and that vacancy hurts more than the anger ever did.
I can't find him, and I miss him so much.
Just like every morning, the only thing that motivates me to get up and head for work is the thought that maybe today will bring some news of him. And just like every morning, the first thing I do upon rising is to arrange the jacket carefully on a padded hanger, cloak it in a plastic protective wrap, and hide it at the very back of my closet, to keep it safe and sound. Someday soon, I hope to return the jacket to him, wrap it around him and see him slide at least one functional arm into its sleeves. The image of his smile is my lighthouse, guiding me through the fog of daily life.
Just like every morning, I shower and dress and think of him all the while, hoping that he's safe, that he's cared for, and - selfishly - that he's missing me as much as I miss him.
Scully's going to be pissed at me for ditching her again, but I had no choice. The information came to me so quickly, I had no time to think up a plausible excuse, and I couldn't bring her with me. Not for this.
If the information is correct, and this is him, Scully would want to take him into custody, and I have no idea how I'd get us out of that.
Everybody knows that I hate Krycek, that I'd do anything to see him dead. A piece of conventional wisdom I've used to my advantage. This mysterious tip hints that I'll be able to catch Krycek in the act of theft. Much as I'm grateful for the tip, it scares me no end to know that there's someone, somewhere, who wants Krycek dead badly enough to use me for the purpose. What if I'm already too late?
But all thought comes to a screeching halt as a figure extricates itself from a window and moves down the alley with speed and startling grace.
Superficially there's a resemblance, but the intuitive 'sense' of him that I always get when he's near is missing. I look more closely at the distant figure. The short dark hair is right, and so is the leather jacket and jeans, and it moves like he does, but the build is all wrong - too short, too slight, the left arm is moving too naturally, this can't be Krycek ...
I call his name anyway, because "Hey, you" just won't do, and the figure turns, and I see the face. No, not Krycek. It's the woman who lives with him, the one who calls him 'boss', his ... his ... I don't even really know what she is to him.
The one he calls Caroline.
Her eyes catch mine in fearless acknowledgement. She gives me a slow, significant glance as something glittery falls from her jacket pocket to the ground, and then she begins to run, takes off like a shot.
I don't follow her. I can't. The sight of Caroline-as-Krycek is disturbing somehow, on some basic level I can't quite define. But once she's gone, I move to the spot she's just vacated, drawn by the bright reflection of the thing on the ground.
I bend to pick it up, noting that it is some kind of pendant. A dog tag, modern-style, the type you get in shopping malls. Plain silver, carefully etched with two lines of small print ...
For a moment longer I study the artifact - then find myself smiling. The message couldn't be clearer if I were to receive an engraved invitation, which come to think of it is exactly what I hold in my hand.
As sunset fades into night, I prepare myself. As daylight has gone, so has the expensive suit, banished to the pile of dry-cleaning in the corner. With its disappearance goes the FBI's Most Unwanted. For a moment I stare at my reflection in the mirror, six feet of bare flesh, dismayed by the way muscle has gone to flab over the years despite my careful exercise routine, disturbed by the many scars I've collected. Wondering if he'll view me with the same critical eye. Then I remember the arm he's lost - am momentarily surprised that I could forget such a thing - and decide that he'll probably accept me just fine the way I am.
Assuming of course that I find him, alive and intact and willing to see me. Suddenly I'm beset by doubts. What if he doesn't want to see me again?
I try not to linger on that thought, as I dress.
I dress the way he does, in jeans and t-shirt and a pair of boots I bought because they reminded me of him. I wonder if he'll enjoy seeing me dressed this way, or if my adoption of his personal dress code will annoy him instead. I wonder if he'll be upset that I'm wearing his jacket, or if he'll like the way it looks on me. If he'll miss the things he left in the pockets - a small and very sharp switchblade, a pack of doublemint gum, a Genuine Major League Baseball commemorative long distance phone card, a crumpled and slightly-used kleenex, a slip of paper containing notes from the Cole case which he'd written and I'd amended, folded into a very small square, an unbent paperclip, a book of matches, two loose tylenol pills crumbling around the edges and covered in lint, a shopping list with three items (swiss cheese, ravioli, tampons) written on the back of a toll receipt for the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, a Bicentennial quarter, three pennies and a dime, and a very old condom still encased in its worn foil packet - all of which have been lovingly instilled in a shoebox in the locked drawer of my desk, comprising an impromptu Alex shrine.
I slide my wallet into my back pocket, my keys into the jacket pocket and my backup weapon into an ankle holster, and head out into the night with my heart pounding double-time in my chest.
I'm expecting 832 North Madison to be a house or apartment building. Instead, it's girders and assorted building materials behind a high fence. I circle the block, scoping out the situation. When I encounter a loose section of fence, I glance both ways and slip through.
Only then does it occur to me to wonder why Alex would draw me to such a place. But then, it wasn't Alex who brought me here, was it? Who is she, really? Can she truly be trusted?
I don't have much time to ponder such questions, because as I turn the corner I see a quasi-familiar silhouette lounging in the shadows. Cautiously I move forward, trying to get a closer look, and just as I step into the shadows myself, drawing near enough to confirm that it's who I think it is, she produces a gun and aims it quietly at my gut.
The first time she pulled a gun on me, I had a hard time taking it seriously - the ponytailed little-girl look made her seem harmless, despite the weapon. But the new look she's sporting - hair cut short and dyed dark to emulate his, like the leather and denim she's wearing - somehow drives home the danger. I realize that I may have made a very bad mistake. "Where's Alex?" I ask her. Then another possibility crosses my mind, more frightening than the thought of the risk I've taken. "How is he, is he all right?"
She blinks, regards me closely. "Healing," she says slowly. "He's well enough, though still not recovered to the point of resuming his work. A fact which can be inferred by my new haircut," with a flicker of distaste crossing her face. "But that's not why I brought you here."
So it was her, not him. Disappointment flares within me. "Does he want to see me?" I find myself asking.
Her eyebrows rise, and her expression reminds me almost painfully of him. "Do you want to see him?" she counters.
"That's none of your business," rolls from my lips before I've considered the wisdom of the words. Not the first time my mouth has cracked wise faster than my brain can react, and as usual I hope it's not my last.
Caroline's lips twitch slightly; otherwise, she doesn't react. Another Krycek reaction. I haven't yet decided whether it's more spooky or amusing to see echoes of him in her. "Alex is my business," she says quietly. "I've heard far too much about you to do anything but assume the worst. If you want to see him again, you'll answer my questions."
I stare at her, willing myself not to lash back with a snappy comeback. Reminding myself that this is the person who took care of Alex when he was at his worst, that she's protecting him, and trying not to be pissed off. "All right, dammit," I say, angrily, "what do you want to know?"
"For starters, your intentions toward him," Caroline says evenly - and suddenly I understand what's going on, and I have another one of those mouth-before-brain moments, and laugh before I can stop myself.
"You want to know if I'm good enough for him," I realize aloud. "I've been through this with fathers and their daughters, but never like this ..."
The annoyance on Caroline's face fades a little into humor. "All right," she says, "if you want to put it into those terms, that's fine, but I want an answer," and I notice the stress lines around her eyes, the tension in her stance, and sober up quickly.
There's really only one answer, and it's something I've only barely begun to acknowledge to myself, let alone to another person. Because of this, it takes me a couple of tries to get the words out. "I love him," I tell her finally, feeling myself flush hot, because it's a frightening thing to admit, and I really don't even know if he feels the same way.
Caroline studies me as if she can discern the truth of what I'm saying by looking into my eyes. "You love him," she repeats. "After years of beating him up, suddenly you decide you love him."
My face is burning now. "He hurt me," I say steadily, struggling not to react to the intrusion of my privacy. "He hurt me deeply, and I wanted to hurt him back. I'm not proud of that. But I never stopped loving him, no matter how hard I tried."
She nods slightly - not agreeing, just noting my statement. "You love him," she repeats again. "Enough to defend him if he should be threatened. Enough to help him escape if he should be 'brought to justice'."
"You ask all the easy questions, don't you?" I mutter. There's no way I can answer but with the truth. "Look, I don't know. I don't know what I would do if he was arrested. I ... I don't want him hurt or killed, and I think ... I think I'd do whatever it takes to prevent that. Whatever it takes." The admission scares me even more than saying that I love him. It's saying that my career, my life's work, even Scully, all mean less to me than he does. It's not a decision I've thought about, in fact it's one I've tried to avoid - but the truly frightening part is the fact that as I say the words I know that they are true.
He hasn't had to betray me, this time around. I've betrayed myself. And I still don't even know if he loves me in return.
Suddenly, I can't take not knowing any longer. "Does he ..." The embarrassment is such that I almost can't force out the words. "Does he miss me?"
She studies me for a long moment before replying. "He doesn't talk about it," she answers, "he won't say." Despair floods through me, a tall wave of he doesn't want me breaking ice-cold over my head, but before I can drown in it, she adds something more: "But I think he misses you desperately."
For some reason, the complete neutrality of her voice grabs my attention. I find myself staring at her, trying to discern the emotion behind the mask. "Jealous?" I wonder aloud.
Quick startlement breaks through the mask, too honest to be feigned. "Of what?" comes as a reflex reply, part puzzlement and part casual superiority. A moment later, understanding hits, and she laughs. "No, I'm not jealous," she says, in a tone of unshakeable assurance. "What I am is concerned. You hold far too much control over his heart, and I need to know this isn't something you'll use against him."
"Or ... ?" I say, testing.
Again her eyebrows rise - she raises the gun somewhat, in silent answer.
Well, I'd never really believed she was his girlfriend; the dynamic between them was all wrong for that. Employee? Of some sort, surely, but more than a hired hand. She's gone to the trouble of tracking me down and luring me here, apparently solely for the purpose of grilling me about my emotions and putting the fear of God into me as regards his welfare. Not a standard function of the typical Gal Friday. "I don't want to hurt him," I tell her, "I just want to see him again."
"Because you love him," she responds.
"Because I love him," I agree. Easier for me to be honest with her, now. Easier for me to not resent her, now that I know what's happening. "Because I miss him. Because I need to know he's all right." I look directly into her eyes, and I put all my energy into projecting my emotions through my gaze, so that she'll understand. "Can I see him?" I ask her, hating the feeling of begging, willing to do that and more if it'll bring me to him again. "Please?"
Caroline hesitates. Then, slowly, with a significant glance, she lowers her gun. "All right," she says quietly. "All right."
Unlike the last place, this is a suburban apartment complex with neatly manicured landscaping and minivans in the parking lots. I can't imagine Alex in a place like this. But Caroline is leading me to a ground-floor apartment, unlocking the door with her key - gesturing me to be silent with a finger to her lips - and I step into the shadows just inside the door, heart pounding, as she goes deeper into the apartment.
"Where the hell were you?" A tired, grumpy voice breaks the stillness, a voice so familiar that I feel myself tremble. "You've been gone far too long - I do worry, you know."
"Sorry about that, boss," Caroline returns smoothly, "but I found something I thought might interest you," and glances sideways at me, and obediently I step out and stand beside her.
The living room is tastefully furnished in beiges and browns and golds. There's a fire crackling in the fireplace. Alex is standing there in the midst of this civilized room, wearing a pair of dark emerald satin pajama trousers and nothing else - his skin is creamy gold in the firelight, and neither the scarred stump on his left side nor the new smaller cast encasing the right arm from wrist to elbow can diminish in any way his extraordinary beauty. Looking at him, I can barely breathe.
"Hi," I say weakly, and his expression doesn't change - he just keeps staring at me, almost blankly.
"I, um, I've been taking care of your jacket," I add, hating the way my voice quavers, the way I sound so nervous. Well, I am nervous, I'm terrified. I've had guns pointed at my head, faced things other human beings only imagine, and nothing has ever frightened me as much as the thought that this man might not love me back.
Still his face doesn't change, but he does take a slow step toward me.
"I, I took good care of it, really. I know it means a lot to you ..." I'm babbling. I can't help it. He's still moving toward me, one slow step after another, and I'm scared of what will happen when he reaches me. "I thought ... I mean, I knew you'd want it back ..." He's standing in front of me now, so close we're almost touching, and I can't stop shaking.
Alex just stands there staring at me from a couple of inches away, his face so neutral that I can't tell if he's glad to see me or angry that I'm here.
Then he moves past me, to face Caroline.
I should be disappointed, hurt, that he's brushed me aside so casually. Instead, I'm fascinated, because what follows is the most inventive use of invective I've ever heard. The gist of it seems to be that Caroline has unnecessarily endangered herself and him by seeking me out and bringing me here against his direct instruction, and this message is conveyed by a torrent of curses and scathing words that after a while begins to take on a distinctive rhythm and melody not unlike a song. In years of disobeying orders, I have never experienced nor witnessed such a tirade, and the display of anger is such that I'm really pretty glad they both seem to have forgotten I'm here.
In the face of this withering fury, Caroline simply stands there staring at Alex with the same blank-faced mask he'd used when looking at me, and when he pauses finally for breath, she speaks up: "Finished yet?" in a cool, polite tone.
Alex seems taken aback by this. "You have something to say?" he inquires nastily.
"Yes," she says, in the same tone, "yes, I do."
And the tide turns, as Caroline lashes out at Alex in return.
The song this time goes something like this:
You've been sitting around for the last twenty-seven days, staring at the walls, staring into space, looking like all you want is to cut off the goddamn cast so you can cut open your goddamn wrist and bleed out your soul for real instead of sobbing his name in your sleep, but Jesus Christ forbid that you contact him, let me contact him, do anything but hug your goddamn pillow and pine for him, too goddamn stupid and scared to be anything but stupid and scared and head over heels and miserable when you could stand a chance at being happy, but NO, that's too goddamn EASY for you, isn't it? Fucking idiot would rather fucking suffer, and I for one am fucking sick of it. There's not a whole lot I wouldn't do for you, and you goddamn know it, but the ONE thing I WILL NOT do is watch you cut out your own goddamn heart. I'm NOT going to listen to your STUPID paranoia or your STUPID fucking pride when I can GO on out and TAKE the goddamn initiative like YOU fucking taught me to when YOU don't have the sense to do it YOURSELF.
As I stand there, forgotten, amazed and astonished and reeling a little from what I've learned, Alex speaks. "Get out," he says to her, in a low dangerous rumble. "Get away from me."
I can't see his face, and Caroline's is the same bland mask it's been all along, but the way she backs away from him makes me wonder just exactly what lies in store for me once he remembers I'm here. She heads for the hall beyond the living room, moving swiftly without letting it look like she's hurrying, and Alex turns to watch her go - and as he does, he catches sight of me.
Looking at him now, I know that I've never before seen him truly angry.
"Well," he begins, eyes flashing at me, all but snarling, "now that you know how pathetic I am," and suddenly I realize that it isn't anger at all. Suddenly I can see him, enduring those twenty-seven days the way I have, clinging to the hope that tomorrow will somehow be better, miserable and lonely and terrified of being the only one enduring the miserable loneliness, just as I've been, and I know that behind the invective lies fear. All this in the moment it takes him to take a breath to finish the sentence, and suddenly I know exactly what needs to be said.
"I love you," I tell him.
His mouth hangs open, and he blinks at me.
"I love you, Alex," just in case he didn't absorb it completely the first time. "I missed you so much, and I love you."
Alex blinks at me again, and slowly closes his mouth.
Then he moves toward me, the same measured pace, halting inches away from me as before - and leans forward, slowly, silently, until his head comes to rest on my shoulder.
For a moment I'm just stunned, too much to even move my arms to embrace him. Not a word, and yet the gesture is so intimate that it says more than words can. Then the scent of him and the feel of his breath against my neck hit me like a sledgehammer. I wrap my arms around him and pull him close, and I feel his plaster-encased arm slide hesitantly around my back. Then the tension dissolves from him in a swift rush and he just melts into me, trembling a little bit, and my god, I don't think I've ever felt anything so perfect as this.
"Alex." All I can do is whisper his name, over and over, and hold him as tight as I can. "Alex," and he buries his face in my neck, and for a long time we do nothing more than hold each other and breathe.
We're lying on the couch together when Caroline pops out of what is presumably her bedroom to see what's going on. "Well?" she inquires.
Alex raises his head from where it's pillowed on my chest. "Don't you say one fucking word," he says wearily.
"Wouldn't dream of it," Caroline assures him, breezing past us to the kitchen, grinning at us as she sails past.
Settling back against me, Alex sighs, and I resume stroking his back slowly, wondering for the nth time just what those two are to each other.
But that's not important right now. What counts is the man cuddled against me, skin warm and velvet soft, hair like silk, his breathing a steady reassuring rhythm. I'm not hugging a pillow or a jacket anymore. It's him, it's really him, and I'm so happy I could burst.
The plaster cast is hard and heavy against my chest, where it rests along with the rest of his upper body. "How is it?" I ask him, touching the shoulder lightly.
"Better," Alex says. He falls silent, but there's an unfinished feel to it, as if there's more he wants to say. "Missed you too," he admits finally, in a near-whisper.
I manage to stop myself from saying I know, which I think would be exactly the wrong thing to say. "I'm glad," I tell him instead.
Alex raises his head, twisting to look at me, and in his eyes is a kind of hopeful longing that just wrenches at me - so open, so vulnerable, so beautiful, and all for me.
I move a little, and he moves a little, and for the first time in nearly a month, we kiss. Hungry, demanding yet gentle, his tongue dips into my mouth and it's like his soul is inside me. I glide my hand over silky hair and hold his head in place, even though he shows no sign of pulling away - it's magical, and I don't want it to end.
But then I feel him yawn against my mouth - he pulls back, evidently embarrassed, but I don't let him go far. "You must be tired," I say, "it's late."
"I'm all right," Alex demurs, which means that he doesn't want to let go of me - I remember that particular answer from our partnership.
"I'm not going anywhere," I reassure him, stroking his back again, thinking that this will induce him to come to bed with me and sleep.
Instead, Alex's expression becomes - suspicious? Not quite, but the vulnerability is gone. "Aren't you?" he says.
As I think about it, I realize it's a fair question. When Monday comes, I'll have a job to return to, a basement office at the Hoover where I'll be expected to pursue Justice For All. What will this mean to our relationship? What happens the first time Justice For All conflicts with whatever Alex is doing at the time?
I don't know. The only thing I do know is that I won't, can't, let anything pull us apart again.
"Alex," I tell him, "I love you. I know it took me awhile to get to the point where I could admit it, but now that I have, I'm not going to stop, or ever deny it again. I ... I may have to be away from you for periods of time ..." Until I figure out what I'm going to do next, how to juggle the Bureau and my love affair with an outlaw, and what would Scully say if she knew? Never mind. It doesn't matter now. What matters is this: "... but I'm never going to let go of you again." I don't know how I'm going to manage it, but I mean it. I've never been more serious about anything, anyone, in my life.
For the second time tonight, I realize how deep I've gone, how much my priorities have changed, and how much my life will change with them - for the third time tonight, I step into the shadows, figuratively this time, forsaking the light for a chance at something more.
The warmth in Alex's eyes takes away my slight uneasiness, and makes it all worthwhile.
"I-I love you?" he says softly, hesitancy making it a question - it doesn't matter, I know he means it, and hearing the words in any inflection is just so sweet.
I can't keep from smiling, happiness taking over my face. "I love you," I say again, because I can tell he doesn't quite believe it yet. "I love you, Alex."
"I love you," he repeats, just as quietly as before but without that querulous tone. "Mulder, I love you."
He's tired, and I'm tired too, but I just can't help it, I just have to kiss him again.
Again he yawns into the kiss, and now it's time for true confessions to yield to his well-being. "Let's go to bed," I urge him. "You can sleep in my arms."
Alex yawns again, casting a sleepy smile up at me. "Just one more minute," he says, cuddling close.
Within those sixty seconds, he's snoring lightly against my chest, fast asleep.
I make myself as comfortable as I can without disturbing him. As I'm trying to rearrange a pillow behind my back, Caroline comes out of the kitchen, sets aside the cup of cocoa she's made for herself, and helps me tug the pillow into place. Goes into the hall closet for a blanket, drapes it over us both.
As I'm tucking the blanket around Alex, Caroline's eyes meet mine, and I can see that she approves.
Her eyes never leave mine as her small hand comes to rest on Alex's head. Protective, that gesture. Caring. I see again, somewhat more subtly, the message she drilled into my head when she held a gun to my forehead, and again in that construction lot: Hurt him and you die. He matters to me.
As before, I can't bring myself to be angry or upset with the challenge, only glad that Alex has someone like that to look after him. As before, I answer her challenge with a silent promise: He matters to me, too.
Caroline nods slightly. Draws her hand away from Alex's head - and in a move that surprises me no end, touches mine for a moment with the same gentleness.
Then she departs with her cocoa, leaving me alone with Alex, turning off the light behind herself.
The fire has long since faded to ash, the last glowing ember long gone. Yet the darkness of the room is broken by a dim light. Through the curtains, the closed blinds - is it really that late? Can that be dawn's early light? Yes, it is. No wonder Alex is tired.
I'm tired too, but for somewhat different reasons.
The sofa's back keeps the faint sunlight from striking us. One more time, I am cast in shadow. It strikes me as significant, this pattern I've established, because I know that making Alex a part of my life brings the shadows in there, too.
Loving Alex will bring to me the same darkness in which he walks: the darkness of secret allegiances, hidden agendas, altering my perspective, shaping my world. Loving Alex renders my current existence as fragile as a shadow in sunshine, whose dissolution will come with the slightest shift of the light ...
I don't have a choice. I love him. It's a chance I'll have to take.
Resolute, I close my eyes, and let my fatigue drag me down into the darkness.
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