Title: Having the Time of My Afterlife
Warnings . . . well. I never did put them on my stories much before and I figure I'm an old dog (actually, I'm more of an old cat . . ) and that's a new trick so be patient with me. UST. RST. Character death. Character undeath. No MSR. No BHA. No BST. Safe for most audiences of legal age. Has some naughty language, a few risque concepts and some bad cafeteria food.
Summary: Sitting here in the morgue with a hole in his chest. He didn't want to think about what he was remembering but he did know that this was not the run of the mill shooting in Washington, DC.
. . . You dream too much
Richard Thompson - I Feel So Good I'm Going to Break Somebody's Heart Tonight
Brian Pendrell's dreams slowly filtered up from a warm, quiet dark to the nightmare cold. He remembered being that cold. It was like when-he-was-ten-and-his-bratty-little-sister-stole-his-clothes-and-no-one-came-to-get-him-more-clothes-but-his-Aunt-Grue-was-visiting-so-no-way-in-HELL-was-he-gonna-run-down-the-hall-in-his-birthday-suit,-unh-unh-no-WAY-and-Betsy-could-just-forget-about-that-so-he-snuck-out-the-window-through-the-snow-to-his-bedroom, you know, THAT kind of cold. So cold his teeth wanted to chatter but just locked up tight instead. And it had to be a dream, just HAD to, because if it was real he'd be able to open his eyes. If it was real he couldn't possibly be that cold again in his life.
Avalanche, he thought dreamily. Maybe it was an avalanche like those climbers on Mt. Ranier always got themselves stuck in. Except that he didn't climb rocks. Heck, he didn't even ski since that time when he was thirteen and they'd been living in Boulder and he and Johnny Wilcox played hooky and he broke his leg skiing on the Sudden-Death-Overtime slope. He really envied the people who could suppress traumatic memories sometimes, because he'd sure like to suppress explaining that one to his mom. So it couldn't be an avalanche. It really couldn't.
And besides, in an avalanche he'd have rocks poking into his back but whatever he was lying on was smooth and hard, not at all like rocks. Pendrell tried to shift so his poor, numb bottom could recover a little feeling, but that just creased something under his back and made it worse. As if it really could get any worse. But his mom had always said that patience was a virtue and if you wait long enough you'll get what you need. Maybe. He'd always doubted that particular piece of advice, though it had gotten him quite a bit of what he wanted now that he thought about it and his mind wandered idly off down that trail of memory to getting his first car and his degree and then another degree and then his job and didn't it just feel like he was lying on a lab table now that he thought about it?
He sighed. Not one of those pansy little sighs like guys usually make either, like they're trying not to get caught at it. No. This was a real, solid, long, drawn-out, mournful, had-to-wait-until-he-was-nineteen-for-his-car kind of sigh. The kind of sigh that blew something up off his face that he hadn't even known was lying on his face until he sighed like that and it all startled him so much that this time he COULD open his eyes and all of a sudden he was lying there in this really weird, dim, pink glowing place that reminded him of nothing so much as the way your face looked when you put a flashlight in your mouth in the dark and looked into a mirror. That kind of pink. Except there wasn't any mirror and he knew darn well he wasn't holding any flashlight. That did it. That finally, for real did it, sending this first-cup-of-hot-coffee jolt of adrenaline through him so fast that he tried to sit up and it felt like he nearly pulled every muscle in his body. For sure it pushed his face up against that rough whatever-it-was that draped him. Pendrell shuddered, and now his teeth WERE chattering and he was shivering too. So cold. But not still and leaden anymore, thank God. His hands fluttered at his sides and they ached with the cold, stung as they caught against the shroud (shroud?) that pressed in and around him and kept him from seeing or moving or ...
Calm. Darn it! His pulse stuttered in his ears and it was like it hadn't been there before but all of a sudden he felt it, thundering loud. Pawed at the stuff around him and snaked his hands up his body to get them by his face where he could push at what felt like canvas. Canvas with plastic? Jeez, where WAS he? If this was that stupid geek from fingerprints playing another practical joke he'd . . . he'd . . . He didn't know WHAT he'd do but it'd be bad and he'd do it as soon as he got out of wherever he was. There was metal in the cloth thing that was right over his face. In fact, all of a sudden he could feel it and it practically scratched his nose when he tried to push up against it again. Little metal bits like . . . a zipper. That was it! Tracing it up and it WAS a zipper, it really was, and he poked and prodded and found the top where it was pulled down just a little. He pushed his finger through and pulled and pulled and it started to unzip with those little scratchy noises that zippers make but it sounded so loud right now. Scraping across his nerves it was so loud. Ooooh, he really WAS going to murder that geek. Lock him up in the spookiest office in the FBI or hose him down with buteric acid or something rotten. One bad trick deserved another and just let him get out of whatever he was in .. .
He didn't want to think about what he was in because he thought he knew. There. There. The zipper was down past his nose and he could gulp a big breath of fresh air. So big it lifted his chest and that hurt. Holy SHIT did it hurt, pardon his French but it did! Pendrell paused, took a smaller breath and dragged again at the zipper and his hand was free, face was free and he could finally see around him to where . . .
Where he was. He knew where he was. Brian Pendrell took another deep breath even though it hurt. Even though it reeked of alcohol and decay and God almighty but he was glad they didn't use formaldehyde anymore. That would have been the last straw. A scream wanted to rip loose even without the stink of formaldehyde and he choked it back, forced it into a quivery little giggle that wasn't at all like he was feeling but it'd do. Too loud for the morgue, but not as bad as a scream.
And dammit but it was cold. Too cold for a practical joke. This was cruel cold, icy cold. Cold as death.
Don't think about it don't think about it just pull and push and pull at the zipper and make it let go by one tooth and another, by whole mouthfuls of teeth. Silly images of dentures and clattery, toy teeth that chattered when you wound them up would have been funny if his teeth weren't chattering so hard. If these teeth didn't take so long to let go and free him from the bag that wrapped him up.
One tooth at a time. Then whole rows of them. Oh please yes, and then he was free of them all, free and sitting there on an icy, sleek metal table. When he turned and dangled his legs off the side he could feel the gutters that ran the table's length. The feeling made him slightly queasy. Or would have if he hadn't already felt so horrible and cold and . . . and something hurt like the dickens on his toe! Oh, God, oh no, oh no oh please don't let it be but it was and he sat there, holding his feet out like a child and staring down the length of bare, pale, hairy, freckly legs (he'd never liked to sunbathe. Just wished he didn't have so much hair every time he had to go out without clothes) at his feet sticking out like the toes of frogs when you ate frog legs except that frogs didn't have little froggy toe tags telling you that this poor amphibian had been Ranipus somebody or other. He couldn't remember but then biology had never been as much fun as chemistry and he hated dissecting anything but the idea that someone might dissect HIM was something he hated most of all!
He shuddered and gasped and waved his feet, if for no other reason than to prove to himself, once and for all, that he, Brian Piccolo (his parents always wanted him to play football) Bedlow Pendrell was not a dead, inert, yucky body slowly trying to decompose on a slab in the morgue. He gulped and looked around. He might not be dead, and not everyone thought he was yucky, but he certainly was on a slab in the morgue. He hopped down fast just so that would be one more thing about all these terrible, horrible things that wouldn't be true. Couldn't be true. His toe stung and something ached badly deep in his chest and the floor tiles were, if anything, colder than the table but at least he wasn't on that slab anymore. No indeed.
It took him what felt like hours was all he could figure later. Hobbling around to the desks of people who cut up other people for a living. Turning on those purplish desk lights that made everyone look like extras from Dawn of the Dead (don't thing that don't go there don't even LOOK at yourself in these lights Brian!) and nervously jumping at every sound, every cockroach, everything that might be a guard wandering around. Thankfully morgues didn't seem to be high on the security risk list. Hours, or at least twenty minutes, looking for pliers and finally settling on a set of medical shears to cut that nasty, painful toe tag off his foot so that he wasn't worried his toe'd be amputated and left behind like some prop from Blue Velvet. Darn them but none of them left any clothes lying around the morgue. He was sure that the blue cast of his skin was from a lot more than just the lights, but he held on to the reassuring thought that ANYONE would be blue in that kind of cold. The family jewels were trying to hide and his fingertips still felt a little numb and maybe it was the cold that made his chest feel so funny. Achy and numb and burning all at once.
For some reason he really didn't want to look. Something in his head just kept telling him, "Brian," it said. "You don't want to look."
But when something trickle-tickled down through the fuzzy hair on his belly he just couldn't ignore it anymore. It even felt a bit warm. And somehow, that just made it worse.
But warm or not, nothing was worse than looking down in that purple-y ugly light from the cheap desk lamp and seeing a little spot about the size of his fingertip right under his left nipple. Well, the spot wasn't so bad when you really thought about it but that long, shiny trickle of reddish black stuff that just leaked and oozed and matted . .. that was bad. That was really bad.
It wouldn't go away. Neither the dull ache under his nipple, or the trickling, sticky stuff with its coppery smell. None of it was going away. He shut his eyes. Hell. No. He didn't really shut his eyes 'cause he'd never be able to tell if he'd touched IT if he did shut them because he was shivering so hard and his fingers were numb and he did NOT want to think about it but he was going to. So he didn't shut them. He squinched them up really tight and held his breath and turned his finger back like he was pointing at himself. Ooooh, but he really did NOT want to do this. Pendrell clenched his teeth so they couldn't' chatter anymore and the TOUCHED it. It felt like the hot fudge on a hot fudge sundae. Sort of viscous and slippery and sticky all at once. He was NOT going to think about what the color looked like. No he wasn't.
The bl- hot fudge was slowly dribbling down from that h- no. That dot under his nipple.
"C'mon, Bri. You're a SCIENTIST." Even whispering his voice seemed loud and hoarse. But the silence was worse. No alarms, no running feet. Nothing but him, all alone with the other - no. With the dead people. "C'mon he urged, even more quietly. "You can do this."
He could, too. No, he would. Would drag his still-tingly cold finger up through that dark red fudgy paint (yeah. That's it. It's paint) to the dot.
Touch the dot. Just like a game. Touch it and everything would be fine, score the winning point, touch it and everything would fall back into place. Get it over with, and call somebody up. Get them to bring him some clothes and start plotting revenge and go on with his life and. . .
. . . and the tip of his finger went into the dot.
He nearly blacked out. Standing there like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the hole and it didn't really hurt but it darn well didn't feel good. Pendrell sucked in a long, hard shaky breath and nearly blacked out again when it lifted his chest up but didn't lift his finger and all of a sudden his finger was right up to the first little knuckle, that knuckle right under where his fingernail ended. That had always seemed like such a short distance before, just an inch or so, but an inch or so inside his chest was just . . . just . . .wrong. Wrongwrongwrongwrong but just how deep did that hole go anyway? Holy shit oh shit oh no oh please but his finger went in to the second knuckle and his knees felt wobbly and his stomach did a slow, lazy roll when it still didn't stop. Just kept going. And going. And . . . and his thoughts were running around in circles but all of a sudden he realized that there was this kind of wet leaky feeling down his back too and he really, really, really didn't want to know how far his finger would go if he kept on pushing. Nonononono!
His stomach did that roll all over again when he pulled his finger back out and it made a little sucking sound and something felt funny inside him. He shuddered at the sort of sticky, shiny red color on his finger and couldn't wipe it off fast enough, no he couldn't! He needed -
- needed help. He needed clothes and help and he needed to wake UP right away before this nightmare got any worse. But if he was stuck in a dream then he'd better go find clothes before his third grade teacher (the one who had always looked at him funny) came in and found him naked the way she did in so many bad dreams. Pendrell shuddered again and wiped his finger off on the desk blotter very fast, pointedly not thinking about the smears left behind. When he stood up his bare bottom made a sort of squelchy, sticky noise and something wet smeared there, too. Nononono he would NOT think about it but whoever came up with this practical joke ought to go into the Guinness Book for inventive horrors except that when he had a chance he'd top them at this because they sure as HELL deserved it!
Helphelphelphelphelp he needed someone right away. Pulling open drawers of desks and wondering what he expected to find there. Wadded up note pads and old lunch bags. Somebody's high heeled shoes. He wasn't that desperate for shoes. Opening doors of cabinets and closets and somebody was whimpering and he wished he could pretend it wasn't him. Or maybe he didn't wish that after all since if anyone else had been whimpering they'd have been in one of the drawers and no indeed, he was NOT going to think about that and he was never going to walk into the morgue again in his entire LIFE even if he lived to be a million years old! "I want my microscope. I want my . . ."
Stop. Stop it. Right there. Brian Pendrell stopped cold where he was and bit his tongue to keep the next little whiny words locked up tight. He could almost hear the echo of them in the air. Blinked very fast and counted slowly, deliberately to ten. Then he counted to a hundred because no way was ten enough for a night like this. Looking around him and concentrating on the numbers. No words. No speculation. Just numbers.
Fifteen. Sixteen. Seventeen. There was a nice, ordinary door over there on the far side of the twenty-eight lab. Not a thirty-four morgue. A thirty-lab-nine. Nice and familiar. His forty-five feet didn't make a sound on the fifty linoleum. Fifty-six boy was it cold. But not fifty-nine cold enough to try on those high heeled shoes. He almost giggled at the notion as he turned the sixty-seven knob and oh, yes. Oh thank you God and he would definitely have to get up early and go to church on Sunday because there really, really were nice, clean, ordinary blue scrubs all folded up in there. Seventy-four and he pulled down the first set. Small. But the second pile was largest and while Goldilocks would have sent them back because they didn't fit just right, Brian Pendrell wasn't nearly so picky. By the time he reached a hundred he was no longer a naked ape and suddenly things felt like they might just possibly yield to reason and he might just possibly manage to get home and find out that nothing was so very different at all, and life was just like always.
It was so much easier to think when he didn't feel so naked. Well, to be honest, when he actually wasn't so naked. He'd never liked being naked even as a baby. His mother said he'd try to cover up when she wanted to play koochy koo and tickle him but that was enough of that and he would NOT let his thoughts wander off again. There was simply too much to do. Pendrell padded back over to the desks, tugging the drawstring tight on his newly borrowed scrub pants and considering who'd be best to call. Closed his eyes and the memory of a soft, oval face, warm, red hair and worried blue eyes hovered in the dark of memory. Ah, in his mind's eye Pendrell sketched pursed, coral lips and his heart warmed, spirits lifted at the recall of her leaning over him. He reached for the phone, knowing her number from memory, from a hundred times he'd dialed and hung up before it could ring, heart sinking at his own cowardly fears. She'd been worried. When and where niggled at the back of his mind even as his fingers danced over the buttons. She'd been worried for him. She'd help him. She cared, his heart almost sang, cared about him!
Her phone rang once, rang twice and he held his breath and waited for her voice. The way she'd said his name was . . .
Not like that. Pendrell opened his mouth, words hovering at the edge of his voice and the memory of her calling to him firmed. "Mulder, is that you?" Sharp and cross. Her voice hadn't been cross but it had been sharp and . . .
"Napkins." Oh my God. He blurted the word out before he knew it and his stomach shriveled inside him.
"Napkins? Nap- who is this? I'm warning you, I'm an FBI agent and crank calls are against the law!"
Napkins. She'd shoved cocktail napkins into the hole in his chest. She'd had his blood on her . . . on her . . . ohmygodohmygod he slammed his finger down on the button to disconnect her and gulped back bile at the memory of Special Agent Doctor Dana Katherine Scully hovering over him as he'd desperately tried to breathe, desperately tried to ask her, plead with her, to help him and she'd stuffed COCKTAIL NAPKINS into the hole in his chest!
Tears started in his eyes, burned and ached like the hole - yes, it WAS a hole oh God help him - in his chest. Cocktail napkins. He hadn't even been good enough for her scarf or her blouse. Were they even clean? Or just something she'd pulled off the table? He sniffled hard, tasting the salt of his tears and his snot in the back of his throat like he'd tasted it when he was a little kid and . . . but he wasn't a little kid anymore. Brian Pendrell was a grown man with a big, nasty hole in his chest and Dana Katherine Scully had shoved those horrible little cocktail napkins, the kind with the bar's name on them, into the wound that . . . that . . . was still weeping blood in a slow trail down his belly and his back. He still needed help but not the kind that Dr. Scully would give. He needed help. Not napkins.
Sitting here in the morgue with a hole in his chest. He didn't want to think about what he was remembering but he did know that this was not the run of the mill shooting in Washington, DC. Maybe this wasn't a run of the mill shooting anywhere! He wasn't absolutely sure but he didn't think many people woke up in the morgue in a body bag. Almost choked at the thought but there it was. A body bag.
She'd trace the call. All she had to do was call in and get it traced. If that. She probably had caller ID. He could sit here and wait until the police or a guard showed up to see who'd called. What would happen then? Pendrell swallowed hard. He didn't know what would happen then but he knew he didn't want to find out. One thought led to another and before he knew it he'd picked up the white pages and flicked through, found the number he wanted. One thing leads to another. He didn't need Dana Scully's kind of help. Not professionally or personally. Not Scully, but maybe, just maybe . . .
He was standing there hopping from foot to foot, wishing that the little scrub booties were warmer when the headlights finally slowed and turned into the parking lot. Paused at the guard station. That was a thought. He might have just walked up to the guard and asked for a cab but what would he pay the driver and besides, the guard probably wouldn't be too polite to a not-so-dead man bleeding there in the middle of the night. Pendrell laughed nervously and watched the car slowly cruise up. He could see the driver craning, trying to see who might be standing in the shadows between the floodlights that shone from the corners of the building. Pendrell stepped forward and waved.
Fox Mulder slammed on the brakes. The squeal they made as the car stopped and backed up five feet was enough to have Pendrell wondering if he was risking his life all over again just getting into the car with the other X-Files team member. At least Mulder probably wouldn't use endorsed paper products on his wounds, he thought sourly.
Mulder didn't say a word to him as they peeled out of the parking lot. Driving along the dark, unlit road that skirted Quantico he seemed more nervous than Pendrell could ever recall. Mulder, in his experience, could be arrogant, edgy, effusive, sometimes even snarky, but nervous? He sighed and stared out the passenger side window, trying to ignore the reflection of Mulder glancing over to study him by the dashboard lights. Not his idea of paradise. He was almost relieved when the streetlights gave Mulder more light and let him get a better look.
Almost. Not quite. Not at all by the time they reached a block of not-so-charmingly grimy, WWII era brick apartment buildings. When the engine went off it was startlingly quiet. Quieter than the morgue with its refrigeration hum. So quiet he could hear the engine ticking and Mulder swallowing. The agent's eyes were dark, unreadable reflected in the window in front of his face. Pendrell glanced back and said the only thing that came to mind. "You really mean to tell me you couldn't afford a better apartment?"
"Hey!" Mulder visibly startled, glared back. "Chasing aliens and dead men doesn't come cheap you know."
"Okay. Okay. I'm sorry. I never really thought about it." He sighed, rubbed at his eyes but stopped fast at the sort of crackly, flaky feel of his fingers with the - with his dried blood on them. "Can I use your shower?" Mulder was still pale, as white as he'd been since he'd first laid eyes on Pendrell, but he was starting to get that hectic flush that was so familiar from handing over lab reports chock full of improbable results. "Sure. Sure. I think I've got some sweats that'll fit you too."
Pendrell longed wistfully for a tender touch, for concern unsullied by avid curiosity, but at that point he'd take what he could get.
"These blue jeans shrank in the drier," called Mulder. "I think they'll probably fit you if you roll them up."
Pendrell peeked uncomfortably around the shower curtain and wondered if the man was this solicitous of all his guests. The rapacious curiosity in Mulder's answering stare didn't leave that illusion intact for long. "I'm all right, Agent Mulder. Thank you. Really."
"Are you sure? You know how to joggle the handle to get the water just right? And is there enough soap?" A chill draft made Pendrell squeak as Mulder stepped into the bathroom.
"Agent Mulder, I'm fine! I . . . I . . ." He wanted to finish the sentence but he couldn't. The memory of his own blood washing down the drain from that ugly little dot - hole - gave it the lie. Pendrell finally sighed and steeled himself. "Look, you can do one thing for me."
"Sure. Fine. No problem." Mulder's rapid-fire words seemed to be on autopilot. His real focus was Pendrell's face, hazel eyes scanning and catching at every tiny flicker of motion as if Mulder were cataloguing them for future reference.
Pendrell twitched under that microscope stare, but wouldn't let himself back down. "You can check one thing for me, Agent Mulder."
"Hmm?" That piqued his interest.
Pendrell had never before considered how thoroughly Mulder lived up to his first name at times. He felt like a mouse being eyed for some vulpine hors d'eouvre. "Umm, could you just check my back? I mean, I need to know if -"
He never got the chance to finish the sentence. Fox Mulder pounced on him, pushing the shower curtain back and studying Pendrell's poor, pale chest like he'd found the secrets to the universe and picked a winning Redskins season. Pendrell let him be until the agent reached out inquisitively to poke at the hole in his chest, but that was more than he could really stand. "Agent MUL-derrrr!"
"Huh?" Startled eyes met his, as startled as he'd been in the car.
"Aren't you forgetting I'm alive?"
"Actually Pendrell, I'm not." Mulder tried to get that Mr. Spock eyebrow lift but he just didn't have it down. Scully did it a lot better, but he didn't want to think about that. Bad as Mulder was, at least he wasn't wadding stuff into the wretched little hole. He was just standing there studying it with that same, intent look on his face. "Do you think you could turn around, Pendrell?"
Flashbacks to the FBI physical when he'd been accepted set a blush of sheer embarrassment to chase off the cold. Pendrell sighed again and turned his back. Fingers touched his back, stretching skin that stung so much it made him jump.
"Sorry." Mulder's distracted murmur was less than convincing but the fingers on his back gentled. "This may sting a little bit, Pendrell."
"You sound like my doctor."
"Mmm. Don't worry. I won't ask you to turn your head and cough." Mulder's tone was distracted, humor on autopilot too, but it did make Pendrell relax.
"What is it? Is there a - a -"
"An exit wound? Yep." Clinical interest almost made it easier to discuss the hole in his own body. That was surprising.
"Well. It must have missed all the major organs." Pendrell straightened up and warmed to his topic. "That's what MUST have happened! Like those fluke accidents where somebody gets a steel I-beam through the chest but somehow it only takes out their appendix or something? That would explain why they thought I was dead but were wrong and they just made a mistake when they put me in the morgue! That has to be -"
"I don't think so, Pendrell." Mulder's voice was even more distracted, distant. The soft touch on his back traced up his spine, tickling.
"It has to be, Agent Mulder. What other explanation is there?"
The touch stopped at the back of his neck, rubbing uncomfortably over one spot that sort of ground against his spine like something was back there. When Mulder spoke he was so close Pendrell could feel breath brushing warm over his skin. "Pendrell, did you sleepwalk a lot as a kid?"
"Sleepwalk." The hands pushed his head forward and stretched the skin tight over his cervical vertebrae. "Daydream. Lose track of time. Wander off. Go missing. Phase out. Get a rep for being late. Nightmares. Out of body experiences. Speaking in tongues or -"
"Okay! Okay! I get the idea! I don't remember really getting lost or anything and my parents would never have let me hear the end of it if I had. The only thing I remember is that my mom did used to say that I'd be late for my own funeral."
Mulder's hands dropped to his shoulders and turned him around. Very solemn eyes met his. "Pendrell. I hate to tell you this, but I think your mom was right."
Maybe it was Mulder's television set that kept him up all night ('I didn't sleep at ALL last night' ran some ridiculous song that was probably from an ad). Maybe it was the unfamiliar bed. Or the creepy sense that Mulder kept tiptoeing in to see if he really WAS alive, although he never caught the guy at it. Whatever it was, Pendrell felt like death warmed over the next morning.
He had to hand it to Mulder though. It smelled like good coffee was brewing and, if his discerning palate was as accurate as ever, some vintage, gourmet Eggos were toasting in a toaster out there. Better than the Giant Foods brand he usually bought for himself and enough to make him feel less like an extra out of Night of the Living Dead.
He dressed quietly in the too-long blue jeans that Mulder had given him, pulling the Oxford sweatshirt on with a gingerly, careful motion. With bandaids plastered on his chest and back, he could almost pretend the hole was just a bad cut, an accident, a front and back pinch, anything but what it was. Not that Mulder had done anything as crass as suggest sticking a straightened-out coathanger through the hole to check, but even with all the will in the world Pendrell wasn't really believing his own stories anymore. At least when Mulder had him hold the flashlight to his chest last night he hadn't been able to see all the way through like some cartoon character. Feeling a finger slide into that hole in his back had been back enough. If he could have reached it he'd have preferred to do it himself but double joints had never been one of his talents.
Mulder was lurking. Watching the door. Just waiting for him emerge. He could feel him out there in the living room, skulking. Had to give him points for tact and patience. He remembered being one of those little kids who'd get impatient and break open the fertilized chicken egg too soon. At least Mulder was letting him have the privacy to dress alone instead of wanting to see the hole again.
And he did want to see it. That was written all over his face in five different spoken languages and Braille when Pendrell walked through the door. Absolute, total rapt focus on him. He tried to remember why he'd ever wished people would pay attention to him. Looks like the one he was getting now just made him want to run back into the bedroom and crawl under the bed. Except that it was Mulder's bed and who knew what you'd find under there. The office rumor mill made hiding under THAT bed a less than appealing prospect.
Instead, Pendrell sort of . . . edged into the kitchen as normally as you could when you were moving sideways and backwards so as to avoid turning your back to someone. The alluring smells of coffee and breakfast warred with his desire to cut and run. But he'd run before, from bullies and embarrassments, from a boring home and a boring job in his dad's store. Run and run and what had it gotten him? A hole full of cocktail napkins. No, running was NOT on the agenda anymore.
Not that changing overnight would be easy. Especially not when Mulder followed him into the kitchen with that catnip-high look in his eyes. "Sleep well, Pendrell?"
Years of bullies had trained him well. He didn't bat an eye as he poured coffee and retrieved the toaster waffle. "Just fine, Agent Mulder."
"Good! Good!" It struck Pendrell suddenly that few things were sadder than a night person trying desperately to pretend he was a morning person. Mulder yawned and went on, "it'll be a big day for you, huh?"
"First day of the rest of my life," Pendrell responded blandly. Mmmm. He had to admit, he'd rather drink Mulder's coffee than his Maxwell House any day of the week. A tentative sip sent that first little delicate zing of heat and well-being down his gullet. Distantly, he hoped that the bullet wound hadn't pierced any part of him that might reasonably be expected to contain coffee, and felt rather proud that he was able to take it with the gallows humor he'd always admired in other, more rough and tumble agents.
"Good attitude." Mulder was nodding like he was having trouble focusing, squinting slightly in the cheery morning light. Pendrell caught himself actually feeling sorry for the poor vampire.
At least, he felt sorry until Mulder continued. "That bullet wound of yours really needs some professional attention, Pendrell. I've got these friends who could -"
"No." Pendrell cut him off politely but firmly, and happily without spitting any crumbs from his waffle.
"But . . ." The wistful longing on Mulder's face almost swayed him. Pendrell couldn't remember when someone had wanted his company that much.
But he needed Mulder's friends like he needed a hole in his . . . head. "I'm fine, Agent Mulder. Really. The bandaids feel like they're holding up well and you know what they say about bandaids and injuries."
It stopped Mulder cold in his tracks. Baffled eyes met his and Pendrell wondered how the man could possibly have the television on all night without absorbing any of the wisdom of advertising. "They make wounds heal faster," he explained patiently.
Mulder blinked. Blinked very fast. One. Two. Three. Many times. Almost like he had something caught in his eye. "Pendrell, this is not a scraped knee or a paper cut. You've got a through and through bullet wound in your chest. I don't think the Teflon coating and antibiotic ointment was really meant to deal with that sort of thing."
"I'm not bleeding anymore," observed Pendrell around another mouthful of waffle. Mmm. Real maple syrup. "And it feels better. It's not in my way or anything. I don't see why it should it should be such a big deal."
"Pendrell . . . Brian . . . I think there's more going on."
Pendrell had to bite down on his tongue. Mulder was visibly struggling to cope and it was much too early in the morning for him. Especially when he looked like he'd been up all night. Pendrell worked to keep a straight face and let Mulder rattle on as he finished his waffle and sipped his coffee. "Pendrell, there's something fishy going on. I mean, people don't just rise up from the dead most of the time."
"Who says I was ever really dead?" He politely turned and rinsed his plate and mug like he'd been taught.
"Scully did!" This time impatience edged Mulder's voice.
"Dr. Scully tried to stuff cocktail napkins into my chest," Pendrell informed him with wounded dignity. "Her professional judgment may be all right with dead people but obviously I'm not dead. She must have made a mistake."
He'd never seen Fox Mulder struck speechless before. He'd have felt sorry for him if he hadn't been so relieved. As it was he just brushed past him and looked around, trying to get his choices clear in his head. Mulder had followed him in and now his voice started to sound really strained. "Pendrell, believe me. I've been in the weird-stuff business a lot longer than you have and you were dead and people do NOT just get up and walk out of the morgue on a regular basis. It's just not done."
"But here I am," noted Pendrell calmly.
"I . . I . . . that's my point exactly." Mulder was flushed and waving his hands in the air. "There's something going on here. You are walking around and eating my food and I think it has something to do with that lump in the back of your neck."
"The one you couldn't keep your hands off last night?" Pendrell eyed him suspiciously. "Do you always fondle peoples' necks, Agent Mulder? Have you spoken to anyone about this?"
"About what?" Mulder stopped in mid-gesture. "Huh? I've been telling people about this for years, Pendrell! We've finally got a chance to prove to them what I've been saying!"
"Calm down, Agent Mulder." Patting the air between them didn't really seem to reassure Mulder, but it did catch his eye like a bell ball rolled past a jumpy cat. "It'll be okay."
A frown started to gather between Mulder's eyebrows. "Pendrell, what the hell are you talking about? Because I'm talking about unsanctioned experimentation on civilians, maybe by alien forces, and I don't have the first fucking clue what you're talking about."
"No need for profanity, Agent Mulder." Pendrell picked up Mulder's wallet and car keys out of the flotsam on the coffee table and dropped them into his now-motionless hand. "We can talk this out like two civilized men while you drive me to my apartment."
"We're wasting the best part of the day, Agent Mulder. Let's get going!"
He'd never realized that Fox Mulder whined before. It just hadn't ever occurred to Pendrell to characterize Special Agent Mulder as whining. Oh, he'd had his own ideas about Mulder - something about the way the female technical staff kept trying to find things to do in his lab when Mulder was there; or the way he always felt a little bit short and hairy when Mulder was around, or maybe the way that no one seemed to hear him anymore when Agent Mulder dropped by - yes, he'd had a definite impression of Mulder but it had never included whining. Until now. "Agent Mulder, once and for all, I am NOT going to let your friends examine me for alien implants, military hardware, Borg cybernetics, mutated viruses, podperson matter or any other goofy sci-fi fantasy notion!"
"Listen Pendrell," he was starting to sound desperate, "you've seen some of the stuff I work with. You've tested it. It doesn't follow the rules and you aren't following them either. Think about it, Pendrell! You need help. You've obviously been affected by something strange. Pendrell, you're an X-File."
Brian Pendrell was gaining a whole new appreciation of the joys of being a tease. "You're right. I'm not following the rules. Not theirs. Not Dr. Scully's. And not yours either."
It was really a beautiful day. Sun shining, birds chirping, joggers joggling and now even his timing was perfect! As the car braked to a stop and Pendrell stepped out he realized his timing had never been perfect - never in his life before! God, he was starting to wish he'd been shot years ago!
It was liberating. Incredible. He could feel the bounce in his step, the confidence. The joy. He'd been murdered and it wasn't so bad! Mulder scampered along behind him like some exotic pet, begging for his attention. He smiled widely at a jogger and she smiled back. Mulder stopped in his tracks, watched her go by, stared at Pendrell and caught up barely in time to slip through the hall door after him. "This is NOT a good idea, Pendrell! You need help."
"Mulder - may I call you Mulder?" He couldn't believe he didn't bother to wait for the nod, "Mulder, I have spent my entire life being afraid."
The profiler leaned against wall by his apartment door, watching him unlock it. His voice was pitched low, soothing. "It's okay, Pend -Brian. I understand. You're going through a very traumatic time. It's perfectly normal to feel buoyed when you survive a violent incident but -"
"No, you don't understand." Pendrell pushed the door open and walked in without waiting to see if Mulder had followed. "You don't . . . don't .. ."
Hamsters. The mess looked like what happened when hamsters got into a pile of papers and scattered and shredded them. Well, maybe not shredded but Pendrell couldn't help but imagine giant hamsters scampering around his apartment, pulling open drawers, spreading paper over every surface they could find.
"Jesus Christ," muttered Mulder. "And I thought my place was the only one they worked over like this."
"What?" Pendrell turned, his mood suddenly not quite so firm. An errant notion of how he'd file for insurance for a through-and-through to the chest made his tummy drop. "Who did this? Why would they do this?"
"Toss your place?" Mulder's voice had the ease of a man long accustomed to this sort of havoc. He wandered, poking at cancelled checks and tax returns. "Depends on who did it. If it was our brethren at the DC cop shop or the Bureau, they were just trying to cover their asses for when they shitcan another unsolvable, zero-motive murder. But if it was them, they sure as hell got in and out fast and took their ugly, yellow crime scene tape with them."
It seemed unreal. "But I can just tell them who shot me. They didn't need to do this! This is . . . this is an invasion of privacy!"
Sympathetic hazel eyes came up to meet his. "No. It's a murder investigation. As far as anyone knows, Pendrell, you joined the DC statistics last night. I'm betting the 'theft' of your body is a juicy tidbit on the Metro page today."
"But I'm not dead!" He waved his hands at the disarray, as if somehow its existence proved his point.
Mulder walked over to him, picking his way around scattered sheets of grad school notes unearthed from some long-forgotten notebook. Reached out and deliberately laid a finger on Pendrell's chest. Right over where the h- bandaid was. His voice was lower, even calmer, the kind of voice that Frazier Crane used at his most poncy. "That's a hole, Pendrell. You and I both know it goes front to back and that bandaids won't really help. This is what I've been trying to tell you. You may be walking around, but no one's going to be able to pretend this was just a little booboo."
He struggled for a shadow of the euphoria from that morning, found a faint echo of it. "What if I said it was just a flesh wound?"
Mulder stared at him. The corners of his mouth twitched, turned down with some internal effort and the skin pulled tight across his cheekbones and the bridge of his nose. When he turned his back and started to shake Pendrell wasn't sure what to think until he heard muffled choking noises. "Are you laughing?"
"Oh, shit," no escaping it. Mulder's voice was hoarse with barely contained laughter. "Oh fuck, Pendrell. Just a fl . . . "
That did it. Whatever small control Mulder had imploded and the man just sagged into a lazyboy, buried his face in his hands and howled like a banshee at a comedy club. Which might have been insulting and probably was except that somehow it was contagious, and Pendrell found himself grinning back like a fool even if he didn't have his mood all the way back. "I could tell them my wings are like a shield of steel?"
"B-b-b-b-b-b-BATFINK?" Mulder lost it all over again, going red faced and gasping with it. Pendrell sat gingerly on the edge of an end table and waited for him catch his breath. "I think it must have been your other cape, Pendrell."
"Yeah. Well. You know . . . so what did you mean about who might be messing my place up and the crime scene tape and all?"
Mulder sobered although his eyes were still suspiciously bright. "Did you have your next of kin written down in your wallet?"
"Nooo . . ."
"Jeez, Mulder! I'm only -"
"I don't care how old you are, Pendrell." Mulder sighed, looking around him. Pendrell nervously scooped up several sheets and started to line up their edges. "No crime scene tape. And a quick toss job. Your wallet wouldn't do them any good either."
His mumbling to himself was starting to get on Pendrell's nerves. "I am still here, you know. Why don't you explain it to me?"
If he kept startling Mulder the older man's heart was going to give out. It was like he kept forgetting Pendrell was there. "Sorry. Sorry. Usually I do this on my own."
That much was obvious. "Is this why they call you Spooky?"
A rueful grin met his question. "Not really. Look. It's going to sound sort of crazy but obviously someone tampered with you."
"Tampered?" Pendrell could hear his own voice climb up the scale and hated the way it squeaked at the top of his register.
"Yeah. If you'll just let my friends-"
"No." Pendrell slapped the sheaf of papers down on his knee. "No and I don't want to hear it again, Mulder. I'm not a guinea pig."
The patented, Mulder-wistful look might work on Bonnie at the front desk, but it was not going to sway Pendrell. He glared back at Mulder. "No. I woke up in the morgue and it was bad enough letting you check the holes. If I'm going near a laboratory it's as a scientist, not a subject."
"Pendrell, you're a walking dead man!" Mulder was starting to sound desperate.
"I'm breathing. I'm moving," waggling his fingers in front of Mulder's nose. "I can feel and think and eat and everything. I'm not dead by any definition I ever learned, Mulder. Now who searched my apartment?"
Mulder's shoulders drooped as his latest sales pitch struck out. "I don't really know, Pendrell. But for what it's worth, I don't think they're on our side."
He forbore to mention to Mulder that his side and Mulder's might not be the same. "Do you think they'll come back?"
The X-Files' supervisor glanced thoughtfully around. "Noooo -- not unless someone tells them you're here. But that doesn't mean someone else won't come by. You are the subject of a murder investigation, you know."
"Not to mention body-snatching, as you seem to like pointing out," Pendrell added acerbically. "Maybe we should get out of here. And no, just to forestall the obvious, I won't go to your friends'!"
"Okay. Okay. I give up." Mulder slumped back in his chair and studied Pendrell. "You'd better get what you need, but don't take too much or they'll be wondering if your death has some connection to your stolen sweat socks."
Mulder's car was beginning to feel disturbingly familiar. Pendrell slumped down slightly, as much as habitual good posture and a shoulder harness would let him. "So. The truth, Mulder. Do you know who ransacked my place?"
That sideways, slightly sneaky glance was starting to seem familiar too. He wondered how Dana Scully put up with it, then reconsidered based on his newly acquired knowledge of her sense of procedure. Mulder was doing something weird with his mouth. Not exactly unpleasant, but this little catch of the lip that made Pendrell slightly nervous. "C'mon. Quit stalling. Do you think I was attacked by scientifically created vampires and I'm going to start craving blood or fluoridated solutions or something?"
He'd only been half-joking but it did get a real grin instead of that smirk. "No. I think either aliens abducted you in childhood and implanted a device of unknown origin in your neck, or else that our military industrial complex, in a conspiratorial cabal, inducted you as part of a widespread campaign of illicit experimentation on civilians."
The silence hung between them as Pendrell untangled the two equally abstruse and absurd statements. "Has anyone ever told you that you talk like a bad TV show, Mulder?"
The stare of solemn disapproval was neatly offset by the effort it looked like it took Mulder to keep that expression in place. "You have no respect for your elders."
"Oh, right! Like you're what? Maybe six or seven years older than I am?"
"I am wise beyond my years," denounced Mulder loftily as he pulled into the Woodside Deli. "And because of my wisdom I'm getting a Reuben for lunch. You want anything?"
He hesitated, considering cholesterol then realized again that he had a hole in his chest. His chest, not his head. "Philly cheesesteak with extra peppers and an order of fries."
Mulder's moue of distaste didn't faze Pendrell in the least.
Pendrell licked ketchup off his lips before it could dribble down his chin and stuffed another french fry into his mouth. "Mmm. I feel like I haven't eaten in years."
It was a little hard to really tuck in and enjoy his lunch with Mulder watching him like that. He kept wanting to laugh at the look on the older man's face -- somewhere between stunned awe and horror. He shoved another french fry in and waited for the inevitable glance as Mulder checked to make sure the food went down instead of out. "You can stop that, you know."
"Stop what?" The guilty look completely undercut Mulder's attempt at an innocent tone.
"Stop trying to see if I'm going to dribble food out of my chest, Mulder. If I didn't drool coffee and waffles then the sandwich is definitely safe."
"Umm. . . I wasn't. I mean, I didn't think that. I didn't expect. . ." The poor man was pulling sauerkraut out of his sandwich in little nervous tics, trying to think up some good reason he'd been studying Pendrell's chest.
It was too good to pass up. Pendrell gave the hook one more yank before he let the poor thing go. "I could understand it if I were a woman, Mulder, but it's just starting to get a little odd, you know?"
Mulder became terribly interested in the dynamics of eating a reuben without losing any more kraut. Pendrell happily dragged another french fry through ketchup and wolfed it down in peace, unstudied. He'd never realized how much fun it could be to hang Mulder -- or anyone for that matter -- out to dry. People had to be interested in you before you could make them wait. It was a novel pleasure and he savored it right down to the last bite of salty, fatty, bad-for-him lunch, sneaking little glances over to watch Mulder stew as he concentrated his attention on his sandwich.
Pendrell couldn't remember a meal he'd enjoyed more. Mulder was reduced to sucking the melt water out of his soda before Pendrell was ready to relent. "So. Aliens. Vampires. Mad scientists. What are we looking for?"
Mulder probably didn't know how easy it was to read the crafty look he was giving Pendrell. The ultra-controlled mask he usually assumed had slipped the night before after the intial shock of seeing Pendrell up and on his feet, and never quite snapped back into place. "I thought you'd chalked that up to too much bad television."
The theory was worth a moment's consideration, but Pendrell finally shook his head. "No. They didn't send me to grad school because I was stupid. Much as I hate to admit it, a bullet through the chest usually has more effect than this one's having, so something's going on."
A relieved smile greeted his admission. "Then you're finally ready to get that looked at?"
"Did I say that? Just reboot and get out of that loop, Mulder!" Familiar frustration, echo of years of being ignored, put an edge on his voice. "I do not want to be a guinea pig for some kind of conspiracy-buff's lab project. Give me your best guess."
"What do you expect me to do, Pendrell? Call 1-900-psychic hotline?" The whining note had given way to flat sarcasm. "Best guesses work better when you let me get some evidence. Despite my reputation, I really don't pull this shit out of thin air."
"You're right." He couldn't make the words more than a whisper no matter how he tried. "But I've seen some of your X-Files, Mulder. I don't want to be one. I never asked for this. I'm not just some photograph or scary story you get to solve, point to the body, collect your applause and go home. I'm . . . I'm a real person, Mulder. I . .."
His words trailed off into silence that hung heavy and ripe between them. Mulder was working his lower lip, staring back at him without a hint of the cold, feline curiosity. Pendrell wasn't used to the warm sympathy he was seeing. It set a quivery, sad feeling loose in his gut that made his eyes prickle, made his nose start to itch and stuff up. He rubbed at it angrily, scrubbed at his eyes. "Look, what do you want me to do?"
"Trust me." Mulder turned away, reached for the ignition. "I know that won't be easy. Really, I do. But you'll need to trust somebody some time, Pendrell. Let me help you."
"For now, Mulder. For now."
Downtown Washington DC had been deserted by most of the middle class. Pendrell knew that and didn't expect much from it. Even the poor people left if they could, commuting to Silver Spring or Tyson's Corner to escape the oppressive, funereal core of the nation's capitol. Downtown Washington sometimes had the ambiance Americans associated with news broadcasts from war zones and even by those standards the building Mulder parked behind was low. Pendrell studied the seeping, iron-stained water that dribbled from a pipe behind the brick relic and wondered where the hell Mulder found people who'd live in a place like this.
"I don't know, Mulder. This looks like the sort of place my mother told me to stay away from." A manic grin met his apprehension.
"Don't let it get to you. If you don't want to be found then this kind of place is prime real estate."
It might well be, but Pendrell locked his car door with a care he never took in less seedy neighborhoods. Sidestepping the refuse, orphaned car tires and occasional dog droppings (at least he hoped they were dog droppings) he followed the special agent to a door with a surprisingly good lock that was barely disguised by artfully misapplied paint. Mulder fished through the keys on his key ring and found one thick-bodied, many-toothed stalwart that got them through the dented steel fire door with barely a pause. Inside, shabby but clean stairs led up and down. Somehow, it didn't surprise him when Mulder headed down.
"You really have a thing for basements, don't you?"
"Nah. I got stuck in the basement when they converted my first office to a conference room." The smile that Mulder flashed back at him was warm, more so than Pendrell had ever expected. "The Gunmen like 'em because parabolic mikes don't work well on them. No big windows and lots of insulation."
The gunmen? Parabolic mikes? "Oh. Of course. I knew that." Bible school never covered this when they talked about life after death.
Somehow, when Pendrell had pictured the afterlife he'd had vague images of attentive Playboy bunnies wearing angel wings and puffy little cotton tails as they scampered along tropical beaches playing harps and vying to give him big, exotic drinks with little umbrellas in them. The afterlife had never included the weird brothers with their electronic cauldron and arcane trappings. His images of heaven had certainly not featured the tickle of long, blond hair unaccompanied by the certainty that a biddable beauty was at the other end of those pesky tresses.
"Wow," burbled Langley. "The little guy's a walking Cray. Intense!"
"Supercomputer? I don't think you can make that assumption based purely on what we're seeing here." Byers' dry, professorial tones were reassuringly clinical after the orgasmic reactions of his two cohorts.
Frohike ran a finger over the faint, oblong outlines that broke the organic ridges of Pendrell's spine. "If this is anything like what Agent Scully had," Pendrell winced at the obvious adulation in the troll's voice, "then these five chips are staggeringly powerful."
"Don't drool on him, Frohike." Mulder's irritated reprimand made it a little easier to stay still under the Gunmen's lights. At least one person wasn't seeing him as just Bill Gates' wet dream. "Byers, can you think of anything else these might be?"
"Superficial indications are that the objects were implanted subcutaneously but there is no external evidence for the nature or purpose of what we're seeing." Byers sounded intrigued.
"Mind control," suggested Frohike.
"Espionage," breathed Langley.
"Have you had any dizziness, headaches, neurological symptoms?" Byers, bent sideways, studied Pendrell's face.
Mulder had cautioned him not to mention miraculous revivification and that didn't leave much. "I used to get eczema when I was a kid. And I had scoliosis. Is that the kind of thing you mean?"
Myopic brown eyes searched his, but the baffled frown settling over Byers' features didn't offer too much, and then Pendrell was left with a close up of tweed again as the conspiracy buff stood up. "I don't know, Mulder. General symptoms of childhood ailments that would have required frequent medical visits. Sleepwalking and evidence that might indicate a typical, short, repetitive pattern of abductions. But there's nothing absolutely definitive here."
Pendrell felt obscurely relieved when Mulder pushed away from the wall and stepped up next to him. Told himself it was Mulder's fingers that stretched the skin over his spine, because somehow being pawed by Mulder wasn't nearly as bad as being pawed by the high tech equivalent of MacBeth's witches. Of course, that made Mulder MacBeth and Scully Lady MacBeth which wasn't a comforting thought and left him with the question of whether he was Banquo or somebody else; but even so it was just too weird to have the Gunmen playing xylophone up his spinal column looking for things that went bump in his back. He shivered and wished they'd let him put his shirt back on.
The thought might have been a cue. A finger flicked the edge of his bandaid and Mulder's voice growled a vague warning
"If Agent Pendrell is injured -" Byers' voice held almost enough concern and solicitude to cover the greedy curiosity.
"It's just a flesh wound," Pendrell protested meekly.
"I think we should wait on deeper investigation, don't you? Implants are pesky, finicky things that we need to understand better before we mess with them," observed Mulder in a deceptively mild voice. "Who knows. They might affect personality or hormonal balance or cause cancer or something."
All three of the weird brothers twitched at that last and Pendrell wondered what conversation was being invoked in the subtext of the comment. Flailed and tried for a more neutral comment. "So, you guys don't know what they do?"
"Umm. . ." The three looked back and forth between themselves themselves in every possible combination, trading little shakes of the head like they were some tic tac code then turned to him with a precision he usually associated with Busby Berkeley musicals. Frohike, the spokesman du jour, heaved a sigh and shook his head. "Sorry my man. Without further investigation all we know is that you do have implants."
"Any guess at the origin," asked Mulder with an impatient edge in his voice.
Langley shoved his glasses up his nose and took his turn as the Voice of Fate. "If they're anything like what you've brought to us in the past then they're way past the stuff that's commercially available. Or even what we know the military has . . ."
". . . but nowhere near the sophistication of the nasal implants and the like." Byers picked up seamlessly, almost as though he were just one aspect of a single entity, crone to Frohike's matron and Langley's (shudder) maiden. Pendrell paused as be buttoned his shirt, and really, really wished he hadn't read so many spooky comic books over the years.
"The outlines are rectangular and a little bigger than what the New Hope abductees had. And more of them." Mulder's voice was distant, distracted as he worried the idea like a dog with a bone.
"From what you said those were implanted more recently," Frohike observed. God, those three were really starting to give him the creeps! "You know, Mulder, with all the alien species that keep cropping up maybe this is just a question of, like, American versus Japanese technology?"
"Grays make the best implants but morphs do better invasion tactics?" Mulder responded drily. "So this is probably morph because it's clumsier?"
"Home made bread boardlets," added Langley, fiddling with the electrical tape holding the earpiece of his glasses together. "I suppose it could be ours, though it's way past anything we're supposed to have."
Mulder rolled his eyes. "Right. And we didn't have stealth technology before '84."
"Hey, we're on your side!" Frohike's indignation struck Pendrell as ludicrous. "The military-industrial complex has been trying to gain control of our lives -"
Mulder shook his head, cut him off with a smirk. "You need to broaden your sights. The military are just trial balloons. Try television and advertising. We've got V chips and S chips under development. Just think of this as the F chip."
"F?" the three chorused.
"Use your imaginations." Mulder grinned evilly and handed Pendrell his coat.
The laughter dropped away without a trace by the time they were back in the car. Pendrell blew on his chilly fingertips and tried to figure out all the little things that niggled at his attention. Mulder's concentration was well and truly absorbed by the process of starting the car. He didn't look up, or meet Pendrell's eyes. Just torqued his body around to to study the street behind them and backed up smoothly, if just a little too fast.
The tires didn't squeal, but the car did jump just a little when Mulder shifted gears. Pendrell found himself nervously trying to see the cars behind them in the side mirror, but it was tilted wrong for his view. No one seemed to be particularly paying attention to them when he did glance back, but that didn't soothe his nerves much. "This is ridiculous."
Mulder did glance over then, quirked a little grin, and Pendrell wished he had sounded firmer. "What's ridiculous, Pendrell? The Gunmen? They look a little -- odd but . . ."
"Not them. They're not any weirder than you, Mulder. They just don't dress as well."
"Ouch." The theatrical wince was just a little too much. The voice a little too bland.
"Why didn't you tell them?" Pendrell matched his tone, but only by digging his nails into his palms.
"Tell them what?" Mulder was suddenly deeply absorbed in the right turn onto Georgia Avenue.
"Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain." Pendrell hadn't known he had such a sarcastic streak in him. The words were sour on his tongue. "Why didn't you tell them about me being shot? Why'd you keep distracting them?"
"I thought you didn't want them poking and prying." Mulder gave him a perfectly disingenuous look, a too-polished innocent widening of the eyes. "They were making you nervous, weren't they?"
"Yes. YES! They were making me nervous." No pretense of calm now. Pendrell shoved balled fists into his coat pockets and glared at the car in front of them. "But they shouldn't have been making you nervous. I mean -- I -- " he stammered to a stop, counted out five deep breaths through his nose and went on. "You took me there so they could help us figure out what happened. Well, everything I know tells me that things in your neck and waking up from the de . . . from being shot like I did is really unusual and they just might be connected! So why not tell them and let them help us?"
"Help you," stalled Mulder. He was doing that thing with his lip again, worrying it with his teeth. Pendrell studied him closely, picking up little tics he'd never noticed before, never seen past the carefully heedless image Mulder maintained. "I didn't tell them because they didn't already know."
"Will you quit the Oz act? Will you just tell me in normal words like a normal person instead of the bad riddles?"
Mulder shot him a startled look, whipped his eyes back to the road in front of him. "I played a hunch, okay? They're usually into the most paranoid, micro-grain details around but they didn't know about you. If they don't know then it's being kept under a lid thats tighter than . .. than . . . Christ, Pendrell. Secrets leak out all over Washington. It's like a fucking sieve. So how does a cold, public murder of a federal employee in a Georgetown bar and a disappearing body from the morgue get so hushed up that it's not even on the rumor mill?"
"I don't know! But you know it happened so why are you keeping it hush-hush?" He shut up, shocked to find he was almost shouting at Fox Mulder.
The reply was quiet, so quiet, but it sliced into the tense air of the car. "I don't know how they're keeping it quiet, and I can only take guesses at why. But someone wants this totally under the radar, Pendrell."
"So why not screw up their plans?" He sagged, letting his seatbelt pull him back. "Why not go as public as we can?"
"Another hunch." That lower lip was going to split if he kept after it that way. Pendrell licked his own lips in sympathy.
"I'm not one of your X-Files, Mulder." Pendrell sighed, shook his head. "I'm not some secret project for you to play with."
Mulder carefully pulled across traffic and onto New Hampshire. "That's why I'm playing the hunch, Pendrell. Right now they want to keep you under wraps, control what happened to you."
"So you let them toss my place and hunt me? That doesn't make any sense. Let's just get it out in the open." If he hadn't felt so tired all of a sudden he might have been able to work up some real, decent indignation and Mulder's string pulling.
The genuinely worried look he got back quenched what little ire he could stoke. Mulder's face was pinched, wary. "Right now they want to control you. But push them too far and I think they'll try to eliminate the evidence."
Pendrell's tummy wanted to knot itself up around his fatty lunch. He tried to joke. "Like Ollie North and Fawn Hall?"
Mulder didn't smile. "I don't want to think about shredders, okay, Pendrell?"
It was really obvious when a wordy guy shut up, thought Pendrell. At least, it was obvious to him but maybe that was becausehe was a sort of wordy guy himself. Or maybe not. But Mulder's grim silence didn't make the late winter scrum of traffic any less unpleasant than it usually was. He scrunched down in his seat and tried not to catch the eye of passing drivers, wishing his hair were a drab brown instead of the ridiculous ginger that always got him teased in school.
Although, come to think of it, he'd have been just as glad if Mulder were teasing him about it just then. A grim Mulder seemed . . . dire. Worse than just trouble. Pendrell fished for something to get him to talk again. "We're going to the Hoover Building?"
"Yeah. I want you to stay in the car," absently changing lanes and ignoring the honking horn of the diplomat he'd cut off.
"What are we going to get there?"
That did finally bring a small smile, not much more than an ironic quirk of the lips. "Files. Clues. Portents in pigeon entrails."
"You are really sick, you know that?" Pendrell sat a little higher, suddenly somehow feeling less bleak. Feeling able to brace even the nastiest topics. "Who was going to do my autopsy?"
"I think it was going to be a combo effort, DC ME and our folks." Mulder glanced around in a perfunctorily paranoid way. "Whatever else you can say about the FBI, when it comes to autopsies we look after our own."
"Sick and morbid!"
"You brought it up." The ironic quirk had turned into a sort of subversive grin. "I'm going to park down by the Corcoran. Think you can pretend to be a hungover passenger for a little while?"
"Yeah. You can't park there -- fire hydrant." Years of law abiding driving fueled the stern stare he turned on his chauffeur.
Mulder sneered, but behaved, cruising around the block until he could find a spot. His parallel parking was extravagantly perfect. "There. Is that a parking job a fit for a boy scout badge?"
The snotty tone won a real grin from Pendrell, familiarity warming him. "You could be a little closer to the curb but it's not bad."
Mulder snorted down that long nose and turned to get out. The sudden jolt of fear-nerves-apprehension-dread that hit Pendrell took him completely by surprise and he'd grabbed Mulder's wrist before he knew it, held it locked in his own chilly fingers.
Surprised hazel eyes came around to meet his. Surprised and wary. "What is it?"
Pendrell swallowed, trying to put his rattled thoughts in order then took a shaky little breath. "You won't be long?"
Whatever Mulder saw must have been familiar to him. The tension bled away in an instant and that professionally soothing, bland look that had put Pendrell's back up earlier suddenly clicked into place, oddly comforting now. "No. I know what I'm looking for. I won't be more than twenty minutes."
The thought of Mulder in his office was -- terrifying. Pendrell's fingers tightened before he even knew it and he felt his eyes prickle uncomfortably. "I want you to promise me something, Mulder."
The hesitation that hung between them would have been an insult at any other time. Now, it leant weight to Mulder's words. "If I can."
"If Scully's there, don't tell her."
He was so close he could see Mulder's pupils widen then go tight, see the little shadow of an almost invisible frown between dark brown eyebrows. "I know she upset you, but Pen--Brian, Scully's my partner."
He couldn't stop it. The prickle in his nose and his eyes blurred into wet, into tears. Pendrell blinked hard and fast, hating the feeling and one ran down his cheek. He sniffed and let go of Mulder's wrist, rubbed at his treacherous nose. "Please. Don't tell her about me."
Mulder turned back slowly, sank into his seat, studying Pendrell. He supposed that the same look studied people whose children or parents or -- anyone they loved were gone. "I know she hurt you, Pendrell. But she would never hurt you on purpose. Your . . . when you got shot, it really shook her up. Really upset her."
"Wh-when did she tell you?" Trying so hard not to stammer.
"The night it happened."
He curled his lips between his teeth, bit down on them, then let them go. "Mulder, how long ago was that?"
Blink. Blink. Blink. He could see the wheels turning, see Mulder considering the ramifications of the news. "Four days ago."
Bad. It made his heart hurt in his chest. Made him feel small and fragile. But Mulder would go and he needed to make him understand. "When she told you I was -- I was dead, what did she call me, Mulder?"
The frown deepened, worried and baffled. "'Pendrell.' No different from me."
"But it is different from you, Mulder." He could hear the tight sound of his own tears in his voice and forced them to stay back, behind his eyelids; but he couldn't keep the shaky little sound out of his words. "You called me Brian. You know my name. Did she ever know my name?"
The realization and the truth were there, right behind Mulder's eyes, so easy to read. Caught on his lips with words he couldn't say. Words that would be either a painful truth or a lie too transparent to be believed. Pendrell saved him from the choice, shaking his head to answer his own question. "She didn't know. She never knew. You did. Why do you know but she doesn't?"
"It's on your desk. On a little plaque." Mulder sounded almost apologetic.
"And on the wall on my diplomas." He sniffed in a loud, messy sounding sniff but he didn't want to look around to find the leftover napkins from lunch. "And on the holiday cards I sent around every year."
"That's not fair, Pendrell," Mulder's tone was gentle. "I've got an eidetic memory."
"Don't lie for her." He pursed his lips. "I know you want to make me feel better but I took a little psychology in college." Found a wan grin. "And I read up when you kept spouting off those obscure facts like a smartass and somebody said you had a photographic memory. You don't remember everything, Mulder. Only what you pay attention to. And you remembered my name."
Mulder stared at him, wearing a guilty expression that he hadn't earned. Pendrell swallowed back the thick, sad feeling that was hurting his throat. "Just, if you run into her, please don't tell her. And please hurry."
Mulder blinked, and nodded. And then he was gone.
Coffee highs during college. Nicotine from a brief, nasty flirtation with cigarettes. No-Doz. None of them matched anxiety and fear for keeping you wide awake and heart pounding. It made finals and boards and first day of school, all rolled into one, look like kindergarten. It made getting shot a walk in the park. It made the sight of Mulder's lanky frame one of the sweetest things that Brian Pendrell had seen in days.
The field agent opened the door and tossed in his briefcase with a crisp, casual motion that utterly belied the leaden weight of the thing. "Ooof! What've you got in here?"
"Weighty and ponderous matters," quipped Mulder. "See anyone suspicious?"
"No, though a meter maid has been eyeing us off and on."
"We'll just have to live with breaking her heart." Mulder peered over his shoulder, then ripped his way into traffic, cutting off a gypsy cab with an evil chuckle.
"Why do you do things like that?" Pendrell couldn't decide if he was just trying to distract himself or if he really wanted to know why Mulder would taunt taxis for fun.
"They're pests. They're maniacs. I've been hit by at least one taxi and I never miss a chance to cut them off now. One of these days I'll get the guy who slammed me and broke my phone."
"That's terrible, Mulder. Did he run a red light?" Pendrell was fiddling with Mulder's briefcase, trying to figure out the arcane locks.
"Nope." Without even looking, quick fingers flicked them open. "Don't take those out in the car. I was chasing a suspect and he sent me flying and never even slowed down."
Pendrell knew his face had that dumb, blank look for a one-two-three beat, but it took that long to figure out how to answer that. "You ran into traffic, Mulder. What do you expect?"
"If no one hit the suspect then why should they hit me?" Mulder raised an eyebrow in that not-very-good-Spock-look he kept trying. "Why do the laws of probability favor the crooks?"
"Maybe because they go first?"
"It ought to work like dice where no one result changes the probability of any other result coming out a certain way. Stochastic probability favors --"
"No-no-no! You don't get to pull that one on me, Mulder. You're a psychologist and they don't make you people take REAL statistics," Pendrell felt the note of gleeful braggadocio creep into his voice before he could stop it. "Soft science."
"Squishy?" This time Mulder actually brought it off, a perfect, ironic lift of the brow that pulled his face into something like a rakish devil's leer.
"So your bad guy got away?" Pendrell considered his deflection skills expert, honed by years of surprise questions in class.
"Nope." Mulder adjusted the rear view mirror for effect. "Scully chased him and lost him but he probably just turned into a pile of green slime."
"Gr . . .sli . . . how did we get to green slime from a nice, normal discussion of your bad traffic habits?" Pendrell shut the case again, willing to let the files wait.
"You asked what happened to the bad guy and I told you," observed Mulder in that innocuous voice. "A batch of other lowlifes involved in that case, and some cases like it, turned into green slime, and Scully had a hole in her shoe."
"A hole. Who were these people?"
Mulder considered the question, then shook his head. "Some people I knew, Pendrell." His voice went distant. "Some I thought I might know very well. I hate it when cliches turn out true all the time."
Pendrell picked up the dangling thought carefully. "Which cliches?"
"Book by its cover. All that shit." Mulder shifted in his seat. Shook his head. "But I guess that fits just about everyone, doesn't it?"
"Maybe. I . . ." No. He couldn't say he was just what he looked like. Not anymore. He sighed. "Cheer up, Mulder. At least I don't turn into green slime."
The second time around the block, Pendrell absently wondered why it had to be today, on a cold, windy, April afternoon that Mulder's neighbors decided to move. Whatever the reason their timing stank. As they kept looking for a parking place, Mulder was only too happy to say so in incredibly colorful and inventive terms. Each time he turned west and drove into the setting sun, he got a little more creative in his interpretation of their parentage. Pendrell listened with a sort of detached awe. "You were an eagle scout, weren't you Mulder?"
"What?" The exasperated reply devolved into a snarl as he dove for a parking spot only to find it was another fire hydrant.
"My cousin told me you have to pass profanity one, two and three to be an eagle scout," replied Pendrell in a mild, gentle tone. "I never mastered the art."
The quizzical stare that dissected his defective past lasted through a red light and a little into a green, until another DC resident demonstrated his proficiency with his car horn. Mulder startled and whipped his car into another predatory circle, seeking a spot close enough to be comfortable for a man who liked to sleep late. "I was never an eagle scout. Though, thank God, I did manage to claw my way out of the ranks of the Weebelows. You still have your uniform, Pendrell?"
The question could have been acid-dipped but it wasn't. Pendrell considered trash cans and grafitti as Mulder prowled the alley behind his building for a spot. "I don't have my uniform, but my ring's on my dresser." He suddenly looked back at Mulder and could not find a face to hide behind, a way to blunt what he was feeling. "I'm never getting my life back, am I?"
Mulder pulled his car into a spot that was almost too narrow for it. Pendrell watched him, wondering if he chose the spot to avoid the question. He sat still behind the wheel just a moment too long, expression a little too impassive. "I hate these bastards, Brian. I hate them more than I can tell you."
"I don't hate them." Pendrell looked out, opened his door to the breath of a cold, damp DC April. "I just want to know why."
Gloomy, yellowish light, and the elevator creaked and groaned for an instant before it lurched into motion. His own apartment building had been new, clean, efficient and totally devoid of character. Mulder's had character, though it would be going too far to say it had charm.
Character and locks, though the locks did little good when the movers had the front door propped open and were carrying large crates into the front hall. Maybe it wasn't new neighbors, just new refrigerators decided Pendrell. Whatever it was, their thumping and crashing was confined to the floor below Mulder's and that was a relief. Neither of them seemed to be in the mood for clatter. Pendrell, at least, just wanted to quietly retreat into a corner and try to understand how much his life was really going to change. The euphoria of the morning had long since faded as he tried to grapple with both what he'd regained and what he'd never have again. He was alive, but he'd have been hard pressed to say he'd come back to life. At least not his life, the one he'd spent his twenty-nine years building.
Mulder seemed to know the mood without even needing to ask. He quietly started a pot of coffee and went to hang up his suit coat. Pendrell hadn't really noticed his home much the night before. There had been other things on his mind, he wryly observed to himself. When he really looked, it wasn't messy, just cluttered. Books and magazines stacked or spread across the coffee table -- journals on psychology and police science, academic journals on folklore and myth, all side by side with cheap tabloids and conspiracy nut fantasy rags. Pendrell tipped some of the books on their sides and read: Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motivations. A coffee-stained and dog-eared copy of the Crime Classification Manual. He shuddered and missed the narrow focus of a microscope, the tunnel vision of evidence analysis. The big picture reminded him of one of the framed posters in Mulder's bedroom -- one by Hieronymus Bosch, he thought.
"Find anything interesting?" The dry, soft voice right behind him made Pendrell jump.
"Not really. You know, I never thought my liberal arts intro courses would be useful until I started having to talk with you."
The thin smile he got in return perfectly matched how he felt. Pendrell took the cup of coffee Mulder offered him and looked around again. "What's on the agenda tonight?"
"We take a look at what I might have on file, see if we can find anyone else with your kind of resurrection on record. Are you a field agent, Pendrell?" The question seemed almost an afterthought. Mulder wandered over to his phone. It's message light blinked frantically. "I'm half tempted to just put masking tape over that . . ."
"You can't do that!" Pendrell almost kicked himself at the scandalized tone he heard in his own voice. Puffed up a little and then deflated under the amused look Mulder gave him. "I mean, it might be somebody about one of your cases. Somebody important."
"Big foot . . . or maybe Gort." But Mulder was grinning now. Sticking a finger in his free ear to block the racket of the movers - it sounded like they were coming up floor by floor -- he hit the message button. There was another crash out in the hall. They'd be disappointed by Mulder's fridge. Pendrell wandered over to the window, studying the van and wondering idly when the notice had gone around. Glanced back to see Mulder scowling at his phone, then felt a chill as the frown cleared, smoothed to the blank look he'd started to associate with Mulder calculating probabilities. Somehow, when the agent dropped the phone he just couldn't find it in himself to be surprised.
"We need to get out of here." The tense, controlled note of Mulder's voice was scarier than panic. "You take the briefcase."
"What is it?" Whispering, not really sure why but whispering.
Mulder shook his head and scooped his holster off his desk, slipping it on with quick, efficient motions. "Maybe a hunch. Tell you later. Get your coat!" That was a snap, angry, but not really directed at him.
Pendrell shrugged into his coat, hugging the briefcase close as Mulder flipped the fingerlatch free and loosened his gun. Weapon, Pendrell reminded himself. They always called it a weapon. He tried to stay close without getting in the way but even so almost bumped into the field agent when Mulder stopped with his hand on the doorknob. The thumping in the hall didn't cover his soft curse.
He spun in place and headed back, towards the bedroom. Pendrell gasped as long fingers grabbed his arm, dug in and dragged him as fast as Mulder's long legs could carry them. His voice was grim. "Keep hold of the briefcase. We're going down the back."
"The elevator would be faster . . ." Pendrell knew his offered route was only tentative. He watched nervously as Mulder cocked his head, listening to the comforting crash of moving men in the hallway, and the very uncomforting, much softer rattle of the door knob out there.
"Fuckfuckfuck . . ." a soft mantra as Mulder yanked at the painted, jammed window in the bedroom.
"Mulder, are you sure something's wrong?" Pendrell glanced back towards the living room, wondering if they'd really heard the knob rattling.
"There weren't any crates in the truck, Pendrell. They weren't unloading anything, but they've been carting stuff up from the third floor."
Perfunctory explanations broke off in a grunt and a crash as Mulder lost patience with the window frame, drew his gun -- weapon, Pendrell reminded himself, weapon -- and smashed the glass. It shattered out, pinging off the iron security grate. He could hear Mulder panting as if he'd run a mile, felt his own adrenaline singing in his blood at the scratchy, rattling sound of metal on metal from the front hall.
"Shitshitshit. . ." Mulder had changed his litany but the tone was the same as he pawed through his keys, found the small, iron key for the grille and shoved it into the little hole, twisting it and shoving the grate out on its hinges. Chain links snapping against chain links should have been soft, almost lost in the sounds from the hallway but Pendrell heard it when the chain lock broke and, to judge by the way Mulder froze then lunged out onto the fire escape, so did he.
"C'mon-c'mon Pendrell!" The taller man grabbed his shoulders and yanked him out of the window frame, knocking broken glass around and slicing a stinging cut through Pendrell's jeans.
"I am I am! Just leggo!"
Mulder shoved him past and onto the rickety, steel stairs. "Go! Go! Get to the car."
Their feet pounded, thundered really, down metal. He heard it when Mulder stopped, heard the shot squeezed off, so loud it drowned out his footsteps, drowned out his pulse, swept everything else aside. He twisted, looking over his shoulder then Mulder was there pushing him, urging him back down to where the fire stairs ended twelve feet above the alley. "Jumpjumpjump!"
He'd have loved to say something, wanted to remember what Butch Cassidy had said, but couldn't, could only shudder at the tickle of anticipation between his shoulder blades and flinch as another gun cracked and something snapped past, stingingly close. Jumping was easy with that sound in his ears. Hitting the ground and rolling on the cardboard and trash, arms wrapped tight around the briefcase and looking up to see Mulder drop from the fire stairs, with his coat sailing out like Batman's cape for an instant before he hit, too, grunting with impact and then scrambling onto his feet. Another booming crack and something kicked up in front of them.
Pendrell wanted to stop. Wanted to put his hands in the air. Actually balked for an instant until the flat of Mulder's hand practically lifted him and sent him flying over the hood of the Ford. Another shot whistled past, slamming into the ground in front of the car. Open doors, open doors, thank you God and any saints that are there and real Pendrell couldn't even think in real words but he could throw himself into the passenger seat and did. Mulder was backing out and clear before Pendrell even had his door shut, grim in the security lights shining into the alley.
Somewhere, a terrifyingly long way away, sirens wailed but here, all they could hear was the car and their own breathing. The gunshots had stopped.
Brian Pendrell was still shaking. He tried to cover it by clutching the briefcase more tightly, but he knew. Fingertips gripped tight against leather and numb with shocky cold would never be able to stay still and calm in his lap. His teeth ached from how hard he clenched them.
Mulder looked like he always looked. Maybe a little more irritated, if Pendrell really tried to see it. A little tattered, with his coat sleeve ripped on glass. If he really listened he thought he could hear teeth grinding, which made sense. Muscles flickered along the agent's jawline, then suddenly smoothed as he sighed. "Pendrell, we're going to need money."
"Uh huh." Well. Of course they'd need money. You always needed money when people shot at you. Pendrell shook his head fast, replayed the thought and it still didn't make any sense to him. "Mulder. People were just shooting at us. How can you think about money?"
"I can think about it because I don't like going out in the open where they can shoot at us again." The reply was maddeningly calm. "We're going back to the Gunmen's office. I want you to stay in the car and be ready to get out if anything looks bad."
"What? WHAT?" He did let go of the briefcase at last, fingers warmed by the sudden burst of anger. He hadn't been so angry since . . . he had NEVER been so angry. "We're going WHERE? Look, I don't know the first thing about your kind of case, Mulder, but I do know that when somebody shoots at you the first thing you do is go to the police. That's why we have police! It's not why we have conspiracy buffs or tabloids or any of your other silly -- silly --" he spluttered.
"I think 'asshole friends' is the expression you're looking for. Or maybe weird friends if you're taking the polite route." Mulder's autopilot humor didn't make Pendrell feel any better. Not when most of his attention was on his rearview mirrors and he kept taking unnecessary turns onto side streets.
"If we need money stop at a bank machine and then we go to the police, Mulder, and we call in and Mr. Skinner gets agents out to help us and --" His voice seemed abruptly loud when Mulder pulled to the curb and put the car in park. The shadowy face that turned towards his was serious, intent.
"We can't do that, Pendrell. Remember what I told you this afternoon? We show our faces and you, at least, disappear like Jimmy Hoffa."
"But the police were coming to help us." Pendrell almost spluttered that, too. But even as he said it he knew he just wasn't sure anymore, not sure that he trusted the police. Not sure who he trusted.
"Why wasn't your shooting in the papers, Pendrell?" The gentle question must have been rhetorical because Mulder went on. "And why did they try not to hit us? They were shooting over our heads. Why the whole charade about movers? Unless there was something they were there to move."
Boxes. "they were just about six feet long," he blurted. "The boxes."
Mulder nodded. "I don't know why they want you, Pendrell. Oh, I know some of it, but not enough. And I don't know why they didn't try to kill us both. But Skinner left a half dozen messages on my machine asking why I was at Quantico the other night, and whether I knew anything about a theft at the morgue."
"Skinner?" Pendrell's aghast whisper barely got past the chalky, choked feeling in his throat. "A.D. Skinner's in on it?"
A dry chuckle eased his worry a little. Just a little. "I don't think so. Or not the way you think. But I wasn't thinking -- I'd have remembered the parking lot records. The guard at the gate. What Skinner figured out a lot of other people could figure out too."
Such a wistful, bitter note to his voice. Pendrell leaned forward. "Why are we here, Mulder?"
"Because I've made too many stupid mistakes already." The seat belt buckle clicked when he opened it. "I just didn't think about how big this had to be. We can't show up at an ATM, Pendrell. The first time I use my card or yours they'll be on us. No credit cards. No hotel phones. Nothing."
"Oh God." Breathed. More of a prayer than an oath.
Mulder turned, looked at him carefully and smiled. "Don't look so worried. I've done this a few times before. You get better with practice. When I get out, you get in the driver's seat and keep an eye out. Leave the engine running."
"I won't leave you." He was proud that he kept the chill that shriveled his stomach out of his voice.
It didn't matter much. Mulder leaned down to look back into the car at him. "Yes. You will. You have to. Here." He tugged the briefcase out of Pendrell's hands. Pulled out a bundle of black nylon and glossy steel. "You need to carry this."
Brian Pendrell stared at it. "I can't use that."
The frown that met his words wasn't puzzled or inquisitive. It was ice-cold irritation. "You're a field agent. Take it."
"No. I'm not." Pendrell leaned forward and hissed the words. "Not everyone who works for the FBI is a field agent, Agent Mulder. I'm a lab specialist. I'm not --"
The gun was shoved into his hands anyway. Gun, damn it, not weapon. "If you need it, this is the safety." The tap of a finger on repellant metal. "Point it. Hold your breath. Let it out and squeeze, don't pull, the trigger."
"I won't need it." Sullen and frustrated. "And I won't leave you."
"I hope you won't need to do either." Mulder gave him a sharp nod. "Now get behind the wheel."
Pendrell's ears popped when Mulder slammed the door, but he did it. Scooted over the center doo-hickey where Mulder kept change and notebooks and who-knew-what. By the time he pulled the seat up to where he could reach the pedals comfortably, he couldn't see a thin man in a black coat anymore. Couldn't see anything but shadowy shapes that loomed under streetlights, ghastly in the jaundiced, yellow light of sodium vapor.
There are times that time stops meaning anything. Brian Pendrell stared up at the orangey clouds scudding over Washington's sky and wished he could see stars. Wished that minutes were only minutes and not ageless, jittery periods of watching over his shoulder, trying to be invisible in a nondescript but not-cheap car in a very nondescript, very cheap part of town. Wished he didn't have a heavy, ugly lump of killing steel in his lap, but Mulder had told him to keep it and he'd do that for now.
Wished, most of all, that life was normal and he was sitting at home, warm and bored. Except that, deep down, where he never lied, he knew that for the falsehood it was.
The car was chilly and he was sick with nerves but he was there, more alive than he could ever remember. There and waiting and hearing sounds he'd never heard before, seeing the delicate colors of night that he'd never noticed before. He'd never seen beyond the strict dichotomy of day and night. Your path is in the headlights and everything else is "other." Except that now he was other, with a vengeance. Not alive. Not dead. Not a criminal but not obeying the law either and he could just forget about the rules. Pendrell straightened a bit in his seat and peered more closely into the dark. When the lean shadow drifted out of the deeper nighttime tangle that was just abandoned cars by day, Pendrell felt relief but also, surprisingly, did not feel fear go away. He didn't have to feel fear go away - it hadn't been there to begin with.
"Welcome to Motel Hell." Mulder muttered,pulling into the driveway of what advertised itself as a motel. He could have been talking to himself for all the inflection in his voice.
"Why do I get the feeling that you've polished this routine so often it bores even you?" Pendrell smiled a little, taking the sting off it.
The look he got conveyed a wealth of weary resignation packaged for maximum effect. "You're probably spoiled. Techies always get spoiled because they get to stay in places like Holiday Inn on convention rates."
"Hyatt. Or Sheraton. The Association of American Lab Geeks wouldn't be caught dead in a Holiday Inn." Pendrell tried to recall the last time he'd let anyone call him a geek without bristling, let alone having called himself one. New perspectives and, if nothing else, at least he got to smile more often.
"I'll remember that when I hit my mid-life crisis and reconsider my career choices." Mulder yawned and got out of the car.
"Hey!" From the look on Mulder's face, Pendrell had sounded more alarmed than he'd intended. "I just -- you're not going to sneak off or anything are you?"
This time the weary resignation only barely covered a grin, as if Pendrell had walked into a long-running joke. "I won't ditch you like a bad date. But even flea traps discourage squatting, Pendrell. I'll be back with the key."
Key. Singular. He sighed and couldn't decide if he was relieved or nervous. On the whole, maybe a hair more relieved than nervous. And not really quite sure why. Or maybe just not comfortable looking at why. He'd think about it later. For now, he just leaned back, let his neck go loose and watched Mulder slump against the counter in the garish, too-bright lobby of the motel. Pendrell couldn't recall noticing such a thing, noticing that a man might be tired from the way he stood, without even seeing his face. He wondered for a moment if he'd always split humans into "people to be noticed" and "men."
Well. He noticed men now. Noticed the drab clerk who seemed irritated to have to work at this time of night, and who made Mulder wait while he counted the cash for the room one bill at a time. Noticed the field agent's restive shifting from one foot to the other, the way his shoulders bowed just a little more. Pendrell shook his head, looking out at a barren parking lot where broken glass sparkled under corpse-blue streetlights, gleaming with a strange, sad beauty that would fade under day's light. In the dark, he could barely see scaling paint and crumbling concrete. The chiaroscuro of shadow and form gave him a landscape of Mondrian shapes in cool tones.
The door opening snapped him around so fast his neck cricked and he winced at it, and the blare of the dome light. "Woolgathering?" Mulder's voice was raspy with exhaustion.
"Just thinking about the night and how lonely this place is. And how beautiful nighttime can be."
A warm, weary chuckle brought a smile to his lips, put a gentle, human touch on the mechanical rumble of the ignition. "If you're lucky you stop actually seeing these places for what they are and just get it over with."
"No. No, really, Mulder. I was always so busy getting home and getting on with my life, with being who I thought I was, that I never really looked around me. It's beautiful out here at night. You hear things, see things . . . " The car pulled into a parking space at the end of the motel row.
Mulder's dark eyes lingered on his face, and he nodded as he shut the engine off. "Yeah. Sometimes I still see it. Sometimes it scares me when I see it."
"Why?" Pendrell picked up the briefcase, looking around before he remembered there wasn't anything else. Mulder was quiet, leading them to a shabby door and opening it. Pendrell almost asked again, then trusted Mulder to come back to it.
The taller man pulled his coat back, off his shoulders and didn't take it off so much as just let it fall from his arms to pool on the floor at his back. He kept the arch of his spine, kneading his lower back, eyes shut. The lashes were black against dark, purpled circles of exhaustion and Pendrell winced guiltily, then wondered why. He hadn't slept at the morgue exactly, and restful was one thing he'd never claim death had been.
Mulder slumped forward and turned his head, gave Pendrell a gentle, threadbare smile. "It scares me when I feel so at home in the night, in places like this, that I think I've forgotten how to be anywhere real, or how to have something of my own."
Pendrell blinked hard, thinking of two ruined homes, places that were no longer safe or sound. Mulder turned away and slouched towards the bathroom. "Turn on the TV, okay Pendrell?"
The news didn't cover things like refrigerator delivery men going to the wrong apartment, or even things like broken security chains and gun battles in Washington, DC alleys. Mulder lay sprawled across a double bed, knees bent and laptop resting against his thighs. His glasses reflected the television's image when Pendrell looked at him. "I wish you had two of those."
"Sorry." Mulder's mouth quirked in a small grin. "Believe me, I would share the workload if I could."
"Why don't you?" Pendrell hitched himself up on his elbows. "I'm not sleepy. I didn't do the driving."
Mulder didn't so much turn his head as let it fall sideways. "Bullshit, Pendrell. You're wiped. You just don't know it yet. Besides, I know what I'm looking for."
"What do you have there?" Pendrell sat on the edge of his bed, resting his elbows on his knees and studying Mulder's face. "What are you looking for?"
"Ah . . . The X-Files weren't very portable so we commandeered the scanner one weekend." He didn't need to explain who 'we' was. Pendrell didn't miss the lonely, vulnerable expression in his eyes. "We scanned them and put them on these."
"Jazz disks. Nice. I know how to use them too." Pendrell stifled the desire to match Mulder's yawn.
"I know." The quick snort of laughter was familiar. It sent a twinge of memory through Pendrell, recalling that not-quite-laugh in his lab, in the halls of the Hoover building. "I'm looking for the cases indexed as resurrections and for how they dovetail with the abduction and conspiracy cases. Pendrell, I remember most of the names involved in these cases. There are some things you just won't know how to look for."
The gentle denial didn't sting. Much. "Okay. So maybe I can't remember all the names and I don't have a photographic memory --"
"But Mulder, sooner or later I need to know what's in those files. I need to learn that stuff. Don't I?"
"Do you, Pendrell? Once we get you past this mess it won't matter to you. You can go back to your life."
Pendrell let him finish, forced himself not to rise to the practiced resignation he heard. When he answered he kept his voice low and calm. "That's one of the dumbest things I've ever heard in my entire life, Mulder. Something strange reached out and touched me, and it's still looking for me, but even when it stops that doesn't change what's happened. Something I can't explain happened to me, and the odds are that it's happened to someone else."
"A lot of someone elses." Mulder nodded.
"I can't explain it. But only a fool would deny that it's happened." He saw Mulder's wince, gentled his tone even more. "Or a coward. Someone terrified by it. I need to understand it, Mulder. Just because I can't understand it with what I know now, doesn't mean I won't be able to if I learn more."
"'Just because science can't explain it right now, doesn't mean science won't be able to explain it.'" Pendrell could almost hear the quotation marks, and didn't really wonder who had said that to him. Only wondered what had happened to that faith and sense of wonder.
"That's right." He told Mulder. "And science can't grow without observations. Observed phenomenon. Believed, supported, phenomenon."
"So you want to join the X-Files?" The ironic lift of Mulder's eyebrows tried to communicate more than Pendrell knew how to understand. He wished -- then quelled the frustration of knowing he was seeing a language to which he did not yet have the Rosetta Stone.
"I want to know what happened, Mulder. And why. Is that so much to ask?"
The slow, assessing look that judged him gave way to grudging admiration. Pendrell let his intent study of Mulder's face relax into a smile as the laptop was yielded, turned to face him. "You win. I can barely read the print anyway."
Pendrell wasn't sure why he felt relieved, and he didn't worry about it as he reached for the laptop. "I'll take good care of it, Mulder. You get some sleep."
He settled back happily enough, wishing Mulder good dreams even as he dove into reports of nightmares. Brian Pendrell had never worked in the field, or had much contact with the victims of the crimes the FBI investigated -- his specialty was the tiny bits of evidence left behind, the little parts that added up to a whole in someone else's analysis, someone else's job.
The little bits here added up to something that reason and "fact" could not support. Added up to things that made no sense in a sensible, logical world. Kidnappers did not abduct victims and return them with bits of metal in their bodies and fractured memories in their heads. Extortionists did not rob the locked safes of killers, leaving behind only pictures of hazy, incorporeal villains. Serial killers did not leave dead bodies sucked dry of fluids and trapped in insectile sarcophagi. But something did. Something had. And Mulder had weathered disdain and disgust, danger and ostracization to bring back the best information he could. The best guesses he could make.
Pendrell found himself sagging into sleep, snapping awake to find the computer screen inhabited by cartoon aliens, the television set silently tolling the call of tragedies across the globe. He looked over, smiled a little at Mulder, who was huddled to the far side of a bed more than large enough for him, splayed across the side as if he were sleeping on his couch. Yawning, Pendrell shut down the thin, sleek laptop and unplugged its electrical umbilical cord from the wall. It fit snugly back into Mulder's briefcase, safe and sound with room for a bit more left over. He admired the economy of Mulder's piracy, the efficiency in taking what he needed.
In the dark, the television's light flickered erratically. He might have turned it off, but it was somehow comforting. A touch of home in a place that smelled like anything but. It didn't help, not much. Pendrell turned and tossed, trying to find a comfortable way to lie in a bed that didn't have his body's shape worn into the mattress. There wasn't one. It took him hours to decide that, and the clock radio's numbers told him of a time past two-thirty in the morning before he gave up and lay there, remembering every detail of his own home, where he'd left things, and where men he'd never met or let in had left them. Shivered at how naked he felt at the memory, how violated. He wondered how Mulder did it, leaving his apartment so quickly and sleeping so soundly in this strange, unfriendly place.
And Mulder was sleeping soundly, more or less. He found himself watching, studying the man in the other bed. He lay still, shuddering sometimes, muttering under his breath, but never rolled away from the edge over which he'd sprawled. Pendrell envied that, turned away. And found himself turning back because, in all these strange and unfamiliar things, Fox Mulder was neither. Mulder wasn't truly known but he was .. . a piece of Pendrell's life. Something he knew.
Three in the morning. Three and his body was chilled and lonely, heart sick inside him with the hollow sense of loss. His own and the loss he'd cost his companion. And the only comfort was the sound of soft, steady breathing from the bed next to his. He finally couldn't make himself stop, couldn't stay there anymore.
Brian Pendrell crawled carefully, gently into Fox Mulder's bed and moved over under the covers, just close enough to feel the other man's heat, smell his scent, close enough to be within the comfort of his presence. Mulder started. Pendrell felt him tense. "It's okay. I'm sorry, I'll -"
"What is it, Pendrell?" The sleepy voice was ripe with relief, the body relaxing fast.
"I'm sorry Mulder. I'll go away." Scooting back, horrified at himself. The light of the television blurred in treacherous tears and he didn't see the hand that grabbed his wrist.
"No." Mulder rolled over, looking at him through half-open eyes. "What is it?"
He couldn't make himself pull his hand away. "It's -- it's stupid, Mulder. I just -- I just can't sleep. I can't sleep and I keep remembering all the stuff and remembering that life where I tried so hard to be what I thought I was and I never really realized what a little person I am inside it all."
Sleepy eyes blinked at him. Sleepy words, honest ones, answered him. "You're not a little person Pendrell. You're a brave guy. You don't just let things happen to you."
"Brave? You think so?"
Dazed blinks. "Yeah. I do. What'd you want?"
He was torn between backing away, and moving close into the warmth of someone familiar, someone who thought he was brave. Whispered words loud in the dead of night. Words more honest than he'd thought he could say. "I just wanted something familiar Mulder. I wanted something that I knew from the person I've always been. I just wanted to sleep close to you."
The slow, sleepy smile that met his words eased him and made him blush all at once. "Tha's funny, Pendrell. Kinda sweet. I don' mind, but don't blame me if I kick you."
"I won't. I won't." Blinking away the nervous, embarrassed tears from his eyes. Mulder's body was warm, smelling of man more strongly than he had in the car. The heat of sleep washed the space under the blankets as Pendrell gave in to temptation and huddled in close again. This time, Mulder didn't tense, just breathed away in the not-quite peace of his dreams. And in the warmth of his body, Pendrell joined him there soon enough.
"Oh SHIT!" Pendrell woke with a start at the muffled curse and the sudden rush of cold air on his poor, sleep-sensitive body. A dazed curse rose from the floor. "Shit."
"Mulder?" He peeked over the side and winced. Mulder, sprawled in a tangle of sheets and blankets, looked blearily up at him. Pendrell gulped. "Are you okay?"
Blink. Blink. The man on the floor puffed a rueful breath and gave him a thin smile. "Sorry I startled you. I'm not used to people cuddling up to me. Especially not people with a hard on."
"Oh. OH!" Pendrell scooted back into the middle of the bed, face hot. "I'm so sorry. I really am. I didn't mean -"
"No." A languid hand waved over the edge of the bed. Mulder's voice was tinged with amusement. "That first-thing-in-the-ay-em woody's hard to avoid, Pendrell. Don't let it bug you. I just forgot that you were, um . . ."
"Using you as a teddy bear," Pendrell completed, mentally kicking himself again.
"Hey, don't do that." Mulder sat up, resting his chin on arms folded on the edge of the mattress. "Pendrell, you've been through a lot and there's a lot more to go. I'd be really nervous about you if you DIDN'T act rattled and lonely. Did you ever go out in the field?"
The non-sequitur felt weird, dj vu jarring oddly in the changed surroundings since the last time he'd asked that question. Pendrell glanced around almost superstitiously. "I'm not a field agent. I mean, I wasn't. I was on the technical staff, not an agent."
"Ah." Mulder nodded as if that answered more than he'd asked. It grated.
"You know, Mulder, this is all hard enough without you playing hocus pocus magic parlor tricks." The smile that answered him nettled even more. "Maybe your X-Files haunted house owners like feeling like you know more than they do, Mulder and maybe the act makes you feel better but it doesn't make ME feel better and I wish I wasn't here and I just want to go home and have my life back and --" and his nose was running and his words were starting to come so fast they tumbled all over each other and stopped making sense but he was still making little, choked noises in the back of his throat. Itchy, painful tears blurred his vision and he scrubbed at them, hating himself for what he knew looked like a little kid's moves. What one girlfriend once told him looked like a little kid. She'd thought it was sweet. Two months later she left him for somebody she said acted like a man.
The hand that squeezed his shoulder made it harder. No. Made it impossible to hold onto the feeling that was exploding in his chest. For a raw second Pendrell hated Mulder, wanted to scream at Mulder to just get away, go chase ghosts or killers or little green men. Then another sob shook him hard, harder than he could control, and the hand on his shoulder was the only thing holding him together, the voice in his ear the only one that still spoke to him, that still knew his name.
"It's okay, Pendre-- It's okay Brian. It's okay. I know. I know."
"No you don't." Or that's what he wanted to say, wanted words without hiccups tripping them up. "No you don't know how I feel."
The hand went away and that was even worse. Pendrell pulled his knees up double, grinding his face hard against them as if the pressure could hold back tears and the helpless, horrible feeling that he would never be able to find his way back to a life he knew how to live. Then the hands were back, pulling his own away from where they were wrapped around his calves and pushing a flimsy plastic cup against his palms. He sucked in a noisy, wet sniffle and lifted his face to meet Mulder's worried, sympathetic stare. The cup almost collapsed between shaky, uncertain fingers but the water tasted good and it gave him something small and solid to focus on. "Thank you."
Mulder hesitated, watching him a moment longer, then nodded and turned away. He was noisier than he needed to be as he rooted through his briefcase and found a disposable razor. "You know, I used to keep a spare suit and stuff in the trunk, then I got tired of having them smell like whatever had been in there."
"Oh?" Pendrell was grateful for the conversational tone, the sudden tangent into harmless bitching and moaning. "So what does this mean?"
"It means I'm condemned to wear the same suit twice in a row, and we're condemned to shop in some godforsaken Walmart or whatever other strip mall passes for civilization in Ohio." The agent's voice echoed slightly from tile as he took over the bathroom.
Pendrell drank a little more, dipped his fingertips into it and stroked cool, clean water across his face. It was good, even if it didn't taste like the water at home. He sighed.
The shower's white noise reminded him of a pressing need. Pendrell heaved himself back off the bed and padded into the bathroom, blushing from habit as he took care of the piss-hard-on Mulder had so graciously excused. Pendrell wished he himself could excuse it as blithely but found the target practice soothingly familiar. Adjusting his Y-fronts, he addressed the blank faade of cheap shower curtain. "What are we doing, Mulder?"
"What?" Mulder leaned out to look at him. His soap-lather-beard made Pendrell laugh even as he winced at the thought of shaving with the stuff.
"You can tell me later." Another day in the same clothes. He was grateful they'd stopped at his place before they'd been sent running the day before. At least if they had to be on the run, he was re-wearing his own clothes instead of Mulder's cast-offs. "Can I use your razor when you're done with it?"
"I dunno, Pendrell," his voice called, blurred by water and tile refractions. "The last time I loaned my razor to anyone I got it back as a weapon for blunt trauma."
"Let me guess. Scully did her legs with it." CNN still reeled endless disasters locally and abroad, but no sign of Mulder's apartment. No sadly optimistic pictures of missing men or dramatic stories of FBI searches. Pendrell swallowed hard and held onto his feelings tight, relieved to have the banter as cover. "Didn't your father teach you that, Mulder? In my family, the men always taught that to their sons. My mom got stuck with the birds and the bees talk, and my dad told me never to loan my razor to my sister."
Mulder stood in the bathroom door, toweling his hair dry. A shadow hung in his eyes but his mouth quirked as he answered. "Nope. I guess my dad never bought the paternal guide book, Pendrell. I had to learn it the hard way and I paid the price in blood and little, tiny bits of toilet paper."
"You have my condolences." Pendrell nodded solemnly. "I broke up with my second girlfriend when she kept using my razor."
"Any blood shed?" Mulder's tone was absent, attention fixed by the television.
"Not really. Though my college roommate did think that was where I got my dimple. There's nothing there about us, Mulder, you don't need to keep watching."
"I know. That's what I'm worried about." He kept half an eye on the set as he dropped the towel from around his waist and starting climbing back into stale clothing.
Pendrell tried not to watch, invoking the rituals of high school locker room etiquette and focusing narrowly on the television set. It was . . . mortifying to be sitting there with another man naked in the small motel room. And, if he was really honest with himself, it wasn't embarrassing because he didn't want to see Mulder, but because he did. Pendrell shifted uncomfortably and tore himself away from the TV set, gathering his clothes and scuttling past Mulder into the bathroom. He spent a long time in the shower. The hot water felt good and even cheap soap was slick enough for what he needed it for.
"Okay, class. Today's lesson is 'How to Violate Motor Vehicle Regs one-oh-one.'"
"What?" Pendrell stopped cold in the middle of K-Mart's parking lot, gaping at Mulder.
"Here." His companion barely seemed to notice, shoving their big, plastic shopping bag into his hands. "We need to find a couple of neglected cars, Pendrell."
"Mulder!" Pendrell trotted after him, trying to catch his eye. Mulder opened his car door like they'd been discussing the weather. "What are you talking about?"
The taller man slung himself smoothly behind the wheel, and waited for Pendrell to bundle himself into the sun-warmed car. "I'm going to cruise behind the store. You keep an eye out for a good, scruffy car. And watch out for anyone in the area, Pendrell. We don't want to get spotted."
"Ohmygodohmygod you're serious." Pendrell scrubbed his face hard, as if that could make a difference. Mulder started the car, innocent expression firmly in place. "Mulder, we can't! We're law enforcement officers, or at least you're a law enforcement officer and I'm an employee of--"
"Not anymore," Mulder interrupted, peering both ways at the end of a row of cars.
"Okay, not anymore but stealing a car is against the law, Mulder!"
"Who said anything about stealing a car? We're going to steal their license plates." He could have been commenting on the latest box scores. Pendrell stared at him, frustrated.
"Mulder. Stealing peoples' license plates is against the law," he explained with exaggerated patience.
"Unh hunh. So what?" He turned into the desolate parking Siberia behind the big, ugly discount store.
Pendrell watched him surreptitiously checking for anyone on foot or sitting in their cars. "So we're supposed to enforce the law, Mulder. Not break it. Just because we're not in the office doesn't mean we get to break the rules."
"That's what they tell me," he replied absently before pointing to a rusty Chevy Impala. He pulled in, blocking the Impala from view, and reached across Pendrell to take a small tool kit out of the glove compartment. "What a junker. It's perfect!"
"I don't believe you're doing this. I don't believe I'm going to WATCH you do this!" Pendrell cringed, but still got out of the car and followed Mulder over to his intended victim. The badge-carrying shameless scofflaw was scoping the lot one last time as he pretended to study the car. Pendrell could tell he liked what he saw when he dropped to his haunches and began applying wrench to bolt. "You're going to get this poor guy in so much trouble. You know, I used to hate it when people did this kind of thing to me."
"Someone stole your license plates?" Mulder glanced up at him curiously.
"My battery. I wanted to scream."
"Pendrell, who the hell steals a battery? Did they at least take your hub caps to give it a little dignity?" He was scowling, working the wrench with both hands to get the dirt-gummed bolts free.
"That's the point, Mulder. There's no dignity in stealing pieces of some poor innocent's car." He mustered his most disapproving tone. "Theft be not proud."
"But it can be practical." Mulder breathed a curse and twisted the wrench again until the second bolt clattered to the stained asphalt. "In our case it may make the difference between life and death."
"Oh, oh! Don't try to pass this off as noble, Mulder. You're stealing some poor kid's car ID!"
"You're awfully quick to assume it's a kid, Pendrell." Mulder happily liberated the plate. "Jumping to assumptions can lead you astray."
"Who else would work at K-Mart and drive a heap like this?" Pendrell shook his head in disgust as Mulder handed him the plates. "First I die then I become a criminal accomplice."
"Yep. Let's make our getaway." Mulder whistled something hideously off-tune as he hopped back into his Crown Vic. "We've got another innocent car to molest."
"Oh my God! Not another one!" Pendrell winced in disgust. "Is this some kind of fetish for you? How many license plates are you going to steal in this spree? Did you do this when you were investigating cases?"
"Which question do you want me to answer first? Or should I just mix them up and let you guess which I'm answering? No I didn't. No, it's not, and not as many as I'd like but enough to confuse the trail."
" . . . okay." Pendrell went over his answers again, mentally matching them to their most probable question. The final answer deserved a bit of mulling. He considered it, turning to Mulder with a slow, dawning apprehension. "The trail. You think people are following us?"
"I have absolutely no doubt about it, Pendrell." Mulder found his way down quiet backstreets into a slightly decrepit suburb of shabby ranch houses. "I really love neighborhoods like this. The creative mix of garden gnomes and painted truck tire planters helps me keep in touch with the quintessential American spirit."
"Didn't anyone ever teach you to be nice about peoples' homes?" Pendrell frowned at the comment although he, himself, would never have gone for the lawn gnomes. Let alone paint them. "Using truck tires as planters is good recycling."
Mulder blinked and his tongue dug into his cheek. "You're right. And I probably shouldn't criticize the artful use of concrete squirrels either. I stand chastised."
"Actually, you're sitting." Pendrell sighed. "Do we really have to do this to someone else's car? And if we do it out here, won't the neighbors see?"
"That's why I'm looking for a paranoid with a stockade fence. Like that one down the block. See it?"
"I bet they've got a dog," mourned Pendrell. "A really, really big dog."
"Probably. That's where you come in." He circled the block, studying the fence that barricaded his target from its neighbors. "Oh, it's wonderful Pendrell. They've got a stockade AND a parking pad! Paranoia and convenience and it looks like the neighbors are all at work, too. We're blessed."
"Right." Pendrell heaved another sigh. "We'll have to thank the patron saint of license plate thieves."
"Is there one?" Mulder pulled up to the curb at the end of the street and got out his tools. "Okay, this is what you do. Go up to the door and ring their bell. I mean, ring it long and hard. If they're there, get them to the door and if not then still ring the bell."
"Do I have to help you do this?" Pendrell knew he was whining -- not much, just a little whine, but a whine all the same.
"Yes you do. You're covering my back like a partner, Pendrell." He scooped the looted license plates off the floor.
"What am I supposed to say to them?" He slumped in resignation and wondered if there was some kind of dispensation for sins committed after you were already dead.
"Make something up. If I were you I'd start telling them about God or insurance, whichever you know better --"
"That's horrible! You want me to impersonate a Bible salesman?"
"Jehovah's Witness if you can do it." Mulder shivered in the brisk breeze, then gave him a lunatic grin. "Ideally, stick your foot in the door and try to talk in one long, run-on sentence so they never get a word in."
"How long do I have to keep this sham up? Besides, Jehovah's Witnesses dress nicely. They don't wear blue jeans." Pendrell gestured at himself.
Mulder rolled his eyes. "Give me strength. If you start talking and make it sound good they'll want you out of there so badly they won't notice what you're wearing until it's too late. When you hear me honk the horn you can make a graceful exit, and everyone'll be happy."
Pendrell watched him start away and sighed. Again. No, Sunday school never covered this.
By the time he got back, Mulder had the second, "new" tags on their car. "Good work, Pendrell. We're now Ohio drivers."
"I thought their dog was going to rip my throat out." Pendrell shuddered and brushed again at the trailing streaks of Rottweiler drool on his jeans.
"You did a great job distracting it. Really fantastic."
It was hard to tell if Mulder was making fun of him or being serious. Pendrell considered whether it might be possible to do both at the same time. The car felt like shelter when he climbed back into it. "Was that really necessary, Mulder? All that stuff with the plates?"
The agent visibly gave it some thought as he turned on the ignition. "Maybe. Maybe not. It might slow down a search a lot, though. We're in a late model, inconspicuous car. These people probably won't notice they've got the wrong plates for days, if ever. When was the last time you really LOOKED at your license plate?"
" . . . point taken."
"And until the first theft gets traced from the junker to the paranoids, they won't know to look for these plates." Mulder's face relaxed infinitesimally as they left the neighborhood and joined heavier traffic. "A little electrical tape and mud and we might be just about invisible for a while, as long as we keep moving."
"Okay. That sounds . . . that sounds like a good reason," Pendrell allowed. He looked away, fidgeted a moment then turned to pull his new, unspittled jeans out of the K-Mart bag. Tags fluttered off them like paper flags. He started trying to decapitate the little plastic punch-strings to pull them off. Frowned briefly at the thought of the new outfits in the bag.
The question nagged as he studied a price tag. "How much money did the Gunmen give you?"
Mulder glanced over. "There's a Swiss Army knife in the briefcase."
"Survival gear for the modern agent on the run," quipped Pendrell. The thought of Mulder's sense of humor rubbing off on him made him frown. "So, how much?"
Mulder studied him with a skeptical look studied him before turning back to keep the perfect distance between him and the old lady in front of them. "You didn't count it last night after I went to sleep?"
Pendrell jerked his head up, shocked. "No! That's -- that'd be prying!"
"It was in the back of the briefcase," Mulder commented in a totally neutral tone. "I'm surprised you didn't look."
Pendrell paused, trying to figure out what he wanted to say and whether he wanted to let Mulder have it for insulting him. Finally settled back into his car seat and pulled another pair of cheap jeans out of the K-Mart bag. "Are you used to people pawing through your stuff, Mulder? Because I'm not. And what would I do with it?"
A slow, delighted smile that met his words. It seemed odd and sad to Pendrell, to be so pleased over a thing like that. "I don't know. I just -- I guess I'm used to people who try to think ahead to what they might need to do."
"Does Scully look through your stuff, Mulder?" The question was out before he could stop it.
"Sometimes. If she thinks I'm in trouble." Mulder's matter-of-fact reply bothered him on some very deep level. "She's got the key to my place. By now she may have searched it and figured out what happened."
Pendrell turned away, staring at the suburban clutter that overran Ohio's gentle hills. "I guess that's a good thing."
"It's saved my life a couple of times." That uninflected tone again. Pendrell was starting to wonder at what that tone hid. Maybe Mulder himself wasn't sure of all the ambivalent things that tone might hide. A thin, sour smile telegraphed his mood. "And at least she uses a key."
What could anyone reply to that? He just nodded and held his peace, thinking about the files he'd read. "Your cases . . ."
"What about them?" Mulder changed lanes without looking, ignoring the horn from the driver they cut off as he took the on-ramp to Rte. 40 a hair too fast.
"Well . . . I haven't read all of them yet. I just skimmed the ones dealing with resurrection but they didn't seem like they related to me at all."
"True. Most resurrection cases have a significant religious component. Unless I really missed something big there weren't any faith healers or blessed children in the Headless Woman when you got shot. In fact, for once I'll have to accept coincidence. I think you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time." The lecturing tone was comfortable for Pendrell, impersonal and detailed, letting him distance himself from what had happened to him.
"Is this going to be like twenty questions? You did have one really weird little note flagged in the resurrection directory to also see the Gauthier file and that it was cross referenced for possession and abduction."
"Yeah." Mulder nodded. "What I really wanted was a database but they waste space. Besides, I usually remember most of what I need to know."
"Okayyyy -- So tell me about the Gauthier file and whether I'm actually possessed instead of resurrected," Pendrell drawled.
"The devil made you do it?" Mulder shot him a lightning grin.
"My mom took us to church every Sunday, Agent Mulder." Pendrell pulled out his starchiest, most reproving tone. "I'm sure if the Devil was looking for souls, mine wouldn't have been the first on the list."
"Pride, Pendrell, pride. You're straying into some deadly sins there."
Pendrell bit the insides of his cheeks to keep from grinning. "But honesty is a virtue, Agent Mulder. False humility would be a lie."
"Don't tell me you're the last virgin in DC too!"
"No. And not on the technicality of not being in DC anymore, either." Pendrell pursed his lips.
The comment hung in the air, leaving both of them feeling almost comfortable with the silence. Or at least, Pendrell felt comfortable until he started considering the road ahead and the X-Files he'd read. "So. Is there anything in the X-Files I should be looking for? Anything like what's happened to me?"
Mulder waggled one hand, then draped it back over the wheel. "There are abduction and implant cases. Two overall grades of implants, like the Gunmen talked about. One definitely does not correspond to any terrestrial materials, but it appears to be encoded with something that looks a lot like genetic code. The other? Maybe. Very interesting stuff. May be human in origin but I haven't heard about one robust enough to verify that."
"Ah. Do they burn out when you try to work with them?"
"You're thinking too high tech." Mulder ran the tip of his tongue over his lips. "They simply burn and crumble. No evidence. The story of my life."
Somewhere in all that there was a hint of a goal. "So we're heading to San Francisco to see Gauthier?"
"What makes you think that?" Mulder's look was genuinely bemused.
"You've obviously got some idea of where we're headed." Pendrell pulled a folded map out of the door pocket beside him. "I can navigate better if know where you want to go."
Mulder was worrying his lip again, nerves apparent in the unconscious gesture. "You might not need the map, Pendrell. How's your homing instinct?"
"Homing? Oh." He stared out the window a moment, then back at Mulder. "Why?"
"Because you're right. There are some cases in there with similarities to yours but nothing precisely like it." He gave Pendrell an apologetic grin. "If you'd developed cancer I'd know where to start. If you didn't have the chips I'd be heading for San Francisco. I might be wearing lead, but I'd have some idea of where to start."
"Lead?" Pendrell was learning how to field those pop flies.
"Gauthier." Mulder shoved the pedal down to pass a minivan. "He had what you might call a close encounter and came back hotter than hell. Geiger counters had nervous breakdowns around him."
"Oh my God. When did he die?"
"He didn't." Mulder shook his head. "Don't ask me why not. I haven no idea why, but he's still alive and well. He just suddenly stopped being radioactive."
"What happened to him?"
"Hard to say. He claims he found a man alive in a submerged WWII fighter. That's damn close to resurrection, and Gauthier had a period of memory loss."
Pendrell sat up, amazed at the adrenaline jolt the met even those similarities. "Did he die? Did everyone think he was dead, like me?"
Mulder shook his head, regret plain on his face. "Nope. He was reported ambulatory, though he seemed to suffer a severe, atypical aphasia."
"At the risk of sounding stupid --" Pendrell interrupted.
Mulder nodded. "He didn't speak and it's unclear if he understood spoken language. There's some testimony indicating he may have been totally impaired linguistically though he made a complete recovery. But Gauthier's not what struck me about you."
Pendrell held his breath for a count of five and let it out, puffing his cheeks. "You wanted to be a stage magician when you were growing up, didn't you?"
"Not really." Mulder gave him a baffled look. "You have this way of going off on tangents that's really confusing, Pendrell."
The only thing to do was bite his tongue and prompt Mulder back on track. "So if it wasn't Gauthier . . .?"
"Oh. Umm. Right. It was what he reported when that whole case started." Mulder was paying very close attention to the sporadic midday traffic. Not to any one car, just to anything but Pendrell. "The man in the WWII fighter?"
"Trapped diver," guessed Pendrell.
"Nope. The pilot. He'd been down there since 1947. If that's not the first cousin to resurrection I don't know what is." The light tone of the comment didn't sound effortless.
Pendrell thought about decades alone in the dark, and his stomach did a slow, horrible roll. "Jesus. Did he have the chips?"
"No way to tell." Mulder shook his head. "They never retrieved the plane. Gauthier wasn't able to report it until the cerebral incident was over and by then the currents had carried it away. I guess that's what happened. When I tried to follow up I just hit a brick wall."
"Sounds like that's about par for the course for you." Pendrell hoped he'd take the gambit, change the subject.
"They can only put up so many brick walls, Pendrell." The reply was so gentle it hurt. "They didn't expect what happened to you. They made a mistake. We just have to keep on pushing, keep them making mistakes."
"I felt so good yesterday morning." He heard the bitterness in his own voice, unaccustomed and uncontrollable. "For the first time, I thought I was free. That I'd be able to make my life what I want it to be, all because I knew, finally, precisely what the worst thing that could happen to me was and it wasn't so bad."
Mulder gave him a concerned look. "Pendrell, everything's a mystery at least once. We will find what they did, and when we do, we'll have part of the key to making them back off."
"Part of it. And you don't know what part or how big." Pendrell bit down on his own lip, on sour words he didn't want to unleash. "Look. I know you're trying to help me, but what if you can't? Your computer's full of all these files and none of them have answers, Mulder. Not really. You've piled guesses on top of guesses and they were good ones."
Mulder opened his mouth but Pendrell cut him off. "No. No. I want to finish something myself, you know? People always cut me off. Hell, somebody I didn't know cut my life off! And he didn't even mean to, Mulder; do you know how that feels? I don't even know where to begin understanding getting shot just because I tried to hand a cup of beer to somebody!"
"You will finish this." The soft words cut through his rising anger and hysteria so fast it left him breathless. "Answers don't come easy, Pendrell. I know they don't. Some of them will eat you alive, take your life and swallow it whole but the only thing you can do is hammer away at it. Maybe I pile up guesses, but like you said, they ARE good guesses. They're usually right guesses. And they take me to the next step, and the next, and sooner or later I'll get the bastards. I'll fucking pin them to the wall and make them answer me. MAKE them give me the truth."
Pendrell's temper imploded in the cold, hard breath of Mulder's words. He shivered and nodded. "You mean it, don't you. You do understand."
The look that answered him was unreadable, too many things moving too fast. Pendrell shivered again but not from cold. The sudden warmth of trust and something deep and painful and sweet made him glad that he didn't have to answer. Didn't have to keep a steady voice in the face of what he saw.
"You'll finish this, Pendrell. You're learning it. I don't know where it ends, Pendrell. All I know is where to start."
"But you said you hadn't seen anything quite like this?" Not challenging him, just asking.
"I haven't. But that's one thing I do have the answer for." Mulder's smile was full of old shadows. "When you don't know any better the only place to start is the beginning. I'm taking you home."
"Home." Pendrell nodded. "I guess if you don't know a place to start that Utah can't be any worse than anyplace else."
"I'd forgotten this about America." Pendrell focused on what looked like a cow on top of a building. A really HUGE cow. "I never particularly noticed things like plastic cows on top of buildings before."
"You never spotted the big insects on vans or the occasional hot rod sticking out of a bar roof?" Mulder leaned back and hooked his heels on the dashboard.
It was very distracting. Very. "What are you doing?"
"Stretching my hamstrings. I haven't been running since we went on the lam and it's driving me crazy."
"Crazier, you mean." Pendrell bit his tongue on the sour note that had crept into the comment. "I'm sorry."
"No, you're not." Mulder's philosphical tone actually irritated him more. "But I think you probably are stir crazy and I know that I am."
"Yeah." Pendrell shifted uncomfortably in his seat, working his fingers on the steering wheel. "Mulder, why aren't you married?"
The other man's eyebrows rose. Pendrell had gotten good enough at reading the face that half the FBI had thought expressionless that he cringed at his own tactless, blurted question. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't pry . . ."
"It's okay. You just surprised me." Mulder took his heels off the dashboard and sat up. "I'm not used to people asking me stuff like that."
"You're not?" Pendrell stared at him a moment before looking back at the semi he had been following for fifteen miles. "I mean . . . yeah. That was a dumb question but what do you talk about if -- if -- well. I mean -- I know when all Lisa's kids - she's the gas chromatographer . .."
"Please." Mulder held out his hands in the universal STOP sign, "do NOT tell me their names and dates of birth."
"Not even their favorite baby foods?" Pendrell shot him a grin. "Well. You get the idea. If you don't talk about yourself, if people don't ask, then what DO you talk about Mulder?"
Mulder ran his tongue over his teeth and the look Pendrell caught struck him as a little sly, a little nervous. "I talk. Sports. The weather. You know, the same as anyone else."
"Uh hunh. The Redskins and the X-Files." He held his breath waiting for his passenger to reply, waiting to see if he'd pushed too far.
Tension bled out fast at the tentative nod that met the comment. "Yes," admitted Mulder, squinting out at the fields with their ruffs of maple and oak. "Sometimes people even listen to me. They don't want to, really. It's scary to believe what I believe; people don't like hearing it."
"Mulder, it's not scary. Not like you think." Pendrell shoved his sunglasses up his nose, pinched the bridge, let them drop back into place. "I'm sorry, but it's not really scary. It's just weird."
"Yeah. I know that too." Mulder gave him a deceptively bland smile. "But then, I don't have a hole in my chest."
"Ouch." Pendrell winced, a little chagrined.
"Why does it sound weird Pendrell? You said it sounds crazy and it does, but why?" Mulder's expression had gone distant, eyes staring out over Midwestern cornfields that blurred into a soft green haze. "We used to think it was weird to imagine priests fucking little kids. After all, they were men of God."
"Mulder . . ."
Hazel eyes focused on him, sharp and flat. The abstract, bitter voice drummed the words. "Denial's wonderful. For a little while we can pretend nothing's wrong but the little kids still get fucked; they still disappear in the middle of the night. The men and women still come back with pieces of metal in their heads. This shit keeps on happening whether you or I want to believe or anyone else wants to believe it or not. It just keeps happening and it's happening faster and faster, Pendrell. So what's weird about it? You tell me. Is it weird that I talk about it or is it weird that it's happening all over the goddamned place and people think I'M crazy because I talk about it? Who taught you it's weird, Pendrell? And where the FUCK do you get off telling me it's weird with what's happened to you."
The pedantic, lecturing veneer over his anger had gone thing, scraped through. Pendrell listened to the abrupt silence when he stopped and wished he could make himself look at Mulder. "I'm sorry, Mulder. I --I should have known better."
Mulder almost seemed to collapse into himself. From the corner of his eye, Pendrell could see the heat and anger bleed away, leaving weary resignation that made his voice soft and flat. "It sounds weird. Just like it sounds paranoid when I say 'they tell you not to believe it.' I don't know who 'they' are, Pendrell. If I did I could make them stop. But people have to believe you first. And they have to hear you before they will listen."
"When did you start listening?" The question was a little shaky with nerves, tentative. The tired grin he got might have been meant to reassure. Pendrell found himself reaching out, just resting his hand on Mulder's shoulder for a moment, an instant. Just past the subtle flinch.
"I started listening when . . . Christ, Pendrell. You don't want to hear this shit. It's old history." There was no expression to read.
Pendrell wished he'd left his hand on Mulder's shoulder, almost as if he could understand by touch what was too hard in words. "I do want to hear, Mulder. What made you believe?"
"Wrong words, Pendrell." Mulder ran a hand through his hair, leaving it disheveled. "I want to believe."
He swallowed at the itchy lump that caught in his throat. " . . . what do you want to believe?"
"You don't want to know." The answer was too quick, too definite.
"You've never told anyone, have you? What you want to believe?" He made himself not look, made himself give Mulder that space.
The chuckle that answered was forced, for all that it was a good fake. "If I wanted therapy I could get a shrink, Pendrell. Or a talk show host and I'd get a makeover on top of it all."
"Why is it okay to talk about the X-Files but not about you?" Pendrell finally glanced over, took in a face that looked calm and relaxed, but skin pulled just a little too tight across the cheekbones.
"Didn't you ever read the Jake and Amy studies, Pendrell? Knowledge is power."
God almighty, but he had never been good at this sort of thing; never tried to navigate a mine field like this one. "Is that what you wanted the X-Files to give you?"
Mulder dropped the seat back, then brought it up too upright. "You don't want to know, and I don't want to tell you."
Pendrell took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He wanted to snap but it wasn't that hard to ask gently. "I've got a hole where somebody shot me because of one of your cases. I woke up in a morgue. I am one of your cases. And . . . Mulder. I want to know. You'll go out and make a complete and utter fool of yourself telling people things they don't want to know and will not hear. Why won't you tell me these things?"
The silence hung so long that he thought Mulder wasn't going to answer. When the reply came it was so soft he'd have missed it if he hadn't been sitting there with every nerve waiting. "There are so many things I want to believe, Pendrell. I want to believe it'll work out. That Sam's alive. That if I can just learn and know enough, I can make it work out. If I can just show everybody enough, they'll believe before it's too late."
"Do you believe?"
"In things that scare me so bad that I can't sleep with the lights off, Pendrell. I believe in things that I don't understand, and if I could prove they were superstition I would. But everything I find tells me they're true. I believe. I believe in the things I don't want to, and I can't believe in the things I want to believe in."
The soft, toneless voice trailed off, leaving them sitting alone together in the hum of rubber on asphalt and the whisper of wind in early corn.
"Why don't you let me drive for a while." Mulder's voice was raspy from silent hours.
"Are we going to try to go straight through tonight?" Pendrell wasn't able to keep the despair from his voice. "I mean, I want to get to Utah in one piece, Mulder. Nebraska is . . . is . . ."
"Flatter than road kill?" Mulder arched an eyebrow and grinned, visibly relieved to leave the melancholy silence behind.
Pendrell grimaced. "That's sort of what I'm afraid of. I almost fell asleep in daylight."
"Road hypnosis. Next thing you know you'll be seeing the Strip Joint of the Gods and other well known Midwestern mirages." Mulder's deadpan was so perfect it took Pendrell a moment to realize he wasn't serious.
"I'm too tired for this." He yawned for emphasis. "Can you give me a break and do Three Stooges or something I'd recognize for a change?"
"Pendrell!" Mulder sat upright in mock horror. "A Stooges fan? I'd somehow thought better of you. I thought Scully was the only Stooges fan I'd get saddled with."
"Slowly she turned, step by step?" Pendrell couldn't even get close to Mulder's delivery. He didn't have the control to keep from grinning like a demented chipmunk.
"Yeah." Mulder leaned back, at ease. "The first time she said 'nyuk nyuk nyuk' on a case I thought I was going to choke on my coffee."
His wistful smile left Pendrell feelings somehow . . . lonely. "I was always a little more of a Mel Brooks sort of guy."
"Candygram for Mongo?"
Pendrell smiled back, "'Mongo loves candy,'" yawning, "Mongo also wants one of those bedbug motels."
"You're becoming a real connoisseur." Mulder caught his yawn, jaw stretching like a cat's. "I hate to admit it, but I think you're right. We'll have to wait for tomorrow to see Omaha in the rear view mirror. And we were making such good time before . . ."
"We made good time across states that weren't nearly as wide as this one. And we've still got a long drive. Especially since you won't let us take the most direct route."
"Don't blame me." The response was as good natured as the gibe. "I'm not the one they're chasing for once."
"Ah -- I guess I'll have to get used to that, won't I?" Pendrell swallowed hard, trying to hold onto the light mood.
He could feel dark eyes searching his face. Wondered when he'd become so aware of their color, of tiny flickers of expression that weren't intended to be read. "I wish I could tell you different, Pendrell."
"Will you tell me one thing?" Glancing over, finding a smile somewhere and hoping Mulder would believe it.
"If I can."
The certainty in the answer almost shook him. Pendrell took a deep breath, looked out at the highway and the oncoming headlights. "Do you believe in love?"
" . . . I'm not sure I follow you, Pendrell." Soft, hesitant words.
He wasn't used to hearing Mulder off balance. Glanced over into intent curiosity and away, back out to the dull glow of Omaha's lights, orange in the high, thin clouds. "I mean, do you . . . earlier, I didn't mean to insult you."
"I know that."
He could hear Mulder waiting. "I mean. I meant . . . I wanted to know if you'd -- ever been in love."
Pendrell couldn't keep it up. He let Mulder's question lead him astray, just a little. "You know, I always just figured I'd meet someone. Someone I'd love and we'd fall for each other and just know, or something like that. I don't know. But get married and settle down? I don't think I really wanted to know how I'd get there but I just thought that was what would happen. I was so sure."
Mulder nodded, the motion catching at the edge of Pendrell's peripheral vision. Didn't interrupt the babbling words but made a small noise that somehow invited him to keep going.
"Well." He sucked in another deep breath, face tingling just a little he was so lightheaded. "Well. I guess that won't happen now. Will it?"
"You don't know that. Maybe it still can, Pendrell." Mulder's voice was soft, reassuring. Somehow, his words made it worse. Pendrell bit down on his lip, trying to think and not feel the way he was feeling. Not even sure how he was feeling, if he really wanted to be honest.
"I don't think I want it to happen that way anymore Mulder." Glancing over to the shadowed face next to him and looking back, still seeing the slightly crooked, imperfect profile with the slightly-too-big nose and slightly-too small chin. And the eyes, wide and black in the shadowy car. "I don't think that's how it will happen. It hasn't happened for you."
"I thought it did, once." A tone rich with the texture of an old ache that had faded to become more pleasure than hurt. "I don't know if I believe in true love or love at first sight, Pendrell. I know that I used to. And I believe in -- in soulmates. People you're meant to be with."
"That sounds right." He hadn't wanted to say it out loud, bit down cruelly on his tongue. "I mean . . ."
Mulder saved him, all unknowing. A soft laugh that belonged in the velvety dark. "Sometimes you just meet them, Pendrell. Never trust love. It slips away in a heartbeat; it leaves you alone. But fate. You can trust fate. Sooner or later you find what you need to find."
Pendrell looked over at him then, wanting to see the memories he saw and seeing only the man in his car. "I guess you're right. Like I found you."
The Spice Girls wanted to talk about life after Ginger. Ralph Fiennes was having a left-brain day. Minnie Driver was the Hollywood pick of the year. Brian Pendrell had no idea what he was doing there.
Well. No. That wasn't strictly true. He did know what he was doing. He was looking for help. It was more a matter of not knowing why he was there. Well. No. That wasn't true either. He was there because every time he turned his head he smelled Fox Mulder's scent on his skin; it smelled good. When he closed his eyes he saw Fox Mulder's face shadowed by headlights, eyes dark and warm. And, God help him, it made him hard. He knew what that meant, and he knew why. But he didn't know how to deal with it. So maybe it was more a how than a what or why kind of thing, and of course when and where would look after themselves.
Pendrell swallowed and the apparition of his third grade teacher asked him who had picked up that copy of Blue Boy if it wasn't him. Actually, it had been Playboy she'd found and he'd admitted who picked it up right away, figuring that the only option left was to try to mitigate his sins by confession. It hadn't appeased her and now, decades later, he just couldn't do it. And Playboy would be a relief to pick up. He only wished it was Playboy. That would make life so much simpler than . . .
Blue Boy. The Advocate. He just couldn't make himself pick them up and walk up to hand them to the bored sales clerk. If they were even for sale in a Nevada convenience store, which they weren't, which was a relief if he were honest with himself though he was still going to be confused. Good word for it. Confused. Pendrell finally settled for Cosmopolitan's 'All About Men' issue and fumbled his way through dollars, change and excuses about fictional wives before he was able to escape the magazine stand with his purchase clutched to his chest.
Mulder. Wasn't in the Burger King anymore. Pendrell hadn't been good at surreptitious when he'd been a child -- he'd always been the first one found in hide-and-seek -- and he wasn't a lot better at it now, but he did manage to spot his quarry before Mulder could spot him. He stopped just to watch, wondering dismally what he'd done to make God do this to him. It wasn't like he'd asked to fall in love with Fox Mulder. It wasn't like he didn't know how big a disaster this could be. And common sense had nothing whatsoever to do with the relief of seeing the lanky shape leaning against the metal frame of a pay phone, white and red and yellow bags huddled at his feet as he . . .
Talked on the pay phone? Who would he call that he'd use a pay phone instead of the phone in the sleazy motel room?
Pendrell had never been a spy. He wasn't even a field agent, although he was an excellent civil servant and all around whiz with trace evidence, but he drew on every James Bond movie he'd ever seen, and every case file he'd ever read and simply walked up behind Mulder just like anybody else. Sneaky is obvious and obvious is sneaky. Or so he told himself. Then again, the hum and whine of traffic and the shrieks of small children howling for burgers did a lot to cover his unstealthy stealthy approach.
"I'm at a payphone. Scully, please. Don't try to trace me. I need to. . ." Mulder was studying his watch. Pendrell studied the motion, the easy way the phone was braced between shoulder and ear while he turned his wrist to see. Guiltily winced when something caught the agent's eye and he turned, stared at Pendrell with an expressionless face but caught-in-the-headlights eyes. Disappointed tone of voice, too. "No. Scully, I can't come in. That's just not an option right now."
Whatever had been in Mulder's eyes was gone in an instant as he flinched from the phone then put it back to his ear. "Look, I'm sorry Skinner's pissed. I can't help that. But something's come up and I can't . . ."
Pendrell bit his lip hard, waiting. His magazine curled in his hands.
Mulder kept glancing from his watch to the road, frown etching deeper between his brows. He didn't raise his voice but the muscles along his jaw bunched and he kept drumming his fingers on the phone's metal casing. "I'm not asking you to follow me Scully, or to lie for me. I know they're asking you questions. I can't tell you right now."
He turned abruptly away, leaving Pendrell with his back. Soft words, broken, reached him anyway. "Yes. Of course I trust you . . . I'm not the only one involved. No. I can't tell you that."
Pendrell shifted foot to foot, trying to sketch in what he couldn't hear; watching headlights, flinching at turn signals. Finally, "Scully. I'm sorry. I promised. I promised . . ."
It was enough and too much. Pendrell stepped forward and reached around Mulder. His fingers found the cradle, clicked it down and broke the connection. He looked up to meet Mulder's stare. Mulder's hand rested on the buttons, almost hovered. Pendrell let his hand fall gently to cover it, wove his fingers through Mulder's and would not let himself break the now-startled gaze meeting his own. "Thank you for not telling her."
"She's trying to help us, Pendrell. We should tell her. I should . .."
He tightened his fingers just a little, tugging Mulder's hand away from the phone. He crushed what he wanted to say and chose his words carefully, "I know she's trying to help. But there are things she just can't do, Mulder. How could she follow you here?"
Whatever he said hit some nerve, hit it hard. Mulder barely moved but Pendrell could feel it in the twitch of his fingers, the hand that he didn't let go. "She's followed me so far . . ."
"Followed you, Mulder. For once she deserves the chance to find her own way." Pendrell tried to find the right words for what he wanted to say, words that curdled and wouldn't come true. "I need to talk to you, Mulder. Right now. About this and, I guess, about Scully and -- and a lot more."
Traffic on Omaha's straight, long highway kept blurring into a river of light in Pendrell's eyes, turning back into cars when he blinked away tears from the chill wind. Mulder was slowly mangling the Burger King sacks into pulp. Pendrell almost reached over and took them from him, but the focused, over-controlled look on Mulder's face stopped him. He blinked again, vision blurred even though the breeze wasn't really blowing just then. Blurted "I'm sorry, Mulder."
Eyes colorless in the stark glow of the streetlights studied him expressionlessly. "Why?"
Pendrell blinked, looked away trying to sift through the meaning of a single word. "I -- I'm sorry about . . . Jesus, Mulder. I'm not sorry I hung up on Scully but I am sorry I made you feel like this."
"You don't know how I feel." Mulder's words, his expression, were terrifyingly mild.
"I know how I feel about this, Mulder." Pendrell ran his fingers through his short, crinkly hair. "I know you're mad at me and I don't want . . ."
"I thought you wanted to wait until we got to the room for this, Pendrell." Mulder's observation would have stung less if it he'd had any tone at all in his voice.
Pendrell sighed. "If I could avoid ever talking about this I would, Mulder, but I did it and I'd rather not walk a mile to a motel with you. . . I don't know, condemning me the whole way. I'd rather talk to you now."
"Where you don't have to look at me?" The humor in his voice wasn't a lot better than the flat, toneless words had been.
"No." Pendrell shook his head, turned to look Mulder full in the face. "That's one thing I can do."
Paper crumpled in fisted hands. Mulder turned square to face him, ignoring the traffic, the breeze. Pendrell shivered in the tight focus of his attention and crossed his arms over his chest, magazine hugged close. "You want to get into this, Pendrell? Okay. You hung up on my partner in the middle of a discussion. Queasiness is one thing but we've run halfway across the fucking country without backup and without a word to anyone who's -- who's --" Mulder almost waved his hands, frustration clear on his face, and had to catch one bag when the paper finally gave way. "Do you want to tell me what this shit is all about?"
The flush of anger and confusion in the other man's face was a relief. Something he understood. Pendrell took a deep breath and straightened his back, collecting himself. "Mulder, why didn't you call in the FBI? You tell me."
Blink. Blink. Blink. He could see the wheels turning, the slow bleed of tension from Mulder's shoulders and back as his mind worked the question. No one slowed for two men on the side of the road. They were as alone in a room the size of the night. Mulder finally gave a rueful little smile. "I didn't call the FBI becauase -- at first because it seemed so damned outrageous, Pendrell. I mean - I'm used to seeing strange stuff but there are limits."
Pendrell mustered a small smile in return. "Too weird for Spooky Mulder? Well, it's not really how I wanted to distinguish myself. I didn't even see all that many cases like mine in your files."
"As far as I know there aren't many. Maybe not any." Mulder cocked his head to one side. "Look, there's a donut shop over there. I don't know about you but a cup of coffee's not likely to keep me awake and I'd rather not go back to orange and brown and green drapes."
"I kind of like them. They remind me of my Aunt Grue's couch." Pendrell felt his smile grow, heading towards the donut shop. Mulder's chuckle was wonderful in the dark, acid and warm all at once. Sweet and sour laughter.
The donut shop was almost empty; a trucker sullenly wiring up on tar-black coffee and jelly-filled blintzes in the warm, bright aura of sugar and vanilla. Pendrell tried not to think about the lard and cholesterol that he'd seen lining arteries in physiology dissections. Especially not when he was watching Mulder munch his way through a honey-dipped death bomb of a donut and a cup of high octane French roast. "How do you eat those?"
"Long practice. It's part of Quantico's training." Mulder licked a bit of sugar off his lips and Pendrell found himself rolling his magazine in his hands, trying not to watch. Mulder tore off a bit of donut and studied it. "So. Why did you hang me up?"
The question sounded gentle, off-handed. Pendrell didn't mistake it for either. "Why haven't you called the FBI? Or Mr. Skinner?"
Mulder tore another bite of donut off and ate it slowly. Pendrell watched the analyst study him, fidgeting and twisting up his magazine under the table. He finally couldn't stand it anymore. "Mulder, I -- You and I really haven't talked a lot about -- about what we're going to find or what you think you can do."
The donut was slowly, languidly being dismembered. Mulder nibbled it and watched him silently. Pendrell squirmed. He hated himself for it, but he squirmed. This was worse then school with his teachers. Worse, though not by much, than when his parents used to do this to him when he brought home anything less than a "B" on his report cards. Donuts and coffee didn't make it any better. He'd hated inquisitory silence then and he hated it now. He was also damn well determined that for the first time in his life he'd out-wait his tormentor. He had been practicing with his neighbor's cat and if he could out-wait the Bird-inator he could darn well out-wait Mulder.
The paper bag on the magazine was beginning to get pulpy with the sweat of his hands before one corner of Mulder's mouth twitched and he popped a big chunk of donut in his mouth. "All right, Pendrell. This is getting silly."
"You started it." The words were out before he could stop them. He bit his tongue and blushed, slumping back and recognizing that the point went to Mulder. "I'm sorry, Mulder. I just -- this is so hard to say. I don't really think I know how to put it in words to myself even, and I don't know if I can explain it to you."
The agent leaned forward on his elbows, expression taking on that professionally kind mask that was comforting but bugged Pendrell all at the same time. He'd almost rather see the open curiosity or irritation just because he absolutely and for sure knew that those were real. The silky voice was just as bad, smooth and practiced. "Just start trying, Brian. That kind of idea tends to gel as you work through it."
"You know, I think I like it better when you call me by my last name." He hadn't meant to let himself lash out like that but there was something satisfying in seeing Mulder jump just that little tiny bit, in surprising the guy and shaking that mask. "You keep trying to play psychologist, Mulder, and it doesn't work when I've seen you do your Spooky act."
This time it wasn't surprise he saw; it was the sudden, total blank of raised defenses. Pendrell's stomach flipped over and he slumped a little more in his seat as if making himself smaller would make a difference.
Mulder stared at him, motionless. Then nodded a little. "Wouldn't assertiveness training have been easier than coming back from the dead? What's the matter Pendrell? Scully remind you too much of that bar?"
"That's not fair." No matter how hard he tried he couldn't make his voice louder than a whisper. "She hurt me, Mulder. I don't want her with us." His stomach curdled at the sound of the whine in his voice.
A bit of donut crumbled between long fingers. Pendrell couldn't look away. Wouldn't look back up at Mulder's eyes. He didn't want to see what was there. Mulder brushed the sugary mess from his fingertips and audibly sighed. "It's not enough anymore, Pendrell. We might be okay. We might be able to do this on our own. But that's a big risk. Way too big. This is an X-File. Even I don't run my cases by the seat of my pants like this."
"It's not." He had looked up by instinct and was caught by the warm concern in the other man's gaze. "Mulder, this isn't just some case for you to write up and file. It's my life."
A long sip of coffee gave Pendrell a moment's respite. Mulder turned, staring out the window and sighed again. "It's your life. All of them are somebody's life, Pendrell. Why should you be any different?"
"Because I'm me, Mulder. Because I'm here. I'm not just a victim for you to fix." The paper bag on the magazine was stained with sweat.
The agent turned back from the window. "You came back from the dead, Pendrell. Whatever you may want to believe, it's a case. I'll ditch Scully for personal business but not on a case."
"Isn't this personal business for you, Agent Mulder? It is for me."
"I'm sorry, Pendrell. I wish you didn't have to go through this. But she's my partner. She can help us. She can help you. And Pendrell, I need her help."
"We don't!" Oh. Oh. Pendrell bit his tongue and lunged for a bit of Mulder's donut.
"We, Pendrell? What do you mean?"
"I shouldn'n talk wit' my mout' full . . ." He desperately gobbled at the sweet. It tasted like sugared cardboard but maybe it'd keep him out of trouble. Maybe Mulder's diet of junkfood would deteriorate enough neurons that he'd forget what Pendrell has just said. Please let him forget.
"You ready to explain yet, Ace?"
Pendrell gulped and swallowed the horrible thing, wishing that for once the aliens might have enough timing to abduct Mulder before he asked the question again. Or maybe the sound of the donut hitting the bottom of Pendrell's stomach would distract him. It sure felt like a lead balloon and God knew it tasted like one.
"Pendrell . . ." He'd never imagined that faint, New England accent could turn into a drawl. A nasal drawl that made him wince. "You could use some work on 'Evasion one-oh-one, Pendrell. I'm not going to forget the conversation."
The faint smile on Mulder's face might have been an improvement, but he had his doubts. Pendrell chased the glazed-lead-ball with a swallow of truly vile coffee and wondered how his childhood heroes would have handled this. No. Underdog wasn't going to help him out here. Maybe the grad school heroes?
"Let me sketch this out for you, Pendrell. We're probably being pursued by armed men, possibly the group responsible for the implant in your neck."
Sonny Crockett. He wouldn't let some FBI psychologist-ghost buster intimidate him. But shooting Mulder didn't seem practical, especially not when he didn't have a gun with him.
"Scully's a medical doctor, and she's more than familiar with the implants. She's been involved with most of the research I'm aware of on their actual construction and source. If we remove yours, she's got a better chance of recognizing whether it's . . . well. Whether we made it or someone else did."
Someone else? Maybe Super-Hypnosis, like in Lois and Clark? Pendrell wished fervently that he had power like that. Or even that he could imagine Mulder was sitting there naked so he'd feel like he had a little edge on him. No, maybe he didn't wish he could imagine Mulder sitting there naked after all. No, he really didn't now that he thought about it.
"Pendrell?" Mulder leaned forward, trying to catch his eye. Pendrell gulped and wondered how Fox Mulder could still look great even with powdered sugar on his lips. Oh gosh. He could not, would not get a stiffy, but Mulder looked so good with powdered sugar on his lips. He must have been staring because Mulder suddenly licked his lips; that was even worse. "Pendrell. If you don't give me a good answer I'm going back out there and calling Scully and she'll be meeting us in Logan."
Jean Luc Picard would have something brilliant and wise to say but Brian Pendrell was drawing a complete blank except to wonder how that powdered sugar would taste . . .
"That's it." Mulder started to slide out of his seat.
"Wait!" He didn't know what he'd say but he had to say something. "Please wait."
Mulder paused, half out of the booth. "You ready to tell me why you hung up on my partner?"
Oh gosh -- oh no he was gonna hyperventilate, and he couldn't slow down but he'd get the "hic!" and this was "hic!" worse than he'd ever possibly thought conceivably possible. "Please, Mulder can't you just trust me?" And, oh please, why couldn't God help him out just once when he wanted to sound firm and convincing and help him not whine and hiccup?
But God didn't help, and whine he did. "Please."
Mulder didn't sit all the way back, but he didn't get up either. "Please doesn't cut it, Pendrell. And you have to earn trust."
Pendrell ducked, wishing he could hide the sudden heat of his face. Screwed up the magazine again and its poor, soggy paper bag gave up the ghost and shredded in his hands, sliding over slick paper. "Mulder, I trusted you. I trusted you when I woke up in the morgue."
Maybe it got through. Maybe it didn't. He couldn't tell from the still way Mulder sat and the look on his face was just thoughtful, nothing else. Pendrell took a deep breath and hiccuped again. "Mulder, she never even knew my name!"
"She's a good agent. She's a good woman." His voice was low, soothing. Not professionally calming anymore, he sounded like he was really trying to persuade, convince. Like he believed. "Pendrell, she's my partner and *I* trust her. We need her help."
"But she won't." He sagged miserably back, shaking his head. "She won't."
"Is this about the cocktail napkins?"
"No. Yes. No. It's not. Not really." He couldn't help it, he scratched at his chest; winced at the ache in a wound that wasn't raw and fresh anymore, but that might never really heal. "Please don't call her."
"I don't trust anyone else, Pendrell. I don't think we CAN trust anyone else." Mulder ran his fingers back through his hair, messing it up. "There might be a leak. We just don't know."
"What makes you think there's a leak?" He tried to focus, thumb still gently rubbing the dimple he felt under the bandaid. "Why can't we call Mr. Skinner? He'd help us."
Mulder's dry smile was so familiar. Pendrell relaxed a little. His dry voice, familiar and warm despite the ugly words he was saying. "I think we can trust Skinner but I don't know. And we can't trust the phones. He'd ask for more than we can tell him. Scully . . . she's my partner. She trusts me. She'll back my play."
"Would Lucy Householder think so?" It was out before he could stop it, blurted and then hanging there between them. Not -- definitely NOT --how Captain Picard would handle it. Pendrell could feel every lousy calorie of that donut roiling in his belly and firing the rotten coffee into pure lye.
Maybe if he just shut up, just pretended he'd never said it, just maybe with the traffic and noisy kitchen and all maybe, just maybe Mulder hadn't heard, wouldn't hear wouldn't . . .
Mulder hadn't moved. It was more than just sitting still and Pendrell almost groaned out loud.
The sudden flicker of muscle along Mulder's jaw was warning enough for what was coming. "You little shit."
He cringed. Couldn't help it. He didn't even want to try to defend himself. "I'm sorry."
Mulder opened his mouth, then snapped it shut. Pendrell didn't have to look up from the table. He could just feel the breaths Mulder took, counted them without looking, feeling the heat-lightning tension. Acid and sugar, coffee and cream and the sour, sour taste of self-loathing, simmered at the back of his throat.
The brittle voice that finally cut through the silence was worse than he'd ever expected. "Excuse me. I have a phone call to make. Then we'd better get back. We'll be starting early tomorrow."
Mulder's back was rigid with fury, his pace graceless with it when he slammed out through the glass doors. The woman at the counter stared after him, then at Pendrell. He fumbled a dollar out for a tip and climbed from the booth on numb, tingly legs, trying to force himself to hurry. Rushing, faster and faster. He needed to catch Mulder. He'd never realized anything could be as potent as humiliation, but this witch's brew of dread and fear and anger and -- maybe, love was curdling his blood and it left shame in ashes in its wake.
Pendrell kept walking, hands dug into his pockets. He didn't really think about it, but after a minute he knew he'd hunched his shoulders like he always did when he felt somebody watching him. Not that it happened all that often but it was a memorable feeling. He wasn't sure why he hunched them. What he really wanted to do was to cover the top of his head where that third eye, what he called his lizard eye, sensed light and dark like it had for his scurrying little ancestors when hawks or other, even older predators loomed up and . . .
Pendrell shook himself and stopped that train of thought. But it didn't stop the itchy feeling and the motel was just far enough way that ignoring it was worse then sneaking a peek to his right to see that his lizard eye was right and Fox Mulder really was eyeing him.
Both of them looked away.
He knew both of them did because he caught Mulder looking back when he sneaked a look back himself. This time he made himself keep looking while Mulder stared back, the agent's face flickering through quick, subdued speculation and irritation and consternation. Lots of -shuns and he really wasn't sure what he thought of it except that he really, truly hated being studied like one of Mulder's profiling projects, as if Mulder could predict every thought and move . . .
The psychologist sighed and looked away, rubbing the back of his neck. Pendrell thought his shoulders must be sore from being cramped up in the car. Mulder wasn't in practice; he didn't hunch over a lab table all day. Practice helped.
Though it didn't help figure out what to say. Pendrell would have pulled up his jacket collar, but he'd have had to do something with that rotten magazine he was still carrying around because you couldn't just litter up the highway with a thing like that but the very, absolutely and totally last thing on earth he wanted to do was to make it noticeable and have Mulder ask him why he had a thing like that anyway. Well, almost the last thing he wanted to do. If he thought about it there were other things even worse but none of them seemed likely to happen on a chilly Nebraska highway when they were almost back to the motel but not - quite - far enough. And he still didn't know what to say.
He looked at Mulder's feet, trying to decide if they looked like the feet of someone walking decisively, like he knew what to say and was waiting for an opening or something. The didn't. Not really. Not that they looked indecisive or anything. They just looked like Mulder's feet in those cheap, K-Mart sneakers that were sort of glow-in-the-dark white to go with the Brand-X K-Mart blue jeans that still, for all that, looked like a designer label on Mulder. How he did that Pendrell had no idea. He hadn't found anything in Mulder's files about transubstantiation of cheap clothes into designer labels, or even on how to make bad haircuts look good. He sighed. Maybe Cosmo had some tips on that.
He sighed heavily and his chest ached. A lot, now that he thought about it. He rubbed at the achy dent, stopped when he felt THAT spot under his fingers and shuddered. Glanced up and saw Mulder watching him with that speculative look on his face again and grimaced. The other man scowled, glancing away at the rubble and wondering if it really did grow by itself the way it seemed to do along roadsides. Pendrell eyed it a moment, then shook the thought out of his head.
Why was he here? Why was he putting himself through this? Heck, why was Mulder here? He could guess at a lot of it, but it was so much simpler to just ask, "Mulder, what ARE we looking for?"
Mulder looked up and blurted, "huh?"
It warmed Pendrell to know Mulder -- even Mulder, for cripes sake --could be as dumb as everyone else sometimes. Pendrell felt his shoulders unhunch just a little and copied Mulder's speculative look. Or hoped he did at least. "When we started out it was scary and it made sense to keep running but why are we running now? Why aren't we just calling the FBI or the police or whoever takes care of this kind of thing?"
"I tried to call for help, E.T. I seem to recall that you hung up on the cavalry." Mulder's dry reply almost made Pendrell hunch up again, but not quite.
He looked sideways at Mulder, licking his lips. "Why didn't you call Skinner?"
The opaque expression that met his question rankled, hinted at answers but gave nothing away.
Pendrell sighed. "I'm remembering why I dreaded seeing you walk into the lab, Mulder."
A chuckle thawed the chill between them. "So what the hell does that mean? I brought you the best stuff, Pendrell. Wasn't everyone boring after me?"
"Sometimes boring is just what the doctor ordered." He scritched at a spot behind his ear and returned to the scent. "You didn't tell me about this great plan of yours. And you're not calling the boss. What are we looking for that the A.D. wouldn't approve of?"
"You got me, Pendrell." Mulder grinned and delivered the compliment in the tone of a teacher congratulating a slow pupil. "What are we looking for? I'm looking for the truth. What about you?"
It set Pendrell's teeth on edge. There were many things that Brian Pendrell had not been as a child, but the one thing that he always HAD been was the smartest kid in class. He turned to glare at Mulder. "What truth? I don't know what that means, Mulder. Why can't you just answer the question? What are we looking for?"
"You're looking to freeze your ass off if you don't start moving again." Mulder sank his hands a little deeper into his pockets and gave Pendrell a theatrically exasperated look. Pendrell stared back at him, molars grinding. Wanted to shout at him, and caught the very faint hint of tension in the other man's face as a truck rumbled past, washing them in light.
Pendrell sucked in a hard breath through his nose, counted and forced himself to relax. He really didn't want a fight, not if he was honest with himself. What he really wanted to do was back away from all this just a little. To find something small and harmless about the whole situation that would let him back down, maybe let them both get off this road and back to a world that was normal and boring and sensible.
Mulder didn't look ready to back down. Pendrell wondered for a moment how many face-offs he'd stood through, stubbornly holding this point or that. And knew that Mulder wasn't going to be the one to back down here. Pendrell thought about what to ask, what wouldn't force a fight. "I don't think bigfoot shot me. Or aliens. So we're looking for an evil mastermind, or the godfather, or something like that, aren't we?"
A low chuckle answered him as they broke the tableau and started walking again. "I love it. Who knows. If we're lucky we'll find a mad scientist with a nubile assistant."
"I don't see what's so funny about mad scientists," Pendrell huffed. It got the grin he'd been hoping for. "I mean, you hunt down little green men --"
"Okay, gray. And you talk about conspiracies, and there's all this stuff about government agendas in your files, so what's silly about evil masterminds and sinister godfathers? Don't they fit that bill?"
Mulder nodded thoughtfully. "I guess they do, though I usually don't think of old guys in tuxedos or nehru jackets running things. Okay. I'll give you an evil mastermind or two. But we're looking for smaller fish."
"Why haven't you asked before?" An arched eyebrow inflected the question where the calm voice didn't.
"Do you always answer a question with a question?" Pendrell scowled back at him.
"They don't let you graduate with your psych degree unless you do that," grinned Mulder. "Blame it on the Freudians. I just wanted to know why you didn't ask this back when we started out."
"Oh. Well . . ." He hesitated, flustered. Worked the question back and forth in his head. "It was so scary before. It was too real and not real enough, if you know what I mean. Sometimes I think maybe things need to be less real before you can talk about them or even think about them."
Mulder stared at him for a moment, too intent to be blank but utterly unreadable even so. His words veered back onto safe ground, familiar ground. For him at least. "I can see that. But it's sort of hard to wait for a hole in your chest to be less real."
The comment brought a sour taste to the back of Pendrell's mouth. He shuddered a little. "I wish you wouldn't do that."
"Lecture me, or throw me off with something sick like that. Why can't you just say it's scary or you don't know?"
Now the look meeting his was blank. Really blank, totally controlled and meaningless. "I don't know. And it is scary. We're looking for where this started, Pendrell. If we find that maybe we'll find why it started and when."
Soft words, focused and flat but they put a sudden chill in his bones. Pendrell tried to see the funny, assured man he'd been traveling with, who seemed to have all the answers. Instead all he got was Fox Mulder's hard, unrevealing eyes. He looked away, blinking fast. "I'm cold."
The still-soft voice answered him. "I know what you mean." Pendrell wondered how, when half the time he, himself wasn't sure what he meant or how he felt.
But maybe he did, this time. He knew he felt lonely, too far away from anything that made sense. Cold. Nothing he really wanted to think about, though. Nothing he wanted to be that real. Pendrell made his feet move, one in front of the other, watching them to be sure he didn't trip. And then his own feet were all he saw. Mulder had stopped.
Pendrell stiffened, back braced, not sure what he was waiting for but knowing it was bad. He took a deep breath and turned to find Mulder, eyes narrowed, puzzled, face drawn into that intent, "I'm the 'I' in Eff-Bee-Eye" expression. Mulder stared past him, slowly edging into the dark, high grass away from the headlights of the cars. "I think you should get away from the road, Pendrell."
"What?" He shook his head, baffled and nervous at the wary look on Mulder's face. Followed his gaze back towards the motel and frowned, seeing nothing. Looked back. "What is it?"
Mulder lifted his chin, nodding towards the parking lot. "Do you remember those panel vans being parked out front?"
A sudden prickling ran up his back as he looked behind him, taking in the featureless vehicles. He shook his head slowly, staring. "No. I don't."
When he looked back, the crazy, cocky grin on Mulder's face made his stomach sink. "Well, either our friends have caught up or five serial killers just rented rooms in our motel."
Two hours later Brian Pendrell huddled, miserable and shivering, in the front seat of another stolen sedan. The cold wasn't the worst of it. He was sure that years later, long after this night's details had faded into a warm glow of hide-and-seek nostalgia, long after his curly hair had lost the ongoing battle with male pattern baldness, he would remember the smell. He'd probably remember that smell on his deathbed. His second deathbed. He hoped he wouldn't remember it after death, whether or not he came back to life yet again.
If he could have taken his skin off he would have. Mulder had rolled the window down and both of them were sitting there with their teeth chattering in 40 degrees, plus a 60 mile per hour wind chill, and even so Pendrell was absolutely sure that neither of them would be fool enough to try to roll up his window. Pneumonia looked good by comparison.
"I'm sorry about the smell." It was true.
"Is that an apology or an observation, Pendrell?" Mulder's eyes were squinched up the way Pendrell's used to get when he had to use some of the really stinky reagents and esters. His nose was red and running.
"I think it's both. I feel sorry for the people we stole the car from."
"Don't. The insurance adjuster will take one whiff and write it off. They're getting a new car after this."
He wanted to say it wasn't that bad but lies never came easily to him. Instead he just sighed and breathed through his mouth. "We need to stop somewhere soon, Mulder. We ought to go to a hospital. You need that bullet wound looked at."
It might have been the passing headlights but Pendrell thought he saw a manic glint in the other man's eyes. "It's just a flesh wound, Pendrell."
"What other kind of wound is there?" It came out before he knew it and the answering grin was shiny and bright in the dark.
"Hey Rocky, watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat . . ."
Pendrell started to laugh. It had a really thin, ragged edge but God, did it feel good. He handed Mulder the next line. "That trick never works!"
"Must have been my other hat. This one smells like all the trash in Nebraska." Mulder's laugh kept getting caught on a little hitch of indrawn breath when his ribs hurt.
Pendrell had to work to smother the laughter before he couldn't stop it anymore. The utterly calm, rational tone that had once been his normal voice sounded strange in his own ears. "The dumpster seemed like a good idea at the time. How could I know they pick up trash in the middle of the night?"
"There's just something about a man with french fries mashed in his hair, Pendrell . . . oh crapcrapcrap don't make me laugh!"
"Don't blame me. We'd still smell like roses -- or donuts at least --if you hadn't tried to steal our car."
"You can't steal your own property." Mulder must have practiced that sanctimonious tone with Scully because it came off without a single slip into laughter, even though he was biting his lips with the effort. "Here's your magazine, by the way."
Oh God. He'd forgotten. Oh God, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy will be done and let Mulder not have read the thing and, "Mulder, how the HELL did it get a bullet hole through it?"
A quick glance of eyes a little too dark in a pale face. "Oh that? That's what Tactical called creative use of assets when they were training us in hand to hand."
He was NOT going to rise to the bait. Yes he was. "Did they tell you that's a good way to get your assets shot off?"
Mulder laughed and bit his lip on it, tears bright in his eyes. "Fuck you, Pendrell. I told you not to make me laugh. I wreck and it's your fault."
"I'm not the one who got shot." He took a quick glance over, caught Mulder biting down hard and then relaxing with visible effort. "Jesus, I'm sorry Mulder. Pull over and I'll take the wheel."
Mulder bit down on his lip harder, shaking his head and took a little, tense breath. "Fuck no! I stop and the wind stops coming into this car. I'll be fine, Pendrell."
Pendrell shifted, caught another whiff of himself and winced. "We'll have to stop some time, Mulder. We lost them, it's safe. I mean, if we hold our breaths --" a quick grin answered the effort, "you need to let me look at that."
"It's okay." He drew a deep breath with visible effort. "Really. It looks worse than it is."
"Just what do you think it looks like?" Pendrell couldn't keep the incredulous tone out of his voice.
Mulder might have thought his expression was a grin. "I think it looks like maybe a cracked rib. It hurts like a bitch but it's not very dangerous."
"Thank you Dr. Mulder." Pendrell sighed. "I didn't think you were Catholic."
"Huh?" The startled, uncomprehending look was almost reassuring.
"I guess you are okay if you've got the energy to look stupid." Pendrell briefly relished having the upper hand. "If you want to give your suffering up to God that's your business Mulder, but do me a favor and let's stop at the next motel so I don't have to give MY suffering up when you run us off the road because your ribs hurt."
"No faith. Repeat after me, 'I want to believe.'"
"I want to believe that Holiday Inn has a vacancy!" He pointed, heart thrilling to the idea of a hot shower.
"I don't believe how dirty those are," Pendrell mourned, turning his back on the greasy clothes soaking in the tub.
Mulder eyed him a moment, then went back to prising open the childproof cap on the ibuprofen bottle. "One of the first things you learn in the X-Files is that there are more things 'tween heaven and earth, Horatio."
"Right now half of them are ground into my blue jeans. Let me do that --" reaching for the bottle Mulder held.
"I can manage." The glare was mild enough but it backed Pendrell off.
"Sorry. I just wanted to help."
"Believe me, I'll take your help in a minute," growled Mulder as the cap finally let go, flipping across the bed. He sighed audibly and dumped several tablets into his hand. "I really hate this. Can you get that bag for me?"
Pendrell eyed him a moment, wrapped his towel tighter around his waist and grabbed the bag he'd gotten at an all-night drugstore. "Are you used to doing this?"
The hoarse chuckle answering didn't have much actual humor in it. "I don't generally have to do it for myself. I usually travel with my own physician, Pendrell. Of course, I usually manage to avoid getting shot too."
"Except by her?" He bit his tongue but Mulder just quirked one of those off-center grins that were getting to be so familiar.
"That's how I know she likes me." He tugged the blood-stained shirt out of his jeans, grimaced and stopped. Pendrell twitched in sympathy as Mulder took another shallow breath and held it, half peeled the shirt up and stopped again.
He badly wanted to just reach over and pull the turtleneck up for the other man. Mulder must have seen it because he shook his head. Pendrell stopped at his determined expression and waited while he tried it again. When Mulder just took several more small, patient breaths Pendrell finally, tentatively, offered, "can I give you a hand?"
"Yeah," it was small and strained. "That'd be good."
The shirt felt stiff and sticky when he touched it. Pendrell tried his best to be gentle and flinched when Mulder hissed anyway. He tried it again but Mulder folded protective arms over his ribs and Pendrell stumbled over his own apologies, "sorrysorrysorry . . ."
A tiny shake of the head cut off the litany of useless apology. "S'okay. It's stuck. You're gonna have to soak it off."
Pendrell stared at him, the hem of the stiff, too-heavy shirt wadded in his hand. "Soak it?"
The effort to grin was visible. "Just like a bandaid, Pendrell. You soak it or you rip it off, and if you rip this one off, I'll probably kill you."
"No -- I just . . ." He stammered to a stop, mind blank.
Mulder took another of those shallow breaths and held it, letting go of his own ribs with hesitant little motions. Pendrell had to lean close to hear the tiny voice. "Just like a bandaid. I hate bandaids."
"Okay. Okay." He forced himself to move, clutching his towel as he went to the bathroom to get a wet washcloth. He eyed his wet clothes mournfully, wishing he hadn't left the rest of his stuff in the Motel of Doom. Mulder was sprawled on the bed when he came back with the warm, dripping cloth. "Sorry. This'll hurt a lot, won't it?" The answering nod made him feel like shit.
He could hear Mulder gritting his teeth when he pressed the washcloth over the bloody, stuck patch. "I'm so sorry. I wish you'd let me take you to a hospital, Mulder. What if something's really wrong and I hurt you and we have to go anyway but then they'll -"
"Sh'dup." Mulder's eyes were closed tight. "S'okay. Just keep doing that. It's not that bad, it just hurts."
It took forever. Even for something he knew wasn't taking very long it took forever. In the back of his mind Pendrell thought about Einstein and interminable history classes, and anything else at all but really, really what he wanted to be able to do was to stop hurting Fox Mulder. The skin under his hands was sweaty and warm. He could smell the blood and Mulder's sweat, felt every shiver of discomfort under his hands. When the shirt finally softened the two of them got it up and over Mulder's shoulders, dropping the wet thing on the floor.
"Christ, Mulder!" The breath whoofed out of him. Mulder's eyes glittered through his lashes. Pendrell slumped down on the bed next to him. "You look like hell."
The huffing little laugh barely moved the agent's chest, but even that caused a visible wince. "Yeah. I hate this. I don't think they're cracked but it hurts."
A long, violent, scored patch over his ribs simmered red. "I just bet that hurts. God, it looks like a burn."
"Probably is. He was standing awfully close. Give me the peroxide, okay?"
Pendrell held it out, then ventured "are you sure you're okay? I mean, we really ought to get you to a doctor."
Mulder brought long fingers up gingerly to massage the long wound. "We might as well call them and tell them to come get us, Pendrell. It'd save us driving to a hospital. And this is sort of like the common cold, anyway. All you can do is clean it up and take pain killers."
"I wouldn't know." He toyed with the edge of the towel wrapped around his waist. "The worst I ever did was break a finger."
The inquisitive look wasn't as focused as usual. "How?"
"Football." Pendrell flushed, then wondered why. "I was rotten but I liked it."
"Keep talking. It's better than television." Mulder scooted back, carefully got his back against the headboard and started dabbing his side with peroxide on cotton balls. Red ones piled up on the floor. "So. Cosmo. You read it for the articles or the pictures?"
Pendrell felt his cheeks go from flushed to flaming. Stammered out, "a-are you sure you don't want help doing that, Mulder?"
Mulder's grin stretched wide. "I don't think they covered this in 'All About Men,' Pendrell. What were you doing with that? You're already supposed to know everything that's in there. Not that I'm not grateful for the distraction. I ought to write to Helen Gurley Brown -- 'Cosmo saved my life!'"
He waved another stained cotton ball in a big, stretched-out-headline motion. It made him wince but Pendrell sighed with relief, feeling the topic slide into comfortable farce. Until Mulder circled back around with "but couldn't you find anything better, like Hustler?"
It was freezing in the hotel room. It had to be because Pendrell's skin went all goosebumpedy as he felt the hook sink in just a little deeper. He fidgeted with the towel again, staring at his freckled knees with their scruffy red hair as Mulder finished up cleaning the messy graze. Mulder didn't have freckles, he thought, and scratched idly at the bandaid on his chest. Stilled, hand over his heart, and felt the faint, precious pulse.
Mulder was watching him neutrally when he looked up. Maybe waiting for another line in the game, just trying to distract himself. Pendrell didn't know, couldn't guess. There were lines around Mulder's eyes and his mouth -- faint ones, but still there. Warm, hazel eyes and that mobile mouth. Pendrell sucked in a hard, long breath that rattled all the way to the bottom of his lungs and said "I bought the stupid thing because I couldn't figure out what to do."
Total bafflement. Utter and complete. Mulder stared at him, raised eyebrow asking the questions for him. Pendrell sucked in just a little bit more, held the breath and let it out slowly, slumping into it and fidgeting. "Mulder. Nothing ever happened to me like this before."
"Yeah." He nodded. "X-Files are like that."
"No." Softly, nervously. He looked away then made himself look back up. Forced himself to keep looking into Mulder's face. "I've never fallen in love."
Blink. Blink. Blink. Mulder finally cleared his throat, loud as heck in the hotel room. Pendrell wanted to get up and hide in the bathroom, wanted to pull the coverlet off the other bed and make a tent and hide in it, or maybe even just pull on all his soaked clothes and go out and freeze solid with mortification, but he just took a deep breath and let it out. Mulder nodded once, thoughtfully. "I think you need to repeat that and give me more details, okay Pendrell?"
"Umm . . . what kind of details?" Oh please God in heaven don't let him ask about what he thought he was going to do and . . .
"Let's start with 'fallen in love.'" Mulder's voice was low, calm. Very calm. "Why don't you run that one by me again."
Pendrell's stomach rolled, and he couldn't keep looking the guy in the face. He stared down to where his fingers were trying their best to shred the edge of a Holiday Inn bath towel. "Well --," he squeaked. "It just sort of happened. I mean, at first I thought you were a real a-hole if you know what I mean but then you helped me so much and saved me and all and it's not like when I thought Agent Scully might fall into my arms some day but --"
"Wait." Mulder was patting the air when he looked up. That professionally understanding expression was back on his face, like the one the agent used to use when Pendrell was so nervous he stammered because he was sure that telling Mulder that his evidence didn't make any sense would piss him off. "Wait a minute, Pendrell. Take a deep breath and calm down."
"I'm not upset. I'm in love." There. He'd said it twice. And it really didn't sound all that stupid after all.
"With --" Mulder coaxed with a gesture of his hand.
"Ah." The agent leaned back against the headboard again, nodding to himself. Once. Twice. Then shook his head. "You're going to have to run that one by me again, I'm afraid. I think I just misheard you again."
Pendrell put his face in his hands, the looked back up. "Mulder. I love you. I want to make love to you. I want to make you feel wonderful. I spent my whole life too scared and now that I'm finally starting to live--" He reached out, gently touching one of Mulder's bare ankles where the pants legs ended. Steeled himself. "I had to die to figure out how to care about somebody real, Mulder. I love you."
Blink blink blink. Fox Mulder stared back at him without a single flicker of expression or comprehension but the muscles under his hand flexed, tensed, held very still. Pendrell heard him swallow. "Mulder? Please?"
Mulder threw back his head, looked at the ceiling then shut his eyes and gave a long, slow sigh. "I think we need to have a talk, Pendrell."
"Oh God." Pendrell slumped, face in his hands. "Don't say it. I know the 'let him down gently' speech already. God," he ground the heels of his hands into his eyes wondering if he could just have a good, well-timed heart attack for once in his life, "bad enough to screw up when I'm alive but I can't even be dead without messing it up!"
He was rocking, sick with embarrassment, and couldn't even bring himself to stand up. God help him, if he slid off the bed his towel'd probably get pulled off. That would be it. The final stroke. He almost did it just so he could actually maybe die of humiliation in peace and have it done with. He was so sick that the hand that landed on his shoulder and held him still sent a jolt through his whole frame and he shrieked.
"Pendrell!" The hand lifted, then settled again and squeezed gently. "Pendrell. Look at me."
He was gonna die he was gonna die right here on the spot. The papers would write it up as the man who died and then was found naked in a Holiday Inn in deepest, darkest Utah. Heaven only knew what everyone would think or say about it but he held his breath and wondered if he could defy all the medical literature and be the first man in existence to asphyxiate by holding his breath.
Warm, oddly gentle fingers closed around his chin urging his face up and around. Pendrell kept his eyes shut tight, not wanting to look. His ears were ringing -- maybe he'd be lucky and it'd be a heart attack and he wouldn't have to beat the odds on holding his breath until he died. Because he knew most people didn't die from holding their breath. They just passed out. That fact duly noted and categorized, Pendrell found himself letting out his breath in a long, hopeless whoosh that sounded suspiciously like a pitiful little sigh.
The fingers didn't let go of his chin. They tightened a little and shook him just a bit. "Hey. You got up to bright red Pendrell. Are you ready to keep breathing and look at me?"
He wasn't laughing. That's what really got through to Pendrell. That Mulder wasn't laughing. Slowly, cautiously, he opened one eye and looked at Mulder in a little bit of a blurry way, past the side of his nose. And Mulder was smiling sadly, but he really, truly was not laughing and it didn't quite feel good, but it didn't feel quite as horrible as it had.
"It's okay, Pendrell. You can open both of 'em. I'm not going to shoot you."
"I'd probably thank you if you did." He wished the words hadn't been shaky. The comment would have sounded better.
Mulder let go of him and scooted back to lean against the headboard again. "I admit. It's a new twist on -- it doesn't happen everyday."
Pendrell couldn't look up, even though he wasn't laughing. "God. I should have just shut up. I mean -- I'm sorry."
The big, gusty sigh that answered did finally make him look up into warm, patient eyes. "No. I'm sorry. I didn't handle that very well."
He couldn't help it. He bridled, just a little. Stiffly answered, "you don't have to let me down gently. I understand."
"That's not what I mean," comfortingly edged with exasperation. "Look Pendrell. First, it's -- okay. It's a little flattering in a really weird way."
"Flattering. But I'm not your type."
"No," Mulder stated bluntly. "You're not. But that doesn't mean I'm stupid. You're a really sweet guy, Pendrell. And you've been under a lot of stress and I don't think you ever knew that a lot of people thought of you as their friend."
"They did? I mean --" He stopped and wondered what he DID mean. Or what he would mean if he could figure out what to say, or whether that ought to be the other way around. "No. No no no. Mulder," he looked up finally into the too-understanding expression and sighed. "It's not just loneliness and shock or whatever you think it is. I know how I feel."
A gentle, inquisitive tilt of the head in answer. "God knows I'm not a Freudian, Pendrell, but Freud wasn't all wrong. I know you're going through a lot. You've got to have all these," he gestured, hands open expansively, "big feelings that just about knock you off your feet. It's not unusual to feel like you're falling in love with someone who helps you at times like that."
The words ached, pushing him further away, boxing how he felt. Pendrell finally shook his head and looked over into Mulder's eyes. "I understand. But that's not how I'm feeling. Mulder, haven't you ever been in love? When was the last time you let someone love you?" He stopped, not knowing why he'd asked what he'd asked, but knowing that it was right. Whispered the question again, "when was the last time, Mulder? Why not let me?"
Mulder pinched the bridge of his nose, ran his hands over his face and finally looked back up. "I don't know, Pendrell. Brian. I just know I'm tired and this is too -- this is more than I'm up to tonight. I tell you what. Just let it go for a couple of days and we'll talk again, okay? We'll -- maybe things will be clearer then. Deal?"
Pendrell listened, heard nerves and worry and something sad and lost and small in Fox Mulder's voice that had nothing to do with his words. And finally nodded. And didn't have to ask this time. "Okay. But we will talk again, Mulder. I know what I feel." Even if you don't know what you feel, he added silently. Maybe not love. Maybe not anything. But they'd have to figure that out together before he'd be able to do --anything. Move forward. Move on. Whatever. He laughed softly at the thought and Mulder looked up at him with an expression somewhere between curiosity and apprehension.
"You have another surprise for me, Pendrell?"
"No. Not this time." He grinned. "I was just thinking about the ghost stories I read when I was a kid. You know, how ghosts are stuck in places because they can't figure out how to move forward or back?"
A slow smile of understanding eased the tension from Mulder's face, lightened his eyes. "Yeah. That's not that funny."
"Yes it is! Look at you laughing!"
"Hysterics, maybe," but it was a clean, fine sound.
Pendrell stood up carefully and didn't lose his towel. "I think we both need some sleep, Mulder. And," he hesitated, "I'll try not to have nightmares."
Mulder sighed, a calm, ironic smile curving his lips. "Teddy bear virtue?"
He grinned back, "get stuffed."
"Try it and you'll end up on your ass." But said lightly, the tension gone. The smile faded but didn't totally drop. "It's okay, Pendrell. It'll be okay."
Brian Pendrell padded into the bathroom to hang up his clothes and, if he was very lucky, he'd be able to figure out just what had happened and why he suddenly felt like the world was, just maybe, a place where magic might happen.
Pendrell hadn't really been surprised that Mulder was up, showered and dressed before he woke up. It felt a little -- stiff maybe. Like Mulder had set the alarm clock to wake him up early or something but maybe it was just his ribs. Maybe. But Pendrell didn't dawdle about getting cleaned up and dressed himself.
Mulder was studying a road map on the computer he'd risked his life to liberate from their old car. Pendrell shook his head and comforted himself with the thought that there was a lot more than grainy road maps on that computer. "You don't need that. We'll get there today."
A button click and the map melted away. "Back on home ground?"
The carefully neutral tone didn't really put Pendrell at ease. He paused, scratched at the now-itchy spot in his chest where the bullet hole's edges were starting to turn a shiny, pale pink. Girded his loins. "I'm sorry about last night."
"I understand." Mulder smiled nicely. A Sunday-best smile is what Pendrell's mom would have called it. "It's okay, Pendrell."
Right. Pendrell pulled a sour face. "It's not okay if you're going to be walking around trying to be Mr. Politically-Correct all the time."
Mulder's instant bristling actually made Pendrell feel better. "Politically correct is far too broad, Pendrell. The word you're looking for is 'transference.'"
Pendrell dropped heavily on the foot of Mulder's bed, looking for a flinch. If one had been there it was sharply controlled. "Transference. Is that what you call it?"
"If you and I were in a therapeutic relationship that's what I'd call it," grumped Mulder.
Pendrell snorted, heard himself and shook his head. Copying Mulder-mannerisms. He sighed. "We're not in any kind of a relationship, except that you're driving me relatively crazy."
"I didn't DO anything!" Mulder was glaring at him now, except that he seemed to be looking at Pendrell's ear instead of his eyes.
Infuriating. Definitely infuriating. Pendrell frowned. "You sure did get up early, Mulder. And I really hate that 'I'm a shrink, trust me' voice."
Hazel eyes finally looked directly back at him. Mulder's lips had thinned and he was almost spluttering with exasperation. "I AM a shrink. And I do get up early. I just skipped running today. Do you want me to give you a point by point of what I'll do today, Pendrell? I'll go out and get in that car with you and we'll go hunting coffee, and maybe some food so loaded in cholesterol that it threatens our lives. Then we'll drive to Logan. And I'll keep talking to you and . .. and . . ." he finally gave up, waving his hands in frustration.
"And you'll do your best to make me feel at ease and let me know it's okay if I think I love you, because sooner or later I'll come to my senses?"
Narrowed eyes and thinned lips really weren't Mulder's best look. "No. I'll do my best not to strangle you before I let you drink your first cup of coffee. When did you become so confrontational? You picked a hell of a time to learn self-assertion."
Pendrell deflated, looking away. Then consciously straightened his back. "Maybe I just want you to treat me like you did before, Mulder. Okay? And if anyone's going to get strangled it WON'T be me. After all, I'm the one who comes back from the dead."
Mulder stared blankly at him, then his face just melted into a laugh. "You have no idea how stupid that sounds."
"But it's true," pointed out Pendrell.
"I guess it is. Although I've known several agents I'd argue come back from the dead with the first cup of --"
"I get the idea." Pendrell reached over and scooped up Mulder's computer. "You're in caffeine withdrawal."
"Ah, the instincts and observational skills of a trained forensic investigator at work."
"Thing of beauty, isn't it? So, what'll it be? Denny's? Mr. Donut?"
"Whatever we hit heading towards Utah." Mulder grabbed his jacket and shrugged into it. "And we'll just cross our fingers and hope that the bad guys sleep late."
Pendrell nodded, plucked his still-soggy pants off his skin and took a last look around for orphaned toothbrushes or clothes, not that they really had much left after the exodus from Motel 8.
"Hey, Pendrell --" Mulder's suddenly serious voice made him turn around. "The assertiveness thing -- it works for you."
He couldn't stop the wide, silly smile that splashed over his face. "Thanks. I bet we can find a buffet if we look."
"You've gotta love grease." Mulder jingled the car keys in his hand as they left the IHOP. "The genetic luddites who want us all to do low-fat are out of their minds."
Pendrell paused, shook his head and reached out for the keys. "Why don't you let me drive. And what the heck is a genetic luddite?"
A wolfish grin answered. The keys came flying over the hood of the car as Mulder sidled to the passenger side of the scruffy white Mustang. "Luddites. Retro-Industrial political dissidents --"
"Got that part." Pendrell nodded.
Mulder leaned on the roof of the car watching Pendrell, who flinched as he opened the car and waved the residual stink away from his face. The agent opened his own door once the car had aired out for a minute. "Still pretty ripe? Good thing I got a little tree or we'd freeze to death. Genetic luddites want us to go back to our pre-omnivorous ancestors and start eating nothing but bean sprouts and tofu."
"Oh. I remember that fossil tofu find. Didn't they write it up in 'Nature'?" All things considered, Pendrell found the UFO's and beastwomen more credible than Mulder's dietary theories. Not that he would ever question Mulder's sanity. When they'd filled the tank that morning and the agent had come back with the little air freshener, he'd proved that he might be eccentric but he wasn't crazy. "Tell you what, maybe food theory should be another of those forbidden topics, okay Mulder?"
"What?" A too-studied, bland, academic look was plastered on Mulder's face as Pendrell buckled in and backed them out of the parking spot. "Not interested in extrapolating EBE biochemistry and planetary ecosystems based on their proven preference for long horn steers in cattle mutilation?"
Pendrell blinked and revved the engine, pulling out into traffic. "Do you do this to Agent Scully too? Is that what happened to her?"
"I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about," demurred Mulder with perfect, unctuous solemnity.
Pendrell ran his tongue over the surface of his teeth and shook his head. "What are we going to do when we get to Logan? My mother bakes a mean apple pie."
"And the judges give him solid eights for changing subjects." Mulder laughed softly. Out of the corner of his eye Pendrell could see him turn, look behind them, then settle comfortably back in his seat.
He eyed the rear view mirror, checking the cars behind them. "What are you looking for? You could just ask me to shut up instead of making me uncomfortable."
"I'm not." Mulder didn't sound surprised. Pendrell wondered which question he was comment he was answering. Probably both. "I'm bored, Pendrell. The Midwest is where most of the shit I investigate takes place. After a while fields and cars stop having any novelty."
He glanced sideways. "You just got jumpy. All of a sudden. That's all."
"Maybe you're just sensitive to it today." Mulder studied the traffic. "You might want to slow down a little. We are driving a stolen car."
"You're probably right."
Pendrell smiled cryptically and let Mulder decide. "What do you think we'll find in Logan?"
Mulder tensed, then relaxed. "You'd have made a good field agent."
"Thank you. I learned from the best." Pendrell tapped on the wheel, sneaking looks at the other man. Mulder was tugging at his lower lip, staring blankly out the windshield at the chicken truck ahead of them.
"Did you go to the doctor a lot when you were a kid?" The agent's question seemed to come out of nowhere.
"Yeah, I guess so. Why?" Pendrell shook his head, baffled.
"Because somebody had to put that implant in there. What was the doctor's name?" Mulder's tone was soothing, coaxing. Pendrell looked at him suspiciously.
"Armbruster. Doc Armbruster." Unconsciously he scratched at his arm. "Doc A treated me for everything from runny noses to eczema."
"Mmhmm." Mulder gave him a sleepy, patient smile. "Nice old white haired guy?"
"Not really. Have you ever considered just asking me outright for what you want? We're on the same side, aren't we?"
A rueful look answered him. "If I ask you to trust me, and tell you I've got my reasons, will it matter?"
"Sure. If you tell me your reasons." Pendrell frowned out at the truck and the feathers that fluttered up over the hood of the dirty, white Mustang. Chicken stink and the lingering miasma of Nebraska garbage perfected his day.
"We interrogate people for a reason, Pendrell. When crimes happen to cops we interrogate THEM."
"And you're interrogating me?" Pendrell glanced over at him again.
"More or less." Mulder coughed. "Any chance we've got a passing lane coming?"
"Maybe. I hope so." He sighed. "So why do aliens always mutilate cattle? Don't they know chicken's better for them?"
The low chuckle from next to him put a pleasant shiver up his spine and Pendrell concentrated on chicken stink, feathers stuck to the windshield, and the possiblity that effective marketing might work like brainwashing. Gap ads, maybe, or Jockey underwear ads surreptitiously sent in email gifs. He snickered to himself. "How's subliminal advertising work, Mulder?"
He glanced over to catch one of those arched-eyebrow looks. Cripes, he was developing a whole catalogue of Mulder looks. If he hadn't already known he had it bad . . .
"You don't know, Pendrell?"
"Your degree's in how the critter behaves, Mulder. Mine's in how the critter's bits and pieces behave. Blastocytes don't care about advertising."
"What IS your degree? I never quite figured that out. It seemed like any time I had something weird I just took it to you." Mulder eased a heel up to the dashboard, stretching his hamstrings, Pendrell guessed. It was . . . distracting. He made himself not look.
"I'm a molecular biologist by training." He pulled over a little, looking for a passing lane, praying to God to help him escape the miasma of chickens. "And you wound up in my lab on purpose."
"Whose? I used to spread the joy around." Mulder switched legs.
"Blame Martha Haggerty."
"The Paint Lady?" Mulder delivered the title straight-faced. He'd probably had to sit through some of Martha's lectures on the intricacies of car enamel. Pendrell grinned and wondered what Martha would have said about their car, with its oxidized paint and poultry patina.
"Martha told me she knew the 'light of love' was in my eyes." Pendrell let that comment sit for a heartbeat, then finished it. "She said that sooner or later Agent Scully couldn't help but fall into my arms."
Mulder's heel slipped off the dash and he almost brained himself doubling over in laughter. "Ohmygodohmygod oh you're SHITTING me Pendrell!"
"Nope." He shook his head. "She liked palm readers too. There's one special one, Madame Suzy or something. Martha'd go at lunch time and come back and tell us all how we were going to find love and we ought to buy this lottery ticket."
"Oh, crap! And you and Scully . . ."
Pendrell's grin grew, "were going to fall madly in love, get married in a Catholic ceremony and have lots of babies. Martha has a real thing about babies."
" -- shitohshit!" Mulder was making little noises in between whoops of laughter, hands wrapped over his ribs. "Stop, oh it hurts --"
Pendrell shook his head ruefully. "See. All that promise shot down in flames. Martha never once told me to stay away from redheads in bars. My faith in the supernatural is gone."
Mulder sagged back in his seat, gasping for breath, little snorts of laughter still erupting now and then. He wiped his fingers across his eyes and solemnly turned to Pendrell. "You can't let this disillusion you. I have seen the power of the Other Side. Every time I do a budget projection, I run it by my Magic 8-Ball. It's always said that no, I won't get what I'm asking for. Pendrell, it's never been wrong. The spirits speak to me."
Pendrell almost choked, sat coughing and laughing, trying to clear where a swallow had gone down the wrong way. "I guess I can believe after all, Agent Mulder! How can I deny evidence like that? Does your 8-ball ever say yes to anything?"
"I wouldn't know," came the sententious reply. "I've never squandered the wisdom of the ancient dead on anything but serious questions like whether Skinner will rake me over the coals for losing too many Mag-lites."
"Wish you had that thing now." Pendrell swung out again, "ah, the heck with it. No one's coming."
"Thank god for scofflaws. I'm beginning to crave marigold petals," muttered Mulder.
"I think Frank Perdue would probably turn you down. He likes his chickens tender." murmured Pendrell, glancing back and checking, then pulling out.
It was just as they finally felt that first breath of fresh, poultry-free air come through the vents that he heard it. A quick, synthetic burp of sound, and the flash of lights in the rear view mirror.
Mulder spun in his seat, staring out the back. "Fuck. There's never a cop when you need one, but try to pass a chicken truck --"
"I guess you'd better get the registration out."
He hadn't really thought about what he was saying until Mulder turned to stare at him. "You're out of your mind! Pendrell, we're driving a stolen car! Step on it."
"But that's illegal!"
"So's driving a stolen car!"
"If we tell him the truth . . ."
"He'll lock us up and have us committed."
"But you've got your ID." Pendrell glanced frantically between the lights that were getting bigger in his rearview mirror and the man next to him, who looked like he wanted to shove his own foot down and floor the gas.
"And it won't matter. It's still illegal to steal a car. At best they'll radio us in, and then those motherfuckers from the conspiracy will be all over our asses," hissed Mulder. "Floor it!"
Back. Forth. Lights. Mulder. Back. Forth. Lights. Mulder was practically frothing. "Fuckfuckfuck."
"I can't do it."
"WHAT? ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND?"
Pendrell sighed. "I can't, Mulder. I've never gotten a ticket in my life. I just can't do it."
"Oh crap," moaned the agent. "I don't believe this!"
"It's one thing to steal a car, Mulder. But I can't defy the law."
"But . . ." the protest spluttered off into incoherent sounds as Pendrell sadly pulled over to the shoulder and rolled down his window. The chicken truck roared by, stinky feathers blowing in the open window. Dispiritedly, he brushed one out of his hair and ignored the disbelieving groan from Mulder, in the passenger seat.
The cop pulled up behind them, sitting there for what felt like a very, very long time. Mulder hissed and swore and begged him to floor it but he couldn't. Brian Pendrell had not come back from the dead to run from the law.
"Let me see your registration."
Pendrell frowned at the curt tone of voice. Mulder was holding out the registration. His condemned-and-waiting-for-the-blindfold expression didn't do anything to cheer Pendrell up. "Here you are officer. Is there a problem?"
"Let me see your license."
Pendrell blanched. Mulder sniggered in a resigned way, if there was such a thing. "Umm," stalled Pendrell, patting himself down. "Let me see where, did I put it --"
The cop had his hand firmly planted on the butt of his gun. "Step out of the car, both of you."
"We're doomed," muttered Mulder.
"If you just give me a minute, officer . . ." Pendrell looked desperately at Mulder, who just shrugged. "Mulder, my driver's license --?"
"You were dead. Since when do dead guys drive?" The agent reached for the door handle, keeping his hands in plain sight. "I'm stepping out, officer."
Pendrell turned back and froze, his breakfast congealing in his stomach as he looked down the enormous maw of the officer's weapon. "Okay! Okay! Just let me open the door."
No such luck. The cop yanked his door open, gun still pointed in a very threatening and 'unhelpful' way at Pendrell's face. "You will step from the car NOW!"
He couldn't help it. Pendrell wailed, "I thought the police were supposed to HELP people!" as he awkwardly got out, hands held up like a movie bank robber.
Mulder had already planted his hands on the roof of the car and was mournfully watching the sky. "Next time I drive."
Even if Pendrell could have thought of a reply he wouldn't have had the chance to deliver it as he was spun, shoved at the car, ordered, yelled at and patted down. Humiliating. Mortifying. And the cuffs were really uncomfortable when they clamped around his wrists. The cop, gun still in hand, dragged him stumbling around the car.
Not that Mulder was resisting in any way. He'd kept his hands in plain sight and leaned forward, assuming the position like a pro. It was enough to make one wonder whether the FBI's investigative support was always welcome where X-Files were concerned. In any case, Mulder gave no sign of alarm or surprise. Unlike Pendrell, whose head was still spinning as both of them, handcuffed and divested of ID and weapons, were shoved into the back of the squad car. It smelled like sweat but, thankfully, not chickens or garbage. Mulder sighed and squirmed around. "Somehow, getting handcuffed never lives up to my fantasies."
"You fantasize about this?!"
"Not quite like this." Mulder let out another of those long, wistful sighs. "The last time I had this fantasy I didn't imagine a muzzle burn on my ribs, and the cop didn't look like Erik Estrada. In fact, she looked a lot like Kathy Ireland."
Pendrell wrinkled his nose. "But she's got such a squeaky, awful voice!"
Mulder shrugged philosophically, if a little awkwardly. And winced. Having his hands behind his back probably hurt. "I didn't have to worry about her voice, Pendrell. Her mouth was full."
"Oh." Pendrell blushed and distracted himself by watching the cop do a cursory search of the Mustang. "Didn't he look at your badge? Why is he treating us like this?"
"Do you really want me to answer that, Pendrell?" Mulder squirmed around until he found a spot that must have worked because he relaxed, head tilted back on the seat.
"Now what?" Pendrell couldn't keep the anxiety out of his voice. "Will they book us?"
Mulder opened one eye and looked, briefly, back at him before shutting it again and shaking his head. "What makes you think we'll get that far?"
The bland question put a chill up his back as Pendrell considered its implications. "Maybe," he ventured, "maybe it's not that bad. I mean, they wouldn't dare to tackle a cop, would they? If we're arrested we'd be safe from - well. From THEM. Wouldn't we? And if they book us, we can get a public defender and a phone call and Mr. Skinner will know we're here and so will other people." He was picking up steam. "And it'll be in the papers and the FBI will investigate and we'll be released and -- and --"
"And you really are crazy," sighed Mulder. "I almost hate to burst that particular bubble, Pendrell, but we're in deep shit and it's getting deeper."
"Should we run?"
Mulder's laugh was dry. "That would be resisting arrest. Not to mention that it's hard to run fast when your hands are cuffed behind your back. I know. And it won't help. He's already radioed in about the car. Car missing in the right time frame. Two suspects. Nope, our friends are on the way."
Pendrell stared at him, appalled. "If you really think that, why are we sitting here?"
"Why?" Mulder let his head fall sideways, looking back at Pendrell. "Our chances with the cop suck. Our chances without him are nonexistent. They've figured out we're here. If we run, they can pick us up with almost no risk. The cop MIGHT slow them down. Maybe."
The spit dried up in Pendrell's mouth. Tonelessly, he whispered "I should have floored it."
A nod answered that. "Yes. And run like hell. Now we play this hand for all it's worth."
The hand wasn't worth very much. That was obvious from how the state trooper had treated them when he'd gotten back into the car and reviewed Mulder's ID. "FBI. Feeb."
"That's Special Agent Feeb," murmured Mulder softly.
The following exchange was brief, unpleasant, and punctuated with comments that Pendrell didn't think were funny no matter how hard the trooper laughed. Mulder didn't even bother to look. Pendrell tried to explain. Tried to tell the trooper how relieved he was and that they really needed police help. Mulder had kicked him a little but -- well. Cops had always been polite to him before. Then again, he admitted to himself as the trooper glared at him in the rearview mirror, usually he wasn't talking to them from the backseat of a prowl car.
The radio's static scratched along his nerves, discussion confirming the license of the Mustang. Mulder looked relaxed but when Pendrell had brushed the man's arm he'd felt like a coiled spring. Pendrell swallowed hard against the lump in his throat and unconsciously flexed his foot against the imagined gas pedal of an entirely different car than the one in which he sat.
The silence was so sudden it stunned him; the radio and engine falling dead in the same instant. Looking around, Pendrell saw Mulder, eyes wide in his shock-white face. His lips moved. As the world faded out, the last words Pendrell remembered might have been Mulder's or might have been his own. "Oh crap. Not again."
Burt Bacharach. Brian Pendrell didn't so much mind Burt Bacharach but he'd have preferred "The Look of Love" or just about anything from _Casino Royale_ to "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head." Instead all he could think of was that tinkly harmony and how silly it was. Of course, maybe it wasn't so silly. Right now raindrops were falling on his face, and they sure as heck did feel all tinkly and not at all like rain. He scrunched up his face, grunted and opened his mouth, hoping some of those raindrops would fall in his mouth instead of on his face because, boy, was he ever thirsty.
"I did not need to see your fillings." Mulder's dry voice brought Pendrell's eyes open with a snap and it wasn't raining. He wasn't even outdoors. Fluorescent lights glared down from behind wire grates in a tiled ceiling. Next to his cot, Mulder thumped down onto his butt.
"Welcome back to the land of the living."
Pendrell groaned and tried to sit up, head spinning and stomach lurching. He wanted to sleep, but he needed to get up like his life depended on it.
A hand under his arm helped and steadied him. "Slow down. That's not a good idea."
"Gotta get up. Gotta get up." His own voice felt lodged inside his head, caught in muzzy cotton wool.
"Yeah, I know how that feels." Mulder helped him stand up and take a few wobbly steps. His stomach gradually settled, thankfully, but his head still felt woozy, and he couldn't understand where they were. White. White. White walls. White cots. White sheets. He rambled around, kept falling into the walls, and they never stopped being white.
Mulder's hand was under his arm the whole time, keeping him on his feet, Mulder's voice murmuring something about sitting down and how it would be all right, but he didn't really have the concentration to make sense of it at first. It wasn't until he'd lurched around the little room several times that he was caught by his own reflection in a mirror over a white-white sink. Not that his face offered much color, but his hair was flaming in all that blankness. And his eyes. Hangover eyes. Eyes his classmates at college said looked like pissholes in the snow. That had never made much sense to him because they were red, not yellow, but his eyes really did look lousy.
"Woooooghghghgh . . ."
In the mirror he could see Mulder open his mouth, and then shut it. His head was slowly clearing, and he found himself suddenly grateful that the other man hadn't said a thing. Cool water, not raindrops but a deluge from the sink taps helped. He could feel it washing away the lingering haze as he rinsed his head, his face, washed out the cottony foul taste in his mouth. The faint creak of springs behind him as Mulder walked away, and sprawled back onto one cot was the only other sound in the room.
Water dripped all over his shoulders and the floor when Pendrell finally stood up and looked around the cell -- because there was no question about what it was -- with his head finally clear enough to know what he was seeing. Not really sharp, of course, but not totally fuzzy. The small, efficient toilet, two cots and a sink didn't make him feel any real sense of confidence that they were safely tucked away in a nice, boring holding tank. He finally stopped in front of the door, breathing a little hard. There wasn't a knob. Pendrell dragged his fingers over where one should be, feeling a little sick.
"You can knock, but that pissed off the guard when I did it." Mulder's voice was level, calm.
Pendrell looked around at him. Mulder sat back against the wall, head back. He looked very bored. Or he might, if his fingers hadn't been drumming against one knee. Pendrell finally went and slumped down next to Mulder on the cot, curled over his own crossed arms. "We're not in Nebraska, are we?"
"Maybe, but I doubt it. You want to smile nice for the camera?" Mulder flicked one finger towards the ceiling where a dark circle and a red light blinked from above the door. "You can ask when they send someone in to talk to us."
He stared up at that light, wondering how he'd looked past it in all the white on white of the little cell. Looked blankly back to Mulder, who took mercy. "It's okay, Pendrell. The drugs will make you slow for a while."
Pendrell felt stupid. It must have shown on his face because Mulder gave him a wistful smile and reached out, rolling up his sleeve and showing him a livid bruise on the inside of his elbow. "Alien abductions have missing time, but not usually this much and you don't get cotton mouth from it."
"How do you know?" He almost kicked himself for that one. Even drugged he wasn't that stupid. Mulder was answering him anyway in a mild, patient voice.
"Well, aside from having several hundred interviews on file I've been through it a couple times myself."
"Oh." He pressed the bruise, winced at it but the pain cleared his head just a little more. "So aliens didn't abduct us from that trooper's car? All that light . . . ?"
"Nope. No aliens this time. Maybe a black helicopter."
"Who are they?" Pendrell asked plaintively.
"I don't know, Pendrell." Mulder sighed. "I don't even know if they're the ones who put the implant in. All I really know is that some of them are human."
Pendrell almost asked him how he could even be sure of that, but Mulder wasn't slumping back anymore. He sat up like a hunting dog, watching the door. After a moment Pendrell heard it too, heavy footsteps that got louder. Mulder was on his feet as the door opened, but standing still. Pendrell peeked around him and found himself eyeing a large man with a large gun. Weapon. Rifle. Whatever. It was big and really ugly and didn't look exciting or glamorous the way guns looked in movies. It looked -- lethal and just plain ugly. And it was pointed at Mulder.
A thin woman stepped from behind the guard and studied the two of them thoughtfully, then nodded.
Mulder slouched a bit, but Pendrell could see the way his weight was balanced on the balls of his feet. He thought probably the guard could see it too, but crossed his fingers that he was wrong. Mulder's voice was dry and Pendrell couldn't understand how he could sound so calm. "We were expecting someone shorter. And maybe grayer."
The guard didn't blink. The woman raised an eyebrow and crossed her arms. "Sorry to disappoint you, Agent Mulder. I, however, am very happy to see you. I hope you'll choose to make this pleasant -- I'd rather not have you damaged if I can avoid it."
Her familiar, clinical tone put a chill down Pendrell's back. He'd heard cadavers discussed in that tone. He was creepily certain that he, himself had been discussed in that tone not so long ago. Mulder didn't seem a lot happier but when he shifted the guard's rifle came up an inch - not threatening, just warning. Mulder glanced back at him a moment. Pendrell almost felt the look on his skin, keen and measuring.
What happened next didn't last long. Mulder turned back, smiled, held up both hands and stepped calmly towards the door. The elbow he threw at the guard never got close. It wound up twisted behind his back. They were gone so fast that Pendrell felt like he'd been left alone in a deflating balloon - one moment full and the next flat and empty.
It wasn't empty for long.
The only warning was the whistling. Perfect, on key whistling. Pendrell caught himself humming along to it, almost singing "Hey there, lonely girl" just as the door opened.
He didn't really know what he'd expected, but the man standing there wasn't it. The guard behind him, HE was about right, but . . . well. The guy with dark hair and a big grin just didn't seem menacing and furtive enough to be working in a place like this. "Hi," Pendrell ventured, and saw the smile get a little wider. "Are you one of the bad guys?"
"It doesn't say that on my business cards but I guess 'bad guy' covers it." The guy looked vaguely familiar but it might have just been the FBI sweatshirt he was wearing. He walked in, looking around at the cell. "I see you got one of our better rooms."
No, this really wasn't what he expected. Pendrell swallowed and crossed his arms over a stomach full of butterflies. "Is this where you take me off to do mad scientist experiments on me? Is that where they took Mulder?"
Green eyes came back around to study him, not unkindly. The guy looked over at the guard. "Why don't you give me a minute with him."
"Those weren't the orders." The guard looked sour. "Frick's a real asshole if you keep him waiting."
"I'll take care of Frick, okay?" The guy shoved his hands in his pockets. Actually, shoved his hand. Pendrell started a little. The left hand wasn't real. The click of the door shutting startled him again and he looked back to see that the guard had left.
"Why did you do that?" He couldn't keep the little tremor out of his voice.
The young man with the false arm sat down on the other bunk. "Why'd I send Frankie out?"
"Un hunh. Who are you? What do you want?"
The grin grew wider. "What nefarious deeds and evil lurks am I planning?"
"I didn't say that." Pendrell bristled. "I don't think it's funny to have guns shoved in my face."
"Frankie didn't shove his gun in your face," the guy pointed out in a mild tone. "Look, my name's Alex Krycek --" Pendrell stiffened, saw Krycek take it in. "Obviously you've heard of me."
"Yes," allowed Pendrell with sudden caution and more fear than he wanted to admit. "Most of the FBI's heard of you."
"I bet. If you listen to Mulder I'm responsible for murder, mayhem and fluoride in the water." Krycek slouched back against the wall.
The silence stretched for a moment longer than Pendrell felt he could stand, and he finally filled it. "You killed Agent Scully's sister."
A thoughtful nod answered him. "Actually, I didn't, and last I heard there was no proof I'd ever done anything worse than impersonate an FBI agent and punch out the AD."
"That's not what I heard." Pendrell shivered. "What do you want with me?"
Krycek's expression flickered from amusement to regret then back again. "It's not me that wants you, Brian. I'm here to escort you and make things a little easier."
"I didn't tell you to call me Brian. Escort me where? What things?"
"Okay. Mr. Pendrell. I guess you can think of me as the MIB welcome wagon. I'm here to answer all your questions about alien parasites and possession." The double agent stood up and walked over to stand in front of him.
Pendrell swallowed hard and blinked a couple of times. "Alien possession?"
"Yeah." Krycek's smile softened, saddened. "I've been through it, so they thought I might be able to help you."
"Help me through what?" Pendrell couldn't quite keep the anger out of his voice. "Is Mulder going through the same thing? What about him?"
Krycek offered him a hand -- the real hand. Pendrell got to his feet without the help. Krycek hesitated, then shrugged. "I can't help Mulder. He won't let me. But maybe I can help you."
"I don't think I want your help." The frosty tone he was working for would have been better without the little quaver. Krycek just eyed him.
"Maybe. Maybe not. But right now we'd better get going or Frick's gonna make alien parasites look tame."
"Stop it!" Pendrell squealed. "It tickles!"
Alex Krycek stared at him. Pendrell had never seen anyone stare at him like that. Well, maybe. A little. Mulder had looked a little bit like that, on that first night at the morgue.
The look on Ronald Frick's pudgy face was even worse. He didn't look afraid or awed. He just looked irritated. "Lies are counterproductive and will be dealt with harshly."
"I don't think he's lying, Dr. Frick." Krycek's voice sounded tinny over the speaker.
Pendrell squirmed against the restraints on his wrists and ankles and frowned at the men on the other side of the of thick, quartz window. Not easy to frown when he was giggling like a maniac, but he managed. "I am not -- hehehe! -- lying! It tickles! It always tickled!"
And it did! Not too bad, but just enough to keep him squirming and laughing as the black stuff trickled and tickled and danced on his skin, like demented mercury beads with a mind of their own. "Stop it! Oh, not the ribs!" At least the tickling kept his mind off being naked, so he wasn't as mortified as he might have been.
Even so, it wasn't exactly how he wanted to spend his afterlife. He tried to twitch in his elbows as the little oily pests circled the puncture marks from where they'd taken buckets of blood out of him before they strapped him into the chair. That wasn't so bad but, oooh, no! The little things did it again, oozing up and, he guessed, into the holes because they were suddenly gone but little bumps ran up and down his arms and it tickledtickledTICKLED like mad!
"Ohohoh! It feels like pop rocks everywhere! Stop it!"
But they didn't, anymore than the last dozen times he'd that demanded they stop, and give him back his clothes. On the other side of the window Dr. Frick and Dr. Wessel and Alex Krycek were talking but he couldn't hear them anymore. The oily little things were heading back down his arms, leaving tingly little trails in their wake until they popped back out of the injection holes and finally, at long last, slithered off, dripping to his thighs and oozing down to the floor, where they all huddled back into their little canister. They looked like old 40 weight oil. Pendrell sighed and settled back, trying to squeeze his legs together as much as he could, to hide his privates from the men in the control room. "Can I leave now?"
Hours later he was sagging with weariness. Krycek was keeping a wary distance, and his expression hung somewhere between solicitous and terrified. "You look tired."
"YOU get tickled for hours and you'll be tired too! And why did they have to take so much blood? What were all those tests?" Pendrell scowled at him.
The former FBI agent and current self-proclaimed Welcome Wagon for the Forces of Evil pushed another big glass of orange juice across the formica and sat as far back as the cafeteria bench would allow. "They need to get complete telemetry."
"What does that mean?" Pendrell didn't bother to hide how irked he was feeling. He was finding it a little hard to remember that Krycek was a Dangerous Bad Guy who needed to be feared. "I feel like Swiss cheese. If all you people wanted was to give me oil packs, why didn't you just ask?"
He could see Krycek gulp and he'd have sworn the man actually flinched when he reached over to steal a french fry. The guy looked nervous when he gingerly sat forward a little. "Oil packs?"
"Sure. I had them all the time when I was a kid. Dr. Armbruster said they helped my eczema."
Pendrell hadn't seen such a blank look since . . . well. He wasn't sure he'd ever seen such a blank look in his life or his death. It stopped him cold. He shivered suddenly as he looked back at Alex Krycek and thought about it all. "You were just joking about alien parasites, weren't you? Before?"
There was white all around the irises in Krycek's eyes as he shook his head slowly back and forth, never really looking away from Pendrell. Come to think of it, he hadn't looked away once since he'd escorted a relieved-to-be-dressed-again Pendrell out of the lab and down to the cafeteria. Pendrell chewed on a french fry that suddenly tasted like sawdust and swallowed dryly. "You said that you'd been through this. You mean with the oil?"
A silent, precise nod.
"And it didn't tickle?"
That spooky head shake again, like Krycek was afraid to take his eyes off Pendrell. Like he was watching a cobra or something. Pendrell felt a paper napkin tearing between his fingers, ripping into sweaty little bits, but he couldn't look away from Alex Krycek. "And Mulder?"
Krycek's mouth thinned. "No. I don't think it's tickling for him, either."
"Oh." The napkin was a damp ball of glop. "Can . . . can we leave now?"
Green eyes blinked. "We'd better get you back to your room."
The guard at their door watched them walk down the hall with a steady, wary look that reminded Pendrell all too well that he wasn't among friends. As if he'd really needed reminding. Except maybe he did, because Krycek had come to seem almost familiar in such a short time. Pendrell had never realized how scary it could be to have everyone look through you, through him, but here they all did study him as if they were trying to see under his skin. All except Krycek.
Krycek glanced at him now, then back down the hall to wave at the guard who'd taken Mulder away earlier. "Frank's back. You know if you need anything you can tell him."
Pendrell hesitated, swallowed. "You won't be there, will you?"
A dazzling smile met his question, so bright it didn't feel real, then it softened and dimmed until it seemed a little sad and a lot warmer. "I'll be around. I've got work to do, too, Pendrell."
"When will they bring Mulder back?"
The smile went blank for a moment, frozen, then faded completely. "He's already back. If Frankie's here he's back."
"Oh." Pendrell swallowed, tried to meet the guard's eyes as he watched them approach. He wouldn't look back at Pendrell, eyes sliding away, seeing them, but not seeing him. Pendrell crossed his arms over his chest, studying a door that only had a number pad beside it. The door to his cell. Their cell. He looked at Krycek and had to bite down on the urge to ask him to stay, to tell him he was glad that Krycek was there, that someone was there who actually looked at him instead of through him, who maybe even saw him.
Krycek met his eyes for a moment then looked away. "The room service here sucks. Do you think you'll need anything?"
Pendrell didn't even try to stop the brief giggle that rose in his throat. "You're kidding. I need to get out of here. I need my old life back. I need . . . I don't even know where to start."
"Make sure they get the house special, hunh Frankie?"
The guard nodded, eyes watchful as Krycek punched in a code and pressed his thumb to a little pad. The door opened and Pendrell shivered, looked away. A gentle hand in the middle of his back urged him forward. "It'll be okay, Pendrell." Krycek's voice.
The warmth of the hand stayed on his back, an electric presence right behind him even after the door had shut, and Pendrell felt a sudden surge of gratitude that the man had stayed. Then he saw Mulder. "Oh my god. Oh my god . . ."
One hand hung limply off the side of the cot. Pendrell grabbed the wrist as he dropped to his knees next to Mulder's body. "Oh my god is he dead? He looks --"
"Pendrell." Krycek's voice wasn't quite harsh but it yanked his eyes around to look up at the other man's face, cool and collected. Then back at Mulder. Krycek crouched next to him as he reached out to brush sweat-lank hair off Mulder's forehead. He gingerly traced the greasy track traced black and stark across wan skin under an ear. The same stuff crusted in Mulder's eyelashes, marking his upper lip like a nose bleed.
"He looks dead." Pendrell whispered, stunned. And breathed a sigh of relief even as Mulder twitched under his touch, then subsided again.
"He's not. It just takes a lot out of you."
Krycek's calm, matter-of-fact tone soothed in a way that comfort couldn't have done. Pendrell took a shaky breath and squeezed Mulder's shoulder hard. "He's not waking up, Alex. Where's the doctor? What happened to him?"
A hand, cool and plastic, rested lightly on his arm. "Let him rest, Brian. He's just wiped out. Trust me."
Ridiculous words. Pendrell's head snapped around. "Trust you? You helped do this to him! What did they do to him?"
Steady, green eyes looked back into his. "The same thing they did to you, Pendrell. The same thing they did to me. Believe me, this is normal. He's just exhausted."
"But I didn't have this?" He didn't know if his voice could even reach Mulder right now, but he kept it low. It took an effort, but he did. "He's half-dead."
That half-smile that wasn't really funny at all met his words. "More or less. Believe it or not, half-dead is normal. Pendrell, he's not the strange one. You are."
Krycek straightened, offering him the live hand for help rising. Pendrell ignored it and touched Mulder's throat, counting a pulse that was faint under clammy skin. "I thought you said you were here to help us."
The hand shook impatiently. "He'll be fine. Leave him alone Pendrell, let him rest."
The oily stuff on Mulder's face was lifeless, smearing when he rubbed a thumb across it. There was a sour taste in the back of Pendrell's throat as he listened to the other man's rasping breaths. When Krycek leaned down and took his elbow, he tried to shake him off. "Leave me alone. Leave us alone."
"You're bugging him, Pendrell. He just needs rest. Don't try to wake him up."
"You people did this!" He glared at Krycek, a wasted effort as the hand under his elbow pulled steadily until he stood.
"Come on, Pendrell. Don't touch him." Krycek almost dragged him over to the other cot. "He's not as far under as he looks. Leave him alone."
"Like you did?" Wishing he could think of something sharper than childhood "did too's" and at a loss. He glanced back at Mulder's smudged face and felt his own draw into lines of anger. "Why are you doing this? What did you do to him you . . . you . . . motherfucker!"
Krycek's mouth twitched at the curse but didn't pull up into a smile. "Call me every name in the book if it helps, but sit down."
Not that he had much choice. The taller man shoved him, and the cot against the back of his knees did the rest. Pendrell dropped onto his cot with a squeak of bedsprings that brought another twitch and a low moan from Mulder.
Krycek sat more quietly and spoke in low tones. "Now, if you think you can stand not to shout -"
"I'm not -"
"Just shut up, lab-mouse. Okay?" Low, but forceful. Krycek dragged the fingers of his right hand through his short hair. If that mussed it Pendrell couldn't tell, but there were tiny lines drawing tight at the corners of the other man's eyes, thin lines at the corners of his mouth. "Mulder's not hurt. He's just wiped out. He's like me."
Pendrell opened his mouth but a challenging look shut him up and he finally gave a sharp nod, gesturing for Krycek to go on.
"If you weren't so damn weird you'd be as wiped out as he is. That stuff you call oil packs?"
The question was rhetorical but Pendrell answered it anyway. "The stuff Doctor Armbruster gave me for my eczema. It doesn't wipe you out."
"It does if you're normal. If you're lucky it just wipes you out. If you're vaccinated. Usually it takes you over and you wind up a puppet in your own head."
The bitterness of the tone cut through a little of Pendrell's anger, made him hesitate, made him really look at Krycek, past the bright smile and confident manner to where a tired, sad sympathy hung dark in green eyes. "It didn't do that to me."
This time the smile did draw up the corner of his mouth, but there wasn't any humor in it. "Like I said, normal. You're not."
"And you are, Krycek?" Words spoken on a low groan that drew both Pendrell and Krycek's attention across the room in an instant. Mulder's eyes were slitted open, watching them. He shoved his way up, sitting back against the wall like it took too much to stay upright without it, and dragged his hands across his face. He studied the dark smudges on his palms a moment, then shuddered and looked back up at them. "This shit is . . .?"
Pendrell started to get up and Krycek yanked him back down, shaking his head. "You know what it is, Mulder."
A humorless smile. "It's sure as hell not a virus. What is it really? A spore?"
Pendrell shook his arm loose of Krycek's grip and crossed the room before the one-armed man could grab him again. It wasn't Krycek that stopped him. It was the look on Mulder's face as he pulled back into himself, warning Pendrell off with a look. "Don't touch me."
"It's okay." Soothing. "I understand."
A low sigh behind him. "You don't want this now, Mulder. Why don't you give yourself some time."
"Just answer the fucking question." Pendrell reached out but Mulder shrank back, glaring up at him then back at the man still sitting on the other cot. "Don't touch me, Pendrell."
The words were harsh and low. Pendrell paused, caught between the desire to help, and the acid bite of the command. "I just want to help."
Mulder wiped his hands over his face again, smearing black, oily residue across them. He held out filthy palms to Pendrell, looking up from a face sooty-gray with the stuff. His words were suddenly oddly gentle. "Don't touch me, Pendrell. Just . . . don't touch me."
"That's pointless, Mulder." Krycek's practical, everyday voice was neither loud nor soft, just disarmingly normal. "It's not like you can infect him."
The glare cut past Pendrell, aimed past him, at Krycek. Mulder slowly rocked forward, balancing his weight as if he thought he could get up. It didn't seem likely since Pendrell could see the way his arms trembled under his own weight. He heard the faint whiff of denim, was sure Krycek had stood up behind him and almost breathed a sigh of relief when the door opened and Frankie stood, slouched in the doorway. The hand the guard rested on his weapon didn't really contradict his casual stance. "Krycek. You're gonna piss off Mackie if you keep riling them up. You know what she said."
"Yeah." As quickly as that, the bubble of tension collapsed. Mulder slumped back against the wall, and Krycek sidled past Pendrell towards the door. Pendrell turned, meeting his eyes for a moment. He wasn't sure if the sympathy he saw there made him feel better or worse.
"You said you were the Welcome Wagon."
"So?" The comment seemed to baffle him from the tilt of the head and the quizzical narrowing of green eyes. Pendrell almost grinned, feeling for the first time a hint of the ease he'd always been sure that everyone but him had learned in kindergarten.
"So you're supposed to bring us stuff, Alex. A casserole, and cookies, and a radio and stuff. Remember? You're supposed to help us." Just the slightest slip, the tiniest extra emphasis on that last word. He saw the other man's shoulders tense just that little bit, his chin lift the smallest fraction of an inch, and wondered what Krycek had heard, if it was what he'd meant to say . . . and wondered when he'd started speaking in secrets and pauses and lies. Swallowed the lump in his throat and the sudden longing for home, wishing that he was home, where it smelled like him and the sun shone on books and rugs and a life that wasn't his anymore.
A single long blink of the other man's eyes; maybe he'd seen it, maybe he'd heard everything in that one little sentence, that one little word. The wide mouth twitched in an ambiguous smile and Alex Krycek shook his head just a little. "I'm a rotten cook, but I'll see what I can find."
Frank shook his head and stepped back, giving room for Krycek to pass. One last flickering glance and the door shut and he was back in a cell, wondering exactly what was happening but not at all sure it'd make him happy to find out.
A low snort of derision shook him out of the mood and brought his attention back to where Mulder had propped himself up against the wall. Bloodshot hazel eyes were still fixed on the door. Pendrell nibbled his lower lip, then got a handful of paper towels. He soaked them and took the meager bar of soap from the sink. He held out his offerings tentatively, "here."
Mulder stared at him blearily, then reached out and took the towels and soap. He was careful -- visibly careful -- not to touch Pendrell. "Thanks."
Pendrell settled himself on the edge of Mulder's cot, ignoring the sudden stillness and the guarded glare he got for it. "You know, I took public speaking in college."
Mulder froze, then went back to soaping his face. "If I tell you I don't want to know, will you stop right there?"
When Pendrell glanced back, Mulder was scrubbing away what looked like coal tar tear tracks with wet paper towels. "My advisor told me public speaking would make me more confident and teach me how to speak in 'unfamiliar settings.'"
Long fingers plastered the paper towels over Mulder's face. The tremor in his shoulders might have been tears or it might have been laughter. Or both. For a long moment Pendrell bit down on his tongue and wished he'd just shut up, then the paper towels were suddenly wadded and Mulder was staring at him as if he'd just grown a second head. His expression slowly disintegrated from blank calm into a rapid-blink laughter that had tear tracks running black across newly scrubbed skin as the man simply fell over on his side and coughed and hiccoughed and laughed and, if he were being honest, cried but Pendrell turned his back on that and pretended he didn't hear.
"I got a 'C', of course. But I'm wondering, if I'd gotten an 'A', I wonder if I'd know how to ask why you've got black stuff coming out of your nose and if you know what's happening to us? But I only got a 'C' so that's probably not how to ask but --"
The hand that barely touched him didn't linger, but it was enough. Pendrell sniffed and was surprised to find his nose was stuffy and his eyes were sore and a little blurry. He blinked and sniffed in and finally let himself look around at Mulder. He wasn't sure if the smudges under the agent's eyes were gunk or exhaustion. He could only see a glitter from under wet, clumped lashes, but the tension that had pulled skin taut over his cheekbones had bled away to leave a man who just looked worried and very, very tired. "I should shut up, huh?"
The smallest imitation of a smile, and the tiniest shake of the head. "No." Pendrell winced at Mulder's hoarse voice. "You deserve answers."
Mulder shoved himself back upright. Pendrell tried to offer a hand, but only got that frozen look again and pulled his hand back. "Sorry."
Knees drawn up and arms wrapped around them, Mulder finally looked back at him. "What did they do to you, Pendrell?"
"You first," Pendrell rushed to offer, suddenly sure that Mulder didn't know about him and the oil. And not at all sure he really wanted Mulder to know about him and the oil. He didn't have to fake concern and sympathy. "You look wiped out."
He wasn't sure how to read the look that got. Arms tightened a little more around knees and Mulder's shoulders stiffened. "They . . . they exposed me to what I guess you'd call a parasite."
"The spore or the larva you were talking about?" He scooted up to the head of Mulder's cot, a little back but not willing to withdraw across the room.
The answering half-smile made him wonder if Mulder and Krycek knew how much they looked like each other when they did that. "I think of it as the oilien, but I believe Scully would call that 'inaccurate jargon.'"
"Oil . . . Mulder, does it look like black mercury?"
A flat gaze rested on him, and Pendrell could watch Mulder reading him. He'd known. Of course he'd known but he hadn't believed it. Pendrell licked lips that were suddenly very dry. "It can't be the same, Mulder. That doesn't hurt. The oil's just tickly like -- like --" A slow widening of the other man's eyes stopped him, tripped his words and left him feeling stupid and impossibly clumsy.
Mulder leaned forward, reached a hand out and gingerly laid his fingertips along Pendrell's jaw to turn his face one way, the other, as those flat, shuttered eyes studied tracked from ears to nostrils to lips and, finally, back up to meet his own eyes. And went just a little wider than they already were. "They can't have exposed you."
His throat was tight and words didn't want to get out. His nod was more definite than his voice could possibly have been.
Mulder's hand jerked back like he'd been burned, then reached out again. This time it turns over his wrist and trailed up the blue tracery of veins to a reddish bruise. His hoarse voice was cold, precise. "They introduced the organism into the room and it -- it invaded through the puncture marks they left when they drew blood."
Pendrell couldn't meet his eyes. He just nodded. "Yeah. It was like that for me."
"What happened then?" The clinical tone he'd learned to hate sounded even worse coming from Mulder. Calm and far, far too distant from real, live people. "What was it like for you, Pendrell?"
"It tickled." He couldn't get louder than a whisper. Guilt burned deep in his stomach and he didn't even know for sure why he felt it, but he did. "The stuff got into me like it always does and it just tickles, Mulder. Mulder, it's not my fault. I didn't know."
A blink and another. Mulder's hand hovered, then pulled back and the man touched the back of his own neck. He sounded like his mouth was dry. "Did it tickle here?"
A quick shake of the head. "That tingled like soda bubbles up my nose except it was on the back of my neck. And down here and here and . .." Showing the tracks of sensation, and watching Mulder study him. "Don't look at me like that. Please don't."
The other man's gaze snapped back up to his, stared back into his eyes a scarily long time. "They've done this to you before."
Pendrell hated answering. Wanted to beg off and plead exhaustion, his own or Mulder's, it didn't much matter, but Mulder was burning as if his body didn't matter anymore and Pendrell could actually feel the heat off of him. Grasped at a straw, "you're running a fever."
"Answer the question."
Teeth raked over a dry lower lip and stung. Pendrell finally nodded. "When I was a kid. Once a month when I was a kid."
A sudden high flush burned in Mulder's cheeks, sharp against the gray pale of his face. His eyes shut, lips moving as though he were counting, or praying, then flew open again. "And you didn't tell me."
The chill of his voice made Pendrell's stomach lurch and his mouth go dry. "Tell you what? What was I supposed to say? That I had eczema when I was a kid?"
"For chrissakes, Pendrell," Mulder's voice was still low but the edge on it left no illusion of being soft. The agent glanced at the camera then turned towards Pendrell, leaning in. "What the hell did you think they were doing? It didn't once occur to you that nothing on earth acts like that shit?"
"That's not true, Mulder. That's just not -- I didn't even think about it!" His face was flushed and his nails dug into his palms. "They said it was experimental! And it never did clear up my eczema so what did you want me to say? Maybe I had, I don't know, maybe I ate cornflakes made out of mutant corn? Uh-uh-or maybe -- I don't know! It's not like I went to college with a medical file that said I had all my shots and, oh yeah, I had secret military experimentation too?"
Mulder just watched him through the too-fast, spluttering, stammering words. Pendrell trailed into silence and stared back, seeing the tiny twitch of muscle along the jawline, the tension at the corners of Mulder's mouth and eyes that belied the too-calm voice. "Your family was in the military, right?" It wasn't really a question. "There is no hardware store. No small town doctor."
Pendrell's eyes stung and his stomach rolled. He squeezed his lids shut tight and dug his nails harder into his palms, made himself open his eyes and stare right back at Fox Mulder. "There is a hardware store. Dad bought it with his retirement money from the Air Force. And Doc Armbruster was taking care of me since I was born. What's next, Mulder? Do you want to accuse me of setting you up? Faking my own death?"
Mulder's long, thoughtful pause was punctuated by the beating of Pendrell's heart. He didn't understand how it could keep beating so normally when he felt so ill. The other man finally broke the stare, rubbing fingertips over shadowed eyelids and shaking his head. "You're not Elvis." He dropped his arms back over his raised knees, hands hanging limp. "Like most of the bad shit in the world, Pendrell, this is just one more normal fuck up. I just hope this one won't get us both killed."
"So. You girls had a nice little slumber party, huh?" Alex Krycek grinned and handed him a big cup of coffee.
"Thank you thank you . . ." Pendrell breathed in the scent of the coffee with joy. "I thought Mulder was going to attack the guard this morning when they wouldn't bring us coffee. I think he'd have gone peacefully if they'd just offered him French roast."
"That's Mackie's fault." Krycek waved them out past the guard, who studiously ignored them. "She thinks it'll mess up her test results --real health food police type."
Pendrell took a deep, grateful sip. "You won't get in trouble for this, will you?"
Krycek hesitated, studying him then looking away. "Don't worry about it, Lab Mouse."
"Brian. My name is Brian. And I don't want you to get in trouble." He looked down at the cup between his hands, suddenly startled to realize that he'd told the truth. "I don't need it if it'll get you in trouble."
A gusty, theatrical sigh made him look back up into a sparkling grin. "You worry too much. A cup of coffee isn't going to send you into epileptic fits and Mackie and Frick can go fuck themselves."
A small answering grin slowly took over Pendrell's face, then faded under jitters that had nothing to do with caffeine. "What are they going to do today? Will it be like yesterday?"
The oddest look ran over Krycek's face, something like consternation and fear and laughter all at once. Then he shook his head. "Nah. Today they just poke and prod and suck you dry. Drink your coffee, Lab Mouse. You've got a long day with the vampires in store for you."
With a warm cup of coffee between his palms and butterflies in his stomach, Pendrell didn't quite have the heart to scold Krycek again. And by the time Dr. Frick had gotten through with him he didn't much have the energy. His stomach wasn't tap-dancing - it had long since gone into a full-fledged revolt by the time Frick was done pouring sugar water down his throat, and shoving nasty stuff into spots that made Pendrell's skin crawl and his bottom ache. He recognized about half the tests Frick did -- the ones for diabetes, and the ones on his digestive tract, and he absolutely knew when they drew blood, and then when they drew for platelets. By the time they'd poked, prodded, sucked, shot his own red cells back into him, poured stuff down his throat, and checked what came out the other end, Brian Pendrell understood why they'd needed to kidnap him. There was no way in Hades that he'd have let someone do that stuff to him by choice!
Which made him something like ten to the 23rd power relieved and happy to see Alex Krycek's face after a day that was entirely too long for anyone's taste. "Hey, Lab Mouse. You ready to go, or do you want Frick to put you back on the treadmill?"
"Please. Get me out of here."
They wouldn't need a guard to keep him docile today. Pendrell crossed his arms to protect the puncture marks and followed Krycek out. He hurried a few steps, caught up with Krycek's longer stride. "I guess it's back to my cell."
"Not right away, unless you're dying to get back. I thought a cheeseburger would make you feel better."
"That'd be great." He blinked a couple times, almost shut up then forged ahead. "They treat me like I'm just some kind of thing, a lab animal or a project. I -- just -- This sounds so stupid, but thank you for treating me like I'm real."
"You are real, Pendrell." The warm, cozy, normal colors of the small cafeteria almost choked Pendrell up again, and the sympathy in Krycek's voice made it hard to hold onto the control that had kept him quiet and dry-eyed all day. "I know it's hard."
"Yeah, I guess you do."
Krycek held his silence all through the line, piling stuff on Pendrell's tray and his own, with just a glance or a pause to check interest. It was starting to make Brian nervous by the time they'd found a booth and he'd caught Krycek studying him over and over. He fiddled with ketchup, trying not to splash it when he tore open the packets. "What is it?"
"About what?" Pausing, red stuff dripping down his fingers. Krycek blinked and he jumped, grabbing a french fry to wipe the mess off his fingertips. "What am I wrong about?"
"I don't know exactly what you're going through." The green eyes released him long enough for the other man to pull the pickle slice off his burger. "I can't imagine laughing at those things. Being in a cage -- THAT I can imagine. But the rest . . ."
Pendrell chewed slowly, his food suddenly dry as sawdust. "What're they doing to Mulder today? What did they do yesterday?"
"I wondered when you'd get around to that." Krycek looked up, gestured with his sandwich. "Don't worry, I'll get some for him too."
"I -- I wish you'd take me to him. Let me at least see -- what they're doing is worse than what's happening to me. Isn't it?" He could see in Krycek's eyes that neither of them mistook that for a real question.
Krycek worked the fingers of the prosthetic arm slowly, jerky little movements that released, then grasped his food again. His forehead furrowed in concentration. "It's -- it's worse. Yeah. He's used to it, but still . . ."
"They're torturing him." Not even the pretense of a question.
"No!" Alex's head snapped up. "No. They're not. I don't know what he told you, but they're not. He'll feel like shit, Pendrell, but it's an allergy, like testing if he's allergic to bees or seafood or -- or --"
"Or alien spore-larva-virus-gross-out-oil things?"
A slow smile. "Yeah. Or those."
Pendrell put his sandwich down and pushed it away. "Thank you for dinner. I'm sorry. I'm just not hungry right now."
Krycek chewed, swallowed. Then leaned forward and stole one of Pendrell's french fries. "You've got it bad, don't you?"
"I feel okay."
"No. You've got it bad for Mulder. Have you told him?"
Room temperature instantly rose about twenty degrees as every red blood cell in Pendrell's body went straight to his face. He strove for dignity. "I don't know what you're talking about."
The sparkly, shiny smile spread out all over Krycek's face. "Lust. Desire. Stiffies. A bad case of woo. You're in love with this boy that we're talkin' about, to paraphrase the old song. And if I know Mulder, he's about as clueless as you can get and still be breathing."
Pendrell stiffened and wondered if a flush could get bad enough to cause actual damage. "He is not clueless. He's just . . . He doesn't think that way."
Krycek nearly choked on his drink, and had to sit coughing and gasping before he could answer. "He doesn't think WHAT way, Lab Mouse? He doesn't think about sex? I hate to disappoint you --"
"No." The unyielding tone must have finally got through. Krycek's eyes glittered up through his lashes, but he shut up. "I told him, Alex. It's not funny. He was very nice to me."
"Very n --" Krycek pulled his face into an exaggerated scowl. "Does that mean you did get laid or you didn't get laid?"
He was going to die. Though maybe he'd wait until he'd killed Krycek with his spork first. He pulled his most stuffy, dignified manner about him in the meantime. "It means we had a good talk, and Mulder is a very understanding and decent man."
"And you've got blueballs, huh lonely girl?"
"I am not going to dignify that with an answer," huffed Pendrell.
"I'll take that as a yes," chortled Krycek. His sandwich, thankfully, kept him quiet for a while.
When he glanced back up Pendrell took a tip from Penn and Teller and misdirected him. He hoped. "What did they do to Mulder today?"
"Baseline testing, just like you." Krycek suddenly didn't seem as comfortable, reaching for his soda to wash down his food. "They won't run another test until tomorrow."
Pendrell spent a long time chewing his food, and forced the bite down. "What are they testing for, exactly, Alex? What do they think they'll find?"
No hint of a sparkly grin was left. "You don't want to know."
Pendrell swallowed dry and reached for his Coke to stall. It tasted like battery acid. "We won't be like you. They'll kill us, won't they?"
Krycek didn't look up and he didn't answer. He wrapped up the second sandwich on his plate with small, precise movements, folding the napkins around it in neat creases.
"Why?" Pendrell couldn't completely keep the pleading note out of his voice. "Why will they kill us? They let you live."
The hands stilled, then turned the edges of the napkin under. "I'm on their side. And there's no guarantee they won't kill me, too, if they have to."
"But they haven't." When he reached across the table all he could get hold of was Alex's prosthetic hand. The other man looked up at him, gaze naked and startled. "Why will they kill us?"
"Because they're scared. They're terrified. And they think it's life and death."
" . . . yes."
Brian Pendrell slouched along beside Alex Krycek -- actually, he was slinking along a little bit behind Alex if he was honest with himself. He wondered what he could say. Wondered what anyone could say.
Krycek was brooding. That was the only word for it. It didn't fit him. Brooding was really more a Mulder thing to do. It made Pendrell want to tell him jokes, or say something absurd. Really, he wanted to see that sparkly smile again. When Krycek glanced back at him it felt a like that smile had never existed and Pendrell felt sort of -- drab. Dull.
So it startled him even more when Krycek stopped cold in the middle of a corridor that had started to look familiar. Corporate art was the only clue that they were around the corner from home (home? There was something really wrong about thinking of his and Mulder's cell as home).
Vivid green eyes broke that line of thought; sent his mind skittering in confusion, shuffling through other things to call the cell (interim housing, domiciliary, cramped), noticing the sort of frayed neck of Krycek's sweatshirt, noticing how cool the wall was at his back. Noticing anything but the spicy, warm scent of the man who was standing almost on top of him now, and how little flecks of light brown looked golden and soft in his eyes. Pendrell swallowed hard against the nerves in his belly and found the first sensible thing he could think of to say.
"They're going to kill me."
He couldn't see Alex Krycek's face anymore. Not since Krycek had stooped and come closer, so close that Pendrell couldn't make out his face as a face, but could see the bristle of beard shadowing his jawline, and the faintest blue tracings of veins in his throat. Alex's whisper breathed across his skin, "yes."
A man's lips felt so strangely familiar, not as hard as Pendrell had expected, but fuller as if there were just more there, more muscle and flesh than a woman's face could hold. But the rough bristle on the chin that pressed his cheek was strange, strange . . . a sensation to grab hold of and focus on as Alex's tongue moved hot and wet and very . . . oh, very good across Pendrell's own lips and between, to lick at his teeth.
When he broke the kiss and moved back Pendrell's knees wobbled and he sagged back against the wall, breathing fast and trying to figure out if he was more surprised, shocked or aroused. "I -- why did you do that?"
Krycek's good hand and arm were braced against the wall behind his head. He could smell sweat, subtle and fresh. This time the kiss trailed over his cheekbone, and the tongue traced the curl of his ear. Pendrell almost lifted his hands to push the bigger man away, but he really couldn't decide if he wanted to. An answer softly caressed his ear; "I wanted to."
Blink. Pendrell rubbed his hand across his burning cheeks, only to have it captured and pushed over his head. Another kiss seared his lips and sent his thoughts tail-spinning. Krycek finally let go, stepped back and there, finally, was that grin. "It's a problem with impulse control."
"Oh." Pendrell nodded as if it made all the sense in the world. "Of course."
The big, shiny grin softened a little. "Brian . . . don't worry so much."
He'd been about to stand up and test if his knees were still wobbly, but that comment saved him the trouble. Pendrell glared at Krycek. "That's very easy for you to say. You're not the lab mouse they're going to 'sacrifice' and dissect. And you're not going back to a lo -- a friend who'll be oozing gross black slime and shaking and sick."
Tiny lines crinkled at the corners of laughing eyes. "Neither are you. They just did baseline testing today."
"Oh. Good. So tomorrow they'll dissect us?"
Krycek didn't sober much, but he did settle one hand reassuringly on Pendrell's shoulder as he pulled him back into motion. "No. Tomorrow they'll do another round of tests to see how resistant you both are. And I suspect that you'll be fine. Mulder'll feel like shit, but he's used to that."
"Thank you so much." Pendrell started to shake the hand off his shoulder, but saw Frank look up as they came around the corner, felt the fingers tighten on muscle. Krycek glanced down at him and shook his head very slightly.
"You'll be okay, Brian."
Ridiculous. Pendrell stopped cold and turned to stare at Krycek, not caring if Frank was watching, or if he was making people wait, or anything. There was a sour taste in the back of his throat, and a tight, cold ball in the pit of his stomach. "I'll be fine. That's really easy for you to say. Will you be telling me that when they --they're going to KILL me Alex! They're going to murder me!"
Krycek flinched. Pendrell could hear his own voice squeaking up the scale with that thin sound he just hated himself for, but he couldn't help it. Each word he said made Alex Krycek flinch but each word hit Brian Pendrell himself even harder, and he was suddenly grabbing hold of Krycek's sweatshirt and yanking the taller man close, wanting -- no, needing to see himself in Alex's eyes, to see someone in this place see HIM. Someone behind him was shouting at him and grabbing his shoulders and Krycek was shaking. No, he was shaking Alex. Snapping him back and forth and shouting and screaming, really. "THEY'RE GOING TO KILL ME! WHEN ARE THEY GOING TO KILL ME!"
Then the hands on his shoulders were too hard to ignore, digging into his muscles and ripping him off of Krycek, slamming him against the wall. It was like he could see it from a long way away, his face smooshed against the wall and Frank's rifle shoved across his shoulders, Frank's voice shouting in his ear, but the words didn't mean very much and he could see it but not feel it. The sick, icy certainty was too big, eating it all up and sucking him under until suddenly there was a familiar voice, two familiar voices shouting. Long arms wrapped tight around him and he felt so stupid, just sobbing and choking on the words, over and over again, hearing himself babbling "they're gonna kill me, I don't want to, why are they going to . . ."
When his knees buckled it was only those long arms that kept him from falling. Two arms. Mulder sank down on the floor next to him, holding him too tight for Pendrell to hit, or fight, or thrash anymore. Holding him until he was too tired, and he couldn't even scream.
The world came back slowly, things not really making sense even though he knew that Mulder and Krycek, between them, had pulled him onto his feet. Then he was sitting on his cot, a wet paper towel on the back of his neck, dripping down under the collar of his shirt. Mulder was crouched in front of him, hazel eyes looking up into his, a worried frown wrinkling up his forehead and squinching his eyes. A cup was shoved into his hand. Mulder's glare told him it was Krycek doing the shoving, even if he weren't starting to figure things out on his own again. He gulped the water, got it up his nose when he hiccuped, and shut his eyes tight against the embarrassment. There was a warm hand on his knee and, for once, the contact didn't go to his groin. It just made him feel sillier. He took a long, deep breath and hiccuped again. "Oh crap."
Alex Krycek's quick snort of laughter broke off, and he finally cracked open one eye to see if he was lucky enough that Mulder and Krycek would be glaring at each other instead of looking at him with, he was sure, his blotchy, silly red face. No. He wasn't that lucky. He slumped as much as he could with those little jumps that hiccups made him do and sighed. And almost laughed, himself. "Do you two know you really do look alike. Are you sure you're not related?"
Identical worried frowns flashed to irritation and smug laughter in a heartbeat, and he finally did get his wish as Mulder turned. Judging by the expression on his face he was hoping that, just this once, looks would kill, and Krycek once again proved they wouldn't. Krycek dropped onto the cot next to him, spilling his water a little and Mulder shoved himself onto his feet to lean on the wall at the head of the cot. "If you suggest that again, Pendrell, I think I'll be the next one going into hysterics."
Krycek grinned up at the agent. "It'd look good on you, Mulder. I'll comfort you."
"Fuck. You." Enunciated with utter precision.
"Any time you want, partner." The snarky grin suddenly made it easier to look at them. It sure made him feel more grown up than either of them.
Pendrell sighed, suddenly feeling not so much grown up, as just plain old. "So when are they going to kill us, Alex? Or are they referring to it as sacrificing us?"
Two pairs of eyes came around and just watched him with no expression he could identify. For a strange heartbeat there was a sense of complicity, but Pendrell couldn't have said for the life of him who was complicit with whom. Mulder broke the impasse first, looking away. "They'll kill us when they've found out what they want to know."
"You've got at least a couple days. Maybe a week or two." Krycek hunched, elbows on knees, and studied the floor between his feet.
"Thank you so much for that reassuring information." Mulder's lips twitched and Pendrell looked back quickly, seeing the uneasy grimace on Krycek's face. Green eyes narrowed as Mulder pushed himself away from the wall, prowling close to crouch in front of the two of them. His voice was low, silky. "I tell you what, Krycek. Why don't you tell me something I don't know, something really useful."
The mocking answer sounded hollow. "Why would I do that, Feeb?"
"Because you've done it before." Mulder reached over and tapped Krycek's knee. Pendrell flinched at each touch and scratched his own knee.
Krycek didn't seem to notice, suddenly leaning forward with his face close to Mulder's. The bright, brittle smile was strange. "Why not just beat me up for it like you usually do, Mulder?"
Hazel eyes darkened, glanced at the camera over the door. "Would it do me any good?"
"Why ask? That's never stopped you before."
The skin along Pendrell's side was crawling where Alex Krycek's body warmed it. He cleared his throat but neither man seemed to notice him.
Mulder's smiled sharpened, answering Krycek's tone. "Don't tease, Alex. Are they going to let you do the coup de grace?"
Krycek's lips pressed together, not a frown but the smile was still gone. Pendrell suddenly remembered to breathe and took a fast gulp. When the smile flooded back it was startling, brilliant, warm. "There's a lottery for who gets to do you, Fox. Can't tell 'til we get the winning numbers."
"Asshole." Mulder's cheeks flushed but he didn't lunge, just moved back to his spot by the wall. When Krycek stood, Pendrell thought he'd follow for an instant, but instead he just fished up the back of his sweatshirt.
"Sorry, Mulder. No secrets for sale today. But I did bring you girls something to read. Happy dreams, chicas!"
The magazine dropped into Pendrell's lap even as Krycek turned, sauntering to the door. Frank must have been watching -- it slid open on cue and he was gone.
Mulder was quiet for a long time, staring at the wall where the featureless door stayed shut. Pendrell watched him. He thought he could hear the low grind of molars before the agent blinked and suddenly shifted, looking at him. "So, what did Ratboy give us?"
Pendrell's neck twinged he looked down so fast, then his head twinged when he saw the blue cover with the smirking boy looking out at him. Sugar. No. Shit. Damn. Fuck. "Cosmo."
It had been a rough night. But the morning . . . the morning was a thing unto itself.
Brian Pendrell breathed in deep and shuddered at the scent of Fox Mulder's sweat. Mulder gave a soft gasp, a grunt that sent an electric jolt up Pendrell's spine. His mouth was dry with lust, blood pounding in his head -- well, actually, in his whole body. Pendrell clenched the cotton sheet in his fists and prayed for mad scientists to interrupt Mulder's push-ups before he mortally embarrassed himself.
Five minutes later all he could do was wonder just exactly how hard he HAD been praying. One or two mad scientists would have been enough. He supposed he shouldn't criticize, but he would have been happy with just Dr. Frick and Alex Krycek. The very big guy and Dr. Mackie were overkill. Actually, the big guy would have been overkill all by himself. Watching him was sort of like watching a Learning Channel special on glaciers, except that glaciers didn't wear bad ties and . .. Something was wrong.
Pendrell's tummy did a sudden flip-flop. He froze, stunned by a thought, then slowly checked again. Oh gosh, oh gosh, but Dr. Mackie looked nervous, fingers locked around a clipboard until her knuckles turned white and her eyes kept flicking around from him to Mulder, to Krycek and Frick -- Frick looked like he wanted to be ill. The round face was slick and greasy-looking, and sweat darkened his collar. Even Krycek wasn't looking at Pendrell, but kept his eyes fixed on the back of the big man's neck.
Mulder had risen to his feet, a slow smile pasting itself across his face. "I was wondering if you'd show up."
No one looked at Pendrell when he crawled out of his cot. They were all busy, glancing back and forth at each other. All except Mulder and the big man in the brown suit. The suit was too small, but that made sense. It must be hard to find suits that big.
The glacier's eyes narrowed and one big, stubby-fingered hand pointed at Mulder. "What is he doing here?" Even his voice was like icy gravel.
Mulder smirked. "We're Dr. Mackie's guests."
The small eyes suddenly turned to Pendrell. "Who are you?"
"Brian Pendrell!" He was breathless with relief, grabbing the big, square hand and shaking it. "I am so glad you're here! They captured us and we've been waiting and waiting for you to get here and put them under arrest. They've been -- mmph!" Alex Krycek's hand had slapped over his mouth. Pendrell let go of the giant's hand and tried to peel the fingers off his mouth.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" hissed the one-armed man. Pendrell bit his finger.
The giant was staring distastefully at the hand Pendrell had been shaking. Krycek's hand tightened. "Stop biting me."
Pendrell bit him again and the taller man let go. "Don't do that!"
"But I -" Pendrell broke off as he was pulled off balance, stumbling back.
Krycek was pulling him back towards the wall beside the cot, whispering harshly in his ear. "Will you shut up?"
"Don't gag me again!" Pendrell shoved Krycek's hands away.
"All right! All right! But shut up!"
Frick was edging between them and the big man. "Please shut him up," he whispered.
"What?" Pendrell glared up into green eyes. "He's going to arrest you. What difference does it make?"
Krycek stared blankly for a moment. "Arrest me? Kill me maybe, but arrest me?"
"Let go of me! Just because you lost --"
"What? I didn't lose anything!" Krycek was pushing him into the wall.
"Did . . . what are we talking about?" Krycek pinched the bridge of his nose. Pendrell tried to peek past him. Mackie was saying something about research and vaccines, but it didn't make sense. Krycek leaned down close again. "Listen, Brian. This is bad, but just be quiet and I'll take care of you." This close, Pendrell could see a faint sheen of sweat on his face too.
He patted Krycek's arm. "Don't worry. I'll tell the judge you were good to us."
Krycek blinked, then bit his lips on a laugh that melted too fast. He leaned close and whispered more softly, "Brian, he is not here to rescue you. You do NOT want to know why he is here. Just shut up, okay?"
"Sssshhhhh . . ." Frick glared at them. His red, oily face suddenly went pale and he turned slowly to face the room where Mulder and Mackie had been arguing.
The room had gone quiet. Pendrell leaned to one side, looking past the scientist's shoulder. And met three pairs of eyes. No, two. Mulder had glanced away and was studying Mackie, the big guy, then Krycek. Next to him, Pendrell felt the one armed man tense.
"What is it?" Pendrell asked Krycek, who startled at his question. The muscles at the back of Frick's neck twitched.
"We . . .we should get to the lab." Mackie's voice caught. The skin was stretched tight across her pale cheekbones.
"Don't rush on our account," drawled Mulder. He was staring up into the glacier's beady eyes. "Our oily little friends can wait."
The big man's jaw clenched and he glanced back at Mackie. "You know they do not want him touched."
"I wasn't the one who compromised him!" She bristled.
Pendrell's stomach lurched as cold, beady eyes came around in a circle. He could almost hear the vertebrae crack in that thick neck. "And this one . . . what is he? He seems familiar."
He mustered a big smile, smirked at Alex and recaptured a hand the size of a baseball mitt. "I'm Brian Pendrell. FBI. Which agency are you with?"
Mackie made a funny little squeak and Frick sort of lurched into Pendrell, pulling his hand away from the big guy's. The glacier-guy pulled his hand back and stared at it, up at Pendrell, then at Frick. "Explain."
"He's just another --"
"Addled by --"
"Too many implants --"
Mulder's voice cut through Mackie and Frick and Krycek's babble, low and precise. "He's with me."
Mackie looked sick. Frick looked sticky-scared. And Krycek? Ratboy licked his lips and smiled at Mulder, big and bright and hungry. His hand was slick and warm, fingers tight on Pendrell's.
"He was not with you before." The grinding voice was slow, thoughtful.
The agent shrugged. Mackie was shaking her head, eyes skittering from Mulder to Pendrell to Krycek and back again. Mulder glanced over, caught Pendrell's look and smiled ruefully. "What can I say. I have a thing for red heads."
"Humor." The giant's head swiveled from Mulder to Pendrell and back. "It is one of your more annoying qualities. Explain."
"You're repeating yourself." Mulder shifted, edged past him to stand in front of Pendrell. "You said you loved me, didn't you Pendrell?"
Oh, gosh. God. His stomach was knotted up into a little ball. Krycek's hand squeezed his and he nodded. "Yeah. I do. I mean, I did. . ."
Mulder looked back at the giant before Pendrell could read whatever might have been in his eyes. He shrugged again. "Body fluids. Including those nasty little oily ones you guys like so much."
Mackie slid past the giant to stand behind Mulder. "He's just another exposure case. Like you wanted." The skin was tight across her cheekbones, white over the bridge of her nose. "Just like Dr. Mulder. Compromised."
"He is nothing like Dr. Mulder." The giant grimaced and, Pendrell would almost have sworn, rubbed his stomach like it ached before he shoved his way out of the room, muttering "of that I am totally sure."
"Mulder . . ." Pendrell reached out, touched the other man. "What did you mean?"
The rueful grin was familiar by now. "I'll tell you later, Brian."
"Later?" He didn't get it. Didn't get any of it. Krycek's hand was squeezing his, but he was watching Mackie and Mulder.
The doctor didn't look like a mad scientist anymore. She just looked sick and scared. "Dr. Mulder, I . . ."
He couldn't see Mulder's face, couldn't see the look on it when the agent turned to face her. Whatever it was made her blink and nod. Her voice steadied. "Thank you."
"Fuck off, Mackie." He glanced back. "Take good care of him, Ratboy."
"Yeah, Mulder." Krycek's words were so soft Pendrell wondered if he even heard them right. "Say 'hi' to Sam."
Pendrell was holding his breath. He let it out in a soft little gasp and Frick and Alex Krycek both jumped.
"I -- I.-- I. . ." Dr. Frick's eyes were jumping, skipping around the tiny room that Mackie, Mulder and That Other Guy had vacated.
Next to Pendrell, Krycek suddenly shook himself and grinned wolfishly. "Yeah. You - you -- you."
Dr. Frick wiped his sleeve across his slick, shiny face in a jerky motion. "I'd b-b-better get after them," he muttered, scuttling through the door.
His Weejuns squeaked off down the hall. Pendrell blinked at the empty door, feeling vaguely sick to his stomach. "I don't understand."
"What's to understand? We get to play hooky." Alex brushed past him, out the door.
"Huh? Hey!" Pendrell peeked out the door after him then rushed to catch up. "Alex! WAIT!"
"Better hurry up, Lab Rat. Don't want them to put you back in your cage."
"Alex! STOP." Pendrell yanked the taller man around, digging fingers into the plastic of his arm.
Krycek hissed and grabbed Pendrell's wrist. His face was harsh, mouth pulled thin. "Let. Go."
Pendrell swallowed hard and loosened his grip. His brain was framing an apology, but his mouth had its own plans. "Who was he and why did Mulder know him? And why were Dr. Frick and Dr. Mackie --"
"Scared shitless," Krycek interrupted. His expression softened to a grudging smile.
". . . yeah." Pendrell nodded slowly. "I don't get it. You said he's not FBI, so why are they scared? If he's on their side, what are they worried about? Why does Mulder know him? Where did they take --"
Krycek's finger pressed into his lips, stopping the words. "Do you really want to stand here and do Conspiracy 101? Because I sure as hell don't." He tugged his arm free and walked away, glancing back. "Come on, Lab Rat. Near misses make me . . ." he paused, "hungry."
"Pendrell. My name is . . ." he caught himself and dry-scrubbed his face, infuriated. People walked past, eyeing him oddly. Krycek turned a corner and Pendrell ran to catch up. "Where did they take Mulder?"
The multiple agent threw his arm around Pendrell's shoulders and gave him a bright, shiny smile as he dragged him down a narrower, emptier corridor to a door with a palm lock. One that opened for his palm. The real one, at least. "So many questions, Lab Rat. Just calm down and all will be answered in due time. What kind of ice cream do you like?"
"Ice --.what ARE you talking about?" Pendrell stumbled through the door, Krycek's prosthetic hand hauling him by his collar.
"I'm talking about chocolate, strawberry and vanilla, Bri." He let go of Pendrell and went to root in the kitchen of an apartment with the best view Brian Pendrell had ever seen.
He barely noticed the furniture he walked past, though the big room held a lot of it. It looked like one whole wall was glass. Pendrell brushed his fingers across the cool, smooth surface, staring. "Rockies?"
"Nope." Krycek stood beside him, licking blotchy pink ice cream off a spoon. "Cherry Garcia."
"I see why Mulder calls you Ratboy."
"Mulder calls me Ratboy because he has trouble with names." He was licking slowly and thoroughly at another spoonful of ice cream. "You should hear what he calls my boss."
Pendrell tore his eyes from the lascivious licking and met a quizzical gaze. For just a moment he wanted to point out that Mulder hadn't had trouble with HIS name, or to ask why he'd been promoted from Lab Mouse. He resisted the urge. "Is the great big guy your boss?"
"Nope." Krycek held out a fresh spoonful of ice cream. "Want some?"
"That's a used spoon. And you haven't answered any of my questions." He crossed his arms and glared mulishly up past the pink stuff to the man who held it.
Krycek stuck the spoon in the ice cream carton and sighed. "No. He's not my boss. His real job is way too complicated to describe before my ice cream melts but the short form is that he's a shape shifting alien lackey of evil, imperialist aggressive colonial extraterrestrial entities. Anything else?"
Pendrell blinked, staring back into gently mocking green eyes. "What about Mulder?"
Alex Krycek went silent, face unreadable for what felt like an awfully long time, but was probably just a few heartbeats. Pendrell, fidgeting, leaned back against the window glass but made himself hold Krycek's gaze. "Why won't you tell me what's happening to him? Where did they take . . ." He trailed off as an idea kindled to terrible life. "Oh god. Oh god. You won't tell me because they're killing him and they're gonna come get me and that's why you call me --"
A sudden kiss shut him up. Krycek was pressing warm lips to his, hot, sugary-sweet tongue probing his mouth. Pendrell tried to push him away but Alex was heavy. The kiss deepened and Brian could hear his own pulse in his ears, could taste ice cream and mint and the not-quite-familiar, indescribable flavor of another person's mouth. Alex Krycek released his mouth, trailing kisses along his cheek to his ear. Whispered words tickled the peach fuzz Pendrell has always wished would grow into side burns. "Calm down, Brian. Calm."
The hand that wasn't holding the ice cream wove fingers into his hair -warm, human fingers. "They're not killing Mulder. And I won't let them kill you."
"Pendrell's voice cracked," I don't believe you!"
Alex Krycek leaned back until Pendrell could look in his eyes. He pulled his hand from Pendrell's hair and wiped away tears Brian hadn't felt himself shed. "Trust me on this, Brian." His voice was quiet, face serious. "I will not let them kill you."
"I . . .you mean it, don't you?"
"Yep." Krycek suddenly scowled. "But my ice cream's melted. I guess I'll have to find something else to eat."
The look in his eyes set butterflies going in Pendrell's stomach and a tingle he didn't quite mind in his groin. "Something else?"
Alex Krycek put down his ice cream carton and leaned in against Pendrell again, nibbling at the tender skin under his ear. "Like I told you. Near misses make me very, very hungry."
Pendrell pulled the sheet up over his bare chest and glared. "If you ever -- and I mean EVER -- breathe a word of this to anybody, I'll kill you."
Krycek rose slowly on one elbow and stared down at him. "Who's going to care that we had sex?"
"Shut up! I told you not to mention it!" He covered his eyes with his hand and groaned. What the heck had he been thinking?
"You told me not to tell anybody. You didn't say I couldn't talk about it with you." Krycek pried Pendrell's fingers from his eyes. "I'd never have pegged you for a screamer."
"I said shut up, Ratboy!"
"Oooh, getting pissy, Lab Rat? Besides, I won't tell. My reputation's bad enough as it is."
Pendrell bristled in spite of himself. "What's THAT supposed to mean?"
"Bisexual's one thing, Bri." He reached out and stroked the tender, healing dent in Pendrell's chest. "Necrophilia's an entirely different matter. Not that I'm complaining."
"Necro -- you thought having sex with me was like being with a dead man?" Pendrell hated the way his voice got squeaky when he was angry. Hated the way his eyes felt scratchy and hot and -- dammit. He was angry. Not . . .anything else. "You thought I was dead in bed!"
"I didn't say that!" Krycek sat up, frowning. "What the hell is your problem? One minute you're mad because I did have sex with you and the next you're mad because I'm not . . . ARRRGHHH!"
"You're ashamed of me." Pendrell couldn't stand feeling like this, ugly and naked. He curled up burying his face in his knees. "It's because I'm dead, isn't it? Just admit it."
"You are not . . ." When he peeked over Krycek was spluttering, shaking his head. "I don't care about that. So you're mortality challenged. Who cares?"
"Now you're making fun of me." Pendrell snagged his jockeys and pulled them on, hiding under the sheet. "I didn't ask to get killed. Just admit it. You're sorry you made love to me."
"Come back here." Warm fingers snagged the back of Pendrell's shorts as he tried to get out of bed, tumbling him back into Krycek's arms. "Were you always like this, or is it Mulder's fault?"
"What are yoummmwmf!" The kiss was wet, and hot, and just long enough to chase the bad feelings back to their corners. Pendrell moaned into Alex Krycek's mouth, grabbed him and kissed him right back.
Krycek pushed him away with a gasp and a laugh. "I knew I liked red heads for a reason."
"Mmm." Pendrell rolled over on his stomach, trying to remember what anyone in any movie he'd ever watched did at a time like this. Unfortunately, there just wasn't a large selection of choices. "Are you -- I mean, will you --" He finally just let the questions trail off. Undead or not, there were just some things he couldn't ask for.
The silence hung between them for a moment. Until a beeper broke it. Krycek frowned and rooted in the clothes by his side of the bed, coming up with what looked like a Palm Pilot. Pendrell grabbed the sheets and scooted down, watching him. Alex Krycek had wide shoulders. Pendrell could see the corner of his jaw. Stubble was growing on it. Stubble. Oh god, he really, really was a man. A guy. Male. And he'd -- they'd -- his bottom was sore. He supposed that this was how Mary-Jo Bzernick had felt that time when they'd spent the night in the back of her dad's car, except that it wasn't QUITE the same, now that he thought about it, which he really wished he could stop doing. Krycek was raking his fingers through his hair, glaring at the Palm Pilot.
Pendrell scooted over towards him. "What am I going to tell my mother?"
Krycek's face went blank. "What?"
"Oh god, Alex, what am I going to say to her? How will I tell her about you? Does this mean I'm gay? It'll break her heart!"
"If she didn't just drop dead when you were murdered," murmured Krycek, going back to his Palm Pilot.
"Alex!" Pendrell plucked the Palm Pilot out of his hands. "Oh my god, do you mean that? What happened to my mother?"
"Give me that!" He lunged and Pendrell pulled the little thing back, out of his reach.
"Tell me about my mother! What happened to her?"
"Pendrell!" The Palm Pilot was snatched out of his hands. "The last I heard your mother was fine, Lab Rat. And telling her about me should be easy compared to telling her why you're not dead."
"Oh my God." He goggled. "Oh God, you're right. Oh God, what am I going to tell her?"
"Tell her it's a miracle." Krycek studied the little machine and swore. "Hell, you may not have to worry about it. Get dressed. We've got to get moving."
"What? Why? Where?"
"Out, Pendrell. Away." He yanked on his pants and stalked into the living room. "Where did you leave your shit?"
"I don't know! Tell me what's going on?"
"I'll tell you later. We need to get going." Krycek's voice echoed from the living room. Pendrell's shirt and jeans came flying through the door.
The sheets were still damp and they smelled like men. Pendrell stared at the clothes on the floor, unconsciously fingering the bullet hole in his chest. His butt hurt. And Krycek was making a racket in the living room, cursing. Pendrell picked up his jeans and scowled. "Alex, where's Mulder?"
There was a long pause, then Krycek stuck his head into the bedroom. "You're not dressed yet. Get that shit on."
"Where. Is. Mulder?"
"He'll catch up with us later, Pendrell. Just get dressed. We're wasting time."
Pendrell scooted to the edge of the bed and started pulling his pants on. The sick, scared feeling was getting worse. "Unsafe sex."
Krycek had been pulling a shoulder holster on. He looked up. "What?"
"We had unsafe sex," Pendrell blurted, looking away and down at the buttons he was fastening. "And you're rushing. And armed. I'm scared, Alex, but I don't want you to lie to me. I'd rather know."
"We don't have time to play twenty questions, Brian! Just say what you mean."
Pendrell couldn't get the last button through the hole. He wadded the cloth up in sweaty, cold hands. "Are you going to kill me? Did you lie?"
Krycek stalked up to him, grabbing his chin. "You haven't been paying attention, Pendrell. Turn your fucking ears on, asshole! I. Am. Not. Letting. You. Get. Killed."
He wanted to believe it. His mouth kept going while his mind tried to figure out why Krycek might not be lying. "What about the unsafe sex?"
"You can't catch it!" Krycek yelled and leaned down until Pendrell's eyes almost crossed. "I don't have anything you haven't already sent running back to its tin can. Now fucking get fucking dressed! We're getting the hell out of here!"
Alex Krycek was rushing around the apartment. Things were shoved at Pendrell; a leather jacket. A gun. Hiking boots. "Wait!"
"Get the boots on, Pendrell."
"Why?" He sat back down on the bed, holding the gun. "What are you doing?"
Krycek glared at him, hands still moving, checking pockets, patting himself down. His words were clipped. "Get dressed. We don't have time for your tantrums right now."
"Tant . . ." Pendrell sucked in a slow, calming breath and fingered the bullet hole again. "Look. That's it. Explain or -- or -- " He waved the gun in Krycek's general direction, hoping he looked more confident and menacing than he felt.
Krycek's eyes lit up with something that couldn't possibly have been amused interest, but that really didn't look like anything else. "We don't have time for foreplay right now."
"Fore . . . ARGH!" He took the grip in both hands like he'd seen the field agents do, and glared. "First we're in bed and then you're running around and yelling about getting ready. What the -- the HELL are you doing?"
"You can play with phallic symbols later, Pendrell." He'd been right the first time. There really was no mistaking that look for anything but amused interest. "Right now we really don't have time."
"We sure as hell do." All the frustration and fear and confusion that had been simmering came to a boil in the middle of his chest. Right about where the bullet had ripped his life apart, he couldn't help thinking. "I'm sick of being yanked around by you, and Mulder, and everyone!" He waved the gun at Krycek, wondering what he was going to do with it. If he could even bring himself to shoot it. Would he? He glared at Krycek's smile and thumbed off the safety.
Or he thought it was the safety. At least until the ammunition clip hit the floor.
"I thought they shot you in the chest, not the head!" Krycek leaned forward and took the gun out of his hand. He wasn't even trying not to laugh, the rat.
"I don't care. I want to know where Mulder is. I want to know what this is about."
"And I'll tell you. As soon as we've got a few hours to spare, but this is not the right time for that kind of pillow talk. Now get dressed."
"Not until --"
"Oh, FUCK! Get the fucking boots ON and I'll tell you."
For a second he debated arguing, then grabbed a boot. "Tell."
"We're leaving. I made some calls." From the corner of his eye, Pendrell watched the other man check the Palm Pilot again. His movements were jerky, nervous. "We've got about half an hour before Scully descends on this place like the wrath of God. Hurry UP."
"Why? I mean . . ." Pendrell floundered a moment. "I mean, how does she know, and how many people, and why should we run? They're the good guys. I'll tell them about you, Alex. I . . ."
Krycek crouched down, intent eyes holding Pendrell still. "Scully is coming here with a big motherfucking raid because I've been feeding her enough to get the FBI, and the ATF, and the DEA down our throats all in one big party. Hell, I'm why she's in the neighborhood at all, though she'd shit if she knew."
"She -- she'll help us. I mean, she's one of us." He twisted the shirt hem between his hands as he said it, not wanting to see her, and eager to see her all at once. Not wanting to think about why he might hate seeing her.
"Brian, why do you think this is happening? Any of it? Didn't you think about the last week at all? Mackie will kill you before she lets you come to light. She has to."
"Me?" He froze. "But I'm not -- .Why would they want to kill -- why kill me?"
Alex's hand snaked out, wrapped around the back of his neck. Fingers stroked a spot just below where his hair grew. The spot the Long Gunmen had said covered the chips, such a long few days ago. "You came back to life, Brian. The Infiltrators can't touch you. You're immune to them. Did you honestly never ask yourself why? Mackie can't afford to let the Colonists learn about you. She can't afford to let the Grays find out. She can't let the FBI or the morphs or anyone, any of them, find out what you are. And the FBI would be as bad as telling the Grays, because it would get back. No question. When she figures out what's coming, she'll have no choice."
"I -- " He bit his tongue before he could stammer. "I don't understand. I don't!"
"We don't have time. They're on the way." Krycek pulled the balled up jacket out of his hands and wrapped it around his shoulders. "You're going to have to trust me."
Pendrell blinked, then slipped his arms into the sleeves. "But I don't trust you."
"I know." Krycek handed him back the gun. "But you don't have any other choice, do you?"
He didn't need to say the answer out loud. They both knew what it was.
How far did they have to go to get out of there? It was hard to believe how big this place was. "Alex," he hissed. "How did this place stay hidden so long?"
Krycek stared at him blankly for a moment before he turned back to the keypad and keyed them through another door. "Who said it stayed hidden?"
Pendrell looked around him as he waited, turned back. "Come on. You can't tell me there's a line in the budget for 'base to do experiments on humans and alien oily stuff in the Rockies.' This isn't on the Congressional junket stop. How did a place like this stay hidden, Alex?"
"Brian. I'm going to say this once and I don't want you to take it wrong." Krycek turned towards him with an expression of long-suffering patience. "There is no Santa Claus and there IS a conspiracy. Now will you shut UP? I'll tell you about the birds and the bees and the aliens later."
"I already know about . . . oh. That's not what you meant." Pendrell blushed furiously.
"Good man." Alex gave him that big smile again. "Write something on your clip-board. We've got another guard post coming up."
"Another . . ." Something was wrong with that. Twitchy-nerves-blew-the-final-exam-instinct wrong. Pendrell came to a screeching halt as it hit him . "This isn't the right way."
The look he got was somewhere between resignation and homicide. Krycek wrapped stiff, mechanized fingers around his arm. "It's the right way. Trust me."
"I DON'T trust you and that hurts!" The guard at the end of the hall glared at them. Pendrell lowered his voice. "They took Mulder the other way."
"I know." Krycek tugged on his arm. "Come on."
"Pendrell tugged back. "No."
"Brian . . ." Krycek glanced at the guard. "Look, Mulder's going to meet us later, okay?" His eyes met Pendrell's with the kind of utter sincerity he usually associated with politicians and insurance salesmen.
It was infuriating. Pendrell set the crpe soles of his boots against the tiles and pulled. "Just how stupid do you think I am?"
"Right now? Very!" Krycek dragged him back around the corner, away from those eyes. "Look, Brian, we have to get out of here and we don't have time for the bullshit."
Pendrell glared. "It's not bullshit. I'm not leaving without Mulder."
Krycek leaned close and growled "I do not want to get killed for your wet dreams, Pendrell. It's not cute anymore. Nobody gives a shit that you've got a hard on for Fox Mulder, including him. He doesn't love you, Pendrell."
"I know that." He swallowed the hurt, keeping his voice calm.
The words hung between them for several long heartbeats as Alex Krycek's ugly sneer faded. "Then quit yanking my chain."
"I'm not. And I'm not leaving without Mulder."
Irritation flickered in green eyes, to be shuttered by smooth sympathy. "It's okay, Brian. He'd want you to go."
He probably would, too, thought Pendrell. It didn't matter. "I don't care. We're going to go get him." He tried to pull his arm free but Krycek tightened his grip.
"We're leaving now, Brian. I'm sorry."
"There's no need to be sorry, Alex. Because we're not going to leave him."
Krycek just turned and started to drag. There wasn't any choice. He knew he couldn't fight Krycek. Pendrell set his feet and rubbery soles squealed on the tiles. "Stop that or I'll scream!"
"Act like a grown up, Brian."
"I am." He pulled hard, knowing it wouldn't help. Krycek glared and pulled and Pendrell stumbled, set his feet again. "You can't drag me the whole way and I will yell!"
"And then what?" Krycek rounded on him. "They'll kill you. And I KNOW you don't want to die."
He didn't. He really so very much did not want to die, but he set his feet and hunkered down. "No. We're not leaving him."
Krycek's glare spoke louder than words. "I'll carry you out."
Pendrell's mind raced. "Unconscious? With the guys you said Dr. Mackie would send after me? How far would you get, Alex?"
The pull on his arm stopped. Krycek let go, hand falling to his side. The blank look in his eyes was terrible. Pendrell swallowed. "I'm not leaving without him, Alex. You go. I -- I want you to."
"I can't." No protest. No emotion. Just a simple, resigned statement of fact.
He could see that the other man meant it. Half-reached towards him, "Alex, I want you to get out. If I don't get out, I don't want you hurt."
Krycek snorted. "You are so full of shit. Will you stop thinking with your cock?"
Pendrell stared. "But . . ."
"Come on. Let's get this over with."
The sirens went off before they got there. Pendrell could see the strobe lights reflected in the whites of Krycek's eyes as they ran. He could also see the strobes reflected in the finish of the gun Krycek held close to his side, and he was wordlessly grateful that everyone they passed was too busy or too smart to try to stop them. There was another light outside the lab, ominous red, and the symbol on it was familiar from fall out shelters and bottles of isotopes. Radiation hazard. Alex Krycek went pale and stumbled to a stop, staring up at the warning light. "Christ."
He looked like he was going to be sick. Pendrell glanced up at the rad hazard light and back to Krycek. "Is this the lab?"
"Yeah." Krycek sounded funny, kind of squeaky-dry. Pendrell frowned and poked his arm. "Well, what are you waiting for?"
Krycek turned, face set. "It's too late, Brian."
"I thought we already had this talk, Alex." Pendrell frowned. "I don't want to do this again. My arm still hurts from last time."
"You don't understand." He really did look like he felt sick.
Pendrell looked at the people rushing past them and thought about it a second, then shook his head. "And you don't have time to explain and I don't really give a damn, Alex! Either get him or leave without me."
Krycek pulled his hand over his face. "I can't leave without you."
It snagged Pendrell's curiosity. "Why not?"
"Oh shit. Don't you ever stop asking questions?"
Exasperation was an improvement on dread, at least. Pendrell made a mental note to ask again later and kept his own face determined. He didn't have a clue about the code when he reached for the keypad by the door, but if conspirators had the same bad memory as most humans did then they'd probably use one of the big-five-common-codes he'd read about in Popular Science. "It's okay. If you're too scared then I'll get him myself."
"Stop that." Krycek slapped his hand away. "Jesus Christ, but you're going to owe me big for this."
He grinned to himself. "I promise I'll behave after this."
Krycek made a very rude noise and looked up as a light on the panel flashed from amber to green. He half-turned towards the door and stopped, looking back at Pendrell with bleak eyes. "Mulder's . . . if I'm not back in five minutes, Pendrell, run. Get out of here. Promise me."
A mirthless grin. "Just promise, you little shit."
Alex Krycek was terrified. He could see it. Pendrell finally nodded. "Okay."
"Good." He stepped through a, a second later, the door slid shut behind him.
He'd never really thought about alarms before. Fire alarms and bomb scares and those security door boo-boos at airports - you heard the sirens go off and looked around and went where they told you to go. This siren was a low, two-tone double-whoop that vibrated in his bones. Pendrell stood there and tried not to look nervous, scribbling in his notepad. Not that he really thought he had anything to worry about in the being-noticed department. There were a lot of people here, pushing big, square, wheeled carts , ducking through doors, talking in low, scared voices with each other but none of them bothered to do more than glance at him.
The alarm blared out once every eight seconds. Before it had only been the lights, but the alarm had started whooping out loud a little bit after Alex had walked through the door. He hadn't wanted to mention it when Alex told him to give it five minutes, but he'd left his watch behind somewhere in the apartment.
Once every eight seconds, loud and then soft, forty-seven-one-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight-WHOOP-whoop-forty-eight-one and what the HELL was Alex doing in there? How many whoops in five minutes? Two seconds WHOOP-whoop and then eight in between, six to a minute to make thirty in WHOOP-whoop and oh, jeez, but it had been ten minutes since he'd gone in and . . . the door slid open.
Alex Krycek's face was a terrible, blanched white, hair slicked back wet with sweat. There was a strange, sharp odor of burnt meat on the air when he stepped out, with Fox Mulder right behind him. Pendrell breathed a sigh of relief and half-reached for Mulder, but the relief and the smile on his face both died away as the agent's eyes skimmed over him without reaction, moving past to take in the hall with the same, blank look. Krycek, on the other hand, looked scared sick.
"Alex? What's wrong with --"
"Don't you EVER shut up?" Krycek shook his head and took off down the hall, pushing through the traffic going in the other direction. "Anything else, Pendrell? Maybe stop for a latte? Or can we finally get out of here?"
The tone was harsh but Pendrell could practically see Krycek putting his bravado back together, putting his mask back in place. "I don't see why you're being so nasty," Pendrell observed in a carefully mild tone. "No one's even looked at us. Maybe they're too busy to care."
"Huh." Krycek glanced back to where Mulder followed them. "Maybe they're too scared."
Maybe. Pendrell supposed he'd be pretty scared too if it was his illicit base being raided by the assembled forces of the law. But it was definitely not conducive to quietly walking out of the place. People bumped into them, sometimes glaring at them as Krycek pushed a path through for the three of them. Pendrell stayed close to Krycek, finally grabbing the back of his jacket the way he'd done with his dad when he was a kid. The crowds here were as bad as any Christmas shopping mall mob he'd ever seen. Except that they didn't have any Santa Claus bellringers or anything of course. . . He'd lost track of where they were when Krycek led them through another door and suddenly the hall was almost empty, so quiet that Krycek's voice made Pendrell jump.
"You can let go of my coat now."
He let go fast, flushing under the amused gaze. "Umm . . . I didn't want to get lost."
Green eyes traveled past this shoulder, amusement fading to something Pendrell couldn't read, then went shuttered and calm. "Listen to me. We're almost out, Brian. Please, PLEASE, promise me you'll shut up."
Pendrell bristled a bit. "What did I do? I didn't do anything! Well, except for . . ." He glanced back over his shoulder to where Mulder stood, silent and watchful.
"Do you really expect me to answer that?" Amusement flickered again at the back of Krycek's eyes. "Just promise, okay? Boy Scout's oath or whatever the hell you use."
"I will speak when spoken to. I will say thank you and please," Pendrell replied, striving for wounded dignity.
"I'm beginning to see the appeal of alien abduction," muttered Krycek, turning to lead them down the hall.
Not that he'd really had to worry, in Pendrell's opinion. Oh, there'd been a scary moment or two when the guards had stared at him, and something about the way they stood made his heart jump and his scar itch, but then they'd looked past him at Mulder. He didn't know what they saw -- whenever he turned around he just saw Mulder, quiet and calm -- but whatever it was made them step back, faces pale, and wave the little party through.
"Alex?" he asked as the other man led them out into a huge garage. "I don't get this."
"Uh huh," came the distracted-sounding response. Krycek stopped in front of a big jeep, fishing keys out of his pocket. "You're asking questions again, Lab Rat."
"Brian. My name is . . ." He bit his tongue and scowled, rushing on. "Where are we going? What's happening? And why . . " he glanced back to where Mulder hovered, watching him with that strange, blank look in his eyes. "What happened to Mulder, and why were the guards so scared?"
"Because they're not dumb. Unlike some people I could name." Krycek climbed behind the wheel, pausing as a dull CRUMP sounded in the distance. "Crap. I wanted to be out of here by now."
The sirens changed to a high, steady shriek as he started the car. Mulder climbed into the passenger seat and Pendrell tumbled into the back. Krycek visibly flinched when the special agent slammed his door shut. Pendrell silently added another question to his mental list.
Of course, that assumed that he'd live long enough to ask those questions.
"We're going to die!" he moaned as Krycek sent the jeep careening over yet another boulder.
"You already said that," replied the maniac behind the wheel as he goosed the engine until it howled and sent the vehicle scrambling up another slope that was not, in Pendrell's opinion, fit for wheels to travel over. "Why don't you make yourself useful and look for black helicopters or something?"
"Helicopters? I don't hear any helicopters!" gasped Pendrell as another lurch sent him bouncing around the back seat.
Krycek met his eyes for an instant in the rear view mirror -- Pendrell's heart nearly stopped until he looked at where they were going again --and grinned. "You never hear them. Which is more than I can say for you."
"Oh god, look out for the --"
"Fucking deer," muttered Krycek as the young stag leaped out of the way.
"Why can't you slow down?" shrilled Pendrell. He clutched the back of Krycek's seat and tried to keep himself from becoming airborne again.
"I can slow down. I just don't want to." He was a demon. Honest to God Pendrell now believed in evil in its truest form, incarnated as Alex Krycek behind the wheel of a jeep.
His teeth were rattling in his head and his head was rattling on his neck as Krycek sent the vehicle skidding over another embankment and launched them off the bank of a ravine. After miles of this Pendrell was sure that his fillings were coming loose in his mouth. "Please, please Alex, slow down!"
Krycek wrenched the wheel over and narrowly missed a tree. "Didn't you promise to shut up, Lab Rat?"
"Alex, didn't anyone tell you there are things you aren't supposed to try at home? I don't want to die again!"
"Sit back and enjoy the ride, Bri!"
"Rock! Deer! HELP!"
"Jesus," muttered Krycek. "They could have implanted Mulder or even Scully -- somebody quiet. Instead, they pick the backseat driver from hell."
Water splashed across the windshield as Krycek veered into a stream and plowed up the shallow, rocky bottom. Pendrell gasped for air and started to recite the only prayer he could remember, too grateful to care. "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the lord my soul to keep, if I should die --"
"Before I brake, I pray the lord your voice to take." Finished Alex Krycek, pulling out of the stream and onto the muddy bank. "You can stop it, Pendrell. This is as far as we drive."
"Oh, thank God."
"Why? He didn't have to put up with you." Krycek shut off the engine and shoved open his door. Pendrell watched him walk around to open the back gate of the jeep. Mulder had turned too, strangely expressionless eyes tracking Krycek's moves.
"What do you think he's up to, Mulder?"
Blink. Blink. Pendrell sighed. "Yeah. That's about what I figured." He got out and followed Krycek.
"So. How long do we have to wait up here?"
"Wait?" Krycek looked up at him, face as blank as Mulder's for a moment, then grinned. "No waiting, Lab Rat. This is the end of the line."
"Here? What's here?"
"Nothing." Krycek tossed one of the backpacks to Pendrell, who promptly dropped the heavy thing on his foot.
"Ow! But the car . . ." Pendrell waved his hands in frustration as he watched Krycek hand the third backpack to Mulder. "We can't leave the car! Where are we going?"
"Over the mountain." Krycek slung his own backpack on and reached down to flip a switch on the jeep. A little red light blinked on under the dash. "There. That'll be a nice treat for the bastards."
"Alex, this is a mountain. What are you doing?"
"I don't know about you, Bri, but I'm going camping."
Pendrell stared as he walked away into the woods. Next to him, Mulder swayed on his feet, then took off after Krycek with long, awkward strides. Pendrell groaned and shrugged into the straps of his pack. He was in hell. He had to be. He hadn't read the Bible in years, but he was absolutely sure that nowhere in heaven did you ever have to camp.
"I'm hungry. Are those berries good to eat?"
Alex Krycek rubbed his forehead like he had a headache. "No. They're not."
"What about that mushroom? It's got a piece out of it."
"No. That mushroom is not good to eat, Pendrell. Just because bugs and birds eat it doesn't mean you can eat it."
"But I'm really hungry, Alex, and you didn't bring any snacks." Pendrell sighed. "What about that plant? It looks like basil."
"It's poison ivy. You were a boy scout. Didn't you learn anything?"
Pendrell sighed and confessed the truth. "I had chicken pox the week we went camping.
He needed to go again. Krycek was marching like he'd never stop. Pendrell scooted up next to him and pointed at a patch of green. "What about that?"
"Umm . . . "
"That's poison ivy too, Hansel. If you want to mark our trail, try those over there."
"You don't have to get nasty. I can't help it. I'm nervous and that makes me . . ."
"I know. I know. Please don't tell me again." Krycek was rubbing his forehead like he had a headache.
Pendrell sighed. "I hate camping."
Krycek moaned softly and leaned back against a tree, easing the straps on his backpack. "Will you just go piss already? If I'd known about this I'd have told you to go before we broke out of prison and blew up the best bathrooms in a hundred miles."
Pendrell ignored him. It was harder to ignore Mulder, though the man hadn't said a word since they'd rescued him. That quiet, spooky stare was getting to him and Krycek had refused to answer any questions about him.
Skirting a patch of brambles, he studied the ground. "Leaves of three, let it be," he muttered, watering an inoffensive little plant. He sighed again, dropped his jeans and crouched down to take a dump, head cocked to hear anything that didn't sound quite right. Though what he'd do if he heard anything was something he did't really want to think about. It was a relief to have that done and his jeans pulled back up. He tromped back to where the others waited. "Finished and not one black helicopter in sight."
Krycek snorted a humorless laugh. "Of course not. Unless the FBI is joyriding they're all grounded." He stared back down into the valley.
Pendrell turned to see the few buildings, small with distance, that were all that showed of the base. Blue and red lights still flashed here and there. "Do you think we got away clean?"
Krycek lifted his hand to shade his eyes, scanning the sky. "We didn't escape clean, Lab Rat. But there are only three of us, and there's enough down there to keep them pretty busy. Maybe . . though I doubt it."
"But like you said, there's only three of us." Pendrell knew he sounded puzzled. He felt it. "You aren't that important, are you? And they think I'm dead."
"Uh huh. And Scully thinks that I helped kill Mulder." Krycek gave him a dazzling smile. "So no. To answer your question. I doubt that we got away clean. But there's a big difference between pursued and caught. Ask me again in a couple of days, okay?"
Pendrell stared after him as Krycek hitched up his pack and moved off into the shadow of the pines again, Mulder quietly following him. It was going to be a long hike.
Pendrell scratched idly at a mosquito bite, and looked from the fire to his two companions. Mulder had his hands wrapped around the cup of water Krycek had given him, mechanically sipping. Krycek himself had taken off his arm and was sitting back, drinking instant cocoa. The green eyes glittered with firelight when he met Pendrell's stare. A slow, good natured leer grew. "So. You never went camping."
Pendrell knew the signals by now and wracked his brain to head off the innuendo before it could be delivered. "Nope. But I hear I'm supposed to roast that wiener before I eat it."
Krycek's leer grew into an unabashed grin. "Ouch! Touche, Lab Rat."
"I've been paying attention," Pendrell answered modestly. "Were you a boy scout, Alex?"
"Me?" Pendrell had seldom seen such a perfect spit take. Krycek wiped cocoa off his mouth and laughed himself into coughs and hiccoughs.
"Yeah, Alex. You." Pendrell was still chuckling. "Even double . . . are you just a double agent? What do you call that, anyway? Triple? Quadruple?"
Krycek leaned against his backpack, face serious but eyes still gleaming with laughter. "You lose count after a while. Besides, my specialty was languages, not math."
"How many do you speak?" Pendrell was curious enough to let the deflection pass.
"I speak a lot of languages, Brian, but the most important is the language of looove." He leered across the fire at Pendrell.
"I speak eight fluently." Krycek.held his hands up in mock surrender. "And I can swear in twelve others."
"Wow." Pendrell was impressed.
"It's a talent." Krycek shrugged and this time his smile looked real. "It comes in handy."
"I've wondered sometimes . . ." Pendrell indulged himself, "are urban legends culture specific or do they translate?"
The one armed man leaned toward the fire, smile shining and wide. "Well, I've never heard of the 'Mexican Rat' in Spanish, but I do guarantee they've got 'The Hook' in Russian and Arabic. Hell, Pendrell," he tapped the prosthetic arm sitting next to him on the ground, "for all you know I've been leaving hooks on car doors myself."
"I can't see you copying an old wive's tale. Besides," Pendrell glanced over at Mulder, "you can do your own horror stories."
Krycek nodded philosophically. "I'll give you that one. Mulder probably still has nightmares about some of the suits I used to wear."
Pendrell tried to grin but his stomach felt like ice all of a sudden. He glanced over at Mulder and then met Krycek's calm stare. "How long will he stay like that?"
Krycek had ducked the question all day, but he didn't avoid the subject this time and Pendrell could read a brief, internal debate on his face. When he looked back up his face was unguarded for once. "I don't know how long, Pendrell. Not too much longer, I think."
He debated how to ask the next question. He didn't want Krycek to just go quiet like he had all day, but tact just wasn't one of Pendrell's strong suits. He finally sighed and just asked. "What's wrong with him? What were they doing?"
Krycek watched him for a minute, a subtle tension finally, visibly bleeding away. "They did the same thing they did to you, Brian. It just worked better on him."
"What?" Pendrell sat up, startled. "You mean the tickly oil thing?"
"It doesn't tickle. Not for most of us."
"You . . ." Pendrell stopped the question before he could ask it. He wanted too many answers to ask a question that would probably make his oracle go quiet. He studied the other man, wondering which of his questions would bring answers and which a brick wall, and finally settled on the oldest and safest of the batch. "Why am I alive?"
"Are you asking me the meaning of life?" Krycek grinned. "I thought I showed you that already."
Pendrell blushed, relieved that the firelight wouldn't show the hot color in his cheeks. Probably. "You're bad. But I want to know the process of life, not the meaning, if that's what you'd call what you're talking about."
"Ah. You mean you want to know about the little things, like why you wake up from a bullet in the chest?"
"I know there was a TV show like that, but I can't see myself carrying around a sword just yet."
Krycek chuckled. "Asshole. You're alive for the same reason the Infiltrators tickle."
Pendrell took a not-so-random shot in the dark. "The chip?"
"Bingo." Krycek pointed like his hand was a gun.
"Alex . . ." Pendrell scooted a little closer around the edge of the fire and tried to copy Krycek's big smile. "If I said please, would you tell me how? And why?"
"Why what? And you need to look up through the eyelashes more."
Pendrell ignored the instructions but not the question. "Why did they make the chip? Who made it? Why is it in my neck?"
"Do you really need to ask why, Brian? Take a look at Mulder." Krycek waved towards the silent special agent. "And I haven't got a clue why they picked you or how it works. That was Mackie's job and she's dead."
He thought about asking about Mackie, and felt a little bad for her. "How'd she die? No, wait a minute. You can't be serious. You didn't ask any questions? You never got curious?"
"Hey, I'm just hired muscle." Krycek picked up a stick and stirred the fire.
"Bullshit." Pendrell scowled at him when Krycek looked up at the curse. "That is total bullshit, Alex. You always know something. Even I figured that out."
A slow, sultry smile answered. "You're cute when you try to swear, Lab Rat."
"You . . . you . . ." Pendrell spluttered and finally stopped, breathing hard with frustration. "Please. Pretty please with a cherry on top. Just god . . . goddamn well TELL me, okay, Alex? I'm getting really, really tired of everyone yanking me around!"
The smile didn't waver but the lashes dropped lower. Pendrell could see a glitter behind them. "The whole bulletproof thing was an accident. It surprised the hell out of all of us."
"And you don't know how it works?" Pendrell couldn't keep the disappointment out of his voice.
A shrug. "I know it's the chip. It's some kind of trinary chip that stores snapshopts of your neural signals. Infiltrators overwrite you when they hijack your body and take you over. The chip's supposed to --" he snapped his fingers for emphasis, "sort of reset your system when it senses the interference."
"Ohhhh hell . . ." Pendrell swore softly at the thought. "It's a hot backup. How? What could store that much data?"
Krycek shrugged again. "I know the chip's got a biological matrix, and I know it uses your body's electrical field. But don't ask me how."
Pendrell ground his teeth in frustration, rubbing at the the bump on the back of his neck. "If it writes the signal back to my synapses . . . why did I die in the first place? Why didn't it keep me going?"
"Beats me. They never figured out why it was ever dormant in you, and Mackie was pulling her hair out trying to figure out what had activated it and how it worked. Friedlander kept shitty notes when he developed the thing."
"How far back have you known about this?"
"Me personally?" Krycek asked. Pendrell nodded. "When I went into the FBI they mentioned you in my briefing. But they said you were a dud."
Pendrell scowled, puzzling at it. "Were you really in the FBI? Really an agent? Or were you just planted? Or keeping an eye on me?"
"You know better than that. The Consortium planted me when Mulder started to get a little too close. You were a footnote." He waved his one hand a little vaguely. "The guys who developed you were long dead. Nobody knew how you were supposed to work, and they were writing you off as a fizzle. Hell if I know why you're alive now."
"I had bruises." Pendrell absently fingered the dent in the middle of his chest. "I think somebody tried to defibrillate me."
"Shit!" Krycek started to laugh again. "They jump started you! They must have kicked the chip into action!"
Pendrell grinned back for a minute until a slow fear chilled him. "These people you're taking me to. They're going to kill me for it, aren't they?"
Krycek shook his head. "That chip must have a bug. You keep loading the same question over and over."
"It makes sense." Pendrell hated the tiny, scared sound of his own voice. "They need to find out how it works."
"And we know it doesn't work unless it's in a living body. We've checked a few of your brothers and sisters in the program out." Krycek stirred the fire, relaxed and cheerful. "Mackie just didn't know enough."
Pendrell looked mistrustfully across at him, wondering if he could sneak away in the night. The thought of poison ivy, and bears, and the big guy from the secret base made it a very lonely thought.
He tried to keep the feeling off his face, but Krycek glanced up and shook his head, grinning. "I got you away from Mackie, didn't I? Trust me, Lab Rat."
"Why? You work for the conspiracy yourself."
"THE conspiracy?" Krycek started to laugh. "You've been watching too much bad TV. You can never keep one big conspiracy a secret, even if you can build one to start with. Someone's always selling it out or stabbing a back. It only works with a batch of little conspiracies plotting behind each others' back. That's the only way to keep everyone too paranoid to try to talk or take over the world," he added, face lighting up briefly. "No, what we've got is something like a dozen different conspiracies, and you can pick the flavor you like best."
"And which one are you working for?" Pendrell tried not to show how very much he needed to know the answer to that, but he could feel the green eyes on his again, reading his face.
"Sometimes I think I've worked for them all," Krycek mused. Sparks jumped when he stirred the fire again.
"You're telling the truth this time. Aren't you?"
Krycek looked up, eyes reflecting gold and flat for an instant. "It's kind of nice not to worry about the secrets for once."
"Alex." Pendrell waited until he knew he had Krycek's full attention. "You said there are aliens and I believe you. I believe you and Mulder. And I know we've got to win. But do you understand that just because a human group wins, it doesn't necessarily mean WE win?"
A lazy, open smile answered. "I understand. I've worked for some people who'd be worse than the Grays. I do understand, Brian. Just relax. It'll be all right."
"Yes," said sudden, rusty voice that didn't sound like Krycek's and sure as heck wasn't Pendrell's. Pendrell jumped, looking into Krycek's suddenly wide eyes. "Alex? Was that you?"
Krycek slowly turned to his right, and Pendrell turned left to follow his stare. Fox Mulder's eyes were focused, and fixed on the one armed man.
"You are the host."
"Mulder," they said in unison.
"Krycek?" Mulder's eyes narrowed, hazel and clear for an instant, and then something spooky and black swirled across them. He gave an unearthly smile that make Pendrell catch his breath. "Host," the special agent crooned.
"Fuck! Oh FUCK!" yelped Krycek, moving to get as far from Mulder as he could.
"You're looking good, Krycek," observed Mulder in a shockingly normal voice. There wasn't any white in his eyes.
"Mulder?" Pendrell stepped towards him without a single clue of what he could say or do for the man.
"Get away from him, Pendrell!"
Mulder wrinkled his nose, shiny black stare fixed on Pendrell. His voice sounded odd again. "You are the itchy one. You feel bad."
"Pendrell!" Krycek's fingers on his collar yanked him back. "You want to get us nuked?"
"Host," Mulder crooned again in that hollow voice. He was smiling that big, sweet, empty smile that looked strange and familiar all at once.
"Jesus, I hate it when it does that," groaned Krycek, backing away as Mulder followed them.
"Does what?" Pendrell tried to keep Mulder and Krycek both in sight but the one armed man was hiding behind him. "And why's he suddenly talking?"
"Maybe he got used to it. I don't know." Krycek was peeking past Pendrell's shoulder. "It just happens sometimes."
"You are the good host!" Mulder suddenly reached past Pendrell, and Krycek squeaked and ducked.
"Get away from me! Get away!"
"Hey!" Pendrell squealed as Krycek grabbed him and kept him between them.
"Krycek?" Mulder shook his head like a wet dog. "Hold still, Rat Boy!" He looked like he had a nose bleed except that it didn't look red, not even a little bit. Pendrell reached towards his face and whatever it was, it wasn't blood because blood never flowed sideways on its own.
Pendrell pulled back his hand and Mulder lunged, reaching around him.
"Shit!" cursed Krycek. Pendrell heard a thump and guessed that he'd tripped over one of the back packs around the fire. He was too busy to look, keeping in front of Mulder like some old comedy act where Laurell and Hardy would dodge back and forth in unison until one of them had had enough.
And Pendrell had just about decided which one of them it'd be. "Wait a minute!" he yelled, grabbing Mulder's sleeve.
"Let go! We need the host!"
This was ridiculous. Pendrell held on tight and gave the taller man a little shake. Those coal-shiny eyes took a long time to turn and meet his. Pendrell could sort of sympathize with the frustrated misery he saw in a face that should have been familiar and wasn't. He patted Mulder's arm. "I know how it feels."
"You're fraternizing with the enemy!" Krycek had scrambled to the far side of the fire and was watching them mistrustfully. It was obscurely satisfying to see that look on somebody else's face for once.
"Alex Krycek." Pendrell used his father's sternest voice. "That is quite enough."
Mulder tried to step around him. "Please get out of the way. I need to meld . . ."
"You're not helping either!" Pendrell stamped his foot and glared. "Behave!"
"Will you stop playing with it!" Krycek's voice sounded breathless. Pendrell got a good hold of Mulder's shirt before he turned to glare as his sometimes-rescuer, frowning at the gun in Krycek's hand.
"Just what do you think you're going to do with that?"
"I . . ." Krycek's face was shiny with sweat, like it had been when he'd gotten Mulder out of the lab.
Pendrell sighed. "Alex, put it down. Relax. What's the worst thing he can do to us?"
"Turn us into a heap of radioactive ash."
Okay. He had to admit. That was pretty bad. Pendrell turned back to Mulder. "Is that true?"
Both shoulders lifted in an expressive shrug. "it's a talent."
"I really hate it when he does that." Krycek sounded querulous.
"He's imitating me." Krycek scowled.
Huh and huh again. No wonder that smile had looked so familiar. Pendrell pointed at the ground. "Sit."
"But . . ."
"No. No buts. We can play keep-away and we can play hide and seek, or we can act like grown ups and talk this out."
"Or I can just shoot him," observed Krycek dryly.
"No. You can't. Or you won't."
"Why not?" Suspicion and curiosity were just about balanced in Krycek's expression.
"Because I'm asking you not to. Besides," Pendrell added as he saw the gun come up again, "if you shoot Mulder won't the -- the -- "
"Infiltrator," provided Krycek. "Oilien. Slime."
"HE." Pendrell sighed and wished for strength. "Won't HE just ooze out and get you anyway? Or irradiate you? Us?" That cut it, thought Pendrell. They definitely couldn't let the aliens invade. Figuring out the parts of speech would just be too much work.
Krycek stood there, weapon pointed for a long moment. Pendrell could hear his sigh from ten feet away as the muzzle suddenly dropped. The one armed man groused "I wish he'd stop doing that."
Pendrell turned to find Mulder with that unearthly, sexy smile on his face again. Yeah, now that he thought about it, that did look a lot like Krycek's big, come-hither-and-come look. "Mulder?"
"I would merge with the good host." He wiped at the not-quite-a-nosebleed. "This body rejects me, host. I would merge."
"Mulder." Pendrell snapped. "That's not helping."
"Chernobyl," sighed Krycek behind him. "You are going to get us so smoked if you're not careful, Lab Rat."
"Mulder won't nuke us, will you Mulder?"
The alien-agent looked at him with an expression that might have been petulance. Or might not. Who knew? Pendrell decided to just plow ahead. "If you light up the military's satellites will pick it up and they'll come in and sterilize the area. If you just relax they'll probably figure we're just campers and leave us alone."
The annoyed look on Mulder's face suddenly shifted to something like contrition. Hah! One alien slime monster neutralized! Pendrell sort of wished somebody would high five him. "There. Isn't that better?" He glared at Krycek and Mulder until he got two reluctant nods.
It was enough.
Smiling widely, Brian Pendrell took his seat by the fire and addressed them both. "Okay, you two. We all want something and we've all got something to lose. We can either all get killed or we can all compromise and work something out."
Their faces bore identical skeptical looks, but Brian Pendrell was a man who'd done, in his opinion, enough impossible things that this improbable thing just couldn't be all that hard. He pointed at Mulder. "You first. Tell me what you want, and we'll see what we can work out."
Alex Krycek put his Palm Pilot away and picked a lock that barely made him break stride. He shut the door carefully. Dana Scully had nosy neighbors, and who knew which scumball conspiracy group was bugging her place this week. He grinned to himself as he carefully propped an envelope chock-full of suggestive evidence by the autoclave she kept in the kitchen (he'd checked once and found it full of silverware).
They were good pictures, really juicy stuff. And he always made sure to include one or two that just might hint that Mulder was alive. She was still denying aliens and ignoring inconvenient evidence, but toss the right bait in her path and even the new head of the X-Files could trip across something useful.
"It'll be okay." Pendrell leaned forward and smiled reassuringly as the economist wiped helplessly at oily black tears. "Trust me. Release this host and you'll never have to do regressive analysis again."
"But how will I get home?" The man's voice had that choked sound Pendrell recognized from seeing dozens of oiliens release their hosts. "How will I find the others?"
"It'll be okay. You'll see." Pendrell offered it (Him? Them?) the insulated jar he'd brought along with him. "After all these weeks of therapy, you've got to just trust me."
The economist gnawed his lip for a moment then nodded. His body spasmed, trembling as his alien controller vacated his system, purged from mouth and nose and eyes. Pendrell winced in sympathy for the sore throat and sinus headache that sufferers of the "black flu" always had. As the alien slithered into the jar he drew a syringe full of vaccine for the exhausted, unconscious policy maker.
He whistled the theme of Close Encounters as he cheerfully gathered his things and the jar, leaving the economist with a nasty oilien hangover and no memory of the weeks of therapy that had persuaded his one-time controller that true happiness would never be found by forcibly possessing and exploiting other species. Pendrell handled the jar carefully, not wanting to shake up his new ally. Enough enlightened Infiltrators and one day it was the Grays who'd be sniffling black junk. Pendrell smiled happily, warmed by the glow of an important job well done.
For just a moment he let himself daydream, picturing the treaty negotiations and a red-haired arbitrator who . . . well. He blushed at the thought. That was a long way away no matter what, though he was sure now that it wouldn't be forever. The Grays had a tough team but Pendrell wasn't really worried. He was making the universe safe one therapy session at a time.
Idly, he wondered if Mulder was done with his session. Subverting aliens always made him . . . hungry.
The studio executive glared at him from glossy black eyes. "How did you know?"
"With those ratings?" Fox Mulder gave a snort of laughter. "You had to know someone would figure it out if you kept renewing it."
"I'm a genius!" blustered the possessed producer.
Mulder just shook his head in mock sorrow and held out the jar. "Give it up, my oily friend. It's time to go home."
The lower lip trembled, eyes brimming with greasy black. "But they loved me. They loved me."
"Humans are fickle." Mulder gave him a sympathetic look. The creature was standing there, wistfully fingering his Mercedes keys. "It couldn't work forever. Sooner or later we either believe it or ignore it. You can't just keep us hanging in suspense like that."
"But my awards . . ."
"What would you do with another gold cup? Sleep in it?" Mulder was about to offer the jar again, but at the last instant he hesitated. Couldn't stop himself from asking. "Would you tell me one thing first?"
There was this extra on the third season finale . . . She looked so much like her. Was it . . .?"
A slow smile spread across the producer's face, eyes leaking black in tearstreaks that fled towards the jar as his choked whisper replied "the truth is out there."
Half an hour later Fox Mulder settled down with a black coffee and a copy of the Inquirer to read the story on sightings of the dead. There, between Glenn Miller and Elvis Presley, was his own face, old image from his records impossibly young and alive with an enthusiasm he'd rediscovered in work that actually accomplished something, people who believed. He moved on, scanning the entertainment section with skeptical eyes. Like he'd told his new colleagues, "How do you think they keep us from seeing? Desensitization. Invasions are big, obvious things. What's the best way to hide one? Put it in plain sight."
Little by little, one show at a time, he was making the world a safer place. Fox Mulder picked up his coffee and paper and walked away, knowing that each day was the first day of the rest of his afterlife.
High in the Rockies, a badger snuffled under a log, looking for grubs. As it dug out a particularly juicy beetle it froze, trapped. Oily black fluid violated gravity, coating the badger's fur until it was absorbed into the hapless creature's body.
Grunting softly it sat back on its haunches and swallowed the last of the bug. "Not bad," it thought as it dropped to its feet and waddled off towards the rising sun. Somewhere in the back of its badger mind it held a faint memory of a space ship in a landfill. But for now, it looked around at the rising sun with its badger eyes and sniffed at the cool, spring air, thinking "not bad at all. I could get used to this."
Thank you, Mori and Bobby, for edits galore. Thank you Ms.Brooklyn, co-writer extraordinaire! Mulder, Scully, Pendrell, Krycek and the Mighty Morphin' Bounty Hunter belong to 1013 and Fox. No harm intended. Pretty much everybody else is mine. Hope you had fun reading it, folks, thank you for coming along for the ride. Oh, and yes, this may be archived at Gossamer if Gossamer wants it. All other archivists - please just leave my name on it and do me a favor and ask first, since I'm always cheered up by a request to archive. Happy Hallowe'en.
"Oh, can you code it,
"Freeze up is an electro-technical term for explode."