Notes: This story has been under construction for over a year now, and undergone tons of revisions. There may still be mistakes! If you see any, feel free to point them out. I welcome any kind of constructive feedback. :]

There are chapters still stashed away; this is only the first ~5k. It's been slow writing it, so I'm uploading it a bit at a time. If the chapter breaks seem awkward at all, it's because it wasn't originally chaptered off - it was written by scene.


Hayden is still blinking sleep from his eyes, squinting in the bright light from the door, by the time he has his own gun cocked and aimed at the intruder. He isn't even awake yet.

A low, admiring whistle greets the response. "You get quicker and quicker every time I see you," drawls the intruder, sauntering forward and kicking the door shut behind him. "Good thing, too. So do I."

Upon recognizing him, Hayden doesn't relax. In fact, he grows more tense. Acquaintances are not always friends, and this one in particular is never always anything. He runs a hand through his hair and rests his gun arm on his raised knee. "What do you want, Nicholson?"

"Just appeasin' the higher-ups," answers Nicholson, now running his hand along the windowpane. "Y'know, checkin' up on you, messin' up the place."

"I don't suppose you have a warrant." Hayden watches closely as Nicholson touches the kitchen island and the back of the couch while sidling further into the house.

Nicholson chuckles, low and calm, looking up from a magazine on the coffee table. "Are you naked under there?" he asks, apropos to nothing.

The sheets over Hayden's lap are, in fact, the only thing between his skin and Nicholson's eyes, but he doesn't say as much, settling for looking irritable, instead. Nicholson is far too comfortable for his liking this morning.

"Anyway," Nicholson continues when he receives no response, "I gotta make it look like I really tried, y'know? Put some heart into it." Before Hayden can protest or demand clarification, Nicholson casually sweeps a lamp off the endtable. It breaks on the floor with a resounding glass-sounding splinter, base neatly cracked into two pieces and bulb shattered.

Hayden grits his teeth and stays put, prompting Nicholson to declare, "You are naked. I never knew, Young." Once again, Hayden doesn't dignify Nicholson's errant provocations with so much as a reaction, and Nicholson returns to his methodical destruction of Hayden's tiny studio apartment.

Taking careful aim while Nicholson's back is turned, Hayden lets off a shot at the cheap chain holding the hanging lamp in the center of the room. Nicholson, like any good agent or con, ducks at the sound, which happens to be the exact wrong thing to do in this particular instance.

The lamp falls, shattering soundly over Nicholson's head in a shower of sparks and causing him to stumble. He lets loose a string of curses that includes words Hayden is certain Nicholson made up on the spot.

"Have to make it look like I really resisted, you know," Hayden quips coolly. He's taken the opportunity presented by Nicholson's potential concussion to stand and pull on a pair of flannel pants. "Put some heart into it." Padding into the kitchen, he opens the refrigerator and pulls out a carton of milk.

"Bastard son-of-a-bitch," Nicholson mutters, stepping out of the pile of glass and continuing across the room. "I oughta shoot up your TV for that one."

Hayden leans on the counter, gun in one hand and milk in the other, looking on impassively. "How much are they paying you to do this, again?"

"More than they paid you when you did it."

"Looks like we're both making more money this way, then."

Nicholson shoots a dirty look in Hayden's direction and tips the now-empty bed over with a forceful shove of his foot. "Where's your secrets? They'll leave you alone longer if I bring 'em somethin' back."

Over the edge of the milk carton, Hayden considers Nicholson. "In the bathroom."

"Shower?"

"Sink."

"Under?"

"Behind."

Left alone while Nicholson departs to the bathroom, Hayden finishes off the milk and tosses the carton in the trash. There are expendable secrets behind the bathroom sink, just like the ones hidden in the orange sherbet in the freezer. Anything valuable enough to keep from Nicholson isn't even in the apartment. Hayden knows better. Nicholson had known better, too.

"Nice," Nicholson comments as he wanders out into the main room, papers in hand. "You do these yourself?"

Hayden shakes his head. He's pouring water into the coffeemaker. "It's been a long time since I could forge official documents at that level," he says ruefully. "There are too many security details in the paper, the ink..." He trails off. There's no need to explain it to Nicholson; Nicholson knows full well the security details in federal documents these days. He's a federal agent, too, after all.

"Hey, you know all about it," points out Nicholson, echoing Hayden's thoughts. Tucking the documents into his jacket, he ambles over to the counter to lean, the very picture of nonchalance.

Even after so long, Hayden thinks, seeing himself lounge, casual and unwound, guarded behind a mask of indifference and a Cheshire grin, is uncanny. Nicholson languishes against the counter, snaking a hand over to the pack of cigarettes that Hayden had just set down beside the sink. He tucks one into his mouth, already pushing off the counter to saunter closer as Hayden lights his own cigarette.

He hands Nicholson the lighter, and Nicholson takes it, but then he leans in, touching the tip of his cigarette to the burning ash of Hayden's and breathing in. Their eyes locks; Hayden refuses to move away. These games that Nicholson plays are ridiculous, but he can't sit them out.

Both their cigarettes smolder now, and still Nicholson stands close, searching Hayden's eyes with a challenging, slow grin. "So, can I count on these papers meanin' what I think they mean?" Nicholson takes a long drag as he pulls out the documents to study them again, finally stepping back and turning to walk across the kitchen.

Hayden settles for watching the coffeepot drip, since he can't see Nicholson's face. "Probably."

"Take it you're not too worried about your tail findin' you out, then?"

"If I were the worrying type, I'd have eaten those documents."

The papers whisper loudly against each other as Nicholson flips through them. Even the sound of his exhale is deafening. Without looking, Hayden can picture everything he does, every single move and the position he's standing in, down to how many steps he is from the kitchen doorway.

Right now, he realizes, he could kill the man topping the 'most wanted' list of every agency with initials. It would be painfully simple - if he makes a half-turn to his left, he'd have a clear left-handed shot at Nicholson's back, and in under five minutes, it would all be over. Hayden could take his life back, return to the Bureau as a hero, laureated. Maxwell Nicholson, dead, and Hayden Young, the brilliant agent who killed him. No one would even have to know about the last year and a half. The two of them had made sure no one would find out, so unless Hayden told them...

But Nicholson turns back around, and Hayden's window closes as Nicholson sets sharp, serious eyes on him. His expression is still all Nicholson, but it looks more at home on Hayden's face; a hard, edgy stare, mouth downturned, jaw set. Not for the first time, Hayden wonders if they'd been thinking the same thing.

"Katrina's birthday is coming up," he says, and the name sounds so filthy in his mouth, somehow, that it's all Hayden can do not to shoot him, anyway. "Got anything in mind?"

Truth be told, Hayden had nearly forgotten. Not even a year has passed since he last saw his wife and daughters, and already they're slipping his mind. He snatches the coffeepot to pour himself a mug, growing angrier still.

Nicholson waits. Just as the silence threatens to overcome Hayden's tenuous grasp on his temper, he finds the words he was looking for. "There's a Trifari tennis bracelet she'd like; it's behind the bedroom baseboard, next to the dresser." It's from an operation he ran a while back in the fall, one of his first successful cons as Maxwell Nicholson. He'd cleaned it with the rest of the jewels he'd heisted, but he'd kept it because it reminded him of Katrina, and he'd still missed her, then.

He takes a drink of coffee as Nicholson's footsteps fade into the bedroom. Black with a touch of sugar, just the way Nicholson drinks it.

"You sure he's gonna show?"

Max can hear the words through his partner's Bluetooth headset perfectly clearly from all the way across the car, and he assumes the agent on the other end can probably hear him. "Of course he's going to show," he says. "Don't worry, he doesn't know he's been compromised. He can't possibly."

"If you say so, Young." The skepticism in his partner's voice grates on his nerves. Max wants to punch him in the teeth. He wants to say, 'He's gonna show because he knows you asshats couldn't catch him if he walked into the Bureau handcuffed, is why.' Instead, he says, "Just wait."

At six minutes to two, another businessman walks down the street with all the other suits, but this one is Young. Max watches him unwaveringly for every step from the corner of the block to the office doors.

"Is that him?" his partner asks.

"Do we have a visual?" the headset demands.

Max nods slowly. "We have a visual." Three years of chasing each other in circles have already ensured that they can pick one another out of a lineup, and nearly a year in each other's shoes now guarantees that no disguise is good enough to fool either of them.

Young turns his right wrist, glances at his watch, and reaches for the office door with his left hand. He disappears inside.

"Give it two minutes, and then we go in," says the headset. "That's one hundred fifteen seconds and counting."

'We can count, asshole,' Max doesn't say. He keeps his gaze on the building, eyes searching the windows.

He's nearly blinded by the blast.

They both duck as the windows shatter inward. Max's eyes burn from the light of the explosion. Feedback shrieks from the headset. "Yale!" snaps Max's partner, touching his headset in that useless reflexive way, as if it might make it work better, or keep the person on the other end alive. "Shit," he says, and sits upright in the rolling waves of heat to get out of the car.

Max stays put, watching smoke and flames billow out of every window from the first floor to the fifth. The structure is folding in, collapsing in stages seconds apart. Each massive cave-in is marked by a fresh burst from the windows around it, debris pushing fire aside.

"We couldn't recover any bodies from the site," Yale says later, eyes dark and cradling a sprained wrist. He's angry. "We have no way of knowing if he died in that building or pulled another Houdini."

"He'd better've died," is his young partner's opinion. His gaze is hot, just as angry. He still has the fresh hunger, the kind that doesn't know when to quit.

Max's partner is angry, too, but for different reasons. He doesn't care half as much about Max Nicholson being dead as he does about Sydney Yale being injured. He paces the room, tense and looming, footsteps heavy. "I want whoever rigged that building," he says.

Yale watches him, his emotions on a low simmer in comparison. "They were after Nicholson," he says firmly. "If they were after us, they'd have waited for us to go in. Neither of us were close enough to get severely injured in the blast, Shepherd."

"I know that," Shepherd snaps, and finally stands still. "I want them here. Whoever they are, they're as well-connected as we are when it comes to Nicholson."

Yale's partner leans back in his chair, props his feet on the table. "Maybe it was one of us."

"If you even fucking think the words 'information leak,' I will have you suspended." Yale turns on heel to glare at him. "Take your feet off the table; you're a goddamn professional."

He takes his feet down, sullen, and folds his arms instead. "I'm just saying," he persists. "It could be. We knew he was going to be at that building today. Young got us the information."

"Young didn't leak, Knox," Shepherd asserts, frowning. "He wouldn't."

A silence fills the room all the same. All eyes turn to Max, wondering, suspicious. He has yet to say a word; he doesn't look up from the table.

Leaning on the table in front of him, Yale says, "I have to ask you, though, Young."

Max is replaying the blast in his mind; the blinding light, the ominous sound, the feedback from Shepherd's headset, the smell of smoke, the rolling waves of stifling heat, the pain in his eyes and ears. He watches Young walk into the building again and again, sees him check his watch, open the door. Twenty-six seconds and the building goes up.

Yale repeats himself twice before his words reach Max's ears.

"Ask me what?" he replies at last, all composed professionalism, the way Young would be.

"The documents you retrieved from Nicholson's place," answers Yale. "Has anyone but our team seen them?"

The question doesn't sink in for several seconds. "The documents?" Max echoes.

"Is there anyone else who saw those documents?"

"No," says Max, almost disbelieving. Who else would have seen them?

Shepherd gestures an 'I told you so.' "Young wouldn't trivialize this operation after three years. He's been on Nicholson's tail longer than any of us."

"So maybe he did it himself," Knox pipes up again, dropping his tilting chair back to all fours. "He's gotta hate the guy's guts by now. Why shouldn't he hire someone to blow him up?"

Max's chair hits the floor, and in the same moment, Knox leaps to his feet, ready to fight. Yale and Shepherd are between them, and even with a sprained wrist and a splitting headache, those two are more than enough to keep Knox and Max away from one another.

"I had nothing to fucking do with this," Max snaps, jabbing an accusing finger in Knox's direction. "No one got that information from me, and I did not set this up." A year of playing this part means that even exceedingly rare outbursts like this one are flawlessly portrayed. His voice is cold, hard, sharp and edged with something dangerous.

Knox is jostling against Yale's outstretched arm, all fired up now. "You were the one who had the info, and you're the one with a three-year grudge against the son-of-a-bitch! If you did him in, good for you. I'm glad he's dead."

Just as Max grabs his chair by the leg, Shepherd grabs his arm and twists. Max sucks in a breath, doesn't yell, doesn't struggle, just growls out, "Let me go, Shepherd. I'm going home."

He has to, after all. Max will return to Young's home, take off Young's shoes, smile for Young's daughters, kiss Young's wife on the cheek. He'll play the good husband and father that Young was, and he will not run away, because it's too late for that now. He can't tell Young's wife and daughters the truth, God, no, because in some fucked-up way, he's come to care about them, even if only as a family friend might. He is a family friend, at that. He knows Young well, and he likes Young's family and cares for them as an extension of his own. Telling them the truth would shatter their worlds, so he has to keep pretending if he wants to protect them. He can't leave, either. Leaving them wondering, day in and day out, where their daddy and their lover has disappeared to, if he's okay, if he's still alive, if he's been kidnapped or shot or maybe blown up in some building somewhere in a horrible, horrible con gone wrong. Leaving would alert the feds, too, and ruin the last year's work he and Young did.

He and Young. Like they're a team or like they're partners. They're nothing like that. Just because they know each other inside and out, that doesn't mean they're friends, or even close. Just because they're the only people who really understand each other doesn't mean a damn thing.

The rain has been pouring down for hours, and that's fine. It cools the burns, which are superficial, but still sting. Hayden leans against the white-brick wall and breathes slowly and deeply.

Even if he got out alive and relatively - miraculously - unscathed, an explosion like that shakes a person. He is shaken. His ears are still ringing, or at least, he imagines they are. The smoke has gotten in his lungs and he feels a little short of breath, even in the cool, damp night air; a welcome contrast to the feverish, stinging breakers of smoke and heat.

It's five o'clock. After a botched operation like that one, Shepherd will send everyone home for dinner, even Yale. Nicholson should be by any minute.

Sure, hiding out in the parking garage of the federal building is a little risky, but the risk diminishes exponentially when you know exactly how the security works. Hayden is tucked carefully away, invisible to cameras and guards alike, but he's close enough to reach out from the shadows and grab Nicholson when he passes.

That's risky, too, grabbing an ex-covert operative turned con artist masquerading as a federal agent. In fact, that's the kind of thing that merits a nine-millimeter lead badge. Hayden expects a right hook, and pre-empts it with a left; the left surprises everyone, even natural lefties. One of the benefits of being Nicholson, he's found.

Nicholson grabs Hayden by the ears, and with his knee halfway to Hayden's nose, he stops. Hayden is wincing, waiting, gripping Nicholson's sides in an aborted effort to break free, but the impact never comes.

At length, Hayden chances an upward glance. Nicholson's eyes are round and half-obscured by the glare of the overhead lights on his glasses.

"Nicholson," Hayden says at last, straightening up carefully. He can't be sure Nicholson won't still deliver, so he makes no extraneous attempts to escape his grasp.

Uncharacteristically, Nicholson remains quiet. Hayden searches his face, trying to discern his thoughts. It proves to be easier than usual. Nicholson is completely floored, all but disbelieving. Hayden is the last person he expected to see, and this is the last place he expected to see him. After this afternoon, Hayden should be lying low, since the feds will assume he's dead, at least for a little while.

"Oh, Jesus, Nicholson," Hayden whispers when realization strikes. Surely Nicholson, of all people, knows better than to think that a little C4 could kill him. Nicholson himself has survived worse. "You didn't think I was - you knew I didn't -"

But Nicholson must have thought he was, and he must not have known he didn't, because all at once, Hayden tastes rainwater from Nicholson's lips and Nicholson's tongue is hot in his mouth. The burns on his neck ache under Nicholson's fingers, and his still-raw back feels like fire when it hits brick, but he can't complain. Nicholson tastes like the coffee in the breakroom after two creams and one sugar, just the way Hayden drinks it.

Hayden breaks away when his chest gets too tight to stand. He gasps for breath against Nicholson's mouth and says, "They think so, too." It isn't much of a question.

All at once, Nicholson recoils from him, letting him go and backing away until his own back meets the bricks. "They think so, too," he agrees, breathless. "But they wanna know who did it; Knox is lookin' at me."

"At you?" Of course Nicholson means that Knox likes Hayden for it, but why?

"You're the one who got the information from me," Nicholson points out.

Hayden rakes his hands through his hair, pushing the melted, gel-sticky locks out of his face. "But why would I? If we caught you, you'd die either way."

"No sense in me dyin', too, right? That's what I said." Nicholson takes his raindrop-sprinkled glasses off and tucks them into his pocket. He doesn't need them, anyway. "We can't talk here," he says.

"The beachhouse," Hayden answers immediately. He knew the answer before Nicholson ever mentioned it. "Make sure you're not followed," he adds, most unnecessarily.

They walk away without saying another word; Nicholson to Hayden's car and Hayden out onto the ledge and down to the ground floor, off into the dark. Hayden can still feel the bruising force of Nicholson's hands on his face.

The beachhouse is the same as always, a little musty, but quaint and peaceful. That's why Hayden bought it in the first place. Sometimes he needs the comforts of an idyllic little house by the sea and the sound of the waves. He knows now that Nicholson does, too, which makes it the perfect place for the two of them to meet up. Katrina had never much liked the beach, so it's unlikely that she'll ever surprise them by showing up unexpectedly.

You can never be too careful, of course. The problem with surprises is that you never see them coming. Complacency can do that do you.

He parks down the beach a little way, out of sight of the road and out of reach of the sea spray. There are no lights on at the house, and the drive is empty, so he lets himself in quietly. The inside is a bit musty. He begins opening windows and wiping dust from the countertops and furniture, taking the cover off the couch. Cleaning is soothing, automatic. As he shakes his dustrag over the windowsill into the cool, damp night air, his mind wanders.

His hair is still damp, too, from the rain. If he thinks back, he can remember the bone-chilling cold and the shock of Nicholson's warm hands on his face, the heat of his mouth. What the fuck did that even mean, anyway? He couldn't have just said 'I'm glad you're alive?'

No, of course not. That would have been admitting to something, and neither of them has ever confessed to a thing in their lives. They're both filthy liars, and that's why they are where they are - Hayden alone in this house, dusting the shelves because he can't remember what it feels like to be idle anymore, and Nicholson with Hayden's wife and daughters, smiling warmly and thoughtlessly, waiting for a chance to get the hell out of there.

An uncomfortable sensation curls up in Hayden's stomach, stirring there in defiance of a few deep breaths of clean ocean air. Will Nicholson pretend it didn't happen, once he gets there? Or will he pick it up again, now that the danger is distant, like taking the bookmark out of a book? Hayden remembers his hands again, his mouth, his weight pressed onto him and their wet clothes sticking together, and the stirring turns to a sickness, making him stop at the window to lean out it.

He feels dizzy, and he's sure it's just the dust combined with the day's events, but he drapes himself over the windowsill anyway, taking in the air and closing his eyes. His entire body aches, and the pounding headache he's been fending off all afternoon is moving to the fore.

There are times when he wants nothing more than a way out, a way to untangle himself from the mess he and Nicholson have made. Things were so much simpler when he was just Hayden - Special Agent Hayden Young; he was a good agent and a good husband and a good father, and he'd been slowly going mad with his own goodness. He did what everyone expected of him, he did his job and fulfilled his duties. He went to work and helped catch criminals, talked trash about the CIA, then came home and kissed his daughters and had perfectly mind-numbing sex with his wife. It was nothing but going through the motions.

Now he's Maxwell Nicholson, former CIA operative, and if he wants to stretch it, that means he's also Hayden Young - Special Agent Hayden Young, or at least he's pretending to be. He's on the run from the CIA, the FBI, the local LEOs, and probably Scully and Mulder, too. He's Nicholson and Young, and Nicholson is Young and Nicholson, and oh, what tangled webs they've woven. What started as a clever trick is now something sick and steep and slippery, and it isn't so simple that they can just switch back. Hayden has his reasons, and he's sure Nicholson has his own, though he's never heard them. Hayden's knowledge of Nicholson is limited to Deadwater info and what little Nicholson obliges him.

But you didn't just dick the CIA without a very good reason, right? Unless, maybe, you were Nicholson. For the first time, Hayden finds himself wondering about Nicholson's motives. Not what they are; he's wondered that many times over his years on the taskforce - but whether he even has any.

Sounds like a perfect conversation starter.