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In a Dark Time I and II (4/4)

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In a Dark Time: Sleepless by A. Leigh-Anne Childe

*****

Alex none too subtly herded him back into the insurance office to change his clothes. Mulder accepted the shepherding without protest. The insurance office was now an abandoned tactical command post but hadn't yet regained an air of sanity; it looked violated, rumpled by the occupation of the FBI team. Domino's pizza boxes were piled carelessly on a table against one wall, and a heavy odor of pizza, sweating bodies, and brawny cologne enhancements hung thick in the room's humid interior. The air conditioning had never returned back on after the black-out, and the atmosphere of damp tense proximity was unmistakable and slow to fade.

Though the numbers had thinned, many agents were still gathered here and there, packing up equipment, chewing the fat. Several looked Mulder's way as he entered; one or two nodded, their faces neutral, but he could feel the general air of mixed feelings--relief that this had not been another Waco even in miniature, restrained derision toward the default hero of the hour. Tension was still running high even now after Barry had been brought down and the hostages safely removed.

"How's Bob--what's his name--Frickie?" Mulder asked Alex sotto voce, feeling a pang for his belated question.

"Last I heard he was out of the operating room and in the critical care ward."

Mulder held Alex's eye a moment. "Will you do me a favor?" At the other's tiny nod, he said, "Will you call and find out?" He walked away, leaving Alex dialing the hospital, and stood in the middle of the room, at sea until he noticed the pizza boxes. He walked over, lifted a lid, stared down into an abattoir of bloody cheese and mushroom heads. He swallowed down queasiness, let the lid drop.

"Hey, Snowflake," someone said at his shoulder.

Mulder turned and met the small dry smile of John Tripp, the liaison officer between HRT and the negotiating team. He'd been the first to mention the idea of a microcamera feed; he'd also been vociferously opposed to Mulder going into the travel agency in any guise, but had been overruled.

"Snowflake, huh?" Mulder gratefully took the cup of hot coffee Tripp handed him and managed to pull off a functional smile in return before sipping.

"Your new moniker," Tripp said, jerking his head back over his shoulder to indicate the mill of busy agents responsible for his rechristening. "Flaky but frosty, that's you."

It was a mixed compliment, to be sure, but Tripp was an agent's agent, the kind whose casual camaraderie and attention to the job could almost make Mulder believe he'd been part of a team, rather than--to use Scully's implication--its scapegoat.

"Thanks," Mulder said awkwardly, then tilted the coffee cup a little to deflect his meaning from what he was really thanking the man for. He had a sneaking feeling Tripp had wanted to pass on word of his new appellation before Mulder heard it from one of the other agents in less than complimentary tones.

"Where's Kazdin?" he asked, looking around. "Rich?"

"Marriott," Tripp said. With the single word he managed to communicate a subtle disapproval.

Something in the other man's tone snagged Mulder's attention. "You're here in Richmond, aren't you?" Tripp nodded once. "You ever worked with Kazdin before?"

"No, sir." The 'sir' signified no difference in rank, but was the unnoticed punctuation of an exmilitary man. "Never met the lady before now."

More ambiguities of tone--more disapproval? Mulder wasn't sure; Agent Rich was surely Tripp's section chief. Maybe Tripp had a loyal objection to outside help on what should have been a local matter, to seeing a Quantico chalkboard-jockey brought in over Rich's head.

"So what did you think of the show, Tripp?" Mulder let his eyes bore into the other man's, invited confidences that he hoped would come. "SOP?"

"Shit." Tripp lips curled and he looked as if he instinctively wanted to spit. He glanced around, mapping the vicinity to see who might be listening, then met Mulder's eyes again. "You want my opinion, this was a freakshow--no offense." He blinked. "I see why they brought you in. This is your stuff. You knew what you were doing, too." His eyes held Mulder's with a powerful lock, as if sending deeper messages than his words alone carried. "But something's not smellin' right. All these out-of-town suits. And Kazdin. . .they were rushing it." His voice dropped so low he was nearly whispering. "Rushing you. No way you're supposed to rush a negotiation. We learned that, didn't we?" The allusion to the Waco debacle was so commonplace in the bureau these days that the word itself went unsaid.

"It did seem. . .strange," Mulder said cautiously. "I don't really have any negotiation field experience, but there was a lot here that got my bells ringing. I didn't say anything. Maybe I should have."

"You get caught up--this one, hell, this was over before it started. I got the call yesterday, first thing I thought was, if they got kids in there we're in the shit now--and was I gonna be spending the next eight weeks of my life on a cot eating fucking Domino's."

They exchanged a wonky pair of grins, nerves jangling as humor reemerged and braided with the strain. "Pissing Folgers until your balls shrivel up like coffee beans," Mulder said.

"Fuckin' Domino's," Tripp repeated, shaking his head. "We'd've passed the ten-day mark you can bet your ass I'd've been on the phone beggin' my wife to bring me down a nice tuna casserole."

"Benefits of a local boom economy," Mulder said, with a smile. He wanted to grill Tripp further about his impressions of the situation, but as he was framing another question, Alex approached.

"Hey--" He dipped an easy nod to Tripp, addressed them both inclusively. "Talked to someone at the hospital--Frickie's stabilized. Barry just pulled up in the ambulance a few minutes ago; they couldn't tell me anything on him yet."

"Barry. Jesus." Tripp studied Alex, looking unsurprised he'd mentioned the name, but wearing a resigned grimace.

"Hard to believe he was one of our own," Alex said seriously, skipping a quick glance between Tripp and Mulder.

Tripp refused to take the bait. He shifted in place, raising a thin scraping sound in the blue windbreaker he wore. "I gotta touch base with the metro boys, see if I can clear a path to get the A/V van back in. You stick around, Mulder, I'll buy ya a six-pack." He tipped a wink and strode off, passing on his way out a young man in a sharply-pressed suit and a stunning red-and-orange silk tie. He had a sharp thin face, looked eighteen years old, and radiated the glossy, offensive appearance of being a dozen dermal layers fresher than anyone else in the room. His tie was so loud it had the effect of overriding all ambient sound. A lull in general conversation was punctuated by many speculative looks before most present made a show of turning their shoulders and going back to whatever they'd been doing.

The man stood indecisively inside the door for a minute before he caught sight of Mulder's uniform and came over.

"Oh oh," Mulder said beneath his breath.

"Hi," the man said brightly, coming up on them and sticking out his hand. Stunned by the whiteness of the other man's teeth, Mulder automatically transferred his coffee cup and took the man's grip.

"Ben Franklin," the man said, then waited a beat.

Mulder blinked, searched his fried mind for the context of a joke he might once have heard. "Sorry?"

"Ben Franklin, Media Coordinator. You're Mulder?"

"I'm afraid so." Mulder glanced at Alex, inviting a shared bond of humor. Alex missed the look, busy scoping the other man's top-drawer duds, his face reflecting signs of dislike and an inclination to snub the competition for best-dressed. Or at least most expensively dressed, Mulder thought. He rather liked to watch Alex bristle; on the job he often showed so little emotion that he might have been a mannequin.

"We need to get you out in front of the cameras as soon as possible," Franklin said.

"I beg your pardon?"

"HQ sent me down. They want you on display. Show off the star talent, help counterbalance the negative perception of the bureau by the public. I'm afraid recent polls haven't demonstrated a significant improvement in the numbers. People still have the burnt smell of Waco in their noses, Agent Mulder. They need to see the results of a successful negotiation. They want a hero and you're the man."

"Piss off," said Alex.

Franklin gave him a startled look, then tucked in his chin and bullishly resumed his focus. "I've already set an interview up with Kathy DiMotta, she's the CNN correspondent covering the incident and she's got a live feed. The networks can have you when she's through and you should probably give local coverage a few minutes--"

Mulder, noticing Alex's lips part with a feral readiness to bite down and rip out Franklin's throat, hastily moved to interrupt the man first. "Okay--just--give me a minute, all right? I want to get out of these clothes."

Franklin stepped back a pace, gave sharp assessment. "Keep them on, it's--no, wait--probably better not to confuse the viewers. Ninety percent would think you're a real EMT. But. . .it does give you that just-stepped-out-of-the-fray look. More dramatic." He paused for thought; blink and you missed it. "Well, I'll make sure they keep an identifying caption running. Leave the uniform. A suit--you don't want to look too suave. We want to show how cleanly we pulled this off, but at the same time we want to play up the human element. You know--special agent goes one-on-one with a killer."

Mulder, his blood pressure rising, rolled a number of possible responses over his tongue before saying with self-restraint, "I'd rather get back into my suit, thanks."

"Agent Mulder--"

"Hey," Alex said softly to Franklin. Franklin broke off warily, eyeing him. "Why don't you go back outside and get some air."

"I don't--"

"Go outside and breathe," Alex said without raising his voice. His eyes were uncompromising.

Franklin took a deep breath, reconsidered whatever he'd been about to say, stroked his tie, and went back outside to wait.

Alex touched Mulder's back, a fleeting gesture that directed the agent toward the bath where he'd left his clothes. Mulder, throwing only a single bemused look back at Alex, wound through the maze of disrupted chairs and empty tables. Alex watched him go until he was out of sight then hunted down the cup of coffee he'd abandoned over an hour ago. He found it among a litter of others, its froth dissolved into the muddied liquid. He tasted, made a face, sipped, and with his free hand idly rummaged through the tabled mess, stacking empty cups and dropping torn sugar packets into their mouths; this he did without thinking, his mind busy elsewhere trying to articulate the scattered elements of the day into a coherent body of thought.

Since their arrival, he'd been watchful and busy, though not with any obvious action. During the situation, when everyone's focus was on the activity across the plaza and on its stars, Barry and Mulder, he'd been called twice, asked to deliver updates and reports to the chairman. Morley, he called himself, though Alex didn't buy that one for a second. What specific interest Morley had in the Duane Barry matter Alex didn't yet know, but he'd very likely engineered Mulder's presence.

Every day it just gets more interesting, he thought, sipping his cold coffee. He'd been shoehorned through the bureau academy and into full agent status at an unprecedented pace; his background reinvented for his bureau file, his bureau 'career' established in a quick and devious shuffle from field office to field office until he was brought into HQ. Less than a month ago, Alex had been able to tell himself that he did have a career in the FBI, anomalous and patronized though it was. He'd nearly convinced himself he was acting in the best interest of justice, and that he was finally on a path to success. But recent events had drained him of his optimism--of his hopes, even, small and private though they were.

Morley. He wondered if Morley had any idea how transparent his machinations were; how much he revealed even when ostensibly saying nothing; not to Mulder of course, who was clueless, but to Alex, who collected clues the way other men collect stamps or belt-notches. For weeks now, as his bright-eyed enthusiasm for the job waned, he had consoled himself by pouring his energies into his own more personal job, and had been riding an escalating, intuitive high that was bringing him ever closer to a particular secret. He could feel the secret; its contours in the vague darkness; sense it coming clearer. It was a vast shape and it enthralled him, for he was a man with more romantic imagination than most people suspected.

Agent Rich appeared at Alex's shoulder. A standard-issue field jacket had taken the place of his suit coat. His lined face laboring under a constant drag of gravity. Alex didn't like the man's pale eyes, and could have picked up a pencil and poked them out without a moment's regret. He wondered what Rich was doing back here, but didn't bother to ask.

"How's your partner?"

Graceful as a dancer, Alex stepped back slightly, adopting the deliberate posturing of a man who prefers distance. "As well as can be expected considering he's been locked up with a fucking trigger-happy lunatic for seven hours."

Rich eyeballed him some more. His face had no muscle tension. It was like a slack cloth bag holding his unmoved features. "Case like this, right on our doorstep--kind of funny they brought him in."

"He did the job," Alex said coolly; it was standard partner defense, no more than anyone would expect, but he was not beyond feeling a flicker of real resentment. After the better part of a day spent cheek-to-jowl with Kazdin, Rich, and the negotiation crew, sent for coffee and pizza and otherwise treated as if he were invisible, he was feeling more than slightly pissed. Rich hadn't been above making a few snide remarks about Mulder either, during periods of dragging inertia when Barry rambled and Mulder patiently strove for rapport. A man goes in and lets himself be tied up by a mental case and talks him into taking his bullet--and does he get any thanks for it? No, just gets thrown to the bottom-feeders. Alex knew Mulder would take no joy in playing hero for the cameras when his fellow agents thought he was a fuck-up who'd gotten lucky.

"He did some kinda job," Rich said tonelessly.

Heat flared in Alex's face. "Your people couldn't have talked a cat down from a tree." He made a small chuffing sound of exasperation, pushed a bit into Rich's personal space. "You bring a man in and don't even give him a proper briefing, don't even tell him your perp's background--ex-bureau, for Christ's sake." Alex's voice was scathing; Rich just looked at him. "Leading him like a prize pony through his steps--honesty, containment--what the hell was the point of that bullshit?"

"Build up any more steam, son, and you can do your own dry-cleaning without even taking that suit off," Rich observed.

"Thanks for the tip." Alex smiled. It was a smile of a different species and it changed his face, illuminating like a strobic flare the expanse of a surrounding darkness, the glittering of animal eyes that lurked there. Alex didn't drop his bright, clean, blue-flamer facade too often, and when he did most people were too obtuse to know what they were seeing. Rich saw though, and his own eyes narrowed. Before he could say anything, Mulder returned, taking them both off guard with his materializing presence.

Back in suit and tie, Mulder resumed the weight of a decade's rough years, dropping the appearance of a fresh-faced medico and looking instead like Dorian Gray on the wane. Alex could always tell when Mulder was particularly tired; he had a way of settling into exhaustion that gave him a preternaturally blank and waiting expression; a man who has put some crucial part of himself on hold.

"Thanks for your help," Mulder said to Rich, without sarcasm or apparent awareness of his own casual brass. From anyone else it would have been a blatant, even pointed, role reversal of authority; Mulder made it seem natural that a subordinate field agent should thank an SAC--the man nominally in command of the negotiation process--for his help.

Rich's face twisted up slightly and he gave Mulder a lacerating look--it was the first real irritation Alex had seen on his face all night--and walked away without replying.

"What's his problem?" Mulder wondered idly, then pulled a sour face of his own that indicated he knew. "I wish they'd just get it over with."

"What?"

"Chewing me out. I can just feel it, hanging over my head. I hate anticipation." He turned his grave attention to the plate glass windows, through which the official chaos could be seen slowly dispersing. The media vans still sat on the far perimeter, and Franklin waited outside, arms folded behind his back, ferretlike and impatient.

"Come on," Alex said, touching his arm. "Kazdin's gonna hafta to wait to chew on you. I get first dibs--" He broke off, paused to consider the thronging reporters. "Well, after the piranhas strip you clean, anyway."

Mulder managed a smile. "Lay on, MacDuff. Into the feeding frenzy."

****

It took a good hour to get through all the interviews even with Alex running interference and forcing matters through at a fast clip. Broken free at last and safely cached in the car, Mulder slumped. He curled into his seat, a steamed shrimp, and then buckled in with amusingly fuddled motions--or tried to.

"I think someone gave you a mickey," Alex said, watching him for a minute before reaching to grab his seatbelt and snap him in (ignoring Mulder's pained look). "You didn't take one those horse tranquilizers they were pushing on you--did you?" An ambulance crew had caught them en route to the car after the media session wound up; one of the EMT's had latched onto Mulder with all the tentacles and pharmaceutical enthusiasm of her profession. Alex had been ready to pull his gun to get Mulder out of the plaza sometime before daybreak.

Mulder muttered something with a sour grunt, then said, "Just catching up with me. All these late nights. . ."

Alex had just turned on the ignition when he felt the other man's hand slither across the car seat and stroke his thigh. He jumped before he could stop himself. There was a Richmond metro cop less than six feet from their front bumper, looking their way as the headlights bloomed. "Down boy," he said, lacing his fingers with Mulder's (stroking them a moment) and easing them away from his leg. "Let's pull out of copland first."

"Look who's--" Mulder yawned, cutting himself short. "Mmm. . .close encounters with the angel of death always burn a hole in my shorts."

Alex attempted to trace the figurative logic of that one, wasn't sure he'd succeeded, but got the essential gist. "Yeah, I want to fuck you too, Mulder."

They pulled out of the plaza and Mulder's hand crept back to massage the inner curve of Alex's thigh with the warm rhythm of a man rocking a cradle. Alex didn't push him away this time. His dick was already getting hard. Long day, but he was edging into rut nonetheless. Mulder had very talented fingers. . .and the smell of him. . .thick, overripe, acrid. It made Alex's mouth water; a learned response. His jaw ached with the strain of not letting himself fall into a wolfish howl; his eyes kept up a constant motion between mirrors and street. The ride would be short, but the temptation to let Mulder bring him off now pulled at his flesh. He could feel fingertips brushing the ache of his balls, tracing the lift of his shaft--

"Take it out or knock it off," Alex said roughly.

"We're almost there, aren't we?"

"Unless I drive the car into that storefront."

Mulder unzipped him.

"Oh Jesus," Alex said, bracing against the seat and accidentally accelerating as his foot mashed the gas. The car zagged slightly before Alex pulled it back into its lane.

"Oops," Mulder said sleepily. His clever fingers stroked bare, throbbing skin. Without warning his grip tightened and he jerked Alex roughly.

"Oh fuck--let me--wait, let me pull over--fuck, Mulder--these streets are crawling with heat--" A squad car passed by them at a fast clip, lights flashing but sirens off.

"Just drive."

"Oh god." Alex's voice had dropped to a husked, earnest prayer. He could feel the brimming approach of orgasm already, could barely see the street he was driving on through the sugared glaze on his eyes. I must be insane, he thought, as his head jerked back, as he cried out and slammed his cock through the fierce seizure of Mulder's hand. He felt as if he were fisting the eye of a needle, and then he felt himself coming into the cup of Mulder's palm. When he opened his eyes they were still alive; the car was moving slowly down the street, straddling lanes and drifting leftward. Alex carefully forced his muscles to unclench and his foot to steady on the gas pedal; he pulled the car into the proper lane; he tried to recall to breathe. All of this took a good minute, during which Mulder withdrew his hand and licked it clean, saying nothing, a silent cat cleaning his paw.

"I'm not the one who needed that," Alex muttered, finding his voice with difficulty, lying from simple habit.

"Yeah, but I needed to replenish my protein stores," Mulder commented, before laying his head back on the seat again and shutting his eyes.

****

The Richmond night was still dark when they pulled into the Marriott, but the hotel's facade was blazing, its array of windows squaring the interior light. Mist hung above, thinning the edges of the buildings and erasing the geometry of the windows. Cars lined the street in front of the hotel.

"I don't see any media," Alex said, pulling the car up under the awning of the drive-by and glancing around the vicinity of the entrance to see if they'd been followed or preceded by the press. "You want to check in, I'll park."

Mulder nodded and slipped out quietly; Alex popped the trunk for him and watched in the mirror as Mulder grabbed his overnight and then glided into the hotel: a lanky clothes-horse with no thought on his mind but a soft bed, or so one might think at first glance. Alex pulled out and finding no space on the street slewed through into the garage, where he parked and sat for a minute after turning the car off. Just as he was gathering himself to decamp his cellular rang.

"Yeah," he said shortly into the phone, glancing around the garage by instinct, knowing he'd see nothing. The oily voice that entered his ear was not unexpected.

"Good work tonight, Alex."

"I did nothing," Alex said dismissively, frowning at this.

"You kept us apprised of developments. That's always a help." Snakily smooth, that voice, almost hypnotic.

"I could have gone out for coffee and stayed gone and you still would have gotten your information," Alex said dryly. "I saw those monkey-suits hanging around the scrimmage."

"Good help is so hard to find."

Alex contemplated the car-clock on the dash and mentally schooled himself to patience. Morley always had a hidden point, a concealed dagger within his most casual suit of words. "What do you want me to do now?" he asked blandly.

"Exactly what you were going to do."

Alex's nerves tweaked a bit, and to ease them he reminded himself of how careful they'd been, he and Mulder, a few semipublic flirtations aside. It was ironic, actually; Mulder's current state of heightened paranoia made secrecy a given, but he had no idea of the protection afforded them by Alex's vantage point. Mulder worried about simple workplace gossip and how it might be used against him; Krycek, meanwhile, was deftly steering their rendezvouses away from key areas of surveillance, like Mulder's apartment (easily enough accomplished by playing on Mulder's nerves). His own apartment he'd gone to great lengths to keep clean, having no trust in "official" assurances on the question. The regular sweeps were tedious but useful. There was always the possibility of an outside drop, but Alex kept an eye out for odd vehicles and his fingers crossed when he scanned the rooftops.

Morley's voice was insinuating, but it was his usual tone; he likely didn't know how personally Alex was taking his assignment. Not yet anyway.

"He's getting a room here at the Marriott," Alex said. "Kazdin's setting up a debriefing post in one of the conference rooms."

"I know. Keep an eye on her."

Oh great, Alex thought tiredly. "Have you seen her eyes? She's as snappy as a satellite cam; you ought to payroll her. That bitch doesn't miss much." Within his casual patter a question wove, and he waited to see how Morley would address it.

"She's no one," the other man said coldly, writing her off with those few terse words. "But I have information that she's scrupulous to her duties, above and beyond. What she knows I want to know."

"What's there to know?" Alex wondered, feeling--typically--as if the two of them were reading off some of the woodener lines in a Mamet play.

"Don't worry about it."

Alex seethed, clamping tongue between teeth to keep from barking his frustration. He was glad the man on the phone could not see his face right now, he probably looked about as rudely insubordinate as Fox Mulder on a tear--more. He needed to keep in character, despite that his character had taken on a few twists lately. I'm a pawn, just a pawn, Alex told himself, just a gigolo, because this was the appearance he needed to project, if he didn't want to find himself cut out of the loop.

"Yeah, but--how will I know what's important?" Alex almost ruined the effect of his own act by snickering. To ingrain the critical importance of keeping a straight face he pulled down the mirrored visor of the car and stared at himself coolly. In character, he told his reflection. His green eyes looked back at him like someone else's.

"Tell me everything," Morley suggested with smug unctuous inflections. "Then you won't have a problem, will you?" He hung up before Alex could reply.

Alex slid the phone back into his pocket and stretched in place, rolling his head around on his neck. Still tense, he felt better than he had an hour ago; nothing like a friendly hand-job to help work out the kinks. When would he ever find another partner like Mulder, he wondered with true appreciation. Too bad they were slating him for the junk-heap.

He unbuckled his seat belt, had his hand on the door-handle. His phone rang again. He swore, and while reaching for it automatically began making up plausible stories in his head to Mulder for why he was late.

"Yeah," he said.

"Alex. . ." The man paused, perhaps to give Alex time to process the cool intrusion of his voice. "How is he?"

"Where are you calling from?"

"A safe line." The man's voice was frigid but somehow fragile, like frost on glass. "How is he?" he repeated.

"He's fine. Couldn't be better." Alex loosened his tie, making himself forget about Mulder and relax into the waiting game. Here was a source he didn't want to antagonize, a man to be handled with care. This one was valuable, but also edgy and brittle.

There was a silence. "I just saw on the news. . .I saw him but I wasn't sure. . .the man was shot. This Duane Barry."

"Yeah," said Alex. The single word a drop in the pond. Tease the water. Let the fish come to you. Empty hook, but no matter. The angler is always fishing. Always. He fishes simply to fish, for the act itself.

"He's not what he seems," the other man said with clipped precision. "Keep an eye on him."

Alex shut his eyes deliberately, his face empty of expression. "Barry?"

"Yes, Barry," the other man said irritably. "He's a subject."

Alex opened his eyes. "Why did they want Mulder here then? Why bring them together?"

"Then they did arrange this?" The man sounded harsh, angry, his fears realized.

"From what I can tell--his being here, anyway."

"I don't--I don't know." The man's voice slid away from the phone, wavered a bit, mixing with muffled clinks of ice. "I don't like it. Can't follow their. . .makes no. . .sons of bitches. . ."

Alex, riding his own train of thought, let the other man ramble for a minute, then said, "I have to go. He's waiting. I need more information from you. Can you meet me this weekend?"

"I can't," his caller said immediately, but it was an automatic refusal, a nervous, pro forma response Alex had come to expect.

"Saturday," Alex said. "You want me to protect him, don't you? There are things I need to know."

A deep breath gusted into the phone, a sigh of resignation. "Saturday, Alex."

"You shouldn't use my name when you call," Alex said quietly, hiding his annoyance at having to give the caution. He'd become careless, Bill Mulder, and if he wasn't careful it would get someone killed.

*****

After picking up the keycard waiting for him at the check-in counter (thoughtful Mulder), Alex rode the elevator up to the room. He was first obliged to talk his way brusquely through a clique of newscasters lurking in the lobby. Wearing his skippy face, he told them with disingenuous invention that he'd heard Kazdin was setting up an impromptu press conference in the banquet hall. As the doors slid shut he could see them booking fast in that direction, a gaggle of media sheep with shouldered camcorders and cordless mics. He mentally flipped a salute at Kazdin and wished her all the best.

Mulder was already out of the shower when Alex arrived, but instead of tucking between the sheets he'd settled at the end of one bed to watch a CNN update on what was now being called the resolved hostage crisis. His own face was broadcast across the screen. Drained to a pallor by the cold quartz lights of the media, his skin appeared waxen and almost vampiric above the shadowy stalk of his suit. The real Mulder sat cross-legged in his boxers, looking only slightly fresher than his hour-old image, his eyes heavy with unadmitted sleep.

"Hey," Alex said. He dropped on the floor the flight bag in which he kept his travel kit, pocketed his keycard, and walked over in front of Mulder, cutting off his view of the television. Mulder looked up. His short hair was damply spiked and his face had the creamy feel of skin freshly washed and shaved. His cheeks felt like the petals of a gardenia under Alex's hands. Fleur de lumiere. He closed his eyes at Alex's touch. With the ripe furled drop of his eyelids he was a man sinking into prayer or trance. It felt good to touch him, the softness of his lips, the hard slope of his nose. Alex tugged an earlobe and Mulder opened his eyes. They were grey and alien and clear.

"I'm taking a shower," Alex said. "If we wait until six or so before going down we can probably get some breakfast while we're working up our statements." He looked at his watch. "That's. . .joy, all of three hours."

"Sounds good." Low voice arriving from a distance. Man in a hotel room, transitional. "I left my cellular in the bathroom. Leave yours there and maybe we'll be safe. I've already told them to hold calls on the room phone--I doubt anyone even knows we're here. I managed to miss seeing any of the team. You didn't tell Kazdin or anyone we were checking in, did you?"

"Nope." Alex scraped his knuckles gently along one of Mulder's temples, then disappeared into the bath.

When he returned a few minutes later, sluiced clean of a day's grime and wearing only his trousers, Mulder was sprawled across his bed, head curled to one side, face reposed, breathing with the quiet regularity of sleep. Alex shut off the TV and grabbed the spread from the other bed. Mulder didn't move when the blanket was slung over him, and Alex gazed down at him in a grudging way, needled into brief fondness. The other man earned more of Alex's respect--reluctant, problematical--with every passing day; but the difficulty of detachment was born in the curve of his jaw, the arc of his cheek.

Very much a male animal was Fox, with a rough, cranky self-absorption that didn't contradict his essential indifference to personal comfort; even as he lay now on the bed, one arm outflung, legs longer than a list of wickedness, he took up less space than he should. He even breathed quietly.

"Hey, Mulder," Alex said. But he didn't wake, and Alex didn't want him to. Asleep he was fathoms down, buried safely in himself. Awake. . .companionable; somewhat high maintenance; removed; but despite all this a walking talisman of unconscious charm, a creature possessed of odd, ungendered habits, freakish whims, enigmatic distractions. Fox Mulder, an alien studying the aliens. Too much charisma, Alex thought rather sourly. More life than most. Honesty, integrity, bravery--but Alex was no boy scout, no platonic lover, to fall for such abstractions, qualities to him like those of a classical painting whose symbolism held no sway. He saw the brush strokes, the light and shadow, and the brilliant hues. The shape of desire was but some new color of red.

Yet the impersonality of desire made itself personal. Alex could have stood here for an hour looking down at his charge, the problem he'd been assigned. He was drawn, but he found his own romanticizing tendencies inconvenient, not to mention puzzling. He wished it were an empty tile in the mosaic of his personality. He was trying hard to keep his head--a good screw, a pretty face, a charming lunacy--he acknowledged all these only in the most reductive of terms; they weren't things he could let trip him up. And most times he didn't. But small things would have their way with him. Gifts unasked for, unexpected, hard to dismiss: the sunflower seeds that Mulder, grinning, tossed at him; his offerings of esoteric pirate legends and Bigfoot folklore; the way his head pushed desperately into the curve of Alex's neck as he rocked himself into ecstasy; his absent-minded workday caresses--fleeting and unnoticed, thank god (even by Mulder himself), which feathered a warmth through Alex he couldn't entirely dismiss. Mulder's inquisitive curiosity about Alex's past went beyond the hodge-podge of carefully fabricated data in his FBI records, and was another kind of intimacy. Had it been anyone else, Alex would have taken this digging for granted, but Mulder's questions were ludicrously irrelevant--how did Alex lose his virginity, what kind of music did he listen to when he was young, what was the first book he remembered reading, had he been a boy scout, what was the worst prank he'd ever pulled--and so on.

In the quiet hotel room an almost regretful shadow slid across Alex's face. He stood, a slim half-dressed man, barefoot and dark-haired. Even in a mirror no man sees his own face. He doesn't notice how his lips move, not speaking words, the muscles sketching one or two lines that don't realize to a smile. His eyes are dark but light emblades them. A man thinking.

He knew Mulder had few friends. No wonder they'd pegged him for an easy mark. No matter how paranoid he was, he couldn't enter completely into a solitude that might have saved him. It didn't occur to Alex that solitude might have been even more dangerous for a man like Mulder. Alex was used to living in the lockbox of his head; not a word passed his lips that did not first travel through his mind's censoring machinery, and so he found Mulder's confidences startling in their recklessness, but all the more fascinating for that.

Leaving Mulder to his sleep, Alex grabbed a battle-scarred laptop from his overnight bag and set himself up at the room's dining table. He'd bought this deceptively battered unit recently from a wizard who'd built up a nice package to his custom specs and encased it in some cyberpunk cracker's cast-off. Alex doubted that the Nine-Inch Nails stickers and nail-polish mottos (Hack the Power, LLAP) would fool anyone for long if they took a good look at the system, but the garbaged-up exterior didn't hurt; it would take a shrewd eye to penetrate its cruddy face and guess that one of the new Pentium processors lurked within.

He was no hacker, his talents lay elsewhere, but he needed no great skill to take advantage of bought and stolen passwords. A CIA acquaintance he'd been cultivating for several years had finally come through with a handful of MILNET-2 privileged-user code cards, wallet-style ID's that had been issued not to real individuals but to invented military "generals". Alex hadn't inquired too closely as to how his source had filched these or what their original purpose had been, though he gathered it had something to do with interagency systems security testing. The ID password keys were essentially backdoor logins to the databases of various military sites, carte-blanc letters of transit unaltered by any of the sweeping security upgrades made during the past several years. The basic MILNET was an unclassified military network (supposedly) carrying only low-level data--supply requisitions, base memos, shift schedules. The innocuously named MILNET-2 was, on the other hand, the sleeper sister system of ranking military command, working a level above its prosaic sibling. Civilian hackers had been speculating for years over the existence of such a network, but security was tight enough that no confirmatory information had ever been leaked or access granted--no more than the thinnest rumors floated through the ether about this mythical realm.

And he was about to crack in with no more than a passcard and a modem. Alex felt anticipation gathering up his nerves and strumming them. It wouldn't be the first time he'd broken in, but it still gave him a thrilling kick. This was new territory for him; he was stepping outside the boundaries of persona he'd tended for the past several months. Special Agent Alex Krycek had been--was still--a work of art, his ingenuous front a mask so well crafted it had become his own face. But the man in the iron mask wasn't quite the sum of his personnel file notes. The mask was cracking; on the inside. Alex was a bit tired of Agent Krycek, whose prospects for advancement and reward were looking every day less bright.

With one eye tuning in now and then to Mulder's sleeping form, Alex spent a hour or so blowing cleanly through the systems of military air bases and downloading anything that caught his eye, mostly the stored typed copy of secretaries responsible for drawing up memos and other documents. There were plenty of plums to be shaken from the trees but most were not the ones he was searching for. Those few he did find made him sit up straight on the edge of his chair, particularly a draft of a memo that read in full: "Effective immediately all shipments of XCC and XCC2 materiel and merchandise will no longer to be documented through MACROSYSCOM as per AFO(x) P5510.18. Controls over manual records from creation to disposition now prescribe elimination of checkpoint hard copy. Deliveries must route through DirSplProj proxies only. TAD/TDY assignments for disposal deliveries have been suspended until further notice. Special air transports not authorized within project parameters will be acted upon with fixed measures."

He kept his breathing even; it was a kind of discipline to do so. But the verbose, obscurant scroll of information on his screen was tantalizing in a way that a more innocent reader would have found incomprehensible. The project. That one bare word, not even capitalized to prominence, was the chief object of Alex's hunt. He'd grown more skillful in tracking its data spoor, but it eluded keyword searching by immersing itself in a herd of its kind. Everything was a project, but the project was utterly opaque, never defined, the mother of all tautologies. Correspondence assumed that its readers knew what the project represented--or knew enough--and referred vaguely to project acquisitions and timelines, project merchandise. Teasing bullets of information were so elaborately cross-referenced and oblique (Re new EBE-X and EBE-Xx biological containment protocols see MJ1014.02) that the memos were no better than alphabet soup, an endlessly reticulating labyrinth of documents, none of which he could track down on line. The more he learned, the more certain he was that Bill Mulder was presenting only a thin gloss of what he knew. To Alex it felt as if he were looking into the observation mirror of an interrogation room, seeing first the bright surface that gave back only a calculated reflection, then pushing vision through to glimpse the shadowy truth beyond.

It made no difference to Alex's fierce pursuit of knowledge that he did not really believe in a single, explicable thing called truth. (To believe any one story was to surrender, a kind of death.) If you could find the man behind the mirror he would only tell yet another story; the Project was a goal for Alex to reach because it held currency--he could sense its importance, its timeliness--but it was not his final destination, not his grail. He was no Fox Mulder, to fall prey to the shimmering chimeras of absolute truth and absolution. Mulder sought one thing--the key which would decrypt the mystery of his life. Alex knew any such key would only translate the gibberish of code to an arbitrary approximation of. . .of whatever decaying matter the crypts hid. The code didn't decode to truth; just questionable data. He wondered if Mulder would be happy with mere data, if he even knew that those fleeting, useless bits of information he'd rigged himself up to lunge for were empty tin rabbits that would lead him in circles. Of course, he did want to find his sister. Nothing occult in that; just the enigma of his very human heart.

Alex forced his gaze away from the glowing magnetism of the screen and rubbed his aching eyelids. A dull tension ebbed and flowed between his temples and--stabbed with the needling reminder of his own humanity--he shut down the computer with a single flick of his finger and relished its death. Time to get off anyway; he preferred not to linger in the small hours when user traffic was low. Grumpy and tired he wandered over to the bed and impatiently eyed Mulder. He didn't want to hang around Richmond longer than necessary; they could have been on their way back to D.C. by now. Well, maybe not quite gone, but far closer than they were getting by holing up here and deferring their paperwork.

He considered going downstairs alone to get a head start, except that it wouldn't hasten a departure which hinged on Mulder finishing his own shitwork. He sat on the edge of the bed, checked his watch, almost shook the other man's shoulder, then thought to hell with it, a half hour more won't hurt, and shucked his trousers off to crawl in next to his partner's slack length. Mistake, his mind informed him immediately. The bed's sunken warmth pulled at his tired bones and drew him inescapably into proximity with Mulder's lush heat. He locked to him and came alive, nipples stiffening to rub against the other man's shoulderblades, arm belting his waist, one leg carving up between his lightly-furred thighs to nudge his balls.

Mulder grumbled in his sleep.

"Hey bitch," Alex said to Mulder's ear, knowing that if he heard he'd roll over punching.

In a slurred low voice, Mulder said, "What?" The pillow absorbed the question.

Right now, in the wee strange hours after an enervating hostage drama, Alex thought this almost the funniest thing he'd ever heard. He grabbed one of Mulder's nipples and tweaked it while nuzzling a laugh into the brooched curl of his ear.

"Ow," Mulder complained, strengthening into awakeness. "Cut it out."

"Thought you wanted to get fucked," Alex murmured.

"If that's your gun in my ass you're gonna blow my balls off," Mulder said, irritable as a dormouse. He was edging into coherency, but still sounded heavily logged with tiredness.

Alex poked him with the object in question, then nudged his briefs down and allowed the head of his cock to drag up the cleft of Mulder's ass. Mulder jabbed his arm back, connecting with instinct and rude force into Alex's ribs; he was half awake but fighting consciousness with deep loathing.

Knowing what the other man liked made it easy for Alex. He shoved Mulder over and drove him flat and hard against the mattress, grabbing and turning his head to force his face into a pillow, braceleting one wrist and dragging it high up his back. Mulder began struggling at once--real struggles, without question. Alex kept his grip on the back of Mulder's neck but allowed his head up far enough for him to breathe around the suffocating bulk of the pillow. He wedged his body between Mulder's thighs and levered him up until he could rub his cock back into the folded warmth of him. Mulder groaned and clawed at the bedcovers.

They fucked silently these days, as much as not. Their weeks together had eased Mulder's early nervous volubility, and though he could still be dismayingly talkative given right circumstances (weekend, Chinese food, Alex's apartment) he was less apt to distraction during rough fucks. He hadn't stopped wanting it rough, which pleased Alex fine, but since their New York case he'd only once again asked for what he called (with razoring self-mockery) the 'full throttle'. Instead he begged lesser garrottes as he neared release, constrictions that would tip him over the edge. Alex knew the exact degree of feathering pressure that would--after a certain point--make Mulder shoot almost at once. He usually accommodated the other man's quirk; though oddly the act was doing less and less for him--the generous strangler--as time went on.

"Hold still," Alex suggested callously, forcing Mulder's arm further up his back, freeing his own thickened cock completely from his briefs at the same time. He jerked Mulder's boxers off his ass and then let the gentler stroking presence of his hand encourage the other man's thighs further apart. They widened of their own volition, trembling and flushed with heat but supporting the balance of his body.

Mulder whispered unintelligibly into his pillow. Coitus, Jupiter, chestnuts. His fingers flexed on a ribbon of sheet.

Alex wet his thumb and nudged it flush into the heart of Mulder's ass, pressing until it struck through. He repeated this a few more times until the passage had eased enough it could admit him without causing pain. Not much anyway. He spat in his hand, quietly, and rubbed himself to slickness, palming the stranded pre-ejaculate at the tip of his cock and drawing it down his length. He touched Mulder again, felt the ringed tightness jump and contract snugly on his fingers. He kissed the wet reddened swell of his cockhead there and began to shove.

"Hey," Mulder protested, jerking up from the pillow and trying in vain to twist his head around. "Fuck, Alex--you--"

"Shut up," Alex advised, loosening his hand from its clasp on Mulder's hip and grabbing a palmful of his furred head again. Mulder, outraged, continued his mouthing as Alex forced his face back into the pillow and held it there. When the muffled complaints and twisting attempts to dislodge him had ceased, he drew his hand away and returned to focus.

"If you've been fucking around, I'll saw your slut-fucking dick off," Mulder said raspily into his nest of feathers. His face burned pinkly.

That deserved a response, Alex decided. He let Mulder's arm ease down until their grip became an interlocking of fingers. Mulder didn't move, but Alex heard his breathing quicken. "You think I'd do this with other boys," Alex murmured, sliding down to rest on his arms, relinquishing Mulder's hand, kissing his way down the cleft of Mulder's body. Mulder's hand, though freed, remained curled in the small of his back. He was a man with incredible self-control, at the oddest of times. Alex kissed him open, felt muscles pull at his tongue, made a point of flesh to flesh with wet stabbings until Mulder broke, said oh my god desperately into his pillow, began to capitulate into a frenzy.

Alex rose, retook Mulder's wrist, shoved inside him with one hard pulse and earned in reply a stifled, helpless howl. The warmth of the other man's ass was like a tight leather glove; Alex said nothing as he worked himself ruthlessly into its gripping depth, but his gasps began to carry threads of keening, high and sharp. Mulder was already struggling to maneuver his free hand between his legs, but lost his precarious balance doing so; his breath jagged once and was eclipsed in a mouthful of rumpled cloth. Alex could feel the violent jerking rhythm of Mulder's hand drawing his hips down; his ass flexed, muscular spasms that buttered Alex's own cock with unerring skill.

When Alex felt he'd gained command of the engagement he released Mulder's arm and began stroking his back. A soft grateful growl issued from the head of the bed as Mulder readjusted himself. He shifted and arched up more deliberately, hands bracketing his pillow, his forehead butting into this prop. His feet slid and hooked behind Alex's ass to urge him forward with a contortionist's talent.

"Son of a--" Alex breathed deeply and steadied himself, then raked his fingernails down Mulder's spine, just to watch the bump of ass this produced and feel the responsive squeeze around his dick. Good pony. He dipped his head forward; a lock of dark hair fell free and tickled Mulder's skin while he kissed his way around that vellum nape and the graceful blades of architecture buried under its surface. Ridges and frets. Watching him as he moved ecstatically within his flesh was like watching a complex trope play out: elements of sand, driftwood, wave. He was not equivalent to his body, but within his body, a Mulder beneath the skin that could not escape its host but wanted to break free and fly. Alex pulled them both upright, settling himself back ass to heels and draping the silken length of Mulder across his front like a salesman showing off a mink coat. Mulder let his head drop onto Alex's shoulder. His breath was close and hot, his noises shaved out thinly from his throat. Such fine embroideries of sound from one his size. He was cupping his own balls and working his shaft, the strokes urgent.

Alex's heavily lashed eyes were angled to the view: Mulder's pale elegant hand, the fiery cock that stretched up from his tightly clinging nuts. Cockhead pearled from the inside out; thumb lifted and rubbed, forcing more fluid from the eye. He chafed himself mercilessly as if seeking pain, like a child worsening the source of his tears or relishing a rash of splinters. His body was heavy against Alex, a deep wealth of bone and muscle, so sumptuous that even a blind man would have known how costly he was, how extravagant a package.

Alex twisted Mulder's nipples, felt his rump jerk and swallow its hard plug and then twist itself desperately on him, an apple trying to core itself. He could have said things to Mulder, could have called him pretty boy, hot little punk, but Mulder didn't always like that and could turn irritable and sulky when he got uncomfortable. Their occasional bedroom spats tended to fizzle out and snuff themselves in further sex; but there was always a later to worry about. Buttoned up in his Armani armor, Mulder was invulnerable and capable of such extremes of impersonal malevolence that sometimes Alex was scared of him, which was not a feeling he enjoyed entertaining. Mulder was a perfect bitch in the bedroom; on the job he morphed into a suit of bone-cold arrogance--he could have frozen lakes, even small oceans with his absolute zeroing eyes. When he tucked his dick away his brain rebooted and that was when he was at his most dangerous to Alex.

"God--yes, Alex--" Mulder whispered, his voice husking and catching on the inner sleeve of his throat.

His near ear burned as if dipped in scarlet wax, blushing where Alex's lips and tongue sketched--the other pressed like a medallion to Alex's shoulder, warm, its delicacy evident by touch alone. Alex blew a soundless cloud of heat into the well at his lips and heard Mulder whimper. He traced the inner circuitry with his tongue, soldering the coils with his heat.

Mulder struggled against him: a mink coat coming to life. There's an X-File for you, babe.

"Do it, Alex." Not quite request, not quite command. A soft begging tone, so natural that its deceptiveness was not obvious unless you knew him well. When Fox did stoop to plead you had to drag your thrall from those sensual, Borgia eyes and lips and look for the dagger he surely somewhere held.

Alex felt unreasonably annoyed, distracted from his own pleasure, then suddenly brazen with an anger that swept in from the void. "No," he hissed, resentfully, sliding his hand down to Mulder's dick instead of up to his neck. Mulder, not repeating his request, corkscrewed his ass against Alex's cock, a move with the immediate effect of stripping fifty IQ points from Alex's blood-starved brain. He groaned and grabbed Mulder's dick tighter, pumping him and forcing his writhing tail onto his own swollen organ. Lust inebriated him toward a demented, deeply focused state of worship. "You are such a sick slut," Alex muttered, covering Mulder's mouth with his own and sucking the wine-ripe flame of his tongue. Mulder made a tiny satisfied sound against his mouth that might have been laughter.

That sound gathered in Alex's mouth and rolled and teased there and he knew abruptly that he would oblige his partner, his wish, this hot pouring passion of a man who rested against him, Jesus to his Judas, and so he raised his hand and, as they kissed, closed his hand over the strained bow of Mulder's neck and squeezed.

Mulder came instantly, his mouth blossoming impossibly wide and wet under Alex's, his body arching, every inch of him expansive with gratitude. Alex took his hand away at once, heard a cry of grief and raw beatification as if too large a pleasure were being grappled out through a constricting tunnel--"Alex--Alex!" Impossible to score the music of this aria; he could not tell if word and notes wedded in feeling or if Mulder's emotions floated free and used his name only as a convenient vehicle. Driven, he grabbed Mulder's cock again, pumping it roughly, feeling the jerks transmit straight to his own aching monster, the buried devil's pike. Unapologetic triumph; his eyes flashed lightning; then came the terrible stretch of himself on the rack of feeling. He was being pulled out of form; beyond the bearable shape he inhabited.

"Oh fuck--" Speech was savage, breaths that ripped from him. "Fuck--you fucker--Fox--oh Jesus--" His cock swelled in the smothering heat of Mulder's ass, surging and pearling, its size doubling and tripling in his imagination but the cascade of feeling a thousand orders beyond--and then he shot thickly into the depths, leaving his brand. And right there it would stay, Alex hoped. A morning under Kazdin's evil eye would be redeemed if he could sit across from Mulder and look at him with the secure knowledge that he had a load of come still dribbling a musky perfume down his fine haunches.

They fell apart after a minute, collapsing back into their separate bodies. Alex rolled off and headed to the bath to clean up; Mulder lay like a stripped empty fur on the surface of the bed, face ceilingwards, arms and legs carelessly akimbo. By the time Alex returned from his shower--no more than five minutes--the other agent was up and mostly dressed. Alex caught his eye and raised a brow at him; Mulder just looked back, face smooth, eyes cool. He was fully awake now and had the sleek, predatory composition of a feline meditating on geometry and death. No doubt about it, he was going to be a real fun pal to hang with today. He apparently had no intention of washing up, which both pleased Alex and stirred in him a faint sense of worry. Pointless to worry; no one was going to depants him and probe for evidence. But still. He reeked splendidly of their fucking and looked as if he'd nearly had his lips gnawed off by a pack of weasels.

"You aren't going to shower again?" Alex asked, keeping his tone indifferent.

"Fuck off," Mulder said pleasantly. His tone was friendly, but his smile was non-existent, a sun still laboring below the horizon.

Alex decided now would be a good time to find coffee, but then having excused himself he paused with his hand on the door and felt an odd moment of disjointedness: he wasn't sure which instinct to trust--the one to walk away, or the one that said turn back, go to him, and. . .

He turned, a timeless pirouette on the crux of decision that could not be taken back, and saw from the mirror of Mulder's face that his own must be revealing a measure of uncertainty, reluctance. Mulder winced.

"Alex--no, don't--" He tried to push Alex away. "I'm not ready to get touchy-feely this early in the--oh fuck--" He gave a soft sigh as Alex nuzzled into his collar. "You're asking for it," he said, almost sadly, his arms sliding around Alex's waist, hands pressing down between belted trousers and shirt tail.

"What am I asking for?"

"That's what I want to know," Mulder said wryly.

"Just saying good mornin'," Alex breathed against his lips.

"Thought we did that already."

"Mm, but I hadn't brushed yet."

Mulder's mouth shied away from Alex's. "I still haven't," he muttered.

"You are pretty funky," Alex said, smiling saucily. "Lucky for you I like that in a man."

Mulder's eyes darted a speculative look at him from under furred ledges of lash. "What are you up to?"

"You really want to know?" Alex smiled. "I'm just taking the moment as it comes, Mulder."

*****

When Alex showed up in the conference room Kazdin locked a beam on him immediately.

"Where the hell have you been?" Acid that sharp and strong would have dissolved the bones of a lesser man. She looked over his shoulder, failed to see Mulder, then returned her measuring and strangely colorless gaze to Alex as if she were reading--from the most privileged cache of his person--the secrets of him.

Alex quirked a brow, thought of saying heavy traffic, then discarded the retort. "We had to run the media gauntlet," he said coolly, then added for the hell of it, "And then some EMT tranked him up--he was out of it, they were taking his blood pressure, I was talking to him. He just ate it like a candy, swallowed it down with his coffee. I didn't even know what she'd handed him until it was too late."

"Shit," Kazdin said succinctly, looking slightly ameliorated but still cranky. She wouldn't have cursed even so mildly six hours ago. In the thick of chaos she'd been frost; now, swamped with minutiae of documentation and fielding endless phone calls from her superiors, she was obviously reaching her threshold of civility. "Where is he?"

"He's coming down. Be here in a minute." Alex let his wide eyes appease her, smiled briefly, then slid away, coffee in hand, to find a seat. He made a quick cell-to-cell call to warn Mulder he shouldn't be operating heavy machinery, which was answered only by a brief silence and a small beep as the connection was severed. By the time Mulder ambled in to join them Alex was deeply engaged in dictating his incident report to one of the Richmond office's support staff, a ponytailed young woman with rural antecedents whose keen, scarcely hidden fascination for his eyewitness account betrayed her relative newness to the job.

"Agent Mulder, good of you to join us," Kazdin said. She eyed him, then in a lower voice said more amiably--and with slightly more honest concern: "How are you feeling?"

"Fine." Mulder nodded. "Where do you want me?"

Kazdin pulled off a synchronicity of gestures--brow lift, lip moue, chin tuck--as one to eloquently communicate that she was tempted to tell him but would refrain. "Have a seat. I'll find someone to take your statement."

"I type with more than two fingers," Mulder said, glancing down the long conference table's feasting board of laptops and laser printers. Three or four junior field agents and secretarial staff typed diligently to fill the red and blue folders which were stacking up next to them.

"Call me a traditionalist, Agent Mulder. We don't payroll eleven-hundred typists to twiddle their thumbs and make coffee."

"Well, actually we do pay them to twiddle their thumbs." Mulder's sudden lopsided grin was sunny but Kazdin stared at him, unthawed, as if reassessing his mens sana.

"Right," she drawled blandly. "Have a seat, Agent Mulder. I'll have someone with you momentarily." Dismissively she turned away and resumed speaking to one of her techs about A/V footage and security-stamped copies. As Mulder drifted off he heard her saying, "The director's cut should be packaged up as soon as possible--FedEx it to him by this afternoon if you can. And make sure the Attorney General gets her copy. If she calls back, I'm not here, please, but tell her. . ."

In temporary limbo, Mulder paused and glanced around the room, half-consciously searching for the coffee machine he knew had to be somewhere in the vicinity. Outside, the sun was up; in this room the window shades remained drawn, leaving its interior defined by the strong, cold luminosity of fluorescent ceiling tiles. A handful of the FBI's hostage rescue team were grouped in a corner of the room; a tight clutch of ninjas, the kind of men who are never happier than when they are driving a tank through compound gates or letting the tear-gas cannisters fly. Looking at them one couldn't help but feel grateful they were on the side of the law; more or less leashed by its authority. Men like this could have taken the White House down, had they put their minds to it.

Mulder knew that one of them had to be the sniper who'd brought Barry down, and guessed it was the moustached young man who was doing his best to look as if all this was exactly what he'd expected. He didn't appear quite as hard-eyed as his fellows, and something in the kinetics of the group established him as the subtle center, an authority figure not by rank but by custom. His recent performance had earned him fifteen minutes of professional fame and a pedestal, however short.

Mulder found the conference room's small hospitality station (half hidden behind a pile of flak jackets); its coffee machine exuded the aroma of a fresh pot, and rather than powdered creamer there was a bowl of real half-and-half caddies. "All the bells and whistles," Mulder murmured to himself with approval, dumping several into his brew. He turned back to survey the room; a few glances had aligned to his presence now, filings of sight succumbing to the pull of a magnet. A reluctant recollection to duty nagged at him. He felt his shoulders hunch a bit. Sighing inwardly, he circumnavigated the room and closed in on the HRT crew, who fell silent and watchful at his arrival.

"Good work," he said to the man he'd pegged for his shooter. The man nodded, cleared his throat, and looked as pleased as the rough mask of his face allowed. He unmistakably relaxed at Mulder's words, a strain of lines easing around his eyes. With a tickle of some astonishment Mulder found himself the recipient of respect rather than contempt. HRT ninjas were notorious for having an invariably low opinion of hostage negotiators; they preferred direct offensive actions. Even during the past year, when they were in the spotlight, at the center of hostile public opinion and professional fire, they'd maintained a cliquish aloofness and a certainty of their methods.

"Thank you, sir," the man said, eschewing any overt sign of pride but somehow conveying a buoyed acknowledgment of the recognition. He touched his moustache self-consciously, stroking one of its wings. "Didn't get that first shot. Sorry about that."

Heat unfurled in Mulder's cheeks, unseen. "You did your best," he said quietly.

"Didn't take him down for good," the sniper added, sounding disappointed. This was obviously a repeat, for Mulder's benefit, of remarks he'd been making to his fellows, who shifted in place with minimal but apparent restlessness. "Should have stuck with the head shot."

"He was down," Mulder said, flat and dry, and then blinked as he began to process the other man's offhand words.

"Yeah." The sniper's dissatisfaction was evident despite Mulder's assurance. "Alpha team got in before the bird hit, but he could've been riding the trigger still. They pillbug on you, you never know what to expect." A faint jitter of residual nervous energy animated the man's body and drove his words into a tight spiral of compressive jargon that made no concessions to the ignorance of anyone outside his professional clique. The other men around them were silent, heads cocked as they listened, an unkindness of ravens. Two of them still wore their heavy Kevlar vests even now, with a defiant masochism: armored hairshirts.

"What's your name?" Mulder asked casually.

"Revell--sorry, sir--Jack Revell."

"Did someone change the orders for a kill shot, Jack--tell you to aim low--take out his gun arm?"

Revell drew himself up slightly. The other team members exchanged a glance. "Sir--" He broke off at a loss, obviously stumped as to the degree of Mulder's authority and whether he should answer.

"You'd have to talk to the team leader, sir," another man said noncommitally. His face, unlike Revell's, was cold and openly antagonistic.

"Where is he?"

The men's hard faces knitted among themselves a collective query, then another man gave out reluctantly, "HQ."

"Washington?"

"Greencourt."

Richmond office. Mulder's lips were just parting to express something his mind hadn't yet put to words when he was snagged away by an earnest clerk-typist and expertly relocated to the conference table. He spent the next few hours of his life slumped laxly in the boxed confines of a grey chair, describing his tete-a-tete with Duane Barry. The process was lengthened by his own chronic appetite for detail and a discursive tendency to slide off into tangents. Jennifer, his clerk-typist, failed to discourage him from embellishment, either from a shared interest in the characteristic profiles of alien abductees, or perhaps because she was too shy to interrupt his diversions. By the time they were winding up she was almost convinced of having been abducted herself.

"But all those things," she said stubbornly when Mulder tried to reassure her of its unlikelihood. "I'm afraid of snakes, and sometimes I feel like I'm being watched at night--and sometimes when I touch radios they just go all crazy with static--"

"Jennifer--"

"And I get really bad insomnia--"

Mulder laughed, startling her to silence, though the sound was neither loud nor unkind. He was torn between true amusement and exasperated dismay at himself for having led this nice girl, however unwittingly, down a garden path of fancy.

"If you're afraid of snakes, it's probably because they're snakes," he said gently. "The fears abductees have tend to be paralyzing--phobias that interfere with normal routines of living. Forget about the radio, but if you feel like you're being watched at night you may be right--you might have a peeping tom in your neighborhood. You should call for a drive-by if you think someone might be outside your apartment. As for insomnia, if every insomniac was an abductee half the bedrooms in the world would be empty at night." Jennifer continued to stare at him with a misplaced, calf-eyed trust that made Mulder's skin itch. "Of all those things I told you about you've mentioned only the most innocuous--the most common. Now if you'd seen beams of light come through your window--" He sensed the passage of a body behind him, paused. "Or had missing time, or scars you can't account for, or a marker memory of some kind--needles, exam table, an alien face--then you might have more to be concerned about."

"What was that you said about sinus-is--" She tripped over the word.

"Chronic sinusitis," Mulder said.

"My sister has that."

Mulder cleared his throat, looked down to his hands which had twisted a coffee stirrer into a heart. He dropped the mangled plastic. "It's not all that uncommon."

Jennifer contemplated him as if arriving at feminine insights older than time, and then with unexpected grace gave full focus to the laptop at her fingers, altering her attention without any hint of artifice. She simply had to type now.

"Hey partner," Alex said, appearing at his shoulder and sliding into the chair next to him. "Almost done?"

"To a crisp," Mulder said glumly, and then added to Jennifer, "Am I done?"

"Yes, sir. I just need to print this out and have you sign it."

Alex buttonholed Mulder and drew him away into a clinch by the windows. Someone during the last few hours had pulled up the blinds to let in the light. Mulder realized he hadn't even noticed.

"Skinner called me while you were making your statement. I offered to get you on the phone but he said not to interrupt. You left your cellular in the room, huh?"

"Oops." Mulder smiled.

Alex gave him a sere, knowing look. "Oops, all right. Scully called me too. Checking in. Wanted to know how you were. I feel like your fucking secretary."

Mulder took the mild grumble in stride, nodding as if he didn't quite hear the content of the remark, his eyes vaguing out as some inner thought-process commenced. "Anyone mentioned news on Barry's condition?"

"I haven't heard anything."

"Where's Kazdin?"

"She took off. Hospital I think. They've got Barry over at Jefferson Memorial." Mulder looked absently out the window and said nothing. Alex gave him the hairy eyeball. "We're not going there," he said curtly, correctly reading the drift of his partner's thoughts. "Skinner wants us back home."

"I don't wanna mow the lawn, Dad," Mulder murmured, faintly mocking. He automatically glanced around after the comment, as if expecting Skinner to turn up by his side and thump him with a glare.

"Yeah." Alex gave him an odd look. "You know, I really think he can't stand to have you out of his sight, Mulder. I'll bet his balls crawl up his crack every time you slip the leash and run off somewhere to troll sewers or hunt Yeti tracks. Probably thinks, God knows what freak of nature the cat's going to drag back and dump on the rug."

Mulder's eyes lightened and he laughed. "I think you're wrong. I'll bet his blood pressure drops to nearly normal once I pass beyond D.C. city limits."

"The outer limits," Alex said, quirking one side of his lips up.

"The Mulder zone," Mulder joked back easily. He glanced around the room. "I guess they don't need us anymore." With that unsignaled shift from mood to mood that characterized him, he dropped altitude a few thousand feet and leveled out somewhere in the middle of a cloudbank. "I should have walked out as soon as I saw that damn script. Why they roped me into this clusterfuck surpasses all knowledge."

"You're the resident ghostbuster," Alex said, not ungently.

"That was no ghost," Mulder said, turning his head. The sun lit into the room and spun the wheat of his eyes into gold. The greyish-green of his irises had gilded spokes.

"You think he was. . .for real?"

They eyed one other wordlessly, each man waiting for something he couldn't name.

"When are you going to trust me?" Alex asked, lifting his chin, his thin lips compressing with anger that almost might have been unfeigned.

"Just because we--" Mulder broke off, stunned at what he'd been so near to saying. He sucked in a breath, hissed, "This isn't the best venue, Alex."

"Agent Mulder--"

"What?" Mulder said sharply. He jerked his gaze from Alex and caught sight of Jennifer standing across the conference table, peeling a fluster of surprised expressions from her round face like leaves from a cabbage. But if she'd expected more courtesy from him, she was nonetheless accustomed to the uncertain tempers of field agents.

"Your report is ready for you to sign," she said, stretching to pass it across the table to him. Without further speech she left the room.

"My neighbor has this small yapping dog I'd like to see kicked," Alex said conversationally. "Remind me to sic you on the animal next time you're over."

After signing his name with an irritable scribble, Mulder shoved the folder back across the table and said, "Let's just check out and go before I shoot anyone."

*****

The ride back passed rapidly. Alex, driving, had thought Mulder would lapse into typical Mulder funk, but he sat up straight the entire way, refrained from checking his voice mail, kept his hands off the radio and even deferred calling Scully back. They'd grabbed breakfast at the hotel and had no reason to stop anywhere, and Mulder seemed satisfied with this, though from experience Alex knew the other man wasn't above detouring them on a twenty mile side-trip to find a decent sub shop (which to be fair was no more than standard field agent behavior--it was always interesting to Alex to see just where Mulder failed to deviate from the norm).

Mulder was talking. Alex had his mental microphone on the whole way. After weeks of acquaintance he had finally attuned himself to Mulder's frequency, though this was a development he kept to himself. Now he listened clearly as Mulder talked his shtick about aliens, about government conspiracies, abductions, the possibility of archived ET technology and related research, and a catalogue of other nuttery that Alex had at first given only the most nominal credence to--for while he accepted government conspiracy as a fact of life, the rest of it was (he'd believed) simply Mulder's flawed translation of those few pieces of ambiguous data he'd managed to gather. Yes, there were conspiracies, and they reached wide and dark; but aliens? The man was a loon. He hunted and pecked for scattered seeds among ash, read his own cracked meaning in their broken glyphs, but he didn't see what he saw. Alex's assignment had been set out clearly for him: here was a man who, through his own skewed logic and idiosyncratic hobbyhorsing, was nosing surprisingly close to sensitive areas of government security. And until recently Alex had taken this at face value.

He'd met several times with Morley and his cronies. The word treason was tossed around pretty casually--more in respect to Mulder's attitude than any of his actions, and with no concern for adhering to a strict legal definition; the understanding being that in matters like this jurisprudence wasn't an option. Oh, they'd mouthed the words of justice at first, but it wasn't long before Alex caught the gist, and recognized that responses--countermeasures--had to be more innovative. He should have suspected that his job would not be a simple one; he'd been chosen for a reason. After the Augustus Cole case wound up, this became even more clear. Alex had been asked to analyze the extent of leakage pertaining to classified materials, in particular the documents file that the good Doctor Scully had apparently passed on to Mulder. Asked to analyze. And with that request, he'd known. Hadn't he always known? They didn't want a long-term mole in the bureau; his days were numbered. Not unlike Doctor Dana Scully's. Scully. Whether she had deeper sources in the government than intelligence had suggested or whether she was merely a courier, she was a far greater problem than anyone had realized.

Alex had performed the analysis requested of him, sitting at the dining room table in his apartment for one long evening, deliberately ignoring the shadowy phantom Mulder who caressed his flesh and nuzzled the ache in his balls. He was a man with a job. He did it. But--as in all things--Alex Krycek acted from a calculated blend of self-interest and suitability. He'd taken more care than usual in drawing up his report, choosing from among risks with a cold eye. If Morley had thought it odd his hired gun had relegated terminal force to the absolute bottom of the suggested options list he'd shown no sign. Alex's countermeasures had made for a thorough menu despite how little background information he'd been given, most of them microvariations on standard destabilizing techniques; Morley had actually seemed very impressed. Alex's mental notes on that occasion had read: likes creativity; weakness for the baroque; cold war dinosaur; still dangerous.

Though Alex knew a few snap analyses couldn't come close to summing up the man behind the smokey nom-de-plume, he knew one thing, which was that Mr Three-Packs-a-Day was not long for this world and it wasn't his lungs he needed to worry about.

Still, pegging Mulder too soon--aside from the figurative--had been Alex's initial mistake, and now he was scrambling to regroup and revise. He'd made the mistake, an understandable one, because the premise on which Fox Mulder was based was so hugely ludicrous at first glance that nearly anyone would have dismissed it--and him. In like wise, another operative might have taken for granted his assignment, accepted everything Morley and his cronies told him. But Alex rarely settled for what he was given. He suspected that if he had anything in common with Morley it was a persuasion toward life not as something one read but something one wrote--and revised when needed.

Abiding by this unformulated philosophy, Alex hadn't let the Mulder matter rest on its premises, cute though they were; instead, he'd applied himself assiduously to answer the questions his mind raised--it was like picking the knots and snarls from a tangled skein of yarn, attempting to follow lines of information back to their source. Where were the correspondences and overlaps between Mulder's suspicions and actuality? How seriously did they take him? What exactly was this Roswell thing all about, anyway?

A man who seeks and cultivates covert sources has an edge into secrets that others may lack. Alex, like Mulder, had begun trolling the waters. They fished in deep waters, he and Mulder, with a strange parallel focus: they were like two men in a boat, backs turned to one another, their lines dropped at opposing points but carried and pulled by currents below until, perhaps, they twined. Alex never felt closer to Mulder than when he'd just discovered some new secret--that, ironically, he could not speak of to the other man.

His most recent searches were pointing him down the most obvious, yet most unexpected path: toward Mulder's truth, that erratic gleam of light in a dark forest of terrestrial mundanity. His alien will-o-wisp might have more substance than the shadowy trees through which it wove. Crazy, crazy, I'm picking up the mark's mindset, that's all. So he told himself--tried to--wary of such a danger even as he turned a more open ear Mulder's way and encouraged his confidences. Mulder's squirrelly chatter and Alex's sketchy agenda had begun to mesh and merge, in tandem with the interlocking intimacy of their bodies. So intense was Alex's rising interest in otherworldly matters he risked overcompensating for his earlier skepticism with too keen a show of excitement.

Mulder had been talking morbidly about harvested fetuses, body cavity examinations, ORION brain scrubs, and an ilk of other miseries both speculative and real, for forty miles.

"Anything that involves anal probes can't be all bad," Alex said gravely during a pause, not taking his eyes from the road.

"For the sake of pax automobila I'll forget you stooped that low," Mulder said easily.

Despite the grim weirdness of his conversation it was obvious Mulder had jimmied himself up into a fairly good mood; Alex didn't like to let such an advantage pass.

"I was reading the incident transcripts while you made your report," Alex said. A Sade song came on the radio's jazz station (a genre of music he believed kept him in character); unthinkingly he reached to punch up the volume, then changed the move to lower the air conditioner instead. He chanced a look at Mulder, who appeared not to have noticed anything. No distractions. "I'd zoned out some of the stuff about implants--that whole long time before Scully got there--"

Mulder turned his head abruptly to the window, stared out.

"What?" Alex said, catching the movement. He inwardly cursed himself for bringing up his expartner's name. That was all it took: there he went, zipping out into the solar system, mooning over a woman who without a doubt thought he was god's curse to the scientific community.

"Nothing," Mulder said. "I'm just ruing the day--yesterday. Couldn't find my favorite socks, the commissary was out of sprinkled doughnuts, and my reputation ratcheted down another sharp notch on the loco scale--I think I'm past 'spooky' territory now, bottoming out somewhere around 'crackbrained'. On the flip side, it wasn't a total write-off, I can take heart that I helped bring down a 'brain damaged psychopath' who shall no longer menace the peaceful citizens of our community."

"Whoa," said Alex, shooting another sidelong glance at him, marveling at the sudden blossom of sarcasm. "Is that a little Scully-backlash I hear?"

"I don't want to talk about it," Mulder said bitterly, and then, mere seconds later, burst roughly. "I am such a fuck-up!" He slammed his hand against the dash, kicked out and impacted his expensive leather shoe with the car's padded footwell: a six-foot tall man trying to have a tantrum in a confined space.

Alex bit his tongue, began to speak with husky earnestness that covered for laughter. "Mulder, you are not--"

"Don't even start your pep talk," Mulder snarled. He fell broodily silent, ran a hand over his hair and adjusted his tie. After a minute he spoke again in a quieter, more subdued tone, words issuing flatly from an almost immobile face, something in him indicating that this was speech tunneling out from a prison yard. "She's intelligent, brilliant. She picks through people's guts and finds the logic in their deaths when no one else can. But there are times when logic only distracts me." He twisted out a small smile. "Literally, this time."

Alex risked, and breathed out a careful, almost inaudible, "How so?"

"She was right there in my fucking ear!" Mulder almost shouted.

Alex's hands jerked slightly on the wheel, swerving them closer to the shoulder of the highway. Mulder didn't appear to notice.

"I had Barry right in my face. I was this close. He was--is, I hope to god--a classic case. There is no doubt in my mind he's an abductee. I. . .I let it get away from me." Switch of gears again. "I was supposed to get those hostages out of there, get him into the firing line. I fucked up. I must have. They're not saying it in so many words but it's got to catch up with me. I can't believe Kazdin didn't rake my balls over the coals. Maybe she'll just call Skinner and pass the honor on to him. . .Barry. . .he was pliable. I had him, could have had him sooner. I was afraid to rush him. I wasn't supposed to rush him. But there's Scully prompting me, pushing me. . ."

"You don't know that he would have conceded anything sooner," Alex stated flatly. "You spent seven fucking hours in there, Mulder, before the good doctor rode in on her white charger. You could have been in there days. Give yourself credit. You brought him right to the edge. You would have brought him over without her help--you were talking him along all the way. You tried to get the hostages out of there fifty times--a hundred. I heard you. We all did. And it's on transcripts. They can't ignore the job you did."

Mulder said nothing, but Alex could peripherally see the tight, attentive set of his head. He was listening, all taut nerves, aching for reassurance. Alex felt a knife of renewed, impersonal dislike for Scully. He doubted that given the chance she would have found the right words to say. Ball-breaking bitch.

"Tossing you to the media," he went on, shaking his head once with absent impatience. "I don't get off on that shit either, but maybe it wasn't a bad idea. Let you collect some laurels for a change."

Mulder grimaced. "They'll wither before I wear them."

"When are you gonna wise up and put your foot on the career ladder out of that basement?"

"I'm not in the basement any more." Mulder leaned his head back on the seat.

"You just keep telling yourself that." Alex caught a glimpse of Mulder's head turning, felt rather than saw the faint easing of expression that fell shy of a smile but held its traces.

"You can buck this harness any time, you know," Mulder said mildly. "Your career is just beginning."

"Yeah. But we're talking about you."

Mulder rolled his head away again on the seat rest and returned to brooding, obviously chewing over recent events with a mind to digest them. "Once I got in there I wished I had the chance to rip that shit-sucking transmitter out of my ear. Did you hear Kazdin--don't identify with him? Don't feed into his psychosis? I wasn't giving him therapy, damn it--I was riding right along with him, bang on cue. Empathy--rapport--trust. So maybe a little more detachment wouldn't have hurt, but. . ." He trailed off, sounding tired, unable to sustain the certainty of himself. A man contemplating dead ends. "I let her spook me," Mulder said, not without a tiny pin-prick of humor.

"Scully?"

"Kazdin. I overcompensated. Boy rebel trying to show he can play nice, not bite the authority figures. . ."

"She had that black woman thing going for her," Alex said matter of factly.

Mulder cleared his throat. "You may be right," he admitted, discomforted. "If Rich had been in charge I don't think I would have taken all that bullshit so, uh, gracefully."

Alex choked on a laugh. "Oh, yeah."

"You know I looked at that damn chalkboard and I wanted to tell her I worked in the BSU with Webster when he was writing that damn four-step protocol, and that it was outdated and did she mind if I used Noesner's instead."

"Oh fuck," Alex said, slewing his gaze over to Mulder, still laughing. "Why didn't you?"

"Oh. . .hell. I don't know. They wanted me to walk through their paces. I was trying to behave."

"I thought you didn't have hostage negotiation training."

"Well, not formally." Mulder smiled.

"Mulder, can I be you when I grow up?"

Mulder laughed, the first real laugh Alex had heard in over twenty-four long hours. (Had it really been no longer than that?)

"I don't know. Do you eat your spinach?"

"You know, I think I'm hungry," Alex said thoughtfully. "Isn't there a Denny's at this turn-off?"

*****

Their detour was brief, and while in the restaurant and again in the car Alex had steered the conversation to talk of Duane Barry and the question of his abduction. He'd heard from Mulder about scoop-mark scars, the perils of federal dentistry, the genre of abductee literature, and several interesting details of past cases. (Some Alex had already gleaned through a covert perusal of files in the abandoned basement office, but Mulder wove them into a more coherent and compelling narrative.) The only thing he did not discuss that Alex wished to hear was his sister's abduction. On that subject he remained evasive; he had a way of quietly erasing expression from his face and watchful eyes whenever Alex circled near the matter.

Alex held a snapshot memory of Mulder sitting in the restaurant booth, greyed by the rainlight from a large plate-glass window. The restaurant lights were so dim they sat in shadows and viewed the pale wash of the earth. His face too seemed rinsed, shell-like. There was a period between orders and coffee when he stared out the window, a clockface that had gone still. Not waiting. The sweep of time suspended, unnoticed. Alex, though, remained established in an observation both temporal and personal, and he had stared, not meaning to commit sight to memory, unable not to. Sex at that moment was beside the point, and Alex felt a desire to carve himself into the other man's existence that had nothing to do with the muted knife of flesh between his legs. Mulder, trance-eyed, watched the rhizomatic descent of rain on the window glass. Alex watched Mulder.

And then time had resumed and Mulder had picked apart his napkin and absently talked about Elvis and Hitler and the madness of crowds, all the while with a marginal, troubled air that had no certain relationship to the things he spoke of. His sister had dematerialized long ago, but she might have been there with them in the booth, with Mulder. She was like a keyhole in the door that led to him, the figure of absence within his closure.

*****

Washington poured with rain, a deluge made to order for capital-city wits and jokes about the cleansing intentions of the man on high; the relentless show of force did have a deliberateness to it, and almost made it seem possible the city could be washed clean.

Alex himself didn't find driving into the metro area a particularly religious experience; more like trying to navigate through a boiler room in which the pipes had burst. He grew increasingly tense as he worked his way slowly through midday traffic; the air conditioner was running full-blast but didn't entirely compensate for the humidity outside. The car was a gastropod: inching along and confining as all hell. Mulder looked relaxed, perfectly happy to be curled up in its clasp, bound in a nutshell as it were, but this was excruciating for Alex. He'd loosened his tie and had a moist sense of himself as something large, ungainly, and beset by the elements. He longed to get free of his suit--or at least of the car. He didn't particularly want to return to the office; the remains of the day stretched ahead of him, a triple-feature matinee that would likely include meetings, bullpen clock-watching, and the spectacle of Mulder and Skinner bumping chests over events in Richmond. Alex had been through one debriefing with Mulder, on the Cole case, and had been grilled thoroughly by Skinner on Cole's shooting. With Mulder's statement as back-up he'd avoided an OPC inquiry, but had there been holes in their report Skinner would unerringly have found them. Alex viewed Skinner warily; the man was one of the few top dogs whose teeth hadn't been pulled yet and he fit a type Alex distrusted on principle. The ones you wanted to watch the most--whose own eagle eye it was best to avoid--were those looking for distractions from their family woes; men without children; without enough hobbies; men pushing the sevens--seven a.m. in, seven p.m. out, seven days a week if they could stand it. He'd drop of a heart attack sooner or later, but until then Alex would tread carefully in his presence, in his lair. Mulder, on the other hand, bothered with few such restraints on his behavior; with Skinner he walked a razor's edge between grudging respect and heckling insubordination that awed Alex--at least when Alex was deeply sunk into his role as bright new agent and skippy sidekick.

Mulder leaned lazily in his seat and divided his time between zoning out into the rain's meditation and watching Alex from the corner of his eye. The younger man was withdrawn in thought and driving, a perfect target for study. Alex's face altered when his attention lapsed--as did nearly everyone's, of course, but Mulder found the contrast in Alex's features more marked than most. On the job Alex's demeanor rarely slipped from the frame of his 'well-scrubbed special-agent mug' (as Mulder thought of it), which might have reflected real anxiety and eagerness to get ahead; he did seem primed for duty. Focused, earnest. Stick him in the midst of a roomful of seasoned agents and he looked like nothing so much as a Mormon tadpole, still wet behind the ears. Such times as now, though, his face was different, like bone from which all soft flesh has dropped. He was at his most serious when he wore nothing on the surface: no feelings, no focus, no social gaze. It was then Mulder felt himself unlocking to the other man, and seeking to unlock him; open doors rarely tempted him; he sought secrets; when looking at something impassable, closed, he was drawn.

At their most private times, relaxed--after sex, for instance--he could look down into Alex's face and see such a well of hunger and humor that he felt he was catching his own reflection in a smoke-dark glass. By chance, a few weekends ago, he'd met Scully for lunch not long after leaving Alex's bed, his body still thrumming and aching with pleasure, and he'd stared across the table and searched her face (she with head tilted down, reading her menu) and tried to imagine seeing her through bedroom eyes: would that opaque, soap-pale face soften and give way? Would they ever be so near in heart that she could smile at him in a way not pitying, resigned, clouded with qualifiers?

Not a chance now, Mulder thought, turning his gaze into the rain. It was hard to keep up a friendship when one partner was off chasing shadows in some distant state, and the other clocked twelve-hour days in the company of corpses.

"I should call in," Mulder said, as they stopped at a light. He watched a conga line of slickered schoolkids parade in front of their bumper. "See if Skinner wants a meeting."

"Surprised he hasn't had his secretary call you."

"She crosses herself every time she sees me, did you know?" Mulder said idly. "Now there's a believer."

"What does she think you are, the antichrist?"

"Probably just a minor demon."

"I'm checking you later for horns."

"Sounds like a plan." Something in the other man's tone made Mulder feel mildly frisky. He smiled, flipped through a mental dayplanner, said, "What are you doing tonight?"

"I've got an appointment," Alex said absently.

Mulder blinked, nodded, and tried to assess this without giving any clues away; the sudden pang of his heart startled and undid him; and then he caught Alex's eye: head turning, lock of dark hair falling, those jades gleaming under his lashes. The smirky cut of his lips was cherubic and wicked. Mulder's own lips parted--just a movement without sound. He couldn't recall the last time he'd had anyone to play with like this. He was becoming more sensitized to the novelty; the sex he could compartmentalize; the flirting made him touchy, shy, awkward, made him feel old, made him want to work out and buff up. Buy new boxers. It was ridiculous, and very distracting, but it made a hell of a change from carnivorous lightning bugs and homicidal girl scouts; there was actually something else to his days now, and nights. It was hard not to fall.

"I should make you pay for the take-out, for stringing me along," Mulder mused.

"No way. I'm jonesing for pasta primavera."

"You wanna go out?" Mulder affected a tough-guy accent. "Like onna date, or somethin'?"

"No, conehead, I'm going to cook for you." Alex grinned.

"Hold on, I think I have a checklist for this stage of the relationship."

"What's it say?"

"Cooking--cooking--" Mulder's tone suggested the consultation of an invisible guidebook. "Mm, I think I get to leave my toothbrush now. And a change of briefs."

"That's a big step."

"I could keep using your toothbrush. Germ sharing: now there's a big step. We didn't even mark the day. Another anniversary down the tube."

Alex shot him a pained wince, then said dryly, "You think you get more germs from toothbrushes than tongue-wrestling?"

"You've got a point." Mulder was casually drumming his palms on his thighs. "I know I'm not doing anything tonight--uh, what is tonight--Thursday?"

"Friday," Alex said, his tone conveying faint irony and then a thready breath of relief: "One weekend, coming up."

"A weekend. I knew those little blank blocks on my calender were for something."

"You wanna watch a movie?" Alex said in a casual plan-making tone, tilting his head Mulder's way before returning his focus to the road; they were pulling into the Hoover building parking garage at last.

"Does it have three X's in the title?"

"Give it a rest. I need to jumpstart my brain."

"Oh, then let's see--over forty years old, black and white, subtitled, preferably with symbolist skeletons boogying across the landscape."

"Asshole. Just because I like foreign films--"

Mulder laughed. "You choose dinner, I get to choose the film."

"Not choose, Mulder. I make dinner," Alex said, feigning pique.

"Potato, potahto."

"You want to call it off?" Alex turned off the car's ignition, and in the resultant silence surprised Mulder by realigning his body in the seat, stretching his arm out along the seatback and enacting a contemplative tete-a-tete.

Mulder glanced through the car windows automatically; the Hoover parking garage, for Christ's sake, Alex. But he didn't say this aloud. He took note, though, of the other man's too-casual tone; it caught him off-guard; his small, stuttering laugh was self-defensive. "What--are you--what's this about?"

"Nothing. I--" Flick of lashes, expressionless eyes. "I just thought I'd give you the out."

"Take advantage of our free one-time offer?"

They held each other's eyes.

"Something like that," Alex said after a minute.

Mulder sensed that the other man wanted him to take the question seriously; it addressed more than just the night ahead; and yet he had no answer, except of course not. All that came to mind were the usual relationshipping two-steps: What do you want, Alex? Do you want out? He loathed entering into such a trite little dialogue, particularly while the bureau loomed over them in all its literalness. It wasn't Alex's usual chat form either. Anything that smacked of faggot made Alex's lip curl; and yet this somewhat ironic response had been muted of late; as if he were, at heart, far less worried about his sexuality than reflex would have it. In faggotry was intimacy, thought Mulder, and that was the real danger, wasn't it.

"I'm not ready to bail just yet," Mulder said.

Alex cut his eyes away, took a deep breath. "Well, okay, then."

*****

They were equally reluctant as they made their way up into the building; they parted ways in the elevator, Alex getting off at the third floor to check in at the bullpen, Mulder gloomily ascending to fourth to dutifully show his face in Skinner's anteroom.

Kim was at her desk and raised her head as he entered. He smiled gamely. Her nostrils flared as if she scented brimstone, and he noted her hand casually dip beneath the edge of her desk where she was no doubt warding off his fiendish presence, practicing her born-again juju. He wasn't sure if she were just operating on some cootie principle or taboo of contamination--purging herself of the unclean spirits whose traces he held and transferred as a spooky intermediary--or if she believed him, Fox Mulder, to be possessed. The woman was strange. You had to respect that.

"Is he in?"

Kim pursed her lips, on pause as if measuring out what could be spared from her hoard of information. "The Assistant Director is out, Agent Mulder. The Attorney General--" (she spoke in caps) "--requested a meeting with him that he expects to take up most of the afternoon. He wanted me to reschedule a preliminary debriefing with you when you checked in. He expected you sooner."

"Sorry--" Mulder made a vague gesture of apology. "I had to pick up some dry-cleaning, return some videos."

She took his remarks with unfortunate seriousness, or the semblance of same. "Personal errands on bureau time waste the taxpayers' money."

"I'll send them a little extra in my return next year." She didn't bend an inch to the influence of his practiced, wonky smile. But this is my most charming smile, Mulder thought, facetiously forlorn. It goes with all my suits.

"The Assistant Director will be available tomorrow at two-thirty," Kim noted, coolly inspecting her schedule book.

"That's Saturday," Mulder pointed out, beginning to feel irked.

Kim actually looked down at her book again with a show of punctiliousness, as if this required verification. "Yes."

"I have a doctor's appointment," Mulder said solemnly.

She raised her brown eyes to him with the placid, seething antagonism of a goaded farm animal. Mulder shifted his feet, cleared his throat. "Uh, I can cancel."

"I'll pencil you in."

 


 

Alex's gaze dipped and assessed him. "No scorch marks. Coals not hot enough?"

"He's out." Mulder ran a hand through his hair and looked around the white-shirt-and-gun bullpen with an expression of distaste and ennui under his heavy eyelids. Alex was leaning back in a chair at the desk he'd staked claim on; jacket off; hands clasped loosely behind his head. Mulder looked down at him. "You up for hooky?" he murmured.

"Thought you'd never ask." Alex stood, grabbed his jacket, darted a glance around, not so much worried as cautious. "You think they'll notice?" he murmured.

"Three-forty-five on a Friday. Agent Fiore is on the phone with her daughter's nanny; Blankenship is running an illegal background check on his weekend date; Mauritz is emailing his wife at her office; and Dirks is way too interested in his state-of-the-art monitor to be doing anything except a public service investigation of internet obscenity content."

"You don't know any of that for sure though," Alex said, hiding a sneaky Watson-to-Holmes admiration within a skeptical tone.

Mulder smiled. "Oh, no. Me, I'm just a cynic."

Alex's answering smile was as wicked and smooth as brandy. "Let's go do some sinning then."

*****

An Alexandria apartment. Friday late-summer evening. Flamenco music: low, passionate, but uninvolved. A guitarist accustomed to mourning, fingers stylized on the chords. Outside the open windows of the kitchen the usual public blue sky had been replaced by another more alien one--pink, red, orange, yellow--that seemed to have been painted by their private music.

"Do you want some help?" Mulder asked, resting his chin on the windowsill and staring out with no inclination to get up from his chair and follow through if his offer was accepted. The breeze felt good on his face and arms; cooling him; he'd picked up jeans at home, wore them now with nothing else but an ancient navy tee-shirt whose holes Alex had given a derisive eye.

"Too many cooks."

Mulder contemplated the wisdom of this. "Did your mother cross-stitch, Alex, or do you have a little pocket maximizer for all occasions?"

"I knew there had to be a reason why people don't invite you over for dinner."

It was hard to decide whether to feel hurt. No, Mulder decided lazily. "I say what I think." The mildest of protests.

"No kidding, friend."

"You think I should observe more of the niceties?"

Alex looked over at him, stirring something in a pot. "Nah. Then you'd lose that elusive Mulder charm."

"Yeah, that's what I thought." Mulder's eyes dropped another notch. He watched a grey cat, its back a stripe of fire, walk along the fence bordering this unit of condos from the next. The sunset was clinging to all things. Landscape. Strange how the shape of one place was so often like another; the boxes and angles of different states comprised by a country that was written the same across its length. "You know, I. . ." He stopped speech almost as it started, for he'd been thinking of a time so long ago that it dried and disappeared even as he brought it to his tongue. Alex didn't inquire; didn't press; was silent, stirring.

Too many things overlaid each other in his mind; too many places and persons. Missing persons; places left. Why was he thinking of abductions now, god damn the word, it tasted like medicine in his mouth, something cherried and unwelcome. Restless with spirits of violence, he stood up from the chair, walked around the kitchen, Alex's eyes following him. Refrigerator, beer. He took a bottle just for something to do, because it was there; when it was open he held it, nothing more, transferring it around, hand to hand, hand to counter, tipping it and studying it, forgetting it. Life props. Without these, what order did a life have. Boredom, rage, grief. Where would he be without his cellular, his VCR, his credit card. Pencils. Paper clips. This file, that case. This life.

He flipped the bottlecap on the counter, several times, with intense and brooding concentration, until Alex took it away and flung it casually off to one side with the air of a man absolutely uncaring where it landed.

Their glances edged into mutual territory but didn't quite meet; Alex working his pots and pans; Mulder raising his beer to his lips then letting it lower again, untasted. He leaned over the counter on his elbows, watched the steam rising from the stove top.

"I get these--these intense flashbacks sometimes. In the kitchen. Memories and kitchens." Mulder paused. "Research suggests that a person's primary olfactory memory is set in the first ten minutes of life. I think they were making chimichangas at the next birthing table when I slid out."

Alex gave him a frank look as his lips rewrote themselves in cursive. "You know, Mulder--someday your brilliant brain is going to finish processing that university library you've got stored up there and instead of your freaky factoids something profound is actually going to pop out of your mouth. Call me if you feel it coming, promise?"

"You're such a bitch," Mulder said warmly. He tipped his beer bottle into Alex's sauce.

"Hey!"

"Flavor."

"I could really get off keeping you tied to a chair while I cook your dinner."

"Only for a three-minute egg." Mulder, still bent to counter level, rocked up and down on the balls of his feet, back and forth, flexing idly: the signs of something building inside, betrayed by his body's edgy kinetics. Trust, talk, trust, talk, his mind jeered and whispered. What else were relationships for. God, the R word. He listened to the shouts of children outside the open window, a dog barking, the indolent inflections of Billie Holiday, starting to drift in from the living room, segueing from the finalities of Spanish guitar.

"My mother didn't like to cook," Alex said. He made this remark seem almost normal; though it was--surely was--the first time he'd mentioned family except in the most fleeting, abstract terms.

Mulder said nothing, pressed his lips to the mouth of his beer, blew there absently, a background musician attentive only to his piece.

"She didn't like to be in the kitchen. They make me think of morgues. Kitchens."

Jesus, thought Mulder, wondering where that had come from. Even I'm not that morbid. "That's an association of memories a psychologist would do a lot with," he said conversationally. "Lucky for you I traded the couch for a badge."

"Lucky for me," Alex said, almost coldly.

Mulder straightened up and wished briefly he could juggle, wished that he had a report to write in the next three hours, obligation, distraction. Wondered if married people felt like this; at odds with domestic occasions; and then flashed on a scrap of flickering home movie in which his father mowed the lawn, his mother fixed dinner, he and Samantha rode their bikes down the street--life or fiction?

"We all have our pasts, Alex."

"Go on, Mulder, bare your soul." Alex's eyes enforced the words with a hard, green challenge.

They viewed one another from an inherent distance that had nothing to do with space. Two bodies, two minds, two thorns of irritability within their separately hung suits of flesh.

"I don't think you can double-dare someone into intimacy." A map of tension in Mulder's face eased slightly, amusement fanning his eyes.

"Why not."

Why not? Mulder blinked, fidgeted.

Alex, letting this sit between them, continued gathering and adding his ingredients. He pulled a box of frozen peas from the freezer and whacked it onto the countertop; chopped carrots rather grimly; dumped a handful of cashews on the cutting board, then menaced Mulder's wandering fingers with his knife.

"You don't need all those nuts," Mulder said cheekily.

"You don't need all those fingers," Alex said softly and dangerously.

Mulder waited until his back was turned again before depleting his cashew resources. The other man ignored this theft, though his sharp dark eyes missed nothing. Something in the way his gaze flicked itself across the nuts suggested he'd had an exact count and had toted up Mulder's depredations as debts to be settled in one form or another--perhaps he would take it out in trade.

Trading my ass for peanuts, Mulder thought breezily. And loving it.

*****

They'd eaten and Mulder's mood had improved in direct ratio to every forkful. Though a man who avoided drinking alone, he'd finished two beers by the time dinner wound up--if it could be said to, given that they'd carried their meal into the living room and were still picking peas and nuts from their plates well over an hour later. (Alex, in retaliation for minor nut larceny, had dumped in the entire can.)

The television implored, growled, cried, while they sat silently chewing and viewing; their earlier trip to the video store had brought them to this static tableau: lounging together in front of Casablanca with true, datelike indifference. (Alex: I'm picking the films. Mulder: Fine, I'm just appealing to your patriotism--rent American. Alex: Thumb vote--Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago? Mulder: If I kill you now will they let me use your rental card? Alex: Humphrey Bogart it is.) Alex gave the appearance of being intensely fixated on the screen's thin drama but Mulder refused to believe his absorption was real; meanwhile Mulder himself scrutinized the effect of light and shadow on Ingrid's pale skin and stored up a cache of Bogart's lines just in case he ever needed some conversational filler.

"I've seen this part," Mulder observed, squinting at the screen as Rick demanded the song again from Sam.

Alex grunted.

The movie ended; another was begun. Mulder tried, for a while, to enter the boxcar succession of scenes--a city dump, a crowded ballroom, a socialite's boudoir, a parlor--but they blinked by, a removed and blurry world that had been reduced to script--or built up from nothing but. The rich shades of grey were mesmerizing, though. About forty-five minutes into the film he turned to Alex and said, "Is this a comedy?"

Alex turned his head and gave him a lips-parted masque of incredulity that didn't ebb when he realized Mulder was serious. "Jesus, Mulder. Were you raised by wolves?"

Mulder stared back, hurt, and then spoofing the hurt with increasingly deeper and more doleful eyes, until suddenly they were both laughing madly and Alex had wrestled him into a lap blanket. He lay sprawled across the length of the couch, feet hooked across the far arm, head pillowed in Alex's lap, where he rolled and nudged its weight across the bolsters of Alex's thighs and into the gift of his hands.

So good would have been the words he gave his wordless pleasure.

Alex carded and played with his hair, stroked his neck, went back to watching the movie with split attention. Mulder dozed without entirely losing consciousness; not wanting to miss the rare feel of his cheek folded into the heated cup of a man's jeans; the sense of placing his neck on a chopping block of trust; the mundane bliss of touch. The most unhurried of fires was licking itself up under his skin, focused in his face and neck but gathering up heat from far shores of himself, dragging it along his flesh, pulling and threading his pieces together, all so languidly it might be eons before the arrival of the blaze forced him to move.

"Don't get up," Alex said, dropping something hard and cool against his ear.

"Wha--" Mulder started to lift a hand, but found it caught in Alex's intercepting fingers. Sleepy-eyed, amused of mouth, he shifted his head and spoke into the curved press of the phone.

"Mulder. . .hello--?"

"Mulder. It's me."

"Of course. . .what time is it?" He fumbled, swatted away Alex's crablike, deliberately impeding hands, managed to get a lock on his cellular. He looked up along the cliff of Alex's chest where a buttoned seam of shirt invited cleavage. He began working the buttons loose with his free hand, uncovering bare chest. There, that's better. . . .

"Eight fifteen."

"Oh--I thought it was later." Mulder's fingers found a round nub and tweaked it stiff. Immediately, a hand not his own began rubbing the cottoned contours of his right nipple, a miming touch. His mouth went dry. Something passed rapidly through his ear uncaptured; he floundered to recollect it. "What--" The word wanted to become a husky groan. He bit his lip; normalized his voice. "What did you say?"

"I wanted to see how you were doing," Scully said.

Her cool voice. How incredibly cool in his burning ear. He muffled a raw cry as his nipple was twisted violently, tried not to notice how hard his cock suddenly was, straining at the tight crotch of his jeans.

"I'm doing pretty good," he said, dazed. "Where are you?" He tried to focus.

There was a pause from the phone. "I'm at home, Mulder." Her voice, reduced by weak transmission, still pressed itself emphatically into his own ear; a slow convolution. A snail shell of a voice. Little and unheated, coiling back on itself. Scully always had a center. "Where are you?"

"Oh--" Mulder gazed up at the underside of Alex's chin; the other man was watching the television again, eyes front and center, leveled to a higher horizon than Mulder inhabited. "I'm at Alex's." He heard her silence more clearly now, an attenuated thing. "Hangin' out, watchin' the tube." Pause. "Doin' a little coke, some ludes, a little grass--got some hookers, some snake handlers, some circus midgets. You wanna come over?"

The eloquent silence said: Very funny. Scully said: "No thanks. That sounds like a crowd." All flat couth, her voice.

Mulder began to ride the rhythmic sensation produced by Alex's unceasing fingers, his own teasing touches abandoned; there were only so many distractions he could handle at once. "I uh--" What was I going to say? "--can hardly hear you over the belly dancers, Scully. All their little bells are jingling." Had he been less distracted it was unlikely he'd have been so dopey, so carelessly blase. He hardly knew what he was saying; his pleasures tangled and it seemed, at this moment, an incredibly right satisfaction to have Scully's alpine tones blowing into his ear while his heated body strove against Alex's hand. That hand had moved itself now between his legs to rest its barely moving palm like a signifying benediction, counterpoint to something--the phone call, Scully--oh fuck yes. He pushed dreamily into the touch, eyes glazing, lips parting even as his eyelids drooped. His voice found itself again--its pause unnoticeable. "I could introduce you to one of the midgets. I hear women find short men a real turn on--you could do a research project, Scully--testosterone levels in the, uh, vertically challenged--"

"Mulder, are you drunk?"

"No. . .no. . ." His face was a stalled rapture of hilarity, ecstasy, his voice rather thick, to be sure, but-- "Drunk?" He began to laugh, then heard a faint sound and an empty hiss in his ear that went on inhumanly long. "Scully?" He slowly lowered the phone. "She hung up on me."

"Maybe you shouldn't have offered her the midget."

"You think she took it personally?" Mulder struggled up and out of Alex's grasp to sit on the far end of the couch. "Shit." Freed from the more ticklish of his erotic distractions he glowered at the phone with frowning embarrassment, reverting to common sense and common courtesy, discomforted as he reviewed the last few minutes and realized he had no clue how he'd sounded--whether he'd revealed himself a depraved skunk or come off merely as a garden-variety male jerk. He hit the call code for Scully's apartment. She picked up almost immediately, said Hello?

"Hey, it's me." He swiped a hand over his face sheepishly. "I'm sorry. . .I wasn't entirely awake." Oops--hell. "I drifted off during the movie. Long day. . .you there?"

"I'm here, Mulder. And I think it would be better if I didn't speak to you right now."

"Scully--wait, don't hang up." With a quick glance at Alex, he got up from the couch, went into the bedroom and sat on the bed. "I'm alone, Scully." Silence. "Are you mad at me?" He tried on his steadiest voice, ready to please, negotiate, offer himself up with humility; unselfconscious of the boyishly anxious plaint he fell into.

"Am I mad at you? No, I'm not mad at you, Mulder. I wanted to see how you were. Now I have."

"You don't sound too pleased."

"On the contrary. I'm happy to note that you've come out of recent events completely untraumatized, and that you're already back to your old self."

"My old self." Mulder's voice caught on a hard edge, jarring oddly against the smooth plank of her words. "I think I'll pass on that one."

"Fine. You do that."

Mulder's jaw tightened; he defied his own tendency to anger. "I sense that I'm in the wrong here." Silence. "Is admitting that you're angry so hard for you?"

"Not at all."

"Then why don't you stop being such a polite, frigid bitch, Scully, and ream me out the way you're itching too?"

There was a soft sound of breath being taken, but no storm came; it was always a presentiment of elements, never arrival. Seemingly unwinded by feeling, Scully could muster an endless front of air no more extreme than frost. "If you want to be reamed out, Mulder, I think you'd better look elsewhere." It could have been medical advice, the words were that impersonal, and yet somewhere, surely, lurked venom?

Christ. Mulder sucked in air, let it out again carefully. "What--"

"I have to go."

And she hung up again. Mulder turned off the phone, stared at it, then threw it with damaging violence against the wall. As if directly summoned, Alex appeared in the doorway. He didn't bother to examine the wall or the phone, just stood leaning against the frame with one arm up, his unbuttoned shirt lifting with the pose. Approximately dissolute, or halfway. He looked a halfling, jeans below, white bureau shirt above; he had a pixie's face and slim body; one of the wickeder pixies, full of mischief even when most calm.

He came to Mulder on the bed, stood in front of him where he'd folded himself over to press head into hands. He kicked Mulder with his knee, knocking at the half-open door of his thighs. When ignored he dived and surfaced from below like a porpoise, shoving Mulder back flat along the bed with the force of his push.

"Damn it--" Mulder began, but within seconds his body shuddered its need and stole his words. He clung greedily to the length of Alex, letting their legs tangle, his breath coming in ragged spikes. The grounding application of weight was exactly what he'd craved; literal security--the other man's body was a deadbolt sliding home. Their mouths were equal in hunger, demanding; their tongues made speechless speech; wet, rough, and then frantic. Alex began to work his hips across Mulder's.

"Need a jump-start?" he breathed between kisses. In his low voice laughter always seemed possible, if not present.

"Don't stop. . " Mulder arched, ground himself upward, begging, primed to implode into the cruel trap of his jeans. He heard himself whispering, Oh god Alex, oh god, with pitiful anguish, and as Alex reached between their legs and wrenched open Mulder's zipper, offering simultaneous pressure and release, Mulder came.

Alex kissed his nose and lips, bit his neck, and descended to lick him clean; such a very polite lover, when it came to essentials. His tongue glided over the blazing cap of Mulder's glans and raised a whimper of relief in Mulder's throat; he felt he'd been waiting for this to complete his pleasure. He could feel himself being licked up, swallowed, nibbled.

"Sorry. . .so fast," he muttered, cheeks flushed.

"I've been waiting for four fucking hours," Alex said in a scorched voice that made Mulder's toes curl.

"Four fuckless hours." A laugh escaped him, and then another as Alex darted up to bite the moving knob of his adam's apple.

Alex stretched against him and did a number of undulant, undemanding things to Mulder's body that rocked him into a sea of lazy feeling, until they were lying equally naked across the rough wool blanket, overheated and disinclined to do more than nuzzle. Alex, still erect, seemed to consider Mulder a perfect fuck toy in his current state, and rubbed against him from various angles while Mulder lay passively sprawled, even going so far as to pick up Mulder's limp-fingered hand and draw it between his legs. Mulder gave his cock a desultory squeeze but could tell Alex was getting off just fine by jerking across the calm cup of his palm. Exalted over him was the other man's visage: locked in by dark messy hair, cheeks caustic, lips hanging open heavy with breath. Jaguar eyes. A panting cat.

"Have your way with me," he murmured to Alex, rolling over into his body and twining there.

"Oh, I am," Alex said with sly amiability.

Their bodies kindled together, chests and legs rubbing and shifting, light fur catching. Animal, animal. All the rest of the room, peripheral to bed and vision, seemed a geometry of doors, windows, dressers, lampshades. Rectangles and triangles that gathered shadow in the twilight; and within them their bed was a boat, adrift. On the bed they made softer math, algebra and fire.

Mulder resisted inclinations, he wanted to stay flat on the bed, in a heap without a spine. He pushed Alex lightly onto his back and settled upon him, a long damp weld. Alex's expression was self-involved; his tongue flicked against his own teeth with snakelike vigor, as if he were licking to trace any last jism. Mulder avoided his mouth and reconnoitered some other areas. Thoughts curled and drifted in his skull, scraps of detail he wanted to articulate to Alex and pull across him like a crazy-quilt, and yet already around the other man he'd grown more shy. The careless flirts and frivols he'd tossed out during their first, new weeks together now were undone to uncertainty. It felt somehow necessary to balance carefully with Alex--and so now he decided half-consciously against relating the impertinent details of Osirian revival spells and Shinto harvest rituals and Eleusinian mysteries, and a hundred other things that flew into his open mind as he nuzzled his lover's flesh.

But he was thinking about the machinery of the masculine body. Alex. The lightly roped insides of his arms; collarbone like an embedded wingnut, to which his spine would be a long corded bolt; copper nipples. Navel like a wounding; legs. . . .

Positioned between the clamp of Alex's knees, Mulder pushed up onto his hands and stared gravely down at Alex's legs. "How many cases have you worked, Alex?"

"Ohh. . .shit. . .six or seven. . ."

"You worked long enough in New York, though, to see some serious craziness."

"Yeah," Alex said vaguely, torquing his head a notch to look down at him.

"You ever just look at someone and picture them chopped up?"

"Before now?" His smirk was bone-dry, casual. "Nah."

"When I was profiling they used to keep me boxed up in a cubicle going through file after file of VICAP reports and crime-scene photos. We used to joke we could make a fortune compiling them and selling torso porno to our death row pals. Playperp Magazine we were going to call it."

"That's sick," Alex said, calling up shades of skippy indignation, though the effect was considerably filtered through the jaded shadows of his eyes.

"Yeah," Mulder said simply. He touched Alex's thigh, rubbed a kneecap.

"Should I wonder what you're thinking about when you look at my dick?"

"You don't need to wonder." Mulder slid back down atop him, thrust his hips for emphasis.

"Mmm. God knows what's got your mercury rising, buey."

"What'd you call me?" Mulder said faux roughly, biting his chin, tasting sandpaper and salt. Alex, like a drifting opium eater, didn't bother to answer.

"Getting castration anxiety?" Mulder jibed, twisting down to inspect Alex's semi-erect lift of flesh.

"Maybe you're just not doing anything interesting enough."

"So what do you want me to do?" Mulder breathed gently into his ear.

*****

His mouth felt stretched, used. The pressure forced its way across his tongue, to the back of his throat. His jaw ached; he was completely silent except for the harsh chuffing of breath in his nose, the wet punctuation of his mouth. His lips had been pushed beyond natural fullness to a fragility like pomegranate seeds. He sucked the pulsing flesh into his cheek, heard Alex gasp, laugh at some private joke. He had put on Sade and Mulder didn't know if that was the joke, didn't care. The music was a tropical susurrus almost too cool for their pleasure; the bedroom had filled up now, a full pool of shadows, and the word paradise vibrated through him and the singer's voice was a silk scarf pulled through his ears. Leaves stirred outside the window; blow you right through my door. A striped drag of car light across the wall, rising toward the ceiling--he felt Alex lift off the chair, cry out gaspily, drag his jaw further, plunging into him--thrusting--and Mulder was sure the other man was sliding over the edge, but Alex sustained himself, tense on the chair's edge, riding his mouth. Naked, fine, lean. The ripened head of his cock skittered inside its hollowing, gathered force, thrust. Mulder did not move when he felt his own eyes give up sight and he lost his inviolate self, cocksucker, and surrendered to Alex, just as from the edges the detached voice of woman unspooled the long ribbon of the word paradise--an apple to be pared clean of emotion.

A thumb dug into Mulder's cheek and forced him wider, then slid down between his lips, stroking alongside the moving bow of cock. His own neglected dick smoked, ached. He moaned, tried to move his hands to touch himself, heard a whispery laugh from Alex even as his wrists rediscovered the braceleted infinity of his handcuffs. Cool metal; breeze from the window; what a life. The flesh in his mouth drew back, thrust, he was spiraling up into ecstasy like a feather in a spark-filled draft. His thighs strained, his hips pushed forward into nothingness, his cock into thin air. He was a spill of flame trying to escape itself. He began an incessant but near silent moaning, striving to find a pressure that would lick his swollen skin--longed to have Alex's hard foot settle against him, imagined his own upthrust organ pumping into the smooth given curvature of heat--ball of foot, arch, heel--he would slam into it--but it would move with him so that he was barely rubbing, a smothering, elusive pressure.

The sound he made nearly choked him. Hard hands grabbed his face to hold and steady it. Nothing but air, and yet it would be all he needed. Enough, they moved closer. Shadows. A low car horn. A faint social shriek from the street that made their own silence seem huge as the song finished itself, replaced by nothing but their working, ragged breaths. Things still gathered, lifting. Upward, a spring uncoiled, giving itself out--he gasped into his mouthful of cock and sucked desperately--blunt head nudging inside, a snake coaxed into a pocket, wet, a pull of shaft that drew out his lips, rolled them back in, and he could feel its thrumming weight on his tongue, its blood-thick readiness to shoot. His own dick embedded a heat that pushed up its clenched length, a cascade that would not be stopped. They came together--so in synch that Mulder felt in prayer to the bone, and yet he didn't bite, he was an animal disciplined to its trick even in extremity, an open mouth around the trainer's hand, a jaw that gentled its prey.

*****

The world outside was easing into a quieter tide. The room was a box of faintly moving shadows.

Mulder woke in a smooth twist of sheets, found the clock face and focused. Its plain red strokes read not long after two a.m. Down in the street someone was talking in audible tones, some collegiate parting taking place in the aftermath of the bars' closing.

It felt early, and he felt rested, fucked to a relaxation he'd nearly begun taking for granted. What would it be like to return to solitude, Chinese cartons and silence, the indefinably different and familiar smells of his apartment, the noxious blue-grey flicker of the television greeting him as he woke--like now--from sleep. Uneasy sleep, at home on his couch; easier sleep, here.

He propped himself up, rubbed grit from his eyes and blinked a number of times, turning his head as he did so to study Alex, whose profile made a raked hieroglyph of shadow on the pillow. The room was darkish, but ribbons of subdued light lay across the surface of the bed. Mulder, who had never stayed over a full night, thought about going home.

Why.

Instead he pushed himself up into the crook of Alex's arm, lay his head there and absently hoped the other man wouldn't waken and make too much of this gesture. Not that he'd say anything. A quiet man, Alex Krycek, about the important things.

But weren't they both.

*****

Mulder's cellular woke them at an indecently worm-getting hour with a feeble tweetling noise that was first mistaken for a wounded bird.

Alex rolled over on his back, accidentally flinging his arm across Mulder's throat. Mulder shoved it off and burrowed into his side.

"I think--" Alex cleared his throat; his voice low and rusty. "Think there's a bird in here," he muttered with sleepy uninterest.

"Mmm."

"Flew in," Alex said huskily without opening his eyes.

The phone stopped ringing, then began again. Mulder tumbled from the bed, determined to find the bird but finding instead his abandoned phone on the floor by the doorway, a curl of plastic pathetically croaking for attention. "Hello?" he muttered warily, very much hoping this was not Scully.

"Agent Mulder. This is Lucy Kazdin."

Mulder scrubbed a hand over his bedstruck hair, vigorously trying to scratch up some consciousness. "Yeah--yes. Agent Kazdin." He looked at his watch except that he wasn't wearing one, but he knew it was damn early. "What can I do for you?"

"I was wondering if I could speak to you. I'm still down here in Richmond, wrapping up some details of the case." Her voice was level and cool, almost familiar; but unlike Scully's cool, which often seemed reactive and enforced with pure will, Kazdin's had a quality that suggested a composure of much lengthier vintage. "I'd appreciate having a chance to say a few things to you. Can you drive down?"

Just that simple a question, with no careful maneuvering around issues of schedule, weekend, convenience--it was one of the bureau attitudes toward work Mulder best identified with, and even if she was setting him up just to dress him down, he appreciated her straightforwardness. He almost asked if she wanted him to bring a silver platter for his head. But what the hell; whatever she wanted, he still had unfinished business in Richmond, and it looked to be a good day for driving.

"I'll come down. Where do you want to meet?"

"Jefferson Memorial Hospital. Is there a good time?"

"Um. . ." Mulder calculated the trip down and back, recalled his afternoon meeting with Skinner. "Just what time is it anyway?"

Kazdin's voice was dry, precise, "Six twenty."

"I'll need to be back on the road no later than eleven-thirty. . .say, ten?"

"Fine."

They rung off and Mulder rapidly showered and dressed, moving between bath and bedroom, his gaze now and then resting on Alex's lazing form beneath the sheets. He was blinking himself more awake by the time Mulder dropped onto the bed to lace up his sneakers.

"Where you off to?"

"Richmond, by way of my apartment. Meeting with Kazdin." He blinked at the other man, gears in his mind meshing belatedly. "You want to come?"

"Did she ask for me?" Alex said, with a smoothness that said he already knew the answer.

"I think she probably just wants me in striking range."

"Not likely to call you all the way down there just to dance with you."

"Yeah." Mulder hitched a bit further onto the bed, slid a ruffling hand through Alex's hair. "Stop wearing gel," he said casually.

"Gives me that sleek, top-weasel-on-the-heap look I'm aiming for."

"I have that meeting with Skinner, which you definitely do want to miss, but I'm sure he'll be pushing to wind that up. I should be out by four, at the latest. . .I can take my bag with me. . ."

They exchanged the mutually measuring looks of new lovers edging into contractual issues. Something troubled lurked under the surface of Alex's face, but he said, "Leave it. If I'm not here. . ." He paused. "I'll leave the door unlocked."

"You're too trusting, Mr FBI Agent."

"Yeah, well. I've got connections." Alex's smile was small, ironic. "Who's going to steal my stuff, when I've the strong arm of the law on my side?" He made a point of stroking Mulder's bare arm as he spoke, raking up the gilt hairs with gentle fingernails.

Mulder smiled down, unaware of the faint surprise that had surfaced in his face: not specific surprise, just the general wonderment--still wary, tentative, but strengthening--at what he'd long ago given up as a lost cause. More than just a place to put his dick, or the relief of someone who understood keeping a gun under the bed's edge. The possibility of something good, for a change.

*****

Alex stretched back in his chair, surveyed the cafe, caught a glimpse of himself in one of the vintage wall mirrors, looking almost like a Seattle transplant in the plaid husk of his shirt, grungy grey tee, and faded jeans. His hiking boots, unworn for months, felt tight and heavy on his feet, and Mulder would have appreciated the loose leaves of his hair had he been there to see its damp ungelled state. It was in no way a disguise, of course, just a slight style adjustment for Bill Mulder's sake. The man was spooked by suits these days--Alex had noticed this at their first meeting, when he'd twitched at every passing businessman on the green. Let him look at Alex Krycek and see a man not wholly subsumed by silk and conspiracy, a man younger than his real age, with trivial outside interests in garage band metal, beer drinking, and. . . .

And what, Alex wondered, glancing around the cafe, trying to figure out--once again--what involved the members of a generation so near to his own and yet so removed from his experience. He'd studied them before, the species of youth, and liked a certain type of ripe male, puppyish and dumb, that belonged to the group. But their unfocused softness increduled him; other than the MBA's and pre-law proto-yuppies, the young seemed to him a discrete and endangered subdivision of the human flock, passive, easygoing, spiked only by the whims of a hormonal brew whose recipe was essentially common. They were easily preyed on, and Alex could not entirely free himself of a Darwinian persuasion toward seeing this as fit and useful.

Despite this, he was less an elitist than a survivalist, and was apt to see gold where others saw dross. The cyber geeks, the rural deerhunters, the street punks--these were soldiers in the cradle, advanced beyond their middle-class coevals in sense if not in years. Alex liked to fuck the preppies, the kind whose fathers were key to advancement in the world, but he wouldn't want to put guns in their clumsy hands.

Look what happened when you did.

By the time he'd returned to the counter for another coffee and then back to his table, Bill Mulder had arrived. They saw each other; the elder Mulder in the doorway, Alex standing at his table in the act of removing his plaid shirt and tying it around his waist. Alex's eyes immediately traveled beyond the other man, panning across the glass front of the store. If they were there, he might see them, he might not, but looking for them was an instinct you didn't want to lose.

He sat and sipped coffee while watching Mulder--funny, that--make a show of purchasing something at the counter. Bill, he thought to himself. Call him Bill; he'll understand. Maybe he'll slip a bit on the familiarity.

The other's back showed the length of a tall slim man and in build he resembled his offspring, but it was hard to find much other likeness to the son's lanky, cervine grace. Bill Mulder's hunched shoulders and tense, torticollar neck fixed him as a man who'd retreated into himself as if shunning the press of the human race. Tired and grim-lipped, he wore the air of one who is put upon and has resigned himself to take it--who is put upon because he takes it. Perhaps from this knowledge had developed the spiteful, childish cast to his face. Some old anger, though justifiable, had festered until it softened and weakened his entire person; chronic pain, rather than tempering him, had made him selfish, short-sighted, cruel.

Alex folded down a bit into his chair, and settled himself to motionless patience as Bill Mulder came over. His steps were deliberate and he carried a coffee cup like one who is unused to china, whose hand wants a tumbler. He sat down across from Alex, back to the door, but his eyes bounced around a few times within their orbits, tracking movement off the cafe mirrors.

Good. He wasn't a complete write-off.

"Did you take precautions against being followed?" Alex asked, keeping his tones casual and curious, as if recalling the cloak-and-dagger necessities with faint irony. In truth, he held a keen interest in the answer. He let his lashes lower, afraid the other man would see the dark sharp glitter of his eyes.

"Of course I did," Bill said, twisting out the words with harsh disgust. "I'm twice your age, and I've been in the game far longer than you have, Alex." He said Alex's name with a cold emphasis in which mockery lurked, as if not really crediting its veracity.

Alex, feeling the other man's bristling suspicions, slipped into full gear, into a persona designed to allay fears and nerves. Let the eyes be guileless. Let him tuck a strand of hair behind his ear, clear his throat, and smile--smile with quick, small grace as if embarrassed for a faux pas in front of a man deserving the full amenities of respect. The gestures would be unconscious and constant--how he held his head, how he sipped his coffee, how he hooked left ankle over right knee and fiddled his fingers with gentle restlessness there. A young man, he must seem younger; a keen man, he needed to be indefinably keener, open to Bill Mulder's suborning influence as if it were the single lure for his loyalty, as if he only needed things explained to him in order to act precisely as required, to protect the Fox from the hunters. Let him appear tinged with grey but not so tainted yet that he was beyond such a call to loyalty. He must embody several contradictions at once, this Alex Krycek, this rising agent in a field of ambiguity; he must simultaneously appear to take Bill Mulder very seriously and not quite seriously enough; must show respect but also the faintest goad of contempt; must seem sharp--double-edged, of course--but not lethal. At the heart of it he must be impure but not corrupt and he must appear to be the perfect tool for the job, the means suited to Bill Mulder's ends.

What matter that he could not help the man in the least, nor his son.

"Sorry," Alex said, ducking his head slightly, rotating his espresso cup on its saucer. "I'm just nervous." Frank tone, frank eyes, frank face.

"You should be nervous."

You should be more nervous, thought Alex. He couldn't ask careless Bill for too many details without giving himself away, so he crossed fingers and hoped that the older man's counter-surveillance skills had held true. Nonetheless, he was going to need a multi-layered story ready for Morley for why he'd met with Mulder's father and why he hadn't reported it. Stories were the basic currency of life.

"I came because you asked me to," Bill said churlishly. Almost immediately he appeared to regret his words, evincing a dactylic nervousness around the edges of his coffee cup. His thin lips twitched to one side, a small tic, as if he were belatedly tugging a zipper. "You said he was all right. The other night--"

"He's fine. But that's what I want to talk to you about. Barry."

"Barry," the older man said brusquely. His eyelids drooped and he meditated as if turning over a question.

"You said he was one of the subjects." Alex had hunched forward over the table so that his crow-dark hair slid forward on his head: an oblique invitation to confidences, a pose that invited its likeness. "He thought he was abducted by aliens."

"Yes." Bill's eyes assessed him shiftily. "Of course he would." A note of something ineluctable slithered in his voice--his very tongue moved as if tasting old secrets.

"Of course there are no such things as aliens," Alex said, speaking to the hint with edged, subtle mockery. He wore his challenge in the amusement of his parted lips.

Bill Mulder straightened and then sat back in his chair, putting distance between them in order to study Alex. "You sound like my son when you say that," he said blandly. "Don't tell me he's making you a believer."

"Funny, you know--" Alex tossed off a faint laugh. "How Fox Mulder's beliefs are so much easier to believe, if you know the right people."

Bill frowned, realigning his gaze down from Alex's and toying with his spoon. His voice was both bored and frosty. "The disinformation surrounding experimental aircraft is one of the oldest traditions in military force."

"Yeah--you say that so convincingly, and you should know, shouldn't you. Funny then, that your own son thinks otherwise."

"He's--" Bill took a deep breath. "He's an imaginative man."

"Is that what you tell people?" Alex asked, allowing a touch of irked contempt to show in his schooled facade. "Is that what you told them when he was growing up and pinning UFO posters to his walls--talking about the theoretical dietary requirements of Reticulans?" Alex almost snorted.

Bill Mulder's hand sketched a tiny wave across the surface of the table. "It wasn't like that," he said, impatient but abstracted to memory. "He didn't--" A pause.

"He didn't know," Alex finished quietly. "Not then." His eyes gleamed.

"You'd be mad to think any of this is true," Bill said dryly--or perhaps, thought Alex, slyly.

"Why are they watching him? Why am I? If he's crazy--my god, do you know how easy it would be to discredit him?"

"Of course."

"He's right, isn't he?"

There was a silence. Bill Mulder took a sip of coffee as if to drag the time out, to render silence all the more meaningful. Around them in the cafe were strangers that neither of them would ever meet, blithe civilians in a war they knew nothing about, inhabiting a world where security and intelligence were just dramatic fantasies given fictional medium in the novels they read, the movies they watched. Though Alex had never been in this particular cafe before, he had a sense of deja vu that came of frequenting similar places: in the artificially cooled air blended the scent of freshly ground coffee beans, thumping jazz, the hoarse wheeze of the espresso machine, and the careless babble of people who do not need to watch their words.

"Jesus." Alex sat back in his chair with a bump, allowing his face to radiate an uneasy disbelief that contrarily would indicate his very credulity. Within the core of himself he didn't believe yet; he didn't disbelieve; he played the line.

But Bill smiled at him, almost kindly for the first time. "You don't believe," he said. "You can't. Nobody can believe until they see with their own eyes."

Alex swallowed down his first half dozen impulses to reply, felt around for the right words but found nothing that suited him. And then Bill began to talk. Alex, listening, barely breathed he was so fearful--fearful--the other man might collect himself and stop. He rambled like a man who has sought to testify, to give witness, and has been forbidden speech. He gave out more than Alex had hoped for, though nothing of himself, no motives, no reasons for his own history. That didn't matter; Alex cared nothing for Bill Mulder's wasted life. But he talked in his cryptic, absent, and often hypothetical way about aspects of the project Alex hadn't even begun to touch on in his covert investigations. Things, yes, from science fiction novels, and sometimes from horror, but. . .real. Perhaps. If the man wasn't mad; if he hadn't soaked up his son's lunacy and begun to burn with delusion.

He spoke until he came to a stop. Stopped, then, for no reason Alex could fathom. Bill Mulder inspected his cold coffee, gazed off into the back environs of the cafe. Didn't sigh, didn't express even the faintest affect in his empty face. A dead man walking.

"You can't--" Alex gathered himself, ran a hand through his hair, felt like jumping up and yelling his frustration. The puzzle stretched out immeasurably around him, and for the first time he knew just how much he didn't know. He looked at Bill Mulder and saw a man who had burned down almost to pure ash, locked around secrets--far beyond what he'd told today--that would die with him. For Alex realized only now, with a kind of awe, just how precarious the other man's existence was.

How had he kept silence all these years?

"Can't what?" Bill said ironically, knowingly. "Can't be serious?" Having delivered himself of his revelations, he was a man briefly savoring his position, and had regained the upper hand. His tone was supercilious. Not yet had the enormity of what he'd revealed hit home.

Alex stared at the older man, privately rather aghast--nearly as much by his bland indiscretions as by their contents. Alex wasn't a man to worry overmuch about national security in the abstract, but right in front of him was a leak that would sooner or later have to be plugged. No matter what truth lay behind the smoke and mirrors, behind the many funhouse doors, Alex didn't for a moment contemplate the possibility of disclosure. There would always be things--secrets, knowledge, even rules--best kept from the public, whose blind cattlelike stampede into the forum could trample flat every edifice of civilization, if allowed.

Not that Alex worried much about civilization, to be sure. To do that would be. . .naive. And yet. . .

Aliens?

The implications would take a while to sink in; and he could not bank on Bill Mulder's story just yet. Not without evidence.

"You've never told him," Alex said suddenly.

"He's lucky not to know for sure," Bill said, drawing the lines of his mouth in with a touch of bitterness.

"He's searching for signs of government conspiracy and extraterrestrial life--and he doesn't have the first clue about you, does he?" Alex shook his head; it was a respectful gesture.

"He mustn't know."

"He thinks aliens took his sister." Alex paused pointedly. "Am I supposed to believe he's right?"

Bill Mulder frowned as if the subject were one he'd heard mention, but far removed from his ken; and yet his eyes within their deep folds were like gelid unspoken grief. "That's not--that's not important now. He's all I have left."

"And you want me to protect him," Alex said silkily.

"Yes." Bill responded to the tone immediately, sitting back like a poker player, eyes narrowing. His gaze flicked across Alex, the fine stinging touch of whip-ends. "You care for him."

"I beg your--" Alex laughed.

"If you can keep them from knowing you're fucking him you'll be lucky."

Alex's face smoothed into watchful expressionlessness.

"Did you think I wouldn't know?" Bill Mulder asked mildly. His malicious satisfaction seemed inhibited not so much by manners as by some essential indifference to the topic. He was too jaded to care much.

"If you know they know," Alex said tonelessly.

"Not necessarily. . .I have him watched."

"They have him watched."

"But you're the watcher, Alex."

Alex frowned, jerked his intense face to one side, calculating. "There could be others." He dragged his cool eyes back to Bill. "Anyway. What makes you think it's not in my job description?"

Bill smiled crookedly to himself, didn't answer directly. "He's an attractive man, isn't he, Alex? Compelling. Not quite an innocent, but as close as you'll ever come to one." The last remark delivered its double meaning with cutting clarity.

Alex slewed his jaw once and bit his tongue, literally, to keep from saying anything too provocative; he didn't want to antagonize the man. Certainly not now. He spread one hand on the table top, contemplated his own fingernails. "What's going on with Barry?" he asked, drawing a conversational full circle. "Kazdin called Mulder down to Richmond."

Bill blinked, processing this somewhere within himself, behind that stretched death's-head face. "That means nothing to me. . .Kazdin is the hostage negotiator. I saw her on the news." Those few words, crisply offhand, bespoke a man whose mental acuity had not entirely dissipated in drink and melancholy. A man who took note of details. "She's not involved in any aspect of the project that I know of."

"Why did they want Mulder in on the Barry case?"

Bill Mulder studied his cup, then abruptly pushed it away, tipping his chin up and lifting his cold eyes to pierce Alex's own. "I have no idea." His voice raked the words out over gravel. "That's what worries me."

*****

After Bill Mulder had left, Alex sat in the cafe for longer than he meant to, brooding on several strands of thought that seemed destined to remain tangled, the intractable knots of himself. Threads bright in their primary colors--power, survival, desire--wound muddily with others he didn't, couldn't, put a name to. To nominalize, to call a vague fibril of detachment loneliness, a twist of angst guilt, was to misleadingly signify minorities of the self. Hungers mixed; as did motives and variations of pride; past led to present; and Alex Krycek was a tapestry of knots; pull one thread and you found it strove to another, clung and led to a greater unraveling.

He thought back to the morning; Mulder in his bed. He hoped he hadn't signaled his gutting wrench of fear when he realized the other man had slept over the entire night, that he himself had overslept and failed to nudge his guest homeward. Previously Alex had made sure, one way or the other, that Mulder understood where the line was drawn. Now it was too late, the line was washed away.

No. Alex's face tightened. He would just have to redraw it; he couldn't allow the familiarity to progress. He'd been acting on dangerous assumptions about the scope of his assignment--taking too many risks. He'd surmised from his own position in the scheme of things that Mulder must be a relatively low-priority case. There had obviously been the luxury of time in setting Alex up for the job, and he'd believed himself to be the only agent working close to his target, the only one accountable for surveillance--live surveillance, that is; one took for granted the possibility of bugs.

Now he was less certain about everything, including himself. He could sit here and stare out the cafe window as long as he liked, into the bright street beyond. He still would not be sure where he was going after he left. Or who he might be. Funny--when he'd first accepted this job, he'd been so--so keen for the drama of it, what he saw as his chance for a star turn. Role, mole, rigamarole. He'd thought here was his big break--the bureau was his future--a cleaner, brighter future than he would have had under previous circumstances. He'd scrabbled ruthlessly to get as far as he had in life, and yet he'd harbored, before this, the certainty of his entitlement to succeed. And in a way he'd thought he'd been chosen for that reason: to play himself, only more so, to Mulder's audience of one. But in duplicity he'd been bent and refracted. Krycek, Alex Krycek. He felt faceless; he was an arrow cocked and ready in its bow, but without direction; he needed more than this.

Aliens. Mulder. Morley. . .chairman of smoke and secrets. Nobody tells me anything and all of a sudden they're telling me every damn thing--what am I saying--these Mulders talk plenty. But if I want a better bedtime story I need to go to the real source. Too bad I'm in no position to do so. . .maybe I should bring him a box of chocolates. Baccarat ashtray. . .but why not a Mulder, served with garnish.

*****

The man's face was a mask that leached amusement of its human element and reduced feelings to mechanistic impulses. He wore disdain and worry impeccably but stripped them free with impatience when they proved unsuitable.

"I hope you had good reason to request this meeting, Alex." His voice was ironed flat. "I'm a busy man."

They sat at a small table in an enclosed back patio of an Alexandria restaurant; the walls were high grey stone, the cobblestones cool, the sun elided by trees and scraped through the confining walls of neighboring houses. It was chilly, like sitting in a damp shoebox, ratlike at the bottom. The place had the benefit of privacy, though, and stockaded protection. A small wooden door was set into one wall. Alex wondered if that was how the elusive one entered and left, away from the mundane eyes of other patrons.

Alex flicked a glance over Morley's folded newspaper, cellphone, water glass, full ashtray. There was an empty dessert plate at his setting, which he pushed peevishly to one side when he caught Alex looking at it.

Affected or involuntary? Alex wondered of the gesture. "I had some information I thought you'd be interested in."

"So you said." Morley's eyes held his in a bond of steel. Not speculative or expectant, his eyes delivered the utterance of boredom, if they gave anything away. He'd heard his fill in a lifetime of intelligence where petty divulgences were the rule and even the smallest had its price.

"It's about Mulder." Alex's tongue danced lightly within his mouth; he held his sly amusement within, tried not to let the words trip out too hastily. "Bill Mulder." Morley blinked, and that tiny, ungiving response delivered to Alex a surge of satisfaction, for he knew he'd scored a hit in an unexpected field.

"Bill Mulder," the other man said, leaning back in his chair. A man waiting for more.

"He called me and asked to meet. I met with him--twice."

Morley's eyes narrowed. "I don't reward initiative on your level, Alex," he said in a clipped voice--not yet dismissive, but close enough for warning.

Alex felt a feather of nerves along his ribcage, and to counter the discomfort leaned back in his chair, adopted a tiny frown. "I thought you'd be pleased."

"What did he want." Morley lit a cigarette, puffed to himself as if deeply involved in the act, eyes dropped from Alex's presence as if he were no more animate than a tape recorder.

"Wanted me to protect his son." Alex paused, ran his thumb along the table's curve. "Wanted to talk about aliens." His eyes rose gently.

"Bill Mulder is a doddering fool with no reliable attachment to the real world and no idea of how to look after his family."

"Mm. . .but he's in the game. Deeply so." Alex husked the words out with care. "A little fact you neglected to mention."

Morley's lips dropped open slightly. "I neglected. I tell you what I decide to tell you."

"I just want to do my job." Alex realigned his features into a faintly sulky look, wondered not for the first time if the old man was queer and whether batting his lashes would cut any ice.

Morley tapped out a fraction of ash, expression given over to thought, dropping into the carved lines of a watchful god. "I'm sure you do. . .what did he have to say about. . ." He waved his cigarette, lifted it to his mouth.

"About what?" Alex wondered aloud, brows knitting.

"Don't try that on with me," Morley hissed, suddenly leaning forward in a way that took Alex off guard. He sat back, stared some more, took another drag.

During this, Alex said nothing. He could see through the other man's attempt to intimidate him, but knowing this didn't negate the effect as much as he would have liked.

"What do you want to know?" Morley said abruptly as if in their shared silence they'd reached an agreement. Which, of course, they had.

"What don't I want to know?" Alex said, barking out a laugh. "Aliens?" His eyes gleamed. "Why don't you try your disinformation tactics out on me, see how they float."

Dry-lipped, Morley smiled. "Do you think you are somehow beyond basic human susceptibility to our techniques, Alex?"

The question was a needle designed to deliver fresh paranoia, but Alex had expected it. Every fact he might grudge to Alex, Morley would match with a doubt. A true master of the game could cast doubt on everything, anything; could convince a man he was dead, mad, that he was a dog, a rat, a woman named Irene, could cast into uncertainty the blueness of the sky or the law of gravity. But of course Alex didn't need truth; just more of this. More stories. More currency into the currents of power.

"No more than you," Alex said mildly, smiling back, watching the faint irritability blossom in the other's face.

"Tell me what you came to tell me or leave," Morley said coldly. "I have a great many things to do."

And you don't like to work the long seductions, Alex noted. A bit lazy these days, old man? Or am I just not your type? Too much a punk, too crude a tool? What would you do if I really up and left you gaping here? Mm, I'm not sure I want to find out.

Alex mentioned a few things, while Morley listened, eyes shuttered, lips pursed.

"So," Morley said at last. "Now you consider yourself a player." His face was superficially condescending but his eyes were not warm.

"I just want in," Alex said, letting a touch of his hunger show. Real hunger; there was no falsifying that.

"Of course," Morley said. "Of course you do." And his new, sudden smile was different, nearly affectionate, as if an expected disappointment had been reversed to his delight. The wrinkled map of his face softened.

Was he soft? Alex couldn't tell--couldn't decide whether the older man's inverted craziness was the curse of his labyrinth, a genuine fault to be exploited, or if it was just. . .acting. If the latter, he was a consummate actor, for Alex couldn't help but harbor a feeling of success at the natural lines of that smile.

"You want a mentor," Morley said jauntily.

(Holy Christ, he's lighting up again, Alex thought with fascinated distaste, watching the cigarette rise to his small, smiling lips.)

"It's only to be expected," Morley continued. "Doesn't every young man, on the rise in his chosen profession?" He lit, puffed.

Alex eyeballed the other man warily, distrusting his sudden perkiness. "Well, I--" He cleared his throat, assumed diffidence. "I wasn't sure how things worked. . .but it's obvious now that I'm not going to be collecting a bureau pension." Or retiring to Key West with Fox Mulder.

"No," Morley agreed. Pause, puff. "The bureau is. . .just the bureau. Advancement there counts for very little. It's all in who you know, Alex. No different than in your previous experience. This was a lateral move for you, but I've been tracking your career with a more personal interest than I've yet mentioned. You've done some remarkable work. Kosovo, Sarajevo, Abkhazian--of course, these are merely CIA training grounds--one might say playgrounds--" He waved his cigarette. "Small fishponds in which even the most limited militia-style exercises can create significant ripples. Nothing like what we do."

"Maybe not on the same order--"

"Nothing," Morley repeated evenly, "like what we do." He held Alex's eyes, his gravity-dragged face expressionless and still.

"Space," Alex said, his lips parted in the faint approximation of a smile. "The final frontier." He paused. "You're not NSC."

"Were you led to believe that?" Morley asked incuriously.

"All I want is a chance to work my way up the ladder. I've paid my dues," Alex said, hesitated. "Enough for the chance."

Stubbing out his cigarette, Morley gave no sign that he recognized the appeal, but then his face upturned itself with a light, fine-lipped smile and a clear gaze that was like an open door, beyond which--lady, tiger. Truth and lies, promises and broken faiths, the chance to succeed or die.

"Welcome to the Consortium, Alex."

*****

"What did Kazdin want?"

Mulder, squatting in front of the fridge, made a humming sound. "You're going to have to feed me better than this if you want to keep me."

"Need to get you a collar too," Alex said amiably. His eyes glinted. "Bell the fox." He kept a casual pose at the counter, watching Mulder futz around among his meager leftovers. He didn't repeat his question, and eventually Mulder stood up, empty-handed, and let the fridge door shut. Meeting Alex's eyes, he gave him a quizzical look that said, Do I know you?

Alex folded his arms and quirked a brow back.

"She wanted to apprise me of Barry's condition." Mulder paused. "And to give me some metal the surgeons found implanted in his body while operating."

"What?" said Alex. "Shrapnel?"

"Implanted, Alex."

Alex stammered his astonishment. "Are you fucking kidding me?"

Mulder shook his head, face both troubled and alive with keen pleasure. "Even just at a glance they're obviously devices designed with a purpose--to be embedded subdermally." Then he cocked his head, admitted, "Okay, so I polled a few doctors and asked for their first impressions."

"What did you--what did you do with--the devices?"

Mulder pulled a vial out of his suit pocket, handed it over just like that. Alex took it and studied it blankly. What the fuck? So much for my inaugural briefing.

"What are you going to do with this?"

Mulder took it back, pocketed it. "I--I don't know yet."

"Why don't you show it to Scully--maybe she could figure out what it is."

"That's probably a good idea." But Mulder's voice was dull, toneless.

"You're going to patch things up, aren't you?"

Mulder said nothing. Alex moved a step closer to bring their bodies together, slid his hands around Mulder's waist. He looked unhappy--which he probably was--and sleepy, which was probably misleading. Those weighted, luscious eyelids had a will of their own.

"Hey," Alex said. Mulder's face lifted an inch and gave his eyes direct regard. Alex pressed his lips on the other man's, felt them part. "I need to say something. I don't want you to get angry."

Mulder blinked his surprise. "Okay."

"You can't sleep over any more. I don't think it's a good idea. It's not safe." Alex brushed a kiss across Mulder's lips.

"You know what I like about you, Alex?" Mulder smiled. "You're more paranoid than I am. It's an endearing quality I don't find in many people."

"I work hard at it," Alex said easily, relieved that his terms had been accepted, wondering if they'd have gone over with any other man than Fox Mulder, lone ranger of the remote control. He had a needy streak, but his habits were safely monkish and had not yet been exchanged in pursuit of this hot new fad of intimacy. By the time he was likely to get clingy, Alex was likely to be gone; and if not. . .well, then I'm up shit creek, aren't I. Unless his enigmatic new patron could be convinced of the value of creative overtime.

They nuzzled a minute and then their mouths opened simultaneously with ripening greed to let their tongues dance and spar.

"Um," Mulder said after a minute. His hands stroked up and down Alex's back. "What are our plans for tonight then?"

"Mm." Alex shrugged. "I haven't thought that far ahead--hey--you didn't tell me how your meeting with Skinner went."

"Oh, that. . .well, you know he has that Marine paddle in his drawer--and he bent me over the desk--"

"Idiot."

"What--you don't get that? Maybe it's just me."

"You're very special to him," Alex agreed sardonically.

"He's so by-the-book macho he makes my balls itch," Mulder said dryly. "Of course, he's a hunka hunka burnin' man all the same."

"You can't deny it, Mulder--he wants to bone ya."

"You think?"

"Hey, why don't we take Scully out to dinner?" Alex let his voice rise with bright offering as if the thought had just occurred to him.

Mulder drew back a bit. "I don't think I'm up for that."

"Come on, you two can kiss and make up--we'll take her to someplace nice. Feed her chocolate mousse and let her get tipsy on two glasses of white wine. We can drive her home after."

"Some other time."

"Mulder--"

"I'm not out to her, Alex, and I don't feel like playing footsie with you under the table while she's sitting there giving me her Doctor Scully eye. Neither do you. So drop it."

Alex swallowed, nodded casually. "Fine. What do you want to do then?"

"Buy the most expensive food we can find and let you cook it. Alternately, I was thinking Il Porto--then wander around old town after and drop by some--"

"Bookstores." Alex's face twisted around the mouth with a pained, knowing look.

"I like to shop for books," Mulder said mildly, amused.

"Not that I've seen. You go in, you meander around--"

Mulder laughed. "Meander--"

"--around the stacks until you find the ufology bullshit section--"

"I don't think they call it that--" Their voices overlapped.

"--and then you pretzel up until you have about six stacks of books around you and you've gone through all of them--and then--" Alex's voice rose an accusing notch. "--then, because you've read them all while you were sitting there, you decide you don't want to buy any."

"Well, I don't really have a lot of room in my apartment."

"If I hadn't seen what you spend on suits I'd think you were cheap."

"You don't know what I spend on suits."

"I'm lookin' at you right now, Mr Armani." Alex grabbed his lapel and stroked it suggestively.

"I'm old money," Mulder joked. "What can I say?" His tongue spoke for him then, teasing into Alex's mouth.

When the kiss broke again they were both breathless. "Let me tell you what I'm going to do to you tonight, Mulder."

"Oh shi--" Mulder's voice caught raggedly on a hitch.

Alex ran a tongue lightly along the inside of his lips, then transferred the lick to Mulder's mouth. "Why are you so fucked up, Mulder?" he asked between kisses, the question popping up unexpectedly from lower fathoms to bump aside his recitation of pleasures. He cupped Mulder's nape and his kiss cut off the other man's uncertain sound, what might have been answer or merely groan.

Another kiss broken. "Why are you?" Mulder, hedonistically stunned, had begun to purr; the slim length of his body rubbed against Alex's with thoughtless rhythms--with rhythms that didn't need thought.

"Hey, I'm just your run-of-the-mill leather lover--you're the one with an anti-oxygen fetish--you aren't going to get touchy now are you?" A hurt look was shooting greenly into Mulder's eyes.

"I've told you I don't want to talk about it. If I did I'd go back into analysis, I wouldn't tell you."

"Teach me to profile, Mulder." Alex's eyes sparked.

"What?" Mulder was beginning to get distracted by the eddies of their conversation. "You can't just--"

"Oh, like it's such a science," Alex said.

"Something more than astrology, but less determinate than quantum physics." Mulder paused. "That was a joke."

"I'll take your word on that."

Shifting in place, Mulder--helicoid but fickle--frowned and said, "I don't want to talk shop."

"Mulder, you never stop."

"I'm stopping now."

Great timing, Alex thought with exasperation. Aloud, he said, "Don't get too warm and cuddly on me, Mulder. I don't want you just for your body."

Mulder looked sneakily pleased, as Alex had suspected he would: his face gathered up a boyish seriousness, the kind of earnest intensity brought to bear when invited to show off magic tricks. "Well, I suppose we could combine Profiling 101 with a trip to the supermarket--buy groceries, sherlock our fellow shoppers."

"It's a deal." Alex's smile curved with mischief. "But first we get you out of this suit and I fuck you until you can't sit straight--how's that for a plan?"

"I'll let you know in about thirty seconds."

*****

It was late in the week, what had been a long late-summer drawl of days. The heat had been strong but the sky low, though in the evenings everything was up in the air, and there might hang fauvist staggering sunsets or come an ashy wash that dimmed colorlessly to charcoal. It was a damp city this week, asphalt and concrete never entirely letting the rain go. It went on and on, and the Hoover building--like a giant hive--seemed emptied of its workers, but you knew they were all buried alive in the dry husk somewhere, crammed into cubicles and copy rooms, hiding from the strict overlook of Queen Reno and her authority. Those that could escaped on any pretext; a questionable flu plague swept the employee body and vacation slips proliferated on the memo spikes of irritable supervisors.

Mulder was both sated and restless. The heat made him wild, kept him in a perpetual state of semi-arousal; fever blossomed at inopportune moments and drove him to the coke machines, the coffee hutch, the cool basement levels, his abandoned X-Files burrow--anywhere, everywhere--the stacks, the video library, the microfiche bays--even Skinner's office when he needed some ice water in his veins. (Skinner: You know I can't approve any of these cases, Agent Mulder. And if I find an unnatural homicide for you to investigate it's likely to be your own, unless you settle on somewhere other than my office to spend your afternoons. Mulder: I'd have to come back as a ghost to look into that, sir. Skinner: I'm sure you'd give it your best shot.)

But this prolonged, voluptuous burning he felt was eased every night; every night they flew together, flaming moths beating at one another in a wild febrile ache. Grappling with Alex, skin to chafed skin, their bodies each one long wing, peeled from their suits and paler than they should be, but that ivory was nearly burnt by the time they finished. If days were pallid, devoided, tedious, the evenings were wild and dark, muttering of thunderstorms, stretching out across Alexandria like a carny top. The Potomac uncharacteristically churned in its nightly sleep; the parks dripped and blew with rain; at Jones Point, under the Wilson Bridge, the blue herons paired and huddled while the muskrats resigned to brave the weathering and went out hunting en famille.

Mulder was coming undone from his usual self. Hollow armor dropped off in pieces, chrysalis shorn, himself a mellower syncopation than usual; he eased into a minor rebirth. His suits felt extraneous; his movements fluid. His tallowed length of body held its residual pleasure. They had no pressing case of their own, he and Alex, and in typical default mode ended up assisting Rich and his office on the Barry matter, compiling 302s for the assigned Justice attorney and preparing defendant background. (Alex: Are you sure you don't want to say 'alleged abduction'?) They left on the dot of five every day, with atypical punctuality. Monday after work, Mulder--a tasmanian devil in the car, whirling them free of suits and into sweats--dragged Alex to Rock Creek to hike its wet trails until the sun set; Tuesday they stripped no further than shirt sleeves and went, errant altar boys, to slump together in the cool confines of a movie theatre, making a dinner of popcorn. Wednesday, lethargic but charged, they dispensed with social foreplay and went straight to Alex's apartment, where they shed their clothes and with a fresh thunderstorm as accompaniment screwed mercilessly--on the floor, in the bed, in the shower--until they collapsed raw and depleted and naked on the couch and watched the stupefying screen; and then Mulder had gone home.

Now it was Thursday and Mulder was sitting at his desk, hunched with forehead to hands, staring down at the vial which lay on the plain grey blotter, next to his ballpoint doodle of a Reticulan Starship Trooper. Alex had left the building to gopher some video evidence over to Justice. Around him in the bullpen his fellow agents worked and chatted. Phones rang. A gust of rain-laden wind clattered the window glass. He sat up straight and attempted a casual, loose-limbed pose in his chair as if to convey he were thinking deeply on something relevant to federal law enforcement, something that required him to sit here, like this, just like this.

He rolled the vial back and forth, glanced at the clock.

After another minute, when he'd caught the curious eye of Agent Fiore from her corner workstation, he resolutely leaned forward and picked up the phone. Didn't she know he'd had to wait until exactly now, one forty-seven p.m., to make this call?

"Scully," said the far end of the line.

"Scully. . .it's me." He paused, swallowed and with his free hand drummed a faint erratic pulse on the desktop. "I--uh--listen, about the other night--"

"Don't worry about it, Mulder." Scully's voice, wry and kinder than expected, touched his ear. "I'm glad that you've finally broken the shrinkwrap on your social calendar."

Startled into laughter, Mulder said, "Yes, but--"

"I'll just have to remember I'm taking my chances when I call you in the evenings--gone are the days when even your most pressing engagements carried you no further than your couch."

"Oh, I don't know--Tiffany's Erotic Safaris carried me a lot farther than that some nights." Mulder was grinning into the phone.

"I hope real life is shaping up better than adventures in video, Mulder."

Mulder made a tiny choking sound, then swallowed this new astonishment, deciding not to think about the implications. "Um. . .I don't think I'm going to pursue that remark, Scully."

"Chicken," Scully drawled.

Mulder cleared his throat, rather glad she couldn't see his sheepish face or halfling grin. "Listen, I've got something to show you. Can you get free for a few minutes if I come down that funky, corpse-ridden laboratory of yours?"

"I suppose. What is it?"

"I'd rather not say on the phone."

"Of course not," Scully said dryly.

"I'll drive right down--can I bring you anything--? Lunch?"

"Sesame chicken and I'm yours, Mulder."

*****

He'd gone to Quantico and found her in her lab studying slices of slide-pressed brain; she'd made him wait, and had nibbled from the box of chicken while he stood to one side, hands in his pockets, and stared at the remainder of the brain, lumpish and bereft on its plate. By the time she raised her head from the microscope, he was fidgeting impatiently; by the time they had broken free of an importuning path student, he was jingling his keys; by the time she shucked her coat and led him to her office he was driven to irritability again, feeling as if she'd made a show of her busy schedule and a point of keeping him waiting.

He said nothing but there was a strained, uncomfortable air between them; he disliked the discomfort, resented what he saw as her small manipulations, even--vaguely--resented her calm, that cool competence of hers which was somehow both womanly and blandly asexual.

She walked ahead of him down the hall, in a manner that assumed he followed, and entered her office with a proprietorial air--she had a private office now; whereas he had been forced out of his basement and behind an appropriated, standard-issue desk in a common third-floor bullpen. He closed the door behind them, and caught a look on her face that seemed to him ironic. He wanted to say, You saw a man killed, you know we can't take any chances. But he said nothing, just took the seat in front of the desk, while she took the seat behind. He might have been in a teacher's office--that was how she sat behind her desk, he thought. He felt puerile, disgruntled. The face he could feel forming was what Alex called his sulky look. . .his mother called it that, too. Funny.

They exchanged pleasantries as strangers might have and Mulder found himself increasingly reluctant to hand over the evidence he'd brought. He'd taken a few of the metal pieces from the sample vial and transferred them to a safe place, but--but what the hell, he thought, drawing the item from his pocket.

"Here's one of the implants from Barry," he said, passing her the vial, watching how she took it. She held it carefully, turned it over and eyeballed it with little expression. He passed on Kazdin's words and the tentative speculations of the hospital physicians he'd spoken to, then said, "What do you think?"

She paused for a long moment. "This could just be a piece of shrapnel. Duane Barry did a tour of duty in Vietnam."

"It was right where he said it would be, Scully, along with the ones in his gums and his sinus."

"And you think that this was implanted?"

"Well if it was ... that would mean Duane Barry's telling the truth."

"Or some version of the truth."

Mulder's jaw tightened fractionally. There it was again; the immutable wall of Scully doubt. He said nothing.

After a moment, she sighed. "Look, I'll. . .I'll take this down to Ballistics. We can have this cleared up in a second."

Mulder grudged a nod. He'd come down her with more than one purpose; in the back of his mind had been the intention of inviting her to dinner as Alex had suggested, something to ease her into an acquaintance with him, even if presenting the man as his lover wasn't in the cards at such a stage. Now, given the Dana Scully treatment, he was distracted into muted anger, and left without further speech.

It was only as he exited the building that he regretted, for a moment, his moodiness, his readiness to succumb to tension and perpetuate it. His abrupt departure weighed on him and he almost turned back--stood, hand on car handle, looking up at the brick of her building. They were still close, but were they close enough, now, that he could leave without even a word of farewell, without it seeming, somehow, too final?

He came to no sure decision, but he did not return to her. It would be too awkward; such replays always were. She would already be busy again, doctored up in her lab coat, her neutral professional face resumed. And he wasn't without his own business to attend to. His hand was moving to unlock the car. Let her call him this time. When she did, he would right things, or they'd right themselves. Things always did.

*****

"You're quiet tonight."

Alex looked up from his plate, smiled in a perfunctory fashion. "This weather isn't letting up," he noted, as if this answered the question.

Mulder pushed his plate away, gazed across the table at the window-block of grey sky. Dark early tonight; he could see a thin reflection of himself, overlaid on the clear glass, but his expression was illegible, blurred by the scene beyond, the dun neighboring rooftop. He cleared the view from his eyes, turned to look at Alex, brightly lit by the ceiling lamp, his head down, his lashes dark as burnt paper, of a finger's width, fanned ash to eyes that gleamed below. A strange face he had, though, a thing of blunt, unlikely angles, snubbed and oblique, caught up now in the ordinariness of eating.

"What?" Alex said, catching Mulder's eye, fork halfway to his mouth.

"Just waiting for you to finish," Mulder said with civility and a faint, sly smile.

Alex tossed his fork into the remains of his meal. "I'm finished."

Mulder stood and walked to the bedroom, stripping as he went, feeling the other man's eyes on him. By the time he turned, Alex had followed him the length of the apartment and come up behind him. They stood close then, chest to chest, hips to hips. His hands rested on Mulder's bare waist, eased the loose silk of his boxers off, then cupped his ass--gently, and then with hard, kneading strokes.

Mulder pressed his forehead to Alex's shoulder, shuddered.

"What can you do for me tonight?" he muttered.

"What do you want?" Alex's hands didn't cease their cupped rubbing. His breath warmed Mulder's ear.

"A sore ass and a clean conscience."

Alex stroked the length of his spine. "You want to talk about it?"

Mulder lifted his head. "What do you think?"

Their eyes sparked the shadows and corresponded beyond speech. Alex raised one hand and brushed his thumb along Mulder's jaw, stroking the rough blade. Mulder closed his eyes and felt stifled, needy, densely clayed. His body held the entire day's sheen of salt and sweat; he could feel it gathered thickly under his arms, feel the cauldron of his balls and thighs and the strip of silted heat that led to the earthy core of himself. He felt dirty and he wanted to be fucked like this, wanted Alex rutting on him, primate to primate.

Mulder leaned and sipped a kiss from Alex's mouth, drew out his tongue and played his own into that wet clasp. He angled his body and pressed his nakedness to a clothed form that was the essence of a man. Cloth and flesh and bones; suited masculine authority. His cock rose, heavy as an arm between his legs, knobbed like a clenched fist, aching. He thrust against the stretching fabric of Alex's groin, across his belt. Alex played with him, hands casual. Their jaws brushed, rough to rough, stubbled planes scratching with the faint sound of sandpaper. Already, Mulder was stoked, lifting. His body arched against cotton and linen and the muscles underneath. The kiss refused to end itself, wasn't accelerating, wasn't easing; its separate cadence attached their bodies but their hands kept other sweeps of time until Alex broke the connection, finally. He had the steady, measured breath of a long-distance swimmer who will not lag soon. He pushed Mulder to the bed and then down; stood over him--between the folded vee of Mulder's legs--and stripped off his tie, his shirt, kicked off shoes and socks, and finally undid his trousers and let them slide free. Naked man--bare and long and fine--he looked so natural, a man at a beach, coming just this way from the sea. He settled on Mulder, nudging him fully onto the bed's surface. Their cocks pressed flush and Mulder rocked unthinkingly, up into Alex. Hot weight, the complete full stretch of him. Unerring rightness.

Mulder gasped. Need licked him from inside out, and then Alex licked him outside in, moving up and down his body, his mouth wielding a wet brush that marked Mulder everywhere. He came several times to Mulder's chest and finally focused there, biting and worrying its nubs until they stiffened and hardened like circlets of copper ore; he seemed oblivious to Mulder's sway, the arch of his lower back and rhythmic upward grind of hips. The relentless seizure of pleasure drove through Mulder, and then he rolled over and pinned Alex lightly to the bed and reciprocated the moves of their dance.

He was lean and shaded in all the right places, embodying a menagerie of elements: smokily furred along the stem of his chest, but scaled of rib, with a light feathering at the groin where an ophidian jut defined his shaft, there where he was cobralike and alert. Mutable. A man who dreamed he was a panther that dreamed it was a snake that dreamed it was a hawk; and all shades of animal gathered and shifted en masse in the leather pouch of his skin and whetted Mulder's senses for the human.

All the places where he was soft seemed rare: the folds of his arms and legs, the upper crease of his thigh, neck hollow and scrotum. Soft places on a hard carapace, fissures between bones and muscle. Eyes looking darkly down at him, pools both soft and hard.

Mulder, loosely astride Alex, drew up the other man's hands and let their sets of fingers tangle, then guided those hands to his hips, his breath quickening. Alex held him, stroked his hipbones with strong thumbs. For a minute Mulder let their cocks brush, pressed his balls onto Alex's rigid shaft and rubbed himself there. It was still new, in its way; it had been so long since he'd been lovers with a man, so long since he'd sustained a liaison with anyone past a week. To come back to this again and again--the friction, the naked intimacy, the cooperative ride to pleasure--frightened him, almost. Almost. The solidity of himself, looming over Alex; the solidity of Alex, grounding him; this made his life a thing of flesh once again, for the first time in. . .too long. Too long he'd been a creature of habit, inhabiting his jack-off solitude, tilting at the frayed windmill of his heart. His obsessions--god, how deep they went and how little they had to do with the here and now.

He bent, slid from the net of Alex's hands, gave his mouth to the other man's swollen cock. Alex gasped when Mulder took the raw, leaking head onto his tongue. Gasp--a word that didn't convey the hitch of breath, the sounded tongue-curl of lust, the vibration his entire body gave--satisfied, concentrated down into the grooved arrow of need. Mulder relished the corporeal heft of a man's dick in his mouth. It took him back two decades in memory to his first sexual rebellions, a time when school and trauma and father were influences eroding him away to nothing. A good boy he'd been, playing basketball, getting straight A's; with a pint of Canadian Mist in his backpack and a way of finding himself, evenings, on the far chilly edge of the park, past the picnic tables, in the trees, sucking cock.

Those had been the good memories.

The wet burl of flesh in his mouth pulsed and beads of salt slid free, advanced by the pressure of his tongue. He began to lose himself in the tasking rhythm of his mouth. Good practice; builds the jaw muscles; untrains the gag reflex; comes in handy. A glaze of pleasure, this. His hand was growing sticky, below, and he dropped his touch to knead Alex's balls, then to investigate lower, stroking one finger back until it sank into a grip of heat. Alex arched and his hands skimmed around Mulder's head as in a manic butterfly whirlwind.

When Mulder's mouth reached a high pitch of aching, wet and raw, carved open, he withdrew, lips full, head buzzing, leaving Alex's erection glistening. He lifted, poised above him, let their eyes latch, watched Alex's lips part and felt his breath rise up in erratic eddies. His exhalation carried a croak of speech.

"You just--you want--"

Mulder nudged his ass against the wet edge of Alex's cock and let his weight sink enough to blend and solder their flesh. Alex tossed his head back, grabbed at Mulder's hips again, steadied him. The descent was excruciating, different than the usual slickly eased joining; it pushed and pulled at his insides. He rocked onto the intrusion, its rude fullness, until he embedded it completely, then rocked further, seeking the keen, stroking angle he craved. Using Alex's cock like a divining rod--thick, pulsing, living--Mulder worked his hips, twisting, and then he found it--the sharp ascent and descent--and pushed himself into it--there. The blossoming fire whiplashed the breath from his lungs and blinded him.

"Oh my god," he said aloud, not recognizing the thick harsh crack of his voice. His body rolled drunkenly on its axis; the arc of his lower back tucked in as his ass pronounced itself further. He was sawing himself in two, working up toward the heart.

Under him, Alex surged and grappled, and then reached for Mulder's cock, and Mulder could only surrender then to the cyclone of himself. He began coming. It was a conscious thing in which he looked at himself and watched the spill and felt the fusion of everything in his range--release, fullness, a full skin of shattering nerves, ears catching the roar of the world, blood spiraling through him, his ass clenching with cruel force, and Alex inside him, coming equally undone.

After dismantling themselves from one another they lay in a stunned, supine heap, catching their breaths, and then Mulder, in a slurred murmur, regaled Alex with his detailed, convoluted theory about the Batman and Robin relationship, which led him to contemplate the paraphiliac attractions of rubber, and segue into profiles of sexual sadism, the significance of high church poetry and ritual to a certain type of serial killer, Joan of Arc, grail legends, and then--

"Are you asleep?" Mulder asked, lifting his head from the crook of Alex's arm where he'd idly laid it.

"Close as I can be without actually losing consciousness," Alex muttered.

"Guess I'll go. . ." Mulder shifted and sat up. "Gettin' late."

"You all right?"

Mulder blinked, assessing himself. The shadowed bedroom seemed a larger chamber for his thoughts, which fucked and shifted inside him, mixing dark and bright. "I think I'm good," he said. He smiled at Alex--it would have to be called that, his faint, crooked, quick movement of lips--but when the smile slid away it left his face quiet.

He stroked Alex's chest, felt his hand held for a moment. He couldn't quite make out Alex's expression--sleepy, watchful in his usual way, as if he himself couldn't quite make Mulder out, but kept trying.

"Scully calls this my social life," Mulder said, rising to dress. The remark had risen up to break unexpectedly.

"What else would you call it." Alex's voice husked out to him across the expanse of shadow.

Love life? Sex life? Mulder pulled on his shirt and trousers, redressing into the suit of the day. "There was a time in my life when I had no idea what I wanted to do," he said. "What I was supposed to do." The words spoke themselves. "I didn't think I'd be carrying a badge, wearing a gun. Mr Authority Figure."

Alex said nothing.

"This is kind of a surprise too. . ." Mulder buckled his belt, found his keys. His voice was low, his movements unhurried. "I could get used to this."

There was a shift of sheet and body on the bed. "Yeah. . .me too."

"You go along with the craziness pretty well."

There was the nuance of a smile in the darkness. "Just keep up those left-handed compliments. No one will ever accuse you of sappiness, partner."

"You want hearts and flowers?" Mulder said, coming back to the side of the bed, looking down at the grey contours of the man there.

"Want. . .I want a lot of things. . ."

After a pause, Mulder sat down on the edge of the bed. "Want me to stay?"

". . .You'd better go."

Mulder reached out, touched Alex's hair, which spilled free like pitch. "You make it so easy for me," he said.

Quiet, cryptic, even--that voice--blending untold tones into a complex pattern of vibration. Faintly grating; mocking; kind; troubled; warm. Speaker of truth in darkness, oracle of shaded meanings.

And Alex had held that mouth against his own: their two breaths had conspired together. There would always be that, at least.

"Well, that's the plan," Alex said to Mulder, shadow to shadow. "We aim to please."

"As long as it's easy on you, too," came Mulder's voice to him.

"Me. . .oh. . .I lead a charmed life."

*****

As he drove home the week's recurring storm gathered again and he barely made it inside before the rain began to pour. Lightning cracked, but something said to Mulder the shower would be over quickly. It had a feel to it of unsustainable fury.

In the building's vestibule he stood a minute and checked his mail, discarding a handful of take-out flyers and sweepstakes offerings in a small copper trash can that one of his neighbors had placed by the boxes. When he'd whittled down his take and was holding nothing but bills, he returned them to his box and shut the door with an irritable clank.

The elevator was quick and quiet; the building quiet. He was later than he'd thought, and tireder than he'd thought. Should have finished my dinner, he reckoned, but felt only indifference to that matter of bodily maintenance. Making a priority of fucking had its price. Besides, he had some pizza in his fridge that was no more than a week old, certainly less than two.

He let himself into his apartment, struck as he'd been more often lately by its impersonal emptiness. The furniture itself was growing more removed, less familiar; how that could be, he wasn't sure. There seemed no reason to turn on the light and inspect the progress of the phenomenon. It was all wood and backdrop. The props for an ennui of small hours, his showers and shaves, a meal or two, his occasional sleep.

Incuriously, with rote necessity, he pressed the button on his answering machine and then crossed to drop onto his couch. After the rewind and beep, Scully spoke into the room.

"Mulder, it's me. I just had something incredibly strange happen. This piece of metal that they took out of Duane Barry, it has some kind of a code on it. I ran it through a scanner and some kind of a serial number came up. What the hell is this thing, Mulder? It's almost as if. . .it's almost as if somebody was using it to catalogue him."

Mulder, stirring to life, thought, yes, that's--

Scully gasped. There was a sound of breaking glass. Barry's voice, surely. And her voice, again. "Mulder--I need your help--Mulder!"

He went to her, he took flight. He knew that what was done could not be undone. All the way, he sank deeper into the knowing and it all seemed to have led to this. He'd known she would call.

*****

End Part One.