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In a Dark Time I and II (2/4)

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

Late Saturday

A Saturday afternoon in New York, in the heat of a lingering summer.

The air was muggy, but cooling; high above the skyline the clouds rolled in. Bruised and smeared in a muddy palette, clouds grey and gold and orange and pink arrived in the sky, streaking across its surface until what little blue could be seen from street-level was spray-painted over in the bright, messy colors of garbage and gardens.

From a lower level of the sky, off unseen behind the buildings, the setting sun poured forth a golden voluminous light that slid between the towering walls like a thousand knives to fall in thin brilliant stripes across the streets. Here and there light nicked a surface and a mirroring flash was born and died in a moment, in the turn of a head, in the distance of a single footstep.

Crowds filled the streets, millions of particles borne on their own wave, moving in groups and in single elements, erratic or purposeful, aimless or charged, following laws of kinesic flow that each was unaware of. Shifting and bumping, sending ripples of motion through the great body, the people mingled and unmingled, knotted and unknotted, eddying and whirling away from one another. Most were strangers to each other; and though faces seen long ago were seen again they did not for the most part register as familiar.

Fantastic diversity colored the streets. A loose clutch of Rastafarians ambled en masse down Fifth Avenue, starting a long foot journey toward Bleecker Street. Passing them in the opposite direction, an equally numbered handful of Haitians meandered toward Central Park, ostensibly to catch Soul Coughing at the Summer Stage--but, if they didn't make it in time--no sweat. Beer would still be there, and much sweet coucoune. A Japanese couple glanced at the Haitians, then returned with expressionless but intense focus to their window-shopping, as if they were not being trailed by several giggling children, neat as ducklings in formation and almost as small. Across the street from this thread of traffic, a white South African couple and a black South African couple crossed paths in front of Tiffany's; by an odd coincidence, the darker woman's mother had once been the lighter woman's cook, but neither recognized the other in the moment of passing.

Fifth channeled a hot, slow-moving sea of people. Shop-browsing Quebeckers squeezed by gawking camera-toting Hoosiers, who in turn shoved awkwardly by a trio of exquisitely blase Parisian schoolgirls, who wrinkled their noses and with exaggerated tolerance and savoir-faire pushed past a group of gangsta-rappin' youths with half-mast sweats and ingeniously shaved scalps, who were descending with parasitical ferocity upon a scowling hotdog vendor, who held up a thick red hand and said: "Hey, one atta time, watch th' cart, d'ya mind, Jeezus, youth today, like fuckin' dogs, want ya some kraut widdat, no, one dolla', no twenties, see the sign, you can read cantcha, fuckin' kids today--"

The crowds passed Raymond Weil, Barnes & Noble, and then--for a long time--Saks; they passed Rockefeller Center, St Patrick's Cathedral, Versace and Cartier and Banana Republic; they went from Boticelli to Bennetton, from Gucci to Elizabeth Arden, from Godiva to Dior to the Disney Store; they stopped in front of Trump Tower and took photos, pulling haughty faces, paused at Tiffany's and vogued for the camcorder. At FAO Schwartz large chunks of the crowd, particularly those toting small children, broke off, leaving the street and entering the fantastical world within. It was cool in there, and many dazed fathers fell prey to their own reluctance to return outside, and found themselves maneuvered into parting with the contents of their wallets. Revenues from The Lion King passed the billion mark that afternoon, and it would have surprised none of the store's tired clerks if the billionth dollar had passed anonymously across their counter.

Outside the cool stores, Fifth gleamed with light, sharp light that pierced from the west, diffuse pinkish-gold light that slid in under the clouds from the north and bathed faces in a humid, August-afternoon glow. Gawking like a first-time tourist and not caring, Alex tilted back his head, running his sights up along the lines of buildings that rose around them like canyon walls. The evening's slow descent was joyous, crushing, and prolonged: death by drowning in humanity. Pulling his shirt from his jeans and fanning himself with a draft of warmish summer air, running a hand across his heated, silk-damp scalp, he felt a brief touch of peace, blanketing and not quite real.

Beside him, Mulder seemed equally serene, but was perhaps merely preoccupied. Before leaving the field office, they had put in the request for a nationwide database search on Cole; various networks would be checked and any hit would be forwarded immediately to them. So far they had not received a call. Dining in Chinatown had turned into a hugely indulgent event, despite being a working lunch. They'd sketched out some possible directions to take regardless of whether the lead on Cole panned out, agreeing on the value of talking to Grissom's maid, and entertaining the idea of hypnotizing Mrs Dipace in an effort to glean more from her memory.

After lunch, stunned on Kung Pao chicken and dim sum, they'd driven slowly--slowly--up Broadway, made their way to the hotel, parked the car and changed, then ventured out into the city. They'd worked over to Fifth and then set out in a straight but lazy course down its shop-chocked blocks, in the direction of Central Park.

Both had disclaimed to the other any serious interest in shopping, despite the wealth of opportunity surrounding them. In casual partnership they people-watched and window-gazed, pausing for now and then for ice creams, lemonades, juices, ices. Neither man was inclined to bring up any subject more serious than Knicks prospects or changing trends in music, but somehow--as things will happen--their intermittent conversation took an unobtrusive left turn, and then another, until they suddenly found themselves in a discussion of philosophical perspectives on euthanasia. After which, it seemed unnatural and affected to return to bluff chit-chat on sports and suit styles.

"You don't have any religious qualms about it, then?" Mulder said, as they leaned indolently together on a bench outside Rockefeller Center. In front of them passed an elephantine woman displaying an eye-shocking expanse of naked skin and trailing a mane of long, gorgeous red hair. She laughed and waved to someone further along, drawing many eyes.

"I'm not religious."

"Mmm. So you said."

Alex, one arm hooked comfortably along the bench back, looked sidelong at Mulder, who sprawled easily akimbo, like an unstrung marionette, all legs. "Are you--religious? I mean, you're not a Quaker, are you?"

Mulder looked at him in blank amazement, then amusement. "Quaker?"

"You told Mrs Dipace your mother named you after George Fox."

"I did, didn't I." Mulder turned back to watch the people passing. "I'm not religious. Even when I was a child, I used to drive my mother crazy. I didn't even qualify as a Doubting Thomas--she used to call me a pagan reborn. . .inaccurately, as it turns out. In truth I have no spiritual life."

Alex quirked a brow. "I find that hard to believe."

"Why?" Mulder asked, his tone flat, seemingly incurious despite the question. "Because I believe in little green men--alternative life forms--that we are not alone?" His voice grew self-mockingly spooky on the last few words.

"Well. . ." Alex shrugged. "I guess--yes."

"It's not religion, and the belief doesn't indicate any particular spiritual depth. It's not as if I go home and assume the lotus position--sit around stroking my crystals and channeling my spirit guide. I have a tough enough time visualizing my way through an expense account without visualizing my higher self."

"The cynic outs himself?" said Alex, almost gently.

"Yeah, well. . .I've never matured into the New Age, I guess. Communal soul groping doesn't ring any chimes for me."

"I had a--a friend once, who believed in reincarnation," said Alex, staring out across the crowds as Mulder did, absently drumming his fingers on the bench back. "I've never really understood how someone can believe they'll live over and over again--and still cling to their own miserable fucking life so strongly."

"Lots of reasons. Most believe they need to learn some lesson in their present incarnation--that the spirit is evolving, progressing through the 'school of life' by means of repeated embodiments."

"Uh-huh." Alex cast a dry look his way. "For a skeptic, you know a good bit."

Mulder smiled over at him. "Oh, you know--I had a friend."

Their eyes met, broke apart again. Both men stared face forward across the plaza, toward the buskers and hawkers, the invigorated street preachers and the sun-melting wanderers.

"You don't believe it then--that we'll live again?" Alex heard his own words, spoken offhand, just for something to say, and wondered what the chances were that such a wildly speculative theory was true. His mind, flashing once with the cruel indecency of a camera, reprinted the tableau of his parent's deaths, their blood-spattered, unmoving bodies freezing into the winter snow and memory.

"I don't disbelieve it. I just don't know. . .and the doubt has been. . .useful."

In the smallish pause that followed, Alex waited silently, not looking at Mulder. After a minute Mulder spoke again, quietly, abstractedly. He spoke in such a normal, conversational tone of voice that it took Alex a moment to realize he must be quoting.

"It would be no crime in me to divert the Nile or Danube from its course, were I able to effect such purposes. Where then is the crime of turning a few ounces of blood from their natural channel? Do you imagine that I repine at Providence or curse my creation, because I go out of life, and put a period to a being, which, were it to continue, would render me miserable?"

He gazed gravely out across the teeming plaza, then turned his head to regard Alex with odd, disquieting calm. "Is it because human life is of such great importance, that 'tis a presumption for human prudence to dispose of it? But the life of a man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster. . ."

After another momentary silence, Alex said: "Shakespeare?"

"David Hume."

"Must have missed that class."

"An irreligious old skeptic--atheist, actually--after my own heart. My sixteen-year-old heart, that is. The affair only lasted a summer."

Alex blinked, shook his head. "I'm not going to ask--because I know I'm going to look like an idiot."

"Eighteenth century," Mulder said smiling. "And before you do ask, no temporal transmigration was involved."

"Mmm. . .you were--suicidal?"

There was no reply from the other half of the bench, and Alex didn't dare pursue the question. He'd been given only the abridged version of Mulder's history, but he knew enough not to push now.

Mulder's cellular rang, and both men instinctively straightened.

"Mulder." Pause. "You aren't actually at the lab, are you? You should be gone fishin', or out doing whatever it is that good little Scullys do on their days off." Longer pause. "You'll get something in your stocking for this--you know, I think Godiva's somewhere just down the street. . .women always think they're fat--it's all done with mirrors, Scully. . ." Much longer pause, then: "Great--I guess. At least it's something to think about. Now go home. . .mmm, somewhere deep 'in the very heart of it', surrounded by rare and wondrous freaks of nature--don't say it. . .actually, surprisingly well. I haven't had to use the cuffs yet--don't say it. . .okay."

He snapped the phone shut. "Scully's been running on her little wheel all day down in the lab. She managed to snare some of the more hapless members of her support staff into working on our evidence--drug and food samples, the mouse and cross we found." Mulder stood and stretched, with carelessly sensual motions. "Do you want the long or the short version?"

Alex rose and tucked his hands in his front pockets. "I don't know--do I want the long or the short version?"

They began walking slowly back up Fifth Avenue.

"Well, it turns out that one of the bottles in Grissom's medicine cabinet, though labelled for Codeine, actually had a mix of pills inside--either he liked to play a kind of pharmacological roulette, or it just served as a useful cocktail shaker. They were all drugs used for treating either pain or migraines. Two of the tablets were Ergomar--ergotamine, in other words."

"That's what you were looking for," said Alex quickly. He wondered whether this implied a break in the case, but--given Mulder's own phlegmatic response--decided it must not.

"I'm not so sure. Oddly enough, to complicate matters, there were also very trace amounts of lysergic acid hydroxybutylamide in the bottle. Methylergonovine. It's a derivative of lysergic acid--kind of a kissing cousin to LSD. But it's usually used to stop excessive bleeding in childbirth."

"O-kay," said Alex, grimacing in exasperation. "So, unless he was giving birth to his inner child and suffered complications--"

"Ha-ha."

"--this means what?"

"I have no idea. But I'm not ready to take this as evidence of an ergotismic hallucination. We don't know if Grissom had taken any Ergomar recently."

"Will we?"

Mulder made a tiny face, and said in rote, sing-song fashion, obviously quoting Scully: "Oral or sublingual administration of ergotamine by itself usually results in undetectable systemic drug concentrations, because of extensive firstpass metabolism. Bioavailability is usually less than one percent." In a more normal voice, he added, "Ergotamine is metabolized in the liver by 'largely undefined pathways'. About ninety percent of the metabolites are excreted in the bile--I'm told--and only traces of unmetabolized drug can be found in urine and feces. Something called vasoconstriction should endure for twenty-four hours plus, despite a plasma halflife of approximately two hours."

"What does all that mean?" asked Alex, determined not to be embarrassed for having to ask.

"Short version? She's found no trace in bloodwork or biopsy to indicate the presence of any ergot derivative."

They walked in shared, thoughtful silence for a minute, before Alex said, "What about the mouse--the cross?"

"Pulling anything off the cross, if that's possible, will be a tedious process. They don't have anything yet, and I didn't expect them to. The mouse died from the direct effects of ingesting the anticoagulant warfarin--his blood stopped clotting and his wee heart stopped beating. You were right--ze mousie, he vhas poisoned. Unfortunately, his death has no bearing on our case. As to how he got into the box--that remains a minor X-File for now."

Alex brought them to a halt by pausing in front of Modavo. Coolly he scanned the watches in the window display--minimalist black discs strapped to white upraised hands that seemed, in their disembodied and elegant way, to be imploring heaven for another martini, please, darling.

"You didn't want to try and interview the maid tonight, did you?" he said to Mulder. Asking the question, the irony struck him: this was supposedly his case, and he'd spent the last two days deferring to Mulder at every turn, note-taking like a good boy and generally playing apprentice to Mulder's mentor. He wondered if a little more spunk might be in order, but wasn't sure. Mulder was the senior agent. Anyway, the case itself was less than half the picture, and the role he played probably served his needs better than leading-man status would. Time spent wrestling Mulder for the upper hand would distract him from his observations.

"God, no. Even I'm not that much of a swot."

Alex frowned. "Sorry--what?"

They drifted off again down the street. "Swot--it's British slang," Mulder said. He was turning a searching gaze around the street as he spoke, perhaps seeking another ice cream vendor. "Kind of like their version of a nerd, someone who grinds away at the books or chronically overworks."

"Oxford."

Mulder looked at him askance. "Oh, please--not that anglophilic, envious tone again. It's just a really old school full of hormonally active kids trying to get by without going crazy. Same as anywhere."

"It's not the same."

"Well, look where it's got me, Alex," Mulder said with gentle but bone-dry irony. They traded a glance, and Alex had to smile. "Some of the truest lunatics I've ever known wander the hallowed halls of Oxford--and those are just the dons. I follow in a grand tradition, all right, but it's not all laurel and ivy."

"Yeah, but still. . ." Alex stared off moodily down the street, then at Mulder, who'd taken his turn at window shopping now, and had stopped in front of Alex to peer through the storefront of Crabtree & Evelyn. Sunlight poured itself over him as if it burned for him alone. A honeyed halo enveloped his face and light picked up glinting red threads in his hair, fine, unexpected, and fiery. Fox--yes. A fox's fur, a fox's elusive presence. A loose olive-green tee-shirt followed the lines of his torso and tucked into his faded jeans, their combined effect heightening every curve and shallow masculine hollow of his body into even sharper definition.

"I really should get Scully something. . ."

Why did you have to look like this?

"I think she goes for these smelly, flowery types of things--"

Traitor. Alien-loving seditionist.

"Oils and creams and soaps. Myself, I've always found something morbid and funerary about that whole aesthetic--"

It's weakness to want you. I don't want you. A little jingle in the balls doesn't mean anything. . .just horniness. You're just another guy sliding slowly out of your prime. . .fifteen, twenty years from now you won't be so pretty any more and then all your ufology bullshit won't be so cute. . .but you are. . .awfully cute. Bastard.

"--shoving a sharp instrument up the nose, breaking the bone between the nasal and brain cavities, then picking the brain out piece by piece with a hook--or they'd stir it up until it liquefied, then turn the body face-down so that it poured out the nostrils."

Alex blinked at Mulder, who was lecturing with placid professorial interest to his own reflection in the shop window. "What?"

"The Egyptians didn't realize the importance of the brain--they thought it was just this big, snot-producing sponge."

"Sponge. Right." Don't ask.

They went in the shop and Mulder sniffed around--literally--searching for something that, in his own words, "won't require opening windows when she's in the same room with me". No bull in a china shop was Mulder, but rather a greyhound in a parlor, ranging here and there, poking his elegant, longish nose into scent bottles and sachets, and looking on the whole slightly uncomfortable in the boutique's elaborately feminine setting. His smooth face was cast so as not to betray his feelings--be they mild unease or manly panic, but he shifted around the shop in a blank, unsettled fashion that didn't quite square with his usual blase demeanor.

Alex found it amusing to watch; nonchalant himself, he leaned against a support post and let himself be chatted up by a sales assistant who'd approached him, while keeping Mulder always in his field of vision. The salesgirl, blonde and svelte, presented a heavily glossed facade appropriate to the store's ambiance but subverted by hints of a former, punkish incarnation: multiple but empty piercing holes in ears and nose, fading razor scars on tanned arms, a flowered swastika just visible under the sheer white linen of her blouse. In a euphonious vowel-rich drawl whose origin Alex couldn't pinpoint, Camilla (according to her name-tag) flirted professionally and attempted in oh-so-subtle fashion to prod him toward a purchase.

Eventually she noticed she didn't have his full attention and followed his gaze across the store to Mulder, who had been cornered in bath oils by a short, matronly woman who was holding a bottle under his nose. His brow had wrinkled a bit by now, and his eyes had taken on a hint of well-mannered worry, as if he were being tested and was unsure of passing.

"Boyfriend?" asked Camilla, with an admirably apathetic tone.

"Partner," Alex replied, enjoying the use of the deliberately ambiguous word.

"Oh yeah, that's nice." Affected, commercial interest had waned from Camilla, disclosing a more personal ennui, but some sticky force--inertia, perhaps--kept her at Alex's side.

"Tell me something," Alex said, leaning conspiratorially toward her. "Do you think he's cute?"

Dispassionately, Camilla studied Mulder across the distance of the store. "Not bad. Bit of an ectomorph. The hair--well, I guess if he's going for that retro, early-eighties, Flock of Seagulls meets John Boy look. . .but I hope he didn't tip his stylist too well. Yeah, but he's cute--got that sweet Jewish je ne sais quoi going for him. God, I used to fall for that," she said in a bored voice. "Jeff Goldblum, you know. Seinfeld. Kafka." She rolled her cool blue eyes, while maintaining a face devoid of any animation whatsoever.

Alex, folding his arms and leaning back against the post, grinned. "Jewish--I hadn't noticed. I don't think he is."

"Yeah, well, whatever. Let me know if you need any help." She wandered off.

Mulder finally found something, paid for it, and returned to Alex, holding the flowered paper bag slightly away from his body as if it held a bomb or a Christmas bauble. "Let's go," he muttered, and looked relieved once they were back on the street.

The light left now in the sky was lower. Clouds had piled up further in the high ceiling, gray wool that breathed and slowly drifted pieces of itself across one another; yet at the skyline and just above lay long strips of yellow, visible among the spires like slivers of gilded lemon peel. The brightness of the day was being pressed flat, but still held out. It had become almost intolerably humid, however, for the humans crawling across the city's lowest level. In the air one could feel, presciently, the coming deluge.

"It's going to rain," Alex remarked. Anticipation of the weather was infecting him with a building restlessness; humidity dragged at him like a wet, heavy blanket. He stopped walking. "You know," he said, "we're still near the Rainbow Room--we could drop in at the Promenade without reservations--watch the storm from the top of the city."

"We're not dressed for it."

"We'll get in," Alex said, a sly smile sliding across his lips.

"I'm not pulling my badge to get into a restaurant, Krycek, and I left my gun at the hotel, which is what it would take for us to get into the Promenade dressed like this."

"I'll bet you dinner I can get us in without gun or badge--deal?"

Mulder narrowed his eyes. "Is it going to be publicly embarrassing and legally actionable?"

"Relax." Alex turned and began to walk, then--when he realized Mulder was merely staring after him with a single, skeptical brow raised: "Mulder, none of the above, okay? Now come on, before it starts to rain."

Later. . .

"You have to tell me how."

"That wasn't part of the deal."

Mulder stared across the table at him, obviously annoyed. A stubborn, offended set had subtly realigned his jaw. "It's implied. How do I know you didn't use your badge--or threaten him with your gun?"

"I don't have my gun with me."

"You did use your badge, didn't you."

"I didn't."

"Money--you bribed him."

"I think I'm going to have the grilled swordfish sandwich." Alex cheerfully scanned the menu. "Shrimp cocktail, of course. . .smoked salmon. . ."

"You have to tell me."

"Whining won't get you out of this, Mulder."

"I'm not--" Mulder grated irritably to a stop, gathered a breath, calmed himself. He eyed Krycek for a moment, then allowed a small smile to bend the set of his lips. "You went off with the maitre d' to the cloakroom for five minutes and you both came back satisfied. . .you want me to draw the conclusion?"

Alex looked up from studying his menu, eyes gleaming under lush lashes. "If you like, Mulder."

Mulder dipped his head gently and gave his own studious attention to entrees. "Slut," he said mildly into his menu.

"The shrimp cocktails are only twelve dollars," Alex noticed aloud to himself. "Maybe I'll get two. . ."

For a time the cloud banks had glittered with electricity at the edges, their billows lit and stroked with the storm's rising charge. Then the storm had broken, combing the lightshow with torrential rain. The first rush lasted less than fifteen minutes, but the sky promised more.

It was still light outside when they left the restaurant, but just barely. Fading fast at the edges of the city, the lingering day gave way to dusk and then evening in quick order, and in its wake the urban, artificial dazzle of the city switched itself on. Swathed in neon and pricked above by countless window lights, the jungle awoke. By the time Mulder and Krycek had half made their way back to the hotel, darkness had settled in. Muggy air had been partially ionized by the storm and steam still rose in places from the cooling pavements. Persons passing them on the street had a harder, more purposeful look than those seen out earlier; in general, there was an impression that two waves of people were meeting uneasily on the street, those quickly finding their ways home, and those who'd just awoken and were starting their day off with a prowl. Within a few hours, the sidewalks would be far emptier, insidiously desolate.

Most shops had closed but the bright store-front windows gave window on a tranquil, boxed-in world of fashionably dressed mannequins, who coolly watched the foot traffic outside their cells. Many seemed always on the verge of violent motion, but never (as far as one could tell) moved.

Even two men with badges, men accustomed to carrying guns, were not inclined to linger on the night streets of New York, and Mulder and Krycek didn't dawdle as they returned to the hotel.

"Think we should have taken a cab?" Mulder asked, glancing over his shoulder as they turned down 47th. Behind them Fifth was still relatively bustling; the cross street ahead was nearly empty.

"Maybe. . .but for a few blocks. . ." Alex shrugged, but his eyes were in constant casual motion, flicking from building to building, between cars and around piled-up garbage deposits.

The attack came not from an alley or out of a shadowed stairwell, but from a surprisingly well-dressed young man who had been approaching them steadily for half a minute before reaching them and pulling a gun from his suit pocket.

"Wallets and watches," he said in a bored voice, a conductor requesting tickets please for the hundred thousandth time.

"Shit," Mulder said, more annoyed than scared. Glowering at their mugger, he pulled out his wallet and began to remove the money.

"Toss it over," said the man, gesturing with his free hand.

After a second's hesitation, Mulder did. Incredibly, the mugger plucked it out of the air one-handed. His gun hand didn't even waver. Seeing that, Mulder almost thought he deserved the money. The man didn't look into the wallet, merely tucked it in his hip pocket.

"I need that back," Mulder said, frowning. It has my badge in it, he almost said, before reconsidering. "Can't you just take the money out?"

"Watch," the man said, then squinted at Mulder's wrist in the street's dim light. "Nah, wait--never mind. Keep it." He turned the gun slightly toward Alex. "Wallet, watch--hurry up, man." Though the words might have suggested impatience, his voice was calm.

Mulder glanced sidelong at Krycek, who'd slid his hands into his pockets and was beginning to get a very dangerous gleam in his. . .oh shit.

"Krycek," Mulder said evenly. "Give him your wallet."

And Krycek--incredibly--turned to look at him, lips parted slightly in derision. "Oh, please," he said dryly.

The words macho fucking hot-shot lunatic flashed by in Mulder's brain in the space of an instant. Shaking his head once in simple disbelief, he quietly ground out: "Krycek--"

"It's just a .22, Mulder." To the mugger, Krycek said, "You'll have to shoot me if you want anything, asshole. And when you do I'm going to tear your fucking throat out."

"Crazy bastard," the mugger said, shaking his own head now, then cocking it to one side, apparently measuring Krycek and weighing matters. "Ah, screw it," he said after a moment, turning in the space of an instant and darting off down an alley.

Krycek, before Mulder could even react, followed. He caught up with the mugger halfway down the alley, slammed him into a brick wall, and did something in the shadowy crush of their bodies that caused the man to scream once in surprised pain, something that was immediately followed by an ugly cracking sound. It was bone, not gun; when Mulder, quick on Krycek's heels, reached them, the erstwhile mugger was slumped against the bricks cradling his right arm against him and groaning pitiably.

As Mulder, mildly stunned, stared back and forth between the man and Krycek, Krycek leaned down and pulled Mulder's wallet free. The gun now rested casually in his left hand, pointing toward the ground. It looked comfortable there; disturbingly so. He straightened up, handed Mulder his wallet, then looked consideringly down at the man before them.

"Should I shoot him?" he asked Mulder conversationally. The mugger moaned, then began to curse and cry softly, the mingled sounds threading with the light patter of rain, which was resuming as they stood there.

"Are you fucking nuts?" Mulder said. In fluid, almost unthinking motions, he grabbed the gun from Krycek's hand, flipped open the chamber, and emptied out the bullets.

"I was just kidding, Mulder." Krycek kicked the mugger's leg. "Stop whining."

It was hard to be sure which of them the command was intended for, but Mulder decided to assume it was the mugger. Rain was pouring harder now into the dim, trash-heaped alley. Mulder ran a hand through his hair, tucked the gun carefully in his pocket. "We'll have to take him to the police station," he said reluctantly after a few moments of thought.

"You can if you want," said Krycek. "I'm going back to the hotel." In the poor light it was hard to read his face, but Mulder sensed his defiance, offhand yet somehow hard as steel.

"We're federal agents, Krycek--" At the mugger's distressed groan ("Oh, fuck"), Mulder scowled and prodded the man with his foot. "Shut up." To Krycek, he added angrily, "We have to take him in--we can't just leave him here."

"Yeah? Why not? We've got better things to do. At least I do. You know how many fucking muggers there are in this city? They're like cockroaches--rats. The system is clogged with them. Besides, look at him--he's probably an investment banker on the side. On his way to a party, needed to feed his meter and didn't have any spare change on him." He kicked the mugger again, none too gently. "Right, asshole? On your way to the corner store for a snowcone?"

"Yeah, man, that's all--I've never done this bef--"

"Shut the fuck up," said Krycek irritably. The man fell silent again. "Come on, Mulder, there's gotta be something good on HBO. You want to spend your Saturday night down at Manhattan South filling out paperwork?"

There was a brief silence. "You broke his arm."

"Yeah, well--" It was the equivalent of a verbal shrug. "He doesn't have to walk on it."

Another brief silence passed before Mulder said quietly, "Fine." He turned to the man on the ground. "Give me your wallet."

Dazed, bewildered, the mugger looked up at Mulder. "Wh--what?"

Krycek kicked him.

"Man, cut it out--no, hey--okay, I'm sorry--fuck--" Cringing from Krycek and favoring his broken arm, the mugger struggled to pull his wallet from an interior jacket pocket. After a few moments, Mulder leaned down and did it for him. He opened it, found the man's ID, studied it a moment, and then pocketed it. The wallet he tossed in the man's lap.

"You know," Mulder said, moving in and speaking very quietly to Krycek, "if we turn this gun over--as we should--and evidence links it to a previous crime. . .we're going to have to live with the knowledge that we let this guy walk."

Dark eyes caught an inkling of reflection from a dim security light as the other man's head tilted. "You're such a boy scout, Mulder." Krycek's voice was low, husky, and amused. Their faces were close in the dimness and rain and Mulder, reacting to those velvety, sensual tones, felt a spill of heat descend his body despite himself, despite the circumstances.

When Krycek's mouth suddenly claimed his he gasped roughly into the kiss; a hot, viciously skillful tongue filled him and stroked the arched, aching vault of his mouth. The rawness, the heat, the unexpected invasion of skull and breath made Mulder want to cry out with pleasure, but the sound of his desire came out as a harsh, dry sob. He felt that exact moment when the rubbery anonymity of his own face was stripped from him like a mask, as the flesh of his lips and cheeks and throat ignited and flew back like brushfire across his suddenly tingling scalp. Oh god--and then the rush of flame outstripped thought and drove through every nerve in his body, down and further down, until he was in danger of falling, weak and smoking, where he stood.

The silken mouth of his demon, his partner, withdrew as abruptly as it had attacked. "You want we should bring him in now?" he asked, softly, wickedly teasing.

"Oh--god--fuck--" Mulder could barely speak. His cock, tightening to a hard, pressing ache against the stiff material of his jeans, throbbed as if an echo of his voice. Desire was an almost blinding pain that could have driven him easily to his knees. It needed only a nudge to send him falling, greedy and supplicating, in front of Krycek.

Let me suck you, you fucking bastard, he wanted to say. His mouth ached, hurt, and hungered to be filled again.

"Jesus, fucking queers--" Sneering up at the two agents, the mugger seemed to have forgotten his own predicament momentarily, but a split second later the lightning-flash impact of Krycek's foot on his broken ulna recalled him to it.

"Ah--ah--fuck--" The man rolled over onto his side, gagging helplessly.

The impact of foot on bone, the man's harsh angry cry, sent a further surge of wild, sickening lust through Mulder's body that no moral conscience could scrub clean. His cock was stiff as a spike and he had a sudden, world-tilting desire to lay down on the filthy ground and offer himself with legs spread--he wanted to feel Krycek's foot rub dangerously over his aching flesh and then press. . .hard. . .until. . .

I'm clearly out of my fucking mind. Mulder looked at the other man in the shadows, only the tiniest glimmer of light in the alley lending itself to the stygian chiaroscuro of his form. He's a lunatic, a savage, probably a sadist. . .

Bemused, saturated with arousal, it took a moment for Mulder to recall just what argument he was trying to make to himself.

Mmm. Oh yeah--

He was dangerous, this one. And not to be trusted.

"Mulder, let's go." Krycek's whisper slid into his ear and uncoiled there like a kiss, tempting and serpentine.

They went.

* * * *

The remainder of the journey back to the hotel was for the most part strained, difficult, forgettable. Arousal ebbed just enough to make walking possible, but lingered like the effects of wine in Mulder's veins, causing his limbs to tangle awkwardly and his breath to come in irregular, distracting rhythms. Impossible not to be aware of Krycek next to him, a dark figure pacing him, a devil riding at his side in the wicked night. What would happen once they were ensconced in their close, insulated hotel room Mulder didn't know, but even before they reached their destination, at a streetlight under which a dowdy, conjugal couple was passing from the other direction, Krycek grabbed him and slammed him up against the metal. The couple looked their way but didn't pause--hastened their pace, rather, muttering to themselves, as Krycek kissed him roughly. Still clutching Scully's present in one hand, Mulder tried not to let go of this single, mundane talisman that was tethering him to anything approaching reality.

The feel of hard muscle twisting and straining against his own desperate body made him erect again in seconds, and for one eager, lust-mad moment Mulder was certain that Krycek was going to turn him and take him right there in the open, under the harsh illumination of the streetlight--and was certain that he would let him.

I thought we weren't going to do this, he might have said, but didn't. It was too good, he didn't want the other man to come to his senses--such as they were--and stop. His clothes, rain-damp and heated, hung upon his body as if constituting a snakeskin he was on the verge of outgrowing; he could feel the shifting millimeters of separation between cloth and skin, a layer of chafing, contained heat that he needed to peel free if he were to continue breathing. A hand yanked his tee shirt loose from his jeans, slid up along his bare skin, and then slid around behind him, cupping his ass, drawing him close. He arched once, voluptuously, as civilized inhibitions loosened further.

With damnable placement, his cellular was in the direct path of Krycek's hand, a back-pocket barrier between palm and ass, and becoming aware of it Mulder had a sudden, panicky fear it was going to start ringing as they stood there.

"Public indecency," he muttered into Krycek's mouth, around the swirling bow of his tongue.

"Mmm, yeah. . ." A warm, laugh-laden breath burst gently into Mulder's own open mouth, followed immediately by a soft groan that sent tickling reverberations down his throat, and lower. Their bodies twined impossibly closer, welding them head to toe in sensation, a range that contained the friction of lightly risen whiskers, denim, wet cotton, and working muscle. The rain, indecisive, had retreated again, but a fine mist remained and bathed them in a dense, humid element that seemed the very aura of their lust.

Breaking the kiss, Mulder rubbed his cheek against Krycek's jaw and neck, and then against the hard curve of his shoulder. Arms tightened around him, hands seized and searched the tense muscles of his back as if to give comfort. But it was not that which was being offered. The intoxicating scent of Krycek's body (burning beach sand a holocaust of crushed diamonds steaming off spilled oil sun heated) brought to the surface of Mulder's desire the memories of previous lovers, rising and mingling like smoke from his present burning. He knew what he was getting into, and it was likely to be very messy, very complicated. . .it would not fit neatly into his life as he'd been living it.

Except that he hadn't been living. Until now.

"You're just a kid," he said into Krycek's shoulder. He lifted his head, and wan lamp light washed over both their faces. "This is highway cradle-robbery."

"A kid--" Krycek laughed softly. "A kid, Mulder?"

"Mmm. . .a big kid, but still. . ." Mulder's voice slid away into a murmur.

Kryeck's own voice lowered, darkened to the brooding growl of thunder just before the lightning's flare. "Do you know what I'm going to do to you?"

"Oh, god--" Gasping, Mulder took the other man's mouth with plundering urgency, sliding his tongue into that silken pocket, tasting fire.

The rest of the journey back to the hotel was, relative to the great scheme of things, almost instantaneous.

"I think the bell-hop was onto us," Mulder said, pressing his forehead briefly into the warm shallow declivity between Krycek's shoulder blades. Krycek drew one of Mulder's hands around his waist, and tilted his head back, watching the elevator lights flash their ascension.

"Yeah, Mulder, you can forget your good name--your reputation at the Roger Smith is ruined."

In answer, Mulder pressed a kiss against the nape of his neck, on the tip of his spine, and then laid several more kisses there, whispering nonsensical nothings as he did. "Your occipital bone articulates with your atlas. . .articulates with your axis--you've got a great axis, Alex. . .nice parietals. . .the winged sphenoid. . .mmm, there's just something about a man's inion. . ."

Alex closed his eyes briefly, reminded himself to breathe. He tried to tell himself that the man standing behind him was too old and too ordinary to meet his exacting standards, but neither was true. He was lovely and very weird, and Alex wanted him more and more with every passing moment. He tried then to tell himself that he would pay for this diversion in ways countless and unforeseeable, that his career was placed in jeopardy and his plans at risk by such a personal, dangerous indulgence. . .but he wasn't listening to himself. He didn't care.

The elevator brought them to their floor, and in brief, well-behaved guise they passed various other guests on their ways to or from dinner, then tumbled into their room like puppies, cooperatively kicking the door shut behind them, kissing hungrily before they were more than a half foot in.

"Alex--Alex, wait--listen--" With lustful disregard Mulder chucked the soggy flowered bag containing Scully's present onto the floor and slid both hands, free now, around him. "Listen--"

"I'm listening," Alex said, with a touch of foreboding.

"Like beautiful bodies which never grew old / tearfully sealed in a bright mausoleum, / at their heads roses and at their feet jasmine-- / so look desires that grow cold unfulfilled, / forever denied even one night of pleasure, / or one of its lightfilled mornings. . .hmm. . .don't you think?" He laughed at Alex's expression.

"You--that's what--"

"Library shelves are always so telling. I like a literate man."

"Not literate, just lucky," Alex said cryptically. His entire poetry collection represented the numerous hopeful gifts of a discarded lover trying to resume his bed. It would be a fine irony if their suggestive lure had drawn Mulder there. He wanted to be able to quote something back, but no words came to him; he'd never in his life memorized a poem with anything like Mulder's casual ease. He slid his hands up under Mulder's jaw, cupped his face. "Mulder. . ." His lips twitched, eyes gleamed. "Can I stop calling you Mulder, now?"

Mulder groaned, butted him forehead to forehead, gently. "Don't ask me that," he said. "Just. . .don't ask, all right?"

Don't ask, just do? Alex wondered. He stroked a thumb up along the other man's jaw, traced the orbital ridge under one eye, where the shadows gathered like a ghostly feathering under the skin. Green eyes considered him, half obscured by heavy, sensual eyelids and the gilded, fox-fur lashes.

"What do you like, Mulder?" he asked softly, teasing him with the light, padded caress of his thumb, bringing it back down along the arch of his cheek, then running it along his lips. "What do you want me to do to you?"

"To me?" Mulder asked with interest, eyelids lowering another notch.

"To you, with you. . .for you."

"I think you've already done it," Mulder said, laughing. His face, wide open, spilled out simple happiness to Alex's view.

Almost wincing at the sight, Alex pressed his thumb across Mulder's lips, as if in a silencing gesture. He didn't want to hear Mulder's laughter, not real laughter. Just his cries. His groans. Letting hunger guide his hand, he moved it lower, running the thumb roughly down Mulder's throat into the hollow at the base, then stroking it across his windpipe. Trachea. . .hyoid bone. . .carotid arteries. . .jugular. . .Mulder was a finger's width away from death, all it needed was a pressure, a touch. . .Alex stroked the other man's throat and watched as it arched, watched the pulse contained within accelerate, beating with increasing rapidity under the skin.

When he pressed briefly against the left carotid, Mulder's breath caught. His eyes, bright and unreadable, bored into Alex's, and Alex let his touch ease. For a moment they stared at one another, then Mulder shook off his paralysis and flowed into him like a river. It was several long minutes before the warm, fluid weave of their tongues became insufficient in itself, and then almost as one mind both men began stripping themselves and each other.

Breaking apart to remove shoes put a momentary distance between them, and Alex, toeing off his sneakers, hesitated, then looked up to speak. "Uh, Mulder, I--I'm clean. . .I just thought I'd tell you. My last test was two weeks ago."

Mulder, tossing his socks impatiently aside, glanced up. "My sex life of late--virtual, solo, pseudo--hasn't exactly introduced me to any risk factors." He straightened and stood with his hands hooked in the waist of his jeans. "I haven't been tested for several months, but I don't have any reason to think I'm not clean."

Alex eyed him with glittering humor, letting his gaze slide down his bare chest and across tight denim. "Yeah, well you certainly look clean, Spud."

Suddenly Mulder stared off to one side; struck by a thought, he seemed to be trying to remember something. "Oh, no--" He looked back at Alex, lips parted, face dismayed. "I don't have anything--do you?"

"Some boy scout you are. Lucky for you, though. . ." Trailing off with a smirk and a wink, Alex sifted the contents of his open suitcase until he found a handful of condoms and a small tube.

"Hmm." Mulder eyed the items as Alex placed them on the bedside table. "Four condoms? Is he well-prepared or over-sexed, I ask myself."

Alex drew close again. "Why not. . .optimistic?"

"Mmm. . .why not."

They stood between the beds, bathed in the rather pinkish glow cast by the room's lamps. For a minute or more they stroked each other's bared chests and arms, both absorbed by the novelty of the occasion, in no hurry--just then--to hasten it. Now and then they kissed, lazily.

After one such kiss, Mulder drew back, looking distracted again, and said, "Oh, wait, what did you do with the handcuffs--", then laughed as Alex pulled him aggressively close. Their bodies shifted together almost as if dancing.

"I knew it, Mulder, you sick, twisted fuck." Alex grinned wickedly against his lips. "And don't try and tell me you were just joking. It won't work."

"Wrong kind of headboard," Mulder said with mock (or half mock) regret.

"Another time," Alex said, promise smoldering in his face and eyes.

Mulder leaned in. Deepening shivers were expanding in his flesh in slow, hot waves, a rippling backdrop of sensation to his tumbling, skipping thoughts. Another time. He searched Alex's face and dark eyes, smiling just a little, mixed emotions painting the smile with the faintest of shadow. "Alex. . .there's something I should tell you--"

Alex groaned and gave him a surly, irritated look. "No, Mulder. There's not. I don't want to hear about your STD or your fiancee or your inoperable brain tumor. I just want to fuck, okay?" Then, at the adamantine patience on Mulder's face, he sighed. "What?"

"I. . ." Mulder hesitated, then at Alex's equally impatient expression, said slowly, searchingly: "I talk a lot, during sex. . ."

"Is that all? I'll gag you."

Mulder's grave, almost Mona Lisa smile didn't noticeably alter in response. Alex himself wasn't entirely sure whether he'd been joking or not.

"I sleep poorly, I steal the sheets, I kick my bed partners and sometimes wake screaming. I believe in aliens, I drink the last beer. . .when I don't talk too much I don't talk enough. I get on people's nerves, I annoy waiters and embarrass my friends and the people who know me best usually end up suggesting I seek counseling. Words used by various acquaintances to describe my sparkling personality have included tactless, rude, juvenile, socially autistic, obsessive, neurotic, paranoid, psychologically disturbed, subclinically depressed, fashion-impaired--"

"Mulder, shut up," Alex said gently.

"Oh, but there's more." Mulder smiled, but his smooth face remained essentially unreadable.

"I don't care. You're assuming a lot. Who says we'll get to know each other that well?"

Another man might have been offended at this point--a woman certainly--but Mulder looked almost relieved. His smile relaxed a notch. "Yeah. Okay. Let's boff, baby."

"Oh, so romantic," Alex laughed. Abruptly he pushed Mulder sprawling onto the bed behind him and dropped to his knees between the collapsed vee of his legs. Mulder shifted, at first planting his feet more firmly on the ground and then drawing them up to rest on Alex's shoulders, where he kneaded his toes and heels into the smooth congruence of muscled arms.

Alex bent his head, kissed one fine and elegant foot. From above and beyond there rose soft little sounds, hums and murmurs that gradually flowered into speech. He did talk a lot. Alex wondered if it was a method to slow down and distract himself from arousal. For a few minutes he half listened, trying to follow the trail of words--scraps of poetry, odd anatomical observations, things he'd seen on Wild Kingdom as a child--then tuned him more or less out, figuring that when Mulder said something truly pertinent the urgency would communicate itself.

Jeans allowed only a limited access to the legs sprawled bountifully in front of him, so Alex didn't waste much time before he reached up and began wrenching at the fly. Though rough and purposeful, his motions were rewarded with a pleased sound that interrupted the flow of speech. Two warm hands closed over his and entwined long fingers into his own.

"You're making this difficult," Alex said. He tried to tug his hands free, but Mulder's fingers had formed a surprisingly strong weave. Goaded by frustration and zany impulse, Alex leaned forward and began tugging the zipper with his teeth. Between tugs he said, "I know--this was--your plan--" Stiffening flesh, still barricaded behind thick denim, swelled under his lips, and the strong fingers loosened, unlocking Alex's hands and sliding off into his hair, carding its strands. Alex shook himself free. Trying to evade Mulder's busy hands was rather like trying to escape the importuning clutches of some quickly mutating kudzu.

"Castrated by his own zipper--there's an epitaph--ouch--oops, the cellular--just, can you--Alex, watch it--can you put the gun in the night-table drawer--god, what would Scully say, I can't believe I let you talk me into. . .um. . .yes, that's. . .you're very talented, m'boy. . .mmm, did you know that the rate of tongue flicking in snakes and lizards indicates the stimulation of the vomeronasal organ. . .it's thought that we humans have our own version. . .right now as you're licking up my molecules you're probably receiving a whole bundle of pheromones and chemical signals that I'm not even aware of sending. . . mounting signals, probably. . .hamsters have a vomeronasal organ. . .vomeronasal. . .and they're so dependent on olfactory signals that a male won't mate if he can't sniff. . .do hamsters catch colds. . .mmm, part of the hamster mating ritual involves the male slinking up to the female's side and sniffing and licking her flank gland. . .you can tell a lot about a girl that way. . ."

"Mulder, has anyone ever told you, you know way too much about the sex lives of hamsters?" Alex, having licked his way up Mulder's legs, began rubbing his cheeks teasingly against the hard wishbone of his hips, on either side of the tightening briefs.

The flow of words began to pick up speed, punctuated by breathless gasps. "It's not. . .an intimate knowledge--oh. . .um--Alex, have you ever thought about whether you're to eron or ton eromenon? The lover or the beloved. . .no, I don't suppose it's relevant. . .I should ask if you're paiderastes or philerastes. . .no reason you can't be both, of course. . .I've never really found a great affinity in Platonic erotics myself, but you see it everywhere in the clubs. . .in a debased form. . .as the saying goes. . .and without the phil--oh--the philosophical context of the aphrodisia, but--"

Alex slid his tongue across the other man's enclothed erection, in a broad, hard swathe that traced its straining silhouette with precise cruelty.

"--oh, god--Alex--oh--yes--that's--oh, god--wait--wait--fuck, I didn't mean stop, you bastard--"

Standing, Alex quickly began shucking off his own jeans, leaving Mulder sprawled and groaning on the bed before him. He was, Alex thought, almost absurdly cute, more like a precocious ten-year-old than a man who'd never see thirty again. He propped his head awkwardly on one arm and pouted up at Alex, six lush feet of renegade G-man and wanton national security threat--quite possibly the sexiest risk to its purple mountain majesties the U.S. of A. had yet been blessed with.

I'm doing this for my country, Alex thought. The dramatic whimsy gave him a moment's amusement--not to mention a rather zingy erotic thrill--but he didn't delude himself that it was actually the truth. To hell with work, and case work, and career cultivation. To hell with national security. This was the weekend. He was horny, Mulder was horny, they had the convenience and the correct ephemeral tone of a hotel room at their disposal, and the next mugger they met might not be a half-sprung punk but a super-jaded crackhead packing a magnum--as incentives went, these pretty much covered the basics. Alex knew opportunity when it knocked him in the balls, and fate didn't need to give them any further twist before he took advantage.

"Wait," said Mulder sultrily, eyeing him. He sat up and scooted to the edge of the bed. "Let me help." He slid his arms around Alex's waist and kissed him at an interesting latitude. "Nice abs," he murmured. His tongue flicked into Alex's navel. "Omphalos. . .the heart of the world." Behind his back, Alex could feel warm, good-sized hands sneaking up into his briefs, cupping his ass and drawing him into further kisses. "Hello. . .hello," Mulder said, nuzzling lower. Laughter bubbled against the peaked cotton of Alex's briefs. He closed his eyes, and took Mulder's head gently in his hands, sliding palms back and forth through the soft, short hair and feeling it tickle the lengths of his fingers like freshly mown grass.

"I've raised an orchid," Mulder said, smiling dreamily.

"Are you going to help or not?" Alex said, managing speech only with difficulty.

"Yes, let's. . ." Briefs finally began their descent over hips, then dropped. Alex impatiently kicked them off. He began to push Mulder back again, but the other man resisted. "No--hold on, I want to take some measurements--hey--" Driven by the force of Alex's shove, they tangled together on the bed in a shared laughter that did not quite leave their throats.

"Oh--oh god, Alex--" Mulder said quietly, arching neck and back slightly. He gripped Alex's sleek, wiry body, forbidding him to withdraw his blanketing weight. "Oh god, right there--just--don't--" Gasps followed as Alex began a rocking motion with his hips, driving naked, spear-stricken flesh across Mulder's own trapped cock. When Alex found a groove that drove his cock like a rough, chafing file between Mulder's balls and up along his straining shaft, Mulder's back jack-knifed and his hips twisted wildly, creating a torquing counter-motion that brought them both near the brink in moments.

Only severe self-command allowed Alex to stop moving at that point. The curses that followed entertained him and goaded him, and provided a well-timed excuse to take Mulder in a silencing kiss. And then several more. He stabbed his tongue against Mulder's again and again, and felt in their mouths the intersection of two flames, as if two lighters were being flicked over and over in close proximity, and the harsh grate of the flinted wheels was their own mingled breaths. In the skipping, dancing play of their tongues fire merged with fire fluidly, and their mouths were scalded by the heat they contained.

When mutual asphyxiation seemed a near reality, Alex finally broke away and moved on to other areas. Mulder, gasping, said something about primordial high-temperature high-density plasma ("very big bang, I think, Alex--"), which Alex, for his sake, ignored. Fiercely he bit at Mulder's neck, collarbones, shoulders, nearly drawing blood at each point; no signal from Mulder halted or hindered him, no matter how hard his teeth raked flesh. Only sharpening cries of pleasure rose in the other man's throat (alternating with an agonized rendition of what sounded like a Shakespearian sonnet). Alex, arriving at stiffly readied nipples, gave them in turn sharp bites and the dull, skidding caress of his tongue, until the pressure of Mulder's ever-mobile hands grew violent enough to make their proximity to Alex's throat a danger. He drew back, his body a half-draped curl across Mulder's torso, and ran a finger down the line that bisected his gleaming chest.

"Fox," he said, his voice a husky, uneven tenor, "what would you--"

"Don't call me that," Mulder interrupted in a whisper; the words sounded like a reflexive, well-worn rebuff. His eyes were closed and his head moved from side to side restively.

Alex's face tightened. "I'm going to bite you again, Mulder, if you don't fucking watch it, and you won't like where. . .you know, if you don't want to be on a first-name basis, we could just play some checkers, watch a little Nick at Nite--"

Mulder groaned. "No. . ." Heavy-lidded eyes opened, smoldered at Alex. Mulder half propped himself up. "Let me make it up to you," he said softly, a wild, wicked heat showing in his eyes and the hot, glowing planes of his face. Lamp-light, pinkly gold, sank into his skin and hair and became a sunset, shifting to hues in which every variety of rose breathed. In his hair maple trees caught fire and burned and died, leaving behind ashes, cinnamon, dried blood.

Alex reached out and touched his finely carved jawbone, chin, throat. "Gee, Mulder," he said softly back. "I don't know if you can."

"I can be very good, Alex," Mulder said, opening his eyes wider and blinking several times, all innocence.

An intriguing contrast: the lamblike docility of the words themselves and the way in which they rolled out across the rough gravel of that incredibly flat, incredibly sensual voice. Distracted, it took Alex a moment to catch up; before lips, parted in astonishment, began to curve in a not-so-nice smile. "Really? I'll bet you can. . .but I'll ask you to prove it."

He could be very good, as it turned out.

. . .infuriating, distracting, inebriating. . .

Very good, Alex decided, shuddering up into Mulder's skillfully exploring mouth, feeling what could be no more than a half dozen silken hairs rise on a wave of static electricity and brush the base of his cock. Christ. He was talking less now, and that was fine too, and he was a practiced tease, with a inquisitor's refined habit of beginning a pleasure only to stop just when things were starting to get interesting.

"God, Mulder--" Alex bit back a curse as Mulder's tongue left the inside of his upper thigh and wandered carelessly down to his right kneecap. "Tell me something," he ground out, "when you're jacking off, do you stop halfway through to run a load of laundry, answer the mail, read a fucking good book. . ."

"It's a kind of cubist technique I'm working on developing here," Mulder said to Alex's knee, between kisses. His flat, grave voice mused aloud. "Finishing involves a stupidity of perception. Graceful, spontaneous lines go dull or get lost altogether. Pretty good, hmm? Almost a neat dozen words, if you don't count the little ones. Guy Davenport." Abandoning the one knee, he moved his attention to the other, apparently without any plan other than making a visual study of it.

Cubism indeed. Alex gritted his teeth and regulated his laboring breath, teetering on a razor's edge between exquisite boredom and exquisite ecstasy. "Yeah? You wanna tell me where this Guy is, I've got a bullet with his name on it."

Can't you just talk dirty, Mulder?

Alex felt as flushed and full and ready as he'd ever been in his life; and not just in his cock, either--the entire length of his body, the backs of his eyelids, his earlobes, the backs of his knees, the strip of aching flesh between balls and anus--every pleasure-laden part of him was suffused with sensation, strobic and pulsing, linked by a million sizzling nerves to the lazy, erratic movement of Mulder's mouth. He wanted to cry out and beg for that mouth to descend on his cock--it felt as if it had been dipped in liquid paraffin and he could feel that pearling of need that signaled an almost unbearable tumescence. A single touch of that flame-wet tongue and he would ignite and stream with fire.

"Mulder. . ."

"Alex?"

Mulder moved to straddle Alex's thighs and settled there, bending to rest his hands on either side of Alex's head and looking down at him with serene, Nilotic attention. A cat contemplating a dinner half chewed, the bird half dead.

Alex groaned, panted. "There's a double standard here, Mulder. Why am I calling you Mulder when you're calling me Alex?"

"You didn't ask me not to," Mulder said reasonably, then smiled. "Want me to call you Krycek?"

"Yeah, right--not." As he spoke, Alex unobtrusively tried to snake himself closer to Mulder's warm, proximate heat, back into that cock-cozy basket he never should have abandoned. "I don't go for those butch, boot-camp games, Mulder. If I wasn't getting used to calling you Mulder you'd be in big trouble. . .I can think of a lot of other things to call you."

"I'll bet," Mulder said, more seriously than the occasion might have seemed to warrant. He contemplated the other man, shifting back just as the distance between their cocks narrowed to a hair's breadth.

"Fuck," Alex grated out, seething with frustration.

"I need you to know something, Alex." Mulder watched the younger man's eyes snap fully open, flare dangerously and darkly. Before he could speak, Mulder went on. "I don't do this often. . .I'm not a slut."

Half full--or half empty, Alex thought, not quite able to read the other man's tone. Half joking--or--?

"It's just that. . .it's been a long time."

Do I look like I give a shit? Alex wondered. "Glad I could help you out, Mulder. Now will you shit or get off the pot--figuratively speaking, please."

Mulder shifted again, welding their bodies together at the most crucially sweet junction and watching Alex's face blossom. Cheeks flushed, lips parted and seemed to grow fuller, eyelids unfurled and descended, and the bloom nodded on the stem with restless, imperative motions.

He really was. . .attractive, Mulder realized. It fell short, but he could think of no word appropriate to Alex's strange, fey charm. Neither beautiful nor handsome, he might have belonged to some other species (an alien species?) to whom such set, simple terms did not apply. His features, his demeanor, were in constant flux; he altered too quickly to be pinned down. One moment he seemed only the measure of his twenty-odd years and no more--an unpolished kid, a bit naive, almost shy--and then a leprechaun face would peep out behind the mask, mischievous, willful, elementally tricky. . .and then, in the next shape-shifting moment, he was all panther, feral and vital, dark and sharply fanged. Fey. . .dangerous. . .volatile. . .

He's a fairy, Mulder thought wickedly. Aroused but distracted by his own whimsy, he grinned down at Alex, unaware of the rather dry, smug expression that had stolen across his face.

Alex opened his eyes--realized that he and Mulder had fallen out of synch again--and felt something inside him snap. Swearing, he flipped the other man off of him--and off the bed. Mulder fell onto his ass on the floor between the beds, looking startled and then angry, but only for as long as it took Alex to reach him and haul him up again. He twisted Mulder around, tossed him face down on the other bed, and held him there with one arm forced up behind his back. Mulder had, during his previous accommodations, stripped free of his own briefs. Convenient.

"Mulder, I'm going to fuck you now," Alex said flatly. What remained of civility required that the other man should be informed of this, but that was as far as Alex's manners and patience went. He stretched and snagged a condom and lube from the bedside table, keeping an inexorably strong grip on his prey as he did. One part of his mind noted quickly that it really wasn't necessary--Mulder's struggles were no more than a tentative, pro forma exercise contradicted by the instinctive widening of his legs. But the dominant mode had switched over to domination. Alex was focused.

He ripped the condom wrapper open with his teeth, rolled the rubber on with practiced ease and a sweet frisson of anticipatory pleasure, then fumbled impatiently with the lube until he managed to get at least a nominal amount smeared on his fingers and then on his throbbing cock.

"Jesus, Mulder," he muttered, "I hope you can take this, 'cause I'm waiting only as long as it takes to get my head in the door before I fuck you stupid."

A groan--encouraging, fervent--answered him, and Mulder's heat-slicked body twisted up to meet him, attempting to find purchase on the bed. And then the dam of words burst again, stripped of erudition and fancy, sweetly inarticulate.

"Oh, god, Alex--fuck, yes--oh god--"

Need had arrived, impacting full force in both their bodies. Mulder sounded close to sobbing and Alex was gratified. Teeth bared with unconscious ferocity, he slid his free hand between the cleft of Mulder's thighs and yanked him upright, onto his knees. "Not a virgin, are you? Never mind, don't answer that, I don't give a fuck. Hold still."

"Oh god--fucking do it--now--" Mulder's voice was the rasp of a file across prison bars, harsh and keen.

Like key fitting to lock, the first kissing touch of his swollen cockhead against burning, tightened eyelet nearly made Alex scream. "Relax, Mulder," he said, fiercely, almost warningly. Desperate to thrust but unwilling to batter his way in, Alex closed his eyes and rocked against the gate. "God, you are so fucking tight--just--yes, that's--that's it--oh, god, Mulder--" Alex tilted his head back further, eyes sliding shut, face transfixed midway between ecstasy and wild laughter. He laughed once, unevenly, almost drunkenly, feeling the first stars come out and roll blazing through his veins. He felt the other man's body ease itself to take him, and the dark fires of triumph and lust that swept over him nearly blacked consciousness out altogether.

If there was anything more perfect than driving fully into a man's willing ass, Alex had never discovered it.

There was nothing he could do to make it last--before he could help himself he'd released Mulder's arm and drawn him up against his own body back to chest, and the suddenly altered angle and the risky, shifting awkwardness of their positions on the bed became a skewering, corkscrewing twist--Alex's pulsing flesh embedded in Mulder, Mulder's ass seizing spasmodically around him--and then Alex was coming sharply, disarticulating in a jagged bolt of lightning that strobed out from the clenched source of his balls, rolling up his cock to burst with scalding force into the heart-heated darkness.

"Oh. . .wow. . ." Mulder said, slumping forward after a moment, while Alex stood dizzily behind him, still buried to the hilt, trying to figure out if he could move without falling. ". . .I was. . .so close. . ."

It took several seconds for the words to work their way through to Alex's brain. "Close," he managed eventually, through the ragged wind of his breath. "Close?"

Forehead pressed to the sheets, Mulder groaned.

Alex staggered back a bit and felt himself slip free of his prize. Wincing, he slid the condom off and chucked it messily into the small (pink) wastebasket between the beds with a cool disregard for form. He glanced at Mulder's ass, decided no niceties were required, and shoved at the other man's hip, flipping him over onto his back.

"Jesus, Mulder." Alex didn't know whether to be impressed, flattered, or annoyed. Mulder looked painfully hard, slick, ready--and incredibly frustrated. "Can I give you a hand with that?" he asked dryly.

"You'd fucking better," Mulder rasped. "Christ, I thought--" He closed his eyes, took a deep breath.

Alex nudged Mulder further onto the bed, slid down next to him. "Yeah, well, sorry, I couldn't wait. Talk about a fucking cocktease."

Mulder's head shook from side to side and he groaned again. "No. . .oh, fuck. . .Alex, I need. . ." Raggedly he took a breath, opened his eyes. "I need. . ."

Alex looked down at the flushed face, raw with need, burning with feeling. Passion? Shame? "What do you need?" he asked in a warm, silky voice. Sated, it was hard for Alex to resist the temptation to minor sadism.

Mulder bit his lip, searched up into Alex's eyes, then pressed a hand against his own reddened face. "Shit. . .oh shit. . .fuck."

"Take it easy, Mulder. Even you can't be that weird. What do you want me to do for you?"

Wordlessly, a bit clumsily, Mulder took Alex's hand and drew it to his throat, held it there, splayed close and warm on his neck. Alex could feel the pulse beating madly under his palm, felt the rhythm of quickening breath and the escalating movements of Mulder's throat as he swallowed several times in agitation.

"Shit," Alex whispered, feeling an unsettling flutter in his nerves that approached panic, and a disturbing hint of returning arousal.

"Please, Alex." Mulder's own voice was a whisper. "Oh, god--please--" Rising desperation cracked his voice. His eyes had compressed tightly, and his face was stricken in need.

"Mulder, I have no clue. . .what--"

Impatiently Mulder manhandled Alex up into a kneeling position over his own reclining form, keeping hold of the hand on his throat, guiding the other to the arched, pulsing bow of his cock.

Alex felt a further spur of panic kick in at the determined, deliberate positioning. "Mulder, what if you--have you ever--has anyone ever--"

"I'm not going to die, Alex. Trust me." He smiled fleetingly, almost warmly. "I trust you. . .it's easy. . .you'll know what to do."

Alex licked his lips once, gathering up his slightly frazzled nerve, then began carefully stroking with his left hand, gripping with his right. It took a minute or so to coordinate the two rhythms, the slightly variant motions, and then he found it, what Mulder needed, could tell by the arch of his back, the stunned focus of his face as the other man closed in on himself, folding inward, disappearing behind his shut eyelids, into wherever it was he went at such a point. Alex flexed his hand over and over against Mulder's neck, gradually letting the pressure increase. A breath--interrupted--a breath--interrupted. Gentle squeezes became tighter, faster--and longer, and in response Mulder began to twist, kicking out and flexing like a swimmer in deep water. Like a man drowning. The deepening shades of his face were almost alarming, and Alex sincerely hoped that Mulder didn't have a heart problem; he'd have some difficult explaining the body.

He could tell when Mulder was near; his movements grew more frantic, became the thrashing, instinctive gestures of survival. His hands seized and covered Alex's own, tightly, and then began pulling and striking at him with such wildness that Alex almost let go. Only the suspicion that Mulder would kill him if he did allowed him to keep his grip. When Mulder's lean, tense body began arching convulsively off the bed, Alex realized that he himself had grown erect again. It was very sick, but very sexy, feeling Mulder writhe within his hands, watching his face tilt back, his full lips part as he gasped for air and found it denied, feeling the swollen length of his cock stiffen and pulse faster as his heartbeat accelerated, skipped, and--and then he was coming, bucking madly in Alex's grip, shooting across his own belly with unbound, impossible force, all breath closed off in his throat, the life-sustaining element withheld even as the procreating element spilled free.

When Mulder seemed on the verge of unconsciousness--or had he passed over?--Alex quickly released his throat. Damp-lashed eyelids fluttered, and Mulder choked once--twice--then began sucking down air in long, shuddering breaths.

Alex slumped next to him, his own breath irregular and harsh in his throat. He was trembling, nerves jangling. He'd been pushed up almost to his own peak just by bringing Mulder off. "Was that. . .good for you. . .darling," he muttered, rubbing his damp face against Mulder's, unconsciously miming the gestures of a mother cat nudging and licking her kittens into the realm of the living.

Slowly, wordlessly, Mulder shook his head to one side and then the other, but Alex suspected this meant yes.

After a while, Mulder journeyed back to awareness. He looked over at Alex, blinking as if to clear the haze from his eyes. Silvery stripes of tears brimmed there, raised by the intensity of his body's reflexive struggle. "Hello," he said in a small, scratchy voice, smiling lazily.

"Yeah, hello, Mulder." Alex shifted to rest against the other man's body and studied his face a moment, before licking a kiss across his passion-bruised lips.

"Like Orpheus returned," Mulder said quietly.

His eyes were shut as he said this, and Alex couldn't tell if he was talking to himself, about himself, or. . .fuck it, he thought, trying to ignore the prickling hairs on the back of his nape. Whatever, Mulder. But Alex felt his own body, cooling and damp, shiver once in response.

"Hey, you're feeling a bit stiff again, Butch." Mulder flexed his hips up, raising a groan of appreciation from Alex's throat as wounded, aching flesh was touched. "I thought we'd worked those kinks out."

"Mulder, if you ever work those kinks out, that'll be the day."

"Mmm--what day?"

"Hell will freeze over. . .pigs will fly. . ."

"Martians will land," Mulder said, warmly and sleepily, as his hand slid down further in his investigations.

"That may be. . .too soon," Alex said.

Roger Smith Hotel

Sunday, 5:18 a.m.

"Yes, yes--hold on--"

Mulder fumbled for the lamp switch, cursed, sat up in the dark, found it, and picked up the phone--

"What?"

--which continued to ring.

"Shit," Mulder muttered, looking blankly around the area between the two beds. "Alex, what did you do with my cellular?"

A muffled mumble leaked out from under a pillow but didn't elucidate on the question.

"Thanks so much. . .okay, okay. . ." Mulder coughed slightly, speech tickling his dry throat. He fell to his knees on the floor and fished around in the tangle of clothes until he uncovered his phone. "Mulder. What."

"Agent Mulder, this is Rebecca Sheer at the New York field office. We have a hit on your trace request."

Mulder listened for a few minutes, his silence interspersed by an occasional light grunt. Finally, he said, "Yeah, okay--and hey, thanks."

"No problem at all, Agent Mulder," said the quick, smooth voice on the other end. "And I'm sorry if I woke you."

"No, that's fine." Mulder struggled sleepily to his knees. "Perfect start to another day in the glorious, glamorous life of a bureau badge." He hung up after a few more brief pleasantries, with a groggy, bemused feeling that he ought to send the ebullient Ms Sheer a bouquet of flowers.

Yes, but perky is its own reward.

Mulder yawned, screwing his gritty eyes shut against the lamp light. He slumped forward against the edge of the bed and very nearly fell back asleep there.

"Who was that?" Alex said muzzily, rolling out from under his pillow some little while later. Squinting at the travel alarm, then down at the boneless drape of Mulder's body, he drew himself reluctantly from sleep. "Hey." He reached over and prodded Mulder's resting head, then ruffled his hair. "You asleep?"

"Very much so."

"Who was that--Scully?"

"Mmm. . .no. . ." Mulder drew himself up, ran a hand through his hair, pushing it into a mare's nest of divergent clumps and spikes, then slapped himself once in the face. "Ow." The brief exclamation was toneless, unsurprised.

Alex, startled by the sound of the impact, stared at Mulder, then laughed. The other man's face was still rather expressionless and sleep-heavy.

"That was the New York office. They've got a hit on Cole. They pulled up a record for him from the V.A.'s vault at Neosho. Happy news. He's right next door in New Jersey, at one of their medical centers."

"Fuckin' great. . .I think." Coming almost fully awake, Alex sat up in bed. "What's his story?"

"He was involuntarily committed there years ago. Which seems to rule him out as a suspect. But we'll call them, set up a meeting. It might be useful."

"You callin' them now?"

"You're kidding, right?" Mulder crawled up into bed and rolled himself close to Alex's chest.

Alex reached over him, switched off the light, then let his arm wrap around the other man's slim, warm body.

They kissed for a little time in the darkness, then twined further together, down into the sheets. Flesh followed ancient, instinctive drives; thoughts drifted loose. Speech came easier in the dark. Words somehow were more easily spoken, more easily forgotten.

"Thanks for that. . .earlier, what you did," Mulder whispered at one point, as their bodies were slowly, lazily finding their rhythm. "I needed that. . .really. . .a lot of people freak, but you were. . .I. . ."

"'S'okay, Mulder," Alex said softly back, his lips brushing the crook of Mulder's arm, the deepening well of his chest. "You're not as far out there as you think--you're still here with us in the human race." Dark, darker, darkness.

"Humans. . .we're the weirdest monkeys ever. . ." In the unlit room open eyes saw only shadows, some lighter, some darker. On his back, Mulder floated, feeling his body lifted and carried by pleasure as if on the swell of a dark, fathomless sea. "Alex--tomorrow--today--"

"You don't have to tell me. This is just. . .recess."

"Yes. . ." Mulder's low voice spiralled out dreamily into the room. "I tend to plow through with my head down, forget I have any life beyond work. . .well, actually, I don't, which is what makes this so very. . .very. . .um. . .have I mentioned. . .you make a pretty good partner, Alex. . . ?" Mulder felt the answering laughter against his stretched, shivering abdomen, then lower. "Oh," he whispered with pleased approval. "Oh my, oh my, oh my. . ."

A while later. . .

"Did they teach you that at the Academy?" Mulder murmured.

A kiss found its way through the darkness to plant itself on Mulder's lips, and then drifted across his face in soft, light landings, gentle as a moth's touch. "This is my hobby, not my career, Mulder."

"Mmm, yes. . .and this is way better than bowling."

10:42 a.m.

Mulder and Krycek breakfasted in the hotel dining room, unhurriedly and rather sloppily, amidst scattered sections of the Sunday Times and the accumulating debris of their colossal, over-priced meals. After the diversions of the night and morning (including a shared and ridiculously prolonged shower), both men had pulled back a bit into their shells, just enough to take a breather from one another. Even the territorial division of the table and its mess seemed to spell out clearly: personal space being reestablished here.

Mulder claimed the crossword; Krycek grabbed the sports page. Mulder read the Book Review; Krycek scanned the stock reports. Mulder unearthed the sports page and turned to basketball previews; Krycek hunted out the comics and read them quickly, almost perfunctorily, without once cracking a smile. Eventually, with earnest, dutiful attention they both shared pieces of the news sections. Mulder gleaned every scrap of weirdness from the paper's pages of with unerring accuracy and read them to Krycek. Krycek, with bland reciprocity, shared with him the highlights of congressional business.

Eventually, glutted on feast and famine, they slumped back in their seats and wound up the breakfast, settling with the waitress and preparing to head out on the day's work.

"Pilsson said he'd be there up until three or so," said Mulder, looking at his watch. "But we probably should go. . .now. . .soon."

"Mmm." Alex, leaning back in his chair, contemplated Mulder from under the lush shade of his lashes.

After a moment, Mulder glanced up absently from the folded wad of Dear Abby he'd laid across his plate. "What?"

Alex shook his head with idle amusement. "Those glasses do a lot for you Mulder. Give you that professorial, learn'ed look. Respectability, credibility even. . .well, almost."

"Yikes. Credibility. I didn't think I was in any danger of that."

"Just the appearance of."

"That's okay, then."

Mulder went back to reading, and Alex went back to watching him. He looked so. . .normal this morning. The contrast between Mulder unzipped--perverted, desperately demanding, happily abandoned--and Mulder of the morning after--sated, blase, mildly boring--amused and fascinated Alex. Mulder's face, even at its most inexpressive, was like a proverbial window on his soul, and Alex felt he could look right through that lucid mask and see all of the other man's inner processes at work: gears turning, cogs clicking into place. Here was Mulder in metamorphosis, altering from private to public persona. Mulder, the good little G-man, working himself gradually back into full bureau mode, all bland demeanor and spit-polished badge.

Mulder, apparently feeling Alex's gaze on him, looked up again, peering out from the enigmatic cosmos contained within his skull, over the top edge of his glasses. "I'm that cute, am I?" he asked mildly.

"You're adorable, Mulder," Alex said seriously, and watched with secret satisfaction as the other man tried hard not to react.

Mulder fiddled with his paper, his coffee, his glasses, until his embarrassment had passed, then began rolling down his shirt sleeves, tightening his tie. Mulder. FBI.

The bill had been paid. The day was getting on.

"Okay," Mulder sighed, when he was finally able to meet Alex's eyes again. He looked up, all business--or as close to it as he could bring himself. "Time to go."

V.A. Medical Center, North Orange, N.J.

Sunday, 1:15 p.m.

A hell of a place to spend a weekend, thought Alex, much less the uncertain remainder of one's life.

As they descended into the depths of the institution (Mulder quizzing Pilsson about his work history, current position, duties), Alex's gaze wandered, taking in their surroundings. His face, unrealized to himself, wore a twisted, disgusted expression, the look of a man who values his freedom like his very blood and breath.

Once out of the public lobby area and past the doctors' tolerably comfortable offices, the medical center revealed its hidden heart, a labyrinth of endless corridors in which the center's patients counted out their days. The greater part of the building, to Alex's impression, seemed composed of nothing but corridors--long and claustrophobic, their cinderblock walls painted in drab institutional tones, with here and there large patches of damp eating away the surface of the paint, creating an effect like that of eczemous skin. The very bricks were crumbling from the damp-rot, and leaving small dusty piles of eroded cement on the floors. The floors were maroon, blood-red, and reflected little of the jaundiced light given out by the fluorescent strips above. Pipes ran parallel to the lights, dropped down the walls in places, disappeared into the floors, presumably to even lower levels.

What a hole, thought Alex, with bone-deep distaste. Walking slightly behind and to the side of Mulder and Pilsson, he studied the doctor while half listening to Mulder natter on (something about horticultural therapy for patient rehabilitation, utterly irrelevant to their investigation as far as Alex could tell: a flake, but a brilliant flake). Pilsson was a short, thinnish, balding man with glasses and wispy hair, wearing a white lab, baggy brown trousers, suspenders, and a big tie. He walked with his right hand habitually planted in his pocket, fondling his ward keys--or the family jewels, perhaps--and an arid "know-it-all, seen-it-all" smirk had been hanging lopsidedly on his face ever since the two agents had introduced themselves. Though, in all fairness, Alex had to admit that it might have hung there long before.

"This is the floor," Pilsson said, passing through a door and holding it open for the two agents to pass through. "Sorry the elevators aren't available. Inspector closed them down. We need new ones, but our budget is tapped out--we've used up all our funds for this fiscal year. Another month. God grant we make it."

"Yeah," Mulder said in companionable sympathy, "we're all out of bullets at the bureau." A straighter face it would have been impossible to imagine outside of Flatland. He made a tiny tsk-ing sound indicative of regret and resignation. "We're all hoping September will be a slow crime month."

"God grant," Alex said earnestly before he could stop himself.

Pilsson turned his head and gave the two of them an odd, sidelong look. "You are joking, I presume?"

"Just keep your eye on the statistical charts and your fingers crossed," Mulder said.

Pilsson looked at him, then at Alex, as if trying to determine which category of the DSM to fit them into, then nodded and smirked to himself, obviously deciding that humoring the loonies was par for the course--even (or especially) those with badges.

They turned down one long featureless corridor, and then another. Bread crumbs seemed in order; Alex hoped Mulder's memory was sharp enough to lead them back out the maze if it became necessary.

"How long have you been treating Cole?" Mulder asked, drawing back to the topic.

"I've been supervising Mr Cole's treatment since I admitted him twelve years ago. . .I'm afraid you won't find him very cooperative though."

"We just want to ask him a few questions about his military service."

"He doesn't respond well to. . .authority figures," Pilsson said dryly.

Mulder, subtly oppressed by the clinic and its empty, echoing corridor, directed a blandly sardonic question to Pilsson's moving back. "Is that why you put him in isolation?"

"We've had to house Mr Cole in this section of the ward because he was interfering with our treatment of the other patients."

"How was he interfering?"

From behind, the two agents could see the doctor looking up and off to the side, as if in a cue to memory. "He was disrupting their sleep patterns," he said after a moment. He looked over his shoulder--almost pointedly--as he delivered the comment.

Mulder and Krycek exchanged a glance.

Pilsson, coming up on a door bearing Cole's name, was continuing: "With psychiatric patients especially it's critical that their circadian cycles are strictly maintained--"

Mulder interrupted him, pressingly. "Excuse me--but exactly how would Cole disrupt their sleep?"

The doctor looked over at Mulder with an unreadable smile, not answering his question. "Here we are." He yanked up a big arm latch on the windowless metal door, then pulled it heavily open. "There's some gentlemen here who--" He fell silent and went still, standing frozen in the doorway. Astonishment radiated from him; after a moment's bewildered paralysis he shook himself to life and moved sharply into the room, looking from side to side.

Mulder pushed in after him, duplicating the doctor's scan. The room was small and quite obviously empty. Despite Pilsson's intense scrutiny of the interior, a single glance was enough to make clear there was no one within, and nowhere to hide. It was not really a hospital room so much as a small, neat cell, more befitting a monk than a patient receiving therapeutic care. A cot flanked one wall, one corner of its plain blanket folded down. Next to the bed was a sink, high above which a small meshed window provided a limited view of brick, what appeared to be the opposing wall of another wing. Next to the sink, across from the bed, a table had been squeezed into the room's other corner; on it sat an old transistor radio and a few books.

Alex followed the other two men into the cell. Three men made for a tight fit. A hole, Alex thought again with a subliminal shudder. A hole in the wall, a hole in the ground. . .

Mulder had picked up a book from the end of the bed. He glanced at the cover, opened it to the flyleaf, then held it up to Alex's view. It was an inexpensive but well-worn Bible. Alex looked it over, shrugged.

"So, what's up, doc?" Mulder said mildly, looking over at Pilsson.

"I--I don't know." Pilsson touched a hand to his forehead, a stunned, out-of-focus look on his face, as if he were trying to recall something he'd forgotten. Perhaps mentally checking through charts or floor plans.

"Field trip? Sunday--movie night?" Mulder turned in the cramped space, eyeing its spartan elements. "Bowling night, maybe?"

"No, no, no," Pilsson said impatiently, gesturing off the distraction.

"Maybe he had a therapy session scheduled," Alex suggested.

"I'm his doctor," Pilsson said. He stared at the bed, then up at the window. "The door was locked. . .wasn't it?" He seemed to be talking to himself, and managed to sound certain and then doubtful within the space of a breath. He pressed a finger to his lips, stared at the door.

"It was locked," Mulder said. "Or at least very well barred. We watched you open it."

"Yes, yes," the doctor murmured. He seemed to gather himself together. "Yes. It was locked."

Alex caught Mulder's eye, held it a moment, then both men turned a contemplative gaze on the doctor.

"You seem to have misplaced your patient, Doctor," Mulder said with cool, expressionless regard. "I think we'd better see about finding him, don't you?"

They made their way to the nearest nursing station, located on the next floor up and a good mile to the west, as it felt like.

The nurse, a middle-aged blonde woman with a tired face, was immersed in paperwork and gave no more than a cursory glance to their progress down the long hall until they arrived directly before her at the counter.

Pilsson, who had quickly succumbed to nerves and man's basic instinct to shift blame, pounced on the nurse and demanded to know Cole's whereabouts, managing--within the space of a few sentences--to suggest that the nursing staff had either lost him or smuggled him away, and in either case had covered up the deed with subversive, conspiratorial malice.

The nurse, despite a natural touch of defensiveness in her voice, met Pilsson's accusations by informing him with straightforward immediacy, "You discharged him two days ago."

For a split second Pilsson gaped at her, before catching hold of himself. "I most certainly did not," he said. "Don't you think I'd remember if I did?" His voice was harsh and anxious, and Mulder and Krycek exchanged another glance.

At his words the nurse's face drew on an expression that suggested she was used to humoring absent-minded doctors. "Well, I was on shift, Doctor"--she reached for a file--"and you signed the order yourself." She handed the file to Pilsson, who took it quickly and looked it over intensely, his eyes blank and bemused.

"That is your signature, isn't it?" the nurse asked, tapping the file pointedly.

Pilsson stood staring at the file, lips parted slightly in speechless confusion. He was clearly at a loss, and Alex gently took the file from his hand. He held it so that Mulder could study it as well. Cole's face stared out at them from the flat capture of his photograph with the eyes of a man who'd seen far too much to sleep easily. Alex's glance flicked over the pages of the chart, noting the illegible scribble at the physician's release line, next to a tiny, thready blot that might have been a date.

Mulder, at his shoulder, reached out and held the edge of the chart to steady it, and for a moment Alex felt his gaze distracted, drawn to the curved form of his thumb, an articulation of long, fine bones fitted into the warm glove of muscle and skin, capped by a perfectly formed, neatly manicured nail. A light, ghostly lunula edged the bottom of the nail plate. Looking at just this single digit of Mulder, the smallest part of his sum, Alex could remember with terrible lucidity the entirety of him, the feel of Mulder's hands, his thumbs--that particular, well-carved thumb--stroking his body, his hip bones, its smooth, whorled ball running like the velvety eye of a daisy over his nipples and raising them into aching peaks (hot carmel striking snow and stiffening) and brushing that same, lush stroke down the base of his cock, along the throbbing vein, into the heated nest of his balls, pressing there until Alex would have given anything to keep himself imprisoned in the round, hard cell of that touch, would have screamed any word, any confession, to his inquisitor.

Alex felt a sheen of heat break the surface of his temples and throat, even as his mouth went dry. I am looking at this man's thumb and I am about to snap a pup tent. This is not good. Not good, Alex, not good. . .

Mulder's phone rang and Alex nearly choked his relief. Mulder, grabbing the phone from his pocket, said, "Let's get Cole's face out on the wire." Then, with the phone at his ear: "Mulder."

Alex breathed himself carefully and shallowly into a semblance of calm, keeping his gaze pinned to the pages of the file with what he hoped passed for studious interest. He saw nothing, he was looking at nothing. He wondered if Pilsson, or the nurse, had been attentive--if they'd taken a good close look through the windows of his face--would they have been able to see the storm of animal feeling raging inside.

He sure as fuck hoped not.

After a moment he glanced up, noticing that Mulder had slunk away to the far side of the nurse's station, where he was hunched over his cellular with a rather suspect degree of intensity. Probably just Scully, though. . .

"Mr Mulder, I have obtained information that might shed some light on your current work. You must exercise discretion when we meet. If anyone follows you, I won't be there."

The intense, level, and measured tones of the anonymous voice began as soon as Mulder answered the phone, and it took him a second or two before he could absorb the words themselves. It was his new source. Whoever he was, he certainly possessed an admirably pointblank manner--no introduction, no preamble. Mulder only hoped this bluntness reflected honesty rather than, say, simple rudeness.

"Where do you want to meet," Mulder said almost inaudibly into the phone. Just speaking to this person made his shoulders tense instinctively with paranoia and worry.

The man named a place, an hour. Mulder looked at his watch, calculating times and schemes, half expecting to hear at any second a click in his ear singling the man's abrupt dismissal. But there was only a hissing, heavily laden silence.

"I--I appreciate your help, I do," he said, glancing over his shoulder behind him. Krycek and Pilsson had gone into a huddle over Cole's chart, while the nurse had gone back to her paperwork with an air of conscientious duty and righteousness. "But I'm not alone here and I don't want to call attention to our meeting by trying to justify an awkward disappearing act, if I can help it. I could probably get away easier for a while if. . ." He continued speaking softly into the phone, and after another minute punched off and slid the phone in his pocket. Thoughts shifting and reorganizing themselves in his head, he stared at a glass-boxed fire extinguisher hanging on the wall, then brought his gaze back into focus and turned.

"Sorry," he said, rejoining the others. The two men glanced up from Cole's chart, Krycek alert and inquisitive, Pilsson distracted. "I've told my bookie not to call me at this number, but--" Mulder shrugged, made a what-can-you-do? face. Before Pilsson could react, he went on. "Let me ask you something, Doctor." He took the chart from Pilsson's hands, flipped back a few pages to the discharge sheet and pointed. "What does this look like to you?"

Pilsson followed the arrow of his finger. "I don't understand."

"Is that your handwriting?"

There was a silence before Pilsson said carefully, reluctantly, "I'd have to say that it looks like my handwriting, but frankly, Agent Mulder, it isn't. It can't be. There is no way I would forget discharging a patient, particularly one I've been treating for over a decade." He shot another acrimonious glare at the nurse. "I have no explanation for this, but you can be sure I'll get to the bottom of it."

Mulder nodded, studied him. "Do you cross your sevens, Doctor?"

Pilsson's lips parted and moved as if seeking speech, then he said slowly, "Wh--yes, I--actually I do. I spent a few years in Germany, I was a visiting fellow at the Max Planck Inst--"

"Is this a nine or a seven?"

Pilsson looked back to the chart where Mulder's finger pointed, then took it from his hands and gave it meticulous inspection.

"Um. . .I don't. . ." The doctor's head shook slowly.

"Could it be a seven?"

"I sup-pose--but--" He looked up. "What are you suggesting, Agent Mulder, that not only have I discharged a patient without remembering it, I've discharged him on a day other than the one I don't remember?" The psychiatrist's dry smirk threatened briefly to creep back.

"You said it, I didn't." As Pilsson began to flare with renewed offense, Mulder cut him short. "We have a suspicious death occurring in the metro area sometime late Wednesday night, the seventeenth--Alex, have you called the police and the bureau yet? Fax that photo, too. There's a machine behind the counter." Startled, snapped into action, Alex pulled out his cellular to comply.

"That's two days before Cole was supposedly discharged on the nineteenth," Mulder continued to Pilsson. He turned to the nurse, who had obviously been listening and looked flustered to find herself the sudden focus of his attention. Glancing at her name tag, Mulder said, "Nurse Burrows, are you sure you remember Cole being discharged on the nineteenth--Friday?"

"Well, yes--" she began.

"Why?"

"Why?" She hesitated, appearing to review her memories. "Well, let's see, well, it was Friday--that was the night that we lost Captain Fredericks--"

Mulder couldn't resist. "You lost another one?"

Nurse Burrows gave him an arch, cold eye. "He coded right after 4 o'clock meds--cardiac arrest--was gone before we even arrived. He was in group therapy at the time. Captain Fredericks was a TBI--he suffered from traumatic brain injury as a result of having been shot in the head while serving in Korea. He was on a wide variety of medications. Antidepressants, anticonvulsants--he had a history of seizures--"

"I'm not investigating Captain Fredericks' death," Mulder interrupted. Which is not to say I shouldn't be, he thought. Talk about prescription overkill--he would have bet a month's paycheck that every patient in the clinic was a walking cocktail shaker of volatile chemicals and medications, just waiting for someone to give them a jarring push and send them spilling over the edge.

"Wait a minute now, wait a minute," said Pilsson, staring at the nurse. "Group therapy for P ward is on Wednesday nights." A look of startled triumph and relief flitted across his face, or so it appeared to Mulder, who was still observing him closely to determine the veracity of his reactions.

Nurse Burrows, flushing, opened her own lips to reply, then paused as a look of uncertainty and bemusement touched her own features. "Now, of course--now, that's true--why. . ." She trailed off, biting her lip and staring blankly at the papers on her desk. Suddenly she began searching through them, muttering to herself. High color had risen in her cheeks, making them appear clumsily and heavily rouged. It was hard to tell whether she was more angry or more embarrassed by the discrepancy between her memory and events. "I know. . .I know. . ."

Mulder tried to catch the eye of Krycek, who was feeding Cole's information through the fax, but the other man didn't see his look. Mulder sighed to himself, and tried to decide what to do next. He'd committed to meet with his source, and toward that end he'd already planned out a certain course of action, but if he were to follow that course, it would mean leaving the clinic almost immediately. He hated to leave before putting both Pilsson and Burrows--and maybe some of the patients--through a detailed questioning.

But on the other hand Mulder was beginning to have his suspicions that all the questioning in the world wouldn't clear up this mystery--except maybe under hypnosis. And maybe not even then. It was part of a larger picture, tied in somehow, he was sure, with Mrs Dipace's unique recollection of events, with the psychosomatic nature of the victims' deaths. Cole was the key--the nature of his disappearance only reinforced Mulder's certainty of this. They needed to find him. Grilling government lackeys could wait in this particular case. Except for one or two questions. . .

Krycek came around the counter. "I've got a BOLO out to state and metro police, and I dictated a squib to the New York office and faxed them his info. Judy said she'll run it through the network for us, make sure all the offices get a copy."

"Judy, huh?" One side of Mulder's lips quirked up.

"Gotta keep in good with the Betty bureau, Mulder, if you want your stamps licked." Sensual eyelids lowered their lush lashes over gleaming eyes.

Don't go there, Mulder told himself, accidentally catching Pilsson's gaze. The doctor was still rotating on the nervous axis of his own worried world, and his eyes were rather blank, but Mulder nonetheless ironed his face back into good G-man form. "Doctor, before we go, I'd like you to give us some background on your erstwhile patient--an overview, and anything regarding behaviors and beliefs that you might not have recorded in his file."

"I record everything in the patients' files," Pilsson said, drawing himself back up into a semblance of offended professionalism, all hauteur and dudgeon, as if relieved to get back on familiar ground. "Everything relevant, of course."

Mulder picked up the file, hefted it. "Twelve years, Dr Pilsson. That's a good book of days, but it still doesn't maketh the man. I mean--did you even know his favorite color?" Pilsson's moue of exasperation only goaded Mulder further. "Did he like Dickens, Doctor, gamble away his matches, harbor a secret ambition to bungee jump off Royal Gorge?"

"Agent Mulder, I'm certainly willing to help you as best I can, but--"

"Did you ever notice him to twist scraps of paper into an 'X'--the sign of the cross?"

Pilsson started lightly as if poked. "Why, yes--he did that compulsively, at least when he was in a therapy session, or someplace where his gross motor activities were limited. How did you know?"

Only the thinnest leash kept Mulder's excitement reigned in; the surge of adrenaline spiking through his system nearly knocked him off his feet. Eyes glowing, he flashed a triumphant look at Alex, who stared back at him, looking somewhat stunned.

"Did you record that here in your file, Doctor?" Mulder asked with quiet intensity.

"I--I'm not sure," Pilsson stammered, before defensively regrouping. "Do you have any idea what my caseload is here, Agent Mulder?" he asked angrily. "Do you know what our annual budget is? A joke. Compared to the Department of Defense--"

"I don't have time for this," Mulder said shortly. "We'll go to your office. You can talk on the way. Tell Agent Krycek everything you can remember about Cole's habits." He opened the file and quickly absorbed himself scanning its pages. When after a moment the other two men started walking down the hall, he fell absently into step with them. He read all the way to Pilsson's office, and through most of the brief meeting held therein, then snapped the file shut and requested an orderly to bring Cole's Bible up to them. He quizzed Pilsson while they waited for its arrival. When he had the book in hand, he stood, bringing conversation to a close.

"We'll probably send a crime scene team here to the clinic. Don't have Cole's room cleaned. Lock it up--I don't want anyone going in there."

"A crime scene? Exactly what crime do you think has been committed here, Agent Mulder?"

"We'll find out, won't we?" Mulder asked rather coldly.

Alex sent a small frown after Mulder's abruptly departing form, then made a few polite noises of good-bye to Pilsson before following. He had to jog after Mulder to catch up; by the time he did, Mulder had already reached the lobby doors.

"I'm not in the mood to walk back to Manhattan," Alex said, grabbing the edge of the entrace door as Mulder began pulling it open. Mulder looked startled by the appearance of Alex's hand on the frame, and Alex realized that Mulder hadn't even been aware of his presence. Welcome to the Mulderzone.

After facing off in a brief, macho war of the gazes, Alex removed his hand and let Mulder open the door. "You didn't even say good-bye to Pilsson."

"I'm sure he's as torn up about it as I am," Mulder said with casually brutal disregard.

"Hey, Mulder," Alex said as they paused on either side of the car. The other agent looked up. "Remind me not to get on your bad side."

And Mulder, quite suddenly and to Alex's surprise, smiled, with that beautiful, unaffected innocence that sometimes surfaced in him. "How about my backside?" he asked. The offhand humor was carelessly and happily juvenile, and the grin on his face might have belonged to a boy on a playground, the run scored, the water balloon hitting its mark. He was Tom Sawyer incarnate, forced into a six-foot body and a stiff suit.

Alex swallowed. What kind of bastard am I? For just a second he felt ill--fed up with his assignment and scared for his soul. He had to look quickly to one side, to break away from that awful, open gaze. It's just a kind of hypnosis, he told himself. Don't look into his eyes and it will pass. You'll be fine. Keep yourself on track, Alex. Don't let him derail you. . .maybe that's what he's trying to do.

As they got into the car, Alex looked sidelong at Mulder, trying to discern any ulterior motive in his forthright face. Trying to convince himself he saw it.

This is the job, Mulder. It's just the job.

And Alex tried to convince himself he meant it.

End part 2.

 


 

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

Category: Slash [Mulder/Krycek]. NC17 by the bucketful.
Disclaimer: Some guy, Chris Carter, though he might have said his name was Christ Carter come to think of it, spoke to me in a dream, said it would be okay with him if I used his boys. He was wearing a big red bozo nose and red high heels at the time, but I don't think this detracts from his credibility or the sincerity of his offer.
Author's Note: This is kind of a break from In a Dark Time. It is part of the storyline, and does contain some tiny pointers plot-wise, but it should be considered a smutty outtake first and foremost, a bit of exotic fluff. This is set on Sunday morning, in the story's chronology, the "morning after", in other words. I didn't want to skew the main story by weighting it heavily with sex, but on the other hand the guys were feeling pretty spunky, and besides I absolutely love manhandling helpless men. I'm pretty twisted, so beware. Comments very much welcome. I'm at , biting my nails.


In a Dark Time: A Little Take-Out
by A. Leigh-Anne Childe

"Time for a shower," Mulder said, yawning.

"You are pretty sticky," Alex noted. From his reclining position on the bed, he could see the dried, shiny traces of Mulder's pleasure on his muscled flesh.

"I'd say it's pretty obvious then that you didn't lick me enough," Mulder said. He didn't quite pout, but a certain voluptuousness of lower lip was evident.

"That could be implied as a criticism," Alex said back seriously.

"Critique is a nicer word, I think."

Alex, who'd been slowly stretching his arm above him during the conversation, suddenly flipped the pillow out from behind his head and sent it flying at Mulder's own. Its plump mass sailed by Mulder's right ear without quite touching it and whomped gently against the far wall.

"Your firearms instructor would have something to say about that, Alex."

"Hey, it wasn't my gun arm. But if you want to call him, go right ahead. Yes, this is Fox Mulder of the D.C. office, there have been some serious questions raised about the rigor of your trainee instruction--now I have Agent Alex Krycek here with me, we're naked, and he just tried to hit me with a pillow--hello--?"

Mulder laughed. "I wouldn't say it like that. I'd lead up to it, gradually."

"This is very naughty, you know, Mulder." Alex shifted, settling further down into his heaped nest of pillows.

"You need to tell me that?"

"You ever done this before--with another agent?"

Mulder came back to the bed, sat down on the edge facing Alex, with one knee drawn up and his foot resting against the inside of his other thigh.

"A few times," he said. His voice was easy but the expression on his face was that mild, neutral one Alex had come to recognize meant: stay back!

"Come on, Mulder--'Toy Boys in Blue', 'Bottoms with Badges'--don't you have any war stories you want to relate?" Alex plastered an alert and interested expression on his face, and quirked a brow--once, twice, three times--with serious lasciviousness.

"Good trick," Mulder said, smiling and reaching out to stroke a fingertip along the arch of fine hair.

"Evasive action, Mulder." The chide was mocking, knowing.

"Sorry, I just. . .there's not that much to tell, and it's not something I can talk about. You know that." Mulder's hand, which had slid up to stroke Alex's tousled hair, moved back down the edge of his face, tracing cheekbone, jaw, chin.

Alex's face tightened slightly. "Yeah, well, the bureau would really love this, wouldn't they? Two fuckin' queers shacking up in a hotel room on the old expense account."

"Do you really think of yourself like that, Alex?" Mulder asked quietly, searching the other man's face.

"Don't even start that psychotherapy bullshit with me, Mulder." Angrily, Alex pulled away from Mulder's touch and slid out of the bed. He moved, naked, to the bathroom, but Mulder followed, coming to lean in the bathroom doorway.

Watching me piss. Great. Alex ignored the other man's gaze, but felt the skin of his arms and neck crawl. This is way more intimacy than I need with an investigative target. I am such a fucking idiot.

"Are you afraid of getting found out?" Mulder asked him conversationally.

It took more self-control than expected for Alex to bite down on his first, reflexive response, which would have been obscene and very likely more revealing than he could afford. He couldn't react too strongly to such comments, though he tended instinctively to read them as threatening. There was no way he would hand Mulder any advantage that might be used against him later. Well, okay, he already had. But he wouldn't hand him any more if he could help it. Suppressed anger nagged and itched at him like a fever, but his face remained cool. He didn't look at Mulder, and when he spoke his tone was carefully offhand. Casual. "Aren't you?"

"Not exactly."

Alex looked at him now. An odd, ironic half-smile had edged its way onto Mulder's face. As naked as Alex, there was something about Mulder to suggest he felt faintly uneasy without clothes, what might have been a vague echo of Puritan discomfort in the posture of his body--arms crossed, shoulders slightly hunched. Despite this, he made no move to cover himself. Masochism or masculine pride, Alex wondered. Maybe both. He was beginning to suspect that Mulder's motives and character could very rarely be isolated and simplified.

"Actually, I've always been out. . .more or less," Mulder continued.

"Yeah, right, Mulder. You're just brimming with queer spirit." Alex pushed a soapy toothbrush in his mouth, poked it around briefly, then spat. He turned a blunt look on the other man. "Mulder, I didn't even peg you. Not a single blip on the radar. I didn't know until you wanted me to know. And you're going to tell me you're not closeted? Mulder, you're a fucking FBI agent. Give me a break." Alex could see from Mulder's tensing face that he was beginning to get angry.

"Just because I don't fit some preconceived image you have doesn't mean I'm closeted. And being an FBI agent--"

"Means they can fire your flaming ass any time they feel like it," Alex interrupted intensely. He moved closer to Mulder, leaning one hand on the counter, toothbrush gripped in it like a pointer. "Do you realize how easy it would be for them? I could get you kicked out of the bureau, Mulder, you know that, don't you? We're not talking about a letter of censure in your file--you'd be lucky if you pulled a four-bagger. But you wouldn't. They'd kick you out so fast by the time you realized what happened you'd be ten light-years past Voyager and accelerating."

Mulder stared at him, face unreadable but still slightly flushed. "That would be kind of self-defeating, wouldn't it? For you, that is."

"Yeah, it would," Alex said frankly. "And you can bet your cute butt that this isn't going into my autobiography. What I do in bed is nobody's business." Suddenly, he flashed Mulder a smug grin. "Except for those lucky enough to benefit from my generosity."

"Those who survive," Mulder replied, eyelids lowering a notch. His eyes remained cool, his tone ambiguous, but the taut muscles of his face had relaxed again slightly, and there was a tiny twitch in more southerly regions that boded well.

Compliment their ass, Alex thought with satisfaction. Works every time. Quite casually, he let a feather-light glance glide down Mulder's body, then turned away and considered himself in the mirror, rubbing at his jaw and flicking loose hair from his eyes. "You're the one who wanted to play death games, Mulder," he said, making small, skin-pulling faces at himself in the mirror as he spoke. "I just obliged."

"You were very obliging," Mulder said quietly.

Alex watched Mulder's reflection slide into the mirrored world behind him. Mulder's face was reserved--he might have been reading the Times obituaries for all the excitement his face revealed--but Alex felt a hard, hot press of flesh nudge his ass. He smiled to himself, but didn't let the feeling rise to his lips. "That get you hard, Mulder? The D-word--the final naked-boner, the last big bang?"

"Not really. But every now and then the urge needs to be filled."

"The urge," Alex repeated (rather more dreamily than he realized). He stared at the image of Mulder's dipped head nuzzling his shoulder and wished he had an equally good view of what Mulder's hand was doing. Mulder didn't respond to the echo, but his hand slid lower, and Alex had to grip the edge of the sink to counter the floor's tendency to slide out from under him. He didn't particularly want to speak, didn't really need to speak, but curiousity prodded him to see what effect morbid chit-chat would have on Mulder's actions.

"How close to the bone is it, Mulder, hmmm. . ."

Mulder's hand slid lower still and Alex had to stifle a small cry. Oh, Jesus. . .fuck, how can someone look that sedated, he looks like he's coming down with a coma, and still be able to do that? Alex could feel a hot, painfully sweet ache begin high up behind his balls. Mulder's fingers were obviously fitted with some kind of subdermal joy buzzers. Either that or he was channeling the spirit of an electric eel. . .a very skillful, erotically inclined eel. . .

Alex closed his eyes. Unable to resist the tickling lures being played across its flesh, his body had begun succumbing. Alex could feel his legs spreading, his breath quickening in his chest, his heart attempting to scale his ribs and crawl its way up his tight throat.

"Dying while living, Alex. It's a motif in every major tradition, East and West. The Sikh call it surat shabd yoga. . .many think of it as the ultimate union between the lover and the beloved. . .'die while living and ye shall find the creator'." Mulder might have been musing to himself; his utterances had a hypnotic absence of inflection. By appearances he had just located a hidden microphone at the base of Alex's spine, into which he was speaking with measured deliberation. Where his mouth rested, a hot, focused cloud of heat grew and rolled in place, a micro-cyclone over trembling skin.

Alex shuddered and bent slightly against the edge of the sink to give Mulder better access. "Do not stop doing that," he snarled when the busier of Mulder's two hands began to drift. "And don't quote any more fucking Shakespeare to me, and don't tell me that's not Shakespeare, and just--fuck--just keep doing that. . .oh god. . ." Alex began to arch and rub against Mulder's hand. "Oh god," he said even more softly, his voice lowering to a stunned, helpless whisper. His thighs tightened and then shifted open again, and then Mulder's other hand slid down off his hip and skimmed up his inner thighs to join its partner. He wouldn't, thought Alex, not daring to hope. He spread his legs further, so close to ecstasy that if he'd allowed himself any sound it could only have been a whimper.

Alex opened his eyes, catching sight of himself in the mirror: lips parted, eyes glassy and heavily weighted, face and throat flushed with lust. Mulder's fingers worked between his legs like invisible sea anemones, like something submarine that lives and breathes only below the sea's surface. Alex couldn't remember the last time he'd been so conscious of his ass, the last time so much heat had been generated in the swells of that flesh. When Mulder's mouth brushed a descent from the hollowed heart of his back across one cheek and then the other, Alex closed his eyes, bent his head, prayed. And Mulder moved his mouth lower, and his tongue flicked with the delicacy of a lizard's or a snake's, between his cheeks, then further.

Alex moaned harshly, the sound escaping the imprisoning clench of his teeth. He could not help himself, he laid himself out like a sacrifice across the sink counter, pushing back into Mulder's face, feeling his tongue stab out to meet him thrust for thrust.

"Oh god--"

"You're religious now," Mulder laughed, his words and that laughter so soft and so brazenly, intimately located that Alex began to arch and pump into the warm hand that cradled his cock. Rough, unshaven jaw rubbed like sandpaper across his ass. He bucked forward and then back into the teasing mouth, and its silken dagger continued to meet him touch for touch, skidding and stabbing wetly into him in a manner so unutterably raw that Alex could only gasp--gasp aloud--and twist his body once again, lifting his head, attempting to find the one, perfect position that would keep him centered on that exquisite mouth, that flame-striking tongue, and still allow him to shout forth his gratitude to the heavens. Yes, he was feeling religious. Oh yes.

Alex's body arched and wrung itself, desperately seeking an impossible union, the translation of some exaggerated, idealized tantra that would allow full and utter impalement. Yet his ideal--a swollen, improbably lengthened member, thick and heavy as a cock, sinuously mobile as a tongue, onto which he could drop the burning globe of his ass and rotate--felt surprisingly close to fulfillment. Every stroke of wet hot flesh was bringing him closer to relief, to something pure and bright within the shimmering crystal of his skull.

"Oh, fuck, oh Christ, oh god yes--yes--Fox--fuck!" Alex gasped, nearly fell as the slippery fire removed itself, left him bereft and smoking, flesh seared and screaming. "Bastard!" His rising voice leapt once to nearly a yelp, then broke down into a whispery gasp of agony. "Oh, you fucking bastard--"

Alex whirled around, knocking Mulder back a bit with the swinging movement of his body. Off-balanced, the other man fell back to rest lightly on one arm. Mulder's eyes were glittering like sun-struck ice, but he was breathing heavily and his lips were still parted--and so indecently, sensually full that Alex immediately reconsidered his first, raging impulse to strike out. And even as Alex was forcing his stunned body into motion, Mulder was licking his lips, parting them wider, and he looked not at all surprised when Alex grabbed him by the back of his neck and pulled him forward onto his cock, driving deep into his open mouth. He was lifting his hands to cup Alex's ass, lifting himself to his knees, shoving his mouth forward onto Alex's aching flesh.

Knees nearly buckling, Alex just managed to stay upright. "You know what, Mulder," he gasped out, thrusting as he did. "Good thing you're a sick fuck, because you'd be getting yourself into some ugly trouble other--otherwise--" He cried out and bucked forward hard, sliding into a tight, throbbing, screwing source, as powerful as a whirlpool, as primal and savage as a panther rending and swallowing its dinner, raw and whole. Alex bucked again, striving toward pleasure, relishing the incredibly entwined sensations of soft, tightening heat around his cock and the shattered-silk fire of a man's hair filling his hands. Mulder's. G-man the Generous. The scalding cup of his mouth strained around him, drawing out along his length with glistening strokes, then stretching back down to take him all.

Alex rubbed naked shoulders, cupped Mulder's ears and jaw, tried to put his hands everywhere, wanting to feel every cooperating muscle that was working at him, so that every time he watched Mulder speak and eat he could think of this. He stroked the warm, vulnerable nape of Mulder's neck, palming its prickly verge of hair, then brushed up into the skull cap of soft fire, where he abruptly strengthened his grip, plaiting his fingers into the soft strands and pulling Mulder's head back further, driving in deeper, hearing the choked sounds of the other man's pleasure. He could see that pleasure too in Mulder's contorted face, could feel it in the painfully deepening grip of his hands.

Likes to be choked. Alex couldn't keep the words out of his head. Likes to be choked, likes to be choked. . . He almost grabbed Mulder's neck at that point, but didn't think he'd be able to exercise enough control. His hips were beginning to buck, he could feel the red-hot tip of his cock scraping like an abraded match-head across the roof of Mulder's mouth, then slipping down even further, trying to light itself. Back and forth, back and forth--Alex groaned and looked down at Mulder's face, absorbing his erection and reflecting the utter abandon of a man who truly enjoys giving a blow job. Who'd a' thunk, Alex thought wildly, just as his body was clenching and finding its peak--and then Mulder's hand drew to the fore of his body and slid under his cock, squeezing and cutting him short.

"Oh man," Alex said weakly, and heard himself make a sound suspiciously like a whimper. "Man, oh, Mulder, this. . .you. . ." He had no curses in him to hurl at Mulder's head, no spite or ire; he wanted only to plead. Pleeaaaseeeee. . .finish! But he couldn't bring himself to speak. It would have been too much of an effort. He hung his head and waited, dazed, for Mulder to take pity. But Mulder merely licked the head of his cock with fond interest and then stood.

"Shower, Alex, shower. . ." He kissed Alex's mouth, hard, then drew back just as abruptly. His eyes were happy, his hair mussed. Grinning at Alex, he asked, "What are you thinking?"

"No blood is getting through to my brain right now, Mulder." Alex's voice was a dry, thick mutter.

"Nothing?" Mulder pouted. "Come on, not even one sweet nothing?"

"Mmm. . ." A wicked grin found its way to Alex's lips despite the neediness of his body. "Your mouth is like a turbofan engine on a B2 bomber. . . ?"

"Well, a man can't hear that too many times," Mulder said, then laughed with him breathlessly as they kissed again.

"Is there a chance, Mulder, I'm going to get out of the bathroom this morning with my balls any color but blue?"

"Delayed gratification," Mulder said simply, as if this were an answer. "You need to discipline yourself, Alex. Pull back from orgasm six or eight times--"

"Christ!"

"--and you'll be drilling a hole through the ceiling tiles when you come--or maybe the back of my skull." He looked rather pleased with this idea.

"But I'll be dead by then too, and unlike you I won't enjoy it."

"Stop whining."

"You've been waiting to say that," Alex said darkly. "Hey--where are you going?" God, I'm not whining. . .am I?

Mulder paused in the doorway with that grave, da Vinci smile of his, and a tiny indentation between his brows. "I was just going to get the handcuffs--you don't mind, do you?"

Alex could only shake his head dumbly. He watched Mulder leave, then turned to stare at himself in the mirror again. Hello, I'm Alex. Who the fuck are you, you lucky son of a bitch? He shook his head at his reflection in dazed wonderment. His reflection grinned back. Christmas in August. Or maybe it's my birthday? I definitely need to take advantage of this, whatever it is. There's no way something this good could come more than once a year.

Mulder wandered back in, attention absorbed by the cuffs in his hands. "I took yours. This is the key, isn't it?" He held up a key from the bunch, then at Alex's nod tossed the whole ring onto the floor by the tub. "You know," he said, suddenly looking up. "I love this job. There aren't too many professions that let you carry around your sex toys openly on your belt."

"Was that the motivation behind your career choice, Mulder?" Alex asked, shaking his head once with dry, sardonic amusement as he reached to turn on the shower.

"Is there any other?"

They got into the shower, maneuvering in its narrow confines with careful shifts and a few not unpleasant bumps. Mulder had brought condoms and lube, which he deposited in the soap cache before turning to Alex and giving him some soapy regards. He kissed Alex several times without ceasing the lathering movements of his hands, warm tonguings that somehow suggested the intimate caresses of some very friendly animal's flipper.

"You're laughing," Mulder said, speaking into Alex's mouth.

"Flipper," Alex whispered, trying not to snort.

Mulder pulled back, looking unexpectedly irritated. "What is that, your idea of an endearment?"

"Sorry," Alex said contritely, not wanting to annoy the other man. Jerking off was always an option, but he was primed for so much more that he didn't think he'd be able to stand it if Mulder pulled out of the game now.

Mulder did not immediately resume his intimacies, but continued to scowl at him with suspicion.

"Sorry, Mulder," Alex whispered, eyes gleaming with happy amusement as he ducked his head and kissed the side of the other man's neck. He brushed his way back up toward unsmiling lips. "You're much more fun than Sea World, I swear."

"Why do I get the feeling this is the beginning of a dangerous friendship," Mulder sighed. With subtle resistance, his face evaded Alex's kiss, not quite allowing him to regain his lips. "You done this with anyone else--other agents?"

"Um, not sure--would you call the director an agent?"

"You do realize how credulous I am."

"So they say."

"Mmm. . .it's getting kinda steamy in here." Mulder shook his head, sending tiny droplets of spray flying.

"We're not paying the water bill."

"So, just who is this Alex Krycek person?"

"Not now, Mulder."

"Be careful, you can really bang up your knees doing that. If we have to chase anyone down--hmmm. . ." Mulder's voice trailed off and his fingers began kneading Alex's shoulders with the intense, self-centered rhythm of a smurgling cat.

"Hey, Mulder," Alex said around licks, "what's the forty-second element of the periodic table?"

"Oh, oh. . .molybdenum. . .why?"

"Just testing."

"The boiling point is 4612 degrees Celsius. . .you're pretty close. . ."

"You really are fucking gorgeous, Mulder." Alex paused just for one appreciative moment before continuing his licks. "Anybody ever offered to cast this for you?"

"Sort of. . .but I think they meant a body cast."

"That'd be good too. Might as well get it all in."

". . .you like it then?"

"Which?"

"Mmm, give me some compliments. . ."

"With my mouth full?"

"Oh please, Alex, please please--"

"Shut up already!" Rather viciously Alex altered his angle of approach and nipped at Mulder's balls, bringing a little yelp from above. "Yeah, mm. . .well I don't know, Mulder, Christ, I'm not usually talking and fucking at the same time, unlike some people. . .mm, well you've got that whole flesh-colored mushroom look down--up, I should say--very nice--"

"What kind of mushroom?"

"Hmm?"

"Death cap--wine cap maybe?--portabella, shiitake, button--"

"Well, you're no button, Mulder," Alex interrupted. He slid his grin onto the member in question and heard a small, pleased oh drift down.

"Are we talking. . .Playgirl centerfold. . .quality?" Mulder gasped out.

"We aren't talking," Alex muttered, rather unintelligibly. He sucked hard, harder than he ever had in his life he suspected, and felt Mulder's hips buck out to meet him. Strong fingers embroidered themselves in his hair and then sharp cries broke free at last--"Alex, oh god, Alex!"--and Alex felt the hardening flesh in his mouth tighten further, and the soft doubled sac of flesh he was stroking lift and give a stridulating tremble--and then he drew his mouth off. Immediately.

Mulder made a stunned, pathetic little sound very much like the weep of an abandoned puppy.

"Oh, didn't you want me to do that?" Alex asked, smirking up at him. "Self discipline, Mulder. How many was that for you--one, two--out of, what--eight?"

"Don't listen to me, Alex," Mulder pleaded.

"I've got to get up. I think I've channeled about a hundred gallons of water down the crack of my ass--"

"You too?" Mulder's voice was lust-roughened and breathless, but the quip still came quickly.

"I really don't want to know," Alex said, standing upright again next to Mulder, and hearing his knees (damn) creak.

"I'm not that weird, Alex." Mulder looked at him searchingly, almost worriedly. Steam and sex had plastered his hair down to his scalp, and his face was suffused with warm arousal. "You don't really--"

"Oh yes"--Alex interrupted them both, laughing--"you are."

"But it's a good weird, right?"

"Oh, yeah," Alex assured him, grinning. "The best kind of weird."

I shouldn't be fishing for compliments, Mulder thought. This is too needy. I guess it's been longer than I remembered. I really need to get laid more often.

Alex was continuing, "You know what kind of dumb-as-lumber beefcake I've been working with in special ops? Jesus, Mulder, somewhere there's cattle being cloned that we know nothing about." He stepped up and grazed their slippery bodies together, nipple to nipple, belly to belly. Their cocks pressed close, nuzzling like horses whose masters have stopped in the road to speak. Alex's voice dropped to a husky whisper. "I'd love to show them a thing or two, wouldn't you, Mulder--put a twitch in their bloodless dicks. Bet they'd pick up some stuffing to take home to wifey, hmm? Which division, Mulder, which one--we'll give them a home movie--I'll bend you over the desk of your choice, show those sublimated cocksuckers how to do it--"

Mulder arched into him, gasping. Alex spun him around awkwardly in the wet narrow tub, splashing the stream of water that still hissed and slithered across their feet. He found the cuffs and with two quick snaps fastened Mulder to the towel rack, then ravished every inch of available skin he could put his hands, tongue, and teeth on, until Mulder was shouting loudly, his cries bouncing off the steaming tiles, mingling with the water's harsh, ongoing din. Alex, down again on one knee, thrust a soapy finger up Mulder's ass, then two, working with brutally efficient thrusts until he felt--heard--Mulder nearing climax again.

"Oh god, please, Alex--I'm begging--fuck--" Hands pulled ineffectually at cuffs, flesh and bone twisted from fingertips all the way down to dancing, clumsily splashing feet. "God, I need you in me now!"

Alex followed fingers with tongue, ignoring the pleas. Mulder began to jerk his hips in short, frantic snaps that threatened to bump Alex off and send him tumbling back across the tub's slick surface. Pulling away, he slapped Mulder hard, across one cheek. The movements abrupted.

"Oh!" After this brief exclamation of surprise, Mulder's voice lowered to a soft murmur. "Please. . ." He arched again, laughed once with unthinking pleasure.

"Slut," Alex said, kissing the slap-blushed cheek instead.

Mulder shuddered, half in need, half in fear. God, this is going too far. . .Mulder. FBI. Mulder tried to regain himself in the dizzying whirl of his desires, but all he found was his present hunger. Mulder. FBI. Mulder. . .god, I need this man up my ass RIGHT NOW. Instinctively, to stave off panic and quickening lust, his mind started sifting through its freight of countless words--Heraclitean aphorisms, Air Force test-flight crash statistics, Elvis lyrics--but he managed to bite his tongue before the babble started flowing again.

"God, how a man could look at your ass and not want to bone it is beyond me, Mulder. What a fucking peach. . ." Alex nuzzled him with tongue, nose, chin, pushing into soap-slicked flesh, teasingly widening the cheeks of Mulder's ass with his tense fingers. "This is inspiring, actually--maybe I will keep talking--you want me to call you names, Mulder--want some fuck-film action?"

"Yes--oh god--yes--"

Alex stood, pressing his swollen dick between Mulder's cheeks, rubbing it in and receiving a series of hard, welcoming squeezes in return. He slid his hands around to Mulder's front, stroking his nipples and his lifted cock, and whispered things in one ear that made the other man's face flush deeply and his body buck back into Alex's cock with an increasingly urgent rhythm.

"Please--do it to me--" Mulder whispered. "Please, Alex."

"I shouldn't," Alex said, but his own head was swimming. The shower's steam had eased somewhat but the encurtained tub was still densely, tropically humid and he didn't know how much longer he could hold his load in. His cock was pulsing, thick and heavy with blood, his balls ripe with seed; every desire of his body concentrated in that crux. Unable to tease either of them any more, he groaned, pulling away only long enough to find a condom, lube, wishing he could just do without--at least the first--but he was of the times, he hadn't been fortunate enough to live before the imperatives of latex. And, if truth were known, he was rather fastidious, so perhaps it was just as well.

"Oh--oh--" Oh god yes. Mulder was gasping and laughing together in one breath as Alex began pushing into him. He wanted to howl with delight, but could only moan softly. The swollen sagittate point, thick and smooth, pressed against him, cockhead to calyx, then began nudging in, kiss by kiss, inch by inch. It was arguably the most exquisite feeling a body could host. He'd always wondered if it was the same for women--or similar, depending on the orifice in question; but those he'd asked had rarely been experienced enough to make a good comparison (something wrong there: how come he could never pick the fun ones?). And though a few had given favorable testimonials Mulder suspected that possession of a prostate was nine-tenths of the thrill. (Phone sex girls were another story. Their enthusiasm on the subject--"Oh, baby, yeah, I love that big hot meat up my ass"--had to be taken with a grain, maybe a shaker even, of salt.)

"Hey, Mulder, you with me?" Alex said, biting his right earlobe hard enough to draw blood.

Mulder yipped his assent.

"I'm going to buy you an earring for this hole," Alex murmured.

"That sounds very painful," Mulder gasped back, as the last few inches began to find their way inside him.

"Idiot. How come you don't wear an earring?"

"I'm an FBI agent, idiot," Mulder grated out in reply. His eyes shut, his head dipped back to rest on Alex's shoulder. Oh god, oh god. It was so amazingly good. The braceleted mangle of his wrists was beginning to aggravate him--the links were really too short to allow much play (in every sense of the word)--but he managed to find a better grip out of sheer necessity.

"Man, I'd have loved to have seen you ten, fifteen years ago. . .wild child. I know it."

"Um," Mulder said distractedly, as full impalement was his. He's babbling, I've broken him, he thought, before thought spun away. "Stuff that washcloth in my mouth," he said, nudging his head against the towel rod.

Alex's rhythms paused. "Are you serious--mm, cancel that, don't know what I was thinking--" He stuffed the cloth in Mulder's mouth, collecting a responsive moan that nearly made him shoot his wad then and there. But he valiantly held back once again.

"You want me to choke you?" Alex asked gently to the warm, damp head that rested on his shoulder and rubbed pleasantly against his neck. A vigorous head shake told him no. "Well, I'm glad you're not that stupid. Someday you're going to aspirate your own vomit, Mulder, and I don't want to be there for it."

"Mmmph."

Mulder's ass was rubbing in cadence with the little shoves his face made. You are a pro, aren't you, Mulder. . . Alex wrapped his arms around Mulder's body and gave him every attentive caress he could command. He worked his hand back to Mulder's cock and slid his palm against its sleek length. He really was a beautiful handful; Alex hadn't lied. The other man's cock was a near perfect bow of flesh, nicely sized, springy and somehow aerodynamic in design, with a neat cap like a furled rose-petal, creamy-pink and just that smooth.

"You could be in pictures, Mulder," Alex whispered in his ear. Mulder nudged him, stroking Alex's cheek with his own. Alex reached up with his free hand and cupped Mulder's wet skull. It felt so hot it might truly have been a cauldron in which the soul's fire was held. . .a cup of flame. . .the neck a wick, the body a swaying candle, melting from the force of its own burning. . .

Alex pulled his hand away from Mulder's cock ("Mmmph!"), and quick as a striking snake reached up and yanked the cloth from his mouth. Another groan, not much more articulate than the first, escaped the dam, then Mulder managed a gaspy, angry "What?!"

Alex twisted Mulder's head closer, found an angle that would bring them to meeting and kissed him, tongue forcing him open, painting broad wet brushstrokes around his mouth and feeling Mulder's own tongue swirl greedily in immediate answer. He slammed his hips forward hard, his cock up as far as it would go, and felt sobs begin to break like iridescent bubbles against his mouth, rising from Mulder's throat. He pumped savagely, driving into rounded, tightly clenched flesh, and as the kiss deepened further he fitted his hand to Mulder's throat--and felt, as he'd expected, the spike of an even wilder arousal, mercury shooting up a thermometer, impelled by fever, boiling water, flame. Flesh gripped him tighter, sobs grew louder, fiercer, and then were choked off--and then Mulder was bucking hard, slipping in the water at his feet, lifting off the ground, trying to scream as he came, failing, and Alex felt his own orgasm ripped from him by pure muscular force, pulsing flesh yielding its strikes, a stutter that built under the skin and then exploded.

* * * *

"I'm going to see to it you get a medal for this," Mulder said, smiling with sated, satirical mischief.

Alex looked down at Mulder as he stepped over him. "No kidding. I've always wanted a medal. Which one."

"Purple ass, I think. . ."

"You staying there on the floor?"

Mulder's eyes had dropped shut. "I could, but who would save your ass when you drive off a bridge?"

"There's nothing wrong with my driving, and if you don't stop bugging me. . .this is New York City, Mulder. . .and if you mention my left turn again I'm going to toss you out the car and throw you to the gypsy cabbies."

". . .you and you alone bring out the gypsy in me. . ."

"You can't sing."

". . .come to me, come to me do. . ."

"I'm going now. . .and you're coming with me. So if you don't get dressed you'll find yourself dragged naked into the Roger Smith lobby and then the dining room, and then out into the street. . ."

"Gee, Alex, you really are tall for your age. . ."

If he weren't so damn cute. . .

The End. . .sorta kinda.

 


 

In a Dark Time: Sleepless 3
by A. Leigh-Anne Childe

Category: Slash [Mulder/Krycek]. NC-17
Disclaimer: I hope Chris Carter doesn't mind sharing his toys. I promise not to break them. . .well, maybe their hearts.
See part 1 for author's notes. Please send feedback to: <> No flames, please!


In a Dark Time: Sleepless
(part 3 of 4)
by A. Leigh-Anne Childe

They were on the road quickly, leaving the sprawling, architecturally uninspired complex of the V.A. Medical Center behind, driving out of North Orange toward the metropolitan area and Queens. . .more or less.

"No way," Mulder said irritably. "No way, that's crazy--"

"Mulder, Belleville Pike will take you straight onto the Skyway and the Holland Tunnel--"

"Two-eighty is bound to be faster--"

"It's a Sunday, it doesn't make--"

"--and besides, I'm not sure I even want to take the Holland Tunnel."

Alex stared at him. "You are out of your freakin' mind, you realize--you aren't seriously thinking of taking Lincoln and Midtown. . .Mulder, are you nuts--"

Mulder glared at the road. "All right, all right." He made a sharp left, then turned his glare on Alex. "Scully doesn't do this to me."

"Yeah, but Scully doesn't do anything for you either." Alex leered pleasantly.

"Oh man, I knew this was gonna happen," Mulder muttered. But his lips were twitching even after he looked away, and there was a light flush on his cheeks that even the brutal summer heat couldn't entirely account for.

"So why did you blow off Pilsson?" Alex asked, settling back in his seat. He couldn't get comfortable; the air-conditioner was still out and the mercury had pushed well past the centenary. Melting popsicles were less sticky than he was feeling right now.

Mulder's tones edged into dark, disgusted snottiness. "That federally-funded brain-cutter--that GS-13 pension-sucking hack? Oh, I don't know. . .didn't like his tie, I guess."

After a minute of silence, he added quietly, muted anger simmering below the surface, "That whole set-up is just an invitation for systemized abuse. Cole's level of functioning was low, at least according to Pilsson's notes, but he wasn't vegetative or catatonic. He usually rated about a 15 to 20 on the GAF scale--and pulled a 100, of course, on the V.A.'s own disabilities rating schedule. He had a primary diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder and had been treated for plenty of others--substance abuse, panic disorder, agoraphobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder. . .not to mention his somatization disorder--"

"His sleeping problem."

"--whatever that was," Mulder finished dryly. "He had chronic PTSD and they had him locked away in the basement like the Count of Monte Cristo--don't say it," he added, glancing over at Alex's ready smirk. "According to his file he was scheduled for group counselling and physiotherapy sessions, but he'd stopped going a few years ago, and Pilsson had never pushed him back into treatment. He himself was supposed to have a weekly therapy session with Cole, doing the old cognitive-behavioral waltz, but his entries suggest he'd been skipping them, since around about the same time. I doubt anyone was calling him up for question on the matter. And get this"--he looked over at Alex again--"there was nothing in the file about any sleep disorder except a notation made almost twelve years ago on his admittance: self-reported insomnia, 'Patient mentioned trouble sleeping', and a remark to prescribe sedatives. I don't even want to tell you all the medications he was taking. Suffice to say it's longer than your average shopping list."

"Kinda funny isn't it," Alex said absently. "I mean, all the medications he was on, all the medications in Grissom's medicine cabinet. These days the doctors are taking as much as the patients it seems."

"The New England Journal of Medicine reported recently that in an anonymous survey two out of five anesthesiologists admitted to regular amphetamine use on duty."

Alex raised a brow. "What about the surgeons?"

Mulder just shook his head; they'd slid into some heavy traffic and his eyes were working the road. After a few minutes he said, "V.A. hospitals aren't always on the cutting edge of therapeutic trends, but Cole's situation stunk. A veteran with PTSD, even one with agoraphobia, should never have been locked away in isolation."

"It was a hole," Alex said with blunt loathing and enough force to draw Mulder's steady, contemplative gaze away from the road a moment. Alex thought the other man was going to start playing psych major again on that one, but he didn't address the remark.

"His treatment should have included a holistic approach, even if it didn't go by that name. Somehow I don't get the feeling Cole got to spend much time in the dayroom. Low exposure to full-spectrum light, limited social interaction, long periods in a low-stimulus environment--all this would produce a form of sensory deprivation. His problems could only have been worsened under such circumstances."

"And that's why you looked like you wanted to use Pilsson's tie for a practice target?"

Mulder's fingers gripped the steering wheel more tightly, knuckles stretching skin. "You could take any relatively normal, well-adjusted man off the street and toss him into that kind of environment and have a basket case within six months. And Cole was a diagnosed patient supposedly receiving rehabilitative treatment. . .I don't like hacks."

Alex stretched his knees, fiddled his fingers on the open window edge. "Cole might have been pretty hard to deal with--to treat--"

"I've seen patients with almost no communicative skills, patients who spend their days smearing themselves with their own shit, who get better treatment." Mulder's voice had risen slightly with bitterness and anger, and his hands had tightened further on the wheel. His entire body had taken on a building charge of tension that seemed to Alex out of proportion to the topic.

"Take it easy," Alex said quietly. "I agree with you."

There was a small silence. Both men's gazes were directed outside the car, on the traffic-thick road. Summer sunlight blazed off the trim and windows of other cars, bouncing into their eyes with small, blinding strikes. There was a dull, monochromatic cast to the day despite this, as if the world had been toned down, repainted in shades of dun and grey. Even the occasional touch of earth-sprung green seemed dusty, drab.

Dropping off for a bit into his own thoughts, feeling them rev and slow like the sluggish cars around them, Alex replayed the last few days in his head, trying to figure out what he was doing. Was he on the right course? Was his assignment proceeding as it should? Well. . .no, it wasn't really, was it. Even not looking at the man sitting next to him, Alex was sharply aware of him. The shape of his body beneath linen and cotton, the sensual smell of him, the small, shifting movements he made as he drove. Impatient, restless. Their bodies had fit together too well for him to forget, too well for him to go on from this point as if Mulder was just a job, a temporary partner whose career in the FBI, unbeknownst to him, was probably winding down to its terminus. The switch between Alex's legs might have been pointing off, but the current still flowed in him strongly. All it needed was a touch and he'd be lit up, burning.

Even thinking about the things they'd done was pushing tendrils of well-being through his body, uncoiling sprouts of arousal that blossomed ticklishly in his balls. Oh shit. He forced himself not to look at Mulder. Mulder. What the hell kind of a name was that. Betraying his good intentions with an unobtrusive sidelong look, Alex frowned at the other man, trying to find fault. He'd had no trouble doing so their first few meetings, but now couldn't recall what it was about Mulder that had particularly bugged him. He was rude. . .to those who probably deserved it. Moody--true, but then so was Alex. A flake, though, that couldn't be ignored. And yet, for someone rumored to be a flake, he was ten times the investigator of any other agent Alex had met so far. The man's brain might have been patented by IBM, even if it was programmed by Daffy Duck.

Gloomily, Alex stared out his side window, watching the family station wagons pass with their kidloads, the truckers roaring by like bull elephants, the air-conditioned outings of bracingly straight yuppies and ancient, lane-crawling couples. Wedlock and gridlock.

Face it, Alex told himself. You shouldn't have fucked him. You shouldn't have slept with him or taken a shower with him or played with him, or let him get under your skin in any way. Now you've got to deal with it. So just soldier through. Do what you have to do. If you don't, someone else will. A man with a brain like his isn't going to have any trouble finding a job. He'll probably even be better off outside the bureau. He doesn't fit the mold. Like some sleek, nervous pony prancing circles around the plow horses. They must fucking hate him. And an ass like that doesn't belong on the federal payroll. Better venues for it, I can think of plenty. Always looks ready to take off his suit. Makes you wonder. MUFON centerfold, maybe. But when that suit comes off he's a full box of eye candy, with a cherry on top, and they've got him fitted for a plain brown wrapper, his dick wrapped in red tape. What a waste.

For just a minute Alex fantasized a future in which Mulder was booted from the bureau, never knowing that Alex was the one who'd fitted him for the boot. Why shouldn't they go on seeing each other? Assuming no charges were brought, of course. (Which assumed in turn that official discipline was even the point of his assignment, Alex reminded himself cynically. . .and in that brief thought flashed a newly sharpened blade of worry, harkening dark possibilities he hadn't let himself fully contemplate. . .and which he refused to now.)

On the surface of Alex's mind his fanciful thoughts rolled on. What a perfect set up it would be. Mulder needing a place to stay. Mulder needing someone to gripe to. . .Mulder waking up in Alex's bed, tousled, smiling, stretching in the tangle of sheets. Have a good day at work, Alex. Thought I'd make spaghetti tonight, okay with you?

Get a fucking grip, Alex, Alex said sarcastically to himself.

"We should probably lay down some kind of ground rules," Mulder said out of the blue, signifying with eerie relevance upon Alex's line of thought. He was staring straight ahead into traffic, and spoke as if he'd just been dosed with emotional novacaine, but Alex could nonetheless see small signs of nervous energy in his still, well-governed body.

"What brings this on?"

"Besides the obvious?" Silence. "We both know there's a line here--"

"Is this going to be a grown-up conversation?" Alex heard the defensive mockery in his voice, paused and swallowed before going on. "Can we just take this as said?"

"I just wanted to tell you," Mulder said quietly but determinedly, "that I tend to get very focused on the job, and if I find myself getting distracted I may do things to help me stay focused. I mean, if I call you 'Krycek' or forget to smile or don't offer you any of my fries, I don't want you to take it personally."

Alex looked at him, an irritated, disbelieving scowl twisting his lips. "Mulder. Like I'm really going to pull some swooning faggot shit--is that what you think?"

Mulder sighed. "No." He seemed about to say more, then didn't. Silence stretched out again.

After a mile or so, Alex said, "I didn't mean to slam at you. I'm sorry." There was much more he might have said, but every tautly stretched fiber in his being had long ago been fashioned into a man who balked at queer-to-queer chit-chat. He usually had a good eye for finding his type: the kind of casual, occasional lay who wouldn't press for apartment keys and birthday gifts, and would be content to drop by on short notice for a quick fuck and maybe some Chinese take-out, if Alex was feeling sociable after the act. He shied off at any hint of structured 'communication' that might lead him into deep and dangerous waters. And he had no interest whatsoever in having such a touchy-feely discussion in the passenger seat of a bureau Bucar with a man he barely knew. A few kinky screws in a hotel room didn't call for matching bands and mortgage vows.

Mulder nodded at Alex's terse apology. After a few more miles, he said in an easy voice, "What did you make of that news about Cole's cross-twisting?"

"Incredible," Alex said immediately, sincerely. He shook his head. "I can't believe it." He glanced at Mulder. "I can't think of any other agent who would have caught that. I've never seen anything like it."

Mulder felt a tiny blush threaten to advance face front from ears to cheeks. "I wasn't fishing for compliments," he said quickly. "I just--"

"Go fish, Mulder. Why shouldn't you take a few bows? That's how you get ahead in this world. You've got to blow your own horn--you can't just tap dance for them, you've got to hold out your hat, collect your due."

Any more cliches you want to trot out? Mulder thought wryly. But he didn't say it aloud. Bad form to dig at a man while he's complimenting you. Might as well make this lingo a tango.

"It's been a long time since I've been on the fast track, Alex. My goals have changed since I joined the bureau. I had to leave the rat race to the rats."

"Are you calling me a rat, Mulder?"

"Well. . .a cute rat." Mulder gave him a mild sideways look.

In response Alex just shook his head, feigning more exasperation than he really felt. He flicked a look at his watch. "I don't know if we're going to make it to Mrs Diaz's before dinner time."

Against the confines of the car and his seat belt, Mulder managed to strike a starched and granite semi-pose. "Well, guess what--we're the FBI. They'll deal with it."

"Oh, tough guy--"

"Badges?" Mulder continued, running happily along his own dialogue track. His voice had degraded to an atrocious take-off of a Mexican accent. "We don't need no stinkin' badges--"

With considerable startlement, Alex realized he was almost about to giggle like a schoolboy. Get a grip, he told himself once again. Aloud, he cleared his throat. "Do you want me to call her back?"

"Not yet. Let's let it go a while longer. See how late we're running once we hit the Long Island Expressway. . .if we're running very late, I might drop you off at the Diaz house, run an errand. . ." He trailed off, frowning, having apparently developed a sudden, intense interest in the bumper of the car ahead of him.

"What errand?" Alex asked casually.

"Mmm. . .I really do want to stop back by Mrs Dipace's. She's in the same general neighborhood, it shouldn't take long."

"You're not going to try and hypnotize her yourself?"

"No, of course not. I just want to go over her statement again."

"Mmm." Alex nodded, looked out the window, seeming to accept this at face value. "Why did you take Cole's Bible?" he asked, turning back after a minute.

"Take a look." Mulder nudged the book across the seat toward Alex.

"Gloves?" Alex asked laconically, touching the book at one edge, though Mulder himself had already handled it.

"Prints aren't the point--though you should put it in a bag when you're done. Spilling a Frosty on it would be my last act before meeting Death by Scully. . .Pilsson identified it as Cole's; if it has any evidentiary value it'll be in that, as an indicator of state of mind and possibly intent."

Alex had picked up the Bible and was handling it with a curious deliberateness and absence of expression, the way another man might inspect a jarred uterus. "What am I looking for?" he asked, opening the book and flipping idly through the pages.

"Exodus." He glanced over at Alex's skimming hands, added rather dryly, "Toward the front, Alex. You shouldn't have any trouble, anyway--ah, yes--"

"Jesus," Alex muttered, studying the violently marked pages.

"Well, not quite yet. . .just think if God had wielded a red pen--one could wish he'd done a bit more editing. . .certainly around Corinthians."

"Oh, this is classic," Alex said half to himself, scanning the scribbled pages.

"So they say," Mulder murmured back, eyes on the road.

"'--then thou shalt give life for life, / Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, / Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe'--he's drawn freakin' daggers around the verses." Alex laughed once, a sharp, ironic sound. "Quick trial, looks like." He turned the marked pages back and forth, frowned. "Did you notice this when you were in his room--you didn't say anything then."

Mulder nodded. "I hoped Cole was still in the building. You can't just take a man's Bible, you know."

Alex grimaced. "You can have mine."

"Oh, do you have one?" Mulder asked, letting his bland conversational tone mask an almost professional curiosity.

"Why didn't you show me the markings then?" Alex said, following another line of thought.

"Um." Mulder gave him a sheepish, apologetic look. "Sorry. I noticed them after I showed it to you, and then I was distracted. You wanna beat me?" His smile was one of impure beauty.

"I thought we weren't mixing business with pleasure."

"Oh yeah."

"I just don't get it--tell me this--how do people read this and manage to pick out just what's useful--if it's all the Word of God"--he spoke in jeering capitals--"then why don't they obey them all?" He pressed a finger back upon the opened page. "'He that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death'--yeah right."

"Guess we all have our blind spots."

"'Thou shalt also make a table of shittim wood: two cubits'--fuck." With a sound that was half sigh, half sneer, Alex shut the Bible and tossed it on the seat, then recalled Mulder's words and dug out an evidence bag from the glove compartment.

"So Cole's been on the loose," Alex mused aloud after a minute. "And obviously has some sort of revenge thing going for old acquaintances. . .you're not going to sing, are you?" Alex smiled slightly at Mulder's grave profile.

"I only sing when deeply inspired."

They exchanged a heavy-lidded look, both of them suddenly recalled back to their pleasures of the morning. Both shifted in their seats almost at the same moment.

Jesus, Mulder thought. A fresh trickle of sweat was striping his brow. Without warning he'd become fully conscious of the younger man's presence again. Rushes of gut-knotting desire had been sweeping him for the last few days at odd, unexpected moments--in the library, on the street, in the alley (don't think of it)--but he'd tried to convince himself that off-loading his rocks would ease the ache, that companiable lust could segue comfortably into mere companionship.

So much for theory.

He should have listened to the soft, nagging whisper of experience. It looked like the odds had taken a sharp upswing in favor of messy. What did I expect after that? Banging away at each other when we should have been banging away at our field reports like two good little fibbies. Frisking like minks when we should have been working, if not working then sublimating our higher Malthusian impulses into bluff, macho, punch-your-arm camaraderie. Known him how long? Four days? God, I let him choke me. Within him, Mulder winced. His entire body flushed with the memory. And he knew just what to do. . .god he was so fucking good. . .

Feeling rather light-headed, Mulder ran a free hand through his hair and tried to find focus in the road, its turning wheels and careening machinery. He didn't want to think about the man next to him and couldn't stop himself, his mind babbled on--

. . .pull him out of that crappy suit. Hard as steel. Cyborg, obviously. Panther haunting a man's body. Mouth like a blowtorch, kissing him is like taking a toke, hot breath, but good. . .used to chew on pine cones down by the lake at the summer house, a taste like that. . .three, four? Wow. I really need to get laid more often, this is obvious. . .god, he knew just what to do. Can't believe I can sit. . .dick like a jackhammer, absolutely fucking perfect--fuck--oh fuck, this is not the time for this. . .

Alex glanced over, down. "Wanna find a rhododendron, lover?" he said with a cheerful grin, collecting a dark, smoldering look from Mulder in return.

"Shut up. It's just a mild case of hyperemia. It'll pass." Mulder smothered his own burgeoning grin with difficulty. The virile reflex wasn't exactly quelled either.

"Hmm. . ."

"Stop staring. You're making it nervous."

"Ever had a blow-job in a speeding car?"

"Government, rental, or private?"

"Oh, baby!" Alex laughed. "You're a bitch on wheels." He chuckled again, as at a more private joke. Mulder's dark, dry look returned and directed itself his way.

"I've a sensitive nature, I do. Please be kind, Alex."

"When you gonna top me, Mulder?"

"Well, not now, I'm sorry to say--"

"You know, I had a fantasy about doing you in a rest stop."

Mulder gave him an intrigued, semi-incredulous look. "How long have we known each other?"

"Mm. Good point."

"Was I making one?" Mulder asked himself aloud.

"Hand job, Mulder?" In Alex's offhand tone, the inquiry might have been just another way of saying, See the Redskins game last night?

"We're between two Mack trucks, in case you haven't noticed. . .still, if we didn't have government plates," he mused dreamily.

"I'll bet." Alex seemed to grow bored with the banter. He looked off out the window, lapsing into quiet.

Disappointed, Mulder sneaked a diagonal, downward peek at Alex's person. Was that just the drape of the cloth, or--he suddenly smiled to himself. No drape, that. Damn, he wished they could stop. But there was no way to fit a quickie into their schedule at this late hour, even if it were otherwise thinkable. Which, he reminded himself resolutely, it wasn't.

With waning arousal and the ambiguous silence that had settled, shadows drifted into his mind. For a while, Mulder's thoughts spun wind-blown, picked up and swirled by a gathering of dark mental weather. He thought of the case, of deaths, of driving along highways at dusk. Obscure Anglican poetry. Suburbs and sodomy. A summer day ending as the sun slides lower, and evening edges its way in. Houses like islands in neighborhoods like oceans, front yards in the deepening shadows as the cars arrive home, children laughing in the obscure distance, missing children, his sister, his father, his mother who was somewhere right now--in her house surely--fixing her own solitary dinner, alone by fate and by choice, not even the television on for company, just the ticking of the clocks. . .

"What?"

"I said it looks like we're running late. I can interview Diaz, if you still want to get over to Mrs Dipace's." After a moment, when Mulder didn't respond, Alex said, "Is there anything specific you want me to ask her?"

"You've got Cole's photo now to show her--we'll have to stop at a copy shop, by the way. I'll have a dupe made to show Mrs Dipace. Can she recall seeing Cole recently, around the apartment building or elsewhere. Horton asked her about strangers, but ask her again, and about phone calls, notes--crosses, too. Has she seen any odd scraps of paper, maybe tacked or taped or wedged up somewhere where Grissom might have been likely to see it. If he used it as a message, a warning--god, a signature like that would be a lucky break, though if he did I'd have expected to find the evidence on the victims' bodies or around the scene. . .you know, that cross we found in the stairwell was pretty small." His voice was musing. "I wonder what the chances are that someone picked it up on their shoe. . .a fireman's boot, an EMT. . .we're going to have to go back over Willig's building with a fine-tooth comb, see if we can turn up anything. It's equally possible that Cole just had the cross in his pocket or snagged on his clothes, and lost it in fleeing the scene. . ."

Alex cleared his throat gently to ask a question, which seemed to interrupt Mulder's train of thought.

"You know how to conduct the interview, I'm assuming. I can't recall the last time I saw the IT syllabus, but I'd think--" Mulder broke off rather absently, not finishing his sentence. Then unconsciously, absorbed in his driving and his own myriad thoughts, he shifted into conversational high gear. "You probably want to do the interview in the kitchen. If they've had dinner, great. If they haven't--well, you could try talking while she's cooking--it'd be the perfect distractive activity to get her mind running on a double track if she were a suspect, but as a witness--you really should try and get her to sit down at the table with you, concentrate. She's Spanish and married, don't let her husband hover. Kick him out of the room if you have to, and if you can't get him to leave, try not to let her look to him for cues. You might ask him to sit somewhere behind her, if you can manage it.

"This is the first interview with her--ours, anyway--put her at ease. As far as proximics, use the intimate mode--if you lean in, don't lean in a lot. Give her your earnest and polite look, the one that makes you look like a Jehovah's Witness."

Alex opened his mouth to speak, but Mulder rolled obliviously on.

"She'll probably try and feed you. You always look hungry. Must be the suits. Try and touch her arm at some point, but don't be obvious. You know the witness typologies, of course--she's likely to be reluctant or intimidated if anything--though if she's intimidated, I suspect it would be in a more general sense rather than fear of reprisal--distrust of government representatives tends to run high among Hispanic populations. You might have a red herring reaction--she might have a relative who's an illegal alien, or have some other reason to be nervous. Look for any signs of stress, motor restlessness, flushing, inappropriate smiling, increase in gestures, ring-twisting, cross-touching--she's almost certainly Catholic--selective inattention, shifting of eyes, biting of lips, trembling--"

"Mulder--"

"--stammering, hesitation, dilation of pupils--"

"Mulder!"

Mulder stopped, looked at him.

"All right already. I know all this."

Mulder nodded, but remained half in his own world of thought, as if reluctant to abandon it entirely. "She's probably right handed. If she looks to the right after you ask a question, it's more likely she's trying to remember something. If she looks to the left, she's fabricating--"

"Mulder, that's great, thanks--are you finished? Okay. Jesus." He shook his head once, then looked over at Mulder, giving the older man an irritated frown. "Talk about selective memory. I was an NYPD cop, Mulder. Plus I speak Spanish."

"Oh yeah." Mulder was quiet. Selective memory, indeed. He'd seen the notation for language proficiency in Alex's file; prudence, of course, prevented him from mentioning this now.

For the rest of the ride they discussed the case, on and off again, their talk mixed with more general conversation--from Alex's side, snide remarks on Jersey, NYPD anecdotes, retold urban legends--from Mulder's side, cryptic allusions to his childhood, dry but affectionate Scully stories, and trivia about famous lust killers. Lewd badinage was notable in its absence; both men had retreated into best-behavior mode, though when Mulder let Alex off at the Diaz apartment building, the younger agent did lean in at the driver side window and--after a brief palaver--punctuate his adieu by making tiny kissy movements with his lips.

"You shouldn't tempt me to exhibitionism," Mulder said, his eyelids in sensual descent. "You don't know how poor my impulse control is."

Alex smirked, pulled back, and sauntered up the walk. Mulder watched him go, a suspiciously bright young man with a tendency to overgel and execrable taste in suits. And yet. . .there was something about him. Or am I just easy, Mulder wondered as he drove off. After all, the bureau's rainbow brigade could be numbered on the fingers of an unlucky lion tamer. It nagged at Mulder's conscience that the rare conjunction of erotic and professional compatibility might have been what induced him to tumble bedlong into a relationship with Alex on such short acquaintance.

Wait a minute--'relationship'? Yikes. Abort sequence. You're thinking with your joystick again.

He really needed to concentrate. Mulder looked at his watch. He should have plenty of time to interview Mrs Dipace once more (keeping on the good side of truth) before meeting with his source, the mysterious dispenser of tapes and enigmatic messages. . .the voice from the void. . .Mr X. . . ? Hmmm. . . .

Queens, New York

Sunday, 7:33 p.m.

Mulder had run late at Mrs Dipace's, cutting it close for his meeting with the man he was now thinking of as 'Mr X'. He pulled up outside their meeting place, turned off the car and studied the building, its parking lot and its environs, then read the sign on the facade. After a few seconds he shook his head and got out of the car.

Queens Rollers read the unlit sign that stretched across the facing wall of the parking lot. A roller hockey rink--and apparently a defunct one at that. Not very glamorous, Mr X. Not exactly the National Aquarium or the Kenilworth, or the Washington Monument by moonlight. But voguing isn't everything, is it. Maybe your talents lie in survival. Let's hope so.

Mulder followed the instructions X had given him, walking around the building to the back door, which he found open. Funny how you had this back-up location all cleared and handy, Mr X. Wonder how many other little rendezvouses and spy-meets-spy-holes you've got scattered around the greater metropolitan area.

Mulder, entering the building, could see no one in his sweeping lateral scans, but that didn't mean there was no one to be seen. His other source had always seemed to attend their meetings alone, for a proper, cozy tete-a-tete. But that didn't mean X would. The good Mr X, whoever he was, might have brought back-up. . .as perhaps Mulder himself should have. Should at least have called Scully, he thought as he moved around the perimeter entrance hall. Give them a pointer if they need to track down the body. Maybe I am too credulous.

Rather belatedly, a blade of nervous concern began to tickle in and out around Mulder's ribs. In the daytime the building's atmosphere was surely the most innocuous imaginable; at night, en route to meet the voice of doom, it was something else again. Darkness, a silvery negative of light, pooled around every doorway and counter, lent menace to Coke machines and push-brooms, gathered across the ceiling like cobwebs. Silence was an antisocial shroud upon the empty building.

Mulder entered the rink area, inspecting the bleachers he passed, peering into the dark skirts of shadow that edged the rink-buffers. These big machines, abandoned in the middle of the rink itself, resembled slumbering buffalo which it seemed advisable not to startle, but they harbored no signs of awakening to life in threatening, B-movie fashion, and Mulder passed them safely enough.

A few emergency lights cast forth a pallid, isolated illumination from high above. Mulder entered further, glancing around warily as he crossed the echoing rink floor, uncertain of where exactly he was going. The bleachers might have concealed a multitude of sinister spectators to his progress. It was impossible to see through the bench gaps to what lay behind. His nerves slid up a notch, for no reason he could tell, then with precipitate suddenness his eyes fixed on something--someone--waiting in the shadows. A motionless figure. Watching him.

Instinctively, Mulder's hand dropped to his gun, and he paused without approaching any further. "Who are you?" he called out across several yards of dim rink. The words rang out between them, challenge and hail.

"Who I am is irrelevant." The man stepped forward unthreateningly, pulling out of the shadows' gentle embrace to reveal himself: a neat-looking, bearded black man in a buttoned-up trenchcoat, a tie peeking out at the top.

Slowly Mulder's hand lowered from his gun. Even as one part of his mind assessed the threat level of the situation and found it acceptable, another part took in the man's appearance. Mulder found himself trying out his old Sherlock Holmes trick, fingering visual puzzle pieces for later assembly. "Why are you trying to help me?" he said aloud.

"You think I want to be here, Agent Mulder?" The man paused, as if to emphasize his next words. "I don't want to be here." His voice was level, devoid of any softening emotion, such as Mulder had come to associate with the man he'd fondly nicknamed 'Deep Throat'; and his gaze--X's gaze--was intense and direct, the hypnotic stare of a snake-handler. He held a manila envelope out to Mulder.

Mulder looked at it without immediately taking it, half-consciously noting the form of address X had used. Agent Mulder. A bureau man? Present--past?

"What is this?"

"Data from a top-secret military project born of the idea that sleep is a soldier's greatest enemy."

Mulder took the file, mental wheels turning. After a moment synapses fired, his mind made the connection. "Grissom was conducting sleep deprivation experiments on Parris Island."

"Not deprivation. Eradication."

"Why?"

"Why else? To build a better soldier. Sustained wakefulness dulls fear. Heightens aggression. . .Science had just put a man on the moon. So they looked to science to win or lose the war."

Mulder made a small involuntary sound of disgust. "And Willig and Cole were the lab rats."

"The lab rats with the highest kill ratio in the Marine Corps. Four thousand plus confirmed kills. For a thirteen-man squad."

Mulder heard the figures, but he couldn't quite take them in. "Do you think Cole's behind what's happening now?"

"I'm not here to do your thinking, Agent Mulder. . .all I know is Augustus Cole hasn't slept in twenty-four years."

Mulder absorbed this without responding. Some days I know exactly how he feels, a low voice muttered from the offstage wings of his mind.

"There's someone else you should see," X continued. "Another member of the squad who was reportedly killed in action."

"I thought Cole was the last."

"His name is on the envelope."

As Mulder examined the scrap of paper clipped to the outside of the envelope, X turned and began walking away. Mulder glanced up to see the other man's retreating back. He had to wonder what was motivating this Mr X, who seemed so brusque and businesslike about dispensing his information; there was no sense of reluctance about him, exactly, and yet something suggested he was being compelled. But who--or what--was compelling him, Mulder wondered. Were the higher powers behind his motivation merely moral--or all too human? For some reason, Mulder flashed now on the words that always entered his mind when he saw the ominous cigarette-smoking man in Skinner's office. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. . .

"Well, how do I contact you?" Mulder called out after X, suddenly feeling rather exasperated. Cloak and dagger. This really wasn't the plan he'd had for his life, oh so long ago.

"You can't," X called back.

Mulder, more as a test than in truth, said, "I may need more--"

X stopped and turned, interrupted him. "You still don't get it, do you?"

Mulder hoped he projected an appropriately bewildered facade. Tell me more, he thought to himself. Elucidate me, Shadow Man. Any and all information was useful under these circumstances.

"Closing the X files, separating you and Scully, was only the beginning." X paused. "The truth is still out there. But it's never been more dangerous. . .The man we both knew--" X looked to one side with the first hint of feeling he'd shown. "--paid for that information with his life." Significant pause. "A sacrifice I'm not willing to make." X's tone was very deliberate on the last few words. He turned again, and left.

Mulder didn't try and follow. Even if a one-man tail had been remotely practicable under such conditions, such fancy shenanigans weren't where his talents lay. Mulder sighed and left the rink unhurriedly, his footsteps rapping on the hard rink floor and sending echoes bouncing around the darkness like the steady knocks of a woodpecker. Ambivalent velleities were plaguing him again; he didn't know what to think or feel, and all that he knew to do was simply to go on as before.

When he got to his car he sat for a few minutes in the wan bath of the car's interior light and read through the contents of the envelope X had given him. He spent longer on them than he meant to. There was so much to take in, most of it written either in jungle-thick Army jargon or the equally dense lingo that was modern medicalese. There was a copy of the original R&D proposal and the project protocol (in itself, enough to send Nat Hentoff into a joyful tailspin), materiel requisitions, a line-item budget and approved allocations, data collection forms, medical records, consent waivers. The military paperwork was signed off under the auspices of various officers within the US Army Medical Research and Development Command, but there were also memos to and from the Surgeon General's office, the Department of Defense, the Army's Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel, and the office of the Judge Advocate General.

Grissom's name appeared regularly as project head; the squad members seemed to be referred to most often by case or code numbers; there were other names, but much of the paperwork was smudged, aged, and difficult to read, particularly in the poor light. This was obviously not even a fraction of the records relating to the project, but it was more than enough to warrant investigation.

Finally, Mulder had to force himself to stop reading. The hard weight of the files in his hands (evidence, evidence!) gave him an almost sensual thrill, and inspired happy thoughts of Post headlines, Congressional hearings, Justice Department probes, and general public exposure. To be sure, this wasn't quite as sexy as Air Force UFO contact logs, or a bottled alien fetus; but it would be one more chink scored in their armor of silence. One more brick knocked from that great grey wall protecting their castle.

Mulder looked at his watch and felt a guilty twist his gut at seeing how late it was. He started the car and drove off, thinking he should call Krycek, and then almost immediately reflecting on why Krycek hadn't called him. Maybe the interview was running long. Mulder decided he wouldn't call. He didn't want to risk an untimely interruption. Maybe Krycek wouldn't even notice that Mulder had run late.

What would he tell Krycek about this information? Nothing, nothing, Mulder's mind cautioned harshly. But he'd have to say something, he couldn't just drag his partner to interview this Matola person without an explanation. Can't use that psychic hotline line again, he thought dryly. I haf my sources, he might say in a faux German accent. But really, this was ridiculous. His partner on a case--with whom he was playing hide-the-salami, by the way--and he couldn't trust the man enough to tell him where their information was coming from. . .

No, I can't, he reminded himself again. His interior voice was quiet, firm; regretful but hard. It could not be helped. He didn't know Alex--didn't know Krycek--that well, and could not afford to trust him. Certainly X could not afford the risk of Mulder extending his trust to anyone on this matter. His thoughts as he made his way to his car, as he drove off to pick up his partner, centered on his former source, another man without a name. He'd never learned it, even after his death. His body has quietly disappeared from the morgue a few days after its arrival. Mulder had intently searched the obituaries of East coast papers for weeks after the event, but had never turned up a name to put with the familiar face he'd known. It had been a good face, maybe not one you'd single out of a crowd, but that was a point in his favor given the precarious business he'd taken upon himself. Despite their one-sided, anonymous acquaintance, he'd always been an individual, a personality.

And Mulder missed him. Odd, that he should miss a man so much whose name he'd never known. But what's in a name. . .these men don't have names. . .and does it matter. . .a rose would smell as sweet, a canker as foul. . .as thou, my cancer. . .

Mulder yawned. Tired again. Not to sleep. . .in twenty-four years. He shook his head, and the lights and the traffic and the summer night air blended for a moment like an epiphany, and then vanished again. The sum broke down, back into its parts. How would it be not to sleep for a lifetime. . .oh yes, but he knew. When day's oppression is not eased by night, / But day and night by day oppressed, / And each, though enemies to either's reign, / Do in consent shake hands to torture me. . .

Torture.

When Mulder reached the street where the Diaz apartment building was located, he could see even from a hundred feet Krycek's tall figure, hunched into a corner of the illuminated entranceway like a malingering beanstalk. Krycek's own eyesight was apparently keen as well, for before Mulder was halfway up the street he was out of his niche like a jack-in-the-box, moving toward the curb, stepping out into the street to meet the car. Mulder eyed the envelope on the seat and mentally swore, then slid it under his floormat. He couldn't tell if it would be noticeable or not, the envelope was rather thick. Too thick? Too late. He slowed the car, and Krycek was opening the door before the wheels even stopped turning. He got in and Mulder started up again.

"Where were ya?" Krycek asked. He didn't really wait for an answer. "Someone matching Cole's description just robbed a drugstore in Queens--and the police have located him in a motel around the corner." He pointed off down the street, vaguely indicating a right turn.

"Was he alive?" Mulder asked, feeling his blood and nerves begin to sing with the excitement of the chase.

"He was when the night manager saw him. . .so where were ya?"

The offhand question was repeated, tagged on almost as an afterthought, but something about that ultra-casual tone made Mulder's ears prick up. Was he paranoid, or. . .

"Sorry, I ran late. . .why didn't you call if you were waiting? When did you hear about Cole?"

Alex studied him covertly. "It's about a half mile, past the McDonald's, place called the Phoenix," he said, looking out the dash window as Mulder turned onto the other street and began picking up speed. "I ran late too, so I wasn't waiting too long. I lost your cellular number, was just about to call in for it. Horton called a few minutes ago about Cole--"

"Horton?" Mulder interrupted, frowning.

"Yeah, he lives not too far away. Was hangin' out with the homies down at his local when a few of his buddies got the radio call." They exchanged a look, Mulder incredulous and smiling, and Alex smug and smiling, as pleased as if it were a coup he'd pulled off himself. "Fuckin' awesome break, or what?"

"No shit. We've definitely had our share and then some on this case."

Alex gave the other man a faintly quizzical look he didn't notice, then his own attention was distracted. "That must be it--see--turn here--" Then, to himself sotto voce, "Sheesh, talk about your roach motels."

Mulder pulled up into the parking lot. "How did it go with Mrs Diaz, by the way--anything there?"

"Not that I could find." They were getting out of the car; Alex continued speaking as they hoofed it quickly around to the front of the building. "She doesn't remember any lurkers, any odd messages, any phone calls, any crosses, anything."

Mulder held the door of the apartment building open for Alex, smiled crookedly as he passed. "For that you ran late?"

"Well, you know, carnitas de puerco, rice and beans, a nice tossed salad. . ."

"Bastard," Mulder groaned beneath his breath, his stomach punching itself with sudden violence at the mention of food. He followed Alex in, then paused with his hand on the door, looking back from where they'd come, realizing he'd left his recently acquired Top Secret folder carelessly in the car. Low blood sugar, must be, or else my brain has been sucked out by aliens without my knowing it.

"Shit," he muttered aloud.

Alex stopped with his foot on the bottom stair. "What is it?"

"Nothing," Mulder said, letting the door close. "Thought I'd left my cellular on the seat." He patted his pocket, smiled mechanically. Shit. Well. . .we're parked between two squad cars. . .and if anyone does break in, they'll probably be going for the radio.

As transient hotels went, the Phoenix was middling seedy; large signs advertised hourly, nightly, and weekly rates. The signs were old and peeling, the prices blocked out in separate squares that were clearly the current mark-ups of many inflationary lower layers. The first floor was, quite oddly, almost entirely closed off with a rough partition of aging, untreated wood, this makeshift wall pasted over with flyers and grubby business cards. A few locals loitered in the corner by the entrance, taking in the agents' passing with glazed but watchful eyes.

Sounds of more organized hubbub drifted down from above, and as Alex and Mulder bounded up the stairwell they were passed by an officer descending, wearing the absorbed expression of a man who is trying to remember whether he left his squad car locked. On the landing there was an impression of a bustle of people all around, mostly onlookers, but also a few plainclothes asking questions. Light from naked bulbs lent a brittle illumination to the sordid situation. The wooden floors and baseboards were greyed with a deep opacity of old wax. The man behind the cash window was a spectator who had seen this bit of action countless times, but who would watch the game anyway, in the hopes of an unusual run, a good play, an upset or unexpected reversal in the score.

Alex, youthful energy and Mexican fuel carrying him aloft at a high rate of speed, spotted Horton first and called out.

"Detective Horton--" Still in ascent and approaching the police detective, Alex noticed a blank, wary look pass over the man's tired and abstracted face. Hello? Shake hands with your short term memory lately? Too many faces, too few hours of sleep--and maybe a few too many beers? Poor shmuck, thank god I got out. . .look at that puss, we're about to be mistaken for reporters. Jesus. Rather than take a chance, Alex flashed his badge. "I'm Agent Krycek. This is Agent Mulder," he said, making the reminder breezily, with a deliberate absence of emphasis.

Horton's face subtly adjusted as recognition switched back on. For a second he looked almost embarrassed, but to them he said only, "I been waitin' for you guys. I tried holdin' the SWAT guys back but they're gettin' a little antsy."

They crossed the landing together. Horton had absorbed his mental lapse with what was surely the ease of long practice, and continued speaking to the agents with as much familiarity now as if they'd danced at each other's weddings. A badge. Instant bond and passport, guaranteed membership in a ready-made fraternity. You have to love it, thought Alex.

"For whatever it's worth," Horton was saying, "Cole didn't steal dime one from that drugstore--"

Alex and Mulder both glanced at Horton as they turned and began up the next flight.

"--just a bunch a' pills," Horton finished. He made an upturned gesture with his hand to indicate apparently that he was at a loss.

As Horton finished speaking, two shots rang out in quick succession from above, and a voice yelled "Freeze!"

Both agents dropped to the stairs, flattening themselves and looking up. Behind them, Horton ducked down. As a scream rang out, all three men pulled out their guns. They paused a second, then on hearing no other immediate shots or screams quickly ascended.

Leaping up the remaining steps, running down the hallway above, Alex felt his heart accelerate into the feral predatory rhythms that were the reason he loved his job, the reason he hacked the hackwork. It was for this that he really lived. This was a man's most lucid window into existence, the guts of it. The peak. Gun in hand, scent of fear in the surrounding air. Life and death. And when it came down to it, in the end, those were the choices, the conditions. You had no other. Religion was shit. There was nothing after this. This was unique, a one-shot deal. You took the roller-coaster ride for the thrill, not to arrive anywhere. Purity.

Alex was aware of the presence of other humans, their faces appearing in some doorways, ducking out of others. But they signified nothing, were less than nothing. Just monkeys looking dimly on as the lions fought among themselves. He took the lead almost recklessly, sprinting ahead of Mulder, of Horton. Behind him he heard Horton's gruff voice--"Inside, now!"--directed at some foolhardy peeper. Monkeys, monkeys, Alex's mind cried. His mind was a grinning thing, though his face showed to the undiscerning eye only a focused attention to duty. From somewhere he heard a baby cry, a sound he could rarely hear without going cold at heart. New life. How sweet, his mind was wont to sing mockingly. How foreign and how Other. Like a needle driven in his soul, the sound pushed his crest of dark, wild energy even higher, and his hands tightened on his gun as if clasping that icon in a prayerful gesture for salvation.

The long hallway was traversed in what seemed the flash of a moment, and a confusing choreography then ensued as each man tried to find the scene of the action, the origin of the gunfire.

From ahead a voice bellowed out mournfully, "Ahh--officer down!"

Alex passed a small room, seeing from the corner of his eye one of the SWAT team members kneeling on the floor next to his fallen fellow, pushing on his chest to keep the heart going. "Two officers down!" he heard a voice yell. He arrived at another room, sweeping it with his gaze, trying to sort out the chaos. Several other officers were gathered around, looking stunned and bewildered. Another was speaking into his radio.

"Full critical--request emergency vehicles immediately--"

Alex moved on down the hall, looking around, and slowly lowering his gun as he realized that Cole must have fled. But why was no one chasing him?

Mulder, following Alex's path, reached the room where the second injured man lay on the dirty floor, oozing his life blood. He stared a moment, a sick lash of despair painting a dry stripe down the back of his throat, then turned and retraced his steps to the first room, his mind pulling up a mental snapshot of an open window. He circled around Horton, who stood looking down with impotent anger at the fallen officer and his attendant. The other officer's murmurs rose and fell in rhythmic litany ("Easy, Stan, buddy, you just keep breathin' for me--that's it, easy, Stan, buddy--") as Mulder moved to the window he'd seen on his first pass. He ducked his head, looked out searchingly into the alley. Saw nothing, heard nothing, and received from the night only a misleading sense of peace.

Alex came up to the window, speaking breathlessly. "What's going on here, Mulder?"

Mulder looked at him in distracted inquiry.

Alex, catching his breath, gestured. "These two officers--they shot each other."

After a stunned moment, Mulder's mind spun back onto track. "Cole was here. I know it." He turned, looked at the SWAT man, the unlucky star of his own drama. "We need to question them," he said reluctantly, in a lower voice. "If either of them is up to it. Shit. . .damn it." He turned with tensely subdued anger back to the window, leaned on the sill and looked out again, up and down the alley.

"Where the hell is everybody?" he snapped, half to himself. "They should have men in the alley by now." He drew back in. "Find out what's going on, Krycek, get their fucking asses moving before we lose him."

Alex moved off quickly, and Mulder went over to where Horton stood watch over the fallen SWAT man and his partner. "Horton," he said quietly. Horton turned to look at him, eyes engraved with world-weary gloom, and Mulder drew him off a few feet. Mulder gestured inconspicuously with his chin at the fallen man. "Can he talk--I need to find out what he saw."

"Not him," Horton said, looking back at the man, who had been surrounded in the space of a second by arriving EMT's, in a manner disturbingly evocative of a carcass being set upon by blowflies.

They went together to the other room, where the second cop lay, but he too was already well barricaded behind the stern shield of emergency medical care. Dark-jacketed forms crouched around him, armoring him with cervical collar and oxygen mask, BP cuff and IV, each apparatus ensnaring him further in their life-saving web.

Mulder's eyes fixed on the collar. "Oh fuck," he said tonelessly. Horton's gaze followed his gravely, then in silence and as one the two men turned away, moving out of the path of the busy medics. Mulder looked up and down the hall. Two SWAT men stood together off to the side, conversing in words vocal and obscene, their guns held alongside their thighs like extensions of their bulky arms. Another officer was speaking into a radio. Behind him, a young man's sleepy face poked out from behind a door. But the hallway was emptier, Mulder saw; the officers had moved out, and Krycek was nowhere to be seen.

"Listen, Horton," he said, turning to the other man, then paused. "Who's your counterpart here--or have they elected you top dog by default?"

"Mmm, not me. I'm just playin' your friendly neighborhood tour guide." Horton looked around. "Groff's gotta be here somewhere."

"What kind of a man is Groff?" Mulder asked.

Horton looked at him with phlegmatic incomprehension. "What--looks?" At Mulder's headshake, Horton frowned and returned the other man's steady, searching gaze with his own. "Good cop. . .knows his business. . .why?"

At this trite, terse endorsement, Mulder sighed and studied Horton with glum resignation. "Just that I need to tell him something and I was wondering how he would take it. . .I think Cole might have certain. . .powers."

"Uh-huh." Horton eyed him without moving a muscle in face or form.

"Groff's men--nobody wants another injury, or a death," Mulder said quietly. "And I think Cole might be uniquely dangerous--certainly to the experience of these men."

"I'm listening."

Mulder took a deeper breath, said, "I think he might have, um--" (The ability to cloud men's minds? Cripes.) "--cultivated a talent toward hypnosis. Distraction."

"Distraction." Horton's eyes were steady and patient as a pit bull's.

"Mm, yeah. Um, how much do you know about rapid induction techniques?"

"Fuck all," Horton said calmly.

Mulder nodded understandingly, eyes wide. Oh good. "Well," he said blandly and brightly, "accounts seem to suggest that the suspect may have honed a personalized technique for rapid induction of subjects--such as his psychiatrist, and perhaps these officers--into a hypnotic, suggestive state in which they would respond and act unexpectedly. He may even be taking advantage of the subjects' pre-existing hypnotic states--which are actually quite common, self-induced, spontaneous occurrences that we experience several times a day without even realizing. . .particularly during periods of intense concentration or stress. . ." Mulder trailed off, shrugging and making a tiny "Eh, but what do I know?" gesture with one hand.

"Uh-huh." Horton's response was forbiddingly laconic, but he actually looked rather thoughtful. "So like, he's what--some kinda magician?"

"No, probably just a guy who's spent the last twelve years of his life locked up with an irritating psychiatrist and nothing better to do with his time."

"Yeah, well I can see that." Horton snorted softly.

"I know it sounds, um, cheesy--but if you could tell Groff to instruct his men not to look into the suspect's eyes--I don't know if that has anything to do with his trick, but it certainly wouldn't hurt to be on the safe side. The men need to expect the unexpected. SWAT officers are pretty frosty to begin with, but if Cole could somehow manage to have two of them shoot each other in crossfire, at what looks like close range. . ."

Horton absorbed this, then swore for several seconds in a dull, tired voice. "I'll find Groff," he said at last. "Talk to him." He looked sharply then at Mulder, smiled a little. "You're a smart kid. This is better comin' from me than you, you can bet your federal ass."

Bemused, Mulder watched Horton walk off. Wish I could be that smart all the time, he thought sourly, shaking his head to himself. He ran a hand through his hair, and was just about to follow the trail of Krycek and the SWAT team, when the other agent came loping up. His dark hair had fallen loose of its governance and was hanging rakishly across his eyes, which gleamed brightly. He was out of breath, but not heavily so; more likely from excitement than exertion. Parted lips compressed as he arrived at Mulder's side, and the impression of excitement suddenly waned. In the space of a second the younger man went from looking aroused to merely exasperated, frustrated.

"What's up?" Mulder asked, tensing but already knowing the answer.

"Nothing. Nada. Zip. They're combing the area, but. . ." Krycek shrugged, disgusted. "Looks like he got away. There's a subway stop less than fifty yards down the street, guard saw a man matching Cole's description jump the stile, but after that--nothing. SWAT got on radio with the Transit Authority, had the departing train checked, but they've got nobody resembling Cole on board."

"Shit," Mulder said. Keyed up, angry, he turned in place restlessly and looked for some focus. Preferably something to hit.

"TA will stay on it. Groff--he's the ranking officer in charge--will coordinate for the NYPD in the borough, he's gonna get a picture to them and put an update out on the NCIC."

"You talked to him?"

"Just in passing." Krycek gestured with his shoulder back down the hall. "He's down by the rear entrance of the building with Horton."

Mulder went still for a moment, closing his eyes, seeking his focus. After several seconds he opened his eyes again, looked at Krycek, who waited expectantly. "Okay," Mulder sighed. "First thing, we need to call the scene team. They'll take over here."

"Groff's not gonna like that," Krycek said dryly and knowingly. "Two of his own down."

Unexpectedly, Mulder felt a small smile touch his lips. A hint of New Yawk accent had begun creeping into the younger agent's voice. He looked awfully damn cute, too. He had a filthy smudge across one cheekbone that detracted not at all from his charm, and he was still slightly out of breath--in a healthy, spunky sort of way.

"Yeah, well he can lump it." At Krycek's silent headshake and clear, messaging gaze, Mulder sighed again. "Too harsh? Okay. Listen--you know these guys--maybe not personally, but you were one of them. You should talk the talk, for the both of us." He pulled a wry face, smiled again. "This is your case anyway, right?"

"Well. . ." Krycek, melting quite suddenly into Alex, smiled in return, looking lush, dangerous, incredibly personal. "Four days ago, anyway." His eyes were twin lasers, beams locked on target.

Bad form to swoon, Mulder thought, swallowing on his dry throat, unable to tear his eyes away from the other man's. Green eyes. . .huh. Didn't notice that before. What the hell was I looking at. . .stop staring. God, but he had it bad. This was the kind of lust that burned like a chronic, low-grade fever in the flesh but could flare up at any moment--a tiger springing under the skin, burning bright and swallowing him from the inside out. It was raw, stupid, animal need with no respect for propriety, injury, death, time or place. It ate when it was hungry. It was eating him now; he could feel its bite everywhere in his body.

"Oh fuck," he said aloud, without stopping to think.

Alex gave a low laugh that went no further than the twinned orbit of their bodies. "Wanna get a room?" he said, breath quickening into another soft laugh, his warm voice a vibrant purr. "What better convenience, Mulder?"

"When body lice turns me on, I'll take you up on that." He tore his gaze away, licked his lips, and tried to remember what he'd been going to do next. He spotted Horton turning the corner at the end of the hall, walking alongside a scowling middle-aged man in SWAT gear.

"Okay," Mulder said with a familiar sense of resignation, "let's earn our merit badges."