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In a Dark Time I and II (3/4)

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

115th Precinct, Queens

3:42 a.m.

"Well, they took that better than I expected." Alex rubbed one gritty canthus, inspected the salty crystal on his fingertip a second, then brushed it off as he yawned. "Where and when did you come up with that hypnosis bullshit?" They were clattering together down a flight of steps within the precinct building, heading toward the car park.

Mulder shook his head tiredly. "Sounded good, didn't it?"

"You don't believe it then?" Alex's tone conveyed clearly: I knew it.

"I had to tell them something," Mulder grumbled. "I don't know what Cole's trick is, but I think he has a way of making people--" He hesitated, shrugged (more to himself than Alex, whose back was to him). "--zone out. I dunno. Talk about zoned out." He yawned, groaned. "I'm so looking forward to our drive into Manhattan."

"Traffic'll be light," Alex offered with a sardonic, one-sided smile.

Mulder shot him a dirty look. Alex studied him surreptitiously. The older man looked wiped out--the walking dead--but also incredibly appealing, despite this. His hair had flattened as the day had progressed, and now it clung to his scalp like a fitted cap of some fine soft bark. His eyelids were at half mast, full and furling with sleep, and damnably seductive even as a signal of their owner's exhaustion. Face planed with stubble and city grit, collar unbuttoned and sleeves rolled up, tie loosened, jacket dangling from one hand, every lucid bone in his body flowing, his glorious internal architecture set into motion. . .

Breath ragged, Alex felt a slamming wave hit his gut and chest, the recognition of how aroused he was. Mulder, moving ahead of him, was sorting out his keys with one hand, then glancing up irritably at the dim lights. Alex overtook him and bumped him to one side, into the narrow space between two parked cars. He pushed with the full length of his body, and remained pressingly close.

Mulder's jacket dropped, and his keys. "Fuck--what--don't even--"

Alex caught the other man's mouth in a hard, searching kiss that cut off all speech. He heard a groan of delirious pleasure as their tongues met in wet, blunt swordplay and their jaws rubbed abrasively.

Mulder jerked his head away roughly with the obvious intention of protesting, but after only the space of a breath his mouth latched on to Alex's again, with wilder need. His tongue was supple, and the grip of his hands was strong and getting stronger. Their wrestling caresses pulled at the cotton and linen of each other's shirts, and at the tautly flexing muscles of backs and arms underneath the cloth. Alex arched hard, bumping hip to hip. Both men gasped into their dueling mouths then Mulder twisted and they stumbled together against a car. Mulder's hips drove imperiously over Alex's, thrusting his trapped, stiffening cock against its match.

Mulder's mouth tore away again. "Oh shit--" His eyes, wider now, directed a searching gaze past Alex, playing over the cars and posts in the dim cavernous car park. "This is insane," he rasped out angrily. "Anyone could walk in. Cops for Christ's sake!" He pulled back and touched a dazed hand to his brow, then to the slack knot of his tie. His hand was trembling.

"In the car, then--on the road--hand job, blowjob--" Lips curved like the edge of a scimitar. Eyes darkly glowing, Alex leaned in, licked the inner seal of Mulder's parted lips, whispered there. "You do me, I'll do you--"

"Fuck no!"

Alex shook his head and just looked at him, face hardening slightly. "Prick tease," he said in an evil voice.

"Me?"

Alex twisted his head down and sucked one peaked nipple through the fabric of Mulder's shirt, then bit hard and heard a sharp gasp. Another, rougher bite brought a harsh moan of need. He leaned back again, observed in fascination as Mulder's eyes sparked dangerously: twin green fires burning the surface of their darkly blossomed irises. The pulse in his neck was jumping, his clenched jaw almost vibrating with rage. "Bastard," Mulder whispered. It was hard to tell if he was more wounded or wounding. Alex, lips parting and curling, reached out and cupped him between his legs, and watched Mulder's defensive facade crumble, the immediacy of the surrender branding him a true sensualist. He grabbed Alex's wrist to hold him in place. His face turned aside in a desperate attempt at denial, but his body was rubbing itself against the glove of Alex's palm.

"Thought you wanted me to stop," Alex said, molding his hand more closely to the jutting shaft beneath the dark fabric. Mulder's hips pumped once, twice. Alex pulled his hand away. "I'm not into charity work," he said coolly. His eyes betrayed the lie of his indifference. Mulder forced his own into focus, looked at him. Alex couldn't stop himself from staring back. For a moment they were equally mesmerized. Was this was what it meant to drink in the sight of someone, Alex wondered. Fox Mulder: a long, tall shot of whiskey, right to the gut. Alex's eyes, in the flash of split seconds, traced the arcs of the other's face--the sphinxish eyelids, the imperfect but suitable bend of nose, the lips whose uneven distribution of flesh lent them a perpetual, rather boyish pout. Not spoiled, but supplicant and amused in turns.

Not my type, Alex's mind said, but if not then why was his body in rut, ignited by this man?

Because he fucks like a demon. Or as if he's possessed by them.

Alex caught his lower lip between his teeth, and then licked it deliberately, raised his eyebrows. "Okay, Mulder, let's hit the road then," he said, turning.

Mulder grabbed him, hissed. "Not on your fucking life. Get down on your knees." He jerked Alex around hard, then pushed with startling force at his shoulder: a boy's playground challenge, its violence charged with unexpected eroticism. "Down! Now." His voice was low and roughened with lust, the faintly nasal tones contributing the perfect nuance of a sneer to his command.

Alex went to his knees. "Watch for the cops, Mulder," he whispered, grinning, pressing his lips to the peaked seam of trousers before his face. Mulder was fumbling with his belt, his zipper, and had himself out in just a few skillful urgent seconds, and then his hand was cupping the back of Alex's head and forcing him with brutal efficiency onto his cock. He thrust without tenderness, desperately. Alex raised his hands to Mulder's hips and knocked his rough clasp loose. After a few moments the other man's hands slid back to cradle his head, twined in his hair, but somewhat more gently now.

Alex didn't look up but could feel in his mouth the reverberations of Mulder's every movement. The snap and roll of his hips, the arch of his back, the flexing rhythm of his ass and thighs. Big hands skidded around Alex's scalp, in and out of the weave of his hair, and Alex felt the storm growing in Mulder's tightening, pulsing cock, could taste its precipitation on the salty, pearling head. Silence built like the force of a wave's crest and then shattered with soft gasps.

"Oh god, oh god Alex--oh god, yes--oh god--" It went on and on, a repetitive prayer to him the other man could not contain. But the piercing heft of Mulder in his mouth made Alex a worshipper, too. He wanted to laugh with this, couldn't. Mulder's whispered invocations were low, strung like beads that alternated with quiet sobs of pleasure that built and rose in his throat.

Riding his lust, Mulder felt his world spin out from under him. At any moment a police officer could bang out of the stairwell, the elevator doors could open and a half dozen of them could tumble out laughing and walking toward their cars. Dazed, he stared at the hood of the Toyota Corolla in front of him. This car. They weren't far back enough, the light wasn't dim enough, there was no way Krycek (Alex, Alex) could get up fast enough for this to appear anything but what it was, tawdry and raw, the stuff of crude locker-room anecdotes, one FBI agent giving another a blow job in the car park of a police precinct. Oh god, oh god--yes, YES--!

Mulder slammed hard into Alex's mouth, feeling the jaw stretch to take him, the tongue strain to hold him on its silken pallet, a blanketing of slick, soft flesh that the underside of his cock stroked ruthlessly. He gripped Alex harder and shoved until he heard--felt--Christ!--the back of the other man's head hit the car behind him, barely cushioned by the mesh of Mulder's tense fingers. The sudden bump drove him deeper into the spasmodic grip of a choke and he arched, feeling his balls draw up, and then Alex pushed at his hips and jerked forward on his knees, sending them stumbling back clumsily against the other buffering car, at which the garage filled with the resounding wails of its alarm--and with that nerve-jarring scream vibrating up through his flesh Mulder stiffened and came with the force of a gunshot.

"Oh fuck," he yelped, blinding pleasure and sheer panic striking together. For a long, drawn out instant his brain flatlined and he felt himself caught up under the sternum and lifted by a cruel talon of breathless joy--

Then he was snapped loose of ecstasy, dropped back into his body with the sense of a stunned thud. In the same moment he instinctively shoved Alex away, Alex jerked his mouth free. He fell back on his heels, shocked face striped with Mulder's seed. For a second he stared wide-eyed and astonished at the banshee car the other man leaned against, then he began to laugh. Sprawled on the ground, he gasped with laughter, while Mulder zipped and belted himself with nearly as much urgency as he'd unzipped--more, perhaps.

"Get up," Mulder said, dazedly. He gripped Alex under one arm to pull him upright. Alex rose unsteadily, still breathlessly giggling. Mulder grabbed his jacket and keys and straightened again, looking out around the parking garage, expecting any moment to see cops swarming in on them, guns drawn.

"Christ, this is insane. . .worse than an airplane bathroom," Mulder muttered. He scanned the sea of cars again, then with no change in his tense face he caught Alex around the back of his head and kissed him full on his open mouth. The kiss lasted only a second, just long enough for their tongues to exchange the taste of one another, then Mulder broke it off and moved out into the main ramp area; just as the stairwell door opened and a plainclothes officer ambled out, pulling on his jacket. He looked down the row of cars, toward Mulder and the source of the whooping alarm.

"Sorry," Mulder called. He smiled and waved. "Bumped the car." The man took both him and Alex in with a glance, nodded and waved back, then continued on to the far side of the lot.

"Bumped the car," Alex snickered under his breath.

"Well, we did."

"My turn, Mulder."

"No way--you realize we didn't even think to check for video cameras?"

Humor and desire banished themselves from Alex's face in the space of a second. Eyes narrowed, he scoped out the territory with newly sharpened attention, examining the support posts and ceilings with a hawk's diamond-cutting perusal.

"There's nothing," he said at last. His voice was flat but sure. His lascivious enthusiasm seemed effectively killed. He wiped his mouth carelessly, eyes shuttered of any expression, and said, "Let's get the fuck out of here." He turned his back on Mulder, walked off down the cars.

Mulder stared him, mixed emotions stirring, then followed.

Alex reached the car first, waited impatiently for Mulder to come up. He eyed the older man closely, noting the alteration in his tiredness. Previously tense and wired, Mulder had softened almost completely now into boneless, dreamy-eyed fatigue. A dry, crooked smile touched Alex's lips despite the itching thorn of his own unrelieved tension. A job well done, after all.

"Why don't you let me drive?" he said, holding out his hand for the keys.

"Mmm." Mulder sleepily hesitated, wondering why that shouldn't be a good idea, then gave up on the question and dropped the keychain in Alex's open hand. He yawned and ambled around the car while Alex got in the driver's side. Alex adjusted the seat, shifted and removed his gun, belted up. Mulder just slumped in the passenger seat, eyes shut, arm resting on the open window.

"Belt up," Alex said, and received a small grunt in response. After a moment Mulder sighed, opened his eyes and obeyed. "Airplane bathroom, huh?" Alex said as he started the car and pulled out.

"Wild child." Mulder closed his eyes again, leaned his head against the seat rest. "First trip to Europe. Paris to Marrakesh shuttle. . .very nauseating. . .ate fourteen packs of peanuts. . .girl next to me wouldn't turn off her tape player. . .Men at Work, Stray Cats, Toto. . .don't make them like that anymore. . .thank god. . .odd. . .very hairy legs, red hair, kinda nice, but she'd shaved her. . ."

Silence drifted over from the passenger seat. Irked, Alex said, "Her what, Mulder?"

". . .plotte."

Alex's lips twitched. "Thought you didn't specialize in those foreign words, Mulder."

"Only the naughty ones."

"Didn't know you went for plotte either."

"Mmm. Very pretty plotte. . .purty plotte. . .funny, isn't it. . ." He didn't finish the thought. Or perhaps he did.

Alex shook his head. They'd reached the street. It was raining again, a moderate fall that bounced steadily on the streets and buildings, and began rapping on the car as soon as they pulled from the garage. Alex looked over at Mulder, whose arm was still slung along the open window. His bare lower arm glittered in with raindrops below the rolled sleeve, and rain was peppering his shirt and trousers, but the older man didn't open his eyes. Alex studied him a moment as they paused for a traffic signal. Mulder in the grey light, sprawled back in replete repose, patterned in red and raindrops.

The signal changed, red shifting to a cold, lurid green. Alex rested his own arm on his window and settled back into the seat, accelerating again. The night was cooled by the rain and light traffic swished by, heading to and from the lights of Manhattan that gleamed intermittently in the distance. Even asleep Mulder was a presence beside him. Sated and in partial dishabille, he looked like a voluptuary sleeping off his opium. Glowing and fading ribbons of light and shadow passed across his chest, his legs; his body was extraordinarily distinct to Alex. He was, somehow, more real than he'd been at any point before. His body was a galaxy of atoms that had suddenly drawn in densely, to throng the air with their existence--how did that line go, Alex wondered. Something about containing multitudes. . .

He was lulled by the road, thinking of the long day just passed. Mulder was being very cagey about the case, about whatever thoughts he was having on it. He'd pulled that hypnosis rigamarole out of thin air. Brilliant, but still ridiculous. Zone out. What did that mean? And how had he even come up with such an idea? He'd seen the same things Alex had, and all that Alex had seen was a bureaucratic foul-up and a witness who'd thought she'd heard gunshots and a few SWAT studs who'd probably snorted too much coke before suiting up. Guess this is the Mulder mind at work. Seeing little green men and psychic specters around every corner. Spooky, huh.

After a few drifty moments, Alex realized he was smiling. He sighed, tried to ease the muscles at the corners of his mouth, but found them resistant. Mad as a hatter. Paranoid, too. When they were handing out common sense bet he thought it was poisoned and gave it back. But. . .hotter than I thought. Nature compensating.

Mulder muttered something in his sleep. Instinctively Alex sharpened his ears, listened. But the words were slurred, fleeting.

"What, Mulder?" he whispered.

Silence.

Alex relaxed again slowly. Thinking about his assignment, he wondered what they'd have him do when this case ended. Stay on Mulder, they'd probably say. No fucking problem, sir. You've got it. Christ. Talk about soft duty. An easy ride. Alex's smile widened momentarily and then faded back out. Traitor. What kind of a word was that, anyway. There was no war on.

A bus whooshed by in the next lane, sending up a fine, misty spray; the lighted interior showed its slumped occupants, being carried to their janitorial jobs and restaurant openings. Alex half watched it pass. The Queensborough Bridge was uncluttered this time of night. Morning, nearly. The darkened skyline still glittered though. Below them the dark, murky waters of the East River swept by, laden with rubbish and luckless rats and the corpses of equally ill-fated men.

They'd told him something of Mulder's background ("Don't let sympathy sway you, Alex"), that he was driven by the mystery of his sister's abduction, that he'd come to believe it had been the work of aliens. Aliens. Not the illegal Mexicans or Chinese or any of other beleaguered races crowding the city's tenements, but creatures from beyond. As if. Humans could be scooped up by the vast easy handful, if anyone was interested. Why take such trouble taking one at a time, often just to put them back again later, as the stories went. For the sport of it? Fishing, maybe? Alex grimaced.

He may have been untruthful when he'd told Mulder he'd followed his work, but he'd heard the same gossip everyone else had; and when commissioned for this job he'd been given background material, details of Mulder's checkered career and of his more notorious cases. Alex had familiarized himself with these, had been ready to offer up the appropriate offhand comment on request, but in the past four days they'd had barely a half dozen conversations on Mulder's 'X files'. Mulder hadn't seemed inclined to discuss them, and Alex hadn't been inclined to press--hadn't needed to. No one was seeking further information on Mulder's old cases or his private thoughts on them. Alex's job was to keep current tabs.

So far he wasn't sure how useful he'd been. He sighed softly in the darkness, staring out into the rain, watching it illuminate in the headlights like silvery threads in the night's rippling fabric. What am I looking for? he'd asked the chairman. Sources, the grey man had replied. Sources and directions. Messages, calls, deliveries. Who's talking to him, who's feeding him. And who was? Alex had not for a moment forgotten the envelope Mulder had received from Scully. He'd called it in, but received no sign that his tip had been useful. So far Mulder had let slip nothing else, and Alex had been granted only certain freedom of means in getting information. He wasn't supposed to tip his hand if he could help it, they'd said; which suggested to him a long term assignment. Odd, perhaps; but it wasn't his call, and as it turned out he didn't mind in the least.

From the shadowy figure beside him came another soft trickle of words. Alex cocked his head, looked over at Mulder. His face had turned inward toward Alex, like a flower heavy on its stem. His lips were parted. So lush. With a sense of liberty and fascination, Alex reached out and ran the back of one finger across that sensual mouth, a feathering touch. His knuckle might have been a jewel drawn along chamois. Mulder neither moved nor woke. Alex returned his hand to the wheel. Selfish prick, he thought, crossness mixed with indulgence. Least he could've done is jack me off in the car.

Oh well. He would get his own back.

Alex sighed and attempted to stretch his cramped legs. He took his foot off the gas a moment, flexed it; it skidded across the damp rubber of the floor mat before he pressed it back. Something niggled, a submerged impression that slowly rose to consciousness. Mat's crooked. Must've kicked the mat up. Frowning absently, Alex reached down and felt around. The mat was down, but. . .

Expression disappeared from Alex's face as his hand slid under the floor mat and touched paper. He caught his breath, straightened and stared out at the road, both hands tightly gripped on the wheel. After a few seconds he glanced over at Mulder. The other man slept on quietly. Alex reached down again, keeping his eyes alternately on the road and on Mulder. He pulled out the envelope, looked at it. Scully's little present, still on hand? It certainly looked that way, didn't it.

Problem: driving a car with one hand, holding a fastened envelope with the other, how to open the envelope while sitting inches away from a man who must not be awakened in the process. Not to mention how to study the contents while watching the road.

Fuck. Alex quietly seethed. Carefully, he rested the envelope on the steering wheel and unfastened it; he would have to work fast and simply hope Mulder didn't wake up. When he managed to undo the clasp and work the pages out, he looked them over as best he could, given that he couldn't risk turning on the interior light, which made matters even more difficult. The contents appeared to be Army documents. Army medical documents. With 'top-secret' stamps clearly visible on the header of almost every page. Okay. Bingo. Heart racing, Alex slid the pages back in, closed the envelope, and returned it to where he'd found it. He'd seen all he needed to see, now he just had to figure out what to do. Obviously he needed to call in, but when was the question. He'd have to make sure Mulder didn't move the documents in the meantime, before Alex received instructions.

Had the envelope been there under the mat for the last four days, he wondered. Christ. All that time, I didn't notice. . .or maybe he had them somewhere else? Yeah, probably. Alex was smiling again, a tense thin smile. Nailed you, Spooky. Receipt of classified defense documents. . .what is that, let's see, Title 18, chapter 37--793?--798? Mm. Well I don't have your memory, do I.

They were coming off the bridge now, entering Manhattan's dark forest, and Alex felt strangely as if the trip from Queens had contained within it some longer journey. His initial elation at finding some hard evidence had passed rapidly off. Cool cynical fingers played over him, light ghostly touches he barely acknowledged. He didn't know why he should feel so spiritless now, all of a sudden. Fatigue, perhaps. It had been a long day. Mulder was no reason for the blues. He was what they said he was. And Alex hadn't been surprised to find the papers, so. . .so there was no reason to feel disillusioned. He'd never been illusioned. He lived without drugs and fantasies. He accepted reality, however harsh. However hard and sharp the facts were that cut your hands when you handled them.

Buildings tall and dark stretched up on all sides, and they drove through the caverns of the night. Mulder was muttering again, and his body was caught up in the restless motion of an internal dream storm. He shifted, his head moved from side to side, the half-finished gestures of his body arriving somewhere between gentleness and a subterranean urgency.

Alex, after a sidelong look, forced his gaze back on the road. But the whispers this time did not fade out. From faintness they rose, carrying reverberations of distress. Words like echoes rising from a well, borne from a distance but nearing.

"Dad," Mulder said, the word clearing suddenly from his vague murmurs. He sighed a bit, and his breath quickened. Small anxious sounds escaped him that Alex found disturbing, without being able to say why.

"Dad. . .no. . ."

Gooseflesh rose on Alex's arms, and he swallowed. Eyes ahead. Watch the road.

"Dad--don't--I'm sorry--"

Alex's lips parted even as his jaw began a slow, aching tightening. This was nothing, this was not important. The personal garbage of a man's mind being churned out, nothing useful.

"Hurts. . .sorry. . ." A sob choked out.

Alex worked his jaw back and forth several times. Tense. Tired. Long day. Hadn't it been, though.

"Sorry. . ."

Anguish, rage. Hard to know the difference. Alex could feel the other man's private, unknowable emotions fighting free of the trap he kept them in while awake. His words were like the spilling of blood from hidden wounds. Sleeping, Mulder was vulnerable. Utterly vulnerable.

Halted for a light, Alex reached over and touched a hand to Mulder's shoulder.

"Hey--"

Mulder shifted, groaned. Alex slid his hand up, resting his palm against the warm nape of Mulder's neck, then caressing the back of his skull. "Hey, wake up," he said in a low voice. His fingers blended with the fine strands of Mulder's hair; his thumb, with its own autonomous desire, stroked across the flat whorl of his left ear.

Mulder murmured, rolled and rubbed into his hand. "Dad. . ."

"Wake up, Mulder," Alex said, letting his voice strengthen just a fraction, still quiet enough not to startle.

"Mmm. . ." Mulder's eyes opened, without focus but without dream, as if he were hanging in a limbo that was neither sleep or waking. "I left the dishes in the sink," he said in a normal but toneless voice.

A tiny laugh was startled from Alex's throat. "Mulder, man, you are wiped."

Blinks. The face that turned his way was calm, smooth as a sea-polished stone. Deeply incised eyelids blinked contemplatively across unsurprised eyes. Eyes opaque and granite, like those of ancient statues.

"Mom said she'd call. . ."

"Jeez, Mulder," Alex sighed, torn between amusement and exasperation, glancing at the light, which had turned green again and was swinging almost imperceptibly above the street. No cars were behind them, though. Yet. Alex cupped Mulder's cheek, shook him gently. "Snap out of it, Mulder. Rise and shine."

Mulder turned his head unhurriedly, blinked at the nearly empty street. "Where are we? Aren't you going to the hotel?"

Alex relaxed, withdrew his hand. He shook his head, made a small tch with his tongue against his teeth, gave a wry smile. "Yeah, the hotel, Spud. We're almost there." He started up again, and drove with both hands on the wheel, concentrating on staying awake. He was nearly wiped out himself.

Mulder straightened in his seat and brought himself into some semblance of wakefulness, tugging absently at his clothes. His gaze panned randomly around the streets and buildings outside, across the dash, across Alex, away again. "I don't usually fall asleep in cars," he said after a few minutes.

"You were definitely out," Alex remarked. "Dreaming," he added, almost as an afterthought. He felt rather than saw Mulder's expressionless face turned his way again.

"Did I talk?" His voice was distant, the words half swallowed.

"Mm, yeah," Alex said indifferently. He listened with interest to the longish silence that followed.

"What did I say?" Mulder said at last, growing edgier.

"Dad--dad--dad--" Alex flashed an ironic look his way. "Et cetera."

Mulder stared at him for a long time. "What else did I say."

Alex shrugged. "I don't know. I wasn't really listening."

They pulled into the parking area for the hotel. Alex got out of the car slowly, fiddling with keys and then following Mulder into the hotel, wondering how to break away for a few minutes. Inside the lobby, he said, "Why don't you go up, you look beat--I'm going to see if the morning Times has come yet."

Mulder's blank, tired stare said clearly what the fuck for? But he merely nodded and headed off to the elevator. Once he was gone, Alex found a secluded niche and pulled out his cellular, tapping out the number for his contact.

The man's voice came on the line with a nettled, unfriendly growl. "Yeah?"

"Joseph K," Alex said dryly, rolling his eyes and blandly scoping the lobby. As the conversation progressed he chewed a hangnail, spit it out, inspected his other nails, his watch, a flyer for local street theatre.

"What."

"I've found a folder containing top-secret Army documents, medical, probably case-related. Our ghost has it stashed in the car. What do you want me to do--photos?"

"Keep your hands off it."

"I touched it," Alex said, then added with a trace of offhand sarcasm, "Sorry, pop. Will my palms grow hair?"

"Asshole," the voice muttered, growing momentarily distant, as if he'd leaned away from the phone and was reaching for something. "Listen, we'll arrange to pick it up--where is it?"

"Under the front seat driver's side floor mat."

"Tomorrow--we'll have a tail on the car. Make sure he doesn't have a chance to move the item and we'll do the rest."

"A tail?" Alex said skeptically. Idly, he watched a maid flirt with the desk clerk. As they chatted their bent heads bobbed close, often nearly bumping, like clumsily handled puppets. "Traffic's lovely this time of year. Good fucking luck."

"Yeah, well don't you worry, okay, Junior?" the man said.

Alex straightened suddenly, every muscle in his body seizing like cooling steel. "You droppin' on me, stud?" he asked in a cold, calm voice.

There was a crude, disembodied chuckle from the other end. "Oh-oh, what have you been up to, fella? Something the man should be worried about?"

"I was told I'd be working clean," Alex said tightly. "Unless otherwise notified."

"Uh-huh. What makes you think you aren't?"

Alex bit down on a snarl that was threatening to escape. "Listen, when you take that file, why don't you give me some fucking support and bring it down so I come off Snow White, okay?"

"Well then, you stay real close to our ghost, why don't you," the man said. His tone was evil, suggestive. "Think you can do that, slick?"

Alex cursed and hung up. He very nearly slammed the phone against the wall. Great. Just fucking great. "Need to be sleeping not sweeping," he muttered to himself tiredly. "Shit." He paused indecisively at the lobby's edge, raking his hair back and forth. Then he went upstairs. He slipped quietly into the room. The bedside lamp was on. Mulder lay shoeless but fully dressed on his bed, face emptied by sleep again. Alex kept an eye on him while he went through his suitcase. He pulled out his RF scanner and quickly ran it over as many hazards as he could reasonably cover, found nothing. He picked up the phone, contemplated it, then zapped it with his bug burner. What the hell. Couldn't hurt, not in this case.

He went back down to the car, ran another bug hunt there. Nothing--not that showed up on scanner, at least. Which didn't necessarily mean there was nothing to find, but Alex felt somewhat better. He couldn't very well rip apart the car himself, of course. He'd just have to watch what he said more closely from now on, certainly when on the road. It's not paranoia, it's self-preservation, he told himself wryly. The kick to his nerves had triggered his self-protective reflexes, that was all. Doesn't mean I'm a Spooky kinda guy. But a single, ironical brow quirked itself self-mockingly as he stood and studied the Bucar.

How the hell am I going to shut Mulder up, he wondered, then yawned. If he were smart, he'd cut the man off. Cold turkey. No more Spooky nooky. An image of a wagging finger itched at his thoughts, but Alex grimaced, scowled to himself. Fuck that. He intended to get payback for services rendered, at the very least. He returned once again to the room. Mulder still lay on his bed, sprawled face down, a pillow now pulled half over his head. He remained thus as Alex repacked his scanner and assorted tools, then pattered around getting undressed, showering.

By the time he left the bath it was after six and dawn's early light was buttering the edges of the window drapes. Alex walked over to the window, peeked out into the grey, hard land of the city. Already it was looking like another hot and ugly day. He sighed, drew back in. Sitting naked on the edge of his bed, he considered Mulder and then the travel alarm, trying to calculate the minimum necessary sleep they'd need. And trying, he realized after a minute, to figure out what time Mulder would want him to set the alarm for. Growing disgusted at his own fuzzy vacillations, he set it for noon, then slumped back into his sheets and flicked off the lamp.

He felt as if he'd barely dropped off when he was brought sharply awake by hoarse, agonized cries. He cursed, was rolling off the bed before he was even fully conscious. He fell to the floor with a thump in an ungainly tangle of bedsheets, but managed to arrive gun in hand. He lay there for a few seconds assessing the murky room, before pulling himself upright. Behind him, angry sobs continued to spill from the other bed.

Alex set his gun on the floor and turned to study the bed and its occupant. He watched and listened. Violent sounds that didn't quite cohere into speech rose and fell in Mulder's throat. After a minute, Alex climbed up and twined against him, quelling his restless movements with the braid of muscled arms and legs. Mulder jerked in the gentle restraint, but didn't wake. Gradually, his dream--his nightmare--appeared to dissipate, and he fell quiet in Alex's arms.

Mulder's cellular woke them at nine. Alex, first to wake, heard the ringing and slowly disengaged himself from their tangled limbs. Stunned with sleep, he fumbled stupidly around for several rings until he figured out which phone it was and plucked it from Mulder's discarded jacket.

"Hello?" he said groggily, then cleared his throat. His eyes were already sinking shut again.

From the other end of the line was a silence, and then finally a small "Mulder?"

"Mm. . .hold on." The last few words were absorbed by a yawn. Alex rolled back into the bed, nestled his body against Mulder's back and wrapped his arm around him. Blindly, he sought Mulder's hand and pressed the phone into it. "Talk to Scully," he said, lips brushing Mulder's hair.

"Mrnnahh," Mulder purred unintelligibly, with feline indifference. He rubbed back against Alex, showing more interest in that direction.

Alex lifted his head a few inches and spoke directly into his ear: "Wake up, Fox."

"Fuck," Mulder said clearly. "Are you waking me up?"

"Phone." Alex tugged at his hand.

It finally reached Mulder's comprehension that he was holding his phone. He brought it to his ear and muttered a cranky "Hello?"

"Mulder, is that you?"

"Last time I checked. . .what the hell time is it. . ."

There was a tiny wordless pause on the other end that sounded suspiciously like a twitched brow. "Nine a.m., Mulder. Where are you?"

"Hotel. Late night. Shooting."

"Yes, I got your note--and the other things you faxed. I've barely glanced at them, just grabbed them off the machine as I was leaving--"

Mulder struggled up from sleep and from the belt of Alex's draped arm. "Hold on--hold on--" He sat up, took a deep breath, blinked several times. "Listen, I'm glad you got my note. I didn't want to call you in the middle of the night. Can I call you back later when Dr Frankenstein has finished with me--I'm not quite all here at the moment."

Another silence. "You can't talk now," Scully finally said in a mild, deceptively smooth voice.

"I haven't booted up my brain yet, Scully."

"I'll be in or around my office all day. I'll keep my cellular on me."

"Great." Mulder hung up unceremoniously and tossed the phone away. He looked over his shoulder at Alex, whose eyes were closed, then rubbed a hand across his own numbed face. He noticed he was still wearing his clothes and rose groggily to his feet, unbuttoning himself with small, plucking movements that were not entirely effective. Eventually he gave up and pulled the shirt over his head. The trousers seemed too much of an effort and he left them on and crawled back across the mattress. With acrobatic dexterity he reached out across Alex and snagged the coverlet off the other bed; the soft material blanketed them like snowfall. Under its cover, Mulder let his hands roam Alex's naked body.

"I'm sleeping," Alex said.

"So sleep." Mulder pressed his head against a muscled shoulder and cupped the other man's ass.

"You're waking me. . ."

The words were bit off rudely, but the hardness Mulder felt rising against his wandering hand was nicer. He disappeared under the comforter.

"Oh, chr. . ." Alex rolled onto his back, arched, still nine-tenths asleep. "Yes--" He pushed a hand down under the covers, gripping Mulder's head. A hot, invisible mouth closed over his lifting cock and sucked it in hard. No time was wasted on introductions; the rhythm was ruthless, a fiery glissade of tongue and hand.

Then: "Parimrshtaka or amrachushita?" Mulder asked in a muffled voice. The words buzzed like a mouthful of honey bees around Alex's cock. "Both--neither?"

"Chupamela, puta."

"No habla espanol, senor. . ." The last word trilled skillfully over Alex, across his cock's stretched, blushing head, and he gripped a handful of pillow with one hand, and a handful of Mulder with the other.

"Suck it, bitch. . .or I'll cut out your tongue." Alex, eyes still closed, grinned in rude glee. Mulder's maligned tongue curled around the base of his cock; with exquisite forgiveness he swallowed in one ball, then the other. Alex groaned happily.

Under the covers, Mulder crooned to himself. "Ooh, senoorrrrrr. . ."

Alex, buoyed on sleepiness and ticklish waves of arousal, began to giggle, then to gasp. "Oh--oh, god--oh no--" His cries trailed off in a wail. "Mulder--"

"Jus' comin' up to see ya," Mulder mumbled. "Hot down there." Before Alex could in any way respond to this, their mouths blended distractingly.

Alex wrapped his arms around Mulder, determined to hold him to his current position. Slippery bastard. He did help the other man free himself from his trousers, but only in the furtherance of his own interests.

Hip to hip, they began rubbing sparks off one another in a quickening fire. In moments, with wordless communication, their entire bodies picked up the kindling tempo. Mulder, half propped on one arm, a hand cupped under Alex's head, swooped down with kisses between which he drew back just far enough to compel Alex's gaze, until after a time it seemed that every glancing, sparking contact of their eyes was like another kiss, was wired into the almost painful friction of their cocks.

"Fuck," Alex whispered helplessly. Mulder's green eyes flashed over him, and Alex felt the thrust of their erect, throbbing flesh in the same moment. He arched back. "Yes--" A warm tongue filled his mouth, cutting off speech, then retreated teasingly. Eyes burned unceasingly into his, parted lips dusted hot breath across his own like the stroking passage of feathers. Alex's hips lifted, twisted, bumped against Mulder's. With uncontrolled impulse he threw one arm out above his head, reaching wildly for some purchase, and felt Mulder intercept his hand and catch hold of it, felt their palms press hard into one another, their fingers mesh tightly. Mulder's other hand, cradling his head, held him steadily in place for kiss after kiss.

"No," Alex groaned out. His eyes squeezed shut, his fingers flexed wildly within Mulder's. Stars came out behind his tautly stretched eyelids. Mulder was kissing him harder now. Alex arched again, his balls aching like a knot pulled strainingly tight, his dick pulsing and pearling, its swollen cap bathed entirely in liquid fire. "Dry," he gasped, unable to articulate further what he wanted.

Mulder pulled away and down, kicking off the blanket as he went. He swirled his tongue around Alex's burning cock for a tantalizing half minute, then just as Alex thought he was finally achieving salvation--hallelujah--withdrew to straddle his hips. Crouching on him, the demon imp grabbed his hands and locked their clasps together again, doubled now. He allowed their cocks to nudge one another gently.

"Let me finish," Alex said, the words a throaty rasp of pure, pleading need.

"Sure," Mulder whispered mockingly. He leaned forward slightly, his weight pressing into Alex's hands and hips, and began to move.

"Oh god yes--" Even as Alex was crying out this affirmation his head tossed back and forth in instinctive resistance; his chin lifted defiantly even as his will crumbled. He could feel Mulder's predatory gaze burning through his closed eyelids, and when he finally opened his eyes again, as he neared the peak, Mulder filled his sight: face flushed, triumphant, stripped down to animal simplicity.

"Please don't stop--oh god, fuck, do it--don't stop--oh god--" Alex bucked, was caught up and pulled on the stabbing rhythm, and heard Mulder laugh and cry out his name sharply. He couldn't escape the grip of his captured hands, didn't want to. With harsh gasps Mulder jetted over Alex's belly and chest--a stripe of wet fire licking across one nipple, drops as hot as blood striking his chin--and Alex came for him, his own expulsing pleasure taking him almost by surprise. His legs kicked out and one wrapped around the nearest of Mulder's calves and he had an impression of light soft fur along with everything else--the damp manacles of Mulder's hands, the salty smell of him, the forceful pressure of him, masculine and incredibly, suddenly dominant.

They collapsed together, mutually demolished. Alex lay sated and suffocated under Mulder, arms wound around his back, hands polishing its muscled blades and cuts. "You're heavier than you look," he muttered at last, reluctantly.

"Um. . ." Mulder rolled to one side, but kept himself half draped. His head fitted in next to Alex's, chin resting on his shoulder. "What dayzzit anyway. . ."

"Mm. . ."

They slept again.

* * * *

Roger Smith dining room

Monday, 12:34 p.m.

"Yo, it's Starsky and Hutch," Gilda said, nudging her.

Mezzy choked in delight and nearly inhaled her gum. She ducked behind the service partition and gasped several times, bent over the water glasses. Gilda thumped her back.

"Don't," Mezzy groaned, then hissed: "Did they hear you? Aw, fuck--" She peered out from behind the wall. "Oh, man, look at that--he is so Benetton, I'm sayin'--he is so Richard Gere--"

"No." Gilda shook her permed and frosted head authoritatively.

"And he's what?" Mezzy asked in tones of incredulous outrage.

"Not Richard Gere."

"Bitch, you are so lost. . .look a' that schweet ass on him--" Mezzy kissed her fingers and smacked the kiss off into the air. "Phatta than that you cannot get."

"Tell him you wanna jump his nightstick, honey--"

"He ain't a cop, he's an F-B-I agent, and lissen--"

Gilda was laughing to herself with a smoker's throaty wheeze. "Ask if you can see his gun--"

"--I'll betcha his gun is smokinnnn'--"

"Now I like the young one," Gilda murmured, fanning herself ostentatiously with a menu.

"You go girl," Mezzy giggled. Gilda was a happily divorced forty-eight, and knew the happy hour window of every singles' night for every bar in an eight-block radius.

"Trade you for table 14," she said now, eyeing the agents with canny interest.

"No fuckin' way?!"

"That newlywed couple'll tip better--"

"Get offa it, you are crazy. I got to inhale this man."

"Better not let him inhale you, or you'll be on your way downtown."

"Okay, shut up now, I'm workin' here." Mezzy, who'd been gathering up water glasses and roll basket, swished by Gilda with her chin lifted perkily and swept out into the dining room. She visualized herself into a deeply Cindy Crawford mode and made her approach with catwalk self-consciousness.

"Good morning, gentlemen." Mezzy placed each man's water glass before him with a demure smile and a thump. "Can I get youse--you gentlemen--some coffees?"

Both nodded. The younger one asked with a small frown, "Did you get your cappuccino machine fixed?"

"Oh, no, I'm sorry," Mezzy said, wrapping an arm around her tray and pulling a sympathetic, almost parodically grief-stricken, face. "It's still broken. I think we're gonna hafta send it to Italy, ya know. We had to once before, and it took them months to get it back. It cost somethin' like eight thousand dollas, can you imagine? For a fu--for a frickin' coffee machine."

"Thanks, um, Mezzy," the older man said.

She turned to catch him squinting doubtfully at her name-tag, then his gaze rose to hers and she nearly fell swooning in the beam of those steady, magnetic eyes. He smiled at her. "Oh no problem," she said. "Sir," she added enthusiastically after a few moments.

"Can we order now?" the man asked, gazing up at her. . .so steadily. . .

"Wh--oh sure," Mezzy said. "What would you like to have this morning, sir?" She smiled winningly, all teeth.

When she'd taken their order and brought their coffee and danced brightly off once more, Mulder sighed gratefully and reached for the sugar.

"She digs you, man," Alex said, giving him a sly, lidded look.

"Fuck off."

Alex watched as Mulder ripped open a good half dozen sugar packets all at once, doused his coffee with the contents, stirred. "You know you can take a pill for that now, Mulder."

Mulder stared at him dangerously over a sip of coffee.

"Lithium solves Mondays. Late nights. Bad hair days--"

"But it tends to even out the personality, Krycek," Mulder said sardonically. "I wouldn't have those perky highs anymore."

"Kills your sex drive, too, I hear." Alex leaned back in his chair, smiled. It was the smallest exercise of a smile, somewhere on the border of perfunctory.

Mulder eyed him, face ironed flat, green eyes narrowing. "You tryin' to send me a message?"

Alex touched his silverware, minutely straightening the pieces. After a minute he shifted in his seat, turned on Mulder his most earnest look, hoping it would hold up against the other man's inspection. "I just think we're going to need to cool off once we get back to HQ. . .and maybe we should start now."

Astonished and speechless, and more hurt than he'd expected, Mulder stared at the younger man, before dropping his gaze into the dark well of his coffee cup. You knew this was coming, didn't you? He asked himself the question but found he wasn't sure of the answer.

Aloud, Mulder tried for a normal, careless tone of voice. "All right. If that's what you want." In the brief ensuing silence, he concentrated on banishing rancor, regret. They were on a case after all. This was--had been--nothing. A fling.

Right. Some fling. This is what gives men a bad name, Mulder thought with sour resignation. A rut and a handshake. I knew there was a reason for sticking to phone sex with women named Tiffany. If you're going to go casual, better to add it to your long-distance bill and avoid all ambiguity.

"If this is going to interfere with the investigation--" Alex began.

"Don't be ridiculous," Mulder said in a quiet voice. He raised his gaze to Alex's and held it steadfastly until Alex looked away, head ducked, throat muscles evidencing a swallow of nervousness. His discomfort gave Mulder some satisfaction. He wasn't as urbane or as indifferent as he liked to pretend. And he wasn't anything special, Mulder told himself brutally. Bureau buccaneer, one part of his hurt mind sneered. Internalized homophobe, ruthless little rung-climber. But other voices still whispered insidious praises of the man across from him, lyrics on his eyes and mouth and body that had nothing to do with reason.

Their food came. Both men wolfed down massive sandwiches with appetites that made conversation an area of distant, secondary interest. After the meal they skidded out from under Mezzy's wistful, avaricious eyes and hit the road.

"There's something I have to tell you," Mulder said in the car. He had taken the driver's seat, and was leading them slowly out of Manhattan and Monday traffic, back into Queens once again.

You're married, he's CIA, I'm a dead man? "Okay," Alex said warily, resting his arm on the window.

"I got another tip from my source."

Alex looked over. He kept his face blank, a shade drawn down across his inner calculations. "When?"

Mulder hesitated, then admitted, "At the V.A. clinic."

"When were you gonna tell me?" Alex asked simply.

"I'm telling you. We need to interview someone--"

"I thought you wanted to go to the hospital."

"After the hospital." When this met with silence, Mulder went on. "His name is Sal Matola. He was one--"

"Your source," Alex interrupted sharply. "That's his name?"

"No," Mulder said impatiently. "The interview--he was one of the members of Cole's squad.

"They're all dead."

"No. Not all."

"You knew this when?" Alex asked incredulously. "Since yesterday?"

"I tried to confirm an address for him last night at the precinct," Mulder said quietly. "But he's not in the system. So this is still a bit iffy. . .worth pursuing though, I think." He kept his eyes studiously on the road as he spoke, wondering idly if Scully's Catholic education had included equivocation anywhere in its roster of sins. Hard to believe they'd leave anything out; he'd always had the impression Catholics preferred to err on the side of caution and inclusion. Was a misleading silence a sin of omission? This was exotica and esoterica to his unaffiliated soul. He'd have to ask her sometime.

After debating the merits of spurious offense versus graceful surrender, Alex chose the latter. The mendacious poses this job required of him could only be carried so far before he began feeling foolish and transparent. "Yeah, well I guess I have to agree," he said aloud. "So give, partner--what's this guy's story?" He tossed a quirked, inquiring look the other man's way.

Though he didn't take his eyes off the road, the tense set of Mulder's shoulders seemed to ease slightly. "I'm not really sure. I don't know why he went underground or how he managed it. But. . ." He hesitated, then said carefully, "I think he might have been afraid of the government finding out his whereabouts--or even the very fact of his continued existence."

Here we go, Alex thought with an odd twist of satisfaction. "The government." He made a dry sound. "Yeah, well I have a feeling their going to want to talk to him about his back taxes, at any rate."

"About more than that maybe," Mulder said quietly. "Apparently while he was in the Army he was subject to certain experiments, along with the other members of his squad--which would include our man of the hour, Cole."

"Experiments?" Alex said, an odd note in his voice.

"Sleep-deprivation experiments--or sleep 'eradication'."

"What kind of experiments--did they consent?"

"Consent," Mulder said derisively. "What's consent? What grunt's going to ask his good Uncle Sam questions with a war on, Alex? Besides, the experiments took place before any federal regulations were codified for experiments involving human subjects. Nobody was policing the Nuremberg Code. Institutions and agencies were still working safely in the dark--this was before Tuskegee hit the headlines. They could still play fast and loose with consent issues in those days."

"What makes you think they were?" Alex asked.

"The nature of the experiments, for one thing. We're talking surgical procedure." Mulder looked over at Alex, grey-green eyes boring into his. "You saw the photo of the scar on Willig's neck. I'll bet if we could get a good look at some of the other squad member's bodies we'd see the same scars. Assuming the remains have held up at all well."

"You aren't thinking--"

"No. . .not yet, anyway."

"Christ, Mulder." Alex shook his head. "So, what kind of information do you have? What was the operation?"

"I don't exactly know. But I might have a better idea soon. . ."

Scully. Alex chewed one edge of his lip and wondered whether to broach the subject aloud. "You're playing this pretty close to the vest, Mulder," he finally said.

"I have to," Mulder said, a stubborn bend slewing into his jaw.

"Right. Paranoia 101--Silence: Theory and Technique." Alex framed the remark in the air with mocking hands, a lecturer showing off his blackboard.

Mulder shot him a look, daggers tipped with sharp irony. "You pick up the phone and make a date with Freeh for the Ozone, I'll be real impressed. Otherwise don't talk to me about significant silences. . .I've had a source killed for passing me information--in case you didn't know."

Mulder's voice had turned sarcastic, darkly edged. There was also a question buried within the last few words, which Alex didn't fail to hear. He looked out his window, hiding his reaction, his mental wheels churning with grating energy. Killed. But what was Mulder implying--that the government had a source of his killed? Has it gone that far. . . ? Christ he hoped not. Alex felt a ripple of nervous energy roll through him.

"I didn't know," he said, his voice quiet, emptied of expression. He glanced at Mulder, then away.

"Now you do."

FBI Academy, Quantico

Monday, 3:22 p.m.

Dana Scully stared at the glowing lights for a long time, inexplicably mesmerized. Then, when no great deliverance or enlightenment was visited upon her, she sighed and pressed the button for a Diet Coke. It hit the deck and rolled with a dull thud; she plucked the can out, hefting and rolling its cold weight in her hand and wondering idly what Mulder was doing now.

She began to leave the vending area, then paused in front of the snack machine. Odd reasonless cravings tickled within her. The neon orange crackers with peanut butter looked far better than they had any right to; but then so did the glossy package of Reeses Cups, and the tiny but deadly bag of Doritos (why are so many calories so orange?). But then there were the pink coconut cakes. . .like edible pom-poms. . .

Am I pre-menstrual already? Dana checked her internal schedule, frowning to herself in the empty but faintly echoing hallway. She stared into the boxed machine, seeing her reflection overlaid across the snacks inside like a ghostly admonishing portrait. Dull, Dana. Dull suit. . .dull hair. . .what is with you. . .just back away from the snack food, Dana. Easy--that a girl--easy now. . .

She smiled at herself for a moment, turning away; then the mental image of men with bullhorns and SWAT jackets faded and her smile with it. Mulder. If this were the headquarters, she'd be on her way back now to the basement office, filled with all the bizarre Mulderisms the man had accumulated in his stay there: the jarred abortions of nature, warped frogs and mutant albino squid; the moon rocks and meteorite fragments, most sent to him for investigation (as 'evidence') by a mad archaeologist who believed they proved alien missile bombardment (but were in truth merely incredible hunks of mineral that should have been in a museum, as Dana had so often informed Mulder, but had he listened, no, he'd just leaned back in his chair and smiled and murmured seductively: "Brecchia, Odessa, troilite, Zagora, Huckitta, Esquel, oh Scully, oh Scully--" until she had to smile back); the ridiculous 'UFO' and Yeti photos, grainy and poorly exposed; the loony self-published diatribes of abductees (God, I've even stopped putting mental quotes around that word, Dana thought in exasperation). All this and more. The steer skull with the Mysterious Hole. The Unknown Substance, carefully dated and labeled as such and stuck away in a drawer with countless others of its ilk. The fuzzy, hissing tapes of purported backyard visitations. . .and the pathetic pleas from parents of missing children, who had given up on the world and hope of justice, and who looked now to the sky--and to Mulder--for answers.

Pathetic. . .it should have been. And yet in time it had become familiar to Dana. Not welcoming, exactly. Not homey or comforting. But it was Mulder, that office, that drafty, cramped and cluttered, perpetually messy place of otherworldly worship. It might have been a comfortable place, if Mulder had been another kind of man. If he'd been self-indulgent and sedentary, if his beliefs had been simply the mad dreams of a mild eccentric, and not the dark, grimly driven quest of a gun-carrying FBI agent walking the razor's edge--then his office would have reflected that.

Funny, Dana thought to herself. She'd never really analyzed her discomfort in Mulder's office, but it was no different than the discomfort Mulder himself sometimes engendered in her. He was a man given over to a purpse that was utterly--well, alien--to her own world view. That she could not fathom. At times it seemed no different to her than another man's idiosyncratic obsession with model aircraft or macrobiotics; at other times he seemed to her to be treading the very brink of psychosis. If he weren't so incredibly lucid, so undeniably brilliant and focused, she suspected he'd have been diagnosed long ago.

Entering her office, she moved to her chair and sank into her seat, reimmersing herself almost without hesitation into the papers Mulder had faxed her. Absorbed, she began to set her soda down among them, then placed the can unopened on the floor beside her chair and promptly forgot about it. Within less than a minute she was typing away assiduously.

Also described in the report is a highly experimental neurosurgical procedure designed to induce a permanent waking state. The procedure involved cutting part of the brain stem in the mid-pontile region, which would explain Henry Willig's scar. A similar scar should also be evident on Augustus Cole. Post-op treatment included a regimen of synthetic supplements to replenish the organic defecits caused by prolonged lack of sleep. This is consistent with the antidepressants Cole robbed from the pharmacy. These drugs maintain serotonin levels in the blood, serotonin being the primary substance produced during sleep. While it is theoretically possible that this procedure greatly diminished the subject's need for sleep, I can neither quantify nor substantiate its success without further clinical evidence--

The phone rang, interrupting Dana's flow. She answered, mind still spinning out a web of words. "Scully," she said absently. She was half expecting to hear Mulder's voice, but it still came like a burst of warm breath in her ear, sudden and shockingly vibrant. He leapt into conversation without preliminaries, as if his mind had started the conversation even before her answer. Dana could almost hear a cork pop when he began speaking. It was their old, familiar way of communicating, and without even noticing she was drawn immediately into its cocooning intimacy.

"Yeah," Mulder said on hearing her voice. (Mulderese for hello--and sometimes he didn't even bother with this much.) "The second officer is still in a coma, so I don't think we can count on him to tell us what happened."

"I'm going over these reports you faxed me. They're incredible."

"Well, the military already sent troops through a radioactive mushroom cloud--I guess they figure they have to top themselves," Mulder said.

"Sleep eradication still doesn't explain the shooting of those two officers." Dana sighed. "Or the anomalous autopsy results on Willig and Dr Grissom."

"Well, I learned something at Dr Grissom's clinic about what happens to a person's cortex when you stimulate it with electricity--"

Dana heard the slight rise at the end of his remark, and with sudden internal dismay read this as a very likely danger signal for one of Mulder's awful medical jokes (Hey Scully, I just read this article in the New England Journal of Medicine--? Says that the practice of circumcision is petering out.) In a bland, quelling voice, she said, "They experience mild visual and auditory hallucinations. Any first year med student can tell you that."

There was a tiny silence on the other end of the phone. Then Mulder said with matching seriousness, "Well, what if that stimulus were to come from a remote source? What if Cole has somehow developed the ability to project his unconscious?"

Dana nearly groaned. The awful thing was that when Mulder was serious he might as well have been joking. "Are you suggesting that Cole killed those people with telepathic images?"

Mulder, in a clear 'hear me out' tone, continued. "Well, think about it, Scully. In all those years without REM sleep, maybe Cole built a bridge between the waking world and the dream world--the collective unconscious. And what if--by existing consciously in the unconscious world--he's--he's developed the ability to externalize his dreams and effectively alter reality. . . ?"

Dana paused, licking her lips with gentle hesitation as she considered her words. The risk one ran with Mulder wasn't so much that of offending him, as of embroiling oneself in a theoretical debate with him. "Even if you're right--you'll have a much better chance of finding Cole if you work up a profile and try and surmise his next move."

After a moment he answered with that amiable tone of his that always surprised her when it came: always suddenly, like a ray of bright sun from a perpetually clouded sky. "All right," he said. Dana could almost hear his smile--could see it all too clearly. "I'll sharpen my pencils and I'll see you later--"

Dana heard then the interruptive note to his words, and heard something else in the vague background sound from his end. A sense of movement, otherness.

"I'll be right there, Krycek," Mulder's voice said in her ear.

Scully stared off into space, feeling all that she couldn't see. The other man, Alex Krycek, somewhere in Mulder's view. An interloper with a wolf's hungry face. A shadowy presence circling the safe, brief shelter of their phone conversation, somehow menacing. Was she being silly? Hard to tell. Krycek's name spoken so casually by Mulder, spilled from those warm lips, unsettled her for no reason she could put her finger on. She thought of the muffled conversation she hadn't quite overheard that morning, vague, soft murmurings suggestive of. . .of what, Dana? Ridiculous. Jealousy of any kind was uncalled for. It was unprofessional, inappropriate. Yes, she missed Mulder, and felt left out of his current investigation, and she wished she were in on the action. These were natural feelings, but they didn't add up to a good reason for jealousy. Nothing did, because there was no good reason for it. She'd been raised to keep her head above that ugly fray of feeling, and she would.

"Where are you going?" Dana asked, trying to keep her voice casual.

"We're going to check on another member of the squad. See if he can tell us something about Cole."

Dana felt a fresh wave of loneliness strike her, compounding Mulder's distant, familiar voice with the empty silence of her office. "Sounds like your new partner's working out," she observed. Her own voice sounded toneless to her, but she wondered if Mulder heard the heavy feelings weighting down her words.

In a mild voice, Mulder said, "Yeah--he's all right. He could use a little more seasoning and some, uh--wardrobe advice, but he's a lot more open to extreme possibilities than--"

"Than I was?" Scully asked smoothly, interrupting and finishing his sentence.

There was a smallish pause, then Mulder--voice rich with understanding and patience--finished gently and deliberately: "Than I assumed he would be."

Scully smiled. Warmth touched her, but was mixed with less easily discernible emotions. They swirled through her, feelings as tenuous and transient as cigarette smoke and yet with a similar, lingering flavor of bitterness. Why? Why, Dana? She drew in a long, deep breath. "Must be nice not having someone questioning your every move, poking holes in all your theories. . ."

Dana tried to see Mulder, tried to pull his image to life from the far end of the phone. Was he smiling now? Was his smile widening to a rare, open grin? When he spoke it was with a strange, stuttery attenuation of words--as if he were tripping and catching on his own irony.

"Oh, oh yeah, i-i-it's great, I uh, I--I'm--surprised I put up with you for so long--"

Dana smiled again. But it hurt more than it should to smile. She could not help but fear there was some grain of truth to Mulder's dry, gently jabbing remark. She paused, searching for some response appropriate to his teasing, but found none. What could she say? There were no words for all that she wanted to say, for the feelings that seethed like dark, restless snakes in her depths. There never were.

In a deliberately light tone, winding up the conversation, she said, "You'd better go. . .I'll, uh, read over this report again and see what I can come up with."

And Mulder simply said "Okay." And hung up without a goodbye, as was his wont. In the wake of silence, Dana put down phone slowly. She looked at her desk, at the papers layering its surface, their endless words and thick sentences forming their own complex web of illusory significance. The strands of this conspiracy radiated out but ended nowhere, formed no grand design. They entangled everything in their sticky parts but eluded capture themselves. What was the point?

Dana looked at the papers, and then around her office, feeling a depression that had no one simple cause, that was not Mulder or work or family despite how much she would like to lay blame at one of those causes--preferably the first, the easiest. But the reason was not there alone. The reason was none of those things in itself. Not lack of love or the complications of same. Just life. Just life, Dana.

End part 3

 


 

In a Dark Time: Sleepless 4
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.
Please send feedback to: <> No flames, please!


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

En route to Jay's Cafe, Roslyn, NY

Monday, 3:45 p.m.

"Did you find out any more about that surgical procedure?"

Mulder yawned, rubbed a finger along one winged side of his nose. "I didn't ask. I should have. . .Christ, I'm--" He hesitated, completing in his thoughts the sentence he'd almost spoken: I'm losing it. The seemingly casual remark stuck in his throat, cut short by some vague impulse of caution. The gazelle senses the lion in the grass? Mm, too much Discovery Channel. But his survival instincts had been honed during his years in the bureau; he'd unintentionally bared his throat once too many times to his peers, and been rewarded with their savaging remarks, their mockeries and small malicious cruelties.

Alex shifted a fraction in his seat and looked him over. "You're tired," he observed.

"Yes, well that satisfies my sense of irony, at least." Ignoring Alex's intense gaze, Mulder picked up his cellular, called Scully again (who was eating lunch) and begged a summarized report of her findings. After he hung up with her, he passed on the report to Alex, describing in brief the operation that had been performed on the squad members, and the regimen of chemical supplements it required.

"They must have felt like zombies," Alex said. "The walking dead. . ."

"Maybe that's how Cole feels now." Mulder stared out his window into the sea of cars, trying to imagine himself into the wanted man's boots. To surrender one's sleep and sanity for one's country. . .

Almost on a whim, Mulder had tossed at Scully his developing theory on the case--half-baked and messy though it was--with his usual hope that in bouncing off her firm skepticism one of his wild shots might pick up an interesting new trajectory. In this case, the practice hadn't resulted in much. She was right of course; if Cole didn't turn up soon--very soon--he needed to profile the man. Try and figure out his next move. There were a number of other things he should do as well. Go back to Grissom's clinic and check for possible links between it and Cole's V.A. hospital. Track down the families of Cole's squad members, in case he contacted any of them. Check into serving a subpoena for any additional relevant Army records from Parris Island.

Plenty to do, and Mulder didn't disdain the work. Clear, honest action was good. Legwork, paperwork, gruntwork--he could do that. He'd do what he had to do. And yet during forced inaction (as now when he was adrift in tidally slow traffic) his mind ran on its own endlessly turning wheel. It would not stop running, though it might be going nowhere, or nowhere in particular. In all those years without REM sleep, maybe Cole built a bridge between the waking world and the dream world--the collective unconscious. . .okay. . .but what the hell did I mean? Odd, though. . .mid-pontile region. . .bridge. They cut the bridge, and he replaces it with his own. Wouldn't that be a neat and fitting trick, doc. Could it be that simple? Wrong word. . .elegant, though, if true. . .

"What are you thinking, Mulder?"

"Hmm?"

Alex's eyes flicked along the points of his partner's abstracted profile with wry, fascinated study. "What's going on in that zombie brain of yours, partner?"

"Funny you should ask that." Mulder half smiled. "I was just thinking about Cole's brain. You know, we humans experience a sleep state called paradoxical sleep, or PS. In many neuronal-functional ways PS resembles a waking state--it's also called a 'vigilance' state. We're capable of processing information, learning behaviors--our memories can be modified--we can be conditioned to feel fear and other emotions, and we'll carry these lessons on into wakefulness. . .now consider this: brainstem transections similar to the ones performed on the squad members have been performed on cats, resulting in eradication of rapid cortical activity in certain phases of sleep that are not unlike PS. . .it makes you wonder, doesn't it--it's a paradox in itself. One might speculate Cole's current existence to be not unlike the sleeping but responsive state of PS, and yet a crucial mechanism for actual sleep has been destroyed. Cut away. . . the drugs Cole stole--which in crude terms supplement deficiencies and inefficiencies in serotonin and other neurotransmitters--couldn't possibly rectify all the side effects of his operation. . .what did they cut out of him? They cut across his brain stem in the mid-pontile region, they cut out the bridge that carries him across the river of sleep, from the waking world into the dream world. In doing that they stranded him between those worlds, in the river itself. . .Cole is asleep, I think--or in some state that's neither sleep nor waking. . .but I think he's still dreaming, and I'll bet his dreams are dark. . .dreams aren't meant to be permanent fixtures of our mind--they're--they're flux states, drift and spume tossed up with seeming randomness by our unconscious, but forming archetypes that signify deeper patterns, the collective unconscious. The sleeping brain doesn't fix them, though, doesn't really store them--they dissipate on waking, usually. But Cole can't wake. . ."

Mulder frowned and his voice trailed off as he began the complex maneuvering necessary to exit the LIE safely. Alex stared over at him. Several long seconds passed before he managed to shake himself alert and reaffix his parted lips into a semblance of self-possession. "Mulder," he said slowly, "why are you in the FBI?"

"Hmm?"

"Don't play absent-minded professor with me, Mulder. You hear me. What the hell are you doing in the bureau--you don't belong there. Or if you do, you should be doing more with your brain. You could be ten times more useful than you are now. You owe it to them--"

"I don't owe them anything," Mulder interrupted with a snap.

"They pay your salary," Alex returned tightly. His voice held a rough note of irritation, perhaps even anger, and it lowered further as he continued, growing huskier, more intense. "They put food in that sweet fucking mouth of yours. They give you a badge and a gun and for how many years they gave you license to pursue every flaky whim that caught your eye."

"I thought you wanted to believe," Mulder said, his own anger flaring bright.

"I do--but not everything, Mulder--not anything."

"You do think I'm credulous, then."

"No. Not credulous. . ." Alex shook his head in frustration. "But you want to talk about dreams?" He gave a short, sharp laugh. "Carrying your dreams around in the waking state--fixing your dreams--yeah, I caught that--well, that's you, Mulder." He made a small dry sound in his throat, not quite another laugh. "Christ," he muttered, running a hand through his hair. "No wonder you're tired."

Startled, rather unsettled, Mulder looked over at the other man. Caught up in the stall at a red light, he was able to study him a moment. And then Alex turned his head, and their eyes met for what seemed like the thousandth time. How many times a day did two persons' eyes meet. . .and clash. . .and kiss. . .

Uncensoring himself, Mulder smiled. He could see surprise catch in Alex's face, saw his guard slip down. His eyes gleamed with sudden matching humor. Mulder wanted to reach out, stroke his cheek. Seeing the light spark in those eyes, seeing their defensive hardness ease, along with the tense planes of that young face (why so tense, so young?)--how could he not want to reach out and touch. . .and how could he?

The moment passed and they both looked away, in separate directions. Silence fell. After a few minutes, Mulder finally said, "That really is quite a diagnosis of my character, considering we've known each other--what?--less than five days? Even Scully waited until our first week anniversary before accusing me of being a mad dreamer."

Alex had to smile again. "Well, you know--" He looked over pointedly. "I've gotten to know you so much better."

He'd meant it lightly, but Mulder took this remark with unexpected seriousness. "Not really, you know," he said, then glanced Alex's way. With blunt honesty he added, "I haven't told you nearly as much as I told her--in the same time frame."

Alex's smile flattened out and disappeared; his face closed up and hardened again. "Thanks, Mulder. Am I supposed to be hurt?"

"I don't know--can you be?" Mulder's tone was coolly curious.

Tightening his jaw and forbidding himself any response, Alex went back to staring out the window. He wasn't going to be tricked into this bullshit.

Slipping back into his own funk, Mulder concentrated on the road. His thoughts returned to Cole and the case, but every now and then they broke apart like a sheet of cracking ice and he was forced to admit the rushing sea of feeling beneath the surface. In those dark waters deeper thoughts flowed, strange mixed impressions of Alex that swirled like warm currents around cold, and flowed into even colder, stiller areas of his mind (father), depths layering depths (Samantha), unmeasured strata of darkness (nameless men, beings, what--?). There were other areas of warmth that pulled at him--shifting thoughts of Scully, Walter Skinner, a few others--but his mind felt oddly gelid today. Clouded and obscured from itself.

"Tough about Hampstead," Alex said out of the blue. The remark suggested concern, but his voice was cold, and when Mulder glanced over the younger man's profiled face was almost serene.

Typical Krycek contradiction, Mulder thought dryly but with that curiosity about the other man he couldn't shake. He redirected his gaze to the road. Sunlight was washing across the car's glossy hood, playing with his vision. He sighed. "Yeah. Cole's gonna have a lot to answer for."

"What the hell would they charge him with? Those two idiots shot each other. And if Dehart dies or stays a veg. . .he's not going to tell us anything. No one saw anything. We aren't even sure Cole was there."

"I'm sure," Mulder said flatly.

Well that's saying a lot, Spooky, Alex thought sardonically.

"Evidence might still turn up to link him to the scene. We haven't heard anything yet from the scene team." Pause. "Maybe you should call them," he added in a mild voice.

Without responding, Alex picked up the car phone and called in for a report. When the team leader came on Alex switched to speaker phone and the two agents listened for several minutes to the criminalist's report, which was still inconclusive. By the time they hung up they had almost reached their destination.

"Shit," Mulder muttered, pausing at a corner and craning his head to view the street sign. "Where the hell is this. . ."

"Want me to check the map?" Alex asked.

Mulder scowled at the street sign a moment, then reluctantly said, "Well unless you know where we are, I suppose you'd better."

"If I knew--never mind." Alex dug out the map, traced the last leg of their route and directed Mulder ahead. "Can't you memorize a map?" he asked casually as they moved off down the street. "When you looked at it earlier--didn't your photogra--"

"Oh shut up," Mulder said. His face was tight, his voice a minor, gloomy snap. "I don't know how or why my brain works. If I did I sure as hell--" He broke off, laid an arm on the window sill with a gesture of repressed frustration. Too hot for this. "God, as soon as we get back to D.C. I'm taking a day off and crawling into my freezer and staying there until my temperature drops back below the boiling point of--"

"Molybdenum," Alex finished, a sly smirk escaping him. His determination to remain aloof from Mulder kept failing him at unexpected moments. It was too much fun teasing him.

"Did I say shut up?" Mulder asked abstractedly, spotting their destination and pulling the car into a space by the curb. "Shut up."

"Touchy, touchy." Alex, in contrast to Mulder, was beginning to sound rather cheerful.

They exited the car and together studied the storefront of Jay's Diner for a moment. It was a traditional boxcar establishment, long and narrow; a small, old sign hung above the door. The street windows were broad and though dusty reflected a great deal of late afternoon sun, making it impossible to see inside. As they watched from down the sidewalk, a beefy fellow in work clothes trudged up and entered the restaurant.

Mulder had already told Alex they had no photo for Matola. Research might have turned an older one up; still might, if it became necessary. No description either had been provided by his source. Look for a sleepy guy, Mulder had said with sere humor, when Alex had asked how they would recognize their quarry.

"Want I should go around back?" Alex asked.

Mulder drew in a breath, then pushed it out reflectively in a small plosive gust. He gazed off down an alley that sided the diner, noted doors and dumpsters. "We'll go in together," he decided. "Stay a bit behind and near the entrance, and if you see a rabbit run, give chase--head back out and around. He'll probably go out the side there, and if he doesn't you'll know there's a back exit."

"Gotcha."

They went inside, pausing briefly at the sharp transition from sunlight to the diner's dim interior, scoping its narrow length with sharp, practiced gazes. Both men, without sharing a word, spotted their man immediately. No photo was necessary.

He was standing behind the counter, bussing dishes, a gaunt man with a receding hairline and a scraggly goatee, whose glassy, red-rimmed eyes held a fogged chronic exhaustion visible even from yards away. They marked him. He marked them. Both agents saw the shudder of recognition hit and work through his nervous body, and then Matola quickly glanced down and went back to loading dishes in his buspan. His movements were jittery, tense.

Carefully, unhurriedly, Mulder and Krycek walked down the length of the diner, approaching the man. Mulder, in front, reached into his breast pocket as he neared, saying inquiringly, "Salvatore Matola?"

The gesture, the approach, the question--Mulder calculated the combined effect to within a hair, and noted the man's reaction with neutral, almost clinical interest. Matola--it was clearly him--raised his hands quickly from the buspan with a clink of dirty dishes and backed away shakily, fearfully.

"You gonna shoot me? You gonna kill me?" he asked. It was a low, scratchy voice, the voice of a smoker, a mouth breather, and a tired man who has aged before his time.

In a flash impression Mulder took in the cigarette tucked behind one ear, the cheap grayed tee-shirt and thin, striped top-shirt, the nicotine-stained fingertips turned his way, and the deep, greasy smell of his clothes, of him. How his hands shook. How his shoulders hunched. Mulder was in a mode of dispassionate observation, and felt nothing but a sharp, ready curiosity. Showing no surprise at Matola's somewhat dazed question, he continued to withdraw his badge, then flipped it open for the other man's view. "No," he said blandly. "We're with the FBI. We just wanted to ask you some questions."

Matola peered at Mulder's ID, looking bewildered.

"Why did you think we were gonna kill ya?" Mulder said casually, letting the faintest trace of a New York accent shade his voice. Establishing trust might prove to be a challenge, especially after that introduction. Every trick helped.

Matola licked his lips, glanced up nervously, and muttered: "I dunno." Uneasily abandoning his pose of surrender he put some more dishes in the buspan. The action was that of an automaton. He looked down and away from Mulder rather shiftily.

"You know about Willig and Grissom, huh?"

"I read about it in the papers," Matola said softly. "Figured they were finally killin' us all off?" His voice raised to a faint question, as if he expected Mulder to verify this for him.

Not doing so, Mulder said, "Who?"

Matola didn't answer right away--and then it became clear he wasn't going to answer at all. He grabbed a dish, put it in the buspan, not looking at Mulder. With pointed ease Mulder leaned against the counter, speaking in a mild, offhand tone of voice. "Hey, Sal, can you spare a few minutes?"

"Yeah," Sal said dully. "I guess so. I gotta break comin' up." He turned away with the buspan in hand.

Mulder saw the scar on the back of his neck as he'd expected, and exchanged a glance with Alex to make sure he'd caught it too.

Walking away, Matola muttered to himself. "Spare a few minutes. . .I guess. . ."

When he started through a door into the kitchen, buspan in hand, Mulder moved around behind the counter and followed. "Wait here," he said to Alex briefly, over his shoulder.

Alex stopped in his tracks, aware of the eyes of diner patrons on him, of the counterman's glance. He had an unpleasant sense of looking foolish that he did not welcome; Mulder had a gift for making him feel like a rookie all over again. In a way, he supposed he was, but he hadn't felt like a rookie in years--and not even this much when he was one. He chewed one side of his lip, eyes narrowing at the doorway, suspicion tingling along his nerves. But before he could transform his concerns into action, Matola and Mulder were returning, Matola with the nervous aimless energy of a herded sheep, Mulder casual, as if he weren't keeping a tight watch on the other man, but had just wandered into the kitchen after him by pure coincidence.

Matola slumped over to a table in the corner and took a seat against the wall.

Both agents halted, exchanged a look, then looked back to the table; it was obviously a break area for employees; a bench edged one side, and held backpacks, shoes, stacks of magazines. The remaining two chairs were empty, and facing away from the door, but a large mirror hung on the opposing wall, reflecting the length of the diner and its entrance. Hooks ran above it, and a few jackets and sweaters hung down, partially obscuring the view. Mulder moved around the table and unhooked the items, laying them along the bench to afford them a clear picture now of the room behind them. He then took a seat, followed by Alex.

Matola didn't seem to notice Mulder's gesture, though he surely must have. His appearance somehow conveyed that nothing anyone might do would surprise him. The two FBI agents could have been shadows on the wall for all the interest they merited.

A haze of cigarette smoke hung in the air, left by the table's previous occupant and immediately supplemented by Matola's own fumes as he lit up and took several long drags on his cigarette. After a distracted moment he worked a crumpled pack from his pocket, proffered it wordlessly to the agents; both shook their heads.

Mulder had taken the nearer seat, facing Matola with a sedate face, his hands folded unthreateningly on the table. Alex, sitting once removed, realized that Mulder was not going to take notes. For a second he was annoyed at the presumption, then it occurred to him that Mulder probably didn't have to take notes. Thinking back, in fact, he could not remember having seen Mulder take even one note during their entire case. Maybe he never did. Must be nice. Alex unpocketed his notepad, resigning himself to looking like a secretary. He would let Mulder take point again, what the hell; he'd gotten what he came for, anyway. Alex still hoped they'd get Cole, but if they didn't it wasn't going to keep him up nights.

"Do you know why we're here, Sal--do you mind if I call you Sal?" Mulder studied the man, who made an indifferent gesture with his hand at the questions, and then gave a twitchy shrug, dragging on his cigarette.

"Your government thinks you're dead, Sal," Mulder said after a moment. "Why did you disappear?"

"Dunno. . .seemed like a good idea," Sal muttered.

Mulder nodded. What could he say to that? I hear ya, Sal. "Tell me about the project, Sal. The sleep eradication project."

Sal stared off into space for so long that Mulder thought he was not going to answer. Then, finally, he appeared to dredge his memories up from whatever great dark depth they habituated. The words he mouthed slowly as if they were ancient, sticky things he'd found in a pocket.

"They said it'd be like livin' two lifetimes. . .An', an' at first, that's what it was like--not havin' to sleep an' all--" He took a drag on his cigarette. "--made us feel like nothin' could touch us, y'know." His thin, raspy voice strengthened and chest puffed out a fraction during this remark, as if he were buoyed slightly by the memory. "We'd do twenty-hour patrols, night ambushes, you know--" He appeared to deflate, and his affect flattened out again. "--that type of thing."

Mulder found the response curiously to the point; it was rather interesting just how much Sal assumed he knew. Perhaps at this point in the disintegration of Sal's mind all 'authority figures' had blurred into a single, all-knowing official: the Man, as it were. "And you never got tired?" he asked aloud, the wondrous and hideous nature of the experiment striking him afresh.

Sal made a 'heck, no' head gesture. "Nah, not so that we had to sleep. An' then, nothin' that the pills couldn't fix." He puffed vigorously on his cigarette.

"Serotonin," Mulder said, half questioningly. It wasn't a pharmaceutical term, of course, but he wasn't sure what Sal would recognize.

"A-yeah," Sal said laconically.

Mulder looked over at Alex, who caught the glance and pretended to note this down. What he really wrote, with self-sustaining facetiousness, was: snookums. Only after a few minutes had passed did he cursorily jot down the relevant note.

"How long did this go on?" Mulder was saying.

Sal, after hesitating, said finally, "Quite a while, I'd say. . .quite a while--until--we stopped taking orders from company commander in Saigon."

Alex looked at the man. In quiet incredulity that he couldn't suppress, he said, "The entire squadron went AWOL?"

Sal looked at him, not immediately answering, then said in a flat dry voice, "Yeah. Somethin' like that."

Mulder looked back at Krycek again, who returned to his notes; then continued on with Sal. "Well then who did you take orders from?"

"We just--" He shrugged, shifted in his seat. "--made up missions as we went along. I mean, until it didn't matter anymore who--who we were killing. W-we--farmers, women. . .outside of Phu Bai there was this school, an', uh. . ." He paused for a long moment. ". . .they were just kids."

Mulder rubbed his mouth absently, then realized he might have inadvertently been communicating his disgust and despair, his familiarity with the story. He removed his hand with regret for his carelessness, and tried to smooth out his face. It seemed clear though that Sal had not noticed his reaction. The vet's expression was both haunted and empty, as if he'd remembered his history one too many times and had become numbed to its horror. While Mulder was formulating his next approach, Alex said in a hard but even tone: "No one ever tried to stop you?"

Sal took a drag on cigarette, then said in a whispery voice: "No, sir."

Alex closed his eyes, turned his head away from the man. He rubbed the back of head with repressed energy. He wanted to express his disgust physically or verbally but of course he couldn't. This wasn't a bully-boy NYPD interrogation. More was the pity. If it had been Alex would have enjoyed taking this piece of wasted shit out behind the diner and giving him a good rough up. He looked back at Sal, feeling his face harden. From the corner of his eye he could see Mulder's reflected face in the mirror: inexpressive. Calm.

"We suspect Augustus Cole may be behind the murders of Willig and Grissom," Mulder said to Sal evenly, watching for his reaction.

Sal frowned. "You mean Preacher? Th-that's what we used to call him, on account a' he was always readin' from his Bible, ya know, sayin' this an' that about Judgment Day--" His tone rose almost questioningly. "--sayin' that one day we were gonna have to pay for what we were doin'. That's--that's--what he said back then, that's what he'd say. . ." He trailed off emptily.

"But why Grissom?" Mulder asked. "He was never in country. He wasn't even part of the squadron."

Sal gave him a look that suggested he knew better. He took a drag, then stubbed out his cigarette emphatically. "Sure he was." He blew out smoke. "He made us what we are." Sal licked his lips, pausing. His brows jumped, and he rubbed at the edge of one temple as if that twitch had recalled him to a head filled with ghosts. "Him and Dr Girardi."

"Who's Dr Girardi?" Mulder asked at once.

"The other doc--on the project--the one who did the surgeries on us--it's because of him--" He gave a sick approximation of a laugh. "--that I haven't slept a night in twenty-four years. Heh."

Mulder felt a jolt of adrenaline go through him. He hesitated a fraction of a second, then pulled out a copy of Cole's picture. "Have you seen Cole lately?"

Sal didn't even take the picture, just gave it a flat-eyed look. "Nah." His head moved back and forth, an almost metronomic ticking. "Nah. . ."

Mulder nodded, but left the picture on the table in front of Sal. "Excuse us a moment," he said. Standing and drawing Alex off to one side, he said to the other agent in a low voice, "We need to find Girardi immediately. I think he's going to be Cole's next target. I'm going to call Scully. Give our pal here a quiz on Cole--habits, personality--try and trip him up about whether they've made contact lately. I'd say he's telling the truth, though--otherwise we'd be examining the body right now. After I call Scully I'm going to contact the local precinct, see if we can get some support, have a watch put on him. I don't want to leave here until we've got someone keeping an eye out."

Alex returned to the table and followed instructions. He couldn't work up too much enthusiasm for the questioning, though. It was as Mulder said fairly obvious that Matola had not seen Cole--had not seen much of anything for the last twenty-odd years. After several minutes, Mulder slid off his stool and returned to the table. He passed Alex a significant look, and Alex caught the message that they were to keep Matola talking for a while.

They took turns questioning him on various matters, on his time in Vietnam, on Cole. But there was something about the dim, hot diner that enervated them all, and it grew increasingly difficult to keep the silence from draining the conversation dry. Above them the fans swept around, loosening dust that settled gently through the humid air. A radio coughed and chattered in the far background, but the patrons themselves did not talk to one another. The counterman had dropped onto a stool behind the register and was staring out the window, arms crossed upon his chest.

If Matola guessed that their inquiry had become more a time filler than anything else, he didn't show it. He seemed willing to sit there forever, whatever the pretext. Once prodded, he was given to ramble. He spoke like a ghost to ghosts, staring off into the dead air of the diner, and the two agents listened with fascination and difficult calm to his incoherent reminiscences. His battalion had been stationed in Saigon, but his company had been rotated regularly into Long Khanh to conduct operations--patrols, ambushes, jitterbug attacks. Sal had been one of three men screened and chosen from his particular company for what he said had been nicknamed the 'Caca Dau' project ("We called ourselves the 'Bloody Bushmasters'," he added with a weak resurgence of old pride). When the kill squad was formed they worked at first in concert with their platoon, but when they proved effective--not to mention unmanageable--they had gradually split off from the main body of troops and worked on their own.

And yet almost during their entire tour, as they decimated the Vietnamese countryside and its people--and themselves--they had been given full support services--Medevac lifts, resupply deliveries, even occasional close air support during heavy fighting. It was only in the last several months of their time that they'd taken to living off the land itself, in the guerilla manner of the VC they were ostensibly hunting. Hearing this only reinforced Mulder's determined burn to exact retribution from those who were most guilty, or equally so--those who had dreamed the monster and made it real.

The memories Sal dredged up were brutal and reeked of gore, but both agents were hard put to give him the interrogation he deserved. The more he spoke, the more their spirits waned, dissipating into the hot airlessness of the nearly empty restaurant. Words died on the tongue. Just when Alex was sure they had run out of questions, and Sal out of impetus, Mulder's phone rang. He watched and listened as the other man nodded, grunted, spoke briefly, then rang off.

"Our pizzas are ready," he said to Alex, with that weirdly petrified face he so often wore when making his offhand jokes. If you could even call them jokes. He stood next to the table, looming and casting a shadow across its surface and across Matola's hunched form. "Sal, if you see Cole, you need to get out of there immediately--and then call us. And then call 911, if you can." Mulder handed his card to the vet, who took it as if it were some mysterious passport to wonders he couldn't begin to comprehend. He stared at it so blankly, for so long, Alex began to wonder if the man could even read.

"Fox Mulder," he finally said in his raspy voice, then took a drag on his cigarette. He looked up, vague eyes pulled briefly into focus. "What are ya. . .Indian?"

****

Long Island Expressway

They'd met up with the plainclothes patrol assigned to keep watch on Sal, and then shedding jackets and rolling up sleeves had segued back into rush-hour traffic on the LIE. Alex was more than happy to let Mulder take the wheel in the bumper-to-bumper mess.

"How did you pry a patrol out of them that quickly?" Alex asked when they had abandoned the city streets proper, and were finally underway on the slow trip back toward Manhattan.

"Cop killers aren't popular," Mulder said briefly.

Alex nodded, leaned his arm on the window and stared out into the glinting ocean of metal. Rush-hour traffic was inching along and the late sun was brutal. "Baby killers aren't popular either," he said after a minute. His tone was remote.

Mulder looked at him. "You know what they did to him. . .somehow it's hard to see you mounting a moral high-horse."

Alex turned his head and their eyes met: Mulder's suddenly wide and blinking, Alex's gleaming under an arched, sardonic brow.

"And don't even think about saying what you're thinking of saying," Mulder finished. Regretting his turn of phrase, he glowered irritably at the jammed road ahead. His fingers were drumming on the window edge.

Alex cleared his throat delicately. "What was I thinking of saying, Mulder?" he asked with artful innocence.

Mulder retained a sulky silence.

"So you don't think I can take the moral high ground, Mulder?" Alex said after a minute. He paused, eyes fixed on their own invisible horizon, darkly reflective of nothing. "Well, maybe you're right. . ."

"I don't think anyone can, Alex," Mulder said quietly. He put both hands on the wheel and tried not to admit to himself that he for no good reason he wanted to touch the other man. Stupid impulses, he told himself. Dumb flesh. It was as if his hands themselves were just sentient enough to have their own desires, needs. Not mine, he told himself. These are not mine. When his hands unexpectedly spasmed on the damp plastic his wrists ached with the sense of restraint, and with that feeling came the visceral memories of handcuffs and orgasm.

This is not happening to me, Mulder thought. He did not want this.

"You stand your ground pretty well," Alex said.

It took a moment for Mulder to pull his derailed mind back on track. Alex's words had held subtle inflections he could not quite identify. "I--I don't think I'm more moral than the next person. . .I just do what I have to do."

"Exactly," Alex said.

Mulder didn't look at the man next to him, but something in the tone of voice gave him an odd chill. "Soldiers follow orders, and they follow the patriotic party line, usually. It's part of their indoctrination. Matola, Willig, Cole--they all followed orders, because they believed in their country. And when they stopped following orders, they must have believed. . .something."

Alex studied Mulder seriously without appearing to. The other man sounded as if he were trying to convince himself of his words more than he was Alex. "They didn't believe in anything, Mulder," he said. "They were grunts. Animals. They were given the opportunity to kill anything and everything that moved, and they took it, and you know what? I'll bet you they liked it. Maybe they regret it now, maybe Cole likes to think he's some sort of avenging angel or the Hand of God, but I'll bet you when he was jamming his gun into some poor gook's face, giving some five-year-old a quick-and-dirty tonsillectomy, he had a hard-on the size of a bull's."

Alex's voice came tighter, faster; though still controlled it was laced with hard contempt. "They were grunts, Mulder. There's more to life than following orders, or some golden rule book--there's more to patriotism than shooting your wad on command."

Mulder listened, fascinated. He kept his eyes on the road, afraid he'd break the spell of self-revelation if he so much as blinked. There was rage beneath the smooth surface of the younger man's voice--real rage--and more. Belief.

But in what?

"You don't think you could have found yourself in that position--in Cole's position?" Mulder asked the question in soft, almost absent tones, speaking as if to himself.

"I wouldn't be put in that position," Alex said simply, coolly.

Mulder turned his head to look at him directly. "Why not?"

Alex's eyes glinted like steel. His smile was brief and lethally casual. "I'm not a grunt, Mulder."

No, just a federally-payrolled cryptofascist, Mulder thought, when his mild shock had worn off. So what else is new. He'd met men like Alex Krycek before, men who believed one way or another in their essential superiority to the herd. Knock-off Nietzsches. He could only thank god they weren't all so attractive.

"What are you thinking, Mulder--you writing a dissertation on your skullcap or just deciding you've got me pegged?"

This was close enough to his own thoughts to startle another look from Mulder.

"You think I'm arrogant, but it's just realism," Alex said. "You're arrogant yourself--you really shouldn't judge."

Reading my mind. . .spooky. "You're right, I shouldn't," Mulder said readily. "And since you haven't walked a mile in a grunt's boots, why don't you try stretching your imagination a bit beyond the first cliche that pops into your semi-educated, over-gelled head."

Alex's lips parted. "Bastard," he said, but without force, as if just making an interesting discovery. He stared at Mulder, then laughed. "You don't like my hair, Mulder? I'm hurt."

Mulder smiled, a thin, dry, sour smile like a curl of lemon peel. "I could get used to the hair," he said.

There was silence for a while, but the air in the car didn't really hold much rancor, despite the men's edged repartee. It was hot. Hot enough to raise tempers, but not hot enough to sustain them. After a while, Alex pulled out his notepad, began flipping through the pages.

"I'm still not clear why you think Cole will go after Girardi," he said out of the blue, sounding resolutely bland, as if their previous, more personal conversation had not taken place.

Rousing himself to match this achievement, Mulder said, "Cole sees himself as a kind of avenging angel. In his mind, everyone responsible for the atrocities--whether directly or indirectly--must be punished."

"Yeah, but, why now--why--why after all these years?"

It was good to direct his mind over to work. "Phu Bai was one of the bloodiest massacres of the war--over three hundred children slaughtered. But unlike My Lai, no U.S. troops were every charged. The twenty-fourth anniversary of the massacre was two days ago."

Mulder's cell phone rang. "Mulder," he said. Scully's delicate cadences filled his ear, lilting with an unusual degree of excitement.

"I think I found the Francis Girardi you're looking for," she said. "He's a professor of neurosurgery at Harvard."

"Do you have his number in Boston?"

"Yes--except he's coming to New York for Grissom's funeral."

Mulder waved off the notepad and pen Alex was offering. "When?" he said to Scully.

"Tonight. He's arriving at Bronx Station on the 7:30 train."

"Well try to have a photograph waiting at the security desk so we know who we're looking for, okay?" As soon as he said the words, he recognized their peremptory tone, but Scully didn't seem to notice.

"Got it," she said keenly, and rang off without a good bye.

Mulder hung up. He shook his head, unconscious of his gesture but feeling an expectant need to clear his mind for action. He rested his arm on the open window and looked at his watch. Six-fifteen. Could they make it? He studied the traffic with frustration. They were approaching but not past the Clearview exit, thank god--if Scully's call had come ten minutes later the untimely delay would have cost them dearly.

"Girardi is coming into the Bronx Station on a 7:30 train," he said to Alex. "We need to call them and tell them to expect a faxed photo and have it ready for us."

"Got it," Alex said brightly, in an odd echo of Scully. He pulled out his own cellular and began punching numbers. "Should we call NYPD?" he said as he nudged the phone against his jaw.

"Call the station police--have them on alert--no, I'll do it--you do that." Mulder picked his phone up again, his attention divided between the crawling traffic and the call. One part of his mind noted an accident ahead; if they were lucky the traffic would thin out after they passed. If they were not lucky. . .

* * * *

Bronx Station

7:33

They made it--barely. Mulder pulled the car into a loading and taxi zone with a dramatic swerve and ignored the honks and glares of an arriving cabbie he'd cut off. They hastened through the doors of the station, pausing only at the guard station with the flash of badges.

"Mulder. FBI. You got a photo for me?"

The guard handed it over immediately, from the top of a stack of papers and folders. "Right here--"

Mulder grabbed it and dashed off across the station lobby, noting the time on the station clock and comparing it to his watch. Part of his mind reflected that he perhaps he should have taken time for a confab with security, but his intuition was on full alert. He could feel Cole near with uncanny prescience, though the man was nowhere visible in the thick crowd. For once Alex's long legs were challenged; the younger agent had to run hard to keep up with him.

They passed through into the arrival and departure area, both men's eyes sweeping the floor in search of their suspect or his likely target. After a first scan, Mulder studied the photo, which showed the face and shoulders of a heavy-set, bearded man with glasses. He passed it to Alex, who studied it in turn, then handed it back to him, having apparently imprinted the portrait on his brain.

"Stay here, I'll cover the other side," Mulder said tersely. He ran off, barely waiting for Alex's answering nod. The other agent had returned to playing a scanning gaze out over the thickening throng.

Mulder, weaving through jostling streams of disboarding travelers, felt his instincts spiking, his nerves dancing. His guts were sending him a fusillade of urgent messages: Cole is here, he's here! Look--look--he's here. Somewhere--

Somewhere close.

But Mulder, tensely ready to pick him out of the crowd, saw nothing. He glanced back to Alex (standing helpfully tall above a river of bobbing heads) with an inquiring gaze, and they exchanged a head shake of mutual fruitlessness. Mulder returned to his search, feeling the busy energy of the station flow into him, willing himself to tap into it further--the echoing dissonant announcements, the cries of friendly greeting and farewell, the uneasy press of body against body that created small ricochets and ripples throughout the mill, the whole of life lies in the verb seeing, and then there he was.

Mulder stiffened. Endorphins rushed in with a crashing force as he saw Girardi walking up along the side of a stationary train, wearing the preoccupied face of a traveler meditating on the small, logistic concerns of his trip. He glanced at the photo to confirm, then headed toward him. Then as Mulder neared he saw Cole slide out of the crowd, advancing on Girardi, gun raised high alongside his face in the manner of a firing squad member preparing to shoot.

Mulder pulled his gun with quick, sure instinct. "Federal Agent--drop your weapon! Drop it!" He took up the stance, keeping his eye trained on Cole, but seeing in his peripheral vision people beginning to peel off from his line of fire and scatter. Girardi looked up, craning his neck above those still between them. It happened in an instant--the shots came in rapid succession, hitting Girardi in the back, sending him to the ground. People around him dove for cover, and then two more shots rang out and Mulder felt pain and disappeared into darkness.

Alex pushed through in Mulder's direction, tense and bewildered. A man shoved by him, wagging his head and muttering derisively (crazy fuck). The words lodged in Alex's brain, spun there. He could see next to nothing through the thickening swell of people sweeping across his position; he'd heard only the tenor of Mulder's yell, not the words. He quickly forced his way into a cleared area only to see the other agent on the ground. The spotless white of his shirt was reassuring, and no blood was visible elsewhere; apparently he hadn't been shot.

Alex's hand rested on his holster as he searched nearby faces and hands, seeking Cole's or sign of a weapon, but he didn't quite pull his own gun. No need to add to the panic, which was already dissipating as people pulled themselves upright and dusted themselves off. Many stared at Mulder with shark-like interest. There was an air of jaded New York resignation returning to the passers-by, which signalled to Alex that whatever had happened had registered as only a mild to moderate spike on the urban equivalent of the Richter scale.

But what had happened?

Reaching Mulder's prone body in the space of seconds, Alex did another survey and saw no sign at all of violence. He looked instead as if he'd had some sort of fit. The possibility that he'd seriously flaked out brought Alex a mixed sense of worry and relief. He knelt down next to the other man's crumpled figure. Rolling Mulder gently onto his back, he confirmed with a quick touch that he was breathing normally.

"Mulder--are you all right?" He kept his voice low.

At his words, Mulder's eyes flew open. He jack-knifed into a sitting position and yelled, "Girardi!" He stared off down the platform, then said to Alex, "Where is he?"

"Girardi's not here," Alex said. Awareness of relief struck him abruptly, along with the recognition of his own tautly wired tension. A bit breathless, he forced himself towards a semblance of calm. He's fine. . .and I wasn't worried anyway. He was not really aware that his hand still rested on Mulder's arm.

"No--I saw him," Mulder said. They stared at each other, then Mulder got up quickly.

Alex helped him up without really thinking about it, and didn't let go in a hurry. Mulder seemed still dazed, lost in trying to recapture the particulars of whatever he thought he'd seen.

"Mulder! you were shouting--and waving your gun around--but Girardi never showed." Alex didn't know what exactly prompted his own choice of words; they came to him without previous plan or reason. They implied he'd seen more than he had, that he knew for certain Mulder could not have seen Girardi--but they were false. He just wanted to discover, on impulse, how certain Mulder was of his own mind. How easily was he swayed, how much of his weird belief system was self-delusion? This might give him a clue.

Alex watched Mulder absorb his words and hesitate, apparently taking stock of his recollections again, then the other man said firmly: "No! Girardi was here. So was Cole--we just missed them!" He shook Alex off, with an emphatic, almost vicious gesture of fisted frustration, then turned and walked away. Alex stared after him, jaw skewed in thoughtful contemplation. He stayed more or less in place as Mulder moved off down the platform, studying the scene, the ground. People passed, casting sideways glances at the agent.

"If they'd been here, I woulda seen them. I'm telling you, Mulder--they weren't here." He was fucking a bit with Mulder's head, but wondered if he weren't bang on target. Mulder certainly was looking more and more like a crazy man from this vantage point. Had he seen Girardi and Cole? What had he thought he'd seen? He'd pulled his gun. . .

Alex walked over to the other man. "You want to canvass the crowd?" He looked around. "Though I think most everyone has moved on. . ."

"Shit," Mulder said angrily. He seemed to be keeping a tight grip on himself, and the strain was beginning to show.

Alex drew close. "Why did you pull your gun?"

Mulder's eyes flashed darkly gray, with the tint of stormclouds. "I told you, I saw Cole--he had a gun. He--" Mulder paused, swallowed.

"He what?"

The understanding of what had happened punched through Mulder in that instant and a sick horror flashed through him as he realized how easily he had been manipulated--and how easily he could have been led to shoot some innocent passer-by. But the very fact that he'd fallen to one of Cole's illusions proved that Cole had been here. And very likely Girardi too. . .could he be sure that he'd seen an illusion? What if he'd seen something much closer to the reality. . .and everyone else had seen nothing at all?

"What is it?" Alex was saying, eyes tracing his face with sharp concern.

Mulder blinked. "No--nothing. I. . .we need to get to the guard post, take a look at the security tapes. There should have been guards on alert. I didn't see any on the platforms, though--did you?"

Alex glanced around. "No," he admitted, sounding irked, then looking back to Mulder, not to be distracted. "Mulder--what happened--really?"

Mulder held his eyes for a searching moment then walked off wordlessly. Alex gritted his teeth and forced himself into motion to avoid being left behind.

They headed off toward the transit authority's command post, Mulder looking back over his shoulder more than once, still reluctant to abandon his crime scene, imaginary though it might have been. As they left the platform area Alex found the picture of Girardi on the floor, scuffed by passing feet. He picked it up and handed it to Mulder, who took it silently.

When they'd flashed their badges and stated their business, they were admitted to the TA's offices and security rooms. It took a few minutes to sort out what had happened, but apparently the officer Mulder had spoken to on the phone had just gone off at shift change, and the hastily typed memo of alert had received only cursory attention.

"This man is responsible for the death of one NYPD officer and the serious injury of another," Mulder said with flat anger, when they came face to face with the station commander, Captain Gammons. "If your department's negligence led to his escape, it's not going to reflect very well on you, Captain."

Gammons' eyes narrowed but the stone mass of his face barely shifted. "I've got three men down with killer flu, two in the hospital with gunshot wounds, and another four out on disability, Agent Mulder--and that's on this shift. We're spread thin as it is, but you tell me what you need, okay? I want to catch this guy as much as you do."

Mulder forced his ire down and nodded. "Fine. You've alerted your people on the floor, I take it?" At Gammons nod, he continued, "We need to go over the security camera footage for the last half hour, see what turns up--I saw our suspect--there has to be some sign of him on tape."

As they headed to the monitors, a small herd of TA officers tramped in from a side entrance, pulling all gazes their way. The front man nodded to Gammons.

"About time," Gammons grunted. "You're late. You--you--" He pointed at two men. "Get briefed and get out on the floor. Sargent Goetz will assign your beats and if you kid him about his name he'll feed you to his snake. The rest of you come on." He entered the monitor room with the two agents and the officers in tow. "We've been asking for some temporary reassignments for a week now," Gammons groused to Mulder in an aside. "Good timing--for you guys anyway."

Mulder outlined the parameters of their search to the officer in charge of manning the cameras, and hung Cole's and Girardi's pictures up below the monitor banks for all to see easily. The uniformed transit cops gathered in on Gammons' instruction.

"Tell me how this system is set up," Mulder asked the officer as he busily typed in commands.

"Wha--oh, well. . .basically, sir, we've got forty-six cameras placed around the station. Might sound like a lot, but it's not enough to cover the ground and so far they won't spring for more. We've got six monitors running, each one cycling through views from about seven different cameras, for thirty seconds at a time. We've also got five dedicated monitors, four for the main entrances and one for the ticket counter. They show just the one camera view."

"Do you have any back-up monitors, or do we have to take these off-line to see what we've got?"

"Yes sir, we've got a few for playback, but we'll have to do some switching around, and we'll only be able to work with two monitors."

"Shit," Mulder sighed. "Okay, just concentrate for now on the main entrance and on the boarding platform--can you get those two--?"

"Yeah, just give me a minute. . .we've got a buncha different views of the boarding platforms, but they're not all hooked into the same recording cycle. . ."

"I want to concentrate on the area just inside the entrance, down the main strip. Do the best you can," he added to the officer, trying to ameliorate his tone slightly.

For the next half hour they went methodically through the pertinent tapes as best they could, with no useful result. Finally, Mulder said in a tired voice, "Okay, there's nothing here so let's rewind the tape. Start with a small window of time, say 19:35 to 19:45. If you don't find anything within that time frame then open it up one minute at a time. With all these cameras we should be able to see something." He hoped he didn't sound as dissatisfied and impatient as he felt, but if he did, tough.

He felt rather than saw Alex come up next to him, had never even known he'd been gone until that moment.

"Can we talk for a second?" He walked off and Mulder pulled himself away and followed. He could see from the tensely drawn lines of Alex's body that something was up. I don't need this now, he thought.

"What's the problem?"

Alex looked at him a moment, then asked, "Why didn't you stop and answer my question--about what happened?"

The other man's eyes were intense, focused, but Mulder was used to baffling other people's attempts to poke around his mind, and this didn't faze him. "I told you--I thought I saw Girardi." And Cole. And a shooting. . . .Christ, talk about hopeless. How could he say that without sounding even more crazy than usual?

"Oh come on--you just about killed someone back there." He looked down and away briefly, as if not wanting to say what he was about to say. "We both know I'm covering for you by keeping it between us."

It was true in its way, and Mulder acknowledged this by lowering his voice with a resigned, "All right. What do you want to know?"

"Just the truth--there's things you're not telling me that I need to know."

The words were spoken with more feeling than Mulder had yet heard from the other man, and he swallowed down a flutter of resultant nerves. Alex's husky voice and steady gaze were unsettling, and the blending of personal tone and professional demeanor was very distracting. . .as it was perhaps intended to be.

"It's just that my ideas usually aren't very popular," Mulder said, to buy time.

Alex sighed. "I told you, I want to believe--but I need a place to start." His voice was a plea.

Mulder debated, studying Alex. Moment of truth? He came to a decision, drew closer to Alex, and said in low, intense tones, "I think that Cole possesses the psychic ability to manipulate sounds and images--to generate illusions that are so convincing they can kill. . .how's that for a theory?" It was a challenge and an invitation, and for one heady second it felt like a seduction. Mulder heard his own voice leave his throat with a harsh, unexpected sensuality that made him ache somewhere inside. If Alex blew him off now. . .

Mulder was already tensing for the emotional blow, the familiar punching pain in his gut that would come when Alex rejected his theory, rejected him, but then--

"Puts a whole new spin on virtual reality," Alex said, obviously rolling with the punches, "but at least it begins to explain some things."

Mulder stared at him. It took a moment to sink in: Alex actually took him seriously. A heartfelt leap of response broke in his chest. Even as his mind told him it was ridiculous to be so easily pleased, his body and soul melted with helpless need. God, how long had it been since someone opened up to the truth instead of shutting it out? His pleasure tasted like validation, and he was filled to the brim with a sudden, suffocating wave of desire. And he wanted to fuck. Like a cat in heat, he was flushed with it, he wanted to howl and rub himself against his partner and demand satisfaction. To reward him for his loyalty. To ensnare him further.

His pulse jerked in his throat at the timely interruption from one of the transit authority officers.

"Agent Mulder?"

Mulder collected himself, gave a little eyebrow raise to Alex before walking off. Would he stay in step? After a few seconds, he felt the other man closing in behind him, felt it along every inch of his backside, from calves to scalp. Concentrate, idiot, he told himself. He reached the ops bank and followed the officer's pointing finger with his gaze toward one of the monitor screens, which showed a shot of what appeared to be warehouse area. The timer read 19:43.

"See this car in the upper right corner?"

"Yeah."

The officer manning the board pressed a button and the shot changed to read 19:38, and showed the exact spot, with no car.

"It wasn't there five minutes ago."

"Where is this?" Mulder asked.

"That's Track 17--it's a restricted part of the yard."

Mulder collected Alex with a look and they left. Mulder took a minute to pass on a renewed alert for station personnel to be on the lookout for Cole and Girardi, and suggested with a dire sense of premonition that they have an ambulance on call. Then they hoofed it to the car.

"Did you notice the difference between their security system chronology and the station clock?" Mulder asked as he stopped at the trunk to grab lanterns. Not waiting for an answer he moved around the car. "They weren't in synch. Off by about ten minutes--which means that Cole's been down there for maybe twenty. Time enough for. . ." He trailed off grimly.

"What if it's not him?"

"It is." Mulder got in the car and set off immediately, pulling out of the taxi zone with a tiny screech. He zipped out and around the station with near reckless urgency, and managed to bring them to the tracks within a few minutes, drawing up next to the car they'd seen on the screen.

They got out and began to examine the vehicle, but before they'd given it more than a brief inspection a cry echoed through the dimness. In silence they ran through the dark toward its source, quickly finding themselves in a maze of cargo beds, dripping water and resounding softly with rattish scuffles. Their lantern beams arced and flashed across rusted metal and concrete, cutting swathes of light across ancient dirt. Slowly, guns drawn, they worked their way through the area. Then Alex's lantern picked up a pair of glasses on the ground. With a gesture he pointed them out to Mulder, who studied them, trying to determine whether they resembled those in Girardi's photo.

Both men were alert, and felt presence, without needing to communicate their awareness to one another. They played their beams around carefully. Mulder saw the blood first, then the doctor, tied to a beam, slumped forward and straining his bonds. He knelt and took his pulse.

"He's still alive--" He looked over his shoulder at Alex. "Put pressure on the wound on the back of his neck and radio for help." When Alex hesitated, Mulder spoke more sharply, prodding him to action. "Now."

Alex came forward. Gooseflesh had broken out across his skin and he could feel his nerves strumming with distaste. He holstered his gun and put down his light, obeying Mulder's directions as the other man rose and looked around.

Feeling blood oozing under his fingers, Alex pulled out his radio with his free hand. "Uh, this is Agent Krycek, requesting emergency assistance--my location is Track 17, in the freight warehouse--" He stayed on the radio as he heard Mulder move off, until he heard the dispatcher pass on the call, then he broke radio contact, pulled his hand from Girardi's neck, and wiped his bloody fingers on his trousers.

The air of affected panic and hesitation he'd worn dropped from him like a mask shucked off. He tilted Girardi's chin up, studied the already glazing, unfocused eyes. His own glittered in the darkness. "Murderer," he said softly. "Baby killer."

Girardi coughed, bringing up blood. Alex felt a burn of excitement slide through his body like a diffusion of vodka, fast and strong. Lucidity rang in his skull and he watched the man die, cupping his jaw in one hand, his fingers warming again with blood. He had grown hard, he could feel himself jutting against his thigh. Shaky with arousal, he stood, listening for the arrival of the Transit Authority officers, longing to jerk himself off. In the distance he heard car doors slam, voices. Christ, he couldn't stay here, waiting, doing nothing.

Quick as a cat he slid off along the freight stacks in the direction Mulder had taken. Gun out, he held it raised and ready.

* * * *

Mulder came up on Cole standing at the edge of a projecting platform that overlooked the freight area below. He stood there in his fatigues, Bible in hand, swaying slightly at the edge. Mulder softly put down his lantern and moved closer, gun in hand.

"Step away from the edge. . .Cole, I'm a federal agent, now please step back."

After a pause, Cole finally did step back and turn. He held one hand to the side of his neck, Mulder noted, but he could not associate the gesture with any threatening intent. The vet was unsteady on his feet.

"Go ahead. Shoot me." He stretched out his hands, palms splayed out. Mulder heard the resignation in his voice. The welcome.

"That's not why I came up here." He moved closer, showed Cole his gun, then put it slowly on the ground. "I'm putting down my gun. I just want to talk to you for a few minutes. After that you're free to do whatever you want."

"I'm tired." Cole's voice cracked as he spoke.

Mulder moved closer. "I know."

Cole shook his head. "No, man--you don't know--you have no idea."

"One minute is all I'm asking--" Behind Cole, down on ground level, Mulder saw an ambulance arriving.

"One minute's more than I care to give," Cole said, voice low and harsh with emotion and exhaustion. ". . .blood's boiling in my veins--I can feel the air stingin' on my skin--"

"What the military did to you was wrong--but maybe your testimony can help--" Even as Mulder spoke he recognized the futility of his approach. He needed to think of something else, he needed to reassure Cole of rest, of peace. As he tried to form his next words, Cole rambled on.

"They cut out a piece of my brain," he said with agony. "They made me into somebody else--I can never get back what they took away from me, but I can stop them from taking anything more." He broke off, staring past Mulder.

Mulder saw his expression, turned to see Alex nearing, arms up and gun trained, his pose one of locked-in tension. It was not what Mulder wanted or expected to see, but he couldn't take the time to think what it meant; more in impatience than anger he waved the other man off. "Krycek, put down the gun and get outta here--"

Intensely focused, Alex made no response, but instead moved closer.

Mulder, raising his voice with frustration, repeated his words, trying to beat through the man's self-induced trance. "Krycek, I said put down the gun and get outta here!" And then a lance of terrible instinct ripped into him and made him turn. He saw Cole raising his Bible, desperate entreaty written on his face. Mulder turned back to Alex, shouted, "No!"

Alex fired twice--gut, chest--and Cole dropped. In pain and dismay, Mulder ran to the man, then knelt to examine him, knowing it was no good, it was already too late.

With gasps, Cole whispered, "Good--night--" Mulder watched him die, with the sick disappointment and regret he felt whenever he watched someone leave the body. Leave. Depart. Pass on. Not euphemistic words, not at all, and why did people say they were?

"He had a gun," Alex said breathlessly. He'd been searching around Cole's fallen form for the weapon with no success. "He was going to shoot you--"

Quietly, Mulder nodded, said, "You did the right thing." He touched Cole's closed eyelids. They were as soft and dark as expiring rose petals. Was this a good sleep to find? Mulder hoped so.

"The right thing--of course I did," Alex muttered. He ran a hand through his hair, still riding his adrenaline rush. "But where the fuck's his gun? Is he lying on it?" He knelt down, and began to push against the body, but Mulder reached across and grabbed his wrist.

"He didn't have a gun," he said softly. They stared at one another, and Mulder watched Alex try to absorb this, and then saw his eyes fill with denial.

"Yes, he did," he snarled, pulling his hand away. "Shit." He rolled Cole's body over onto its side, stared at the bare concrete.

Mulder caught at both his hands this time, trying to reach the other man. "There are going to be cops here any moment," he said in a low voice. "We need to have our stories straight." His voice was unduly calm.

Alex pulled his hands away again with the impersonal rebuff of a man who cannot afford to let himself be distracted. "Our stories--what stories--he had a gun, and it's here somewhere." He stood, searching around again.

"He didn't have a gun, Alex--it was the Bible." Mulder grabbed him, shook him, pointed it out where it had fallen. "He made you think it was a gun--I told you this. It was what he could do--he did it to me--" Mulder paused, hearing the remote but nearing clatter of footsteps, shouts. "There isn't time for this--I'll back you up. It's dim. I'll say it did look like a gun, that you came up fast and he raised his hand quickly--it's the truth. . .with a twist--"

"You gave up your gun," Alex said, staring back where Mulder had laid down his weapon. "How could you be so fucking stupid?"

"He didn't have a weapon--"

"You couldn't know that," Alex said savagely. "Christ, he could have had a pistol somewhere on him for all you knew--back, boot--"

"You shot an unarmed man." Mulder's voice grated out, overlapping Alex's own. "Neither of us is going to get a commendation. But you could face far more serious reprisals if--"

Transit authority cops suddenly filed onto the platform, guns drawn, bodies tense. With their arrival the machinery of law and order began in earnest, amidst the crackle of radios and the muted crunch of shifting uniforms. The deluge of questions began now too, but they were businesslike, perfunctory. No one in the NYPD or its ancillaries was likely to show much concern for a cop-killer, even if he met a far more questionable death--and when it was largely a federal matter.

Alex had pulled himself together for the duration, as far as Mulder could tell. But there was a haunted, angry edge to his rigid self-control. Mulder felt a pang of sympathy for him, now and then, when the official hubbub allowed. What was your average bullshit bureau therapist going to in a case like this?

The body was left in situ until the nearest crime scene team arrived, and when they did they cordoned off the scene and claimed it as their own. Mulder watched the process take place with blank but restless eyes. It seemed a sudden and pointless end to their investigation. Other agents spent months on cases, sometimes without a successful resolution or apprehension, but Mulder wasn't sure if he could consider his own success lucky. . .or even a success. The folder could be closed on this case, it could be marked more or less solved (even if not satisfactorily explained), but what about the real issue--the experiments, the cover-up? Mulder could not consider the case at an end. Not yet. Not until the real culprits paid for the evils they had perpetrated.

Mulder kept an unobtrusive eye on Alex while he watched the arrival of the team. They were NYPD, not federal, but they projected a competent air of cohesion and expertise. He knew the team leader at first glance, not personally but by the way she carried herself. Hers was the sharpest gaze working the floor. She was a short cappuccino-skinned woman with a neat, plumpish body and brilliant blue eyes. He watched her direct her subordinates and organize the mess. Slowly the press of officers retreated from the area. Some clumped off and continued their observations and chat, others moved below.

She had not seemed to be aware of Mulder's inspection, but when she'd laid down a preparatory coordination of order she turned and met his eyes. "You're one of the feds?" she asked, coming over to him.

"Mulder," he said, handing her his card.

Nodding, she took it and pocketed it after a glance, then handed him her own from a thin leather case. "You the shooter?" she asked crisply.

He looked at her coolly a moment, then at the card she'd given him. Leslie Woodward. He tucked it away as he spoke. "No. . .my partner." He indicated Alex with a sketchy gesture. The other agent was standing off in conversation with a few officers. Before Woodward could say anything else he continued. "Listen, I need copies of your findings to go to both the New York field office and D.C. HQ. There are two more related crimes sites that we know of--not counting Girardi's--one in Queens, one in Manhattan. Midtown South and the 115th may want copies too, just for the record."

"Of course, Agent Mulder. . .Girardi is body two, I take it."

"Yeah. . .too bad he didn't miss his train."

"Does your partner still have his gun?"

"You're going to do a ballistics comparison?" Mulder said. "No one's going to dispute the circumstances of the shooting, Doctor Woodward."

"That may well be, but going by the book always saves so much trouble, I've found--don't you agree?"

Mulder smiled with a tiny crook of his lips. "Oh, always." He beckoned to Alex, who pulled away from a conversation with two of the transit authority officers to join them.

"Crime team needs your gun," Mulder said.

Alex hesitated only a half second before pulling the gun out of its holster and handing it over. Woodward slid a pencil through the trigger guard and dropped it into an evidence bag. She gave him a receipt for the weapon and logged it in her evidence sheet. Alex's eyes followed her actions, but he said nothing; his face was closed up in itself, flatly inexpressive.

"Do you need us here for anything, Doctor?" Mulder asked Woodward.

"No--I don't. I doubt they'll even call you to the station. Fax your statements--in a case like this that should be enough. . .unless I find anything to indicate otherwise." Woodward's small smile said she didn't expect to find anything; her cool eyes said she would carry out her duties to their fullest nonetheless.

Mulder looked at Alex, who had his hands in his pockets and was staring off at nothing, his face a blend of boredom, retreat, and simple tiredness. "Come on," Mulder said, touching his jacket sleeve lightly.

Alex nodded and they left the site, heading for the car. They were snagged several times on the way by various police personnel, and thus descended with periodic handshakes, introductions, exchanges of information, and even a few blackly humorous witticisms delivered by arriving NYPD officers, who were plainly happy that Cole had gone down. Most of them congratulated Alex on a job well done. Mulder kept a sharp eye on the younger man's reactions, but he responded with no more than curt nods to these accolades. His face was pale and forbiddingly shuttered.

They passed the second crime scene on the way, where an officer was snapping photographs of Girardi's slumped body. They had been back and forth between scenes during the past hour, but Mulder spared the dead man another bitter look. They'd been so close to saving him, if only. . .

But second-guessing was useless. Girardi had been far gone when they arrived, and had died even as Alex knelt there next to him, and nothing could be done to change that. Cole had claimed his full quota of justice as he'd seen it, and had been scratched out himself--as he surely had intended all along. Mulder doubted it had mattered to Cole who pulled the trigger, or what the repercussions would be from that act. He wanted to reassure Alex again that he'd done no wrong, but this was not the time or place. Alex himself didn't even glance at the body as they passed.

When they got back down to the freight area, a beefy man in an NYPD uniform, leaning against his squad car in casual pow-wow with his fellows, gave a broad wave the agents' way.

"Shit," Alex said, scowling. He laid his hand on Mulder's arm to halt him. "It's a guy I know from when I worked first precinct--he's an asshole, you don't wanna talk to him. I'll be right back."

Mulder nodded and continued on the car. He got in and then--prompted by a sharp jab of instinct--checked for the file X had given him. It was gone. It was too much. He hit the steering wheel in frustration and savage anger, then gripped it tightly to keep from punching it again. Bending his head for a moment, he rested it against the wheel, seeking calm, strength, trying to find a hold in himself against the rushing tide of rage that threatened to carry him into senselessness.

Who? When? His mind boiled, tumbling his thoughts about. After a few minutes he raised his head and found Alex in his sights. He froze. Don't think it. . .when was it taken. I've no idea. Been with him all day. Last night? No. . .it was there this morning--wasn't it? Think. . .yes. I think. With him all day. . .all day? Yes. He didn't know. . .could he have known? Who else? No. Trust no one. . .it could have been anyone. I don't want to believe. No. No.

Scully had a copy.

Mulder suddenly straightened, relaxed a notch. He released the steering wheel at last and ran both hands across his head. It was bad, but it wasn't a disaster. This had not all been in vain. He thought about calling her, checked his watch. Ten-thirty. She was surely at home--but the faxed documents were probably at her office. Ask her to go back now? No. . .and maybe a phone call wasn't a good idea. If they didn't already know she had them, it might tip them off.

He leaned back in his seat and watched Alex wind up his conversation with the group of officers. Manly handshakes all around. A few bluff slaps on the arm from the cops to Alex. Alex turned away, the stiff, practiced smile dropping immediately from his face, leaving it cryptically smooth. He strode toward the car, pushing out of his jacket as he did. The gesture, like a raven stripping back its wings, sent a twitch of fire through Mulder's groin.

You're pathetic, he told himself roughly. Give it a rest. He started the car and held himself steady, waiting as Alex got in and buckled up before driving off. They were waved through the outer perimeter of the station's cargo area by a bored police officer, whose coffee sloshed with the gesture.

When they were on the road, with the chaos behind them, Alex slumped back in his seat further and moodily stared at the road ahead. He could take in what had happened. He refused to accept that his mind had been manipulated. Despite what he'd told Mulder, he did not believe. Not in little green men and not in mind control. Not like this, anyway. Mind control was not the provenance of burned-out Vietnam vets with a Bible fetish and a death wish. No.

Mulder said something. It took Alex, immersed in his thoughts, a few moments to tune in on the words.

". . .know it's hard to believe yourself susceptible, Alex. I could have killed someone on that platform--an innocent bystander--because I saw Cole. Because he could have made me see anything."

"Mulder--" Alex sighed, broke off in frustration. He couldn't recant now from the belief he'd professed. It wouldn't jibe and it might tip Mulder off--ring his warning bells. And the man was head to toe bells. "Why didn't he then? Why didn't he have you kill Girardi?"

"That was his job."

"We looked at two other bodies whose injuries were psychosomatic. This guy was bleeding. That wound was real. You wanna explain that?"

Mulder's voice turned musing. "We'll never know for sure, but. . .I think he was tired, Alex. I imagine it took a lot of psychic energy to create his illusions. If he was somewhere on that platform--and I think he was--then he'd have had to disseminate his illusions through crowds of people. All those minds--it must have taken its toll. His powers may have been quite weak toward the end. Weaker than he expected. If he couldn't get Girardi to accept the vision of his own death--fully--he might have had to resort to his own hands. His own knife. As it looks like he did."

"But he had enough to turn a Bible into a gun," Alex said. A whiff of bitterness and anger mingled with the skepticism in his voice.

"I don't think it took much power for that one. And he concentrated on you. I saw the Bible. You saw. . .the gun." He paused. "Alex. He wanted you to kill him." Mulder's voice was deliberate, firm. "He wanted to die and he didn't care by whose hands. He didn't care about what it might to do you--"

"It didn't do anything to me," Alex snapped. "I did what I had to do. Period. And I'm not doing any soul-searching over it, so let's drop it."

The rest of the ride to the hotel was mostly silent. Mulder drove and Alex stared out the window and gradually segued from brooding back into simple fatigue. The silence was broken only by a few short exchanges, the desultory chit-chat of tired men. They were both trying to avoid prickly issues. Or at least defer them. When they came off the bridge into Manhattan, Mulder took a deep breath. The city gothic rose above them again and there was one issue that could wait no longer.

"Alex, I had a file in the car. Did you take it?" From the corner of his eye he saw Alex's head slowly turned his way, coolly and lazily as a water lily revolving on the surface of a pond.

"A file?" he said dully. "I thought you didn't have your laptop with you. . ."

Mulder kept his eyes on the road. Weird answer. Too weird. He had to be half asleep. "Papers, Alex--it was in an envelope actually."

"Sorry. Duh." Alex straightened in his seat, apparently pulling himself further into wakefulness. "I haven't seen it--the one Scully gave you, you mean?"

Mulder sighed, not sure if he was relieved of his suspicions or not. He could not read his own mind in this matter. (I don't want to believe.) "No. . .we're almost to the hotel."

"Good." Alex paused, stared out the window into the darkness. "Room service is twenty-four hours, isn't it?"

"Yeah--hungry?"

"Like a horse."

Mulder almost smiled. Back to cliches: the other man had to be feeling better. "I was thinking of driving out tonight. . .but at this point I guess we might as well stay over. We've already paid for it."

"Damn right," Alex muttered. "You'll be driving out alone if you try that shit. I'll take the fucking plane back on my own dime if I have to."

"Didn't know if it would make you uncomfortable. . ."

"What?" It took Alex a moment to even realize what Mulder meant, and then he shook his head in sheer wonder. "Yeah, right. Watch me blush when I undress, Mulder."

Sarcasm was good. Better than the numbed approximation of shock he'd been showing, but perhaps still a form of denial. Mulder wondered if the younger man would have nightmares. . .it happened. Can I make it through tonight without jumping him, he wondered idly. He was aching again. It was a deep pulsing ache that rolled inside his balls and teased at the length of his cock and grew more painful even as he noticed it. He needed to fuck. He wanted to ram hard into Alex's body and feel the man arch against him and beg for it.

Mulder was shakily in control as they parked the car and entered the hotel, but it grew more difficult for him to concentrate as they rode up the elevator, and the lust became a throbbing pain in his flesh as they moved down the hall and went into their room. He let Alex take the lead--the hardness between his legs was becoming obvious, impossible to hide. Once inside Alex headed straight for the phone, while Mulder made a bee-line for the bath, where he splashed cold water on his face and debated which of his body's needs demanded priority. The combination of desire and hunger was making him thoroughly nauseous. Food? Shower? Damn it. . .

A knock came on the door, and then Alex pushed in. "I ordered you a chicken salad sandwich. I didn't think you'd want a burger this time of night."

"Fries?" Mulder asked, with a washcloth pressed to his face. He was leaning against the sink on one hand, hoping this provided some shield to his arousal, knowing it didn't. But maybe he's not looking.

"You can share mine," Alex said, walking around him to the toilet, bumping his ass as he passed.

Mulder nearly groaned. "Tea?" he said through gritted teeth, bending over the sink and splashing cold water directly on his face. He could hear the jet of the other man's piss, and just the thought of it--its heat, its origin--made him harder. He felt ill with lust, anything would have sated it now, the lightest touch, the briefest slap. He had a sudden vision of himself kneeling in front of Alex, the other man pissing hard--and his shame escalated at the jolt of fire this sent through his cock.

"Unsweetened," Alex said, yawning. "Caffeine--you shouldn't be drinking it now, but I knew you'd want it."

"Thanks," Mulder said hoarsely, staggering upright and shoving on trembling legs out of the bathroom. He made it to the bed and collapsed there, belly down, wrenching a pillow from under the coverlet and pressing his burning face into its cool shelter. He listened to the flush from the bath, the sound of the shower being turned on. Small clinks: belt, cuffs, holster--and then the thin plasticky scrape of the shower curtain, which muted the water's rush.

Mulder sat up then, kicked off his shoes, stripped off jacket and tie and hardware and finally his shirt. He wondered what Alex would do if he came out of the bathroom to find his partner jerking off. Your loss, partner. Someone's loss. He touched himself through his trousers, cruelly teasing himself with the barest brush of his palm across the material. He studied himself, then stared restlessly around the room until his gaze landed on the bedside table. A blindside of panic struck him at the sight of a cracked opening in the drawer. The gun. No, they'd stashed that in the hotel safe. He closed his eyes, sagging forward with his elbows on his knees, head down, relief and self-disgust mingling.

What the hell am I doing. What kind of bullshit operation is this, Spooky, huh? Stop thinking with your dick. You've done enough, you'll be lucky if nothing worse comes of your fuck-ups. You have reports to write. . .you'll go back to D.C. and he'll be reassigned and that's that. This isn't a romance. Get over it.

A light tap came on the door. The food? Damn fast. Unless--

Mulder grabbed his gun and edged around the room until he reached the wall beside the door. "Who is it?" he asked quietly.

"Room service, sir."

"Leave the tray by the door."

". . .okay. . ."

Mulder paused. "What's your name--I'll make sure you get a tip."

"Uh, Raoul, sir. . .thank you. Have a good night."

It was pointless, of course. Muscle would wait as long as it needed to. Mulder himself waited until he began to feel foolish, then opened the door a crack. Food. He brought it in and set it on the table and had wolfed down half his sandwich and a disproportionate amount of Alex's fries before the other man came out of the bathroom, a towel wrapped around his waist.

"Knew I should've got you your own fries," Alex muttered, sliding into a chair. He ate rapidly, catching up with Mulder fast.

The food made for an excellent physical distraction, and Mulder wasn't quite as distressed as he'd been earlier--it was hard to sustain desire while inhaling the aroma of stale vegetable oil.

Not impossible though.

Eventually Mulder left off eating. He played with a crust of bread and watched Alex finish up. "How are you doing?" he said quietly, when the other man raised his gaze and caught him watching.

"How'm I doing?" Alex asked around a final bite of sandwich. He chewed, swallowed. He took a drink from his mineral water and then nudged his plate away. "Is it 'therapy time with Mulder'?" he finally said with a sardonic twitch of his jaw, leaning back and looking evil. "I told you to drop it."

Glowering with anger and frustrated desire, Mulder pushed away from the table. "Fuck off."

"Oh, come on, Mulder," Alex taunted. "I know--you were just trying to help." He laughed, a short cruel bark. "Think I'm gonna go all weak and goofy 'cause I shot someone in the line of duty? Christ."

Despite his early attempts to reassure Alex, Mulder felt his patience snap like a stressed bone. "No, I should have known better. It doesn't really bother you at all, does it? He was just a grunt, right? And you carry a badge and a jack-off bachelor's degree. You probably think you're pest control, don't you? You're just like all the rest, Alex--and you don't even know it. You think you're so different from the next bureau asshole, but you're just ten years younger, with a pissant punk's taste in suits--" His voice was a snarl of pleasure.

Alex rose, toppling his chair back. "If this is a come-on, Mulder, I'll beat the shit out of you--I'm not in the mood for this--"

"Watch it, Ward, you'll wake the neighbors--"

"This is a come-on, isn't it?" Alex said, eyeing the other man's tensed, unmoving body. His gaze flicked up and down. "Christ, you're hard!" He laughed again, rather nastily. "You want to fight, Mulder? Wanna fuck? You don't know shit, do you?" He shook his head, turned away with dismissal in his eyes.

Mulder grabbed him, but Alex whipped around quickly and knocked his grip off. "Don't," he said warningly. His eyes gleamed and his lips were parted with a breath of exhaled anger.

Mulder tweaked a nipple with vicious, sudden force. Alex made a harsh sound and slammed a palm into his chest, knocking him back a pace.

"Maybe you'd better make your next shower cold," Mulder said brightly. His body was tingling with fierce arousal, already growing slick with a blossoming inner heat. He felt a jittery primitive dance stirring in him. He rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet.

"That's just my dick, Mulder. Doesn't mean I want to fuck you."

"No?"

Alex paused for a deliberate appraisal of the other man, then made a mocking face. "You can't give me what I need right now, Mulder. So don't get yourself into trouble trying."

"I know what you want." Mulder's voice was calm, the calm a lie. He was hard, brimming with demand.

"Bullshit." Alex's eyes gleamed, said prove it.

Mulder stepped toward the other man, holding his gaze, then punched him hard in the gut. Alex dropped, gasping, to the ground, then grabbed Mulder's ankle and yanked him down. He punched back with equal strength, several times, until Mulder knocked him away by threatening a well-placed kick that did not quite connect.

Alex laughed breathlessly. "You're not up to it."

They were both still on the ground and Mulder kicked him then again, in the chest. He felt his foot grabbed, his ankle twisted. He swore and kicked harder. Alex rolled out of reach and stood. His towel had dropped away.

Mulder rose to his feet to meet him. His pulse was slamming in his throat, in his cock. When their bodies clashed again it was like the blow of two waves meeting. Teeth dug into Mulder's shoulder, into his neck. He cried out, a haze of fire dropping over his vision. He drew back, slapped Alex across the face, and managed another hard slap before his hand was caught. The younger man's nakedness was like an elemental thing; he was all flesh, nothing artificial, almost not human. His lithe muscled body dripped with a heat that Mulder's was quickly matching. Their bodies glistened and made purchase difficult.

"You think you know what I want?" Alex muttered roughly. It was a voice that could wake demons from sleep, soft as velvet, cold as a bone that has been stripped raw.

Mulder rasped, "I'm going to fuck you so hard you won't be able to walk for a week!"

Alex bent his head with melting grace. Mulder jerked with suspicion when the other man came near and began nuzzling, then he went still, shuddering with pleasure. Alex licked his throat, tracing its moist hollow. His tongue swirled and stabbed until Mulder's head dropped back, and then he bit the pocket of vulnerable flesh with sharp teeth.

Mulder staggered with the pain and jabbed the side of his hand into Alex's own throat, just hard enough to gag him. "Bastard," he gasped. He backhanded him, and raised a trickle of blood from the other man's lips, which curved like a blade at the taste. He was smiling almost happily.

"Mulder, why don't you take off your belt?" he said, voice slipping into a husky whisper.

Mulder froze for a moment, holding the other man's glittering gaze, trying to gauge how serious he was.

"I thought you knew what I wanted?" Alex managed to sound inviting and contemptuous in one breath.

Mulder's eyes hardened. He smiled back blandly but dangerously. "I just didn't know how you wanted it." He began unthreading his belt from his trousers.

Alex watched, lashes dropping to shade his eyes. "I'll bet you pride yourself on your sexual adventurousness, don't you, lover boy?"

"No--I don't pride myself." Mulder's voice was oddly flat.

Alex drew his eyes away from Mulder's hands, considered his neutral, beautiful face. "No?" he jeered softly.

"No." Mulder smiled again, wrapped the buckled end of the belt around his right hand and then pulled the leather slowly through his left. "It just doesn't bother me, Alex. Kinks aren't anything more than a new spot on the beetle's back. A new stripe on the butterfly's wing."

"Beetles, yeah. Right."

Still smiling, Mulder said quietly, "How do you want it?"

Alex realized he was nearly voiceless with arousal. It had broken suddenly over his body like a high wave crashing. He could barely breathe and his dick was a bow of strained, weeping flesh against his belly and every inch of his skin trembled wildly. Oh Christ yes, oh god yes let him do me, let him do it hard, fuck don't let him stop. Through a dry mouth he forced the words out: "On the bed--on the ass--" He laughed, and the laughter was enough to tip the inner globe of his mind dizzily on its axis. He moved unsteadily to the bed. "Do whatever you want, Mulder," he whispered.

"Oh good," Mulder said easily. "I will. . .get up there."

Alex knelt. It was bliss to kneel, to ready himself. It wasn't masochism, or a need for punishment. It was self-discipline. Learning to take pain was an important lesson. It came in handy. He closed his eyes, and felt the floating anticipation cradle him. He was already buzzing with feeling, already halfway there--and then the leather struck with brutal force across his ass, harder than he'd expected (from Mulder after all) and he cried out with surprise: "Fuck!" It was better than he'd hoped. He arched and his cock jerked against his belly, thrumming--god, how could he be so close already--and then the leather cracked again and again--

Far better than he'd hoped.

"Oh, god, Mulder--fuck, yes--yes yes--" He breathed out the affirmations, hearing his own rhythmic desire spilled out in time with the strikes of the belt. Crack after crack fell, each one a stripe of sizzling flame that drew another fire line straight to his dick. It was incredible to Alex that his own body could contain so much feeling. And every time the leather snapped an arc of live current connected him directly to Mulder. The bastard was brutal, Alex had underestimated him; the blows were full-force and carrying him there quick. "Don't stop, bastard--don't--"

Mulder didn't. He brought the belt down until Alex screamed with pleasure and jerked his hips in an instinctive attempt to pull away from the final blow that knocked him over the brink. He came without touching himself, hands fisted in the bed covers, body gleaming and writhing as it spent itself. Seed jetted out like some milky venom, speckling his chest, the cloth. He cried out and he laughed, tossing his head, his dark damp hair tumbling forward into his face.

Mulder dropped the belt, gasping. His body shook with effort and excitement and he barely managed to find the condoms and lube where they'd been stashed. Table. Drawer. He yanked the drawer open, swore as it rolled off its tracks and dropped on his foot. Condom. Lube. He unbuttoned his trousers, hands shaking, and pulled a condom on and turned and said "Don't move" in a savage voice when Alex started to shift from his position, and then he was behind him on the bed, forcing his thighs apart, cupping his fiery ass and spreading him wide. He ached with the need to come; he couldn't use his fingers, he didn't have time.

"Hold still," he whispered. He dug his thumbs in on the underside of either cheek and pushed the head of his cock against the other man where the body turned itself inward. Even through latex flesh touched flesh with almost unbearable friction. He felt himself fitting with extraordinary precision into the declevity of Alex's ass, the painful edge of himself filling the outer rim. It enclosed him like a kiss but it was not nearly enough. He pushed harder and slid in half his length with almost no resistance. "God, Alex--" Mulder bit his lip, tasted his own blood. I can't last, I can't make this last--oh fuck, yes--Alex--

"Fuck me," Alex growled. "Hard--hard, damn it!"

Mulder shoved. He heard Alex's moan, felt burning reddened flesh brush his hips. He shuddered. The heat poured up from where their bodies joined and rubbed, a rising corona of that fire. He thrust, slowly at first, and then goaded by Alex's demands and abuse ("Faster--harder--Jesus Christ, Mulder! Fucking G-man pansy prick, HARDER!") began slamming forward, accelerating into his lust, driving so hard he could barely stay upright, the force of his thrusts nearly dislodging him. Too long, too fucking long--he cried out and rode his desire harder and faster, not hearing his own curses, feeling every flame and sweet hunger in his body slide into his cock and gather there and build until it was the single focus of his existence.

"Oh, god, Alex--oh god, yes--oh god, I--I--yes yes yes--" He came and screamed himself hoarse as he did, ripping himself wide open, feeling insensible words of love choke themselves in his throat and die even as he was blown inside out, lifted and broken in the sun.

For a few minutes they slumped together, emptied of spirit. Then Alex crawled forward a little. Mulder groaned and let himself be released. Alex collapsed front down and stretched out luxuriously with small sated mutters, while Mulder sank to his knees and caught his breath. When he could stand to move he retreated to the bathroom, then returned after a few minutes with a washcloth. He tossed it on Alex's back.

"Chrrsrtrkjkk. . ." Alex rolled over.

"What was that?" Mulder dropped down next to him on the bed. He eyed the other man's body, trying to decide if he'd come a second time, wondering if he should ask.

"Something I didn't want to say in English." Alex smiled and pulled the washcloth out from under the small of his back. "Some gentleman," he mocked.

"You're a big boy. You can wash yourself."

"Mmm. Why don't you do it, though?" Alex slid an arm behind his head, gazed up at Mulder. His limbs were flexing with lazy contentment; his left leg was bent and he was raising it and lowering it sideways as if testing its limberness. With one hand he beat a light tattoo on his taut stomach, then his fingers began to stroke slow circles through the spill of seed decorating his belly and chest.

Mulder's gaze wandered hungrily, and he settled down beside Alex, propping himself across him. He leaned down and licked across Alex's moving fingers, then under them. Alex's fingers moved off to allow him full range and slid into his hair, playing idly with the short strands. He was already getting hard again, Mulder noticed. The sight rocked him; desire fired sharp hooks into his body that snagged everywhere, in his throat and chest and cock. He caught one of Alex's nipples roughly between his teeth and worried at it and licked it and then focused on it so completely that Alex began to arch off the bed into his mouth.

"Where's--the oratory--Mulder," Alex panted out.

"Mouth is full," Mulder said, between two hard licks.

Alex looked down awkwardly and saw the grin on the other man's face, the crinkles of laughter around his eyes. Damn. His nipple was aching, stiffened into a thorn of pain, but from this a shooting pleasure was travelling to every distant inch of his body. He took it as long as he could then he began to cry out, with short harsh gasps of ecstasy. His head rocked from side to side and his hands gripped Mulder's shoulders. He was going to come from this. This was going to make him come.

"Oh, god, Mulder--don't--don't--I can't--" He began to pound his head back into the mattress with savage groans. He was hurtling toward it--

Mulder stopped, kissed him. "I won't force you." He studied the face laid closely under his own and saw himself in the other man's eyes, Narcissus contemplating a pool. Alex's eyes glowed darkly under his lashes.

"You really are courting danger tonight," Alex said.

Mulder found the washcloth where it had been abandoned and drew away to sit between Alex's legs. He stroked the cloth down under his balls gently. "Hurt?"

"Mm. Not too bad." Alex touched himself, running his palm along his cock, teasing it up higher.

To Mulder the younger man seemed beautifully unselfconscious at this moment. His lean, hard body was so perfectly made--why shouldn't he be comfortable showing it off. FBI's most wanted. Smiling to himself, Mulder finished his light ablutions and sent the washcloth sailing into the wastebasket.

"Where'd you get this," he said, stroking across Alex's torso to trace the scar he'd noticed days ago.

"Domestic. God I hated domestics."

"Dangerous."

"Most men ask right away."

"Well, I didn't want to be predictable."

"As if you could be?" Alex stretched some more; his eyes, still heavily lidded with arousal, were nearly shut. "Hamster mating statistics--Jesus, I really should have gagged you right then--theories on the origin of the freakin' universe--I think you gave me the formula for time travel, maybe I dreamed that--cryptozoological factoids--did I get that right?--the likely measurements for a Yeti's dick, Egyptian poetry--"

Mulder laughed. "I don't know any Egyptian poetry, I swear."

"--brain extraction, New Jersey neanderthal sightings, like I haven't seen a million of them myself, by the way--"

"I'm a romantic, what can I say." Mulder blanketed himelf across the other man's body, nestling here and there, finding interesting areas of friction.

"The last guy I fucked spoke about a dozen words the entire time, and three of them were 'fuck', 'yes', and 'man'. Guy would not shut up with it. 'Fuck me man, fuck, oh man, oh man, fuck, fuckin' A, man, fuckin' do it man'--" Alex laughed.

"I can say that," Mulder said innocently.

"You could quote some Shakespeare," Alex suggested diffidently. He licked his lips, raised a wickedly sharp brow.

"Would that be a turn on?"

"Mmm. . .might actually slow things down. . .but that could be good too."

Mulder nuzzled him. "Huh. . .okay. . .remember, you asked for it. . .No more be grieved at that which thou hast done--"

Alex wriggled his hand free from under his head and began sliding it along the other man's ribs with tickling intent. Mulder didn't even crack a smile, just stared down at him with weighted, sensual eyes and continued his murmured recitation.

"Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud--"

Alex kissed his chin then stretched a bit to lick his neck. Mulder allowed the caresses like a cat allows itself to be petted, accepting the service with casual, regal disregard. He seemed to have grown more serious, though it took Alex a minute to notice the change in tone.

"Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun, / And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud--"

With both hands Alex cupped Mulder's ass and began squeezing and molding its curves. What is this, a eulogy, he thought distractedly, trying to concentrate on the words and only making it halfway there. Good thing he's not an actor. You could saw down a tree with that voice. . .why is it so fucking sexy. . .

"All men make faults, and even I in this, / Authorizing thy trespass with compare, / Myself corrupting, salving thy amiss, / Excusing thy sins more than thy sins are--"

"What is that--that's not love poetry," Alex interrupted. He worked his mouth against Mulder's chin again, letting his teeth form a mild bite, then sucking on the hard point of his jawbone. Whiskers scraped roughly across his tongue.

"You wanted love poetry? Oh. . ."

"Well not love love poetry."

"I don't think Shakespeare wrote any fuck poetry."

"Bet you he was stiff as a Bard, though."

"Ohhhhh. . ." Mulder groaned and butted Alex several times, face to face, chin to chin. "Bad punsters get the belt."

"Well, jeez, if I'd known--"

Their small face to face collisions turned gentle, turned into rubs and brushes and then kisses. Mulder sucked Alex's tongue into his mouth, drew his lips up along its length, then pulled its slippery heat back inside. Their tongues plunged across one another, dancing like fiddle bows, and their breaths labored to work around the greedy play of their mouths. Impossibly, the kiss deepened; it was almost its own end, a mutual fucking. Mulder couldn't remember the last time he'd been kissed so well or had connected with someone so thoroughly. Every link was electric: the brush of their hands against each other's skin and hair, the skittering of their tongues and friction of their jaws, the kindling rub of their nipples and bellies and cocks. Muscled arms and thighs braided gently, and then Alex rolled Mulder over onto his back and stroked the entire length of his body with his own.

They were unhurried, as if both men sensed or feared this was the last chance for their pleasures, and wanted to prolong them. The case they had spent the last five days working seemed something that had happened long ago, already half forgotten, merely the occasion and backdrop for their desire. But it was a deliberate shutting out, a deferral. Time enough tomorrow for reports and resolution, when the world started up again.

The hour was late, the hotel room quiet and hot, a cocoon that could last only one more night before cracking open and forcing them out. They lay together on the bed, completely aware of one another. Arousal built again gradually, until it suffused both their bodies. Alex's mouth moved everywhere on Mulder's bare flesh with surprisingly languid energies. Mulder was purring, but quiet.

"Talk to me, Mulder," Alex murmured. He turned his head and smiled into the palm of Mulder's hand as it reached to cup his face.

"Talk. . . ?"

"Mmm."

"What about?"

"Do you need a subject?" Alex's husky voice sounded skeptical, dryly teasing. "I know you're thinking of some obscure and freaky variation of nature right now."

"Am not. . ."

"Liar--what were you just thinking about?"

"When--?"

"Just now when I bit your nose--you got that dippy look in your eyes."

"Um. . .well, actually I was thinking of bonobos. . ."

"Yeah--go ahead--I'm going to bite you some more to keep it flowing." True to his word, Alex began nipping along Mulder's throat, then elsewhere.

"Mmm. . .bonobos. . .uh, they're one of our monkey relatives. . .very close relatives, actually. Kissing cousins. . ." Dizzily, Mulder's attention rose and fell under the sway of Alex's skillfull attentions. He tried to disconnect his mouth from his brain and let it run on, but tonight his brain wanted only to down and take a vacation and turn things over to his body. Often during sex there was some flukey mechanism in his mind that would not stop running on its track, even during intense arousal. It could be inconvenient to say the least. Alex was one of the few people who had ever asked him to talk. In the past he'd counted himself lucky if a lover tolerated his tendency to babble, let alone liked it.

"Talk!" Alex bit his right nipple hard.

"Shit! Yes--yes, okay--uh--oh, god, Alex--stay there--bonobos--they're, uh, these really pretty monkeys--scientists think now that they may be our most direct evolutionary ancestor--they've got an egalitarian society and they're very sexy. They don't sublimate--they don't substitute fighting for sex. And if they do fight they make up after with kisses and a little scrotum-rubbing, kind of like what we're doing. . .right. . .now. . ."

"Mm, sounds good. . ."

"They have sexual contacts constantly--especially when they're eating--during the average bonobo day, you know, like at the bonobo office, they'll get together at the water cooler and between talking about league softball and their kids' SATs they'll do some kissin' and feelin' up, maybe get down for some oral sex--"

"You're shitting me."

"Nope. . .easy goin' monkeys. . .not like us. . ."

"Slut monkeys. . .but we're making up, Mulder. . .aren't we?"

"I really hope so. I'm certainly going to scream if we're not."

Alex drew up and brushed his lips across Mulder's. "I might actually miss the perks that go with this partnership."

"Maybe they won't reassign you right away." Mulder swallowed, tried not to let any show of feeling creep into his voice. He kept it flat, deliberately even.

"We aren't going to be exchanging blow jobs at the water cooler, Mulder. So don't get all romantic."

"I'm not," Mulder said, with a small touch of defensiveness.

"I'm going to fuck you," Alex said, pressing his lips to Mulder's closest ear and breathing the words into its whorled cup.

Mulder's breath quickened and his body flared along its skein of nerves, a map of feeling struck and traveled by lightning.

"And I'm going to choke you, Mulder," Alex continued in a sinuous whisper. "You'll like that, won't you--I can feel you getting harder."

Mulder's face began reddening even as lust drove a spike right between his balls and planted itself there to stay. "You don't--you don't have to--"

"You want me to. . .say it."

Mulder shook his head, tried to turn his face away from Alex. Too much. Not again. This is too much. . .

"Say it. Say it. You want my dick in your ass and you want me to fuck you so hard you can't walk for a week and you want me to bring you right to the edge with my hands wrapped around your fucking throat, don't you--say it."

"Do it," Mulder managed to say in a dry, cracking voice. He could not stand another moment of waiting. The words were pricking him like thorns of fire under his flesh; just hearing them spoken had sent him spinning almost to the edge of his need.

"Tell me--say it--"

Surrender came like a flooding river. "Fuck me--do me--do it hard, I want your hands around my throat--take me right to the fucking edge, Alex--"

In his haste Alex stretched unthinkingly for the spill of condoms and lube still lying on the floor between the beds, and tumbled off in an ungainly skirl of limbs.

"Shit!" Breathlessly he drew up to his knees and hunted out a condom from the mess on the floor.

"Wait--wait--" Mulder rolled over and slid off the bed, down next to him. "Get your cuffs."

"What--fuck, now--?"

"Get them!" Mulder snarled in self-centered frustration, shoving Alex away.

Alex swore and went into the bathroom. When he returned Mulder had pushed the drawer back into the nightstand and the spill of junk had been returned to its place. Mulder had his own cuffs out and was just snapping one ring around a wrist.

"What do you want?" Alex returned to him, impatient and showing it. "If you're going to ask me to do some fancy contortions--"

"No, just--here, give me that--" Absorbed in his own need, Mulder snapped on the other cuff. "Look--the table legs--just cuff me there."

"Get down." Alex locked the free cuff rings to the table, one per leg. Not a bad idea, actually, he had to admit, once he'd done so. He sat back on his heels and studied his willing captive. Mulder lay on his back, arms stretched over his head, hands bound. He already looked edgy with anticipation, and the sight sent a surge of blood through Alex on a direct route to his cock, which swelled even fuller.

Alex reached down and stroked a hand along Mulder's body. It glowed with pale fire in the lamp light, and darkness seemed to pool deeper in the rest of the room as if to contrast his display.

"You can do whatever you want," Mulder said, echoing Alex's earlier words. His eyes pierced Alex's own, glittering almost madly. His soft voice was like the rasp of a blade across a strop.

Alex licked his lips. There was nothing he liked better than a truly demented sexual partner, though he considered it an indulgence to be enjoyed only rarely these days. It really was going to be hard to give this up when they returned to D.C. He touched Mulder again, sliding his hands leisurely across the slightly arched torso. The other man's chest rose and fell more quickly at his touch, and his head had already begun a light back and forth roll that expressed his building desire. Alex touched Mulder's nipples, his collarbone, his hipbones, all with the restrained stroke of a single fingertip, the trace of a meandering route across a living map. He touched lips and felt them open and felt hot breath blossom against his skin like some invisible aerial flower that bloomed and died a thousand times, an instant at a time.

Alex studied Mulder. Now that he was in control, his impatience had ebbed. The other man's pose of submission emphasized his beauty in a new way. Every tilt of his head in the light lit the planes of his face. Cubism, Alex thought whimsically. His face was composed of rich, thick, sensual planes that might have been sculpted out of some soft, mobile wood. Eyes were deeply incised, their heavy lids suggestive of perpetual arousal, and lips--the lips were full, ripe cocksucker lips that might have been designed to awaken and stir even the straightest man's curiosity.

He leaned over and kissed Mulder. First the lips. And then everywhere else. He could feel his partner's responsiveness reach new heights with every caress; locked in his restraints, he became even more wild, more greedy. When Alex slid his hands under Mulder and cupped his ass, the other man's legs drew up immediately, bending and spreading without inhibition, kicking him lightly and then wrapping around him, toeing, kneading, stroking. A big toe skidded across his left nipple with unexpected force, then the entire foot dropped in his lap and pushed. Alex grabbed its flexing ankle and held it in place. Dizzily, he dipped his head and teased Mulder hard, sucking his erection in and swallowing it down inch by inch. He heard Mulder gasp, and rather expected him to start talking, talking, incessantly, but his noises were wordlessly imploring.

The body under him convulsed and then began to lift and push upward, and Alex recognized the frustrated gesture for what it was: Mulder's instinctive attempt to take Alex's head in his hands and control his own pleasure. And he could tell that the recollection of helplessness had only sharpened that pleasure for Mulder, who was twisting and driving hard now up into his mouth with high little cries. He pulled off. Mulder swore, and the foot pressing against Alex's cock drew back threateningly as if to kick him, but he blocked it.

"Bastard!" Mulder spat. He gasped as Alex caught his balls in his hand and squeezed gently but with increasing pressure. A thumb dug into him and moved with cruel, rotative precision up and down the base of his straining shaft. "Oh god--oh god--Alex--" He nearly lost it then, but Alex's hand removed itself with unerring timing.

Mulder felt his breath rise and strain his lungs. He had been riding out the prolonged torment of Alex's cruel lips and hands, but this was too much. . .almost. It was exquisitely cruel and he wanted more of it. He could feel every throbbing inch of his stretched body, the aching of his wrists, the helplessness of his utter, offered trust. The rug was a rough chafe against his ass, his nipples hurt, his dick hurt, his balls were laden and swollen with seed. He could barely breathe now, and the anticipation of what Alex would do to him--for him--was making him nearly hyperventilate, was making him insane. His need was a wild thing that had lodged in his soul and was expanding now under his skin, digging in sharpened claws all over his body.

"More," he gasped softly. He begged Alex with his eyes. "More--please--"

Alex's hands returned to his cock, to his balls, to the pulsing hollow located a mere stroke of flesh below. Mulder's body lifted and writhed with the motion of a wave trapped in the confines of a glass box. Back and forth, up and down, he stretched himself, trying instinctively to reach, to touch, but unable to. He could not move beyond his constraints and every evidence and reminder of his helplessness only aroused him more; the impulse toward freedom locked itself into a closed, looped circuit that snapped through him again and again: the obsessive pursuit of perfect release.

When Alex's head lowered again, Mulder could not help the widening of his legs, his moans of desperation. His thighs were trembling with the strain of holding himself ready. He pressed his feet to Alex's shoulders for purchase, and felt two free hands slide under his ass and lift him, felt a teasing tongue enter him. A wet flare slid like the licking edge of a candle around his anus, then plunged in with force, then withdrew and struck again, and with countless ruthless variations this was repeated until the ring of muscle inside him strobed wildly and he cried out in sharp demand.

"Alex--Alex--fuck me--fuck me now--do it!"

Alex said nothing. His tongue continued to flicker in and out of Mulder's body with unrelenting focus. Mulder shuddered and jerked against his cuffs and then began to slide out of control again, unfolding into a rhythm of complete surrender. He rode with the wave and let it sweep him higher. When the flame of Alex's mouth withdrew from him he did not beg for its return, but merely lay, mute and sublime and accepting, knowing that whatever came next would be what he wanted and it was. The hand that roughly cupped his face. The slippery finger that stabbed inside him and then was forcefully twinned. A fillip against one nipple. Hard bite on his shoulder. Swathe of tongue under both arms. Rhythmic, knowing fingers stroking inside him. Blows that fell suddenly, hard and soft, on his face, his cock, his balls. Warm hand on his throat, delivering a fleeting squeeze.

It was all the gift of a random universe that had focused itself in the man kneeling before him. Whatever came would come. He would accept everything because he had no choice. An odd intense silence stretched, broken only the harsh overlap of their breathing, but the deluge of pleasures grew heavier and swifter, and the need inside Mulder expanded further and further, stretching him inside out. His voice rose in his throat, building until it ached, and then finally spilled free. It was a threading whisper that rose and fell, and then cracked with raw hunger.

"I want you--I want you--please, Alex--please. . .do it to me. . .I want you--I want you inside me--fuck me--fuck me, please--" He poured every element of himself into his offering, pushing himself hard onto Alex's working fingers. He heard Alex gasp, felt his touch quicken. And then the fingers withdrew hastily and he cried out, knowing he was near to being saved.

"Yes--god, yes--do it--" He could barely speak, his need was so great. He lay before Alex, eyes pinned to the other man. Alex's lithe body gleamed with light but was brushed with feathery traces of darkness, lines of faint hair that bisected his chest and drew an arrow to his lifting cock. His face showed an enigmatic concentration as he rolled on a condom, as he stroked on lube. He was in control--of himself, of Mulder. It was a knowledge that brought Mulder the mingled tastes of fear and exhilaration.

When Alex raised his gaze to Mulder's and their eyes met it was the kiss of darkness to darkness. Pure as fire. Lust. Desire.

"Feel this?" Alex whispered, as he began pushing inside Mulder.

"Yes--" Mulder gasped. He could feel the thudding pulse of blood in his ass as it swallowed in Alex's heavy cock. His own cock rose painfully upright, its rhythm altering slightly as the pulse of his body was wedded to Alex's own. God, Alex, how can you know exactly what I need. . .what demon are you. . .

"Deeper," he groaned.

In response, Alex gripped him more strongly, shifting and working in further until his balls pressed flush to Mulder's ass. Mulder tried to tie his legs in a bow around Alex's back, but it was hard to keep his purchase; his heels slipped back and forth along the length of the other man's slick spine.

"I'm going to do something for you, Mulder," Alex said. His face projected evil intent.

Mulder's breath quickened raggedly. He bit his lip as Alex grabbed one of his ankles and drew his leg up and out from his body. The pull of muscle transmitted itself all the way to his ass--and in. He closed his eyes, and felt Alex wedge his foot between the mattress and boxsprings of the bed to his left, then copy this action with his right foot. The weight pressed on him with captive force, and he dug his feet in as far as he could manage, then pushed hard with his ass. Alex laughed.

"Do that again, Mulder--fuck yourself."

Mulder arched and shoved against Alex's steadily rebuffing body. He twisted and screwed himself selfishly, raw yesses breaking from his throat at how good it felt. "Yes--yes--yes! Yes!" He could not stop. He drove himself onto the other man's swollen erection again and again, until the pleasure threatened to take him straight over the falls and crash him. "Yes! Oh god, oh Christ--yes--"

"Not yet!" Alex leaned over and slapped his face. "Don't come!" he ordered. "Don't--"

Mulder's head snapped from side to side. "Make me--do it--"

Alex's hands locked around his throat, just hard enough to put a light rasp of difficulty in Mulder's frantic breath. "You want this?"

Mulder arched up hard, twisting. "Yes," he ground out, feeling the pressure tighten. Thumbs danced teasingly across his windpipe and sent a jolt of lightning to his balls. A pearl of liquid fire spilled from the tip of his cock, and then another. Stars began to roll through his head and down through his body, he felt them trailing across his skull like the model of a cosmos across the vault of a planetarium. He jerked on his cuffs. He was helpless. Yes. He could not move. Yes. He was utterly at Alex's mercy. Yes. He could only trust. Yes yes yes.

"Do me--do it--" Mulder felt the thumbs tighten further. He gasped for breath, found it cut off, and bucked hard. A rigid cock drove into his ass. He screamed for breath, but nothing came. He bucked. Stars broke into his skull en masse. His head rained with light, held a million subatomic collisions that swarmed behind his eyes in sparks of painful brilliance. Air came suddenly--brief and sweet--he sucked it in--one breath, another--and then it was stolen again. He cried, begged for it, but the weeping plea was all in his mind, trapped and speechless. And then he was almost there, he saw it, the sweep of glittering darkness, the pulling tidal darkness, the spiralling void. He rode toward it, blind to anything else. Vision failed and he was freed to pure feeling, the bright sense of a devilishly cruel member splitting him apart, the keening nervature of his frozen body, the cry that inserted itself like a blade directly into his brain and twisted. He rode harder and higher and then the overload slammed into him and he was there and he came so hard he left his body and it was exactly as he hoped for every time, and perhaps this time he would not come back.

* * * *

"Wake up, Mulder. . ."

The voice drilled down sharply into his ear. Mulder's eyes jerked open. He blinked once hard, searched for focus.

"Shit," the voice said darkly. It cursed in what sounded like. . .Dutch? Swedish? Mulder yawned--sort of--and closed his eyes again. Warm hands worked over his heavy, motionless body, unfettering his wrists, rubbing them. He drifted a bit, then felt himself lifted. Surprised, pleased, he opened his eyes and saw Alex's face hanging over his, wearing a frown. Dark green-black eyes met his own. Mulder smiled.

"Asshole," Alex said.

"What about it?" Mulder murmured. He stretched out on the bedsheets, pushing his legs beneath the coverlet, which Alex had yanked back before putting him on the bed. Thoughtful Alex. Good Alex. Neat Alex.

"I thought you'd fucking died," Alex snarled.

Mulder worked his throat, testing its functionability. "Nope. . ."

Alex left him there and disappeared into the bathroom for a few minutes. When he returned he snapped off the lamp and shoved at Mulder in the darkness.

"Gonna sleep with me?" Mulder slid over just enough to allow Alex in, then nestled in against him.

"You're in my bed," Alex muttered, wrapping a warm around him.

Mulder smiled, and his smile curled against the left side of Alex's chest, just next to the crook of his arm. The younger man's heart was still beating hard. The pulse thumped steadily under Mulder's cheek. "Coulda had mine."

"My bed. . ."

"You put me here. . ."

"Mm-hm."

Mulder coughed a little.

There was a pause, then Alex said quietly: "Okay?"

Mulder rubbed his face across Alex's chest, up to his collarbone. "Wonderful. Wonderful, Alex. . ." His voice was soft. In the dimness his vision slowly adjusted. He could just make out the other man's elegant shadowy shape. He slid his left hand with idle sensuality down Alex's hip, then another set of fingers found and laced with his. "You have good hands."

A sigh issued from the darkness. "Thanks. . ." Several lengthening, attenuating heart beats passed. "I love New York," Alex said in a low serious voice, when Mulder had just decided he was not going to speak again.

Mulder smiled sleepily.

"A place for anything. . .streets. . .but high above the city too. . .boxes stacked on boxes. . .everybody riding their drug of choice. . ." Alex's husky voice floated out into the air, his breath brushing over the surface of Mulder's ear, and the soft words settled there, lulling him toward sleep.

"What's yours, Alex?" The words slurred into a whisper.

"No drug. . .just. . .life. . ."

In the dark, Alex felt Mulder slip into sleep. He lay awake a while longer, staring at the ceiling, where light from the curtained window laid a pale bar across its surface. This was almost perfect. This was nearly where he wanted to be. Lying in a bed high above his city, a warm soft body draped across his own, the body belonging to a charmingly kinked man. Even the details were exactly as he might dream them. The details were the dream. They completed the picture. Guns. A gun on the nightstand, a gun in the bathroom. Cuffs lying on the thick carpet, the detritus of passion. Expensive clothes draped across the furniture carelessly. Accessories of power and pleasure combined. Everything signifying their accomplishment. Who they were. Who they would be.

And it was nothing. Just the shell of a dream. Tomorrow it would collapse, and he would move on. This was not his stopping place. Mulder was not his destination, nor was this intermediary level of power. He would have more than this. And even if he wanted nothing more, it was too late. He had made his choice.

And now he had none other.

Finis.

[Author's note: There will be an Epilogue]

****

In a Dark Time

In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood
A lord of nature weeping to a tree.
I live between the heron and the wren,
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.

What's madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day's on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall,
That place among the rocksis it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.

A steady stream of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
And in broad day the midnight come again!
A man goes far to find out what he is
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heatmaddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?

A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.
Theodore Roethke

 


 

ArchiveX: 16 August 1998
In a Dark Time: Ascension
by A. Leigh-Anne Childe
M/K slash. NC-17. Spoilers for second season. Insert boilerplate disclaimer here, but with warm, mushy gratitude to Chris Carter & Co., particularly for certain Recent Events. I don't really use beta-readers, I'm too easily spooked, so all goofs are my own, and I can only hope there won't be as many as in the first IDT story. Many thanks to torch, though, for maintaining my web page. O bright torch--long may she burn! <g>
This continues IDT: Sleepless, but though I've skipped Duane Barry, I've tried to bridge the gap with backstory, a gradual segue into Ascension material. It's all a darkish descent though, isn't it, so don't expect epic romance until we reach IDT:2000, in which Alex and Fox are resistance fighters passionately dedicated to saving the earth from the alien invaders, when not snuggling together with tender warmth in their bunkers.
On the show, the date at the beginning of the Barry hostage crisis is given as Aug 7th 1994, but I have to consider this a typo, relative to my own chronology of events in part one (IDT:S). Either that or revise all dates in part one. That shuffle you just heard is me avoiding the task. Feedback always very much welcome, but I'm slightly more snail-like these days in replying, so please bear with me if you don't hear back immediately! <>
Note: last revised April 16th. [I have tried to tighten up a continuity lapse I felt I'd perpetrated in writing Alex's character.]


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

Richmond, Virginia
August, 1994

"You okay, Mulder?"

He had been staring as the ambulance doors closed on Duane Barry's body, shutting it inside like a sacrifice into a traveling oven, headed on its way to a medical feast. He managed to turn his head, and found her large, clear eyes on him. She was focused on him with an indescribable Scully expression: was this look she'd hung on her face now, so familiar to him, a Catholic look? It sounded--on the face of it--like a reduction to type, but he'd always wondered. Certainly not one of the glamour shots, not guilt, martyrdom, or a Madonna's adoration, not a mask of saintly compassion, just a graceful openness to sorrows that could not be put to words. Her question was not meant to be answered deeply; it was just a ritual of touch that passed for touch itself.

He said, simply and shortly, "Yeah." He knew his face held nothing of what he was feeling. He cared for Scully, but he'd just come out the far end of a grinder, and hers had been one of the hands pushing him through. She continued to look at him, and--it was funny, how things struck one suddenly--looking back at her, even with a fraction of his attention, in the aftermath of madness, he realized she'd put on weight. He hadn't been seeing much of her lately. Her face was full. To him, it only looked more full of life, as if her very flesh were ripe with some swell of inner feeling. She'd been under nearly the same stresses as he'd been since the department had shut down. Understandable, really, that she'd show the strain in some way; comforting, somehow, that it was through so mundane and endearing a reaction as a little overeating.

Thoughts passed through his head swiftly, a river of sweeping irrelevancies that distracted him from all that had just passed but didn't distract him enough. He'd drifted a bit; when he heard her speaking it took him a moment to translate her words.

"Whatever you're feeling. . .you did the right thing."

He looked at her. For a moment he--it was terrible, but he just wanted to walk away, a snub that would represent the futility of human communication. Of theirs. It was a measure of his respect for her that he did not wish to slap her, though his frustration was violent and vast, seemingly imbricating him on a cellular level. She was Dana Scully. For her, endless patient allowances would be made.

"Yeah, it's just that, uh, I believe him." Despite the bland tenor of the words, they held no real humor.

Scully's eyes dropped slightly; in her own face was reflected a similar resignation, patience translated into acceptance--of him, though, not of his belief.

"Sometimes when you want to believe so badly you end up--" She paused for breath, and a tiny search for words. "Looking too hard," she finished.

The ambulance's lights went on and it pulled away. Mulder turned, unable to speak further. He knew she searched with all her professional training and even with her heart, to explain away all his findings as feelings, as something less than what they were. He could not listen to this now. He'd betrayed Duane Barry, turned him right over into the hands of those least suited to care for him. He'd caved to protocol--wasn't that called doing the right thing?

He stared out across the plaza parking lot, hardly seeing the messy scrum of cars and people. The nearby fountain plashed water quietly and steadily onto itself. Around them the rotating lights of the barricading police cars still flashed and whirled. They made a kind of blue-orange smear across the dark and picked out the blurred presences of the officers who stood clumped by the sides of their vehicles, talking and drinking the ubiquitous post-crisis coffee. In his line of sight, far across the scene, was an open doughnut box that sat on the hood of one patrol car. It seemed to gather in the light of the scene and tie it like a bright knot. He could see the pink and white cardboard, the dipping hands, but. . .

"Mulder." Scully was touching his sleeve.

Mulder cut a look back her way, noticing the tendrils of hair that framed her face. Noticing these allowed him to avoid her eyes.

"You should get some rest--"

"Not likely." His blank faced turned again, and his skull felt as if it were floating on his neck. The waxing and waning of the moon. He had a smell in his nostrils he didn't immediately recognize, that jarred with the unexpectedly chill night air and hint of rain to come. It took him a moment to place it: simple sweat, but incredibly strong. In his current state of dislocation he couldn't decide if the vinegar was rising from within his own body and cooling on his skin--or if it were Barry's, somehow transferred in their intimacy. The other man's tortured face loomed over his. He blinked.

"They'll want to do a preliminary debriefing tonight; gather statements." Mulder's voice was a bored monotone. "I doubt Kazdin's going to want to commandeer the insurance office for much longer. They'll probably clear out and move to one of the Ramada conference rooms."

"With the journalists?" Scully said dryly. "Anything that close has probably been overrun." It hardly seemed worthwhile to set up shop again a few streets over, just for another five or six hours, and she said so, wondering aloud why they didn't just return to the field office.

"You didn't hear?" Pulled briefly from himself, he looked at her. At another time, a gleam would have touched his eyes, some sign of surprise or amusement, but now he was simply informative. "Bomb threat, day before yesterday. Probably just a hoax, but they've still got most of the building cleared. They're keeping it quiet."

"Do they think there's a link to New York?" She didn't have to say: World Trade Center.

Mulder shrugged, expressionless. Unhurried beats passed while he processed some internal reverie. Scully, standing with hands in pockets, watched him with calm reflective eyes and felt a touch of deja vu: so many times had she stood next to him just like this, waiting for him to answer a question or speak his gathering thoughts, expecting despite all experience that he would act like other people, follow minimal orthodoxies of manners and behavior. Sometimes she felt herself to be no more than an accessory to him. Sounding board? Convenient block of wood, more like. Other times she felt so differently she could not reconcile her own schisms--felt that with Mulder, as with no one else, she was herself, stripped of attraction and social artifice. They'd had just one year of partnership but it seemed in its cool way a marriage that outside forces had divorced. The severance was still new, and he still cut to the chase of her. . .and yet. . . . Impossible to dissect the living, to find their measure. He made no sense to her, he resisted incision. First glance--essence of Mulder--was his simple need for truth. But nothing was that simple. His quest was bound up in the complex net of the world, in which other people were inevitably entangled. And so here she was. But here he wasn't.

Why did I come down here tonight? Because he had called. Because just by existing he begged to be rescued, even as he kicked further into deep water and away from land, lighthouse, lifeboat, hand. He was a man who so well embodied contradiction that she could never say decidedly of him: he expects too much of me, or in converse, No, he expects nothing at all.

"You want to hear something funny?" Mulder's train of thought had pulled into the station with an abrupt jar.

Startled, Scully drew in a breath and collected herself; but Mulder continued without waiting for answer.

"A lot of the agents on scene aren't even from the Richmond office." His voice was on a subdued autopilot, his eyes stones. "If they're even agents. . .Kazdin is supposed to be some kind of hostage negotiation specialist ferried down from Quantico. Rich, his HRT crew--most of the technicians are local boys. But they also had a good ton of nameless dead weight, just sittin' back and watchin' the show."

Scully's face radiated composed incomprehension. "What are you getting at, Mulder? What do you think that means?"

"I--I don't know." Mulder felt tiredness kick in. He wasn't in shock; couldn't be; but his sustained endorphin high was subsiding and beginning to wash away his grip on events. "None of them knew Barry personally, which seemed strange once I found out who he was. You'd think they'd have trolled for auld acquaintance in the bureau, brought in someone he knew who might have been able to reach him. And look who they brought in instead." He made a faint sour face, glanced with dissatisfaction across the plaza toward the insurance office, whose doors were in almost constant motion. "I should have taken some names but events got ahead of me."

"Understandable." Scully's tone had dropped a note, to a rather cool drawl. "You'll pull an award for volunteer goat of the month, Mulder. I wouldn't be surprised if they roped you in just so they could tether you there right next to Barry."

Mulder blinked at her. "That was my idea."

"So they say. Interesting how it worked out." Her voice remained frosty and skeptical--was she actually offended on his behalf for the possibility that he'd been used?

Abruptly Mulder grinned and placed a hand on her shoulder. "I've taught you well, grasshopper. You have learned the wisdom of deep paranoia."

With just a glance they exchanged a warm, silent resurgence of their old companionable whimsy. It had been a good partnership while it lasted, Mulder thought. He let his hand drop from her shoulder awkwardly. Better than good.

Scully studied Mulder's face--recognized, in a brief elasticity of self-consciousness, that she was doing so, making a study, her impressions coming in thick and strong tonight. The drama, winding up, would reconverge on them at any moment. But this moment she was struck afresh, a match flare of sight: Fox Mulder, cold bedrock one minute and nearly as ungiving, the next as open as she'd ever known a man. He respected and liked her, but nothing between them had been uncomplicated. She'd felt from him almost the entire range of human sentience: disgust and longing, anger and tenderness, joy and grief. Even had his feelings risen from no greater reason than her proximity, they'd taken a toll on her. Partnership with Mulder had been unnerving, unsettling, and extremely tiring--and the most addictive high she'd ever known. She could hardly bear to stand here now, mute statue looking on a living man, knowing she would never again work with him, never fully enter into the chase. All of this was just another ending; a part of her life was over that would not recur. It seemed a cause for regret.

"Mulder!"

Both of them were drawn as one from their shared, silent brooding. Scully glanced up past Mulder, and despite herself felt her face change its dress to something more formal, less revealing.

Alex Krycek loped up.

Why the hell was he always running around full tilt, Scully wondered, eyeing him as if she could, by searching, find the cause for her dislike somewhere on his person, clearly visible to her cool gaze.

"Mulder," he said breathlessly. He glanced sidelong at Scully but didn't quite acknowledge her. "Agent Kazdin is relocating, cutting over to the Marriott--"

"Ooh, Marriott," Mulder interrupted, surprising the other two with a sudden, luminous grin.

Krycek ducked his head, cut Scully another tiny glance, and then cleared his throat. "She wanted to make sure you were coming."

"She doesn't waste any time. . .wanted you to make sure?" Mulder smiled, not unpleasantly.

"Uh, I said I'd get you there." A small, cheeky smile danced around Krycek's lips as if he were sharing a private joke with Mulder.

Scully's face became, if possible, more gelid. She could feel its surface icing over, a self-defensive layer of distance building up. The men were looking at each other. Exclusively, and with a communion that went deeper than their casual words. She envisioned a fuzzy halo of robins and butterflies flapping around their heads, and was quite sure neither man would have noticed such an apparition had it appeared. Butterflies, she thought to herself. God, I'm hungry. Her gaze traveled across their faces, painted itself across Mulder's profile. Mulder was saying something about getting a room. He didn't notice her close attention though she stood less than two feet from him. She hadn't believed her own suspicions, had thought them ridiculous. Now she was less sure.

"Yeah?" Krycek was saying. "Skinner's probably gonna want us to check in tomorrow, isn't he?"

"I'll pay a full day's rates and take it for however long I can get," Mulder said. His face looked wiped of expression again. "A few hours sleep before we drive back up. . ."

"Mmm, yeah," Krycek said, his face a very shield of sympathy. "You look done in."

"You're getting a room?" Scully said. Mulder blinked owlishly at her as if just noticing her presence.

"Uh, yeah. Thought I'd take a nap, shower." He blinked grittily, stared at her with his green alien eyes and smooth boyish face. "You don't need to hang around, you know. They can take your 302 by fax." He seemed to hear the possible tinge of rejection in his words even as he spoke them and added gently, focusing on her that formidable attentiveness he could so easily summon: "You probably shouldn't be trying to drive back tonight, though, if you've been up all day yourself." He smiled. "Beautiful downtown Richmond, Scully. Where through a hail of bullets you can see forever."

She acknowledged his attempt at levity with her own tiny smile.

"I probably won't get much sleep," he continued. "They'll be pushing to get most of the fieldwork cleared up tonight."

Scully stitched an apparently emotionless glance into Krycek. "I think I'll head out. I'm really not that tired but I do have two autopsies scheduled for seven a.m."

Krycek, who had been studying her (she felt) as if she were a novel specimen of bug, spoke directly to her for the first time. His voice, while not exactly self-effacing, was husky and almost intimately low. To Scully he often seemed brusque; now he sounded genuinely concerned. "You want me to see if anyone else is heading back up? You could pace each other. Probably be good to have someone keeping a watch."

Listening to him Scully could almost let her ears trick her into believing he actually gave a rat's ass whether she got home safely. Her face betrayed none of her suspicion or ambivalence; betrayed nothing at all. "No. Thanks." She dismissed his offer with these few words, knowing from long practice that the less said, the less yielded.

"I'll call you tomorrow," she said to Mulder, who simply nodded, and then touched her arm again. A Mulder farewell. Short and unsweetened. Balancing regret and relief she left, deliberately dropping them from her mind, energies turned to the business of escaping the notice of the news crews and navigating a safe drive home.

Mulder, brows drawn together, watched her go, letting her pass from sight within the dense littoral of cars edging the plaza. He felt a light touch on the side of his neck, turned back to Alex, surprise written on his features. They never risked such touches in public. There were media vans on the far side of the plaza. It could only be hoped they had their long-range cams directed elsewhere.

"Just straightening your collar, partner." Alex's eyes held his with dark unreadable force. His hand teased gently at the collar of Mulder's adopted EMT uniform, which was of course already quite straight, and then brushed upwards along his neck again, a tantalizing shadow of a caress.

Mulder shook his head warningly, but did not move to evade the other man's fingers, which after another moment dropped casually away.

"You could have been killed tonight," Alex said. His voice was calm and matter of fact, his face--so impossible to read--not unlike a shark's.

"Blown to bits," Mulder agreed blithely, but with a faint raw edge that suggested nerves still honed and drawing blood. Their eyes, glittering at each other in the lurid police light, exchanged unspoken messages that bounced between them like telegraph arcs.

"I'm not getting a room," Alex said. "I might borrow your shower though." He could have been speaking in front of a roomful of witnesses, his tone was that offhand, that innocuous.

Mulder smiled. "Okay, partner."