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Alex worked alone. Doing something himself was the only way to make sure that it got done any way even approaching properly. They kept assigning him so-called partners, and the stupid bastards - or bitches, as the case might be - kept fucking up big time, messing up the assignment and as often as not all but getting Alex killed in the process.

The good thing about the sloppy work these bumbling idiots did was that most of the time, they managed to get themselves killed without any assistance from Alex. If they didn't, of course, Alex helped them along a bit to guard against the possibility of being teamed up with them again in the future.

They knew he worked alone. They knew he hated being loaded down with some trigger-happy, adrenaline-addicted, dumb-as-a-doornail thug. And they bloody well knew that he hated even more to be saddled with a grim, morose, embittered ex-marine type liable to depression, or one of those ambitious bastards with bloodlust and calculation battling for dominance in their eyes.

They knew it, all right. It was probably part of the reason they kept foisting these types off on him - reminding him of his place. Though sometimes Alex was almost ready to swear they were using him to get rid of their undesirable elements. Any stupid shit giving you trouble? Oh, send them over to mess up some tricky, dangerous and vital assignment for Alexander and he'll finish them off for you at no extra charge, just to save his ass.

The smoking bastard smiled thinly and took a long drag on his cigarette, casually blowing smoke into Alex's face. Alex didn't blink, staring straight into the other man's eyes instead.

"You ought to get on like an arms depot on fire," the son of a bitch said calmly, his flat shark-eyes glimmering with the barest hint of sadistic amusement. "He's our other golden boy. Don't kill him, Alex."

Alex said nothing.

His visitor extended one hand to the side to tap ashes onto the bare floor. This place was a dump and Alex would be leaving here within the hour, but even so he felt a small surge of anger at the deliberate display of dominance.

The smoker's faint smile had faded. "Alex, dear boy. If he dies through any fault of yours, any fault at all… It sounds trite, but I'm afraid you would regret it deeply. Not for very long, though."

"And does your generous protection work the other way around, as well?" Alex didn't attempt to conceal his anger. The bastard knew what he thought about this. Alex worked alone.

The older man got up abruptly, dropping the cigarette to grind it out beneath the toe of a patent-leather shoe. The briefing was over, it seemed.

"Come on in." He didn't have to raise his voice - as Alex had suspected, he was wired for sound. The door to the dingy corridor opened immediately to admit the usual matched pair of brawny hulks and a tall, slender man in an expensive suit.

Alex ignored the hired muscle and inspected his new partner carefully, taking note of both the smooth, practiced glide of the man's motions and the deceptively casual look he swept through the room, taking in every nook and potential threat, cataloguing every detail.

The man's build wasn't particularly athletic, but the way he moved set off warnings in Alex's mind. He was quite stunning, but he didn't have the look of someone trained to utilize his physical assets - or if he was, he was doing his damnedest to conceal the fact.

Hazel eyes swept over Alex with the same detached concentration the room had commanded, though the level of attentiveness had been cranked up a notch or two, increasing it to the point where the man's regard felt like a laser targetting system. Alex met the examination with an equally thorough one of his own, concluding that he was almost certainly stronger and very probably quicker than his new partner, though of course neither fact was certain.

Not a trigger-happy thug, not an ex-marine... It was worse than that. This man was the devious kind - a plotter. One of the brainy ones. Great. Just great. Those were always the most dangerous.

And then, the new arrival smiled and the situation suddenly took on an entirely new dimension of appalling.

Alex felt his own expression shut down into granite impenetrability and sat up even straighter, not bothering to disguise his hand's motion towards his gun as anything but what it was.

They were hooking him up with a maniac - a deranged killer. Shit. Shit! What had he done? He'd been doing all right - no, much better than that! He did first-rate work. He got them results. He was the best operative they had, for God's sake! Why the hell were they always unloading this kind of crap on him?

"What're your fields?" The man's voice was low and flat, almost a monotone. His eyes glittered feverishly, but his face remained set as though chiselled in marble. Jesus Christ.

Alex's tone was a match for the other man's in terms of coldness and inflectionlessness. "None of your fucking business."

Another weird smile. "Assassination. Deep cover… Seduction. Close?"

Too close. What new game were they playing now? What the fuck were they trying to pull? "They gave you my file." Bastards, interfering devious meddling bastards -

"Actually, we didn't." The smoker was moving towards the door, his thugs falling into step behind him like good little - or not so little - robots. "Both of you will report in twice a day. Don't fail me, either of you."

"He doesn't think we'll both survive this," Alex's new partner stated, not bothering to wait until the door had fallen shut before beginning to speak. A joyful sparkle lit up feral eyes set in a completely immobile face. "He's almost certain we won't, in fact. He's afraid of you. Have you ever slept with him?"

"Looks like I should have," Alex snarled. "Listen, smart guy. This is my operation, and that means you do what I tell you, when I tell you, the way I damn well tell you. Got it? I don't give a damn if you're sucking off the entire upper echelon, as long as you're working with me, you keep your mouth shut, don't kill anybody or scare them or even curse in public unless I tell you to. You don't fucking get in my way in any way. You do not want to mess up my assignment. Trust me, you *don't*. Am I being clear enough?"

"What's your handle?"

Fuck those bastards. Shoving dangerous loons at him, forcing him to work with them and even expecting him not to kill them... "Alexander."

Something in the strange, calm face shifted minutely. "Well now, this is interesting. I'm Fox."

Wonderful, he'd heard of Alex. That meant he'd been involved in planning, personnel questions - management of some kind at a fairly high level. Had the man done something to piss his superiors off or had he been given a field assignment for some other reason? Fuck. This was getting uglier all the time.

He had to ask, even if he didn't really think he'd get an answer. "And your field is?"

"You think I'm insane," Fox stated, his voice as flat as before. This smile lit up his entire face with a strange, cold, bone-chilling joy. "You're right."

Jesus H. fucking Christ. On a crutch.

 

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Alex ignored the partner they'd forced on him as much as he could while they set up the equipment and watched the target for a couple of days just to get a feel for the mark's everyday routine and the general state of mind they were dealing with here.

It was clear to Alex that Fox had never handled this kind of equipment before, even though he seemed to have an adequate theoretical knowledge of what went where and how everything worked. Alex handed him one of the boxes and waited to see what he would do; Fox proceeded to set up the video equipment carefully and methodically, taking about four times as long as he should have, but not making a single error.

Then, he took the system apart again and set it back up as quickly and efficiently as though he'd been doing it for years.

Fox was extremely quiet for the most part, although he delighted in spitting out odd comments, peculiar facts and disturbingly accurate observations about Alex at the strangest of times. As annoying habits went, it was endurable. Even his other annoying habit was harmless - munching on sunflower seeds all day long was nothing when you compared it to some of the things Alex had had to endure from his previous "partners". One of the ex-marine types had cracked his knuckles every five minutes and jerked off in the bathroom every other hour. That one had not lasted a full day. Alex was not patient unless he had to be.

Unfortunately, it had been made quite clear that in this particular case, he did have to be. It wasn't easy, because even though Fox didn't say or do anything much - even when he simply sat quietly next to Alex in the car or slunk through the dusty apartment as silent as a stalking cat - he made Alex nervous.

Mad as a hatter, sharp as a razor blade... And about as risky to handle. What the hell had the Consortium been thinking when they'd recruited this one? No amount of brains or knowledge could make up for the fact that he wasn't sane enough to be controllable.

Every fiber of his body was urging Alex to kill Fox before Fox suddenly, whimsically, randomly decided to kill Alex. There would be no warning if he did… When he did.

Alex hated this.

"Do any permanent damage and I will duplicate it on you multiplied by ten. You hear me?"

Weird smile type two - face immobile except for the very corners of the mouth, accompanied by a slight widening of the eyes - was the only answer.

Alex had a strangling cord in his pocket and a knife in his boot and that was it; he'd had to leave the guns and the rest of his knives behind. He felt naked.

"Target arriving," Fox said just as Alex heard the sound they'd been waiting for - the door of a not-too-distant car falling shut. A split second later, a solid body impacted with Alex's, slamming him sideways into the wall of the alleyway.

The move was snake-quick and so sudden that Alex was not prepared and had to fight down his instinctive reaction. It was a safe bet that Fox had done that on purpose. Rough hands twisted into the back of Alex's jeans and the collar of his leather jacket; he was thrown up against the wall once more, a small grunt escaping him as the breath was driven from his lungs. His jacket was jerked down to entangle his upper arms behind his back. Alex began to protest, biting down a venomous curse when Fox cuffed the back of his head, sending his forehead to smack against the stone.

The burst of pain was just beginning to fade when a violent tug at the waistband of Alex's jeans pulled the fabric painfully tight against his stomach and crotch. "Hey," Alex rasped breathlessly. "Listen, just -"

A hand slid across his stomach and down between his legs, giving him a brief, rough squeeze.

"What the fuck are you doing?"

"Guess," Fox suggested.

Denim ripped and Alex felt cold steel against the suddenly bare skin of his backside. His reflexive response bypassed his brain entirely, leaping straight to his muscles. Split seconds later, his assailant was sprawled on the pavement, the knife clattering to a halt several feet away.

"God damn it," Fox hissed, already twisting to his feet again, nimble as a cat. "Stupid little bastard -"

He caught Alex in a near-brutal arm-lock, twisted again and took him down to the ground, coming down hard on top of him and pressing the younger man's left cheek into the dirty concrete. A knee dug into Alex's back painfully, the pressure increasing further when one of the restraining hands let go of his arm in order to tug at his torn jeans.

Instinct got into Alex's way and messed up his responses, rendering his struggle sporadic and utterly ineffectual. Alex recalled himself just enough to yell something and yelp when his arm was twisted cruelly.

"Shut up and hold still," Fox grated, his voice suddenly rough and dark with violence and lust. "Don't you scream or I'll carve you up good once I'm done, slice you up so good even your own -"

"Freeze! FBI!"

Blood was running into Alex's eyes and he blinked rapidly, shifting to lift his face away from the pavement even as Fox's weight disappeared from his back. Heavy footsteps pounded away down the alley.

Light, cautious steps came closer as Alex gathered himself and pushed up to his hands and knees. He paused briefly to wipe grit and blood from his eyes before beginning to get to his feet. Cool air on naked skin reminded him of the fact that his jeans had been slit open down the back, and he broke off his attempt to get up in favor of hastily reaching back to hold the fabric together, discovering that his boxers had been slashed along with his jeans.

"Are you injured?"

The fucking maniac had cut up Alex's jeans and underwear with a knife. Christ, there was such a thing as carrying verisimilitude too far.

"Don't think so," Alex mumbled, shooting his rescuer a quick glance before looking down again and concentrating on scrambling to his feet while keeping his clothes from abandoning him altogether. "Thanks."

His legs proved wobbly and he stumbled sideways, coming up against the side of a dumpster with a deafening, metallic boom.

The target had evidently decided that Alex was harmless; in two resolute strides, she closed the remaining distance between them, steadying him with a firm grip at his elbow. "Do you know the man who assaulted you?"

"No," Alex mumbled. "I don't - I don't know what - I thought he wanted my wallet, you know? This can't happen to - that only happens to women, I mean I thought… I never thought… God, I'm not making much sense, am I…"

She was slender, almost willowy, and only slightly smaller than him. Her dark, medium-length hair was cut in a simple, neat bob; alert grey-blue eyes inspected Alex closely. In spite of the hard, suspicious cast to her features and despite the fact that no one would ever call her pretty or even beautiful, the strong, elegant lines of her facial bone structure made her strikingly attractive.

Alex hung his head, looking up at the FBI agent almost guiltily. "Sorry, I… I'm sorry. I'm fine. Thank you. For your help, I mean."

"You need to go to the hospital," she announced, sounding put out. "You have a pretty nasty cut on your forehead, and the way you're babbling and shaking I'd say you're going into shock."

Alex reached up and touched a slightly trembling hand to his forehead, feeling the sticky warmth of blood. He said nothing.

The woman muttered something that was almost certainly a curse before exhaling explosively and shaking her head. "Oh, damn it. Come on, I live just around the corner."

He tried to straighten away from the dumpster and promptly hit the back of his head, wincing in tandem with her. "That's okay, thanks, I don't - I'm fine, really. Thanks, I'll be okay."

"For God's sake," she snapped impatiently, digging into a pocket of her trenchcoat to flash her badge at him with one hand. "I'm going to call an ambulance, and you're going to have to sit down or fall down. Doing either of those things here will give the man who assaulted you the perfect chance to come back and finish what he started. I'm an FBI agent, and I'm a weak helpless woman to boot. Which one of us would you rather take a chance with?"

Alex stared at the young woman for a moment before offering her a shaky smile and holding out a hand. His pants slipped and he hastily grabbed them again, leaning back to hold them up against the cool metal of the dumpster before once more reaching out to shake her hand. "I'm sorry, that's not - of course I didn't mean - I mean, thank you. I'm very glad to meet you. I'm Alex. Alex Krycek."

The woman studied him soberly for a moment before nodding once and taking his hand in a firm grip. "Samantha Mulder."

 

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Fox was sprawled across the rickety sofa that occupied most of the living room left free by the surveillance equipment. He was spitting sunflower seed husks across the room and chugging coke from a can balanced precariously on his T-shirt clad chest. He'd transformed from a sleek, cold, hard creature into a grungy, unshaven slob that fit both the less than classy neighborhood and the role he'd been assigned in Alex's little drama.

The same cold hardness still froze his face into stone, and his eyes still glittered with a too-bright fever gleam when he turned his head to watch as Alex picked up his gun and checked the clip first thing after walking in the door.

"Target thinks you're sexy," he announced in an almost lazy-sounding drawl. "Wary, but more out of habit than true suspicion. Lonely and starved for affection, not primarily for physical attentions, but she'll take those quite gladly. Play it right and she'll jump your bones before the month is out. It'll take her longer than that to begin to trust you, but it's a start."

"Thank you, Dr. Freud," Alex snapped. "Tell me something I don't know if you're going to do a running commentary."

Smile type four appeared, the all-out grin that lit the strangely immobile face into ice-cold, maniacal glee. Fox turned his head to track Alex through the room as he stalked over to have a look at the video camera set up by the shuttered window.

He was still watching when Alex turned back; frozen hazel eyes glittered into Alex's. "How old were you, Alex?"

Alex frowned. "How old was I?"

"She distrusts everyone - particularly, though by no means exclusively, all men - due to a series of experiences extending back to her childhood. Since you were introduced to her as victim rather than aggressor and since the introduction in question took place in the context of sexual assault, you have escaped the usual stereotyped, sub-conscious categorization that equals male with threat."

This was the longest speech the man had held yet. There was obviously some deeper significance to what he'd said, something related to his earlier question. Alex didn't see the connection, but he wasn't about to ignore anything that might give him a bit of insight into the workings of this maniac's mind.

He crossed his arms over his chest and raised a mocking eyebrow at Fox. "Thought I told you to shut up unless you had any new insights to share. And while we're on the subject - next time the urge to get creative hits you, control yourself. It might get you killed."

The warning called forth a strange little smirk. "Of course it might, but it's worth the risk. It was this time… that was a very interesting reaction. How old, Alex? The first time."

Alex held on to the slight, derisive smile that curled his lip in spite of the sudden frost chilling his blood.

They stared at each other for over a minute before Fox nodded, the smirk sliding off his face to leave it smooth and expressionless once again. One hand dipped into the bag balanced on his stomach, extracting several sunflower seeds that he popped into his mouth with a practiced flick of the wrist.

Alex watched him as he spat the shells onto the ground in front of the couch, not releasing Alex's gaze.

"Okay," he said at last. "Ask."

Which was when Alex realized that a large part of the odd gleam in Fox's eyes was hunger.

He wasn't doing this to annoy Alex, or even to test him. He needed this. It was what he fed on. He needed to dig into other people's minds, crawl into their heads and exhume the moldering skeletons they had buried deep down in the cellar of their souls. It was his addiction. His vice.

His weakness.

Got you.

It took a conscious effort for Alex not to smile. "Why are you here?"

"Big one," Fox said calmly, spitting out some more shells and taking a swig of coke, all without letting his eyes leave Alex's. "Worth several of your answers."

"We'll see."

He shrugged and grinned suddenly, chill eyes widening to glitter with joyful malice. "Sure. One, I asked to be given a field assignment and they couldn't risk refusing because I'm too useful to lose. Two, you're too independent. You've been killing your partners, haven't you, Alex? They want to see if I can get some kind of handle on you for them. Of course it's also possible you'll kill me instead, and some of them are hoping for that very eventuality. Three, I am extremely good and it is important to the smoker to find a way to neutralize the threat Samantha Mulder poses by her habit of sniffing around after government conspiracies, a goal which he wishes to accomplish without killing her. Four, a number of them are counting on one of us to kill the other. I'm not certain which of us is meant to be the victim, and neither is the smoker."

Alex digested this in silence for a moment.

"Twelve," he said then.

Triumph and greed flashed in the wide hazel gaze. "Relative?"

"Your previous activities?"

There was a long moment of complete and utter stillness and Alex tensed, his instincts shouting at him to move, to strike before the other man did. Then, a different smile slid over Fox's stony expression, one that seemed almost conspiramental. "Guess."

"Psychological evaluation. Personnel questions of all kinds, from recommendations concerning the people in the Consortium's employ to strategies for handling targets. Project planning, where it is bound up with predicting and guiding people's reactions. That kind of thing."

"Bright boy," Fox said softly, popping some more sunflower seeds into his mouth. "Relative?"

Alex smiled thinly and turned away.

"I'll take that as a yes," Fox said with the merest hint of a happy little lilt threading through his flat voice. The seeds' shells crunched loudly. "Thought so."

Jesus.

 

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That weekend, Alex went to dinner with Agent Mulder, talked to her briefly about his job in a computer firm and at length about every other subject under the sun, and listened as her initially short and almost reluctant replies became more and more unforced. It was she who suggested they go watch a movie Alex had mentioned the following evening.

"Bri?"

"Sam? What's wrong?"

Fox sauntered out of the tiny kitchen with a slice of cold pizza in one hand and a fresh bag of unshelled sunflower seeds in the other. Alex brushed past him to check that the call was being duly recorded, noting as he did so that it was getting easier to ignore the other man. He immediately upped his conscious wariness by several notches to make up for the dangerous loss of instinctive caution that habit had wrought.

"Nothing. Were you asleep?"

Agent Mulder's partner audibly supressed a sigh. "Well, it is two in the morning."

"Oh. Sorry. I'll let you sleep on, then."

"No! No, wait. Go ahead, tell me. I'm wide awake now, I'll just lie here wondering what made you call if you hang up on me now."

"He wants to nail her," Fox purred. "Convinced himself he loves her. Too bad she never even noticed he's a member of the male half of the species. Or you could call it a good thing, considering she'd never have been able to work with him otherwise. Even this way, she distrusted him at first."

Purring. He was purring.

It was an effort not to whirl around, but Alex was too controlled to act on the instinct that stabbed through him at the strange new tone in his partner's voice. He didn't even stiffen; instead, he listened. There was nothing to be heard from the sofa except for the regular crunching of seeds being masticated and the rustle of cellophane as new ones were fished from their bag.

"Well." Samantha Mulder sighed. "I was just thinking. You know, about human relationships, the strange quirks of fate, destiny, and all that crap."

"Oh my," Fox murmured happily. "How ambiguous."

There was tense silence from the other end of the line. "Sam?"

"Why we don't turn a different corner and not run into someone… Or why we do, when we do. If there's any kind of plan to it. I don't think so, and that frightens me, but then that fear is exactly what has made the idea of destiny so attractive through the ages - all right, Brian, I think I'd better let you get some sleep. Even I can tell that this is nonsense."

"Uhm, no. I mean, I'm not quite certain what you're saying, but I'm sure it's not nonsense."

Alex judged that enough time had passed and turned around casually, walking over to the table to find a chair and sit down. Fox wasn't looking at him; his eyes were closed, his entire concentration focussed on the voices filtering into the room through the wire tap.

There was a long silence before Agent Mulder went on.

"Brian, you're my friend, aren't you?"

Fox tipped his head back slightly and sighed.

"You know I am, Sam."

"Well, yes. Yes, of course, but - sometimes it isn't easy for me to actually believe it. It has nothing to do with you."

"Sam?"

"The thing is, I met someone, and I don't really know what to do about it."

The silence was deafening; the most genuine smile Alex had ever seen there spread across Fox's features.

"I mean, I'd - like to do something about it, but then again, I don't think it would work. I'm not built for relationships. Any kind of relationship. I don't think I even want to have one, and the idea of a casual affair doesn't much appeal to me, either. I just don't know."

"Sam…" There was another pause as her partner collected himself. "Look, I - maybe we should talk about this in the morning. Get some sleep, let it settle down a bit, and then… Maybe then you'll know what you want. Or maybe you'll - there's always - let's - let's talk about it in the morning. Okay?"

"Okay. We can have breakfast at your place, I'll bring some bagels and tell you about him."

Fox made a small sound that sent shivers down Alex's back. A sex sound… He was getting off on this.

"Okay," Samantha Mulder's partner said, sounding strained and too cheerful at the same time. "Sure, great. Tell me about him. Sure."

"Sweet dreams, Bri. Thanks."

"No problem," he muttered just before she hung up.

Agent Pendrell stayed on the line for longer than a minute after Samantha Mulder had hung up.

The second the recorder shut off, Fox's eyes snapped open, the usual glittery hazel swallowed up by an unfamiliar blackness.

"Alex." Black eyes, slack jaw, flushed skin... Alex knew that look, knew it very well indeed, but he had never thought he'd see it on this particular face. If he had, he very likely wouldn't have been able to prevent himself from killing the man long before now.

"Do me," Fox purred at him, a dark and unsettling sensuality suffusing his voice.

"In your dreams." He surprised himself by the level of icy threat in his own tone. This was not good. Hell, this was very not good, letting himself be caught off guard like a goddamned amateur…

"Oh yeah." For the first time since Alex had known him, Fox laughed. His laugh was a husky, raspy thing that filled the room with an almost palpable aura of sex. "In my fondest dreams… It's in the way you move, Alex. The way you hold yourself, the way you breathe. You can't help it, it's there. You're extremely well trained, you know. They did a fine job on you, didn't they, pretty boy... Started early, did they? At the age of twelve, perhaps?"

"Fuck you," Alex snarled.

"I wish. It's your eyes, your pretty green eyes, pretty Alex, your lovely long legs, your nice firm ass... Mhmmm. I'll do you if you prefer." He hadn't moved from his usual sprawl on the sofa - even the omnipresent bag of sunflower seeds was propped on his chest in its usual position.

With a small shock of amazement, Alex realized what Fox was doing. This was his equivalent of masturbation - he was provoking Alex into an emotional reaction, trying to feed his perversion. The conversation they'd listened in on had given him a taste of what he craved, and it hadn't been enough.

Exactly what was it he needed - would emotional torment of any kind do, or was he looking for something more specific? Alex would have to watch this phenomenon more closely.

Whatever it was, though, it wasn't sex... Not really. Not primarily.

Alex exhaled in relief and gave his partner a mocking smile. "Sick bastard, aren't you."

Anger and frustration chased each other across Fox's face very briefly before his features smoothed over into icy calm. The glow was missing from his eyes when he stood up stiffly and walked into the bathroom, forced to finish off in the old-fashioned way.

 

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Alex was considerably more comfortable around Fox after discovering the true extent of his little weakness. Fox, on his part, attempted to prod Alex into a satisfying emotional reaction several times before giving up.

The day after Samantha kissed Alex, ostensibly to thank him for installing a new sound card in her computer - a clean one, since she'd almost certainly have it checked - Fox sauntered across the room, cornered Alex between the wall and the audio equipment, and kissed him.

He'd never made any physical overtures before, but even so Alex should have realized that something like this was bound to happen. Alex had let down his guard again - it was nothing but dumb luck that Fox hadn't killed him, that he'd chosen this kind of attack instead.

Firm lips moved over Alex's almost coaxingly. In the brief instant of surprise, reflex took over and commanded Alex's response; he opened his mouth to the kiss and Fox immediately slipped his tongue inside.

Alex's first thought was that he ought to shove a knife between Fox's ribs, but he reconsidered. It might not be a bad idea for him to go along with this… He hadn't considered this possibility of winning an advantage over his partner before, mainly because it seemed risky and more than uncertain in terms of prospective results, but still, it was worth a shot.

He relaxed and allowed his reflexes free rein. His body leaned forward to mold itself to Fox's, melting against him; Alex deepened the kiss gently at first, but rapidly turned it into an almost brutal duel of tongues in response to the cues the other man's body gave him. What started out as a caress of Fox's back quickly firmed until Alex was gripping the other man's buttocks, pushing his groin roughly into Alex's. When his teeth came down on Fox's lower lip, he tasted blood.

Harder, Fox's body whispered, faster, harder. Alex obliged, pulling back slightly in order to slip a hand down to cup the other man's still-clothed erection in his palm, squeezing with a carefully gauged amount of pressure just the wrong side of pain -

Fox pulled away and stepped back. His lip was already beginning to swell; combined with the flush of arousal, it made for a somehow disquieting contrast to the immobile, stony impassivity of his expression. "As I thought. Excellent technique… Amazing level of sensitivity to the subject's responses. Technically perfect. No passion, though. No soul."

Alex quirked an eyebrow at him. "Well give the guy a medal. What were you hoping for, mindless panic?"

The loose-limbed shrug was not accompanied by the manic smile Alex had been expecting. Even the feverish gleam in Fox's eyes had been dampened for a moment… In fact, he looked almost sane - far saner than usual, at any rate. "Not really, but it was worth a try. Panic or passion would have been nice… Something real. Something true."

Alex turned away with a negligent shrug before his partner could realize that he'd let something revealing slip.

There was no particular kind of emotion Fox looked for. What mattered wasn't the nature of the emotion as such, but its intensity and authenticity - panic, passion, pain, despair, one would do as well as the other as long as it was deeply felt. Fox enjoyed other peoples' torment because it was real and true; positive emotions would do as well, provided they came in sufficiently intense form.

Knowledge of someone's hang-ups enabled you to predict their behavior, even to manipulate them - under certain circumstances, it could be as good as holding a gun to their head. Alex did not consider himself one of the cunning ones, but he did all right in his own way... And he knew a weapon when he saw one. This partnership was beginning to look survivable, after all.

 

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Fox's insight into Samantha Mulder was uncanny - it was almost as though the man were an empath. Hell, maybe he was. Alex had seen far stranger things in his work for the Consortium, and it would go a long way towards explaining Fox's addiction to other people's emotions.

"Tonight," Fox said, the familiar mad glimmer sparking maliciously in the hazel gaze. "Don't sleep over."

"Why not?"

Alex watched as his partner calmly consumed a peanut-butter and grated-carrot sandwich. It was one of the more disgusting habits he'd picked up from Samantha Mulder. Most things he did lately were copied from her; he'd aquired a TV with built-in VCR and had begun watching copies of the movies she kept on video, proceeding systematically from A to Z, and every time Alex got back from some errand or one of the smaller jobs the Consortium gave him, Fox had picked up a new stack of books also to be found on the FBI agent's bookshelves.

Alex didn't know where Fox got all of these things - the man never seemed to leave the apartment - and he didn't ask. He still didn't know what Fox was supposed to be doing with his time, or what he was doing, for that matter. He didn't ask about that, either.

"Because it would make her nervous." Fox stretched lazily, effortlessly duplicating every nuance of a motion Alex had only seen in Samantha before now. "You'd be too close. She'll miss you if she wakes up alone. She'll be angry, of course. She'll hang up on you when you call, but if you call again she'll let you change her mind and keep seeing you. If you stay, however, she won't be able to get any sleep because you're too close. She'll have to think it through, and long before morning she'll have panicked and decided it was all a terrible mistake."

And so Alex didn't stay over after he'd slept with Samantha Mulder.

It was just as well, he reflected as he let himself back in. He tended to be in a bad mood at this stage in an operation, which made it an effort to stay in character. He was tired, too tired… It would do him good to just crash and forget about being Alex Krycek, slightly insecure computer geek in love with a tough FBI agent. At least until the morning, when he would have to call her and continue the charade.

"Depressed?" His partner's voice greeted him as soon as he slipped inside the darkened apartment.

Alex ignored the other man and headed for the bedroom he'd laid claim to because the door boasted a small bolt that would make a sound coming off, alerting Alex in the event someone attempted to sneak up on him while he slept.

"Poor, pretty Alex… All alone in the night, no one to buy bagels for in the morning…"

Fox was closer than Alex had realized; he froze, forcing himself to hold still as the other man slid up behind him. He didn't have to worry about physical attacks - he knew that particular, hungry note in his partner's voice. It meant that he needed to be fed strong, preferrably tortured emotion. He'd find some knife to twist into Alex, but it wouldn't be made of steel.

"You don't like sex much, do you?" Fox purred into his ear, leaning into him from behind, a warm, solid form pressing along Alex's back and buttocks. "How unfortunate that you're so good at it."

A hand crept round to the front of Alex's body. The hard length lying against Alex's hip left little doubt where this was heading.

Alex was tired and cross. He didn't have the energy to deal with his dangerous loon of a partner right now - all he wanted was to curl up and go to sleep.

"The quickest way to get this over with is to let me do you," Fox murmured, echoing Alex's thoughts.

Oh, hell. Why not.

Alex let his head fall back against the other man's shoulder and spread his legs to give the questing hand better access to his already firming cock.

"Nice response," Fox purred, his voice dark with a greed that Alex knew was not primarily sexual. "Induced reflex, hm? Damn fine bit of conditioning. How long did it take them to drill it into you? Can you stop it consciously, Alex, or does it just happen whenever someone touches you, whether you want it to or not, whether you like what it feels like or not?"

Tuning out the words wasn't too difficult. Alex allowed Fox to fondle him some more, giving in to his body's automatic response. Leaning back, he turned his head to nuzzle his partner's throat, quickly transforming the nibble into an almost savage bite in response to the signals he picked up from the pattern of the other's breathing, the minimal shifting of his stance, the subconscious lifting of his chin...

The hand that Alex slid back around the other man's hip, intending to pull him closer, was caught in a steel grip.

"Good, Alex. Very good. Now listen. We'll do it differently this time. I want you to ignore your conditioning. You understand me, don't you? I want you to stop acting out the reflexes that have been grafted onto your natural responses. Just feel - ignore what you have been conditioned to do. Concentrate on what you feel."

Which was, of course, what Fox really wanted from him. He wanted to unearth the truth buried underneath the performance. He wanted to dig up whatever was left of Alex's own sexual responses.

Well, as long as it didn't take too long.

Alex gathered himself and stood motionless, leaning back against the firm body behind him and waiting for Fox to bring him off. He hoped the man would get a move on; this was not helping his mood any. He just wanted to go to sleep.

"I have a meeting with the smoker tomorrow," Fox murmured into his ear.

"Look, I'm tired. Whether you're going to jerk me off or mess with my head, just get it over with, okay?"

Fox's body stiffened almost unnoticeably with surprise, the hand stroking Alex's erection through the fabric of his pants pausing briefly before resuming the motion.

"You're not afraid of me anymore," he said after a moment, popping open the button of Alex's jeans.

"You're not going to kill me. Not now, at any rate. There's no reason for me to be afraid."

"Killing you isn't the only thing I could do to you." A cool hand slid over the naked skin of Alex's lower belly and into his boxers, wrapping around his cock with carefully gauged pressure.

Alex suppressed a sigh and waited.

A slow, almost thoughtful stroke. "Or is it? I wonder… You feel good, Alex, it feels good touching you. Such soft skin, hot and silken and hard… How does it feel to you?"

"Feels like sex to me," Alex drawled caustically.

"Ah." Fox sounded as though this had been a revealing answer. His hand was moving continually now, stroking Alex langurously, fingertips playing over the sensitive underside of his erection in an almost caressing manner. "And all sex feels somehow the same, doesn't it, Alex? Whether you initiate it - whether you orchestrate it - or whether it just happens, without your cooperation… without your consent. It feels the same, it reminds you of -"

Alex's patience ran out. He seized the arm Fox had put around his waist and locked a hand around the wrist in front of his body at the same time, squeezing the joint until he could feel delicate bones grating together. Fox released him immediately - he didn't have much choice - and Alex twisted, pulling the other man forward and rolling him over one shoulder.

Fox tried to recover his balance, turning in mid-air with cat-like grace. He only suceeded in bruising his hip and ribs by landing on his side instead of his back, however.

"You want to analyze me and watch me squirm?" Alex snapped. "Make a recording and I'll play it back in the morning. I'm too tired for this shit now."

When Alex glanced at him just before closing the bedroom door, Fox hadn't moved at all. He wore a slightly surprised and very thoughtful look that - in spite of the fact that it was far more sane than the man's more habitual expressions - Alex found oddly disturbing.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Fox spent his time watching Alex while Alex spent more and more time hanging about Samantha Mulder, blushing and flirting and watching videos on her couch, necking in front of the TV and spilling popcorn and beer on her floor.

It was a less strenuous stage of the operation in some ways - he didn't have to watch himself as closely anymore because he had already gained a large measure of the mark's trust - but then again, it was the most draining in other ways. Alex found this kind of emotion the most difficult to portray convincingly. It demanded constant attention, constant concentration to the role he was playing.

And it didn't help that there was a thoughtful psycho sprawled across the sofa whenever Alex got back to the apartment, inevitably putting aside the book or sheaf of coded printout he'd been reading to watch Alex in analytical, impassive silence.

Alex didn't attempt to find out where the printout came from or what it was, let alone to break the code. The way Fox was displaying it was too obvious. It was probably some kind of IQ test he was trying to conduct on Alex.

More disturbing than the all but complete attention Fox gave him whenever he came into sight was the fact that the man's habits were changing. He no longer stretched in the lazy, loose-limbed manner of Agent Mulder. Instead, his stretch had something contained, deliberate about it - it was a conscious, brisk limbering up of muscles.

Alex's partner no longer watched Samantha Mulder's favorite movies or read her favorite books. Instead, he studied coded computer printouts and manuals on handguns and unarmed combat.

On the fourth day after Alex had slept with Agent Mulder for the first time, he came home in the early hours of the morning to find that someone had drunk all of his pineapple juice.

He checked in the tiny vegetable compartment of the compact fridge and found two handfuls of carrots that were beginning to look less than fresh. A quick glance through their stores of frozen pizza revealed that Samantha's favorite kind - four seasons deluxe, featuring asparagus and artichokes - was still in ample supply. Alex's stockpile of ham and extra cheese had vanished at some point, however.

Wonderful.

"If there are no Rice Crispies when I wake up, Fox, you'll be sorry," Alex announced as he crossed through the living room on his way to his sleeping bag.

 

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Needless to say, there were no Rice Crispies when he woke up. Alex scoured the apartment for sunflower seeds and took the entire lot with him when he left, tossing seven and a half bags worth into a dumpster he passed.

On his way out of the grocery store - loaded down with breakfast cereals, pineapple juice, frozen pizza and other favorite surveillance foods - he caught a glimpse of someone ducking out of sight behind a corner.

The movement was too quick and abrupt, the position of the corner relative to his own too strategic for it to be mere coincidence. Someone was watching Alex.

Alex shifted the paper bags in his arms, causing a bag of dried apricots to slide out and fall to the pavement. He stooped to pick it up, drawing his gun behind the visual cover of the groceries. Keeping the weapon out of sight forced him to carry his purchases somewhat awkwardly, but it was unlikely one of the smoker's goons would notice. The man favored the half-witted-moron type of thugs. He didn't believe in independent thought on the part of hired muscle. Foolish of him, though Alex supposed it had its advantages.

So. Assuming he wasn't being trailed by a garden-variety mugger or unsuborned law-enforcement person - which was possible, Alex supposed, but highly unlikely - what did this mean?

They weren't keeping tabs on him on a regular basis, Alex knew that much - it would have been too risky when the mark was a trained assassin who would be looking for the signs as a matter of routine, and Alex had been known to dispose of watchers and claim it had been an honest mistake. How could he be expected to distinguish between Consortium employees and other dangerous and unsavoury elements, after all? If they were going to have someone watch him, they'd better warn him first, at least if they wanted their guy to live long enough to report back. And if that defeated their purpose, well, that wasn't Alex's problem, was it?

They wouldn't do a termination in broad daylight, at least not in the parking lot of a supermarket. Putting a tag on him prior to the attempt would be foolhardy - the risk he would spot the watcher and wise up to the plan was too great. They knew better than that.

Temporary surveillance, then… It was the only thing that made sense. Someone wanted to be informed of his movements right at this moment. Someone wanted to know where he was, what he was doing - when he would return.

Alex loaded the groceries into the trunk of his car and turned back to enter the bookstore next to the supermarket, having a quick look through the esoteric section and making a mental note on a pseudo-scientific volume of UFO sightings that Samantha Mulder might like to have. She had a thing about alien abduction - it seemed she believed extraterrestrials had snatched her brother William out from right underneath her nose. Alex hadn't commented when she told him this story; showing too much belief would have been inappropriate for Krycek, even though Alex knew it was entirely possible the agent's theory of what had happened was completely accurate.

The two other customers and the saleswoman were engaged in an animated discussion over a popular author, providing Alex with ample opportunity to slip into the employees' bathroom. The window led to a small back yard adorned with a heavily chained bicycle and two dried-up potted plants; it was just large enough to allow him to squeeze through.

The goons were getting dumber every day. The fact that this one was almost half again as tall as Alex and twice as broad in the shoulders had apparently led him to believe that he had nothing to fear from anyone smaller or less brawny. In fact, though, he was not even a mild challenge for Alex. The man hadn't so much as changed position since Alex had entered the bookstore - and that much, at least, should have been elementary caution. Not to mention that you never, ever positioned yourself with your back to anything but a very solid wall… not a door, not a window, and emphatically not the mouth of an alley.

Alex got the larger man into a solid stranglehold and dragged him backwards into the bookstore's yard. Not so much as a whimper. Really, where were they getting the help these days?

 

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"You should have given me the file."

Alex crept through the bedroom soundlessly, gun in hand, every sense extended to the fullest. The smoking bastard was no fighter, but he was canny. Like Fox, he was one of the brainy ones - extremely dangerous. Extremely unpredictable.

It was possible he'd set this entire thing up as a trap of some kind; Alex couldn't imagine to what purpose, but that meant nothing. He was far from being a dumb goon, but he knew better than to consider himself a match for the cunning of people like the smoker or Fox.

When all was said and done, though, cunning wasn't everything. For one thing, the cunning ones always needed time to think, to plan. Alex just acted.

The door was made of cheap plywood; it was so thin that Alex could hear the soft flick of a lighter when the smoker lit up. He even imagined he heard the long exhalation of smoke that followed the first drag, although that was probably at least partly his imagination.

"It's not policy."

A pause followed, to be broken by a voice as soft and coldly crystalline as a snowdrift. "Fuck policy. You want results, you're going to have to give me something to work with."

"We need to do nothing, Fox. It is your job to present us with results. It is our job to decide what to do with them."

The laugh was even softer that the voice, smooth and chill… so relaxed it was almost a purr. It send a shiver down Alex's back even with a door separating him from the man who was uttering it. "You don't like the orders you're giving me. You don't like the ones you're giving Alex, either. How long has it been since you have made policy?"

A dangerous chill crept into the smoker's voice. "I don't know that I would be so… careless in your position."

"Careless?" It was very difficult to judge Fox's mood from his voice alone, but Alex thought he was a bit more maliciously amused than usual. He'd be displaying the joyful maniacal glitter at full strength. "I hear an official warning coming on. Go on, tell me. You know you want to."

"Do you have anything at all to show for your involvement in this case?"

"Oh, you want the recipe. How about this. Assign him a red-headed mud-wrestler with protruding ears, have her wear a blue strapless gown and dangly pearl earrings, and he will be putty in your hands."

There was a drawn-out silence. When Fox spoke again, he sounded almost surly. "You should have shown me the file. He's interesting. I need more time."

Another long silence followed, interrupted by the creaking of a chair. Alex tensed, but when the smoker spoke again, his voice seemed to be coming from the same distance and direction as before. Alex backed up a bit anyway, standing to the side of the too-thin door.

"Your choice of words is very original." Sarcasm was thick in the older man's voice. "Your interest is irrelevant. You have had enough time. You're not suited for the field -"

"Alex won't kill me."

The smoker gave a derisive snort. "He has killed better operatives than you."

"Define better. Stronger? Quicker? More practiced killers? Better cooks? Never mind, it doesn't matter. He won't kill me."

"You are a fool."

"I didn't fuck him, if that's what you mean. Who was in charge of the training program? I need to see the files. It is a more complex matter than it seems at first. He's quite fascinating. Controlled, intelligent, the emotional imbalance handled almost skillfully, vicious but only under certain -"

"We are drifting off topic." Cold impatience, liberally tinged with the trademarked, anything but subtle note of threat, was open in the smoker's voice.

"The topic being?"

"Your report."

"Wasn't this what you wanted to know? He slips into and beyond the conditioning almost at will - uses it, but is able to distance himself when it suits him. On occasion, he appears to do the same with his own emotions. Perhaps the beginnings of a dissociative disorder, but efficiently and methodically deployed. I have never seen anything quite like it. He merits further study."

The smoker was silent for another long moment. "It's not worth the risk. You find it interesting - I find it dangerous."

"Of course it is. Part of the deal with killers."

"There are other possibilities."

"Sure, guys like Tarzan and the Terminator there. They have their own set of drawbacks. Not nearly as efficient… unreliable and dangerous for other reasons."

Alex could amost hear the silence change, could almost see the look of hard suspicion coalesce in the smoker's eyes as he realized that his thug should have reported in by now.

"I don't know that I'm all that unsuited to field work… I've been doing rather well so far. Wouldn't you say, Alex?"

Alex reacted immediately. Without hesitating, he kicked the door open and dove through low, taking in the positioning of the room's occupants in one glance and coming to his feet smoothly behind the smoking bastard, shielded from both Fox and the pair of muscle-bound guards stationed by the door by the older man's body.

The smoker was reaching for some weapon concealed in his jacket, but stopped instantly when Alex prodded the back of his skull with the muzzle of the gun. The thugs were a little slower to take in the situation, but they, too soon realized that they should be very careful not to spook Alex unless they wanted to find themselves suddenly unemployed.

Fox, who was draped over the sofa in his customary sprawl with a can of pineapple juice balanced on his chest, smiled up at Alex. His face was slightly flushed, his eyes glowing with a decidedly off kind of joy.

"You have ten seconds to explain this to me," Alex snarled at the grey-haired man sitting utterly motionless in front of him. "I don't like being set up. I don't like it at all."

"All in a good cause," Fox said, his strange smile widening. His gaze fixed on his partner's face greedily, drinking in the fear and anger Alex wasn't bothering to conceal. "Glad you could join us, lovely Alex - I seem to be out of sunflower seeds. Besides, I have a proposition to make to you."

The smoker's head came back ever-so-slightly, his shoulders tensing all but imperceptively. In a flash of insight, Alex realized that Fox had set up this little scene entirely on his own. The smoking bastard had not known Alex was listening; he was as much the victim of Fox's manipulation as Alex.

"Okay," Alex said softly. "I'll step back and put the gun away as soon as everyone in the room has understood that I'm not the problem."

The smoker nodded and lifted one hand in a subtle gesture directed at his bodyguards. Alex knew the signal and relaxed even before the command was voiced. "Out."

They were well trained, Alex had to give them that much. Neither of them betrayed so much as a glimmer of surprise - they simply turned and walked out.

Alex stepped back and slipped the gun into its holster before walking around the smoker's chair, standing a pace to the older man's side, facing the couch. The hilt of his throwing knife was reassuringly solid in the palm of his left hand.

"I hope there is a very good reason for this little demonstration." The smoker did not raise his voice. There was no need - he had perfected quiet threat to an art form.

Fox took a swig of pineapple juice. "Of course there is. I have come to the conclusion that field work suits me. I have also come to the conclusion that Alex suits me. Therefore, I will continue to work as his partner."

"You will do no such thing," Alex snapped. "I work alone."

"You never found a partner who was an asset, but I helped on this assignment - you would have made a number of mistakes in handling Agent Mulder. We complement each other well. Of course, there is also the matter of something more personal that I can do for you."

Alex stared at the man in silence. The only interpretation that he could come up with for Fox's "something more personal" was patently ridiculous.

After a moment, his partner smiled. "You can always tell if you know what to look for, Alex… There's a look about people trained to be a sexual tool. Unless they consciously expend effort on not doing it, they exude sexual attraction with every breath they take - not obvious unless you know the signs, but there for everyone to pick up on subconsciously. I'd think it'd be a drawback in some situations, wouldn't you?" The smile broadened slightly. "And then, of course, there's the fact that they can't control the physical reactions - the artificial reflexes. Even if they suceed in shutting them out of their mind, ignoring them to some extent, they can't really control them. It must be… distressing to be unable to control your own body - to be the slave of reflexes drilled in so deeply that you can't get at them, no matter how hard you try."

Alex glanced sideways at the smoker, who gave him an undecipherable look before turning back to Fox with the air of a spectator at a sporting event.

"I can reverse the process of your sexual imprinting. I can give you the power to do what you have only been pretending to do until now - to use what you have been taught instead of being used by it."

Unbelievably, the smoker still said nothing.

"Why would you do that?"

And why in the fucking hell would the Consortium let him? They were already bitching that Alex was too independent. They were always assigning him some weird fuck-up as a partner in a misguided attempt to rein him in. And now, when the latest - and by far the weirdest and most fucked-up - of those partners was proclaiming that he wanted to up the danger Alex presented even more, the smoking bastard was just sitting there?

"I would do that because I can." Manic joy sparked in frost-cold eyes. "And because I want something."

"Spit it out."

"I want you in my bed, for as long as we're partners. You, not a collection of pre-set stimulus-response mechanisms. I'll get you to the point where you can do it, and you will let me have you. The real thing."

Sex was a ridiculously low price to pay for what Fox was promising to do, even if the real reason the man wanted to fuck him was that it was a good way to force him to participate in some of his mind games - to screw his mind through the medium of his body. Hell, he was welcome to try. Nobody had ever gotten past Alex's defences; he didn't think it was possible. There was nothing there to reach.

Alex waited for the space of several breaths, expecting the smoker to forbid what Fox was proposing... Except that he didn't.

It wasn't really necessary, but Alex thought the offer over once more, carefully inspecting it for potential traps and pitfalls before deciding that the risk was acceptable when weighed against the possible gain. Finally, he gave an abrupt nod. "We have a deal."

Smile type four appeared - the all-out, insane grin.

The smoker got up slowly and dropped his cigarette to the ground, grinding it into the sunflower shells littering the carpet. "Your remarkable rapport is as touching as it is unexpected, gentlemen. However, I advise you not to forget that this assignment is temporary, Fox. A one-time deal."

A negligent swig of juice momentarily obscured part of the grin. "We'll see."

Alex watched with a feeling suspiciously close to disbelief as the smoker left without another word.

"He wants me to like him," Fox announced. "He'll back us if we manage Samantha Mulder efficiently enough. He tries to keep me alive and he knows I won't back down on this, so that's his best bet. It's rather interesting, really, especially since he's terrified of me."

Alex gave his partner a cold, hard stare. "Just so we understand each other, golden boy. Any assignment we get is my assignment. You do what I tell you, when I tell you, the way I tell you. You do not mess up my assignments. If you do, if you are any trouble at all, our smoking friend will have to find himself a new protege. You do not work on the side - double cross me or set me up like that again, you son of a bitch, and you will be learning to swim in concrete boots."

"Worth the risk," he said easily, making a casual throwing-away motion with one hand. "Part of the deal."

If this was a mistake, it was the kind of mistake that would get Alex quite spectacularly and unequivocally killed - dismembered and mailed to the police in little packages cheerfully wrapped in gift paper, perhaps. Blown up together with half a city block… Terminated by his own employers when his insane partner had run amok and done God only knew what.

However. If this was not a mistake - if Fox's erratic, whimsical strategic brilliance and psychological insight could be controlled, directed…

Alex wasn't one of the cunning ones; he did tactics, not strategy. But fortunately, he did tactics really well.

 

The End.

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