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Alex Through the Looking Glass: Day Seven


Contains explicit male/male sex, BDSM, and disturbing themes.

Pairing: Mulder/Krycek/Krycek

Summary: Alex Krycek finds himself face-to-face with another version of himself in an alternate universe—a very dangerous and seductive Alex Krycek. Alex quickly realizes he may not live to see the morning, much less ever return to his own world.


Disclaimer: The X-Files belong to Chris Carter and Ten-Thirteen Productions. No infringement is intended.


Alex woke alone in the big bed. He yawned and stretched and sighed, casting his thoughts out to find his brother. Krycek was in the living room, sitting in his easy chair, computer in his lap, working quietly. Alex felt Krycek’s mind pause, aware of Alex’s presence, offer the mental equivalent of a smile, then go back to work. Alex smiled to himself, then stretched again, shifting under the sheet, taking stock of how he felt this morning.

Physically, he was in pretty good shape. The bruises were fading; only a few of the deepest ones were still sore. Ready for that swat yet? he asked himself, grinning. Probably not. But by tomorrow, anyway. Whether he’d get it was yet another question. He felt rested and healthy. His stomach was empty—in an hour or so, once he’d had the chance to wake up, he’d be starving. And he knew he didn’t have a lot of reserves. Plenty of good food, vitamin C, and rest, or he’d wind up catching any stray virus that happened along. It was a wonder he hadn’t caught a cold already, with all the stress he’d been through. Thank heaven he hadn’t. On top of everything else, that really would be the final indignity.

Emotionally—it was the same. He felt rested and safe and ready to tackle his problems. But here, again, he knew he was without reserves. It was as Mulder had said—he’d cry if he stubbed his toe. But, at last, there was no yawning maw of fear and pain behind a shaky wall of defense. If a strong wind blew him over, he’d cry a bit and then pick himself up and go on. He was ready to face the world now. He was ready to face his brother. And himself.

* * *

Krycek looked up from his computer as Alex entered the room. “Good morning, Little Brother. How are you feeling today?” His voice was cool and ironic, but Alex heard the affection behind it.

“Good.” Alex laughed, a soft expulsion of breath. “I actually feel good.” He walked over to Krycek’s chair and smiled down at him. Krycek watched him, his gaze measuring, but gentle. Alex bit his lower lip, hesitating for a moment, then bent down to place a brief, soft kiss on his brother’s lips. He watched Krycek’s face carefully as he straightened up. It was a small importunity, but not a serious one. There were no rules against it, and Krycek could certainly have stopped him from taking the kiss if he’d wanted. Still, he waited a bit nervously for signs of disapproval.

Krycek nodded, almost imperceptibly, and Alex breathed a sigh of relief.

“You took off your bandages.”

Alex lifted his hand to the small incisions on either side of his nose. “Yeah. They were driving me crazy. I hope you don’t mind.”

“And why should I mind?”

Alex felt himself redden. “My face is a mess. I thought you might not want to have to look at it.”

Krycek reached up, and Alex obediently brought his face down to meet his hand. Krycek held him by the chin, turning his face, inspecting it with detached care. As always, his touch was powerful as an electric shock, holding Alex helpless in his hands. “I’ve seen worse.” Then he smiled. “You don’t need to cover your bruises on my account. Do whatever’s comfortable for you.” He released Alex, still smiling.

Alex swallowed, straightening up again, trembling just from that brief touch. He hadn’t had sex with Krycek for over a day. He grinned a little—after the way they’d been going at it ever since he’d gotten here, it felt like a long, dry stretch. He wasn’t ready yet, though. Not for Krycek’s brand of play, anyway. And besides, it might be good to show Krycek that he was more than a sex-crazed basket case before they got around to any more games. “I’m going to get some coffee. After I wake up a little, I think I’ll be ready to do some work, if you have anything you want me to do.”

Krycek nodded. “Take your time. I have some things to finish up here. We’ll talk about it later.” Then he turned his attention back to his computer.

* * *

Several hours later, Alex was settled in the floor, poking through Krycek’s large and rather impressive CD collection. He’d had coffee and soup and a large sandwich, and he’d puttered contentedly around the living room, inspecting Krycek’s library, noodling out a few bits and pieces on Krycek’s guitar, even reading a little in his book. The long, elegant sentences were even prettier when one understood what they were saying. It reminded him of the ceiling in Krycek’s bedroom: blue skies and tall grasses, gently weaving in the breeze. But before long he’d met this sentence: “And, most devastating, something in the manner of her refusal: an Artemisian quality, quiver of startled hind, which stripped scales from his eyes to let him see her as never before: as the sole thing, suddenly, which as condition absolute of continuing he must have, let the world else go hang; and, in that same thunderclap, the one sole thing denied him.” It made him sad, and he was still in no kind of shape for sad stories. Krycek had glanced up at him as he lay the book down, and quietly asked if he wouldn’t like to pick out some music to play.

And wouldn’t you think, among all these hundreds of CDs, classical and contemporary, ranging from medieval madrigals to Andalusian noubas to Celtic folk songs, music from all over the world and ranging over the past three or four centuries, he might have at least one of the pieces that Alex considered his “comfort music”—the songs he played at two in the morning when his heart was broken and only those particular combinations of instruments and notes could make him look forward to another dawn. And it wasn’t even that Alex was feeling that sad or scared or upset any more, damn it, he was feeling fine today. Everything was finally better, and really there were plenty of CDs here that Alex liked—many of the same ones he had in his own much smaller collection back in his own universe (and a few almost the same, in that terribly unsettling way this universe occasionally had of reminding him that he wasn’t home—the songs in different order, or one song left off, or just a different color cover), so why should he feel this terrible stab of disappointment to find that Krycek had Mahler’s first symphony, but not his ninth; Kevin Carthy but not Horslips; La Boheme but not Turandot? Krycek had La Traviata, of course, which mocked him from its jewel case—that had been the opera he’d seen the night Mulder had called him the first time. Tell me about it, Mulder had teased, although he couldn’t possibly be interested. Isn’t that the one where the woman dies at the end? (As if that didn’t describe three quarters of the operas in existence, and well Mulder knew it.) And it had stayed in Mulder’s mind, all the way to Montana: six in the morning of their last night together, exhausted and sweaty and tangled, Mulder who never slept curled around Alex and whispered, Tell me about the second act.…

* * *

Krycek’s voice, from right behind him, startled Alex out of his tailspin. He whirled and stared at Krycek, smiling, bending down, holding out a couple of twenties. “The nearest music store is about twelve blocks from here. You take a left when you leave the building, a right after two blocks, then north till you run into it. Go and buy yourself a couple of CDs.”

Alex couldn’t even seem to force his hand to reach out to take the money, much less create words in his throat. He swallowed several times, then stammered, “I… it’s all right, you don’t have to.…”

“Go on. You could use the fresh air, you’ve been cooped up in here too long. Take a walk, get yourself some music, buy a magazine, sit in a cafe for a while and drink some coffee.” Suddenly, Krycek grinned. “Just don’t bring any leather boys home. I’m afraid I’d have to kill them.”

Alex took the money, giggled once, then got to his feet, drawing himself up loftily. “I’d never do that. We’ll go to their place. And I’ll give them all your phone number.”

* * *

Five minutes later, Alex was on his way out the door, with his precious leather jacket and his Mephisto boots, his own wallet in his pocket (emptied of his own IDs and credit cards, of course, but containing a New York driver’s license with his—or rather Krycek’s—picture on it and a false name, and several more twenties), and orders to relax and enjoy himself. Enjoy himself he might, but he was doubtful of his ability to relax, at least for a while—his heart was pounding as he stood in the elevator, and a huge grin threatened to split his face, and made his poor freshly-bandaged sinuses throb.

Krycek trusted him. Handed him money and ID and pushed him right out the door, all by himself, without even Mulder to keep an eye on him. Understood just how comforting the right music could be in difficult times. Teased him out of a shaky mood, not letting the kindness become too overwhelming. And let Alex joke with him, tease him back without a whiff of disapproval. It was really over, the horror of those first few days. He’d earned Krycek’s trust and a place in his family, and now, finally, he could settle down and get to work on the real problems.

Soon. His “day off” was going to last a few hours longer, it seemed. He stepped off the elevator on the ground floor, took a deep breath, and walked out into the world.

* * *

Fox Mulder walked slowly up the stairs of the apartment building, key in his hand. As always, he paused before the door of Alex Krycek’s third-floor one-bedroom apartment. He closed his eyes for a moment, letting himself picture the scene as he hoped it would be: this time, Alex would be there, asleep on the couch in his tee-shirt and sweat pants, one stray lock of hair lying across his forehead. The sound of the door opening would awaken him; he’d rouse slowly, smiling and blinking the sleep out of his eyes, lifting himself up onto his elbow. The aliens took me, he’d murmur, in that slow, sleep-husky voice, but now I’m back.…

Mulder would sit beside him on the couch. Tell me everything, he would insist, taking his lost partner into his arms. Everything.

But what greeted him when he entered was exactly the same sight he’d seen the last time he’d entered this apartment, and every time before that, for the last six months: the pillows scattered on the couch, one in the floor; magazines spread across the coffee table, Scientific American still lying open to the article about cosmic strings; miniblind in the living room window hanging slightly crooked, several inches above the windowsill. Mulder checked the other rooms briefly, just to make sure: kitchen, bedroom, bathroom; the apartment was empty, just as it had been since that horrible day after Scully had been taken and Duane Barry had died and he’d come here, grief-stricken and enraged, to accuse Alex Krycek of working with Mulder’s enemies. Empty, but there had been a lingering scent of ozone in the air. The neighbors had talked excitedly of a huge rushing noise and a blindingly bright light. Clothes had lain strewn across the bed and in the floor. And every clock in the apartment had been exactly nine minutes slow. It wasn’t much to go on, but Mulder had known what happened. Hadn’t he seen scenes like this, heard these same stories hundreds of times? Hadn’t he seen that bright light and heard that rushing sound himself, twenty-one years ago, when his sister had been taken? They took his sister, they took Scully, and then they took Alex.

Mulder shook his head slightly, and went into the kitchen. Not yet. His visits to Alex’s apartment had become a ritual, and each part had its time and place. Later, after he’d finished the rest, he’d sit on the couch and remember that time, minute by horrible minute. But not yet. First, he took a beer out of Alex’s refrigerator, twisted off the cap, and took a long drink, leaning back against the sink. There had been four bottles in the refrigerator when Mulder had first come here. Mulder had drunk one, then, feeling guilty, had brought another sixpack the next time he’d come, thinking he’d leave it here for Alex, when he came back. He hadn’t planned to come again. He still didn’t plan to. Every month, he told himself it was the last time. He’d give it one more month, and if Alex hadn’t come back by then, he’d put Alex’s things in storage and give the apartment up. Every month. And six months later, here he was again, inhabiting Alex’s apartment like a ghost, trying to understand what had happened between them.

Already, Alex had been out of his life nearly twice as long as he’d been in it. It hardly seemed possible. Surely they’d known each other longer than those few short months. Surely Alex had always been there, somewhere, in the back of Mulder’s mind, at the edge of his awareness, smiling that fey smile, still and cold and mysterious as a mountain pool, ready to burst into charming giggles, to blush and bite his lip and spin outrageous tales.

And yet, of course, Mulder hadn’t really known him at all. This apartment told Mulder that. He hadn’t known what kind of beer Alex liked (not Mulder’s own taste, too pale and light, but he drank it when he was here, and thought about Alex drinking it). He hadn’t known that Alex drank beer at all. Of course, they’d been at the office, all those late nights talking, technically at work. And in Montana, they’d been working. All the time he’d spent with Alex, they’d been on duty to some extent. It had seemed like enough at the time, but now he regretted never having said, Hey, Alex, how about a movie this weekend? Want to come over Sunday afternoon and watch the game? Or even, Let’s go out and grab a pizza, instead of ordering in at the office and staying at their desks, ostensibly at work. Why had he never allowed himself to put aside the comforting fiction of work in order to spend their evenings together, and admit that he just wanted to be with the man?

Of course, he knew why. Because people he cared about were taken away. It was safer to pretend he didn’t care, to hide behind wisecracks and offhand remarks, to use his position as senior agent to justify late-night phone calls and casually co-opting his partner’s time. But whatever cold fate it was that made sure he was always alone had known better, hadn’t it? It hadn’t been fooled by Mulder’s sad attempts to hide the truth from it, or from himself. It had known that Alex was important, just as Scully was important, and it had taken Alex away from him.

Poor Alex. He hadn’t deserved this. He was just another innocent bystander, swept up by the tide of Mulder’s obsessions. He hadn’t even been part of the X-Files. And to think, Mulder had come here to accuse him of being the enemy! His face burned with shame. Alex was innocent, and here was the proof—they’d sent the aliens to take him, to deny Mulder his comfort, to make sure that Mulder was truly alone. The cigarette butts he’d found in Alex’s car must have some other explanation. Some friend of Alex’s who just happened to smoke the same kind of cigarettes as Mulder’s nemesis. Or perhaps it really had been Cancerman—he’d met with Alex to try to get information from him, or to talk Alex into working for him, and Alex’s refusal was the reason Cancerman had had him abducted. And Mulder’s other “evidence” against Alex Krycek—it was all circumstantial and weak, the product of a paranoid mind, desperate to find someone else to blame for Scully’s abduction. Mulder had gone home and torn up the report he’d been making against Alex, and reported instead that Alex had been abducted by aliens. That report ended up filed and ignored in the bottom of the X-Files’ dustiest cabinets. No one believed, and sadly it seemed that no one cared.

No one except Mulder. But there was nothing he could do. Nothing, except continue to pay the rent on this apartment, so that when Alex finally came home, he’d have somewhere to come home to.

* * *

Alex found the music store Krycek had told him about, and spent a happy forty-five minutes digging through the racks. Damn it, it just felt good to be out of the apartment, to have a little time to himself. If he stayed much longer at Krycek’s—but no, that wasn’t something for him to worry about yet. He would get home. And Krycek would be stuck with three or four CDs he didn’t like—maybe he’d keep them as souvenirs of his visitation from a self from another universe. More likely he’d give them away, or sell them to a used CD store. It wasn’t likely Alex would be able to take them with him. Or even if he could, there was no point, since he had all these already. If he still had them when he got back—depending on how long he’d been gone, his things might have all been disposed of. Still, it didn’t matter. He had one concern when he got home—to find the DOD files for Mulder, and to make Mulder forgive him. He’d worry about a home for himself later.

He smiled cheerfully at the young woman behind the counter: black hair with flame red streaks; heavy eye-makeup and purple lipstick; a small hoop piercing her right eyebrow. She smiled back and began to ring up his choices. “Mahler, huh? Pretty rad.”

Alex leaned forward, head at an angle to allow his eyelashes to be seen at their best advantage, and murmured confidingly, “I need a fix.”

She laughed. “Going right for hard stuff, huh? Number Nine.”

He nodded, and heaved an exaggerated sigh. “What can I tell you? I’m a Mahler junkie.”

“Well, this one’ll keep you off the streets for a little while. Opera, too—you ever been to the Met?”

He shook his head, with real regret. “No. I’d love to, though.” He’d thought about it on occasion. Combine a night at the opera with one of his weekend trips to New York. Opera and S/M—a perfect weekend. But he’d never gotten around to it, and who knew when he’d ever be able to afford opera tickets again?

The cashier shrugged, blinking a strand of dyed-red hair out of her eyes. “Me neither. You live in New York?”

“No. Well, sort of, for now. I’m staying with a friend.”

“Where are you from?”

Oh, what the hell. Alex smiled brightly. “I’m from another universe. Aliens abducted me and brought me here.”

She didn’t even blink. “And what did you do before the aliens abducted you?”

“I was in the FBI.”

This time she laughed. “And a hell of a G-man you were, for sure.”

“I was brilliant. That’s why they sent the aliens to abduct me. I knew too much.”

“So now you’re just hanging around New York, re-stocking your CD collection.”

“That’s right. I expect to be going home soon, though. We’re working on an improbability drive.”

“Well, be sure to turn your CDs in before you go. We pay two bucks each, cash, for used CDs.”

Alex picked up his package, grinning. “I’ll remember that. Thanks.” Still smiling to himself, he headed out of the store.

* * *

Mulder finished his beer, rinsed out the bottle and set it on the counter. He’d take it with him when he left, to drop into the recycling bin on the way out of the building. Wouldn’t want Alex coming home to find empty beer bottles all over his kitchen. He’d kept the place clean and tidy—possibly the influence of his military father.

Mulder left the kitchen and went into the bedroom, shaking his head over Alex’s father. He’d contacted the man after Alex had disappeared, to let him know and to see what he wanted done with Alex’s things. Do what you like, the Colonel had told him gruffly. I don’t want the boy’s things. He hadn’t seemed at all concerned over his son’s disappearance. I never thought he’d cut it in the FBI. Probably got to be too much for him, and he ran off. He’ll show up when he needs money. Yes, I’ll let you know if he gets in touch. Yes, all right, call me if he turns up—likely he won’t do it himself. And Mulder wouldn’t blame Alex if he didn’t, if that was all the concern his father had for him. And no wonder Alex drove himself so hard, and never thought anything he did was quite good enough. Mulder could empathize with that.

He stood a moment in the doorway, looking around at the small, sparsely furnished room. He’d lain with Alex on that bed. Undressed him and caressed him and taken Alex’s cock into his mouth. He’d felt as though he had some rare, wild creature in his arms. Alex had been so troubled, so mercurial: one moment resistant and the next pliant and eager. Mulder had to admit he found it very gratifying the way he could make Alex’s protests melt into passion, with a kiss or a few sweet words. But he’d also felt guilty about pressing his case over Alex’s objections. He’d told himself that Alex was inexperienced with men, that was why he was reluctant, that Mulder’s gentle reassurance would ease his fears. Then, in Montana, Alex had made that painful confession of love, and Mulder felt even more guilty. He’d taken advantage of Alex’s innocence, he thought, and made him fall in love with him—but how could he be expected to resist such riches of warmth and passion? Remember that, Mulder, Alex had whispered hotly, his body still damp with sweat and tears, and soft from orgasm. No matter what happens, I love you. It was almost as if Alex had known what was going to happen to him.

Mulder sat on the bed, stroking the plain cotton bedspread under his palms. Then, that last night, Alex had wanted to tell him something. I have to tell you, Mulder— But Mulder hadn’t wanted to listen. Once again, he’d stopped Alex’s protests with honeyed words and kisses, promising they’d talk later, when they got home. But before they’d had a chance to talk, Duane Barry had escaped from the mental institution, and Scully had been taken, and then Alex was gone and it was too late. Would he ever find out what Alex had wanted to tell him?

Scully had come back. (And if she hadn’t, would he be sane today?) Three long months of horror and excruciating loneliness, and finally Scully had come back to him. He’d nearly lost her, but she’d recovered from whatever they’d done to her (and his blood still boiled when he thought about that), and Mulder had slowly put the pieces back together. A few days after she’d come out of the coma, he’d come back here, fingers crossed and heart pounding, hoping against hope that his other partner had come back, too.

And found the apartment empty, again. He’d come into the bedroom and thought, he couldn’t leave those clothes still lying around. Maybe Alex would be coming home soon, and he shouldn’t have to come home to that. (And, face it, he’d been dying to poke around in Alex’s closet ever since he’d taken over Alex’s apartment, but he’d forced himself to leave it alone.) So he’d put the shirts and underwear back in the drawers (it almost looked as if Alex had been packing, although there was no suitcase handy. So why were his clean clothes strewn about the room? Had he been having a little tantrum over something when the aliens came?) and the suits back into the closet—

The black leather motorcycle jacket was what he’d seen first. Soft and supple leather, well worn but cared for. Mulder had stroked it, half-smiling, bemused, yet with a touch of uneasiness, too. What was this doing in his innocent partner’s closet? He’d only ever seen Alex in his suits, and once in sweat pants and tee-shirt; he couldn’t picture him in a leather jacket. Where did he go in it? Not to the opera, certainly. What did he do, wearing this black leather?

Then Mulder had looked further. Black leather chaps. Well, there was no mistaking the purpose of these. Furiously, Mulder had gone through the closet, and then the drawers of the chest of drawers, until he’d found: a dildo, two butt plugs, a heavy braided leather whip, several lengths of black leather straps, a leather paddle. Mulder had piled everything on the bed, and stood staring at it, his stomach churning with anger. This was his inexperienced, innocent young partner? The boy he’d been afraid of hurting? The shy, blushing man-child who wept when Mulder kissed him?

Liar, he’d thought. Deceiver. Cheat. He’d felt used and betrayed and made a fool of. It was almost as bad as when he’d thought Alex had helped them take Scully.

He’d left the things lying on the bed, and stormed home, determined to put Alex Krycek out of his mind and never come back.

But of course he had come back. Three days later, in fact. He’d returned to put all of Alex’s gear away, face burning, trying to be fair. Once the initial shock had worn off, he’d had to admit that Alex had never lied to him. Alex had never claimed to be innocent, or inexperienced. In fact, he’d told Mulder: I’ve had sex with men before. A lot more than you have. But Mulder hadn’t wanted to listen. He’d clung to the picture of the innocent child he’d created in his mind, and refused to see the real Alex. And when Mulder thought about it, tried to clear the illusions from his mind and see what had really been there, he could see that there had been signs of this all along. The second night in Montana—Alex had flung himself at Mulder, with a ferocity that had frightened him. I don’t want it easy, Alex had insisted. I want it hard. Hit me. Of course, Mulder had refused to do it. Alex was just freaked out about the case, he’d thought. He needed to be soothed out of his wild mood. Well, he was freaked out about it, that much was right. But maybe he knew just what he was doing when he asked to be hit. Maybe that was his way of dealing with the stress.

Had there been other signs? Alex’s eagerness to be Mulder’s faithful junior partner? His passivity in bed? His protests, so easy to overcome? Not inexperience, but a desire to be dominated?

And so what if it was? Mulder hadn’t any personal objections to S/M. Like everyone (he supposed), he’d had his fantasies. He’d rented S/M tapes, read S/M erotica, although he hadn’t actually done anything himself. It wasn’t something he’d really want to do, he’d told himself. It was just an occasional guilty pleasure, when things got too crazy and the usual videotapes and books lost their appeal. If he’d really understood what Alex had been asking for that night, would he have tried to give it to him? Could he have found some satisfaction himself, some relief from the pressures of the case, in indulging in a little rough sex?

And then he’d sat on Alex’s bed, with Alex’s leather gear around him, and wound the straps around his arms and chest, and held the heavy whip in his hands, slapping it against his thigh, and put the dildo between his legs, feeling it through the denim of his jeans, not quite brave enough to try it in his flesh. Feeling foolish, but helplessly fascinated, he’d handled all the objects, and tried on the chaps (Alex was close to Mulder’s height, but heavier; they hung loose), and lay on his back on the bed with a butt plug in his hands, imagining himself using it on Alex’s willing body.

Then he’d put Alex’s things away, and let this be lesson number two in how little he’d known Alex Krycek. And how much he wished he’d have taken the time to know him better.

Mulder went over to the closet, and got out Alex’s leather jacket. He put it on, and turned in front of the mirror on the closet door. Like the chaps, the jacket was loose on him, black and supple and shiny. He struck a pose, back straight, shoulders back, trying to look tough and commanding. He picked up the whip, running the braided lashes over the palm of his hand. “All right, Alex,” he said softly (should he have said “Slave”?), “Bend over.” The effect was spoiled by a fit of the giggles.

Well, never mind. He’d figure it out later with Alex, when Alex came home.

If Alex came home.

* * *

A few blocks from the music store, there was a small cafe, with blue-checked tablecloths and a pot of red geraniums languishing in the window. Alex paused by the door for a moment, wanting to go in, but fighting the urge to keep right on going home. (At least he’d never get lost in the city, he thought wryly to himself, as he gave himself a little shake and walked in. Of course, if Krycek was at work, and Alex let himself follow his feet, he’d end up in an office full of black ops hotshots instead of back at the apartment, and that wouldn’t be a pretty sight.) Perhaps he should try to make a conscious connection with Krycek from here, and see if the link worked over a distance.

No, not today. He stood in front of the bakery case, and contemplated a scone or an eclair. This was his time alone, and for these few hours he was going to enjoy himself without Big Brother.

He bought a latte, into which he spooned three teaspoons of sugar, and decided on the eclair (and felt Mulder’s teasing poke in his stomach, which mostly meant he was expected to share: I’m helping you cut down on sweets, Mulder would explain blithely). He found a table near the window and sat down, smiling a smile that had an ache in it.

However long it had really been, to his mind it was less than a week since he’d last shared his food with Mulder. He’d loved the cozy intimacy of it—breaking pieces off his snacks and handing them to Mulder, or watching Mulder spear French fries off his plate. The eclair suddenly seemed too large for one person. Alex frowned at it for a moment, then sipped his latte.

Krycek said he shouldn’t think about staying here. He should think about going home. And that meant thinking about Mulder, and the mistakes he’d made, and the paths that had led him to here.

What was his Mulder doing right now? Working, probably. Looking for Scully. Unless she was back by now. Alex hoped she was. He hoped Mulder had found her, and that she was all right. He never, never meant for anyone to get hurt. Mulder would never forgive him, if Scully was lost.

And this wasn’t going to help anything. Pointless speculation. What he needed to do was make plans. The first thing to do, if—when—he got back, was to find out what the situation was. The date, how long he’d been gone, whether Scully was safe, how Mulder was faring. Any newspaper would tell him the first. Then, a call to the FBI headquarters to ask for Agent Scully. Would it be better to approach Scully first? Explain to her that he had information for Mulder, and get her to intercede for him? But was she likely to be any less angry with him than Mulder was? After all, she was the one who’d been abducted.

No, he’d just take his chances with Mulder. Maybe he should try to arrange an anonymous meeting, somewhere public, where Mulder couldn’t just shoot him out of hand. But it was just as likely that Mulder would just call the police and have him arrested. It would probably be best just to go to Mulder’s apartment. Late at night, so at least he wouldn’t want to wake the neighbors throwing Alex against the wall. Trust Mulder’s basic decency to prevent him from shooting Alex down in cold blood, and give him a chance to explain. Tell Mulder about the DOD files right away, and hope Mulder’s need for the truth would outweigh his need for revenge. And then just keep apologizing, as long as Mulder would let him.

There really wasn’t much more he could plan. Everything depended on Mulder, and he wouldn’t know the situation until he got there. All he could really do was learn whatever he could about the Defense Department files, and try to find a way to go home.

Alex took the spoon out of his latte glass, and carefully cut the eclair in half. He picked up one of the halves and took a bite. I’ll find a way, Mulder, he promised. I’m coming back to you.

* * *

Mulder finally returned to the living room. He picked up the sofa pillow that had fallen to the floor and put it back on the couch, straightened the magazines on the coffee table, then went over to the stereo and began to go through Alex’s CD collection. There were the opera CDs, which Mulder would have expected, since he knew that Alex liked opera. La Traviata and Carmen and Madama Butterfly. Lush and melodic and romantic, they told tales of love betrayed and redeemed, lives sacrificed, heroes and heroines fighting insuperable odds. It was easy to see Alex in these works: his intensity, his strength of emotion, his determination. There were other classical CDs as well—Mahler and Tchaikovsky and Saint-Sains—and these were also no surprise. What was something of a surprise was the eclectic nature of the rest of his CD collection—there was Celtic folk music; there was Japanese taiko; there was jazz and blues and folk and rock, from punk to heavy metal. The impression was of an enthusiastic appetite for musical expression in all its forms; a willingness to explore and taste and enjoy anything that came his way.

Mulder picked out a Billie Holliday CD and put it on the stereo, then went to sit on the couch. Now, at last, he let himself think of those last few days—the trip to Montana, a harrowing case successfully concluded. He’d spent three nights in Alex’s hotel room bed, having one of the most passionate affairs he’d ever experienced. Part of it had been the intensity of the case they were on, he knew. The horror of it had torn at Alex—he’d seen the way Alex had suffered, and it had been an awful thing to watch. You could see it in his eyes, huge and liquid with pain, and in the way he carried himself, his body tensed as though every movement ground glass into his bones. But he hadn’t backed away from it, or uttered a word of complaint, and it hadn’t stopped his clever mind from working at it, with a dogged ferocity that made Mulder’s heart ache. You couldn’t help making love to him; you had to try to soothe away that pain, there seemed nothing else even remotely adequate. And then his beautiful passion came back to you, filling up empty places you hadn’t even known were there. It had been almost frightening.

And—Mulder, I have to tell you, he’d said, with frightening urgency. What could it have been that Alex needed to say so badly? He’d already made his confession of love. There had been a despairing sense of doom underlying the wonder and passion of their lovemaking that night—or was that just hindsight, coloring Mulder’s memory of their final hours? It could have been something simple: I have to tell you… I hate this case. I don’t want to do profiling any more. I have a headache. I’m scared shitless of what’s going on between us Or something much more vital. Something Mulder couldn’t even guess at. ,em>I have to tell you—I’m working for your enemies. I’ve been hired to destroy you. I know where your sister is. No way to ever know, unless Alex came back. This apartment wouldn’t tell him, no matter how many times he sat here on Alex’s couch asking himself the same questions. He could only remember it, again and again.

Home from Montana, exhausted and drained. He’d called Scully from Dulles, and asked her to dinner while Alex stood by, looking bruised, but refusing to complain. They’d be better off for a night to think it over, he told himself. And Alex could use the rest. They could talk the next day, or the day after. There was no hurry, Mulder thought. Then Alex had come the next morning to tell him that a man named Duane Barry had escaped from a mental institution and was holding four people hostage in a travel agency. And the next night he’d come home to that horrible message on his answering machine: Mulder, I need your help! Mulder! And Scully was taken.

He’d gone through the next few days in a fog of pain and desperation. All thought of talking to Alex had been driven straight from his mind. But Alex had been there, constantly at his side; a quiet, strong, comforting presence. How would Mulder have made it through those horrible days without Alex? When he’d found the cigarette butts in Alex’s car, he’d simply gone numb from the pain. Betrayed. It was his mantra. Trust no one. Could part of that willingness to believe Alex a traitor—even just a small, tiny part—have been fear? Fear that Alex was getting too close, that he was beginning to mean too much? That, painful as it was to be betrayed, it would be even more painful to keep Alex, and risk losing him, as he’d lost Samantha, as he’d lost Scully, as he’d lost everyone who’d ever really meant anything to him?

He’d gone back to work, and begun to compile his report, detailing his suspicions against Alex. Only three nights before, Alex had been his, and Mulder had dared to wonder if they could go on sleeping together after they returned home. Then everything had fallen apart, and one small cigarette butt had suddenly mushroomed into a paranoid collection of circumstantial evidence and wild conclusions. Alex had been the last one to see the tram operator—maybe he’d killed him. Alex had gone in to talk to Duane Barry after Mulder had lost his temper and almost choked him—he could have slipped him some poison. Alex had been there; why not blame him for everything? Pretty soon Mulder would have had him on the grassy knoll. And a cigarette butt in his car ash tray, of the brand that Mulder’s nemesis smoked. That was enough for Mulder to turn, to forget everything they’d been to each other, and call Alex the enemy.

Alex had left the office while Mulder was making his futile last-ditch attempt to garner support from his Senate contacts. He hadn’t returned to work—another bit of evidence for Mulder to add to Alex’s damnation. Furious, unsatisfied with just writing a report, Mulder had driven here to find him. He’d intended to thrust the cigarette butt into Alex’s face and demand to know the truth. Where’s Scully? he’d shout. What have you bastards done with her?

But the bastards had taken Alex, too.

He tried not to think about it too much, but of course there was no way he could stop his imagination from running wild. Alex, naked and helpless, strapped to the alien’s examining table, while the aliens probed and tested him. Implants. Scoop marks. Lost time. Branched DNA. If he ever came back, would he even remember what had been done to him? Would he be the same innocent Alex Mulder had grown so fond of? Six months.…

Soon he’d have to stop paying the rent on Alex’s apartment. He just couldn’t afford to keep two apartments on his FBI salary. He’d have to stop coming here and sitting among Alex’s things, playing Alex’s CDs, drinking Alex’s beer, wearing Alex’s leather. But he wouldn’t stop looking for him, or hoping one day he’d have him back. He’d never given up on Samantha, and he wouldn’t give up on Alex. Some day he’d have his answers.

Some day I’ll find you, Alex, he thought. I promise.

* * *

Alex lay on the floor in front of one of Krycek’s mammoth speakers, head pillowed on a cushion appropriated from the couch, as Mahler’s Ninth symphony swelled around him. He luxuriated in the lush violins and rich horns, music Mahler had written to express his emotional journey as he learned to accept his impending death. It was sad music; at times angry; but ultimately it was full of joy and peace. Alex always found it a privilege to take that journey with him. It told him that even the deepest griefs could be overcome; that beauty lived within pain. It was soothing and reassuring to let himself sink into it.

He was on his second time through the symphony. He’d turned the volume up a little this time, so he could feel the vibrations in his spine. He beamed contentment at Krycek, who still sat across the room in his easy chair. Alex had a definite feeling that, if he were inspired to go for a third time, he’d be advised to use the headphones. But Krycek was enjoying Alex’s pleasure in it, and for now he was willing to have it blasting through the living room.

Alex felt a prickle in his sinuses, and the constant throb of the past few days eased. Another thing Mahler was good for, he thought.…

There was a sudden wrenching feeling. His stomach twisted, and he gasped, and his hand clawed at the carpet. Alex’s head spun wildly; exclamations caught and died in his throat. Krycek was on his feet in an instant, his consciousness there with Alex: What the hell was that? playing through both minds at once.

And then it was over. Alex lay on his stomach blinking tears from his eyes, more from shock than from pain. Krycek knelt beside him, careful hand on his shoulder. “Alex?”

“I’m all right. I just… I don’t know what I just.” Alex pushed himself up, and sat rubbing his forehead. “That felt… very strange.”

“It certainly did. What happened?”

“I don’t know.” The adrenaline was still running through his veins, but other than that, he felt perfectly normal now. “I suppose it must have been nerves. A dizzy spell or something. Maybe some aftereffect from the operation. I’m fine now, though.”

Krycek regarded him with a slight frown. “That didn’t feel like a dizzy spell.”

Alex just shrugged. “I don’t know. But it’s gone now, so.…”

“We should probably have Scully take a look at you when she gets back, though.”

Scully. Damn it, why did Scully have to be involved? “Look, I’m fine. Can’t we just forget it?”

“Are you fine?”

It was a perfectly mild question. Perfectly reasonable. And, as always, it made Alex feel like a fool. Trouble was, you had to be reasonable back. In the face of that perfect reasonableness, you couldn’t just insist that, no, you wouldn’t let Scully look at you. That no, it didn’t matter that you’d just had an operation and had experienced some completely inexplicable reaction and she was a doctor and maybe she could help. And that no, you weren’t going to explain why you didn’t even want to be in the same room with her, much less want to let her do doctor things to you. He just didn’t want it, that was all. Damn it, I’m a grownup, aren’t I? Can’t I just say no, I don’t want Scully to take a look at me, and let that be that?

No, he couldn’t. Not with Big Brother standing there looking perfectly reasonable and expecting Alex to be the same. “All right,” he said wearily. “Is she coming back tonight?”

“No, she and Mulder had to go back to D.C. I expect they’ll be back tomorrow.”

Alex nodded. Well, at least he had a day’s reprieve. Maybe if nothing else strange happened between now and then, Krycek would just forget about it.

And what were the chances of that? Alex sighed and turned off the CD player. “I need to work. What have you got for me?”

* * *

Alex settled himself on the floor at Krycek’s feet, leaning his back against Krycek’s legs, with the sheaf of papers in his lap. It was a comfortable and casual position, more friendly than erotic, more cozy than submissive, although it could be turned into either with the merest effort. Krycek didn’t make the effort, though. He merely reached down and ruffled Alex’s hair briefly, and Alex smiled to himself as he set about studying the papers Krycek had given him.

Computer codes. Security breakers. Alex dug into the printouts with enthusiasm. This was the program that was going to get him safely into the Defense Department computers, find the files he needed, and get him out again without leaving a trace of his presence. If—and this was a very big if—the computers were identical in his world and Krycek’s. If they weren’t, if the hunter program Krycek provided him was just a little bit off, he could end up tripping alarms and bringing Cancerman’s Consortium down on his head—and Mulder’s. So the first order of business was for him to study this code, line by line and bit by bit, and learn this program by heart, so he could run it quickly and efficiently once he got back to his own universe, and detect instantly if there were any incompatibilities.

Once he got back— That was still the problem, of course. How was he going to get back? He put that worry firmly aside and concentrated on the codes. That was what Krycek wanted him to do, and Krycek was running this operation. Mulder was in charge of studying the science and the UFO literature and getting the implants analyzed. So let him do his job, and Alex would do his.

It wasn’t that the work he’d been given wasn’t fascinating—it was. It took only a few runs at it to get himself absorbed in what he was looking at. And once he did, the time slipped by, as he spread the papers out in the floor, and himself along with them, pausing only to change the CDs—carefully balanced between the ones he’d bought and ones from Krycek’s collection, leaving occasional blocks of silence whenever it seemed appropriate.

But even the most fascinating computer codes couldn’t keep his mind off the essential question indefinitely. How was he going to get home? They could read science journals until their eyes bled, and it wasn’t going to change the fact that they were not quantum physicists, and couldn’t really hope to understand the principles involved, and even the real quantum physicists of the day were far from knowing how to apply nonlocality theory to practical applications of interdimensional travel. Perhaps they were going about it in the wrong way. The aliens were the ones who knew how to travel between universes. They were the ones who’d gotten him here; perhaps they would be the ones who could get him home. The aliens in his universe were clearly working with Cancerman and his group—it was just far too much of a coincidence to imagine that they might have taken Scully one day and him the next, just by chance. And it had happened here just the way it had happened in his universe, at least as far as Scully being taken. So it was reasonable to assume that this universe’s Cancerman was also in league with the aliens, and could arrange for them to take Alex home, if he were so inclined. Would it be possible to make some kind of deal? Alex didn’t really think it was likely, from what Krycek had told him of their interactions, and from the mere fact that Krycek hadn’t suggested it, when surely it would have occurred to him if it were at all within the realm of possibility.

Still. Alex sat up and draped an arm across Krycek’s thigh, and rested his chin on it. “Okay. I’m sure there’s a very good reason why this won’t work, but why can’t we make some sort of deal with your Cancerman to get the aliens to take me home?”

Krycek’s fingers briefly ruffled the hair at Alex’s temples. Alex’s eyes closed, and he felt his breath deepen, almost like a meditative state, almost like going under. (Soon, he thought. Mulder wouldn’t be coming back tonight, so he’d have Krycek all to himself. Perhaps it was time to find out what Krycek’s brand of dominance was all about.)

“Because,” Krycek said, “he hates me. He’d kill me if he could, and most likely he’d kill you too. Because I wouldn’t trust him with your life. Because one of the reasons I’ve kept you here and not told anyone except Mulder and Scully about you is that I don’t want him to even be aware of your existence.” He smiled, and it was the feral smile that one almost expected to show fangs, with eyes lit as though they could see in the dark. “Enough?”

“Yeah.” Alex took a deep breath and pressed his cheek into Krycek’s thigh. “I figured. I just had to ask.”

“And well you should.”

Alex turned and leaned back into Krycek’s legs. The afternoon was wearing on; he’d been at his studies for hours. Maybe it was time for a break.

“I’m hungry. Can I get you something? Make you a sandwich?”

“All right. Whatever you’re having.”

It was a casual exchange, nothing two friends might not do if they were working on something together. Still, it gave Alex a pleasant glow to be allowed to serve Krycek this way. He smiled to himself as he went out to the kitchen and began to dig through the refrigerator for leftover deli items. He’d spent the afternoon in productive work, and now he was making himself useful in the kitchen. God, it felt good. As much as he knew that Krycek would eat virtually anything that was put into his hands, he fussed over the sandwiches, trying to make them especially good.

* * *

“I should probably warn you,” Alex began, as he sat once again at Krycek’s feet, plate in his lap, “in case you go back to that music store any time soon. I told the woman there that I’d been kidnapped by aliens.”

“Did you.” There was the barest hint of tension in Krycek’s response.

Alex grinned. “She thought I was making it up. We were joking with each other, and she asked me where I was from and it just came out. No big deal. But I thought you should know. Just in case you go there, and she says something about it. She’ll think you’re a Mahler fan, too. But maybe she won’t recognize you—I did still have the bandages on.”

“Yes,” Krycek said softly. “Well. It’s one of the things we’ll have to deal with.”

“Sorry.” Alex’s smile faded. “I know you don’t like having me wandering around with your face.”

“Never mind. It’s your face, too.”

For now. If he ended up staying… but he wasn’t supposed to think about that. Krycek seemed convinced that he’d make it home. Perhaps it was just easier for him to think that Alex would eventually go back to his own universe than it would be for him to worry about the inevitable problems they’d have if Alex stayed. Just as, in its own way, it was easier for Alex to think about staying than it was for him to confront his feelings about Mulder, and the guilt he’d have to deal with if he went back. Neither conviction held any more weight than the other, so why should he assume that the worst would happen? He’d come here, and therefore it was possible for him to go back. He had to give it time. He’d only been here a week, and most of that time had been spent dealing with the immediate emotional and physical crises brought on by his arrival. It was far too soon to start assuming they’d fail.

“It was good to get out for a while. Did you know where I was the whole time?”

“No, not exactly. I knew you were all right. I wasn’t trying to learn anything more than that. I thought you deserved your privacy.”

Alex nodded. “Thanks. I thought about trying to send you a message, to see if you’d get it from a distance, but I decided not to. I just wanted to be on my own for a while.”

“Yes. Sometime soon we should do some experimenting with the link, though—see how easily we can send and receive specific thoughts, and whether we can block each other out.”

“Yeah. In a day or two, I think.”

“When you’re ready.”

Alex slid the plate aside, and turned to smile up at his brother. “No, I meant, we should wait for the link to settle down a little more. It’s still changing every day. What we find out we can do today might not be what we can do tomorrow.” There was a warm burst of approval from Krycek: gladness and relief that Alex was finally growing steady and regaining his strength. It was sweet as a drug, and just as addictive. Did Krycek know that no threat or harshness would ever be necessary to make Alex do whatever he wanted, only the promise of this heady sharing of pleasure? Alex let himself sink down, until his cheek was resting against Krycek’s calf. “I love feeling how you feel about me,” he sighed, almost to himself. “This morning when I woke up, I could feel you out here sitting in your chair working. For just an instant, it was the same as feeling myself lying in bed, between the soft linen sheets. I could just as easily have opened my eyes and found myself out here being you, as lying in bed being me. It was just the barest instant, but it was wonderful, being both of us at once.”

Krycek obviously didn’t think so. His mental frown of concern was enough to spill Alex out of his dreamy reverie. “That could be a problem.”

Alex pulled himself upright. “I know you wouldn’t like that. But I don’t think it’s going to be that way for you.”

“We’re the same person.”

“But we have different ways of expressing the same things, and we’ve developed different aspects of ourselves. You’re dominant, I’m submissive. You’ve learned to deal with the world by taking control, and making it conform to your will. I like to let experiences take me, and not try to control them. No reason to suppose dealing with the link is going to be any different. You’ll dominate the link, and make it do what you want it to do, and I’ll sink into it and let it wash over me.”

A brief mental nod, an acknowledgement of a reasonable hypothesis. “Maybe,” Krycek said aloud. “I haven’t experienced it that way, certainly.” His voice trailed off, but Alex could feel the web of thoughts running along just under the surface of Krycek’s mind: did it matter which universe they were in? Was their sense of sharing an identity, that sense that had been there from the very beginning, another manifestation of the link? Would the link stay in place when they found themselves in different universes once more?

It felt strange to try to follow the skeins of thought and analysis through Krycek’s mind. Alex could feel the questions and suggestions about the mental link and its nature, potential variables and tests for them, clicking inexorably along: the line of thought did not stop so much as turn suddenly and go under, diving deep like a subway train changing levels, while another line as suddenly rose closer to the surface: how much time to analyze the implants? The necessary information was likely to be there, this line of thought told him: it was all that Alex had brought with him into this world that was linked to the agency that had brought him here. Abductees’ implants were dense with coded information, always (or in all the cases Mulder knew about, or would discuss); but some carried more information than others, evidence that the aliens put the implants to a wide range of uses. Not all of the necessary information was likely to be on these implants, but it was true that the part implied the whole: that was the key to all intelligence analysis. There was no reason to assume the information would be heavily encrypted, since the aliens and their human allies could be reasonably certain of the information staying out of the hands of those with the resources to analyze the implants; if they were heavily encrypted despite the costs of doing so, someone in this universe would likely have the key; since the aliens had human allies, the information would be in a form accessible to human language and the human mind. So, not impossible to work from whatever fragment of information they held now; the question would be how long.…

And then that line of thought was gone too, out of Alex’s reach but still racing along somewhere deep in Krycek’s mind, and here was a brief flash of something surfacing just for an instant, just long enough to remind Krycek of something that seemed to have to do with events off the coast of Taiwan, something that had nothing at all to do with Alex. Then that too was gone. A shift in focus, sudden and faintly dizzying, and the sense of the web of thought was gone, leaving only the doubled sense of self, and a doubled awareness that he (but which he?) had not finished that sandwich and was still hungry.

* * *

It was sweet, sitting there listening to the quiet flow of Krycek’s thoughts. Alex felt that he could drift pleasantly on the tide of it forever. Krycek’s presence was precious and unique, and Alex could hardly imagine a time when he hadn’t had his brother’s mind there beside and within his. It was addictive, and it would be hard to lose this when he went home. Foolish of him ever to suppose he could avoid falling in love with this man, this other self. He leaned again against Krycek’s legs, tucked one arm around them. “Do you think we could try again?”

“Try what, Little Brother?” Krycek’s fingers slid through Alex’s hair, sending tingly little shivers through Alex’s body.

“Try making love without playing any games. Just you and me, as we are. Take me the way you want to take me.”

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea. You know there are dangers for us.”

“I know.” Alex sat up a little, rubbing his cheek thoughtfully on Krycek’s knee. “But I want to know you. I want to you to show me who you are.” He turned to look Krycek in the eye, as he knew Krycek would want him to do. He took a deep breath. Honesty was what would get him what he wanted. Honesty and not hiding his pain. “I know… you know I love my Mulder.” It hurt far more than he’d expected it to, to offer this to Krycek. But it was a relief, too, to finally say it out loud. “If—when—I go home, I’ll do whatever I can to make things right with him. I’ll be for him, and nothing that happens here is going to change that. But you and I—we have the chance to have something special together, something who knows how many people in the history of this or any other universe have had the chance to have. I want to take that chance. I want to know what you and I can be to each other. I know it’s going to hurt to lose you. But it’s going to hurt anyway—it’s already too late to stop that. If there was ever any way to stop it. And I’d rather go back to my world knowing that I learned everything I could from you, and gave you everything I could, than to know I’d held back out of fear and lost a once-in-a-million-lifetimes chance.”

Once again, it was the response in Krycek’s mind that hit him first: a rush of affection that was for Alex alone, the separate Alex as Krycek saw him. There was something in it that was half thought and half emotion, a pleasure in the pure Alex-ness of the proposal. It was true, then, what Krycek had said before (and what he had known, but not always been able to believe): for Krycek there had never been any question of comparing Alex to Mulder, of ranking one as better or worse, more or less desirable.

There was a faint sense of withdrawal in his mind. It would have frightened him two days ago, he thought, but now he could feel a little of the purpose behind it: not rejection of Alex, but a need to be precise, not to flood Alex with irrelevant bits of information or emotion, because this was important. So he closed his eyes and let the sense of communion fade, and waited for Krycek to speak.

Krycek laughed softly, and his hand ruffled once more through Alex’s hair. “I bet when you were a kid, you used to take a piece of every single dessert there was on any buffet table. Not because you were greedy, but because you really thought you were hungry enough to eat every one of them.” There was amusement in his voice, as always, but Alex could hear a kind of rueful tenderness in it too. Alex felt Krycek shift in the chair behind him, and his voice shifted with it, went careful and serious. “I can’t fault your honesty, or tell you you haven’t looked at the risks,” Krycek said. “And I’m not going to tell you, no, it’s automatically a bad idea. But I think you need to think a little more about exactly what you want, Little Brother. You haven’t suggested one thing, you’ve suggested a whole smorgasbord of them. I don’t think you’d want to learn all of the things I could teach you, you know.” His voice had changed again, gone soft and dreamy as it did when Krycek told him stories about his family. “And some of the things I could teach you are things I could only teach by playing games. And maybe games are some of the things you want from me. And if it really is a matter of the two of us knowing each other, maybe sex isn’t the only way, or the best way, of giving you what you want. I’m not telling you no, Alex. But I need you to think about it.”

Alex let his head fall back against Krycek’s thigh. He frowned to himself, as he tried to sort out the ocean of thoughts and desires and emotions he had about his brother. Careful. He had to be careful with this, and precise—not because there were dangers, but because there were rich rewards, if he managed to express himself properly. Krycek was him, but their thought processes were so different, it was a long and complicated journey to reach common ground. “I suppose I’m not really sure what I’m asking for. It’s not that I don’t ever want to play games. Or that I want you to teach me things you don’t think would be good for me. And maybe there are other things we should be doing to get to know each other besides sex. I just want us to be able to have sex together without all these layers of protection between us. I don’t want you to have to hold back when you take me, or do things I know you lost interest in a long time ago because you think that’s all I want. I know the way you are with Mulder isn’t necessarily going to work for us. And I know you don’t play with toys any more, so my way isn’t the ideal way either. But there has to be something that’s right for us. We’re the same person. You’re dominant, I’m submissive—there has to be a way for it to work. You do something to me—and it’s not just Stockholm Syndrome, I felt it from the minute I laid eyes on you—I wanted to please you any way I could.

“I don’t know, I know I’m not really telling you what I want. When it comes to the physical stuff, I can tell you what I like and what I don’t like. But for for the kind of stuff you do, I don’t know. We’ll just have to try it and see what works. I trust you to take care of me. I want to try to make it good between us.”

That drew a smile, open and unambiguous. “It has been good, hasn’t it? At least, most of the time.” Krycek paused, and his fingers fell lightly on Alex’s shoulders, a little tap of emphasis. “When I don’t push you where you’d rather not be pushed, or hit you in weak spots I don’t realize are there.” There was another long pause. “That’s the critical thing, I think. I don’t want to make you give up more of your privacy than you’re comfortable with. You don’t like to talk about the way you feel about things, and believe it or not, that is something that I respect.” The smile flashed again, and was gone as swiftly. “Maybe it’s something that you’d be interested in experimenting with, now you’ve seen how it works for Mulder; maybe not.

“But either way—look. It’s an ugly little paradox. You can’t completely trust me to take care of you, not because I’m not willing to do my best but because I don’t know enough about you. If we go with the experiment, I could hit you too hard without ever meaning to: it’s not like the physical game, there are no basic safety standards that work for everyone. And if you don’t want to make that particular kind of experiment, but you still want me as unguarded as I can be, not trying to hold back: I still have to ask you for more than you want to give me, do you see? If I don’t know what’s going to be too close to the bone for you, and I’m not being careful, I’m still likely to hit you too hard, by sheer accident. I won’t know what to stay away from.” He stopped once more, and looked Alex full in the eyes. “I don’t want to say no to you, Alex,” he said. “Not if this—any of this—is really something you want. But I need to know you do want it, that you don’t just think you do because you don’t realize how unpleasant it might be for you. This thing with Scully, for example.”

Alex felt himself flinch a little, despite the gentleness in Krycek’s voice. “I know,” Krycek said. “It’s been eating at you since the night she arrived, and you don’t want to talk about it. Not to me, not to Mulder, not to her. And I don’t want to make you do it—except that I’d have to, if you want me to stop being careful with you. I’d have to understand how you feel about it, and why, just to avoid hurting you with it by accident: otherwise, I won’t know what comes too close to drawing blood. So you need to know whether giving me that kind of openness is too high a price.” Krycek’s voice was very soft now. “Or too high a price for today. That wouldn’t mean your answer might not be different tomorrow, or next week. Whatever you decide now, it’s not necessarily irrevocable.”

Krycek paused for a moment, stroking Alex’s hair thoughtfully. “If we’d known each other longer, I wouldn’t have to make you tell me this kind of thing: I’d know you, and I’d be able to work most of it out for myself. But we haven’t. The situation is what it is. And I’m not the brand of sadist who doesn’t care whether his partner’s having fun or not. In the end, it only works for me if I can make it work for you—oh, hell.” There was a catch in his breath, a little squeak on the last word, and suddenly Krycek was giggling. “I know, I know,” he said, gasping. His forehead came down and rested for an instant against Alex’s head. “You have to get cross-examined just to get laid around here. I’m sorry. It’s just that I really do need to do it.”

Alex managed a weak laugh. “Yeah, okay. And I asked for it, right? ‘Please hurt me, sir,’ and then pull back all offended and complain, ‘Why did you hurt me?’ “ It was just so perfect, it was almost funny, in a horrible sort of way: the one thing Alex really didn’t want to talk about was the one thing Krycek zeroed right in on. He might as well have read Alex’s mind—well, of course, he could have, but somehow Alex doubted that Krycek had needed to read Alex’s mind to know that the situation with Scully was a major sore point and Alex was still fuming over it. And trying very hard not to bring it up.

And so of course they would have to talk about it. Krycek was absolutely right—how could they meet each other without barriers if Alex was still holding this back? If he really wanted what he said he wanted, he was going to have to give Krycek everything.

Damn it.

“All right. Well.” He stopped, cleared his throat, and tried again. “Okay, the reason I didn’t want to talk about it is, first of all, I know it’s none of my business what you do with Scully, or with Mulder. And no matter how I feel about it, it isn’t going to change anything. I could tell you why I think it’s wrong, and you could tell me why you think it isn’t, and it’s not going to do any good because you’re still going to do what you want and I’m just going to have to live with it. And maybe I think it would just be easier if we agreed to go on as if I didn’t even know what was happening—because I shouldn’t have to know, I shouldn’t be in a position where I have to have any feelings about it, and damn it, I’m powerless enough here without having to have one more damn thing I can’t do anything about. It would be nice to at least have the illusion that I’m not stuck in the middle of someone else’s relationship, and it drives me crazy, and I can’t do anything about it.” He stopped abruptly, biting his lip and trying to calm himself down.

He wrapped his arms around his chest, took a couple of deep breaths, and continued, a little more calmly. “And because I’m still pissed about being left alone with Mulder while you went out with her. And I know there wasn’t a whole lot you could do under the circumstances. You didn’t know she was coming, she just showed up and you had to deal with her, and you figured the best thing to do was to get her out of there, and if Mulder was upset it wasn’t my problem and I didn’t have to try to give him a way out of it. Maybe it was going to be unpleasant for me. Maybe it was too bad I had to come home from an operation to get dropped in the middle of one of your Mulder-torture games, but there we all were and you figured I could handle it. I could have just told Mulder to go to hell and gone to bed. I could have confronted him about it. I could have done any number of things, but I made my own decision to do what I did and I’m not sorry about it and maybe things worked out fine for all of us after all, and I know all that and I’m still pissed.

“And what good is it going to do to tell you that?” He held himself tight around the chest, staring at the floor.

“That depends on what it is you want,” Krycek said. There was no anger there, and no impatience. “It could be that you’re right, there’s no deep significance to the way you feel about this, nothing that should be addressed; and now that I know that I can let it go, let you be annoyed and pretend I haven’t noticed. Although if you want me to pretend that, then you don’t want me to drop those layers of protection. That’s precisely what they’re there to shield you from.” His fingers moved through Alex’s hair, the massaging fingertips firm on his scalp. “Or maybe what you’re telling me is that you need more consideration from me than you’ve been getting, that you’d rather be coddled than have the people close to you pretend they haven’t noticed if you’re not at your strongest. Both are good ways to cope with feelings of weakness, but people tend to have strong preferences for one or the other. If that’s true, it may not help with Scully, but it may help me avoid doing the same kind of thing to you over something completely different tomorrow. Or”—and now the voice hardened just a little, the way it did when Krycek spoke to Mulder—“even though you don’t want to argue about the rights and wrongs of it, you might want to see whether it could feel to you the way it does to Mulder, or to me: whether you could learn to take pleasure in it.”

Alex let out a little gasp, and felt the heat rush to his groin. He felt his fingers tighten around Krycek’s leg. “You could make me like it.” His voice had gone low and steamy. “It would be easy. But if we’re going to start using that sort of real-world stuff as sex play, that changes everything. You could make me like the fact that I can’t leave the house without your permission. That I don’t own anything except what you’ve given me. That my identity doesn’t belong to me anymore, it belongs to you.” His heart had begun to pound as he spoke. He stopped to take a deep breath and press his face into Krycek’s thigh. “You could make me like it. But I think we’ve both already decided that that isn’t what we want.”

“All right,” Krycek said. “But maybe there’s a way to make that a little better, without going all the way down the road to turning it into a sex game. To the extent that you’re angry about having been dumped into the middle of it and told to cope, for instance, I could try a straightforward apology. I didn’t realize at the time it would make you angry: I was still thinking of you as being more like me. I thought it might help to have something to think about, a situation you were in charge of. And yes, it was the easiest alternative; but still, that was my miscalculation. And I am sorry for that.”

There was another burst of pleasure, completely unexpected, and so sweet it made him want to cry. Yes, this was what he wanted—he hadn’t known until he heard the words just how good they would feel. Just a simple apology: an acknowledgment that Krycek had caused unwanted pain, and he was sorry for it. It was an extraordinary kindness, and one that rarely occurred in Alex’s world. Usually, he was the one to apologize, and that had always seemed just to be the way things were. Alex reached forward to work his arms around Krycek’s waist and lay his head in Krycek’s lap. His throat was too tight to speak, so he let his mind carry the message, in a burst of gratitude and warmth.

Krycek stroked his hair, and sent his own affectionate wave of feeling back. Then he leaned forward again, and kissed the top of Alex’s head. “Come. Let’s move this conversation over to the couch.”

Alex followed, and tucked himself next to Krycek on the couch. Always, it felt good, just to sit next to his brother, with their bodies pressed together, and arms wrapped around each other. But this time, there was a prickle of apprehension accompanying that good feeling, because Alex knew that the discussion was only starting to get really serious, and they’d moved to the couch because they still had a long way to go.

Krycek squeezed Alex’s shoulder, then moved his hand to Alex’s hair and began a slow, steady, reassuring stroke.

“The fact is, Scully will be coming back, and you’ll have to deal with her. So there’s good reason that you should know: whatever you think about the rights and wrongs of it, you shouldn’t blame her for the situation. Be annoyed with me, if you like, or with Mulder: I suspect either one of those would be fair. You should know one thing, though.” He paused and grinned at Alex, and brushed his fingers over Alex’s lips. “Scully’s the one who told Mulder what was happening in the first place. I wouldn’t have: as far as I was concerned, she was entitled to her privacy. But she wanted to make sure she wasn’t doing anything that would hurt Mulder. So she told him about it after it happened the first time, and offered to drop it then if it was painful for him. He told her no, but she’s not stupid: a few months ago she sat him down and asked him again, offered to back off if things were getting more serious for him, if it was beginning to be any problem for him. And he told her no again. And Alex, he didn’t do it because he was afraid of me. I wouldn’t ask him to lie to Scully, and he knows it.” The smile flashed again. “I don’t think he entirely understood why he told her it was all right then. He understands it better now, perhaps. But the truth is, he didn’t tell her to back off because he didn’t really want her to back off. She’s been careful of him, and she’s done her best to take his interests into account. I personally think she has done so accurately. If she hasn’t, though, it’s not for want of trying.”

Krycek’s smile turned a little rueful. “I know, that isn’t what you wanted to hear either.” His fingers moved up along Alex’s face, to resume their steady stroke through his hair. “But it might make it easier to let her help you, to know that you don’t need to be angry with her.” His hand left Alex’s forehead and cupped his chin once more. “And that is something that I did need to be able to tell you, if we’re going to drop all the games. It’s safe for you to be angry with me, I’m not going to break. And I’m not going to hate you for it.”

“I know,” Alex said softly. It was a strangely disjointed feeling, to be held and stroked and petted, while having the who-told-whom-what about Mulder and Scully and Krycek’s relationships spelled out when—of course Krycek was right—he really didn’t want to know about it. “But I don’t want to be angry with you,” he said, “Even if it is all right. I want everything to be good between us. I don’t want to be angry with Mulder, either, or Scully. But it still bothers me. She asks Mulder if it’s hurting him, and he says no, so she thinks it’s all right. But it is hurting him. Maybe it’s pain he wants—although it sure didn’t seem like it the other night—but it’s still pain. He’s lying to her about that much at least, and maybe Scully wouldn’t want to be part of it, if she knew the whole truth. It just feels icky to me, like you two are using her in some sex game that she doesn’t know about. If she knew the whole story, and didn’t care, well, fine. But, if it were me, if I thought it was bothering Mulder for you to be sleeping with me, I wouldn’t want to do it. Even if he was getting off on it. I don’t like those kinds of games, it would make me feel bad.

“But I’m not really mad at Scully. I know it’s not her fault. I just feel uncomfortable with her, because I feel like I can’t just relax and be honest with her. Because I’m all the time wanting to tell her to stop sleeping with you, and I can’t do that. Or I suppose I could, but it wouldn’t do any good. She’d tell me it wasn’t any of my business, which it isn’t, or she’d ask me why I felt that way and I couldn’t tell her. I don’t want to have to lie to her, so it’s easier just to stay away from her. But I can’t do that either, because she’s a doctor and I’ve got holes in my head and I have to keep letting her examine me. I don’t know how to deal with her. It upsets me too much to just pretend that everything’s okay.”

“Alex.” There was no reason he had to look up; he could feel the smile in Krycek’s mind. “This isn’t your game, there’s no reason you should have caught all the steps. Think of it as a dance: everyone leads a little, and everyone follows, too… What makes you think she doesn’t know?”

Alex’s fists clenched, and an exasperated noise escaped his throat. He wanted to pull away, but hesitated, needing the physical contact too much to give it up. And Krycek’s hand stroking his neck and shoulder took some of the sting out of Krycek’s amusement, which always felt a little too much like ridicule to Alex. But there was still heat in his response. “Well, you sure hustled her out of here fast enough the other night. And Mulder didn’t seem to think she knew. And if she knows all about it, why did you make me hide my bruises from her?”

“For any number of reasons. —I try to have as many reasons as possible for anything I do, it always strikes me as economical. Like getting two for the price of one.— But first, and most obviously, because there’s a big, big difference between knowing something and being forced to take official cognizance of it. Scully’s an intelligent woman; but more to the point, she’s reasonably acute about people and situations. She knows Mulder: knows him well enough that she picked off the fact that he was sleeping with me from a few days of watching the way he acted around me. He hated me when this started, hated me and sincerely wanted to kill me; and I’m the only man he’s ever touched, and even when we aren’t alone, even when he knows other people are watching, he catches his breath sometimes when I speak to him. I think she knows.” He smiled, and there was a conspiratorial cast to it, seeming to share a knowledge that Alex didn’t really want. “And I’m sure Mulder would realize that, if he stopped to think about it, but he finds it surprisingly easy not to think about things. He says he wants the truth; but he wants to believe, too, and he never has been willing to face up to the fact that he can’t always have the two at once.” His voice grew low and velvety, and his hands touched Alex’s shoulders, kneading them delicately. “He’ll have to face up to that, some day. Sooner rather than later, I begin to think.…”

“But that’s not really the point.” His voice had cleared again, shifting with the quicksilver turn of thought. “I would be very surprised if Scully doesn’t know the score. But as long as nobody tells her, or pushes the kinds of clues that she couldn’t possibly ignore at her, we can all pretend she doesn’t know. She’s a passive participant in my relationship with Mulder, inevitably, just as Mulder’s a passive participant in my relationship with her: there’s no avoiding that, that’s the way it is in this kind of situation. But as long as she officially doesn’t know the score, she doesn’t have to be an active participant. I don’t want to force her to be an active participant, either: that’s her call. So yes, I wanted her out of here the other day partly because I could feel Mulder working himself up to the kind of demonstration we might all have regretted. But that wasn’t all: I also knew I couldn’t discuss the situation with her in the kinds of terms she could accept without hurting you; and I knew that if I hustled her out and didn’t go with her myself, she’d take it as meaning I didn’t want her around.

“And as for your bruises,” he squeezed Alex’s shoulders briefly, then lifted one hand to run a thumb along the bandage under Alex’s eyes, “it’s one thing for her to know that her friend and partner plays slave in some kinky sexual relationship, and quite another for her to find out that her partner had thought it would be fun and appropriate to beat hell out of a man who’d just had surgery. Yes, we could have eventually made her understand that it was all right, but it would have been a tough sell. For a lot of reasons, not all of which have anything to do with any of our relationships. It struck me as best not to put any of us in that situation.”

Krycek paused, and squeezed Alex’s shoulder again. “I don’t know your Scully,” he said. “But the Dana Scully I know is pretty much unshockable, Alex. She may not have tried each and every one for herself, but she knows all the sins of the world by name. And she saves shock and outrage for the nonconsensual ones.”

“Then I suppose you wouldn’t mind if I told her exactly what happened here while she was out with you the other night.”

Krycek’s smile was a little gentler this time. “That depends. I wouldn’t want her to be forced to listen to it, if she didn’t want to—any more than I would want to force you to have this conversation with me. But I have no other objection. Go ahead, if the situation comes up—just as long as it’s clear that she’s comfortable hearing about it, and really wants to know. I do want you to be able to talk to her, Alex, about anything you feel you need to talk about.” He ruffled Alex’s hair affectionately. “No, I’m not going to set out rules about what you can and can’t talk about with her. I trust your judgment.”

“Shit.” Alex squirmed a little, and let his fist fall onto Krycek’s shoulder, not hard, but certainly not gently, either. “That just makes it worse. I don’t want to be the one who tells her, damn it. It’s not my problem, why do I have to be involved?”

“You don’t, if you don’t want to be. If you prefer not to tell her, then I wouldn’t want you to. All I’m saying is that you don’t have to lie to her, if that’s really what’s bothering you.”

“But it doesn’t change anything! She still doesn’t know, you haven’t told her how she’s involved in what you do to Mulder, and she certainly hasn’t given her consent to it. It’s just the same damn thing it was before, and just because you have some reason to think she might not mind finding out all about it, it doesn’t help my situation at all. I’m still stuck in the middle of something I don’t like and I still have to deal with someone who’s involved and doesn’t know it.”

Krycek was silent for a long time, holding Alex around the shoulders and stroking his arm thoughtfully. Alex felt his brother’s mind resting gently against his, not pushing its way in, just letting Alex know he was there. Slowly, Alex relaxed, and let his mind open to Krycek’s presence. There were those constant, flowing streams of thought, now too deep for him to pick out more than impressions and bits of images. But the overall feeling that came through was patient and steady and reassuring, and Alex sighed and let it wash over him.

Then Krycek was drawing away again, his mind growing inscrutable, a small frown of concentration on his face. “I’m still not entirely sure that I understand this properly,” he said. “Is what you don’t like the fact that my relationship with Scully has an effect on Mulder, the precise nature of which has not been spelled out to her? Or is it that you perceive that relationship as being more painful for Mulder than Scully could reasonably think, in the absence of a detailed explanation? It seems to me that those are two different things. The first one is really an objection to all romantic triangles, and I’m not sure there’s anything I can say to it. If it’s the second one, though, perhaps I can make this whole situation less distasteful to you.” The voice was velvety again, charged with pleasure. “Let me tell you about the conversation I had with Mulder that night, after you’d gone to sleep.”

“No!” Alex went stiff, and his hands gripped Krycek’s arms. “I don’t… I told you, I don’t want to be involved in this. I don’t want to know.”

“Why not? It might help.”

“It won’t.” Alex remembered: Krycek lying next to Mulder, Mulder’s body naked and tense with need, Krycek holding Mulder’s gun to Mulder’s mouth, Mulder gasping, taking it into his mouth, arcing into it, accepting Krycek’s judgment on him, responding like a firework, like a shower of sparks, like a man possessed. God, it still hurt to remember that. No, he never wanted to have to watch that again, or to hear it, or to hear Krycek’s voice and his mind telling the story in his cool velvet voice. “What happens if I say no?”

“Then I don’t tell you.”

“What about… what I asked you for?” Alex’s hands twisted in the fabric of Krycek’s shirt.

“I think you need to think that through a little more.” Krycek’s voice was still low, and it was gentle now.

“No.…” It was almost a wail. “Please don’t. Please.”

“Alex, I’m not doing this to punish you. Or to coerce you into hearing things you don’t want to hear. But not hearing or knowing doesn’t seem to be helping you any with this situation, either: knowledge might make you feel better, not worse. And if you know I’m wrong, about this and about you: then look, Alex, you really do need to think a lot more carefully about what you’ve asked me for. You have to know that’s right. And remember, I’m not telling you no. I’m just asking you to think.”

Alex clung tightly to his brother, face pressed hard enough into his shoulder to make his mostly-healed sinuses hurt, fingers digging viciously into Krycek’s arms, throat so tight he could barely breathe. God, he didn’t want this! Why did Krycek have to make him listen to this? Didn’t he understand, it was distance from Krycek and Mulder’s beautiful but oh-so-painful relationship that Alex needed, not to be dragged farther into it? Alex couldn’t imagine how this could do anything but make things worse. Yet there was no way he could say no to him. Not unless he wanted to give up: to say, all right, never mind, I can’t do it. Just tiptoe around me and treat me like a delicate child because I can’t take the full impact of your undiluted presence. He was going to have to let Krycek tell him.

One sharp, sobbing gasp tore from his throat. “God, this is hard! Why does it have to be so hard? You’re just me.…” His breaths were short and shallow. He struggled to control them, to slow them down. “It’s going to hurt.” But he wanted Krycek to hurt him, didn’t he? This was the way Krycek played—with blows to the heart and mind, not to the flesh. This was what Alex had asked for. If he couldn’t bear it, perhaps Krycek was right, and this wasn’t right for them.

But he wanted it. If it was sex, it would be different, wouldn’t it? Then he would feel it in his guts and between his legs—not like this, in his throat and in his poor ragged sinuses. Then he would relax and let it take him, and the pain would be liberating, it would fill him with passion and heat. He wouldn’t be fighting it, like he was now.

And that was the key, wasn’t it? He was fighting it, trying not to let it hurt. He couldn’t do that. He had to stop fighting, and let Krycek hurt him, and trust Krycek to make the pain worthwhile.

But it was so hard.

“I’m afraid,” he whispered.

“Yes,” Krycek answered. A simple acknowledgment, nothing more.

It was comforting, in a strange kind of way. It was, oddly, a very kind thing to say. It wasn’t pity or denial. Not “poor baby” or “you shouldn’t feel that way” or even “I’ll make it better.” Just “yes.” You’re frightened. Accepted, filed away and made part of the equation.

Alex closed his eyes and felt his breaths lengthen and deepen. “All right,” he said. “Tell me.”

Krycek shifted a little, settling Alex’s head against his chest. “I woke that night,” he said, “a few hours after we’d gone to bed. I do that a lot; it’s not insomnia, just an artifact of a strange sleep/wake cycle. I’ve always liked it, having all those hours late at night or early in the morning, when everyone else is asleep, and even the lights in the office towers go out, and you could almost believe that you’re the only real person in the entire world.” It was the storyteller’s voice, deep and soft. “Mulder’s always appreciated it, because it means that two nights out of three, if he can’t sleep he’ll at least have company. I’d thought he might be able to sleep through the night: you’d gotten him pretty thoroughly relaxed, and he’d fallen asleep easily. But he woke up maybe an hour and a half after I did, and came looking for me.”

The link was stronger than ever, Alex thought, or else he was slipping into some kind of hypnosis. He could see the scene now, as if he were Krycek remembering: he was sitting on the bed in the small bedroom, hands curled around a guitar; and he was in here, of course, because of the soundproofing; and the door was pulled almost shut, but not closed all the way, because he wanted to keep the music from disturbing the others, but did not want them to be concerned about interrupting him if they were to come looking for him. He was learning a new piece, he still needed to think about each note in its sequence, and the sound was awkward and mechanical.… For an instant, Alex shared Krycek’s absorption in the music, felt it take on form and power like a wizard’s sending. Then he felt Krycek’s thought shift, and the music was gone. Instead, there was a flash of movement, and Mulder was standing against the doorframe. He was smiling, the familiar rueful smile that Alex knew and loved from his own Mulder; but his Krycek-self saw a fragility in it, and darkness behind it.

“He thought he was all right, but he wasn’t,” Krycek said. Alex felt confirmation in it, as though Krycek knew what he was seeing, and was agreeing with his assessment. The too-familiar amusement was palpable through the link, but it was a little easier to take now—comfortable, even, as though it were his own amusement. And the feelings that were part of that amusement were nice after all: there was a deep fondness there, and respect, and sympathy. Mingled in with it was something less comforting but very pleasant, even exciting: a kind of happy patience, a sense of a long-held, carefully-tended strategy moving sharply toward its fruition, or of a trap about to close. Alex could feel himself-as-Krycek looking up to meet Mulder’s eye, could feel his face, open and pleasant and giving nothing at all away. Mulder’s smile deepened at it for an instant, and then he pushed the door back into its position behind him and stretched out across the foot of the bed. “Mind having an audience?” he said.

His Krycek-self smiled an answer and turned back to the music. There was less focus there now; some part of his attention remained with Mulder, watching the little reactions in his face and body as Krycek’s hands played over the strings. He was spinning through bits of music now, shifting from piece to piece as phrases he played echoed through his mind, setting up resonances and associations: a renaissance dance shifting into a baroque fugue, the fugue into a Couperin satire. There was power, always, in making music, a glamor that had nothing to do with who you were, that settled on you like a magic cloak as long as the music flowed through your fingers. He was aware of that working on Mulder now. Mulder’s skin was a little flushed, and his eyes never moved from Krycek’s hands. He smiled to himself once more, seeing it, and let the music shift again, into the sinuous melodies of the Anglo-Irish folk music Mulder loved. He felt Mulder take a sudden deep breath, and answered it with the guitar: let the soft final notes of “The Unquiet Grave” turn suddenly harsh, take on speed, resolve into something remorseless and driven. No need to sing: Mulder knew the music, his mind would supply the savage opening verses. I killed your father in his bed, and your mother by his side; and seven brothers, one by one, I drowned them in the tide—Oh lady, will you weep for me? He heard Mulder’s sharp intake of breath, saw his eyes fall half-shut with pleasure. He felt a surge of hot desire, and running somewhere beneath it, a cool stream of calculation: Mulder was ready. For an instant Alex was aware of himself as separate from Krycek, the full texture of Krycek’s thought alien and inaccessible to him. Panic started to rise, but only for an instant, before the link opened again, and he was finishing out the song as a kind of gift to Mulder, making a performance of it; and then the final notes were dying away, leaving silence like a frame around them.

He let the silence linger, smiling gently at Mulder, giving nothing away. Mulder smiled back and shifted a little, settling himself against Krycek’s legs. He felt the smile on his own face broaden a little. “So, Fox,” he said. “Are you quite finished being angry with me?”

Mulder stiffened a little. “Yeah.” The voice was soft, and flat with sudden exhaustion. “I guess.” His eyes closed for a moment, and he brought his head down to rest briefly against Krycek’s feet. Krycek waited, watching Mulder fight with himself, remember that he was expected to answer Krycek’s questions, and to tell him the truth. It was an exquisite thing to watch, there was no reason to rush Mulder through it.… At last, Mulder lifted his head. “I hate it,” he said. “You know I hate it.”

“I have heard you say so.” Once again, Alex felt a momentary dislocation: the amused not-quite-agreement was Krycek’s, not his. His was the little spike of anger, quickly suppressed.

But Mulder was stiffening again, there at his feet. “Oh, come on, Krycek. Are you telling me you don’t believe me?”

“Should I?” Krycek asked. “Tell me, then. Why have you never asked Scully to let it go?”

“Because I asked you.” Mulder’s voice was hard and level.

Krycek chuckled, low in his throat. “And I turned you down, as you surely knew I would. But she wouldn’t have, would she? It would have been easy for you, too, because she did everything she could to make it easy. She brought it up, and more than once, so you wouldn’t have to make the decision to talk about it. If you’d told her it bothered you, she wouldn’t even have asked you for a reason. Why didn’t you ask her?”

The hard stare wavered just a little. “You’d already told me you didn’t care if I didn’t like it,” Mulder said. “You’re the one who makes the rules, right? What was I supposed to say to her?”

“Scully was the one asking the question,” Krycek said. His voice was very soft. “Do you really think that I require you to lie to her?”

Another long silence. “No,” Mulder said finally. “No, I don’t.”

“I didn’t think so.” He settled the guitar into its case, set it on the chair in the corner and came back to his place on the bed. “The truth, I imagine, is that you have no real idea why you told her it was all right with you. You only know that the question made you uncomfortable, so you shut down the conversation in order not to deal with it.” He leaned back into the pillows propped up against the wall. “Right?”

Mulder’s body had gone rigid. “Why should that make me uncomfortable?” he said. “Just an ordinary social conversation, isn’t it? telling my partner and best friend, who also just happens to be a beautiful woman who I’m never going to touch, how I feel about her relationship with my lover.” His voice was as hard as his body. But he was controlling himself, Krycek noted: no matter what the provocation, Mulder knew better than to raise his voice with him.

He smiled at the thought, and when he spoke his own voice was velvet soft. “For a man who makes it his mission in life to go around demanding the truth from other people, my Fox, you are remarkably self-indulgent when it comes to your own secrets.” Mulder’s eyes widened a little, and the flush in his skin deepened. “You don’t even ask yourself awkward questions,” Krycek said. “Something makes you uncomfortable, you just lose your temper with whoever brought it up. Feels perfectly natural, I’m sure. Whatever’s bothering you may not be that person’s fault, but after all he or she’s the one who’s made you miserable by bringing it up. Otherwise, you’d never have to pay even subliminal attention to whatever it is. Or to the fact that you’re not dealing with it. So it must be that person’s fault you feel bad after all, right?—Really, it’s astonishing that Dana puts up with it.”

Mulder was still staring at him. Then he grinned, baring teeth. “She’s not sleeping with me,” he said. “She’s not in a position to hit me.”

Krycek smiled back and waited, letting the smile harden. Then he snapped his fingers. There was a ragged gasp from Mulder. Krycek gestured to him, summoning him. Mulder drew another long breath, and then he was moving, sliding up the bed to lie with his head pillowed in Krycek’s lap, his chest under Krycek’s hands. “But of course, I am in a position to hit you,” Krycek said. “As you frequently remind me.” His right hand slid under Mulder’s robe and across his chest, grazing the nipples with his open palm. The texture was pleasant against his hand, soft but not smooth, and there was a little tug from the friction. Mulder’s breath caught, and he arced up a little into Krycek’s hand. “There, that’s honest,” Krycek told him. He leaned over to touch Mulder’s lips with his own. “Now. You haven’t asked me in at least a month, but I know it’s still there. Tell me about wanting me to beat you, Fox.”

Mulder made a soft sound, somewhere between a groan and a laugh, and something in his face relaxed. His eyes fell shut. “Socratic method, huh? Just do me a favor and watch out for the stray cups of hemlock.”

Krycek smiled. “I shall be eternally vigilant,” he said softly. “Fox?”

“Yes,” Mulder said. He was looking at Krycek now, and his gaze was steady and resolute. His weight shifted, and Krycek saw him swallow. “All right,” he said at last. “My eyes are open. You are a sociopath and a sadist. I love you.”

You could see Mulder’s pleasure in the words: his eyes darkened as he spoke, and his mouth opened as though for a kiss on the last word. Through the link, Alex felt Krycek’s sharp pulse of delight: pleasure at Mulder’s beauty and at his obedience, at the swift responsive mind and its solution to the riddle. And Alex was suddenly as frightened as he had ever been since he’d come here, and filled with utter despair. I love you. If those words had been directed at him, in that tone, with that expression, they would have broken him, utterly. “That is what you meant, isn’t it?” Mulder added. “May I say it with my eyes closed, now? Please?”

Krycek brushed his fingers softly across Mulder’s lips. “Why?” he prompted, his voice as gentle now as his fingertips.

“Because,” Mulder said. His breath caught in the middle of the word, and when he spoke again it was in a rough whisper. “I don’t forget who you are, Alex. It hurts me to love you. Telling you is like taking a blow from you, like kneeling to you. It’s an act of submission. And it feels—” The words trailed off, and Mulder took another long breath. “It feels insolent, to look my owner in the eyes.”

Krycek was very still, focused on the moment. Alex could feel his pleasure: it was something bright and formal and oddly joyous, like a peal of bells, or the ringing in a piece of crystal when you tapped it. Oh, it hurt, that pleasure; like bright knives twisting in his heart: Mulder was in love with Krycek, because Krycek was pain.

“Yes,” Krycek told Mulder, his voice even and light. It sounded hollow in his own ears. “Fox. Take off the robe.”

Mulder did it gracefully, as he did everything gracefully when he was this far under the spell: a single sinuous twist of the shoulders, and he was lying naked in a pool of rippled silk. Krycek was still a moment, focused entirely on the beauty of that long body: the curves of muscle and bone under the glowing skin, the delicate patterns, etched in shadow, made by the small bones along the backs of Mulder’s hands and feet, the skin itself, rich and heavy like velvet over chest and belly, fine as spun silk over the collarbones and lower throat. And how much of that was possession? He could call up his old memories of Mulder easily enough, and see nothing more than a reasonably attractive man, who kept in shape and dressed well. But that had been before Mulder was his. He dismissed the thought and stretched out at Mulder’s side, propping himself up on one elbow to look down at Mulder’s face. His free hand traced the line of Mulder’s jaw. Mulder sighed at the touch and turned his head into Krycek’s hand, like a cat demanding to be petted. Krycek smiled at it, and Alex was aware of a a pulse of pure affection, dominant for an instant in the flashing web of Krycek’s mind. Krycek leaned in to brush Mulder’s mouth with his own. “It makes a nice toy for you, doesn’t it?” Krycek said.

He felt the entire length of Mulder’s body shudder beneath him. “Yeah, it does,” Mulder whispered. “I get hard every time I think about it.”

“I knew you’d like it.” He flicked his fingers hard across Mulder’s lips, and felt Mulder’s cock jump against him in response. “But it’s not enough, is it?” He was speaking into Mulder’s ear now, his voice soft and contemplative. “In your fantasies, you tell me you love me, and you close your eyes on the words. And then I start hitting you, don’t I?” He paused to flick his tongue over Mulder’s right nipple, and then over his left. “Do I make you ask me for it, or do I just do it out of the goodness of my heart?”

“The goodness of your heart,” Mulder said. He shifted, fitting himself tight against Krycek’s body. “Eventually I get around to asking you not to stop. But it takes a while to get to that part.”

He made his hands gentle on Mulder’s face and back. “Well, it would,” he said. “First you need to do the part where you’re overwhelmed by how much you like it, right?”

Mulder smiled, but the eyes stayed wide and serious. He shook his head against Krycek’s arm. “You like hitting me, Alex. I can see it. You’d like watching me give it all up to you, too. Why won’t you do it?”

“I might like it.” He let his fingers harden a little on Mulder’s back, and felt him shiver. “Depending on whether you really performed as prettily for me as you seem to think you would. But what makes you think you would like it? You like the occasional slap in the face, but that’s not the same thing.”

“I know. I don’t know whether I’d like it.” He grinned up at Krycek. “Maybe I get lucky, and you know a few tricks you can use to make me like it. Wouldn’t be the first time.”

Krycek smiled back at him. “But if I didn’t, or didn’t use them. If you found you hated it.”

“If I hated it.…” Krycek felt the shudder, and then Mulder’s lips against his shoulder. “It’s a no-lose proposition for me, Alex. If I hated it, then I would be frightened, and hurt. And yours. Completely, indisputably yours.” He was trembling now, and his hands were tight on Krycek’s shoulders. “While you did it, and when it was over, too. If you did it once, and I hated it, I would always be afraid afterward that you would do it again.” The voice was harsh and serious, a delicious counterpoint to the soft mouth. “Because you could. You have a free hand with me: I couldn’t stop you.”

He shook his head and ran his fingers through Mulder’s hair, gentling him. “It’s a pretty fantasy,” he said. “But you know better. You could certainly say no. The truth, my Fox, is that I have never forced anything on you.” He stopped himself, and smiled. “Well. Except for one kiss, at the very beginning.”

He felt Mulder’s mouth curve into a smile. “Bullshit, Krycek. You wouldn’t put up with me saying no to you for thirty seconds.”

“No, I would not.” And there it was again, that savage pleasure, almost as palpable in Krycek’s voice as it was through the mental link, hitting Alex like the blast of heat when you opened a furnace door. For a few moments the web of strategy in Krycek’s mind gave place to it, while Krycek played with Mulder’s body, teasing him with mouth and hands. Alex felt Krycek’s focus on Mulder, felt his delight in the eloquence of Mulder’s body, little shifts of muscle and gasps of breath noted and etched in the diamond clarity of Krycek’s attention, clear as speech. The way Mulder melted into his hands, everywhere he was touched: that was classic Mulder, that had been there almost from the beginning: Mulder’s little compromise with himself, begging with his body, as though he thought he would still preserve plausible deniability as long as he said nothing aloud. It had been funny and touching then, and irresistible; it was just as irresistible now, when Mulder was no longer trying to deny anything.…

But he was not finished with this conversation, not yet. And Mulder would only be sweeter, more responsive, as Krycek stripped through his defenses. Alex felt his mind shift again, and he was pulling back, cool and analytical again. “But,” he said, in Mulder’s ear. “The fact that I will not tolerate disobedience from you hardly means that you have to put up with it. If you tell me to go to hell, what am I going to do about it? I can throw you the hell out, but I can’t make you do something you don’t want to do.”

Mulder stayed as he was, pressed into Krycek’s body, but he caught the change of tone and responded: when he spoke, his voice echoed Krycek’s own. “Yeah, that sounds good on paper. But it doesn’t mean anything. You know and I know that I’m not walking out that door. It’s all the threat you need. As long as you can use it to make me do things you know I don’t want, how the fuck is that not real compulsion?”

“Mulder, Mulder, Mulder.” He laughed, and kissed Mulder’s forehead, and rolled onto his back, pulling Mulder over to lie with his head pillowed on Krycek’s chest. “It’s a nice try, but that’s compulsion the way the price of a ticket to Paris is compulsion. If you want to go, you pay the fare. If you don’t want to go, nobody’s making you. Compulsion is what happens when you don’t have a choice, not what happens when the choices are expensive.”

Mulder was shaking his head. “But there’s no bright line, Krycek. If a choice is expensive enough, it stops being a real choice. And you know just how expensive this one would be for me.”

Krycek grinned. “Well, practically speaking.…” His hand moved in slow circles where it rested at the nape of Mulder’s neck. “It’s true: you’re pretty well screwed. You love me; and—” his hand tightened for an instant around Mulder’s neck, and he felt Mulder shiver— “of course, you love what I do to you.

“But there are still things you’d refuse me, my Fox, even if you don’t like to think about it. Not very many, perhaps, but some. And there would be nothing, really, that I could do about it. When it comes down to it, you have a unilateral veto.”

“You’re not convincing me.” Mulder’s voice was a low growl, but there was a teasing note in it. The end of the thought was as clear as if Mulder had spoken it aloud: and if you are, I’m not going to admit it. “Anyway, what if I don’t want the goddamned veto?”

“You’re stuck with it anyway,” Krycek said. “Short of emigration to a country that still practices slavery, there’s not a damned thing either one of us can do about it. —But there, I think I’ve given you a sufficient number of hints. It’s time to give you another shot at the question. Do you want me to stop seeing Scully, Fox?”

Mulder was still for a long moment before he saw it. Krycek felt it happen: felt the loosening in the set of Mulder’s jaw, the intake of breath, cool against his own skin, the twitch of Mulder’s cock against his leg. “I can’t stop you, can I?” he said; and now the roughness in his voice was lust, not anger. “That’s what this is about. I can ask you; I can ask Scully. She’d probably stop it if I asked her to, but circumstances and relationships change, and I can’t be sure what she’d do. I can ask, but I can’t make you stop it. Not even if I walk out.”

He ran his hands down Mulder’s arms and closed them like cuffs around his wrists, locking them behind his back. “Just so. It hurts you, at least as much as a whip would hurt you; and I don’t need your consent for it. Now tell me: do you want me to stop it?”

Mulder was breathing hard now, and his arms were rigid with his effort not to fight the hold. Krycek let him take his time over the question, watched the changes in his face while he thought it through. (And Alex held himself as rigid as Mulder, fighting his own battle not to break away, not to scream at Krycek to stop.) “No,” Mulder said at last. “No.” The voice had dropped to a harsh, uneven whisper. “I’m yours to hurt. And I have no business questioning my owner’s pleasures.”

He released Mulder’s wrists then, and took him in his arms. His mouth moved gently over the side of Mulder’s neck. “You’re sure of that?” he murmured. “Last chance, Fox.”

Mulder was kissing his shoulder and collarbone, and the rigidity was gone from his body, leaving only the tautness of desire. “Yeah, I’m sure,” he said. “That’s—all right, I don’t hate it anymore. Don’t stop.” His body shook for an instant with a choked gasp of laughter. “I’m not sure: do I win or lose?”

“You have your cake and eat it,” Krycek told him. “You get to have had your little run of nonconsensual abuse; and now that you have your proof that I can hurt you in ways you don’t like, without your consent, you get to enjoy it. At least, I hope you’re planning to enjoy it.” He let the teasing note drop from his voice, made it soft and hot once again. “Because you’ve made your choice. I don’t want to see any more of your temper over this.”

He felt Mulder shiver with pleasure at the tone. “No, sir,” he said, very gently; and then, as if in an afterthought: “Are you going to let me call you ‘sir’ now? At least for special occasions?”

It was an interesting question, and he considered it for a moment. “Well, for special occasions,” he said finally. “If you can answer me a question. If I let you, why would I let you?”

He felt Mulder’s head nod once, as though to himself, slow and deliberate. “Because,” he said. “Now, I would mean it.”

* * *

The image faded slowly, almost like a Cheshire cat, leaving only Mulder’s joyous smile of surrender, until that faded, too, and all that remained was Krycek’s presence, and a gentle question in Alex’s mind. Are you all right? Shall I continue? It was bitter, and hard, and Alex knew it was no use, but he’d sworn to himself he would hear Krycek out, and if it destroyed him he was going to hold to it. It was submission, at least, and that made it easier to bear. Alex lowered his head, and kissed Krycek’s chest through the fabric of his shirt, and forced a slow nod of assent. Perhaps Krycek could feel Alex’s hopelessness, but he could also feel his determination, and was willing to allow Alex to make the decision. The worst was over, anyway, and the rest of the story should at least not make things any worse. Alex wasn’t quite sure whether that thought was his or Krycek’s. Perhaps it belonged to them both.

Then the images began to form again, and Alex was back in the small bedroom, looking through his brother’s eyes at Mulder, lying beautiful and shining with passion at his side.

* * *

“Good enough,” Krycek said. He grinned suddenly. “Just do yourself a favor and don’t overdo it. Or it’ll start feeling silly, and you’ll lose a perfectly good toy.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Mulder said, doing a good impression of a teenager being lectured about cigarettes. The voice was easy now. Krycek looked at him, and Alex felt that pulse of affection again, flavored now with a new satisfaction: the set of Mulder’s face had changed, little hardnesses around his mouth and eyes, present since Mulder’s arrival on Friday night, were finally gone. There was still a tinge of fatigue in the eyelids and skin, but that was unimportant. What mattered was that for the first time since Friday, Mulder looked completely happy. This had been the right time, then: the Scully business, that Krycek had been saving for a time when Mulder would need its intensity, had done what he had meant for it to do.

Mulder broke into his flush of satisfaction by biting his shoulder. “Come on, what?” he asked. He gave it a long, measuring pause. “Sir.”

Krycek laughed, grabbed Mulder’s shoulder and rolled them over, coming to rest stretched out on top of Mulder, pressing Mulder’s back into the bed. “Just thinking that you may be a self-deluding idiot sometimes, but you’re a cute self-deluding idiot. Give me your arm.” He was already reaching for Mulder’s wrist as he spoke.

Mulder put his wrist into Krycek’s hand. “Why?”

“Because it’s your birthday, my love, and you wants it.” He reached toward the corner of the bed, found the chain, and drew it toward them until the cuff was in his hand.

“You’re setting me up,” Mulder said. “I’m going to be stuck taking some dangerous object to be destroyed, while you get to stay home and screw Alex. Dammit, I knew he was really your fav—” Krycek closed the cuff around his wrist, and the final word turned into a squeak.

“Yeah, well. I’ll show you a good time before you leave.” Krycek moved across Mulder’s body, pausing to kiss his eyelids, and secured Mulder’s left wrist. The chain needed taking up: Mulder had long arms, even for his height. He felt Mulder’s forearm tighten, testing the restraint, and heard the quickening of his breath. “Go ahead and fight them, if you like,” he told Mulder as he moved down the bed to secure his ankles. “That’s what they’re there for.” The ankle chains needed taking up, too. He did it, then turned his attention to Mulder’s right foot, running the backs of his fingers hard up the sole. Mulder was ticklish: a little less pressure and this could be torture of an altogether different sort—he thrust the thought aside. Another time, perhaps.

“One more thing, Mulder,” he said, making his voice serious again. “I want you to understand this: my involvement with Scully is not about you. I thought the time would come when you would be pleased with it, but that’s not why the relationship started, or why it exists now. It’s not a way of getting at you; it’s a real friendship. Don’t lose sight of that.”

Mulder’s trembling was stronger now. “I’m your property, Alex.” His voice was harsh with desire. “You don’t need to give me reasons for what you do.”

Krycek smiled, gently, raising his head so that Mulder could see the smile; then he moved again, and his teeth closed on Mulder’s inner thigh. He felt the muscle clench, the texture hardening against his tongue and teeth. “No, I don’t,” he said at last, raising his head again. “But I want you to remember that anyway. It’ll make a difference to you, later.”

He saw Mulder nod, and let his attention shift at last to the body stretched out beneath him. Mulder was more than ready: giving him more time to play with the cuffs would be no kindness now. It was a shame; but it too could wait for another occasion (and really, Mulder was exquisite like this; he would have to make sure that there were other occasions). But for now, what Mulder needed was his reward, and his release.

He slid along Mulder’s leg, letting his hair brush over Mulder’s skin as he moved; then reached his goal and wrapped mouth and hand around Mulder’s cock.

Mulder groaned and thrust upward. The restraints kept the motion in check, but they could not prevent it, and it would be cruel to require Mulder to control himself despite the bonds. He chuckled, feeling Mulder’s cock twitch in his mouth at the vibration, and moved again, settling one arm across Mulder’s hips, pinning them to the bed, and closing his free hand around Mulder’s scrotum. “Bastard,” he heard Mulder whisper. He answered it with his tongue, heard an uneven gasp from the head of the bed, and turned his attention entirely to Mulder’s cock, imprisoned now between his lips and fingers. He knew Mulder’s cock now, almost as well as he knew Mulder’s mind; and it was a pleasure to have it in his mouth, to give it the same patient, precise attention that he required from Mulder in this act, to make Mulder’s pleasure last, to hear the long sobbing breaths and half-swallowed curses; and at the end, to let Mulder move again, and feel the final loss of control as he thrust helplessly into Krycek’s mouth.

Then the memory was dissolving. Alex had a hazy impression of Mulder collapsed bonelessly against him, looking sleek and contented, and of an absurd, playful conversation about training to resist interrogation, in case Mulder were captured during his trip to Mordor. Then that too was gone, and he was back in his own mind and body, and Krycek was looking at him.

* * *

Alex lay rigid, cradled against Krycek’s body. God, he hated it. It hurt, it hurt, he wanted to scream, and he didn’t even know why—he could see Mulder’s joy in it, and Krycek’s precise care, but still it hurt him. The images replayed crazily in his mind, like a movie that had been chopped into pieces and spliced back together every which way: the cruelty, the pain, the utter devastation. The images seemed to mock him: You see, they said to him, we dance on the edge, we play in fire, we don wings and fly next to the sun, but we don’t fall, and we don’t burn. Foolish of you to dream you could aspire to our heights. Stay on the ground, little fool, stay safe in your silly games, you can’t fly with us. You haven’t got what it takes.

He lay frozen, afraid even to breathe. He’d managed not to cry, not to scream at Krycek to stop, not to interrupt the flow of terrible images into his mind, but he’d had to do it by turning to ice, stiff and brittle and unmoving. He lay still, heart pounding as if it would come through his chest, wishing he could just stay frozen like this forever. But any minute now, Krycek would say something to him, something that required a response. And then he would have to open his mouth, and try to speak, and then the ice would break and all that pain would come flooding in and he couldn’t bear it, he would die.

So very carefully he unlocked his knees, and forced his fists to loosen their grip on Krycek’s shirt, and slowly lifted himself from the couch. He stood unsteadily, feeling as though he were a shard of glass in the wind. Even the breath in his lungs felt icy and sharp.

“Excuse me,” he managed to whisper. Don’t talk to me, please, his mind cried out, and then he forced his feet to move, and stumbled out of the room.

He didn’t really have to go to the bathroom, but he went through the motions, just to have something to do, something to make his limbs move and his body function. Then he stood and stared at himself in the mirror. His eyes were wide and blank; his mouth had a white line around it. Every few moments a shiver ran uncontrollably through his body. You are genetically identical to that man out there, he told himself. Why can’t you do this? How could you possibly have ended up so different, that what he does for fun makes you feel like you’ve been flayed alive?

There wasn’t any answer. Or rather, there was an answer he knew perfectly well, or could figure out easily enough with a few questions and comparisons of their early lives. Not that it would do any good. He was still who he was, and knowing the reasons why wouldn’t make him any less inadequate to his brother’s desires.

Failure, whispered in his mind. Failure failure failure… , like an echo on the wind. He shut his eyes and leaned over the sink, gritting his teeth until the hated word faded away. What ever had possessed him to think he could handle Krycek’s precision psychological attacks? The very first time Krycek said to him, You never do anything right, he would fall irrevocably to pieces. And was there any doubt that Krycek would use that on him? Before Alex had been here one day, Krycek had known exactly where to aim his darts. Even then, Krycek had been holding back, and he’d still nearly destroyed him. So he might as well admit it—he couldn’t play Krycek’s game, and he might as well stop trying. It was all for the best, anyway. What was he doing trying to give himself to Krycek in the first place? He should be thinking about his Mulder, staying true to him, with his heart at least if not with his body, not getting himself further and further in over his head with this dangerous and beautiful other self. So he couldn’t be the lover his brother wanted, well never mind. Just be the lover Mulder wants. (If he’ll even have anything to do with you. If you ever get home. If you can be what he wants—he wants someone innocent and unsullied, not a used-up jaded leather faggot.)

Alex choked back a sob and shook his head fiercely. Not helpful. And the conversation with Krycek wasn’t over. So he’d better go out there and tell him the truth—that one thing at least he could give his brother.

But once in the hallway he paused, not quite ready yet to face it. And, without really intending it, he found himself opening the door to the small bedroom and going inside. Here where Krycek had bound and drugged him; where Mulder had tormented and whipped him. Strange that this place still seemed to him to be a sanctuary. But he did find it cozy and comforting. Even the shackles welded to the legs of the bed seemed reassuring somehow. Mulder knew the feel of these now—well, it was about time. He was Krycek’s favorite, most precious lover. It wasn’t right that Alex should get what Mulder was denied. And now that Krycek had decided to play these games with his best beloved, he had even less need of Alex. His face burned in shame. How had he dared to ask Krycek to whip him, to hope that Krycek might find him worthy of beating? He lifted the sheet and climbed under, feeling foolish but unable to stop himself. Just for a few minutes, he thought. He’d lie here and pull himself together, and let his mind untwist, and then perhaps he’d be able to find words to explain to Krycek what was at the moment just an inarticulate mass of shrieking pain. He curled up on his side, clutching the pillow in his arms, and tried to relax.

He waited out a hundred breaths, then another fifty. His knuckles were still white where they gripped the pillow. His teeth still clenched, and occasional shivering fits racked his body. Why did you make me see that? he wanted to wail. It isn’t fair. Why did I have to watch what you do to Mulder? But that was foolish. He’d asked for it; it wasn’t Krycek’s fault it was more than Alex could bear. It wasn’t even anything horrible or wrong. Mulder wanted it. Krycek wanted it. It was only Alex who hated it.

And Krycek would want to know why. Alex wasn’t sure he could explain. He wasn’t sure he even knew why, he only knew it hurt. Maybe talking to Krycek would help him figure it out. Maybe that would help it to hurt a little less. Alex hadn’t any real hope for it, but it didn’t matter. It was what Krycek wanted, so he had to do it.

* * *

In the living room, Krycek was waiting on the couch, much as Alex had left him, but now with a snifter of brandy in his hand, and another on the table beside him. He didn’t speak, but set his own glass down, and pressed the other into Alex’s hand as he sat. He was, as usual, patient and calm, with only a trace of worry lining his brow. He held his mind carefully beyond the boundary between them, carving out a space for Alex to settle into, like the space on the couch where Alex sat, next to his brother but not touching.

Alex took a large swallow of the brandy, choking back the cough that wanted to follow it, closing his eyes for a moment as the heat streaked through his body. His head felt like wind chimes chittering, and his muscles tingled and turned to water. He took another swallow, then reached across Krycek to set the glass down. Then he took a deep breath, and settled at Krycek’s side, head on Krycek’s shoulder and arm tucked tightly around his chest.

It was a few moments before he could find his voice, and when he did, it was fragile and wavery. “I’m not saying no to you,” he began softly. “I don’t refuse you anything.” He gave a small, hiccuping laugh. “I already told you you could kill me if you thought it was necessary, so it seems a little foolish to balk at anything less. You can do anything you want with me.” That was the easy part. Now was the hard part. “But if you need me to put on a pretty show for you, like Mulder does, I can’t do it. I wish I could. I would do it if I could. I’m sorry.”

“I have told you once, I have told you twice. What I tell you three times is true.…” Krycek was shaking his head. “Alex, I do not need you to do what Mulder does, or want what Mulder wants. If I were only bothering with you because I was biding my time, just waiting for the moment when you were ready to be shaped into another Mulder, you’d have been sleeping alone since your second day here. I know you’re not Mulder. You’re the one who’s hell-bent on attempting to be Mulder for me, despite objections in every nerve of your body.” He sat up a little straighter and caught Alex’s eye. “I think it’s probably inevitable that you’d develop a little hero-worship of Mulder, under all the circumstances. So it’s just as inevitable that you’d feel right now that being like Mulder is the most wonderful thing you could aspire to, and the thing that would make everyone around you love you the most. But it’s a little like being a kid, and having a big sister who’s all gorgeous and grown up, and the most glamorous thing you’ve ever seen; and all you want in the world is to be just like her. It’s a natural feeling, all right—but the fact of the matter still is that you’re going to be a lot more desirable in jeans and a leather jacket than in her stockings and prom dress.

“We’re having this discussion because you keep saying you want to dress up in that prom outfit. I already know you don’t look good in it. And you know what? I’m not disappointed, because I also already know that you do look perfectly luscious in the leather jacket. Okay?”

Alex nodded obediently. His head ached, and any minute now he was going to start crying again. Krycek was angry with him—well, exasperated, at least—and he was trying so hard, but he just couldn’t seem to please him. “But I… I didn’t ask you to take me like Mulder. Something for us, I said. Take me the way you want me. I don’t understand, I thought this was what you wanted. Why did you make me see that, if it wasn’t what you wanted?” And then he was sobbing, and the tears were harsh and painful, and tore at his heart.

Krycek squeezed his shoulder. “No, you didn’t say you wanted me to treat you the way I do Mulder. But you weren’t going to accept anything else.” The comforting grip of Krycek’s hand and the softness in his voice made an odd contrast with the implacable words. “You’ve got two sets of feelings going on, and they’ve run smack into each other. I know that you want to find a way to ‘play my game,’ as you say, so that it’s right for us. But you’re crazy about Mulder: so crazy about him that you can’t believe anything I’m not getting from him could possibly be anything but second best. So you decide that the way I treat Mulder must be the Platonic form of what I want; and you’re convinced I’m bored or making some unpleasant concession to your inadequacy if I don’t treat you the way I treat Mulder. Until you believe that I do not think you would be improved by being more like Mulder, you’re not going to believe that I don’t secretly want to treat you exactly the way I treat him. And until you believe that you would not be improved by being more like Mulder, you’re not going to stop trying to play his game, no matter how painful or harmful it is for you. It’s brave as hell, but it’s also silly and pointless, and I don’t like to see you hurting yourself like this for no good reason.”

He stopped, and Alex felt him shake his head. “And you’re in no shape for strategic analysis. Let me try it another way. Look, do you compare me to your Mulder every time you touch me?”

Alex fought himself under control, swallowed hard, and forced himself to answer, even though his words were full of little gasps and hiccups. “No, of course not. But you’re you.” And Krycek wasn’t going to accept that without explanation, and that was a road Alex didn’t want to go down. Try another tack. “I don’t want to be like Mulder. I just want to please you, but I don’t know how. And you won’t tell me what to do. So I have to guess, and all I have to go on is the way you are with Mulder.” He felt his throat go tight again, and tears spill from his eyes. “I see how you are with him. It’s beautiful. Intricate and elegant and grand. I feel how you feel about him, the joy you have in him, how beautiful he is to you. How am I supposed to look at that and not think that’s what you want? How am I not supposed to feel inadequate, knowing I can’t ever give you anything even close?” He stopped for one wracking sob. “Do I fill your head with images of how much I love my Mulder, and how beautiful he is to me? How can I not compare myself to him, when you do that?”

For a long few minutes, Krycek held him close, saying nothing. “But, Alex,” he said finally. “I have told you what would please me. Repeatedly. You just haven’t been able to hear it. What would please me, from you, is for you to stop believing in your own worthlessness. What I want from Mulder is irrelevant. And if you think back, you may notice that except for just now, when I am with you I do not fill your head up with images of Mulder, link or no link. And it may also occur to you that the reason is that I am not thinking about Mulder, or at least, not thinking about him any more than I think about you when I’m with him. Under the circumstances, if I thought you were tedious and inadequate, don’t you think you’d know?

He held Krycek hard, gritting his teeth against the little whispers that tickled around the edges of his mind. Accusing whispers of Failure. Krycek wanted him to make that voice go away, just like that. Didn’t he think Alex would have done it years ago, if he only knew how? And if that was what Krycek wanted—he was no more capable of that than he was of becoming Mulder.

So perhaps this was it. He just couldn’t give Krycek what he wanted. Maybe it was time to just admit it, and forget about it. It would be hard, but in a way it would be a relief, not to have to try any more. Not to have to struggle, just to let go. That was what being a submissive was all about, wasn’t it? Giving up, letting go. Nothing to prove, nothing to fight against, no way to fail. Just lie back and take it. Take the bonds, take the whipping, take the abuse. You’re bad, you’re stupid, you’re nothing—but it doesn’t matter, because it’s part of the game, and you’re supposed to be bad.

But not the way Krycek played it. Because to Krycek, it wasn’t a game. And you weren’t supposed to just lie there and take it, you were supposed to be clever and think and give it back to him.

Alex’s head ached. He didn’t want to think, he wanted to go back to the small bedroom and hide under the covers. He wanted to find a leather bar, and someone who’d give him a nice beating and not ask any questions.

But he wouldn’t. I am not stupid, he told himself sternly. I can figure this out. And as long as Krycek was sitting here patiently, willing to go on for as long as it took to thrash it out, Alex would, too.

He reached for his brandy, and took another swallow. “I know,” he said finally. “It’s not you who thinks I’m inadequate, it’s me. But I don’t know how to stop feeling that way.”

“No, I know it’s not that easy.” To his astonishment, Krycek was smiling, a radiant smile of pure approval, as though Alex had finally gotten it. “It goes deep, you’re not going to just be able to turn it off by sheer will. But I think you could be untaught it. And I think I’d like that. And so, if we’re going to play my game, then that’s the game plan. For you.” His hand shifted to the back of Alex’s neck, and now there was a hint of sensuality in his touch. “It’ll take a while to get all the way there, but if it were going to be easy, it wouldn’t be interesting enough to be fun.

“So that’s the game. It’s exactly the game I play with Mulder, really. The plan is different, and the style is different, because you’re different; but when you were playing football, you didn’t run the same play every time you went out on the field, either. If you’d tried, you’d have lost all the time, and besides, you’d all have been bored out of your minds. Right?”

The hand on his neck was sending delightful little tingles all the way down to his toes. Alex snuggled closer. “Yeah,” he sighed, a little breathlessly. “It’s all right. Whatever you say.” Something for Alex, a game plan just for him: that was good. And so was Krycek’s brilliant smile, and the pulse of pleasure that came along with it. Some of the harsh pain inside him began to unknot.

A game plan for Alex. How would Krycek do it? That wasn’t for him to worry about, really, that would be Krycek’s choice. But he couldn’t help wondering. And he was frightened, too—he was glad to have Krycek’s special attention, just for him, but it was no use pretending he was looking forward to having his insecurities probed by Krycek’s unrelenting honesty. He was frightened, but it wasn’t a bad fear. It was a delicate flutter in his stomach; a slight current of adrenaline, quickening his pulse and heightening his senses. It was the fear of the whip, and it was good.

He rubbed his cheek against Krycek’s chest, and kissed his collarbone. “I’ll work hard for you,” he said, and he could hear the heat in his voice. “Thank you for my game plan.”

“You’re welcome.” Krycek reached over and took the glass out of his hand. “And I know you’ll work hard. But don’t worry too much about thanking me. Trust me, you’re not exactly a charity case.” He laughed suddenly, and his body changed, took on a focused grace of motion that Alex recognized as Krycek’s weight hit him. He fell back into the cushions with Krycek on top of him, laughing himself, and struggled against the body pressing down into his as ineffectually as he could manage. It was hard to put aside all his own knowledge of wrestling, to make a show of resistance without letting it become a real contest; but it was good to feel Krycek’s muscles under his hands, to twist up against Krycek’s body, to feel Krycek play at subduing him and pin him down at last. He felt Krycek’s mind, too, sliding close to his once more. “First lesson,” Krycek whispered, close to his ear. “I want you to pay attention here. Don’t worry about what you think. Just see whether I think you’re good enough.”

Krycek’s lips brushed across his cheek, then came down hard on his mouth. A shiver went through him that was pure pleasure. Alex let his head fall back and opened his mouth to it, luxuriating in the kiss, while Krycek held his wrists pinned to the sofa cushions. He let himself pull against Krycek’s strong grip just a little, not to try to escape, but to enjoy the feel of being held in place. He squirmed, trying to get his leg out from under Krycek, to get it braced on the couch. Krycek’s body on top of him, trapping him, sent sparks of heat to his groin.

It would be easy enough to forget everything else, to just sink into the physical pleasure of being taken like this, sweet and rough and simple. But he had a lesson to learn. Krycek had told him to pay attention, and he intended to follow that order. So he opened his mind, and let his brother’s thoughts and feelings come in.

Nothing changed. There was a moment of disorientation, like trying to step down a nonexistent final stair when you were already at the bottom of the staircase, and then everything was familiar again. There was heat at his groin, and a sweet mouth pressed into his, and a powerful body wrestling playfully with him; and all those things were delicious, exactly what he wanted. Only—he felt another little shock, like falling—the struggling body was underneath him, and the beautiful wide eyes he was looking into were his own. Krycek’s thoughts wove through the array of physical sensations: Alex could feel his pleasure in the wrestling match itself (it was a rare luxury to have a partner who could play this game, who had the strength and the ability to enjoy it, Krycek seemed to think, although Alex did not understand why that should be); in what Krycek seemed to see as Alex’s beauty; in the texture of the skin under his fingers and lips; in the exhilarating perfection of their bodies’ communication, so complete and so effortless that any misunderstanding between them seemed for this moment impossible; and most of all, simply in Alex’s company.

And yes, there was a thought about indulgence, flashing through amidst the others, but it was not the thought Alex feared. Krycek was not indulging Alex’s weaknesses, or even thinking about Alex’s preferences: he thought, incredibly, that this was pure self-indulgence, and precisely what he wanted.

The nagging voices inside his own mind fell silent. It was curious to go under like this, when there was no pain, and only the first stirrings of physical pleasure: no sensation strong enough to force thought aside. Curious, but lovely; he was not going to question it. He let his body do as it willed, felt himself surrender into Krycek’s hold, and at the same instant felt it through Krycek’s mind and body, as though it were his own hands that felt the telltale slackening in Alex’s muscles, his own legs that felt the loosening in the body beneath his, his own cock that sent a single clean beat of pleasure through him at the victory.

And then there was thought again, a half-amused annoyance that was not quite his, that curled like smoke in and around the pleasure. A vision of kicked-over brandy and ruined computer disks, and Krycek’s voice, clear as words: I hate being a grownup, the instant you’re old enough to do it on the couch without worrying about your parents walking in, you’re also old enough to know you’ll be sorry if you trash the place, and then a slow, hazy sensation of gathering purpose. Bedroom, that purpose said; and when Krycek rolled off Alex an instant later, and pulled Alex to his feet, Alex could not tell whether it was his own will or Krycek’s that moved him.

He felt the hand on his wrist, and the wrist under his hand. He felt himself being pulled along, and he felt himself pulling. He saw himself walking behind his brother, and before. There was a slight awkwardness to his gait, trying to discern which pair of legs was his… but that was Krycek, not Alex, who was content to follow, letting his feet go where his brother led. So he closed his eyes, and the double vision disappeared, and all he saw was the hallway in front of him, and the awkwardness was gone, replaced by an amused approval that warmed his belly.

Then, at the bedroom door, he suddenly stepped aside—or Krycek did, jerking Alex forward and tossing him into the room ahead of him, herding him in with a sharp slap on his butt.

Alex stumbled into the bedroom, suddenly open-eyed and back in his own head, and stopped short, staring at Krycek with a delighted grin. The stinging handprint on his butt sent heat shooting to his groin. And the thought from his brother matched the smile that curled on his brother’s lip: it said that he was enjoying the contest, and wasn’t quite ready to take his final victory yet, not while the mouse had a little more play in it. And Krycek had never looked more feline, as he stood there before Alex, eyes glowing like polished jade, body tensed and powerful and ever so beautiful. Alex’s heart swelled with beautiful happiness, to be in the presence of such beauty, to be the focus of his desire. Then he blinked, and saw another Krycek, and it was Alex—his face lit up with eagerness, open and willing, body poised and strong, yearning toward his brother. And Alex was beautiful, too—at least, in the eyes he was looking through, which were his brother’s, which were his own.

Alex’s throat tightened, and it all threatened to overwhelm him, when he felt the tendrils of thought following the vision—not so much in words, but in attitude and feeling. Pleasure and invitation and teasing challenge: Can you take it? the thought whispered. Can you make it hard for me to win?

With a laugh, he launched himself at Krycek, carrying them both to the bed, and the wrestling match began again in earnest. There was room now for them to struggle without restraint, and to make their contest as hard as it suited them. And Krycek made it hard, responding instantly to Alex’s moves, measuring Alex’s joy in the physical contest against his own, and giving back measure for measure.

The feedback loop of the link was as strong and sharp as an electric current. Sensations of flexing muscle, powerful grip, heft and leverage flowed between them, doubling and tripling and soaring: Alex’s pleasure in Krycek’s fingers around his bicep; Krycek’s in Alex’s bicep under his fingers; Alex’s in Krycek’s pleasure in his pleasure.…

And then, as the contest intensified, the balance began to shift. Gradually at first, as Krycek felt Alex’s throbbing responses to fingers tightened to the point of pain, an elbow digging sharply into ribs, a knee striking against shinbone: Alex welcomed the pain, and delighted in it, each jab another hot burst to his cock. He made no attempt to hurt back, still playing the game as he knew it, struggling hard, but his moves began to lose their edge, and his mind cried out for more sensation. So Krycek provided it, with training Alex didn’t have, moves he clearly hadn’t learned in college. Little tricks that were designed not just to immobilize, but to cause pain. Sudden jabs at nerves, twists to joints, so quickly applied and released that even with the link wide open, Alex had no warning, no chance even to gasp and cry out until it was over, and he didn’t even know what Krycek had done to send these delicious shocks of pain through him.

Alex fought back, no longer with skill, but with wild pleasure, while the pressure built, until his whole body was vibrating with it. His vision began to go red, and the Forever Place beckoned, and it was so good his heart wanted to break.

At last, the overwhelming sensation took him, and with a cry and a shudder he slipped away to the Forever Place, to the warm dark, where everything was good and nothing wrong could happen. His body surrendered and sprawled as if dropped to lie here, face crushed into the linen sheets, one arm trapped beneath him and the other twisted behind his back, one knee drawn up awkwardly, and he felt his heart pound, and the breath tear in his lungs, and the sweetness of surrender.

One long, timeless moment existed, in which there was nothing but the mattress and its rumpled linen sheets, and the steaming denim of his jeans and cotton tee shirt twisted around his body, the cool currents of air wafting across his neck and arms, and the deep satisfaction in the weary and aching throb in his muscles. And one more thing—the presence of his brother, so intertwined with his own presence that he could barely separate what was Alex from what was Krycek. And this was the most profound joy of all—one consciousness, one will, and Alex was safe at last.

A hand stroked his hair, and a gentle thought formed. It was a good contest, Little Brother. Alex’s smile was only in his mind, but that was all right, his brother could see it there. The hand moved down his neck and shoulders, smoothing the fabric of Alex’s tee shirt, moving the arm that was twisted up behind his back to lie comfortably at his side. Alex sighed with pleasure—he was long minutes away from stirring his relaxed muscles into motion, and he would have been content to stay as he’d fallen, but it was a warm comfort to accept his lover’s care. Krycek then began to work Alex’s other arm out from under him. And as he rearranged his other self’s body, his constant shifting skeins of thought played along the edges of their consciousness.

Alex made no effort to untangle those skeins, but it was soothing to drift among them, and to pick up the little strands like seashells on the beach, feeling their fine texture and enjoying their color, then dropping them as he passed by. There were thoughts of endorphins and trance visions; the piercing festival of Kuala Lumpur and the Native American Sun Dance. Krycek was visiting the Forever Place, Alex realized, and suddenly he giggled, and his limbs were working again, so he rolled over onto his side and slid into Krycek’s embrace, snuggling up to him like an affectionate kitten.

He felt Krycek’s answering smile, and knew that Krycek saw the kitten-movements too. The braid of thought flowed on, but Krycek reached down to one of his hands, opened it and pressed his thumb lightly against Alex’s palm the way you did to see a kitten’s claws. He stifled another giggle and stretched his fingers out, working the fingertips up and down as though they were indeed tipped with claws. Now Krycek laughed, too, and the voice was Krycek’s physical voice, low and close to his ear, the singsong murmur you used to pets: “There, yes, what a good kitten.…”

He was content to lie still and listen to it, and to feel Krycek’s hands moving through his hair and down his back as though he really were a cat, and to listen to the flow of Krycek’s thoughts behind it all, quiet and ceaseless like the sound of a river over the stones of its bed.

Presently he was aware of a change in that river of thought, a shift in tone as though it narrowed and gathered itself for a leap down a fall of rapids. Krycek’s voice changed with it and fell silent; and when he spoke again it was to Alex, not to the Alex-cat. “Thank you, Little Brother. That is extraordinary.” There was truth in his voice, and in the deep harmony of thought underlying the words; and Alex knew that he was speaking of the whole of the experience, of Alex’s body and of the company of his mind, and of the Forever Place that he had never seen before. And you know, a deep thought came abruptly to the surface, no one else could have given me that. You know that so thoroughly that there’s no reason to even say it aloud. On the edges of that there was a sudden self-mocking afterthought: —and if you’re not vain of sending me to the Forever Place, mon ami, then I acquit you of any vanity, here and for all time.

Alex felt the beginnings of tears pricking behind his eyes. They were good tears, his body’s acknowledgement of the warmth he felt in Krycek’s mind, of the solid truth of his pleasure and affection; but those feelings were too strong for this moment. He would look at them and understand them, but he was not ready to do that yet.

“You purr,” Krycek said abruptly.

It stopped the tears at once. “I what?

Krycek’s fingers moved over his head and down his spine in a long cat-skritch. “You purr. Just like a cat that some wizard has shape-shifted into a man.” He laughed suddenly and pulled away from Alex, and pulled the sheet over his arm. His fist made a lump in the bed between them—a lump that moved in sudden darting lines, punctuated by twitching pauses: a cat toy. Alex gathered himself up, feeling his eyes widen and fix on the moving lump, his lips pull back in a smile that showed his teeth, suppressed an urge to wiggle his rump, and pounced.

It was a brief and silly romp, full of laughter and cat-yowls, in which the bedclothes grew even more rumpled as Alex and Krycek scrambled playfully around the bed, Alex cheerfully chasing Krycek’s teasing hand. It ended abruptly, with Alex crouched on hands and knees, mouth open on Krycek’s ribcage, teeth pressing lightly against the flesh beneath the shirt, and held perfectly still by Krycek’s strong grip on the scruff of his neck. His heart thudded from the renewed exertion, and his cock began to burn, more insistently this time, eager for release. It was good, just like this, with Krycek’s fingers digging painfully into his neck, teeth poised to bite, groin throbbing, and he let the moment stretch out, waiting.

It was his move, Alex realized. Krycek was waiting, too, to see what Alex would do next. Fight or submit? Alex sent a questing thought into Krycek’s mind, trying to find some guidance, something to tell him what to do, but Krycek was silent, cool and patient, leaving it up to Alex. He had to make up his own mind.

Fight or submit? He could sink his teeth into Krycek’s flesh, squirm and struggle and take the consequences. He imagined how it would feel: his teeth closing, the mouthful of hot fabric and flesh, the hand striking him, fingers tightening around his neck, shaking him harshly, beating him.… His throbbing cock urged him to bite. It would be good to be overpowered, to be punished, to be brought down.

But it would be good to submit, too. What a good kitten, he remembered, the soothing tones and the gentle strokes, and it might be foolishness and play, but he found that he wanted it. He did not want to be a bad kitten today. Not with Krycek; perhaps not at all. So he let his back and shoulders relax, and lifted his teeth from Krycek’s ribs, replacing them with his soft mouth and gentle cat-rasps of his tongue. Nice human, he thought. Kitten wouldn’t harm it. And he found the deep, thrumming growl in his throat that Krycek called his purr, and he purred happily.

Krycek reached up to stroke his head. “Yes, I know, of course you’re good,” he said. The soothing pet-murmur was back. “You just get a little excited sometimes.” He pulled Alex down on top of him, then Alex felt both Krycek’s hands on his head, feeling its shape as though they were modelling it. The hands moved downward, along his neck and shoulders, and though the touch was gentle enough, the hands themselves were tense with effort, as if some power worked through them. Alex could feel the purpose in it, without having to look into Krycek’s mind: it was a magician’s touch. Krycek was turning him back into a man.

“I’m not quite sure,” Krycek said. He seemed to be talking to himself rather than answering Alex’s thought. “Are you a man who was turned into a cat, or a cat turned into a man?” Then he was talking to Alex once more. “A good thing for me either way, I suppose. I don’t know whether I could have sex with a cat. Even a very large one.”

Alex giggled, rubbing his cheek against Krycek’s neck. But he was a little disappointed, too—he wasn’t quite ready to stop being a cat yet. He formed the image in his mind, let himself flow into it, concentrating on the physical sensations: the powerful muscles of his shoulders and haunches, working easily under skin covered with a thick pelt of sleek, black fur. Four sinewy legs carrying him, the tough pads of his paws, sharp, strong claws sheathed within, falling steadily on the rough ground. His long tail held level with the ground, stretching out behind him, tip twitching in the wind. Long, sensitive whiskers tasting the air before his face, sharp ears catching every small sound, scents floating past his nostrils. He was a shiny black panther, with bright emerald eyes, striding along confidently.

—And then there was a man striding along beside him. A tall man, strong and graceful and feline as the panther at his side. A man with silky dark hair and eyes like liquid jade, wearing silk and leather and a long black velvet cloak, with an amulet at his neck and power crackling through his fingers. The smile at his mouth was slightly ironic, and his booted feet landed on the ground as if they owned it. He was a wizard of great skill; and in one hand he casually held a silken rope, that attached to a fine jeweled collar fitted around the neck of the panther, his magical familiar.

* * *

Alex laughed with sheer delight. Krycek had come into his mind to play along with him. A fantasy for two, shared directly, mind to mind—who could have ever imagined it? A whole world for them to play in, as vast and wondrous and real as their imaginations could make it. No props necessary, no concessions to mundane reality, no physical limitations. If Alex wanted to be a cat, he could be a cat. And Krycek could be as powerful a wizard as pleased him.

* * *

Gradually, a fantastical city took shape around them: bright, golden buildings with crystal windows like jewels, topped with tall spires and colorful banners flying. The street beneath their feet was sun-warmed red cobblestone, worn smooth by many years of townsfolk’s boots. Other men and women walked along the street, tall, fine-looking people in soft woven wool and shiny black leather, decorated with heavy silver and bright silk. Some wore daggers at their belts, or shortswords, or curved scimitars. All nodded respectfully to the wizard as they passed, while giving a wide berth to him and his cat-familiar.

The cat purred loudly as he walked, feeling the vibrations all the way into his chest, and tickling against the smooth leather of the collar at his throat. His bright eyes observed the people as they passed, noting the flesh of their arms, the muscles of their thighs, and the scents of apprehension about them as they carefully kept their distance from him. Not that their puny efforts could protect them. With a leap and a snap of his powerful jaws, he could fill his mouth with bone and blood and flesh, and crunch it between his teeth, and it would be hot and good. But he would not, for he was no ordinary cat—he was a wizard’s familiar, and the pleasure he got from striding along at his master’s side, with his master’s power upon him, outweighed all other pleasures.

So they walked together, wizard and familiar. The sun warmed the cat’s coat, soaking into his thick, black fur. His hefty paws slapped against the cobblestone. The leather collar with its sparkling gems tugged gently at his neck, as the silken rope swung between them.

The sun also warmed the wizard’s cloak, and the light breeze drifted through his hair. He smiled as he walked, as the crowds parted around them to let them pass. He smiled with pleasure at his power, at the fresh, clean brightness of the day, and at the beauty and wild strength of the cat-familiar walking with him, matching him stride for stride, bound to him not by collar and rope, nor by sorcery, nor by fear, but simply by abiding devotion to him.

* * *

(Alex pressed his face to the hollow of Krycek’s shoulder, hugging him tightly, mind wide open and shimmering with delight, and he walked beside his brother in a world built entirely from their desire.)

* * *

The sun was bright, and their power was glorious to them both, but eventually they came to the edge of the shining city, and the wizard’s lair. It was a tall, narrow castle of stone and dark wood, with grinning gargoyles crouching along the eaves, and faceted oval windows that blinked like huge eyes in the sunlight. The cat-familiar prowled around the main entryway, tail twitching, twining around the wizard’s legs as he worked the spells to open the door, slinking beneath the wizard’s cloak, dragging it along behind him with his tail.

“Hold still,” the wizard laughed, thumping the cat’s broad back with his palm. And the cat stopped abruptly, letting his body fall to the ground, rolling half onto his back with one front leg lifted high, paw playfully snatching at the air. His emerald eyes gazed up at the wizard soulfully.

“Yes, I know you want to play. Soon. I have another game in mind.”

Chasing rats, the cat imaged cheerfully. Big, fat, juicy, squeaky rats. Catch them with claws, make them run.…

The door clicked and swung open, and the wizard stepped inside. The cat casually licked one front claw, feigning a complete lack of interest in the interior of the house. Then in one liquid motion he was on his feet, following the wizard across the threshold. The wizard reached down to stroke the cat’s broad head, fingering his soft black ears. “No rats. Something else today. You’ll like it, but we have to change your form first.”

The cat’s tail drooped down between his hind legs. But he dutifully preceded the wizard up the stairs, keeping his body crouched low, sniffing the air before him, touching each step with his whiskers before putting his paws on it, as if dire enemies lurked in every corner, on which he must be ready to pounce in protection of the master.

They made it safely to the bedroom, unmolested by cutthroats and demons. The room was large and filled with comforts: a magnificent bed, piled high with mattresses, thick pillows and plush, silky coverlets. At its foot, the cat’s bed lay, a jumble of wide velvet cushions and soft wool blankets, comfortably twisted and shredded by teeth and claws. Across from the bed, taking up most of the side wall, was a vast chest, carved from the trunk of a mighty black oak, on which bottles and jars of glass and porcelain and gemstone ranged. At the far wall, beneath a row of gem-cut oval windows, streams of water spilled through the flutes of a crystal fountain, and beams of rainbow light pooled in the floor. The cat-familiar poked his whiskers into each corner of the room, then, satisfied that the room was suitable for his master, went to sit at the wizard’s feet, tail curled around his haunches.

The wizard lowered himself to one knee, took the cat’s powerful shoulders in his hands, and rubbed his cheek against the cat’s soft, warm fur. The cat leaned into his master, his broad head nudging against the wizard’s chest, luxuriating in the touch of his master’s hands. He purred loudly, one large front paw reaching out to rest against the wizard’s thigh, claws half-extended, kneading gently.

“What a fine fellow you are,” the wizard murmured, as he unbuckled the collar from his familiar’s neck, and placed it on the oak chest. “You’ll be just as fine in human form.”

* * *

(Krycek’s hands stroked down to Alex’s waist, and began to pull his tee-shirt up. Alex shifted, allowing himself to be undressed, while his fingers played along Krycek’s chest and arms.)

* * *

The wizard’s hands stroked the cat’s body, working their magic, molding the cat’s body into a new shape. He spoke quiet spells, soothing the cat-familiar with soft words that focussed and enhanced his magic.

The cat’s sleek black fur disappeared into smooth white skin; shoulders broadened and rounded; paw pads stretched out into slender, agile fingers; long tail shrank away into a dimpled tailbone. The cat-familiar became a man-familiar, green-eyed and dark-haired, sitting naked and disoriented in the wizard’s bedroom floor.

The wizard continued to stroke him, feeling smooth, soft skin beneath his fingers instead of fur. “There’s a good fellow,” he said, patting the man’s shoulder encouragingly. Then he stood and stepped back, to allow his familiar time to accustom himself to his new body.

The man looked around the room, blinking, then down at his own body. He flexed his fingers, touched his own chest with his fingertips, then stretched out his legs and carefully, a little awkwardly, pushed himself to his feet. He opened his mouth and made a sound, not quite cat but not yet quite human. He took a few tentative steps, found the method of locomotion satisfactory, and took a few more. With each movement, he settled further into his new self, becoming more graceful and elegant. He smiled, stretched, and took several small, dancing steps, and found them good. Happily, he chased one of the rainbows of light across the floor, then bent down to slap at it, fascinated at the way the light trickled through his fingers and dappled the back of his hand.

He stood, and hopped onto his bed, feeling the cushions beneath his soft, naked feet, catching one of the pillows that was trying to run away. His eye was caught by the sparkling, jeweled collar lying on the chest. That had been around his neck, he remembered, and he liked it there. He went over to the chest and reached out to touch it, gingerly, with one finger. “Pretty,” he said.

“Yes, it is,” the wizard agreed, smiling. The magic had worked well: the man-familiar was beautiful, elegant and feline, his bright eyes full of wonder and curiosity. And he had speech, which was important, especially if one meant to engage him in activities that required his consent, though his thoughts still had a definite cattish flavor.

The familiar batted at the collar, watched it slide an inch or two across the smooth oak top of the chest, snatched at it to stop its flight. He looked at the wizard with a hopeful smile. “Mine?”

“No, mine,” the wizard corrected. Ownership to a cat no doubt meant the thing would end up in shreds all over the floor.

The familiar nodded, happy enough with the answer. Everything belonged to the wizard, as far as he was concerned—the entire city and the people in it, the countryside, the beasts of the wood and the flying things of the air—all belonged to his master, including the familiar, of whom the wizard took very good care, so he had nothing to complain of.

“Play?” he asked then, remembering that the wizard had promised a game, and wanting to test this strange new body, naked of fur, that stood upright on hind legs, with funny front paws that wanted to grip things.

“Think a little more about what you’re saying, my pretty pet,” the wizard encouraged. “Try to speak in sentences. You’re a bright fellow, I know you can do it.”

Pretty pet. The familiar liked that: pretty like the collar, all sparkly jewels, and pet—being taken care of and petted, master’s kind, firm hands stroking—he liked being petted. He wanted to purr, but his throat wouldn’t make the accustomed noises, so, “Pretty pet,” he whispered instead. But the wizard had asked him to speak in sentences. Tedious, troublesome sentences—why waste words when the meaning was clear? His ears wanted to lay back, but he couldn’t do that either. Tedious human form. Can’t purr, can’t lay ears back, can’t twitch tail—so perhaps there was some use for these sentence things after all. “Like being.…” He stopped and frowned, and tried again. “I like being master’s pretty pet.”

“Very good.” The wizard stepped forward and took the familiar in his arms, and oh, that was nice—two bodies of the same form, the same size, chests pressed together, so much of the master’s body lying against sensitive naked skin, sweet tingly warmth curling in his groin, arms to encircle master’s back and hold him tight. These bodies fit very well together, and the sparkly warmth between his legs promised pleasures of which the cat-body had no knowledge. Was this the game the wizard had spoken of?

The familiar wanted to play the game, but how to say it to please the master? Troublesome sentences. “I want to play.” The familiar frowned into the collar of the wizard’s cloak, and wriggled a little in frustration—which felt good, so he did it again. It was true enough, but not quite right. It was what the familiar wanted, but seemed not to concern itself enough with what the wizard wanted. Always serve the master—first and foremost, that was what pleased the familiar. “If it pleases the master. Please.” That was better. “Please play with me.” Sparkly warm feelings accompanied the words. Yes, very nice—another happy thing about sentences, that the right ones felt almost as good as wriggling against his master’s body.

The wizard liked it, too. There was a laugh in his voice as he replied, “I have every intention of playing with you, pretty pet. Now, see how you like this.” And he put his mouth on the familiar’s, and let his hot tongue run over the familiar’s lips.

The familiar liked it very much. Mouths fit together, tongues tasted each other’s wet warmth, small flat teeth stayed out of the way. Kissing was very good—a human thing, and this alone made it worth giving up his purr and his long tail for a while. It was sweet to stand here with his body crushed against his master’s, fingers clutching at the soft velvet of master’s cloak, mouth open wide, kissing, holding, rubbing. The warmth at his groin kindled to heat, became a need, demanding something he had only the vaguest notion of.

The wizard broke the kiss, and the familiar clung to his master’s neck, gasping for breath. “Feels good,” he whispered hotly. “I like kissing you.”

“I like it, too,” the wizard replied, “But give me a moment to undress. There’s more I want to show you.” And he was drawing away, gently disentangling himself from the familiar’s arms.

* * *

(Krycek, too, moved away from Alex on the bed, and began to pull his clothing off, while Alex lay with his eyes closed, hands reaching out unconsciously for his brother, lost deep in their fantasy.)

* * *

The familiar paced, wanting to help, to feel the wizard’s body under his hands, but he was unsure of the complexities of clothing, and in any case his master had moved away, not inviting him to join in. But the clothes slipped off quickly enough, and the wizard stood before him naked and fine. His was a splendid body, the familiar thought, smooth and pink and rippling with strong muscles. Beautiful master. He loved his master’s face, his big round eyes the color of summer forests, his master’s chest with its small brown nipples, his master’s sinewy legs, so straight and tall. And master’s fine hard column of manhood, jutting out from the dark fur between his legs, blushing red from the hot, salty blood pulsing within. The familiar’s tongue flicked over his lips, wanting to lick and suck. He paced, wanting, breath hot in his lungs.

“I want… I want.…” The words chased around in his mind, like little black rats, refusing to be caught. “Please let me touch you, with my mouth—your cock, I want it in my mouth.…”

The wizard stepped forward, placing a gentling hand on the familiar’s shoulder. “Yes,” was all he said, but it was enough. The familiar sank down, so grateful for the hard floor pressing into his knees, the nakedness of his body, and the master’s hard cock before his mouth. Here was another advantage to human form—the ability to kneel to his master, to submit to him, to serve him this way. He put his hands on the wizard’s thighs, and brought his lips to the shaft, mouthed it, curled his tongue around it. The column grew more erect at the touch of his lips, and the muscles of the wizard’s thighs tightened in his grip.

* * *

(On the bed, Alex had moved down between Krycek’s legs, and taken Krycek’s cock in his mouth, barely noticing the requisite condom in his pleasure of the fantasy, where there were no barriers between them.)

* * *

He let his tongue slide up and down the wizard’s cock, tasting the smooth skin, throbbing hot beneath his lips. He kissed and sucked at each firm testicle. He lapped at the tip of the cock, where salty pearls of liquid formed. He opened his mouth wide, and engulfed the shaft, taking in as much as he could. He began to grow dizzy with it, embracing his master’s legs, his head bobbing up and down, feeling his master’s cock twitching and thrusting into his mouth, feeling his own cock throbbing, his heart beating faster and faster.

At last the wizard placed his hands on either side of the familiar’s head, murmuring, “Enough, pet,” and pulling gently away. Disappointed, the familiar fell back on his haunches; but the wizard smiled at him, and that smile held the promise that the game was not over yet.

The wizard held out his hand, and the familiar took it, letting his master help him to his feet. “Come, lie with me,” the wizard said, moving onto the huge bed, urging the familiar to join him.

The familiar hesitated. He was not allowed onto the master’s bed, and, even though it was the master himself now inviting him to do so, his training held him back.

The wizard sat up, still holding out his hand, smiling encouragingly. “It’s all right, pet. The bed is for humans, and you’re human for the time being. No claws to tear the covers. Come, now. I want you to.”

The master wanted it—so of course the familiar would obey. He climbed onto the bed, letting his master guide him, moving his arms and legs awkwardly, until he was lying on his stomach, stretched out to his full length. It was not at all a cattish position, and he was a little unhappy with it. Forgetting himself, he let out a discontented little mew. Sentences, he reminded himself. The master wanted sentences. But he didn’t know how to say what his body was feeling, and in any case, the master wanted it, so he would lie here on his stomach and try not to fuss. But if he’d had his tail just then, it would have been twitching.

The wizard lay at his side, petting him with long, easy strokes, all the way from his head to his bottom, crooning soothing nonsense in his ear. And that was nice. He concentrated on that: master’s hand stroking him, master’s voice telling him what a good boy he was. “Pretty pet,” he said, remembering how warm it had made him to be told that.

“Yes, very pretty,” the wizard agreed, ruffling the familiar’s hair, then continuing the long, gentling strokes. “Very pretty and very good, to work so hard to please me. I want to please you, too, pretty pet. I want to make you feel very good.”

He did feel good, now that he was relaxing into it—lying on his stomach in this body was nice and comfortable after all. Especially with the master petting him and telling him nice things. The sparkly warm feeling between his legs was coming back now, especially when the master’s hand stroked over his bottom, beneath where his tail ought to be. Soon the warm feeling made his breath grow faster, and his fingers began to dig into the soft bed, and it was a very good thing he didn’t have claws just now.

Just when he was starting to wriggle on the bed, and rub his hardening cock against the covers, the master leaned in to kiss his ear, and lifted his hand from the familiar’s body. “Just a minute, pet. We need a little oil now.” The wizard reached out his hand toward the oak chest, frowned a little and whispered a spell, and one of the small glass jars rose from the chest and floated across the room into the wizard’s hand.

* * *

(Just at the edge of their consciousness, Alex caught the stray thought that a bit of sorcery would indeed be a handy thing in situations like these, and he smiled to himself as Krycek pulled away to dig into the nighttable for the lubricant.)

* * *

More stroking, all on his bottom now, until he was squirming and clawing at the bed again. Then the wizard opened the small jar and dipped his fingers in it, and slid his hand between the familiar’s buttocks, and one slick finger entered the familiar’s anus.

With a gasp that was almost a growl, the familiar went tense, clutching at the covers with fingers and toes, resisting the urge to leap up and run, for this was his master, and if master wanted to poke fingers up his pet’s bottom, then the familiar must lie still and allow it.

The wizard was still making soothing noises, telling him to relax, that everything was all right, that it would feel good in a minute if he would just relax. And after all, it was his master’s hand, and the familiar knew that nothing felt as good as being touched by his master’s hands. Master was touching inside him this time, and that was a little different, but then so was being human, and that was turning out to be a lot nicer than he’d thought it would. And if the master said it would feel good, the master must be right, so he’d best just do as master said, and try to relax, and think about being petted and touched and stroked—

And then the master’s finger touched something inside him that sent delicious hot sparks all through him. Little whuffing sounds of distress turned abruptly to yowls of pleasure, as all his resistance collapsed, and the familiar pushed his bottom into the air and wriggled with delight at this strange new feeling.

The wizard continued to slide his finger in and out of the familiar’s anus, working him again to a frenzied excitement, before removing his hand and sliding his body on top of his familiar’s, placing moist kisses on the back of his pet’s neck and shoulders. “I’m going to fuck you now,” he said softly. “It might feel a little strange at first, but just relax, as you did before, and it will be all right.”

The familiar was perfectly content, now, to accept whatever his master wanted to do; even eager, having learned how sweet these new feeling could be, how right his master always was. “Fuck me,” he said, to show his master that he was ready, that he wanted whatever his master wanted. “Please fuck me,” he added, remembering not to appear too demanding. The words felt good to say, tickling his burning cock, and his anus, now wanting to be filled. “Please fuck me,” he said again, giggling with the pleasure of it. “Please.…”

His master answered with his body: pushing the familiar’s legs apart with his knees, dipping his fingers again into the jar of oil and working them into the familiar’s anus, spreading more oil onto his hard, rosy cock, and bringing it to the entrance of the familiar’s body.

* * *

“Now!” Alex whispered hotly, and pushed back hard, impaling himself on Krycek’s cock, abandoning the fantasy for the perfection of reality: his beloved brother-self lying heavily on him, gripping his arms, thrusting roughly into him, just the way he liked it. He worked his knees under himself, just enough to give himself leverage to thrust back, while his pulsing cock stroked against the mattress. And he dug his fingers into the bed and yowled like a wild thing.

* * *

The coupling was hard and energetic, full of abandon, cat-yowls and nips of teeth, and they both lay gasping and laughing when it was over. Alex stretched luxuriously, then curled snugly around Krycek’s body and purred his purr. “I like being your pet,” he said, and licked Krycek’s collarbone.

Krycek grinned down at him, and for a moment they were back in the wizard’s room, lying on the huge bed in a tangle of covers, hot and satisfied and spent. The wizard held his familiar close, stroking his shoulders and kissing his damp forehead. “I think I’ll keep you human for a while,” he said.

“Whatever my master wants,” the familiar assented willingly. After all, what pleased the wizard pleased his familiar. And it seemed there were some things for which a tail would just get in the way.

* * *

They lingered a while in catnaps after the catsex, pleasant minutes tumbled together like exhausted kittens, while Alex felt that if he truly could purr, he would be purring up a storm. But it was too early to drift off for the night, and after a while they came back to themselves, from wizard and familiar to man and other self, hardly any less fantastic than the role-playing, and Alex suddenly wondered if somehow the reality could be played as game—in a sense, they were already doing so, every time their thoughts entwined as they searched for ways to please each other, but perhaps their unity of identity could be expanded and focussed on. A scientist—mad, of course—conjuring up a copy of himself in his laboratory. A body with no will of its own, simply a shell for the scientist to use, inhabiting two bodies at once, enjoying all the sensations, top and bottom.… Could Alex suppress his own will, completely turn off all his voluntary muscle control, and allow Krycek’s mind to animate him?

“That’s a dangerous path you’re walking.” Krycek’s voice was quiet and clear as thought. Alex turned lazily to smile at his brother, whose own smile was friendly, but slightly feral, as if the cat-senses had not quite yet dissolved back to human.

“It’s only a game,” Alex murmured, in his game voice, a low and sensuous purr. “Besides, I was only thinking it. Fantasizing. That’s allowed, isn’t it? Even when you can read my mind?”

“Yes, of course.” Krycek reached out to pull him close, even as his mind was gently withdrawing. There was a thoughtful frown on his face.

Alex allowed himself to be gathered up, kissed Krycek soundly, then pulled away, giggling. “I’m hungry.” He scrambled around to find his tee-shirt, shrugged it over his head, then hesitated for a moment over his boxer shorts. Sometimes he liked to leave his bottom bare, especially when he was still half-under, as he was now, and the exposure would be a delicate caress on his cock whenever his master looked at him… but Krycek was not his master, at least not that way, and the silk of the boxers was another kind of caress, as pleasurable in its own way as the kiss of air and a lover’s eyes. So he pulled the boxers on, and grinned at Krycek as he headed out of the room—it was his cocky grin, he realized, and the first time it had come to his face without being summoned since he’d arrived here. “What do you want for dinner?” he asked, quickly, before that thought had time to shake him. And without waiting for an answer, he took his grin out the door.

* * *

Dinner in the end was more sandwiches—Alex reflected that if he’d really wanted to impress Krycek with his culinary skills (not that he had any to begin with, but he could produce more than sandwiches on occasion), he should have paid more attention when he and Mulder were at the deli those few days ago. And they’d be back to takeout tomorrow, if someone didn’t do a little more shopping—he’d be willing, but whether he’d be allowed was another matter. Still, Krycek had encouraged him to go out this morning, so there was no reason to suppose Krycek would balk at letting him buy groceries. But that was for tomorrow—who knew what another day would bring?

So they ate sandwiches, and Krycek pulled out his laptop and went back to work for a while, so Alex spread out the pages of code he was studying and let his mind fill with equations and variables and conditions. And Mulder—Alex’s Mulder, who was never far from Alex’s mind, smiled his lopsided half-smile, and teased with questions and silly jokes and whispered, Come here. I can’t be alone tonight—

* * *

Fox Mulder lay on his leather couch, remote control in his hand, idly rewinding and fast forwarding through the tape, as if somehow this time something new would appear, something he’d never noticed before in dozens of watchings, that could break through the dull ache in his mind and give him a little peace.

He’d been to Alex’s apartment again. He hadn’t meant to, but somehow he’d ended up pulling up in front of the building, and without even thinking about it he’d gotten out of the car and gone up the front steps. And the ritual had begun again, and once again it had left him feeling empty and alone. Alex’s living room, couch and scattered magazines and crooked miniblinds. Alex’s kitchen, beer and refrigerator magnets. Alex’s bedroom, rumpled bed and cheap chest of drawers and closetful of leather. A sweet man with a dark edge, a study in contrasts, at once innocent and wordly, clever and naive, conventional and wild. Mulder remembered the image of himself in the mirror in Alex’s bedroom, wearing Alex’s leather jacket and holding the heavy, braided whip. A flicker of heat stirred in his groin, that had remained cold all throughout the gyrations and couplings on the tape. He tried to picture Alex in that jacket—charmingly geeky Alex, in his cheap suits and two-dollar haircut—and as always, the image eluded him. But Alex in a vee-neck tee-shirt and sweat pants—that vision was real, and burned into his brain. So he called it up, instead, and left himself jacketed in leather, and felt the heft of the whip in his hand.

Make him kneel, with his hands at his sides, looking up at Mulder with his eyes wide, and his lips wet and slightly parted. So precious he would look like that, down on his knees. Would there be a trace of fear in his eyes, a spark of humiliation, as he waited for his punishment at Mulder’s hands? Or would his face be open, accepting, even eager? Would the fey, cold creature inside him appear and have to be fought down? Would he resist, protest? Mulder, please don’t.…

You need this. You left me. You have to learn never, ever to leave me. There was real anger and pain as the whip came down on Alex’s shoulders, and even as the illicit thrill coursed through him, Mulder felt guilty and ashamed. Poor Alex, it wasn’t his fault, he was just a lost child who needed to be taken care of, not punished. He shouldn’t be doing this, even in his imagination. But the whip felt too good in his hand, and the heavy thump as the braided lashes slammed into Alex’s body filled him with terrible satisfaction. Power crackled through Mulder’s nerve endings, as he stood over his prodigal lover and taught him how it would be.

You belong to me. You do what I say. At last, Mulder felt in control. He felt strong, and gloriously invincible. Alex was his and nobody else’s, his to punish and use, to order and dominate, to protect and cherish and love.…

Mulder dropped the remote and covered his face with his hands. Power corrupts, he told himself. He felt himself shake. Please come back, Alex, I’ll never hurt you, I promise.… Even as his mind sent out the plea, he knew he could never keep that promise.

But it’s Alex’s whip, Mulder’s voice of reason tried to interject. Alex’s leather jacket. Alex’s toys. He likes it.

Not like this, Mulder’s guilt stubbornly insisted.

Then how?

I don’t know. But this is wrong. Alex—

Alex will explain it all, when he comes back.

Alex isn’t coming back. How could he ever come back to you now?

Mulder pushed himself roughly up from the couch, and went out into the kitchen.

* * *

Alex glanced up at Krycek, sitting on one end of the couch, still engrossed in the computer in his lap; then back at the pages scattered around him in the floor. He yawned and stretched, gathering the papers up into a moderately neat pile. He was beginning to lose his concentration, and anyway, his elbows and knees were getting sore from lying on the floor. Convenient of Krycek to be sitting on the couch, where a kittenish little brother could curl up next to him after he got tired of working. Had he sat there deliberately for just that reason? Or only because it was closer to an electrical outlet for his computer’s battery? Perhaps for both of these reasons, or more. Hadn’t Krycek said he liked more than one reason for anything he did?

And Krycek, too, was closing his computer and setting it aside, so that his lap was available for Alex to lay his head in when he slithered from his knees up onto the couch. Alex tucked his arm around Krycek’s thighs—Krycek had showered while Alex puttered in the kitchen, and was freshly dressed and smelling faintly of soap, which made Alex feel a bit grubby in his underwear, even though he’d showered himself after dinner—but not quite enough to make him leave this cozy scene to go change his clothes. How many more days did he have with Krycek? There was really no way to know. Maybe he’d go home tomorrow, squirted out of this universe like a watermelon seed by some stray quantum event. The thought troubled him a little. Not that he didn’t want to go home—he wanted that dearly, just as much as ever. But he felt that he’d started something here with Krycek, something that he’d like the chance to finish, or at least to see well on its way before he had to leave. There was so much Krycek could teach him—and did he dare to think that perhaps Krycek could learn something from him, too? How often in the history of creation did a man have the chance to compare notes with an alternate version of himself? And, to be honest, he had gone and fallen in love with Krycek. Not the way he loved Mulder, but just as deep and real in its own way.

He snuggled closer and squeezed Krycek hard, as if sheer force of will could stave off the inevitable heartache. “I’m going to miss you,” he whispered, in a voice hot as desire. Then he heaved a deep breath, gave himself a little mental shake, and smiled up at Krycek. “Yeah, now that I’ve worked myself around to where it will really hurt to lose you, I’ve convinced myself that I’m really going home.”

Krycek smiled down at him, understanding and kind but without indulgence or pity. And that was right—Alex had known what he was getting into, and made it clear that he was willing to accept the consequences. So there was no need to fuss about it. But—curiously, Alex suddenly realized that he had somehow come to believe that he would go home. Perhaps working on the codes had given him purpose and hope. Or perhaps it was only because now, to leave would cause him pain. In any case, there it was. He would go home to his Mulder, and all the problems and lies and betrayals he’d left behind, and somehow he would have to deal with them all, and take care of his Mulder, and be the Krycek that his Mulder needed.

Alex bit his lip, and sighed again. “I hope I can give him what he needs. I know there’s no reason he should need the same things your Mulder does—any more than you and I do. But still, I wonder—I think our two Mulders are a lot more alike than you and I are. And your Mulder didn’t seem to know what he needed until you came along and gave it to him. I can’t help wondering if my Mulder has that same need in him, for real cruelty and domination that plays along the edge of non-consensual force. Because if he does, there’s no way I can give him that, no matter how much I might want to. I just don’t have it in me.”

Krycek pushed himself back and stared at Alex for a long moment. It would have been frightening only a day ago, Alex thought, but he was finally learning to read Krycek’s expressions. There was a hint of teasing smile under this one: it said, you’re kidding me, right? Then Krycek laughed and pulled him close. “No, you can’t help wondering,” he said. “You can’t help wondering because you are in love, and you are going to find things to feel insecure about if it kills you. When was the last time you had trouble sizing up a potential sexual partner, Little Brother?”

Alex felt himself flush, and had to fight down a giggle. “Well—”

“Right,” Krycek said. “A long time ago. You’re good at figuring out what people want; you have to be, to be the manipulative bastard we are. And have you ever known Mulder, either Mulder, to be shy about what he wants?” His hand closed around Alex’s shoulder, and his voice was suddenly serious. “They’ll have had a lot of the same early experiences; there’s a fair chance your Mulder has the capacity to enjoy some of what my Mulder likes. But if it were something he craved, you’d know it. You’ve spent whole nights together. Even if he didn’t know precisely what he wanted, you’d have started seeing the signals by now. He could have pulled you down on top of him, wanted to lie under you, wanted to try getting fucked, without knowing himself why it was so good to have your weight on him. None of that has happened, has it?”

It was a rhetorical question, but Alex shook his head anyway.

“There you are,” Krycek said. “It would have, by now.”

“Yeah, that’s right,” Alex said thoughtfully. “My Mulder’s a top—I told your Mulder that. He made it clear enough.” And Alex had to smile to himself at the memory—Mulder sliding on top of him, nuzzling his ear… Having trouble sleeping? You need something to help you relax. “But a lot of guys start out thinking they have to be on top, before they figure out being on the bottom doesn’t make them a sissy. Especially guys who think they’re straight.” He paused, chewing his lower lip, studying his memories of those precious days with Mulder, searching for the smallest signs that Mulder might have wanted the tables turned. Alex was a manipulative bastard, sure, but he hadn’t exactly been thinking clearly during those days. He’d been blinded by his own needs, and the terrible guilt he’d felt at what he was doing. Still, Krycek’s Mulder had never suffered from the delusion that being on top was better—had he?

“That first time with your Mulder, when you kissed him—did you know what he wanted then? How did you know?”

Krycek’s smile changed a little, and now his eyes were distant and dreaming. “Oh, I knew,” he said. His voice was velvet over knives; it made Alex think of a cat’s paws, soft and not quite safe. “No, that’s not quite fair. I expected the reaction I got; until that moment, I couldn’t entirely know.

“As for how I knew… well, that gets complicated. The guilt he carried around with him: it wasn’t just that it was there, or even that it was obvious; it was more that he made it part of his public identity. You didn’t have to know him at all to know about it; you couldn’t work with him for a day without his making damn sure you knew all the emotional high points. ‘Hi, I’m Fox Mulder; I’m a behavioral science unit hotshot; I went to Oxford and wear Armani; I am driven and tormented by my feelings of responsibility for nameless horrors deep in my past. I can’t trust you; you’d learn my secrets only to betray me. Wanna hear about ‘em? we could do lunch.’ You know.”

Alex nodded. It wasn’t his Mulder, but the picture was close enough, like a reflection in a distorting mirror: he did know.

“That was a starting point,” Krycek said. “And then, he picked fights with the people on his own side—not all of them, just the ones who could stand up to him. Usually the ones with some kind of authority; Skinner was a big favorite. They were stupid fights, the kinds of things that mostly didn’t matter and where he wasn’t going to win—when something was important to him he always approached it professionally. He was picking conflicts to lose, you couldn’t help seeing it. An unreasonable percentage of those fights got physical. And even when he wasn’t fighting, he got inside people’s personal space. Not all people’s, again. He got close to Scully, but it was best-friends close, not make-a-move close. There was always an edge with Skinner. And by the time of the Duane Barry thing, with me. You could practically hear him saying, come on, what do I have to do to get you to hit me?”

Krycek’s voice was light again. “So eventually, I did,” he said. “He was surprised at his reaction, sure; but that’s only because he’s not very good on the self-knowledge thing. If he’d been paying the least attention, he’d have known as well as I did. But your Mulder—” Krycek looked Alex in the eye and grinned. “Alex, come on. Since when does a guy who’s going to get all freaked about his masculinity insist on sucking you off the very first time you get together? After you’ve already told him it’s okay and he can go home? Let alone, since when does a guy who needs to be on top suck you off and swallow it? Face it, Little Brother: doing it with a man is not giving your Mulder problems in the masculine self-image department.”

Alex’s laugh was a little shaky. “I told you that, huh?” Sometime during that frightening, scrambled, drugged interrogation—Alex still couldn’t remember everything he’d told Krycek then, but he must have described that first encounter with Mulder in Technicolor detail. He had vague memories of talking about Mulder, all the precious and painful memories tumbling helplessly out of him, and the vague sense of relief at finally being able to tell someone all about it—but that he’d told him everything, even about Mulder swallowing it—well, not that it mattered. There was nothing he could keep from Krycek, nothing he would even want to keep from him, it was just a little disconcerting to realize that Krycek already knew so much. And embarrassing that he’d ever imagined he could deny that he was in love with Mulder.

That first time: he’d managed to reach a point where he could think about Montana without being crushed by the pain. But that very first night with Mulder, there in his own apartment at three in the morning, with Mulder fresh from being rejected by Scully—that was still raw, still a ragged ache. And no wonder he couldn’t think rationally about what Mulder needed—he could barely stand to remember he’d ever slept with him at all.

“ ‘I can’t be alone tonight. You understand.’ ” Alex’s choked laugh was nearly a sob. “He was like a steamroller when he wanted something. A nice steamroller, but he didn’t know how to take no for an answer. It was like it never even occurred to him that any objection I might make was anything more than a funny little quirk to be charmed away and smoothed over. He wanted what he wanted and that was all there was to it. And when he… when he sucked me, it was like.…” Alex paused, gazing at the ceiling, his eyes glazed over with tears. The memory of Mulder lying next to him, one leg curled over his, hands stroking his hips, gazing up at him with that slow half-smile of pleasure—Alex could feel Mulder’s skin on his, the heat of his breath on Alex’s thigh, the soft pressure of his lips, the wet warmth of his tongue. “It was like I was his birthday present—a present he’d wanted for ages, a present he adored—but nobody was going to tell him he wasn’t going to play with that present, not even the present itself.”

Alex wrapped his arms tightly around his brother, and gave him a fierce hug. “You’re right. That’s my Mulder. He likes being in charge. I think you’re right, though, that he could learn to enjoy being on the bottom, too. I wouldn’t mind teaching him that. But hell, you’ve seen me top. I’m hardly going to scare anybody into subbing for me. It will only be if he decides he wants it.”

“And if he decides he wants it, you’ll know it,” Krycek said. He leaned over, and Alex felt his breath, warm against his ear. Krycek’s voice was low and confidential. “I’ll tell you a secret. If he does decide that, you’re going to find yourself being plenty scary enough. Because he’s not going to rest until he’s badgered you into being just as dangerous and dramatic and frightening as he wants you to be. I know that—” his voice rose from its whisper, and he leaned back into the couch— “because that’s one of the things both our Mulders have in common. Letting go of something once they’ve fixed their minds on it is not in either of their repertoires.”

He fell silent, but Alex could feel his mind working, still focused on Alex’s story of that first night, on Mulder’s sweetly oblivious determination. “Don’t let it bother you,” Krycek said suddenly. “It made you happy to talk about it. And anyway, you never stood a chance: you were drugged out of your mind; and extracting information is my job, and I’m good at it.”

Alex felt that little shock again: the small bedroom, the shackles, the hypodermic needle going in—and all sense and control gone, crying and helpless and exposed. “It doesn’t bother me that I told you,” Alex replied slowly. “It bothers me that I told you, and I don’t remember it. It bothers me that there are things you know, and I don’t know you know them. Maybe I could remember that time, if I really tried to think about it, but I don’t want to think about it.” Lost and broken-hearted, kidnapped and drugged, frightened for his life—and Krycek had already told him he wasn’t going to apologize for the interrogation, so there was no point going down that road. Once again, he forced a small laugh. “If I’m going to have the catharsis of spilling my guts to you, it would be nice if I could remember it.”

“That would bother me, too,” Krycek said. “You like to know what you’ve told people and what you haven’t.…” His voice trailed off, but he was still working at the question: Alex could feel the faint tightening in his body as he considered it.

“I don’t know what counts as thinking about it,” he finally said. “If you don’t mind thinking about the event itself, I suppose I could give you a look at my memory of it. There’s probably less there to make you flinch than you think. You didn’t stay frightened for long—that’s a lot of the point of using the drug—and after you relaxed, it was more like a late-night half-drunk conversation with an old friend than anything else.”

To see himself through Krycek’s eyes—it was tempting. To see a little of that first night, from Krycek’s point of view.… Alex let his mind wrap around it. It shouldn’t be too bad. A late-night half-drunk conversation with an old friend.… Alex let the image form in his mind: lying naked in the bed in the small bedroom, curled up with Krycek, relaxed and silly from drugs and sex, finally letting himself tell the story. And it wasn’t an image from Krycek’s mind—it was his own memory, hazy and incomplete, but his own. There was something pleasant and warm in it, but something frightening, too, and his mind slammed shut like a steel door, rejecting it.

So maybe there was a reason he couldn’t remember the interrogation, and maybe it would be no favor to force himself to confront it. But why should it be so traumatic for him? He remembered Krycek pulling a gun on him, waking up naked and tied spreadeagled to the bed, being injected with the drug, being fucked. And he remembered waking up from a long, drugged sleep. He remembered these things, and they didn’t trouble him. So why did his mind refuse to look upon that single event, hardly the worst thing that had happened to him that day? Curled up in bed, talking to an old friend—

But Krycek hadn’t been an old friend, not then. He’d been a man conducting an interrogation, using drugs and manipulation to extract personal information from someone being held against his will. And it was true that Alex didn’t mind Krycek knowing these things now—now that they’d earned each other’s trust, now that they’d become friends and brothers. But that trust had come hard, and certainly at the time Alex had had no reason to believe that Krycek was someone he’d want to entrust with his secrets. Alex had to admit that he still felt a little violated, a little hurt that Krycek would have done that to him. And perhaps that was what his mind rejected—the memory of a Krycek who wasn’t kind and caring, who stole the secrets of Alex’s heart before Alex was ready to yield them up. And reliving the scene through Krycek’s mind wouldn’t help that trouble at all.

“I don’t think so,” he finally answered. “I think if I was ready to look at it, I’d be able to see it in my own mind. I think… maybe it’s not just a matter of you knowing those things, but the way you got to know them. I know you were only doing what you thought you had to do to protect yourself. And I’m not going to say you were wrong. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.”

“Okay.” Krycek’s arm tightened around him, and his hand squeezed Alex’s shoulder, firm and reassuring. Alex let himself relax into the embrace, resting his head against Krycek’s chest. No, it wasn’t an apology, but Alex hadn’t expected that, or even really wanted it. He wanted… he wasn’t sure what he wanted. Understanding. Consideration of his feelings. Alex sighed, and moved his head a little lower, till the low, steady beat of Krycek’s heart thrummed in his ear. So much to think about—it made his head hurt. Don’t think so hard, you’ll hurt yourself, Mulder’s teasing voice sounded in his mind. Yeah, Mulder, you’re a fine one to talk. You never figured out how to do it.

It was a long moment before he realized that Krycek had fallen silent. Alex smiled into Krycek’s shirt, then pushed himself upright. Well, he’d said he didn’t want to think about it—but he hadn’t quite expected Krycek to let the subject drop so easily. Not that he minded—in fact, it was a pleasure and a relief to be answered with nothing more than a hug for a change. This universe’s Mulder might like being poked and prodded until every last brain cell had been emptied, but Alex liked a little breathing space, at least some of the time. Good thing his own Mulder wasn’t the type to worry a subject to death—at least, not if it was relationships and feelings, rather than alien abductions and conspiracies. Of course, his own Mulder was capable of pressing, too, when he wanted something—including when what he wanted was Alex.

And he’d probably already told Krycek this, but.… “We were both pretty freaked out the next day. I was feeling guilty and full of doubts about what I was doing. And he was scared I was going to go to Skinner or something. I wanted to just let it go, and try to forget it ever happened, but Mulder wouldn’t back off. He pulled right off the freeway and insisted we were going to talk about it.” Alex could still see Mulder’s face so clearly, as he sat in the driver’s seat, one hand on the steering wheel and the other outstretched, longfingered and fine. So intent he’d been; so determined. And Alex had been lost. “Told me the only reason he’d gone to Scully was that I’d been driving him crazy.” He laughed shortly. “Fucking liar. He’d have said anything. And dammit, I’d have believed him.”

“He probably would say anything,” Krycek said. The tone was velvety now, low and possessive; it made Alex think of his hands on Mulder’s skin. “If he could think of it. Which is unlikely. He can apply all that training to other people; sometimes, if he’s made to think about it, he can see why he did something himself; but he’s never clear enough on his own motivations to produce a convincing lie about them. I suspect he was telling you the truth. If it sounded like he was making it up, that was likely because he had only just figured it out himself.” Alex felt Krycek shake his head. “Besides, that whole business with Scully is so completely Mulder. He knows he wants something, he knows he wants it from one of his two partners, but he can’t look at it hard enough to quite figure out what it is, or which partner he wants it from. So he winds up making a pass at Scully and asking you for emotional support, and only figures out later that he’s gotten it backward. It’s a good thing for him that you’re both kind, patient people.”

Alex chuckled softly. “I wonder if he’d even figured it out then—maybe he really thought it was a lie. Or, at least, he wasn’t quite sure if it was true.” He paused a moment, shaking his head. “Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if she hadn’t sent him away that night. I don’t really know what happened between them—all he told me was that he’d made a pass, and she turned him down. It didn’t seem to cause any problems between them, though—at least as far as I could tell. I only met her a couple of times, but Mulder was always talking about her.” He grinned up at Krycek. “If I’d been the type to get jealous.… It was obvious as hell that he loved her.” He paused a moment, half smiling, remembering. “He’d be going off on one of his wild theories, and all of a sudden, he’d stop and give me that sheepish grin, and say, ‘If Scully were here, she’d say.…’—and then he’d start arguing with himself. He really missed working with her. Almost made me feel bad for agreeing with him. —God, I hope she’s all right.”

“It would have been a fucking disaster if she hadn’t sent him packing,” Krycek said. “If their relationship is anything like their relationship here. Of course he loves her; and if we were both drowning and he could only save one of us he’d probably save her; but she’s his sister and his comrade, not his lover. Watch them together. They’re connected, but their focus is never on the connection unless there’s a problem: they look outward together. Lovers focus on each other.”

Alex squirmed a little closer, letting his temple rest in the crook of Krycek’s neck, smiling to himself. It was good to be lying here with his brother, listening to all the things he wanted to hear—things he knew, really, things he tried to tell himself, but somehow they sounded so much more authoritative coming from Krycek—sensible and logical and even obvious, not just things he tried to make himself believe because he wanted them to be true. “I never really had the chance to watch them together. There were only those few times I met her. But just from the way he talked about her, I think you’re right. He talked about her like an old friend, or a college roommate, not a lover. And nothing seemed to change between them, after he made his move. If he were really in love with her that way, I’d have expected him to be unhappy about being turned down. Heartbroken, even. But he wasn’t. Not until.…” Duane Barry. Alex couldn’t even say the name aloud. Scully abducted, and Alex helping to keep Mulder from rescuing her, while Mulder suffered like a man who’d lost the air he breathed.

Alex felt his fragile peace crumble around him. “How is he ever going to forgive me?” He heard the threads of pain in his own voice. “For you, it was different—he didn’t need to forgive you, didn’t even want to. It was better for him not to. He wanted the pain of the things you’d done to him. If you’d even tried to tell him you were sorry for any of it, he’d have despised you. But my Mulder’s not like that. He doesn’t want that kind of pain, he won’t get any pleasure from hating me. And even if he did, I wouldn’t be able to stand it. I only want to love him, somehow to make him forgive what I’ve done. I don’t know how.”

Krycek’s fingers brushed through his hair. “It’s a tactical problem.” He sounded pleased, absorbed, the way he’d sounded three days ago when Scully had challenged him about the DNA samples. “Forgiveness isn’t going to be the issue, not if he’s anything like my Mulder. He’ll try to run his scapegoat script on you, because it’s a deep pattern, one that makes him relatively emotionally comfortable, and because it goes so deep he won’t even see himself doing it unless somebody forces the knowledge on him. But for all that he finds the psychodrama comforting, he’s smart and it’s important to him to be fair.”

Krycek’s hand had settled into a steady firm stroke across Alex’s scalp, as though he had forgotten that Alex was not really an enchanted cat. “If he looks honestly at what you did, he’s not going to be able to avoid the conclusion that it wasn’t really that bad. You were sent in to keep an eye on him, and didn’t tell him that: well, Scully did exactly the same, and he’s never blamed her for it. Anybody who wanted to work with him would have been expected to report on him, especially in questionable cases; he has to have known that. The business of Scully’s abduction is worse, but even there, you were in a position where there were no completely good choices, and the choices you made were consistent with your having had a change of heart before then. If Mulder thinks the situation through, he’ll be able to see that everything you did can be read as an attempt to help him in a situation you didn’t create and didn’t consent to. He should even be able to see that it makes more sense that way than if he tries to make you into a knowing villain. Because if you had been that villain, it would have made no sense for you not to exploit the perfect opportunity he gave you to bring him down with a sexual scandal.” Krycek’s fingers paused, and Alex could hear the sudden grin in his voice. “If you’d been a dedicated enemy, after all, a genuine evil traitor, you’d have had him back at your place within days of that first encounter. And there’d be twenty illicit copies of the video circulating within the D.C. office already—well, more or less, depending on how many good friends Kim has. He’s not paranoid for nothing, he’ll understand that.

“Then, you tried to tell him the truth at least once; and he’ll remember that, and remember that he bulldozed right past it because he wanted to fuck. And at the end of all of it, if he knows about the abduction, he’ll have to consider that you’ve already done some serious atoning for whatever he wants to blame on you.

“So. It is clear as is the summer sun—” His voice had slowed, the accent changed. Alex recognized words and intonation both: the Archbishop of Canterbury explaining the Salic law of dynastic succession, from the Branagh version of Henry V. “The key is going to be to get his attention. Make him stop emoting and listen to you. How difficult that will be is going to depend on the situation you find. But it should be possible. The key will probably be to stay in control of yourself, to insist on facts before you go on to fireworks.”

Alex nodded slowly. “That makes sense. But—” He stopped suddenly, looked up into Krycek’s face. “If your Mulder had come on to you the way mine did, and you’d slept with him back then, would you have used it against him?”

“Ah, now, that’s a complicated question,” Krycek said. “It would have depended on the exact circumstances: when he made his move, what else was going on at the time, what that move looked like to me. I might have turned him down—that would have been easier for me than it was for you. I’d have had to make a judgment call on whether he’d be more likely to hold it against me afterward if I’d said yes or if I’d said no. If I’d had no questions about Cancerman’s methods and motivations at that point, if I hadn’t begun to wonder about the way he was handling the Mulder situation, if I’d been working directly for him from the very beginning, and wasn’t on loan from another organization, then I might very well have used a sexual approach against Mulder in the most straightforward way. As it was, no, I wouldn’t have.

“On the other hand—” His arm tightened a little around Alex’s shoulders. “There’s no way I could have avoided using it against him in other ways, whatever the situation. Coming on like that to somebody like me is the same thing as handing over a weapon. If I’d said no to him, he’d have owed me in a serious way, both for not going to Skinner over it and, if homosexual panic did turn out to be an issue, for saving him from himself and not making him face what he’d done. If I’d said yes, even if I kept the relationship a secret, he’d have become dependent on me, much more dependent than he did, and very quickly. It would have taken me maybe another week to find out who his source inside the Consortium was. Any result of a pass would have given me important information about Mulder, and a set of emotional hooks. I’d have used all that to manage him, without question. Which is more evidence of your good faith, Alex. I don’t toss away weapons. You did everything you could to keep him from giving you the weapon in the first place, and then when you had it you didn’t use it.”

Alex nodded slowly. “Yeah. I suppose I expected that.” Strange, it didn’t upset him the way he would have thought. It was just Krycek: you’d expect him to use whatever came his way for whatever his purposes happened to be. If you were lucky, his purposes were benign, or even favorable toward you. If they weren’t—well, you just hoped you weren’t in his way. And, to be honest, if Alex hadn’t fallen so hard, if he’d been convinced that Cancerman was right and Mulder was the enemy—wouldn’t he have done the same thing? Used the affair to get Mulder kicked out of the Bureau, or to manipulate Mulder into doing what he wanted? It was, after all, part of his training, a natural talent, and something he’d had no qualms about, going into covert work. So he’d discovered once he’d gotten in over his head that that sort of work wasn’t for him—it was more a matter of his inability to stay emotionally detached than any sort of abstract ethical issue. “Hell, you did it to me when I first got here. You’re still doing it, really, except now you’ve decided I’m one of the good guys, so you’re using it to make me feel better, instead of to keep me off balance and under control.” He grinned up at Krycek: not his cocky grin this time, but knowing and ironic. “You’re probably still doing a little of that, too, just to cover all your bases. As many reasons as possible for everything, right?”

He turned again to rest his head against Krycek’s shoulder, letting the smile fade to thoughtfulness. “And I do it too. Not to the extent that you do, but, like most things with us, it’s a matter of degree, not a real difference. And you know, the funny thing is, if I had arranged for our affair to be discovered and for Mulder to lose his job, that’s probably the one thing I really could have done to save Scully from being abducted.” He laughed shortly. “Not that I’m going to try to tell Mulder that.”

“True love speaks,” Krycek commented. “I’d tell him. Not immediately, but sooner or later. When he’d rewritten it all in his head so that it had stopped being about secrets and conflicting agendas, and begun to be all about Fox Mulder. But that’s my Mulder. Maybe yours doesn’t try to retrofit the facts the way mine does.”

“Well, sooner or later, who knows? If there comes a time I think he needs to hear it, I’ll tell him. Somehow, though, I doubt it. He’s got enough guilt about Scully already. And besides, he’s a smart guy, I imagine he’ll figure it all out for himself soon enough.” Alex frowned to himself. “Your Mulder, I think, is better at hiding things from himself than mine is. Mine tries, but he can’t keep it up—eventually, if the truth keeps staring him in the face, he can’t help looking at it. That’s why I don’t think I’m going to have to do a whole lot of explaining when I get back—if I can just get him to look at the possibility that I love him and want to help him, his mind will start working away at it, no matter how much he hates the idea, and pretty soon he’ll have the rest of it all worked out. Then I just have to hope that he still has enough feelings left for me to want to take up where we left off after Montana.

“The thing that really scares me, though, is that he won’t even give me a chance—he’ll take one look at me and shoot me, or haul me off to jail, or hand me over to Cancerman, and then he’ll sit down and think about it and realize he’s made a big mistake but it will be too late, for both of us. He—” Alex couldn’t help remembering his first night here, when Krycek had worked his magic on Mulder while Alex watched, and Krycek had whispered, Suppose you and I had been lovers then, and Mulder had trembled with genuine rage and whispered back, I’d have killed you. The pain still ate away at him, no matter that it was Krycek’s Mulder, not his, who’d said those words; no matter that three days later Krycek’s Mulder had forgiven him. “He’s going to be so angry. I don’t know how I’m going to make him stop hating long enough to listen to me.”

“You’ve got a lot of variables,” Krycek said, and now that note of happy concentration was back in his voice. “You’re going to have to pin some of them down as soon as you get back, or at least try to. We don’t know whether there’s a difference in our time streams between the two universes, or if there is, how much slippage there’ll be. But as a first cut at it, I’d say the two major questions will be whether or not Scully’s been returned when you show up, and whether or not Mulder knows you’ve been abducted. Your hardest case will be if Scully’s still gone, and if Mulder has evidence that links you to the Consortium. But even there, you’re going to have a bargaining chip: if your universe has that evidence about the Consortium’s activities in the DOD’s computers, and you can help Mulder get to it, you’ll be giving him what he needs to force them to return Scully. Plenty of evidence of your good faith, and the time it takes to get to the files would give you the time you needed to make him accept the truth of what you’re telling him.

“And all the other situations are easier. If Scully’s been returned, and he has evidence against you, the DOD files won’t have the same burning immediate importance to him; but he also won’t hate you the way he would if Scully were gone. Not enough to shoot you on sight, or to refuse to listen to your story—my Mulder did, but that was because of things that happened later, things that won’t have happened in your universe. And if he has evidence of your abduction—” Alex felt the half-smothered laugh deep in Krycek’s chest— “you may find yourself looking at a free walk. Not that I suppose you’d take advantage of it. But if he knows you’ve been abducted, then even if he also has evidence that you were working for the Consortium, he’s likely to have concluded that the evidence was planted to mess with his head. It’ll be a more pleasant scenario for him to think that they stole his young lover and tried to make him believe he’d been a traitor than to think that you’d ever worked for them. And just as plausible, really. If Cancerman himself told him that you’d been working for him, Mulder very likely would refuse to believe it.”

“I never thought of that.” Strange, it was troubling in a way, to think of Mulder missing him, knowing he’d been abducted, thinking he’d been yet another innocent victim. More guilt for Mulder, when he really had nothing to feel guilty about as far as Alex was concerned. Even if Alex had been abducted mainly to trouble Mulder—he’d gone into it with his eyes wide open, and deserved whatever had come to him. And it just made it harder for when he came back, because— “I couldn’t lie to him. He’s been lied to so much, and it hurts him so much—the truth means so much to him—even if it’s hard for him, he still wants it. I have to give him that. I want everything to be open and honest between us. I want him to know I’ll never lie to him again.”

He paused a moment, then continued thoughtfully. “Although—I suppose if it’s the case where Scully’s still gone, but he knows I’ve been abducted too and doesn’t realize I was working for the Consortium, I might wait a bit to tell him the whole truth, until we’ve got Scully back, or at least until we’d tried everything we could and he knew I was on his side. It would be kinder to Mulder, I think, not to hit him with it while she’s gone.” He sighed. “I don’t know, maybe it’s kinder to him all the way around not to tell him if he doesn’t already know, but I don’t think I could live with it. If something should happen and he ever found out, it would really be all over for us. And anyway, I need to tell him. I suppose you think that’s stupid.”

“As a matter of fact, I don’t,” Krycek said. “It’s good situational logic. The kind of relationship you have, and that you want to have, you probably do need to tell him the truth. Even if you could lie and know he’d never find out, that’s not the way you want it to be with him.”

Alex snuggled a little closer and smiled into Krycek’s shirt. All right, he’d been fishing for reassurance, just a little, but it felt good anyway. And he didn’t even get the lecture about calling himself stupid, which he’d been half-expecting from the moment the words left his mouth. Perhaps Krycek thought the lessons had been sufficient for the day—although the tone of his words seemed to suggest that he thought that it was perfectly natural under the circumstances for Alex to be feeling a little defensive about his need to tell Mulder the truth, and no lectures were necessary. The pleasure bloomed within him, warm and comfortable and sweet. “No, it isn’t,” he agreed, and it was the voice he used when he was on his knees, soft and yielding and full of his need to give his lover everything he wanted. “A good bottom doesn’t lie. Especially when his master demands the truth.” His hand stroked Krycek’s chest—and he was half-way under again, drifting in the unaccustomed pleasure: they could talk things out, and eventually understanding would come, and they would be even closer than before. It was a strange thing to know, but a wonderful one. Perhaps Krycek had been giving him lessons after all.

He shifted a little, until he could lift his head to place a tender, almost reverent kiss at the base of Krycek’s throat. “You’ve been so good to me,” he murmured—and if there was any irony in saying that to someone who just a few days ago had kidnapped and drugged and frightened him nearly out of his reason, he only found it faintly amusing and unimportant. He kissed him again, and “I love you,” he whispered, trying out the words, and finding that they were good.

He felt Krycek’s smile. “It’s just enlightened self-interest,” Krycek murmured, but the sardonic words did not match the soft kiss in his hair, or the brief tightening of the arm around his chest.

And no, he hadn’t expected any passionate declarations from Krycek. Alex sighed deeply, half pleasure and half affectionate resignation, kissed Krycek’s chest one more time, then straightened up. “I was thinking about what I should do when I get home, while I was out this morning. It’s hard to make any precise plans—like you said, too many variables. The first thing, of course, will be just to grab a newspaper and find out exactly how much time has passed. Check the news, see if anything major has happened that I ought to know about. Then, find out about Scully—that will be easy enough, I think—I can just call the Bureau and ask for her. After that, unless there’s some major change in the situation I find when I get home, I make contact with Mulder.” He took a deep breath, and shook his head. “I thought I’d go to his apartment, late at night, when I’m sure he’s home. Then just start talking. Tell him about the DOD files, about the aliens, about everything. Tell him I’m sorry and beg him to forgive me. And hope.”

“You’ll want to avoid your apartment,” Krycek said, as though picking up the train of Alex’s thought. “At least at first, until you know whether there’s a watch on it. You’ll probably want to know whether there’s a warrant out on you, too. And you’ll want to avoid accessing your bank accounts, or using your own credit cards, at least until you know the situation. But fortunately—” there was a teasing note in his voice now, as though he were teasing Alex about what was in his Christmas stocking—“fortunately, I can help with that.”

Alex reared back a little, and gave Krycek a narrow smile. “Well, I did have a couple grand on me when I got here. I don’t suppose I’ll ever see those particular bills again, but… you had them checked, didn’t you? Is the money the same here?”

Krycek grinned back at him, and Alex felt the pulse of pure happiness from him, a kind of delight at being understood, at not having to explain. “You can have those particular bills back if you want them,” he said. “The lab released them two days ago. Yeah, the money’s the same. We can send you back with enough cash to give you some maneuvering room. It gets better, too: there’s an anomaly with your Bureau ID, but your credit cards and driver’s license check out. We can make you up a set of papers—actually, I’ve already put that in motion.”

Alex nodded slowly. “That’s good. That will help—I could get by without ID, but having it will buy time. I’ll be able to do a little more research, be a little more sure of the situation before I go to Mulder. It would be nice if I could find out what Mulder’s been up to while I was gone, just to have a better idea of what his state of mind is likely to be, but it’s too much of a risk to see any of my old Bureau contacts. Especially if I’ve got warrants out on me—that will depend on whether Cancerman thinks it would hurt Mulder more to think I’d betrayed him, or that I was another innocent victim. There won’t be any real evidence against me unless he wants there to be.” It was an odd and very welcome feeling—his mind attacking a problem, weighing probabilities, putting pieces together. Finally, the cloud of pain and fear had lightened, and he could see again, and think, and feel without being overwhelmed.

He looked at Krycek thoughtfully, studying his face as if he’d never seen it before: intent blue-green eyes, shiny and deep and cool as cat’s-eyes; firm, mobile mouth; delicately shaped jawline, smooth and finely proportioned. It was his own face. He felt the quiet smile form on his lips, a perfect match for the one on his brother’s face. God, yes, he would miss this man—miss him with every cell in his body. But he was going home, where he belonged, and he was going to make things right with his Mulder, and he would bring some pieces of his dear brother-self home with him, and he would be stronger and happier for it.

“It would be good if I could take something home with me—something from this universe that would help prove I’d been here, so Mulder will believe me. Like one of those CDs with one song that’s not quite the same.”

Krycek nodded. “I’d thought about that. Ideally, we want something that couldn’t be dummied up by somebody in your universe who wanted to convince a suspicious FBI agent that he’d been universe-hopping. A CD with the selections in a different order, or with slightly different mixes: probably not, it’s too easy. I’d look for one where there’s a selection that doesn’t exist in your universe. The 1996 Beatles album with Paul McCartney alive and well, doing lead vocals—” He saw Alex’s look, and stopped. “Sorry,” he said mildly. “I was making that up.”

Alex shook his head. “No, wait. Isn’t Paul McCartney alive and well?”

“If he is, we’ve got another case for Mulder. ‘Assassinated musician walks out of morgue.’ Before Mulder’s time, but that wouldn’t stop him.”

He felt curiously lightheaded. “He was shot at the Dakota,” he heard himself tell Krycek. It was very clear to him: he was not certain whether he was picking the information up from his brother’s mind, or whether the sense of inevitability came simply from his experience of this universe. “He was visiting Lennon, wasn’t he? There’d been talk about a reunion, and he’d come to New York to discuss it?”

“That’s right.”

Alex began to giggle. “You were right,” he said. “Almost. If Lennon’s recorded anything since then, that’s what I need.”

Krycek wore his hunting-cat smile. “Let me guess. In your universe, it was Lennon that got offed.… Yeah, he’s recorded stuff since then. But I’m warning you: don’t expect anything good. It’s all got Yoko on it.”

Alex’s laugh faded out with a hiccuping squeak. It was still disorienting to stumble into these odd twists and turns, different paths the time streams had taken, that reminded him he was in a different universe. (Although the man sitting next to him ought to be sufficient evidence of that, all by himself. But far from being disorienting, he now found Krycek’s presence so natural and necessary that he didn’t know how he’d live without him.) “God. It’s lucky I didn’t run across any of those Lennon CDs at the music store, I’d probably have freaked. But you know, it could still be faked. Just get somebody that sounds like him, write some music that sounds like it could be what he’d have come up with next, fake a CD cover—it would have to be a pretty big production, but if Mulder’s determined to think I’m faking it, he won’t put it past them. Really, when it comes down to it, all the evidence in the world isn’t going to prove me to him—at some point, he’s just going to have to believe me. But the evidence will help. It will make him stop and think, and that’s what I need.”

“Voiceprint analysis should be able to confirm authenticity,” Krycek said. He was frowning a little, his mind still off on the technical issue. “I think. Unless you could generate the frequency pattern and synthesize the whole thing on a computer.… I don’t think the technology exists, but I should find out.” He shook his head, and his face cleared. “But you’re right, that’s not immediately relevant. He’s Mulder: if he’s determined to be suspicious, he will be no matter what; and even if it can be proved that the thing’s not a fake, there’ll be a lag time while the analysis is being done. And he’ll have made up his mind, most likely, long before he gets the confirmation from the labs.

“But as you say, it will make him stop and think. And it has the advantage of being an emotionally neutral piece of evidence. Using it won’t have much additional risk attached. Unlike Mulder’s contribution.”

Krycek fell silent. The mental link was silent as well, but Alex no longer needed it be aware of the racing lines of calculation in Krycek’s mind. This was no tease, or no deliberate tease; but the effect was the same. “Mulder’s contribution?” he prompted at last.

“Oh,” Krycek said, and Alex felt his attention come back in. “Yeah. Mulder’s going to write a letter to your Mulder for you to take back with you. When he left yesterday, he’d started to think about how he could draft it so that it would authenticate itself.” He grinned suddenly. “I think he’s jealous. After all, I got to meet you, but he didn’t get to meet your Mulder.” Then the grin faded. “He’s going to tell your Mulder that you’re telling the truth, and that he should forgive you. But I’m not sure he’ll be able to write it in any way that won’t make it potentially dangerous for you to use it. Any information he uses to try to convince your Mulder that he is who he says he is—things he’d only know if he really was some version of Fox Mulder—are going to carry a heavy emotional charge. You’ll need to talk to Mulder about that: he should warn you about any potential flash points he can see. And he may have some ideas about how to defuse things if it looks like the situation’s going bad.”

“Yeah, I want to talk to Mulder about it.” Alex grinned. “After all, who better to get advice from on how to deal with Mulder?” He paused a moment to let the smile fade, then continued. “I don’t think he needs to try too hard to authenticate himself with my Mulder—the harder he tries, the more my Mulder’s going to be inclined to question it and think he’s being set up. He doesn’t want to make my Mulder think too hard about whether or not he can prove that he is who he claims to be. You know Mulder—it’s all paranoia and intuition with him. It’s never the simple facts of the case that convince him—if it were, he’d be a scientist like Scully and there’d be no X-Files. For him, it’s how a situation feels, whether it makes sense according to that inner Mulder logic of his. What’s going to be more important to him than the actual content of what Mulder writes is the phrasing, the personality, the Mulder-ness of the letter.” His smile now was one of those tight little smiles—the ones that always seemed to make his Mulder go soft. “That’s awfully nice of him to want to do that for me. I wouldn’t have expected it, and I’d never have asked. But I think that a letter from him could really make a difference with my Mulder.”

Krycek smiled and shook his head. “I don’t know that he’s being nice, exactly. He cares what happens to you—we both do, even if neither one of us is at all good at talking about it.” His voice was light and even, and he went on without any pause in which Alex could react. “He’s not just doing it for you, either; your Mulder’s a version of himself, and he doesn’t want to see him screw up. He said it was like sticking a note to himself on the refrigerator, as a reminder to try for once not to be a complete and total asshole.”

Alex giggled, and rubbed his face against Krycek’s shoulder, playing the kitten again. “My Mulder’s not an asshole. He’s wonderful, smart, gorgeous, and just about perfect. And so is yours.” He giggled again, then his voice softened. “I still think it’s awfully nice of him. And you too.” Yes, Krycek cared about him. He didn’t need to hear him say it—even without the link, he would have been able to feel it. Still, it was nice to be told, even obliquely. It made him happy, which was a feeling Alex hadn’t had a lot of lately, and it made him want to gush at Krycek and tell him how much he loved him, but he’d told him once already and he supposed he oughtn’t belabor the point. He sighed a little, but it was a sigh of pure contentment this time, and he found Krycek’s hand and curled their fingers together. “It’s been a good day. I got to go out—all by myself—” he grinned up at Krycek— “and I did some work, and we talked through some stuff, and we had really great sex.”

Krycek squeezed the twined fingers and nodded once. “You know,” he said, and now he was looking into the distance again, “it’s going to be very irritating to have you vanish back into your own universe just as we’re finally figuring out how to make things work in this one. And it’s going to be even more irritating to have no way of finding out how you’re doing. I wonder: if taking the the implants out of your head does turn out to be the key, and the implants stay here—” He stopped, and Alex felt his body shift. “But no, that can wait. First, we need to get you safely home.”

Alex giggled softly, and let go of Krycek’s hand to tuck his arms tightly around his body. “We’ve still got absolutely no idea of how I’m ever going to get home, and here you’re talking like I’m already halfway out the door.” He felt the happiness swell inside him—Krycek would miss him, would be sorry to see him go, and would worry about him when he was gone. He’d like to be able to promise to get word back to him somehow, but of course he had no idea whether that would be possible, and Krycek knew it as well as he did. But if it were at all possible, he would—and Krycek knew that too. “I don’t know how long I’ll have here. Of course I want to go home as soon as I can. But I’m glad we got this far.” He paused to kiss the hollow at the base of Krycek’s throat. “And whatever time we have left, I’ll be glad of that, too.”

* * *

Alex drifted softly awake, shifted and stretched, cat-like, smiling in memory of the earlier games, and reached out for his lover—

Emptiness. Cool, unrumpled sheets. It was a moment’s disorientation before he remembered—he was reaching for Mulder, and Mulder wasn’t here tonight. Alex was alone with Krycek, and Krycek was on Alex’s other side, sleeping, as always, isolated within an inviolable space, not needing or wanting the touch of a lover as he slept.

Alex sighed, and settled himself on his stomach, pulling his pillow close and pressing his face into it. He didn’t need to feel someone’s skin touching his in order to sleep. He didn’t need reassuring arms around him, a warm shoulder under his cheek, heart beating gently against his chest. He was fine on his own. A few minutes, and he’d fall back to sleep.…

He sighed and shifted again, plumping his pillow and turning onto his side, back turned determinedly toward Krycek. When had he become this clingy, needy person? He hadn’t always been like this, aching forlornly for someone who didn’t want him near as he slept. Yes, of course, he liked to cuddle with a lover when he had one. That didn’t mean he had to feel like an abandoned child if he happened to be sleeping with a lover who didn’t.

He turned onto his back, glancing over at Krycek in the pale light filtering through the curtains from the city streets. Sleeping peacefully. Alex could feel the faint buzz of his mind, the white noise of random neurons firing, like water over stones, or leaves rustling in the breeze. He seemed comfortable, undisturbed. Perhaps he wouldn’t mind if Alex crept a little closer, just let a shoulder or thigh rest against him. After all, Alex hadn’t even tried to cuddle with Krycek at night before, he’d been content to curl up with Mulder (the long, lean body, with its elegant lines of muscle and bone, soft sprinkle of hair on the chest, smooth ivory neck…). A sudden shaft of pain hit Alex, and with a tiny whimper he put that thought aside.

Trauma after trauma after trauma—and was it any wonder he was frightened and miserable, and wanted to be held? It didn’t make him a pathetic idiot, just a man under tremendous stress who took comfort in physical contact. In his head he understood this, although the disapproving voices still whispered at the edges of his mind, calling him names, telling him he was weak and stupid and hopeless. But that was wrong, and Krycek had told him so. Krycek had said he was doing fine, that he was handling the situation well, that his endless tears were a sign of strength, and a healthy reaction to all his pain. Krycek didn’t think he was pathetic. Krycek enjoyed him, took pleasure in his body and mind. And he knew all this to be true—knew it as well as he knew his own mind. If there had been the slightest sense of disgust or distaste in Krycek’s mind at Alex’s emotional reactions, Alex would have felt it.

So perhaps it would be all right. Krycek knew Alex, and liked him just fine as he was, and he knew that Alex liked to cuddle, and here he lay, sleeping untroubled at Alex’s side. If Alex was quiet, and careful not to wake Krycek, and careful to stop if he felt any signs of unease, perhaps it would be all right to come closer. Alex turned toward Krycek, slowly, and eased himself next to Krycek’s body.

Alex’s shoulder touched Krycek’s arm. Krycek didn’t stir. Hip pressed lightly against hip. Alex felt the tension drain out of him, and a warm glow begin to fill his chest. He drew his arm across his chest and let his hand rest on Krycek’s bicep, and turned his head so that his forehead touched the point of Krycek’s shoulder. And still Krycek lay at ease, breathing evenly. Alex drew a long, deep breath, and let it out slowly. Content, he drifted gently back to sleep.

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