Not My Lover: Enigma *NC17* 4/?
Formerly Love Will Keep Me Alive
Deslea R. Judd
DISCLAIMER: Situations not mine. Interpretation mine. Deal.
ARCHIVE: Yes, just keep my name and headers.
SPOILERS/TIMEFRAME: Season 1-2; mytharc spoilers to Closure. This instalment is Marita's version of the events from just before One Breath to just before Colony.
CATEGORY: angst, mytharc, romance - Krycek/Marita (explicit), Marita/Other (historical), Mulder/Krycek (a little).
RATING: NC17 for sexual situations and language.
SUMMARY: Prequel to Not My Lover. The death of Marita's protector and a startling discovery about her past leads her to the brink of darkness in her search for the truth. But can she let in the one man who would stand at her side? Alex and Marita's account of Seasons 1 and 2.
NOTE: This story can be read without reading Not My Lover, but if you haven't done so, it will be helpful for you to know that the Dark Man is X, Maxwell Donovan is the Well Manicured Man, Michael Harrington is Deep Throat, and Diana Donovan is Diana Fowley.
DEDICATION: This chapter is for the 263 people who have waited patiently for email while I got this chapter out of my system. My bad.
MORE FIC: http://fiction.deslea.com
FEEDBACK: Love the stuff. email@example.com
AWARDS/ELIGIBILITY: Finalist, 2001 Spooky Awards (Outstanding Unfinished Work, Outstanding Krycek Characterisation, Outstanding Marita Characterisation, Outstanding Krycek/Marita Romance).
The story so far: When Alex Krycek was assigned to partner Fox Mulder, he attended the funeral of Deep Throat, Michael Harrington, hoping to get more information about the assignment. He met Mulder's ex-wife, Diana Donovan, now the daughter-in-law of the Well-Manicured Man. He also saw UN aide Marita Covarrubias, Michael's young fiancee and a child prodigy. Diana gave him access to information and directed him to a sex club owned by Michael and inherited by Marita. He learned of a faction within the group that was opposed to hybridisation, including Michael, Maxwell Donovan (WMM), Marita's mother Larissa, and Bill Mulder.
Krycek and Mulder became lovers. He learned that Marita, as Marita Ekaterinberg, went to college with Diana and Mulder at Oxford (she knew the former but never met the latter); while an imposter went to Harvard and became a scientist. When Scully was abducted, Alex had to decide whether to co-operate or walk away. He co-operated because he had new information that might blow the work open: Marita and her imposter were identical. Now, Alex is on the run, living at the club, determined to find out the truth about the identical women.
Meanwhile, Marita learned of the existence of a twin sister and, with her mentor, the Dark Man (X), decided to try to find her. They speculated that Elena had been surrendered with the hostages in 1973. Marita had balked at the idea of using The Den, the Consortium sex club she had inherited from Michael; but decided it was worth it to find her sister. Because she was inexperienced, X devised a plan to protect her (sexually) by making her a dominatrix; but Marita found over time that she was affected anyway. When Krycek started asking X about Larissa Covarrubias, he and Marita decided to take him on as one of her public submissives, and as her secret co-conspirator. It is clear now that Alex is writing in retrospect after the events of Not My Lover; but that Marita's account is from her diaries at the time.
Alex and Marita find Samantha's diaries and discover that she and Elena were lovers. Elena was recovered from a UFO crash site in 1983/84 and initially cared for by Samantha, and the then-teenagers made a pact to bring down the project. Both apparently wound up working for Spender and Strughold. It is clear that Diana knows some terrible truth about Marita and Elena which she feels unable to share, straining her friendship with Alex and Marita. Alex and Marita fall in love during the investigation, but Marita appears to be suffering some kind of post-traumatic sexual dysfunction, apparently linked to her childhood, her involvement with Michael, and her work at The Den. So far they have not been able to consummate the relationship, now about two months along. The Dark Man (X) has been absent for much of this time, investigating a UFO whose origins were unknown to both the Consortium and the Colonists. Now, Marita takes up the tale.
I woke in his arms.
I was conscious first of substance, of his comforting weight behind me and over me and around me. My shirt had fallen open in the night, and his flesh was warm against mine, and my unreasoning terror the night before seemed so stupid in the light of day.
With excruciating shame, I remembered. I remembered straddling him, and I remembered his hands on my back, pressing my body to his. I remembered sinking down against him, riding the hard ridge in his jeans, searching his mouth with mine. My cheeks went hot with humiliation when I thought of how far we'd gone, how close we'd been, and how the inexplicable fright had risen in my chest at the very last second. I hated myself for doing that to him, and I hated myself because I wanted him inside me. I wanted him inside me more than just about anything.
Still, the dull, heavy ache for him that had settled in my belly weeks before had eased. It wasn't gone, but it was...better. Alex was with me, despite it all, and he had never once offered a word of reproach. That counted for something - it counted for a lot. Michael had been decent, but he would never have given so much in exchange for so little.
I'd said that to Alex once, not so long before, and I remember vividly the look he'd given me, bewilderment intermingling with disbelief. "Exchange?" he'd echoed. "Jesus, Marita, since when is a relationship an exchange?" I hadn't had an answer for that, and I still didn't; but now, feeling his body cradled around mine, I was beginning to understand that there could be another way.
There was a knock at the door.
"Coming," I called, extricating myself from Alex's arms with more than a touch of regret. He mumbled a little, groping the empty space with his hand, then drifted off again. Smiling down at his sleeping form, I shrugged off my crumpled shirt and pulled on a robe, tying it off around my waist.
I stopped at the dresser to look at my watch. "Six-thirty," I murmured, annoyed. "For God's sake." I reached for the door and opened it, saying, "This had better be good."
It was the Dark Man. "I need to talk to you."
I felt sudden apprehension - and, strangely, antagonism. That was new...something I'd never felt for my mentor before. I didn't question where it came from just then, but I would wonder about it later. "If this is about what happened yesterday, it can wait until a civilised hour."
He held my gaze, his expression cool. "Fine, thanks, Marita," he said deadpan. "I had a smooth flight - thank you for asking."
I flushed. "I'm sorry. It's early."
"Can I come in?" His weight was already bearing on the door, not aggressively, but with casual ease. It occurred to me for the first time how strange that was, that he would assume entry into the room of a half-dressed woman at the crack of dawn. Had Michael been invasive like that? I honestly couldn't remember.
I held the door fast. "I'm sorry, you can't. It's not convenient."
He stared at me as though I'd lost my mind. "I beg your pardon?"
"It's not convenient. Can I meet you downstairs in a little while?"
He looked at me, brow furrowed, and then he asked in a very different tone, "Marita, do you have someone with you?"
I felt horribly, horribly self-conscious; but damn if I was going to let him see it. "Yes, I do."
"Alex?" I sighed, and he persisted, "It is, isn't it?"
"I'm not prepared to discuss this with you. I'll see you downstairs."
He was still frowning when I gently closed the door.
"You need a manicure."
I stared at him with an affront that wasn't feigned. I gaped at him for a full ten seconds before demanding in a shocked tone, "I *beg* your pardon?"
"Your fingernails, Marita," he said patiently. "They're too long."
I looked down at them. They *were* too long - almost to the tips of my fingers. Long enough to tear delicate internal membranes. Shit. How could I have missed that? "Look, this isn't real BDSM," I said, striving to keep the welling defense from my voice. "They're amateurs - dirty old men who want to think they're walking on the wild side. If I ever tried fisting Matheson, he'd probably have a stroke." That thought was mildly amusing, and I suppressed a grin. I had a feeling the Dark Man wouldn't approve of the levity. I was conscious of the weight of his reproof already.
"Matheson? Please," he grimaced, "I'm eating." He pushed aside his plate. He counselled, "Play the part properly, Marita, or don't play it at all."
Of the two options, I preferred the latter, but I didn't say so; instead, I remained silent, sipping my tea. After a long pause, I said, "How was Tunisia?"
He peered at me over his coffee. Steam gathered together and drifted off as he breathed. "Less eventful than here, clearly."
My tone was conciliatory. "Look, if this is about Cardinale, he knows it was a stupid thing to do. It won't happen again. Can we leave it at that?"
The Dark Man stared at me, brow creased with disbelief. "Listen to yourself! 'Can we leave it at that', like he got into a fight in the schoolyard. He punched out his partner because of you! You think Spender's not going to hear about that?"
I set down my tea with an exasperated clatter. "So he comes across as a besotted sub. So what? Fordham would have done exactly the same thing." I didn't think that was really true, but it was plausible. More or less.
"Fordham," he said heavily, "has two wives and five mistresses. He has other loyalties. Krycek, however, has just two: Spender and you. And yesterday he showed everyone exactly which one comes first."
That made me pause. I looked away for a long moment. "Yes," I admitted, more to myself than to him. "He did."
The Dark Man set down his mug. Leaning forward on his elbows, he hissed, "You think this is romantic, Marita? Let's see how romantic it all looks when we're scraping his body off the road. Cardinale is a terrorist, for God's sake! How much do you think he'd like to get his hands on Alex right now? You, too, for humiliating him, for that matter. He'd probably rape you afterwards just for the fun of it." I gasped, sitting back as though I'd been slapped. His expression softened. "Look, I'll handle it, Marita. I've already done some damage control with Spender. But don't underestimate the significance of this."
I shook my head, still perturbed. "I - I don't. I won't."
He nodded, clearly unhappy, but resigned. "All right. I'll talk to Krycek later today."
"No, you won't. I'll talk to him." He started to protest, but I held up a hand, forestalling him. "I understand that there are implications for our work, but fundamentally it's a private matter, and it's going to stay that way." The fact that we were discussing it at all struck me as grossly invasive.
The Dark Man watched me, frowning. His unblinking scrutiny made me uncomfortable. "How deep does this go, Marita?" he demanded. "I mean, are you in love with him?"
I flushed with anger. "That's - that's a very personal question." One I wasn't equipped to answer, even if I'd been willing to do so.
"It isn't just prurient curiosity on my part. This changes things."
My anger flared. "I don't care. There are some things that you have no right to ask me. Under any circumstances." I could feel the tightness in my chest - the same tightness I'd felt the night before. The same intrusion. The Dark Man looked concerned, and I willed myself to get control. I said more calmly, "Look, there are few things in my life which are just mine - just for me and no-one else. This is one of them."
"You know, if I'd known this was going to happen, I would never have partnered him with you." His voice was tight with frustration.
"Of all the arrogant-" I stopped short. "Do you honestly think you did this? You're not pulling all the strings here, you know."
He sat back, crossing his arms across his chest. "No, you've made that abundantly clear."
There was an undertone of defeat in his voice, and that shamed me in a way that his anger had not. I gave him the only reassurance I could. "Look, you don't have to worry about me. He is a decent man."
"Yes, I think he is." He sighed heavily. "I don't disapprove of the match, Marita - I disapprove of your behaviour."
"It's not for you to disapprove of any of it." I leaned forward, holding his gaze. "Hear this: Alex is off-limits to you. You get a say in everything else, but not that. I don't belong to you."
"But you belong to him." It wasn't a question.
I sat back, a sound of frustration escaping me in a rush. "You don't get it, do you? Sixteen years, since I was just a little girl, and you still don't get it. I belong to myself. If I ever belong to him - if I even can - it will be my choice. Mine! Not because that's just the way it is."
That affected him. His shoulders slumped a little; he bowed his head for a long moment before meeting my gaze once more. "Marita, I know you've had to fight to get free of some people to get to where you are now. If I've been one of those people, I am truly sorry." I watched him, stunned into silence. I didn't think he'd ever apologised before. To anyone. He went on in a different, milder voice, "Look, do you remember when Michael got that cat?"
"She was a stray. How is she?"
"She's fine. My upholstery is demanding concessions." I laughed a little, and that broke the mood. He went on, "Michael was one of those people who collected strays - wounded things he could protect and take care of. The courtesans. Lost people like Samantha. And you." I nodded in recognition. "I've only ever wanted to guide you away from that."
"I know that," I said quietly. The antagonism I'd felt was gone; I felt the same fondness now that I'd felt for him since childhood. "But maybe that's something I need to work out for myself."
"With his help."
"No. With him at my side. There's a difference."
He frowned. "Look, you obviously need something I can't give you. I know this therapist-"
"I don't need a fucking therapist! I need to be allowed to grow up! I need to be allowed to make mistakes!"
"You don't have the luxury of mistakes!" He waved a hand at a passing waitress. "If she makes a mistake, she winds up in rehab or on welfare. If you make a mistake, you wind up like Samantha Mulder."
"That's your loss talking," I hissed, and instantly regretted it.
"That may be, but it's also true."
There was nothing I could say to that, so we sat there in silence, drinking. I had a fleeting memory of Alex in bed where I'd left him, and wished I were still there. I wished all of this would go away, if only for a day. Was I seeing it through Alex's eyes - the eyes of someone who came in from outside? Or through my own, merely stripped bare of the conventional veneer perpetuated by the people around me? Either way, I hated it. I hated it all.
At last, the Dark Man spoke. He said conversationally, "What you said before - about me butting out."
"I didn't put it quite like that."
"But it's what you meant." I shrugged by way of concession. "You couldn't have said that to me three months ago, Marita."
I recognised the truth of this. "No, I couldn't have."
"You know, if he makes you happy, Marita, I'm glad about that. Really." I gave him a small smile, and he went on:
"But I don't ever want to hear or see it in public again."
When I got to the gym, Alex was already there.
I watched him warming up in Karen's deserted studio, and I leaned against the mirror, smiling. Watching him, I couldn't help it. He was so damn beautiful. I've never paid much attention to people's bodies, but every part of his had a memory for me. I could almost feel his shoulders beneath my hands; I could almost taste his neck beneath my lips. Is this why teenagers, and grown women, too, get giddy and silly when they're in love? I'd never understood it before, but I thought I did now. Watching him, loving him, I felt rather giddy myself.
I went over and dropped to my knees at his side. I rifled my fingers through his hair. "Hey."
He turned and kissed me, just once, slow and tender. "Hey," he said. "I got your note. The Dark Man's back."
He went back to his stretches, and I did the same, settling on the rubber mat, legs out before me. "He was gone a lot longer than we expected - nearly two months. Did he say why?"
"Eventually," I said sourly. "He chewed me out first."
He winced. "About Cardinale?"
"Yeah." Briefly, I told him what had occurred.
"I'm sorry, Mare. You shouldn't have to wear the heat for that. If anything, you salvaged the situation. 'If I catch you on my turf again, I'll rip your fucking throat out' - that was brilliant."
"It was kind of fun," I admitted with a grin. "Don't worry about it." He nodded, accepting this, and we warmed up in silence for a while. After a few minutes had passed, I said, "You know, the Dark Man suggested I see a therapist." My voice was more hesitant than I'd intended. In truth, I wondered what he thought of the idea.
He turned to look at me, askance. "Jesus, Marita. Is there anyone in your life who *isn't* trying to fix you?"
I thought about the night before. "Maybe I need fixing, Alex."
He shook his head. "That's bullshit, Mare. It's just growing pains."
"Don't patronise me."
"I'm not," he said, and he sounded genuinely surprised that I would think so. "I really believe that. If your development has been a little more protracted, a little more acute than most...well, that's not so surprising." He met my gaze. "There's nothing wrong with you, Marita. You're just still finding your way."
I looked at him, nonplussed. "Does anything faze you?"
"I could ask the same of you." He pulled his sweater over his head and tossed it over to his bag.
"What do you mean?"
He looked down at his ankles, devoting more focus to his stretches than was really necessary. "Mare, I know we have some really nice times - really special times-"
"Yeah, we do."
"But when I get a call and I say I have to go to work, I go out and I hurt people. Are you gonna tell me you never think about that?"
"No, I don't," I said truthfully.
"Maybe you should." He was still staring at his feet, stretches forgotten.
I sighed. "Alex, there are people who are killers - people who are dark right down inside themselves. People who kill just because they like it. People like Luis Cardinale. And then there's people like you and Edward and Max - people who do what they have to do, and sometimes that takes them to dark places." It occurred to me that I didn't know where the Dark Man fell in that equation.
"That doesn't make it okay."
"No, it doesn't. But it doesn't change who you are."
He laughed. It was a scornful, sardonic sound. I'd never heard him like that before. "I don't know who I am. I'm so far removed from the person I thought I was going to be-"
I cut him off. "I know you, Alex," I said, moving closer to him. I put my arm around his shoulders, and he touched his hand morosely to mine. "I know who you are. Maybe you're not the person you planned, but there's a lot of good in the person you are. And I don't think I'd be half the person I am now if your path hadn't crossed with mine." I looked away. "Maybe it's selfish, but even though I know it's cost you, I can't find it in myself to regret that."
He brought his hand to my chin and turned me to face him once more. "I don't regret you, Mare. Everything else, maybe, but not that."
I leaned forward, touching my lips to his. He cradled my jaw with his palm, holding me closer. "Alexi," I sighed. Reluctantly, I broke away. "Do you know, I used to dream about you? Before we met?"
"Yeah?" He broke into a smile.
I smiled too. "Yeah."
I shrugged. "I don't know. I was just - drawn. Maybe because you were different - because you knew my world, but you were from outside it. Because you weren't like them. Maybe I was calling out for someone - the right someone - and you answered." I flushed. "That probably sounds very girly and silly."
He shook his head. "No, it doesn't." He shrugged. "I'm not particularly sentimental, Mare, but I believe in the things you're talking about. I saw them in my family, growing up. My parents had a good marriage. I might not talk about that sort of connection much, but I accept that it's there."
"Do we have what your parents had?"
He smoothed back my hair, smiling a little. "It's infinitely more complicated, but yeah...yeah, we do."
I thought about it. "I wish I'd had that. I think if my mother had ever remarried, if I'd seen her with someone, I might be more...equipped now."
He shook his head. "No offense, Mare, but from what you've told me, I don't think she'd have modelled relationships any better than she modelled anything else."
"Maybe," I shrugged, but I thought he was probably right.
He let it go. "So tell me about Tunisia."
"There's not much to tell - not really," I said. I pulled away a little and went on with my warmup. "No-one recognises the - what is it, radio signature? The thing that identifies the craft?"
"Do I look like an interplanetary air control expert to you?"
"Be serious." He shot me a broad grin, and I went on, "Whatever it is, no-one recognises it. It's not one of ours and it's not from the Colonists. That means there's a rogue EBE out there somewhere."
"Presumably. It seems to be your standard UFO. The Dark Man couldn't find out much more than that, but he doesn't think anyone's holding out on him. People seem genuinely mystified. Edward's working around the clock."
He frowned. "Maybe they should be looking closer to home."
I stared at him. "Our faction? Do you really think so?"
"I don't know. Just thinking out loud. Makes more sense than an EBE on a joyride, though."
We heard footsteps. "There's Karen. We'll finish this later. Work out of Samantha's suite with me today?"
He got to his feet, held out a hand, and pulled me up.
"It's a date."
"What's all this?"
Alex's hands drifted across my shoulders, and I sank back with a sigh, smiling up at him. "Mmm...that's nice." He smiled too. "It's a prototype for a new operating system that's coming out next year. Windows 95. If it goes into widespread usage - and I think it will - it will make my job a lot easier. There are security holes you could drive a truck through."
He looked impressed. "Excellent."
"That's not what I wanted to talk to you about, though. I wanted to show you something else." I closed out the program and went into DOS. "Watch this."
He pulled up a chair and sat at my side. My fingers danced across the keyboard. "Initialising telnet," he read aloud. "What the hell is this?"
I suppressed a grin. "Just watch."
A smile spread over his features, and he gave a low whistle. He looked at me with admiration. "Tell me you didn't hack into the FBI POP server."
"All right. I didn't hack into the FBI POP server." He laughed. More seriously, I went on, "I've got a log file attached to Mulder's email."
"So we can read everything that goes through his account?"
"That's right. I have one on his home computer, as well."
"Any particular reason?"
"No, it just pays to keep an eye on these things."
He nodded, rising. "Well done. Want a coffee?"
"Hate the stuff. I'll have some tea, though." I kept paging down through the log.
"Okay," he said, walking through to the kitchenette. "Tell me, why did Samantha rate a kitchen when Michael didn't?"
"Oh, my suite is just a standard voting-circle one - room, mini-bar, ensuite. Michael never lived here, so I guess he didn't see any point in modifying it. Samantha lived here on and off all her life."
"Fair enough," he said. Industrious clattering sounds drifted in the background as he located spoons and cups. "Milk?"
"Yes please." I sat back from the laptop, my hand to my mouth. "Oh, my."
"What is it?"
"Just one of Mulder's reports to Skinner," I said, clucking with sympathy. "That poor man."
I shook my head. "Skinner. I wouldn't supervise Mulder for double the pay. Talk about a one-way career track to hell."
"Tell me about it." I heard a cupboard bang. "There's no tea, Mare."
"Damn. I thought I bought some. Don't worry about it, then."
He came out of the kitchenette and grabbed his keys off the table. "I'll go downstairs and get some if you like."
I turned to look at him. "Oh, would you?" I said, a smile spreading over my face. "Wait - you know, I saw this tin in the cupboard above the sink the other day - that could be tea."
He did an about-face, walking back to the basin. "Won't it be, uh, stale?"
I shrugged, though in honesty I hadn't the slightest idea. "If it survived the trip from India, I'm sure it can survive a couple of years in Samantha's kitchen." I reset the log on Mulder's email and closed the connection.
I logged back into the Windows beta. "Mmm-hmm?"
"Mare, this isn't tea."
I looked up, and what I saw made me stare stupidly with incomprehension.
Alex was holding a long, silver cylindrical object. He looked it over, and then a long, thin spike came out the top with a whispering sound. He drew back with a whistle.
I got to my feet and went to him. "It looks like some kind of weapon. What's it made of?"
"I don't know," he said with a frown. "Titanium, maybe. There are more in here - half a dozen of them." The spike retracted, and he handed it to me. "There's a button there you can press. Be careful."
I turned it over in my hands. "I wonder what it's for? There must be something specific - otherwise you'd just use a gun or something."
"I don't know about that - it's pretty efficient. I'd use it." For just a moment I imagined him using it, then shook my head to clear it. I didn't want to see him that way. He'd proven himself better than that - at least to me.
"Maybe there's something about them in the diaries," I hazarded. "Come and we'll look."
"Good idea." He came with me back to the table, bringing the tin with him. He closed it and put it down next to the journals, hesitated, then opened it once more. He withdrew two of the weapons, handing one to me. "You know, if Samantha thought she should have them, maybe we should have them too."
I took it. "You're worried, aren't you?"
He looked uncomfortable, but finally, he nodded. "Look, this combat training business is weird. It isn't SOP, no matter what Diana says. She's preparing us for something. If she's worried, that makes me worried."
His eyes were dark. I held them with my own. "Me, too." I put the weapon in my pocket without further comment.
He picked up two of the journals and held them up. "Pink or blue?"
"I'm feeling pink today." He handed me the pink notebook and kept the blue one for himself. Taking his hand in mine, I led him to the lounge and we settled there together to read.
We were still there an hour later when he spoke. "Here's something."
"About the weapon?" I wondered, shifting in his arms to look at him.
"No - about the hybrids. Listen to this." He cleared his throat.
"'We've done it.
"'We made our first surviving hybrid clone today. I can't explain how wonderful I felt, looking at her. It made no sense, to feel so protective of something that came out of a tank rather than myself, but looking at her, I thought I would die for her if I had to. Is this how parents feel when they hold their children for the first time?'" Alex looked up from the diary. "Okay, I'm lost. Are these the hybrid experiments she was making for Strughold?"
I shook my head. "I don't think so. She wouldn't have been so happy about it if it were for Strughold. I think this is where she was cloning herself with - yes, there it is. Look further down."
He complied. "'Elena says Carolyn - that's what she named her - will need some pretty significant orientation if she's to pass as human, and an adult. I blush to confess that I hadn't even considered that, but of course, she has the mentality of a child. Once we have a few done, however, they can take over the education of their own kind.'"
"They were making an army," I said. "An army of Samanthas."
"Looks like it," he said, frowning. "Why didn't Strughold suspect anything? I mean, it's not the sort of thing you can do in secret very easily."
"I saw something about that when I was flipping through the other night. Can I have a look?" He complied, handing the book over and taking mine. "Here it is. 'Elena and I staged a huge fight today. We got to screaming at each other about embryonic nuclei.'" Alex looked at me quizzically, and I shrugged. "Don't look at me; it's over my head." I read on, "'We each went separately to Strughold to discredit the other. They tried to send us to mediation, but we wouldn't go. Damn funny. We tried to make love in my lab after everyone was gone, but we were laughing too much. Settled for a kiss and a squeeze.'" The image made me smile. They reminded me of Alex and I. "'Strughold and his people are scrambling through nine hundred pages of conflicting reports - none of which even mention the possibility of manipulating the thymine nucleotide base.'"
"Misdirection," Alex said thoughtfully. "They were playing cat-and-mouse, making him think they were at scientific loggerheads, and pointing him in the wrong direction entirely."
I leaned up to kiss him. "A bit like us, really."
He smiled against my lips. "Yeah." He nodded to the journal. "So who knows what right now?"
"Well, Strughold and Spender both know about Elena and Samantha, but not that they're working together. They think they're on their side. Michael knows what they're really up to. The Dark Man knows about Samantha but not Elena. My mother and Max know about Elena, but they might not know about Samantha."
Alex groaned. "My head hurts."
"We've still got to draft a report for the Dark Man yet."
"Don't remind me." He sighed. "What about the others? Say Bill Mulder?"
I shrugged. "Not sure. He's pretty much out of things by now - retirement on ill health - but he might know about Samantha. Teena would know, too, I suppose."
"Now, just situate me again. Are the Gregors in the equation yet?" He nudged me forward, gently, and got up. He went to the bar. "We need to make a timeline. I'm getting lost here."
"No, I don't think so. Hold on." I flipped through pages. "No, that's later. Thanks," I added, taking the drink he offered. He settled down behind me and drew me back against him once more. "Look."
"'Elena returned from the States today. About time, too - I missed her. The clones are in place, working with foetal tissue in abortion clinics as planned. What we didn't anticipate was new information, and a new alliance. For the first time in a long time, I think there may be hope.'" I looked up at him. "It's weird, reading that, knowing she was depressed. Knowing that all these ups and downs were a prelude to her death."
"It's sad," he agreed. "Poor Samantha. Poor Elena, too, for that matter." His hold on me tightened.
I felt grief, fast and fleeting, and I bowed my head. "Yeah." He stroked my cheek, and I kissed his palm, leaning into it with a sigh. I read on: "'There's a rebel faction on the other planet, opposed to hybridisation. They're purists - they oppose the dilution of their race.'" Suddenly, I stared up at him in dawning recognition. "Oh, my God."
His eyes glittered with understanding. "The UFO - the one Strughold's worrying about. It's a rebel craft."
I drained my drink. "My God."
He took my glass and set it down on the floor beside his. "This is-" he faltered, at a loss.
"I know," I breathed. "It's almost too big to-" and then I had to stop, too. I looked back to the journal. "'We know this from a group of clones known collectively as the Gregors - the ones on whom the work on our own clones was based. Some kind of deal has been made allowing the Gregors' execution. The Gregors are aware of our resistance sympathies (a fact which nearly gave Elena a heart attack), but are prepared to trade information for protection. Elena has placed them in the clinics with our own clones, and I have a decade's worth of new data. Better yet -'" the words were underlined "'- the news of the existence of a rebel faction gives me hope that the hybrid project can be stopped.'"
Alex made a sound of admiration. "They were players - both of them. Much bigger fish than either of us. It's pretty damn impressive."
"That's my sister," I said with a flush of pride. Sudden, wistful affection came over me in waves, and I looked up at him, facing him head-on. "Alex, do you really think we'll ever find her?"
He leaned in and kissed me. "I'm certain of it."
Resting there in his arms, I could almost believe that were true.
He held me every night after that.
It wasn't something we really discussed. That night after dinner, when he was about to leave me, I took his hand in mine, led him away from the door to the bed, and turned down the covers. He watched me, perplexed. I didn't look at him - I didn't dare - but I stripped off my skirt and pantyhose, slipped into bed, and lay down on the far side with my back to him. I stayed there, rigid, my shoulder blades poking stiffly against the soft cotton of my blouse. I waited, hoping to God that he wouldn't refuse me. It was hard enough to ask, and I couldn't have done it if I'd believed - really believed in my heart of hearts - that he would say no.
There was a long pause, and then I heard him unzip his jeans and shrug them off onto the floor. The mattress dipped as he slid into bed behind me and pulled the covers up over us. He put his arm around me, and I leaned back in to him, pressing him closer, twining my fingers with his. He kissed my hair.
"You want me to stay with you like this?"
I nodded. I couldn't speak.
I swallowed hard; said in a low voice, "Every night."
"Okay." He kissed my shoulder. "Goodnight, Mare."
It was settled as simply as that. Some nights he just held me, others he touched me; but he stayed away from my most intimate places. Sometimes I felt like taking his hand and putting him where I wanted him, but I didn't. He knew I wasn't ready - perhaps better than I knew myself.
I made some unsettling discoveries about myself in this time. I found that I liked to be covered...cornered. I liked it when he kissed me, hard against the wall. I liked it when he held me from behind in the bed we shared, and when we moved, his warmth spread over me, until his body almost covered mine. I liked it when he stretched me out at the gym, holding me down, and I fought him because that's what we were there to do, but my nipples were hard and my thighs were loose and, God, I wanted him. There was something I craved which was almost like domination, and that scared the hell out of me.
"It's sick," I said to him abruptly one day.
Alex looked up at me from his seat at the dresser. "Why do you say that?"
"It's like those women who grow up in abusive homes then seek out abusive men." That was a truly horrible analogy, and I didn't realise it until a second too late.
His expression darkened. "I hope you're not saying that I-"
"No, of course not," I said hastily, setting down Samantha's journal on the bedside table. "But I mean, I've spent so long trying to get free of being controlled, and now-" it was hard to say it, but I struggled on, "now I'm excited by it. It's sick."
His brow furrowed. Expression thoughtful, he closed the laptop, rose, and came over to the bed. I shifted over a little to give him room, eyelids flickering as I watched his course. He settled down at my side. "I think you're mixing up control with trust."
I turned onto my side to face him, leaning up on my elbow. "What do you mean?"
"There's nothing wrong with giving yourself over - with allowing yourself to belong to someone, Mare," he said earnestly. "It's why we were given our freedom in the first place - to give it to another."
I stared at him in bewilderment. That whole last statement - it could have been said in another language for all the sense it made. I asked at last, "But isn't that abdicating yourself?"
He shrugged. "It is if you do it once and let them do whatever they want with it. But if it's a choice you make and re-make every day - that's commitment, Mare. It's a good thing."
"So you're saying that I want to belong to you, but in a good way?" I looked at him dubiously.
"More or less. But Mare, it goes both ways."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I belong to you, too, you know."
I stared at him in amazement. "How can you say that so casually - like you're asking me to pass you the salt shaker?" He laughed a little. "No, seriously, Alex, doesn't that - isn't that hard for you?"
"No," he said. "No, Mare, it isn't. In my family, commitment was - it was just how you lived, you know? If you really care, I mean. If the person matters."
I thought about it. Alex thrived on commitment. His whole life was steeped in it. Little wonder he was so good at it - God knew, he'd had a lot of practice. Was that the difference between him and me? That people had always been so busy taking my freedom that I'd never had a chance to use it to give?
I was hopelessly ill-equipped to form a decent answer to any of this, so I leaned up and kissed him instead.
He kissed me in return, cupping my shoulder, drawing me closer, and I felt my mouth open beneath his. He leaned in to me, and I pulled back, pulling him down over me. "Alexi," I whispered, cradling his neck in my hands.
He touched my face, lightly, letting his fingertips travel along my jaw. His breath was hot, skittering along my flesh in currents as he sighed my name. He made a path through my hair with his fingers, tracing delicate circles over my scalp. For a long moment his eyes were closed, his forehead resting against mine as he hummed needy sounds into my mouth. He was smiling, and God, I loved it when he smiled for me.
His palm grazed down over the slope of my neck, tracing the lines of my body to my breast. He squeezed me there, just a little, just enough to send bright trails of need racing along my nerves. "You know, I saw how you were at training," he whispered, cradling me there, making my flesh swell and my veins pulse strong and hard. "I had you pinned down at your wrists, and you fought me so damn hard, but your eyes were so bright-"
"I wanted you," I breathed. "I always want you."
He slid his palms up over mine, linking his fingers with mine, and leaned across to kiss the back of one of my hands. He braced them on the bed at either side of my head, firm but not harsh, his gaze holding mine, searching me for a response. I drew in my breath in a rush, arching my body beneath his, and he must have taken that for agreement, because his restraint died, and he kissed me hard. It was sudden and shocking, and I thrust back my head into the pillows, and my jaw fell open to take him completely. I fed on him, moaning as he plundered my mouth. He was more insistent than I'd ever seen him before, but I was undaunted, because his hands were firm enough to hold me but light enough for me to pull away. It was still my game, but he was in control - and that thought alone was enough to make me feverish with need.
"Do you like this?" he asked. His voice was hypnotic - low and harsh and heavy with desire.
"Yes," I whispered. "Yes."
He slid his mouth beneath my jaw, sucking me in that soft, pulsing hollow of flesh on my neck, and I couldn't touch him, but I pressed myself up against him, letting my legs fall open, letting him settle in between them, my skirt hiked up around my waist. I could feel his warmth radiating through his shirt and mine. He lowered his mouth to my collarbone, then lower still, nuzzling the swell of flesh there through the fabric, still bracing my hands at my side. He teased me, coaxing my breast with the wet heat of his tongue until I was deep in his mouth, arching my back, driving up into him.
"This, Mare," he said, lifting his head, eyes dark and demanding. "Do you like this?"
"Yes," I gasped, straining back up towards him, my hands clinging to his. "Yes."
"And this," he said, sliding back up my body to face me. He pressed himself hard between my legs, his jeans chafing over the wet silk of my panties. I made a long, low sound of need, opening wider beneath him. He seemed to lose the thought then, distracted, sinking his head to my shoulder with a sigh. With a hitching sound, he looked up at me; kissed me, just once, fleeting and chaste. "Do you like this?"
"Yes," I whispered. "Oh, yes."
He began to move, teasing me, pressing his hardness into the soft flesh between my thighs and sliding over me. He made a space there, parting me, stroking me where I wanted it the most, silk and denim taking our friction and making it warm. I felt the sudden release, the slick dampness spreading over me as he moved me back and forth, hips in rhythm, mouths meeting in breaths and sighs. I gripped his hands with mine as he rode me, stretching my body to meet his. "-like this?" he managed, barely coherent between deep, hungry kisses.
"Mm-hmm," I sighed, high and keening. "Alexi."
"Which is it, Mare?" he demanded, his forehead pressed to mine, breath hot on my cheeks. The feel of him hard against me was incredible; hot and exquisite.
I arched up to him, gasping with need, barely registering his words. "What? Which is what?"
"Giving up?" he said, his hands kneading mine. "Or giving over?"
"I don't kn- oh, God, Alex!" I blurted, my body opening for him. I wound my legs around his body, pressing him down into me. I'd have taken him through the fabric if I could.
"Is it -" he faltered, leaning his head against my shoulder, nipping at my neck with his teeth "- is it giving in? Giving in to me?"
I shook my head desperately. "No," I gasped, so high it was just a whimper. "I want - I want this."
"Do you choose it?" he murmured against my neck, thrusting hard against me.
"Yes," I choked out, thrusting back, the first waves of my orgasm building. "Yes."
"Mare, oh, God, Mare."
He rocked with me, pressed deep into my flesh, body rigid and taut as I shook and cried out his name. He released my hands, and I leaned up to kiss him, long and deep and wet. "Oh! Alex," I gasped out, cradling his neck, taking him hungrily. It was the first time he'd made me come.
We lay there, sighing out one another's names, his weight comforting over mine as the shuddering ripples in my body ebbed away. He took one of my hands in his and brought it to his lips. My palms were red where we'd braced onto each other. He took the pads of flesh into his mouth and sucked them, so tenderly, so reverently. It made me want him all over again. "It isn't wanting to be controlled, Mare," he said, voice ragged and worn. "It's just wanting to be warm."
I cradled his head there against my shoulder, kissing his temple. I lingered there; whispered, "You make me warm."
He lifted his head, his eyes searching mine. "Mare," he said, his voice husky, "so beautiful, Mare." He ran tender fingertips over my face, and I leaned up to him, eyes closed. I felt adored.
We stayed there for a long time, just holding each other, but finally, he said, "That was okay - wasn't it?"
I teased my fingers through his hair. "It was more than okay." I felt heat through my veins; I felt welling hope. Maybe I was ready to-
"It was the clothes," he murmured against my neck.
"It was the clothes. It felt safe because of the clothes. Because we could only go so far, and no further."
"Maybe," I conceded, but I felt my hope dim. He was right. Tears sprang to my eyes, and I fought them down. "I want you inside me, Alex," I said before I could stop myself. "I want to feel - full - and warm - with you-" and I couldn't say any more than that - I didn't have either the capacity or the vocabulary, and I was mortified by the exposure of saying it at all.
He lifted his head, and I was struck by the compassion in his features. "I want that too, Mare. It'll happen. I believe that."
"But - every time we try, I feel tight in my chest - it's like I can't breathe-" I broke off, and the tears did flow then - just a little.
He slid off of me, onto his side, and gathered me up against him. He held me for long moments, murmuring sounds of comfort into my hair, cradling me. At last, he said, "You can't force it, Mare. Your mind and your heart are working all this out, every day. We just have to wait."
I pulled back to look at him. "I'm tired of waiting. I'm tired of being this fragile doll that everyone has to accommodate. I want to be strong." I hated the petulant way that sounded.
He stared at me, surprised. "You are strong, Mare."
"No, I'm *not*! Look at my life!"
He slid his hands into my hair, cradling me there, making me face him head-on. "You are. Being wounded is not the same as being weak, Marita."
"Then what about us?" I demanded, and the tears were rising again. "You give everything - I give nothing."
"You give more than you know," he said, and he sounded upset. He dipped his head to mine and kissed me, soft and slow. He whispered against my lips, "Do you know what it does to me to watch you fighting for us? To know that it's the hardest thing in the world for you, and yet you do it anyway? No-one's ever fought for me the way you do." He smoothed back my hair, tucking it behind my ear. From anyone else, the paternalism of the gesture would have bothered me, but he did it with such reverence that I basked in it instead. "That night that you asked me to hold you, you were so stiff and scared - but you did it. You did it anyway."
I couldn't speak; but I drew him close, and we held each other.
I thanked God that for him, for now, that was enough.
"Good morning, ladies."
Diana looked up. "Morning, Alex. Join us?"
"Thank you, Diana," he said, slipping into the seat next to me. He took my hand in his for a long moment. He wouldn't normally have done that, but the restaurant was empty. This early, it was officially closed, with only a skeleton staff to attend to the needs of the top-tier members. Diana, of course, was privy to our relationship; it had been the subject of several girl-talks by now. I squeezed his hand before letting go.
"You're up and about early," I said. When I'd left him he'd still been asleep.
"Thought I'd skate before training. Helps me warm up."
"So that's the secret of your success," Diana laughed.
Alex gave a wry laugh. "No, the secret of my success is that I don't want Karen to shout at me. When God made Karen, he forgot the volume control."
Diana sipped her coffee. "Well, you're going to be seeing more of her. There are other courses I want you to take - both of you. Espionage 101 - lock-picking, safe-cracking, forgery, customs evasion, that sort of thing. Guess who's going to be your coach?"
I raised an eyebrow. "She's a regular jill-of-all-trades."
"She'd want to be. She was a black-ops girl for Castro. She makes Cardinale look like an amateur."
Alex frowned. "What's she doing here, then?"
"Castro owes me a couple of favours," she said, grinning broadly. I wasn't sure whether she was joking or not - with Diana, it could have gone either way. "I called one in."
"For us?" I demanded, setting down my cup with a clatter.
She shrugged. "I want you to learn from the best."
Alex and I exchanged glances. "Is there something you're not telling us, Diana?" he demanded, leaning towards her over the table.
It was standard interrogation-by-intimidation, and she didn't fall for it. "Look, you're both pretty young and pretty new and you're in pretty deep. I just thought a crash-course might be in order - one from someone who knows what they're doing. Karen's the best there is."
I was about to comment when I spotted the Dark Man in the doorway. Diana saw him at the same moment, and she held out a beckoning hand. "Darling! Come join us."
I whispered, "This discussion isn't over." She sat back with a smug little smile as the Dark Man came and sat down.
"Morning, ladies; morning Krycek," he said. "I can't stay. I have to drive down to DC. Mulder's running around like a kamikaze. I've got to do some damage control."
Diana snorted. "Fox is being reckless? Gee, that's unusual."
"His behaviour is extreme, even for him. Dana Scully's critical - I don't think he even knows what he's doing half the time." I glanced at Alex, and I could see the way his cheek flickered. I groped for his hand under the table and found it. He closed his fingers around mine and held on tight.
"What's her prognosis?" he asked, voice unnaturally controlled.
"She's not going to make it," Diana supplied. "They're switching off life support today." She made a sound of annoyance. "Whoever handled her tests ought to be shot. She's engorged, for God's sake. If her doctors notice that, it's only a short step to realising her fertility was tampered with. What kind of an idiot returns an abductee before her milk's dried up?"
"It's been a shambles from start to finish," the Dark Man agreed. "She didn't need to die. Goddamn incompetent scientists."
Abruptly, Alex rose, withdrawing his hand from mine. "I have to go," he said, voice neutral. "Excuse me." He turned and stalked off.
I stared at the other two in utter disbelief. I turned on them, hissing, "Damn you both!"
They looked at each other, uncomprehending. Diana said in bewilderment, "What did we do?"
"Alex was part of Scully's abduction," I said, the anger rising in my throat. "He didn't need to hear any of that."
Diana looked contrite, but the Dark Man argued, "Marita, Krycek knew what was going to happen to her. If he can't handle it, he shouldn't be in the game."
"Yes, he did. And he can. But you didn't have to rub it in his face." I got to my feet, my cheeks flaming. "It was cruel - and I've never known either of you to be cruel."
Diana sighed. "Marita, where are you going?"
"To find him." I turned away and hurried off, heels clattering on the floor.
I was conscious of their scrutiny, but I realised that I no longer cared.
I found him where I thought I would find him - on the ice.
The cool air washed over me as I opened the door to the deserted rink. It was used by few since Samantha's death - mostly children of the staff, rather than members - and not even the manager was in yet. I let myself into the office and grabbed a jacket. I pulled it around me, shivering a little, then went out to the main arena.
He was skating around in laps, taking short sharp strokes. He went faster and faster, bent low, his figure cutting through the mist like a knife. I stood at the boards, watching him, hoping he'd see me and come over. He didn't, but about the fifth lap, he raised his head a little, and the grief I saw etched into his expression made me gasp. And there were tears, too, streaming down the sides of his face from reddened eyes. I'd never seen him shed tears before.
I glanced back to the office - I couldn't see any snow boots, and I didn't know where they were kept. Skates would take too long. I couldn't leave him like that. So I went out there, stepping on the ice unsteadily on my heels, the cold rising through my feet in a rush. I stopped in his path. He looked up and saw me. I waited.
He skidded to a stop in front of me. "Damn it, Marita, I could have knocked you down," he yelled, but I put my arms around him before he could finish, and then he was shaking, burying his head against my shoulder, clutching at my hair with his hands, twisting it between his fingers.
"Alex," I whispered. "Oh, Alex, it's okay."
He clung to me, even tighter, arms sliding desperately over my back. "I hate what I've become."
"I don't," I murmured into his cheek. I couldn't feel my legs anymore. I didn't care.
"Why? Why don't you hate me?" he demanded, pulling back to look at me, nose to nose.
He looked so wretchedly bewildered, like a child. I tasted salt in my mouth, not tears yet but the beginnings of them, and there was a driving ache deep in my belly. It hurt me to see him that way. "I only know what you are to me, Alexi," I said, cradling his neck with my hands. "If I have to take the bad with the good, if I have to take the things you do and live with them, then that's what I'll do."
His features contorted with pain. "It doesn't work like that, Mare! None of us can just stand by when someone does the things I do! If you assent to them, then they're your sins too. I can't ask you to do that! I can't ask you to take that on!"
I stared at him with dawning understanding - not only of him, but of my life. He was right. I'd grown up with killers - Michael, Edward, the Dark Man. I'd never questioned any of it. I'd been their silent accomplice. Was I willing to keep doing that? Was I? If I wasn't, then I would have to walk away from him, and that was something I could never, ever do.
"You're not asking," I said at last. "I'm offering. We're in this together." He opened his mouth to protest, and I put my hand to his lips. "Your sins are my sins."
At almost any other time, I think he would have argued; but he only closed his eyes, pain and relief intermingled in his expression. He tried to speak, faltered, then leaned in and kissed me hungrily. He clutched at me, drawing me in with desperate need. He tasted of salt, his own warm tears on his lips, and I drank them in, taking them and making them mine. He pulled back, just a fraction, his face still grazing against mine, and he sighed, "I don't deserve you, Mare."
"And I don't deserve you," I said, and neither of us could argue with that anymore, because we were both killers, we were both takers, and the cold flooding through my veins seemed to prove it. "I guess we got lucky."
"Yeah, I guess we did."
I cradled his head against my neck, and we stayed there holding one another, bound by love and by need and by guilt, and I realised I no longer knew one from the other. We were so far gone that if it took blood to keep us together, then so be it. I would damn my pathetic excuse for a soul before I'd let him face it alone. It hardly mattered, anyway.
I was beginning to see that we were already damned.
"I bet he'd fuck you hard."
Inwardly, I cringed, but I strove for neutrality. "That may be. But I thought we were talking about your fantasies, Richard." Matheson's hands drifted over my shoulders, squeezing them in a mediocre attempt at a massage. His palms were clammy and sticky. I could feel his stale, cloying breath on my neck as he peered over my shoulder, down to the gap between my bikini and the flesh between my breasts. I could feel him groping me with his gaze, and I hated him.
"Oh, but this is, Marita," he said, shifting closer to me. The wiry hairs on his chest itched at my back, and not even the bubbling water could quite disguise the way I arched away from him. "This is a personal favourite, watching you and Alex. Maybe with Diana thrown in for good measure. What do you say, Diana?"
Diana peered at him sidelong over her drink, her features wrinkled with distaste. "Screwing Marita and Alex, I can handle. It's the audience I have a problem with."
Matheson's voice dripped mock reproach. "Be nice, Diana. Fox is ancient history for both of us."
Diana turned to face him in a single, sharp movement. Water flicked off the ends of her hair. "You screwed my husband - in every possible way. Don't tell me to be nice." She muttered into her drink, "Asshole."
I intervened. "Richard, back off. Diana's off-limits."
I felt him shrug. "Then I guess that just leaves you and Alex."
That hurt - God, that hurt. I hadn't even been able to make love to Alex, and I had to listen to scum like Matheson talk about it. Talk about it like *that*. "Richard, it will be a cold day in hell before you get to see me fuck anyone."
"Then I'll have to settle for fantasy, won't I?" he said, squeezing my shoulders. He leaned in, his breath hot and humid in my ear. "Do you want to hear it?"
"Not particularly." Oh, please, no. No. I closed my eyes.
"I think he'd push you down over the side of the spa there," he said, squeezing harder. "I think he'd strip down those leather pants you wear and leave them around your ankles so you couldn't move. I think he'd put his hands on your ass and spread that pretty pink cunt-"
I tuned out. It took every ounce of will that I had, but I managed to reduce his voice to a buzzing hum in my mind. Now and then, fragments would register, progressively more ugly and coarse as time wore on. I felt my face grow hot with humiliation. I didn't want him to think of us that way. I didn't want anyone to think of us that way. I felt soiled.
Diana was watching me; obviously, acutely uncomfortable. Whatever disagreements had passed between us, I was so grateful that she stayed. Her hand closed over mine beneath the water, and I held it tightly. It wasn't until I tasted salt that I realised that there were tears slipping down my cheeks.
Finally, I pushed his hands off my shoulders and pulled away. "You're boring me, Richard. Go away."
"But we have an appointment-"
I cut him off. "I don't care. Go away."
"If I'm boring you, perhaps I should be punished-"
I turned to face him and hissed, "I said, go away."
I don't know what he saw in my face, but whatever it was, it brought him up short, made his arrogance falter. He stared at me, compelled to silence for perhaps the first time in all the time I'd known him. He held my gaze for a long moment, and then he did as he was told, pulling out of the water in a rush. I sank back, shivering uncontrollably as he stormed off to the men's locker room.
"Rita," Diana began.
I looked straight ahead, breathing deeply, willing my body to stop shaking. "Diana, I'm fine."
"No, you're not."
I opened my mouth to argue; but she shifted closer to me, leaning in, propping her head up with her hand like a schoolgirl about to whisper some girlish confidence. She said in a low voice, "Marita, do you know what Alex asked me a few months ago?" I shook my head. "He asked me if you were raped."
It hit me like a fist to my belly. "Oh, my God," I whispered, my hand pressed to my mouth. I sat there, shock coming over me in waves. "What did he tell you?"
"Nothing. He was very discreet," she said. "But I can read between the lines." Her look was kind. "You've got to get out of this, Rita."
I shook my head wretchedly. "I can't."
"Why not? Just walk away, Marita. Move back into Michael's apartment. Leave the house to Connie - I'll watch her, make sure she looks after the girls. We'll put around that this whole dominatrix kick was a bizarre grief response. We can say there were drugs involved."
"And what about Alex?"
"What about him?"
"We can be together here. We can do the work we need to do here. It's a controlled environment. We can't do that outside." At least, not without turning rogue, but that was too frightening to contemplate. "We're from opposing factions. If Spender gets wind that there's something between us - something important - he'll kill him."
"Maybe we could barter for him," Diana suggested. "Edward could use him. We could spare one of our scientists."
"No. In other circumstances, maybe, but Spender was grooming Alex as a potential successor. He'd take it as a personal slight."
"Maybe if you were careful-"
"You know better than that. We find listening devices nearly every day."
She nodded, her face grim and resigned. I was right, and she knew it. "Look, Marita," she said, "I have three men in DC that I can trust, and I can probably scrounge another two from Max. Do you want me to bring them in? They can be your submissives - purely for show. You wouldn't have to take any of this crap from them."
I grasped at her hand. "Would you?"
She nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, I would."
I breathed out, a shaky sigh of relief. "Thank you, Diana." She sat there, waiting, while I grew calm. At last, I released her hand, and I shook my head. "Do you know, I'm only just starting to realise how surreal it all is?"
She looked at me, brow furrowed with confusion. "How do you mean?"
"Diana, we're sitting here talking about bartering for the man I-" I faltered, meeting her gaze and finding sympathy. I started again. "It's like he's a trinket in a shop. And I used to take that for granted - all the assumptions about people's worth and people's freedom and the value of life and all that - I bought into it all." I shook my head incredulously. "I believe in the work, Diana, but there's all this other baggage that goes with it, and I used to buy all of it. Completely." I looked away, ashamed. "That probably sounds very naive to someone who came in from outside."
"It does, but it's understandable. You were raised in it."
I looked at her once more. "And you came in. I had a part in that. I'm sorry about that, Diana."
She bowed her head, regret lighting over her features, but then she looked up again with a bittersweet smile. "I'm not. The work is hard, but it's worthwhile. And I found Edward - he's a good man. He's worth it."
"Alex is a good man, too, Rita. Please don't let this place take him away from you." I shook my head.
"I don't intend to."
I made my way to my suite, my mind whirling.
Alex had asked if I was raped.
Of course he did, Marita. What the hell was he supposed to think? Did you really think he just blindly accepted all this? Did you think he didn't wonder why you are the way you are?
Did you think it didn't hurt?
In truth, I hadn't thought much about it. I worried, of course - I worried that he thought badly of me; I worried that he would tire of me with my stupid, stupid limitations. When he held me so chastely in the bed we shared, I wondered whether he resented me for what I couldn't give him, but it had never occurred to me that he might grieve for me. I had totally underestimated the depth of his compassion.
I had underestimated his worth.
An ugly realisation, but I owed him the recognition of its truth. I couldn't give my body - not yet - but I could give him that. I could give knowing what he was. I watched him with new eyes that night, thought about all the little ways that he accommodated me; and I wondered how all that looked through his eyes.
When we were getting ready for bed, I sat at the dresser and began to brush my hair. He came and sat behind me, taking the brush from me without a word. We didn't do this so much anymore - sharing a bed had gradually supplanted this as intimacy - but just once in a while, he would see me sitting there, and he would come and be with me.
What was he thinking, I wondered, as he brushed my hair? It wasn't a masculine gesture, but a feminine one - one he did very much for me rather than him. Did he make love to me in his heart when he touched me that way? Did he do it because that was the only way he could? The thought pleased me and saddened me in turns. He looked peaceful, sitting there - perhaps, then, this was the time to draw him out.
"You asked Diana if I was raped."
He looked up, meeting my gaze in the mirror. His eyelids flickered. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, I did."
I watched him, and I thought that he looked sad. "I don't blame you for wondering why I am the way I am."
"It hurts you," I said. "I never realised that before."
He looked back to my hair, evading me. "Mare, we don't need to have this discussion. This is something that's happening to you, and I don't want to take away from that."
"I think we should. We should because it's happening to both of us." It shamed me to think we had been together this long without me realising that. I insisted, "This hurts you. Doesn't it?"
He frowned, staring at my hair. He didn't brush it, though; just stayed there, very still. At last, he said, "I hurt because you hurt. And because you don't know how good it could be for us. I don't just mean the sex - I mean that part of you that just can't let me in - that part that shuts down and shuts me out."
I said nothing, but only waited, watching him in the mirror. At last, he looked back at me, meeting my gaze in our reflection. "You don't know how I could touch you." His voice was tinged with sadness. I turned to look, not at his reflection, but at him. "I would touch you the way a woman should be touched. I would revere you," he said, putting the brush aside. He smoothed my hair with his hands, and, sighing, I put my head back, turning it a little, longing for his touch. I felt some deep hunger in me break free of its bounds, growing lazily as he leaned over my shoulder. I turned my face to him, and his warm breath hit my cheek as he said hypnotically, "I would worship you."
He slid his hands down over my arms, his palms catching on the fabric, dragging it torturously across my aching flesh. His fingers reached my wrists, tracing tiny, lazy, gossamer-soft circles there, sliding languidly over the backs of my hands to cover them, teasing back and forth over the clefts between my fingers. He entwined his fingers with mine, holding me from behind, clasping my hands with gentle relentlessness, and I found myself holding him, responding to his pressure with pressure of my own. "I would let you touch me - really touch me," he breathed into my ear, laying his head on my shoulder from behind, "and maybe I could touch you. If only you'd let me in." I could taste salt - salt from tears I hadn't realised I'd shed, because how I wanted that; and I hated myself for my weakness. We stayed there for a long, long moment, holding one another; but then there was a hitching sound, a sudden catch in his breathing. He said thickly, painfully, "But you never will."
His arms broke free of me in a rush, and I flinched as he left me. I felt naked and cold - and alone. He kissed me, just above my ear. "I need to skate, Mare," he murmured into my hair. "I'll be back." God, he was going to weep for me. He was going to take his pain and release it alone. To spare me. Oh, dear God.
He rose abruptly, stalking to the door in long strides; and I felt some dam within me break. I wanted everything he'd said, and I wanted it with him; and at last, my wanting outstripped my fear. I got to my feet, and I cried out, "Touch me, Alex."
He turned, his hand on the doorknob, his expression shocked. I spoke nakedly, without artifice, my voice low and raw with pain and need. "Please touch me."
He watched me for a long, long moment, throat twitching, face working, lips slightly parted as though to speak. And then he came to me, his hand outstretched, raising it to my cheek but stopping just shy of me. I closed the gap, pushing my cheek into his palm, taking his skin there between my lips, cherishing it because it was his. He made a sound of need, low and raw and keening, his breaths shaky through parted lips. "Oh, Mare," he whispered, lifting his other hand, cradling my jaw with it, leaning in to lay his mouth on mine.
He paused just as our lips met, his breath hot, his eyes wide and shining and fixed on mine. He was trembling, and his chest rose and fell in rhythm with mine. "Alexi," I whispered into his mouth, and I kissed him, slow and adoring, my mouth opening beneath his. His lips were soft and caressing, his mouth warm and engulfing. I drank him in, sliding my fingers over his neck, teasing them through his sweet, soft hair. He touched my face reverently, as though I were something precious, and I felt adored.
I tasted my own salty tears, and so did he; and he pulled back a fraction. "Okay?" he asked gently.
I nodded. "I never knew it could be like this," I whispered, my lips brushing his.
"It should always be like this," he said wistfully. He smoothed back a tendril of my hair. "Like-"
"Worship," I breathed, and he nodded.
"Worship," he agreed, his mouth on mine once more. He took the lead this time, searching my mouth, tasting me, his arms sliding down to press my body against his, one hand warm and firm at my waist, the other between my shoulder blades. This kiss was masterful, possessive; and I gave myself up to it, and found that I liked it. I wanted to be his. I was his. I am his. And that realisation was not the hateful one I'd expected, because I knew that he was mine.
I slid my hands up over his shoulders, pushing back his jacket, and he released me long enough to let it fall to the floor. Holding his gaze, transfixed, I traced the contours of his arms with questing fingertips - first through his sleeve, then, lower down, skin to skin. He was warm and silky and substantial under my palms, and he made a raw sound of pure longing, the sound escaping him in a rush of breath. My senses were alive, and everything entranced me - the texture of his skin under my fingers; his oh, so long eyelashes framing eyes of mahogany, flashing as they watched me watching him; the exaggerated shape of his lips, slightly parted and inviting.
He raised his hands to my shirt, unfastening the buttons there, and I caught his hand, tracing patterns on his wrist with my fingertips as he did so. We gazed at each other, spellbound, and suddenly, we were pressed hard against one another, kissing once more, undressing forgotten, mouths tender and insistent, a lovemaking of its own. "Mare," he gasped out between kisses, "oh, God, Mare."
"Alexi," I said, huskily, my voice heavy with need. "My Alexi." He nodded agreeably, but anything he might have said was lost as our mouths met all over again. I unfastened the buttons he'd missed on my shirt, wanting to be naked to him; but then he was guiding me to the bed, kneeling on the floor before me, and I sat, sliding my fingertips over his face - forehead, cheeks, eyes, nose, jaw - memorising every contour. His eyes were unnaturally bright, and I wondered how long it had been since anyone had loved him this way - really loved him - or if anyone ever had. Could it be that he'd been as alone as I? The thought of it moved me, and I kissed his eyelids, first left, then right, lingering at each, cherishing the feel of paper-thin flesh and feathery eyelashes. He gave a low moan, thick with need. "You touch me somehow, Alex. You always have."
"You touch me," he whispered, eyes still closed, as though in concession. "I've been yours all along." Our lips met, this time hesitantly, tenderly, and he said against me, echoing my words, "Touch me, Mare."
I touched him.
I pulled his shirt over his head, and I drew him to me, pressing his body to mine, flesh against flesh. We sank back on the bed, fumbling with waistbands, casting clothes and weapons aside. Rolling him onto his back, I explored him in awed fascination, tracing the lines of him with my hands and my lips. I loved the way my palm caught on his ribs as I ran it up his torso. I loved the way the light caught the fine hairs on his arms. I loved the salty taste of his skin in the little crevice at his throat. I was enthralled.
His arm tightened around me, and I let him draw me up beside him to face him once more. His hand drifted lightly over my body, languid and teasing. I thought he would devote his attention to my breasts or between my thighs, and part of me craved that; but he didn't. Instead, he found other places - the crook of my elbow; the place where my belly was slightly curved. He held my hand with his and traced the lines of my palm with his thumb, as though fascinated by this minute detail that was uniquely mine. He looked at me, mahogany eyes gleaming with wonder, and leaned in to kiss me once more, his hand still holding mine. This kiss was slow and searching, tinged with awe, growing more and more insistent until my wanting consumed me.
He eased me onto my back, covering me with his bulk. I arched my body beneath his, sighing, relishing the way he filled my vision, the way his warmth spread over me. His intensity was contagious, and suddenly I was kissing him, hard, my mouth questing, aggressive. The heat was building within me, filling my body, radiating through my limbs and my head. It was the heat of sex and lust, but it was more - it was *him*. He filled my senses, enveloping me, body and soul; and I needed him to make that possession complete. I wound my legs around him, sliding them up his body, pressing his hips to mine. He was hard against me, and I made a low sound, long and raw. "Alex, I can't wait - please -" I broke off with a sigh of exquisite need.
"You're sure?" he breathed, and the tightness was there in my chest, just a little, but I nodded.
"I want this," I said. "I choose it."
"Oh, Mare," he breathed, and then he slid into me, melding with me, bodies becoming one; and I gasped at the precious joy of it. He moved with me, one arm curled around my shoulders, his torso pressed to mine, flesh meeting flesh, hearts beating side-by-side. He cradled my cheek with profound gentleness, with awe. "Oh, Mare."
I kissed him, so tenderly, so reverently. "My Alexi," I whispered, meeting his body stroke for stroke. With every stroke I felt freer and lighter, less afraid, less alone. The warmth gathered in my belly and radiated out, flooding my body, and then I was shaking, crying out his name, holding him deep within myself as he filled me. He sighed out my name when he came - not Marita, but Mare - and afterwards he rested his head against my neck, breathing it over and over in an erratic melody.
We didn't speak, but he gathered me up in his arms, and we stayed there, cherishing one another in the silence. There were no endearments, but he kissed my hair and stroked my face and he made me feel loved. I felt great peace, great joy.
He owned me now, and we both knew it, and that seemed like the most dangerous thing in the world to me. But a small fire within me burned, one that cared nothing for the danger, and that fire blazed in celebration.
Because, God help me, I loved him.
And I know now that I will love him until the day I die.
We spent our first Christmas together in Boston.
Ostensibly, it was a business trip: we went to Harvard, and I met with some of Elena's old professors under the guise of a holiday. The only one who remembered her on any personal basis was a Dr Charne-Sayrre, but even that, ultimately, turned out to be a pointless exchange of social niceties. I filed away the fact that Charne-Sayrre was a variola expert, but that was about the extent of my knowledge gain for the day. Simply too much time had passed: Marita Covarrubias, the scientist, was remembered as a brilliant mind, but no one knew or cared what had become of her. I supposed I would have had the same experience had I returned to Oxford as Marita Ekaterinberg; still, it struck me as sad.
I didn't allow myself to be too discouraged. Harvard was no longer a major lead - not in comparison to the diaries. Alex and I made the best of it: we made love by day and walked hand-in-hand through the city by night. Those were good times. Boston was the first real holiday I ever had, and it felt so good to be normal, to do normal things without looking over my shoulder all the time. It felt good to be with him - to feel his hand in mine as we walked along the Charles, or to lean against him on the steps of Sander's Theatre, or to feel him inside me, whispering that I was beautiful, that he was mine. Boston was his world before he'd joined mine, and I loved being there with him, hearing him reminisce, his eyes far away, back in a time when he was free. We stayed there for three weeks - much too long, long enough to exhaust my vacation time, long enough to be missed by the group - but it was good.
"Was it like this with Mulder?" I asked him one day. It was an idle thought spoken aloud - an ill-considered one - and when he looked at me, surprise apparent in his expression, I said hastily, "I'm sorry - I don't mean to put you on the spot-"
He squeezed my hand, shrugging off my apology. "No. It wasn't like this with Mulder. It wasn't like this with anyone."
He shook his head. "Mulder had too much baggage."
More baggage than me? Dear God. "I have baggage."
"So do I. But we deal with it together. Mulder was hell-bent on being just him against the world."
"Whereas we're together against the world?" I said, arching an eyebrow.
I expected him to laugh, but he stopped, releasing my hand, and turned to face me. He stroked back my hair and tucked it behind my ear. "Yeah."
I smiled, slipping up my hands between us to rest on his shoulders. "I like that."
He leaned in and kissed me. "Me too." He took my hand, and we walked once more.
We were silent as day melded into dusk, but finally, he said with more than a trace of regret, "You know, we're going to have to go back to Westminster sooner or later."
"Yeah, I know," I said. "I hate that place."
His voice was heavy with venom. "One of these days, you and I are going to torch it."
"I like the sound of that."
We heard clattering footsteps behind us, and we both turned. Alex's hand went into his jacket, to his shoulder holster, but I grabbed onto his arm and tugged it down again. I said in an undertone, "It's Bonita Charne-Sayrre."
"Marita?" she called out. "I thought it was you."
We waited for her to catch up. "Dr Charne-Sayrre, hello," I said. I turned to Alex. "This is Bonita Charne-Sayrre. She was one of my professors in college. This is-" I broke off.
Neatly, he filled the gap. "Nicolai Arntzen. Good to meet you, Dr Charne-Sayrre."
"Please - Bonita."
I wasn't quite sure what to say. I was caught unprepared. "Would you like to walk with us, Bonita?"
"Oh, just for a moment. I'm meeting someone at the clock," she said, nodding to the Cambridge bank a little way off. "I'm glad I saw you, though. After you left the other day, I pulled out some of your old papers. I wondered whether you did any follow-up work into variola and thymine nucleotides - you had some interesting theories there."
Elena's research. Shit. "A little," I said cautiously. "I got some promising data, but I'm under contract to a pharmaceutical company. I can't discuss it."
"Oh, I understand. It's a sad day when knowledge is a commodity, don't you think? Still, it's the world we live in. Interesting work - I'll look forward to seeing it published."
"Thank you." I glanced sidelong at Alex, a little unnerved.
"Do you still see any of the other alumni, Marita? I remember during your last semester you spent a lot of time with that professor-in-residence - what was her name? The one visiting from Yale? Sally Kendrick?"
"I remember," I fibbed, "but no. We lost touch."
She shrugged, smiling. "I suppose it's inevitable these days. Oh - there's my friend. Be sure to stop in next time you're in Boston, won't you, Marita?"
"Oh, of course," I said. "Good to see you again."
"You too. Mr Arntzen," she added with a nod.
He nodded, smiling ingeniously. "Bonita."
We waved her off, and I breathed out in a rush. "Thank God that's over. I need to prepare for things like that." Alex shot me a sympathetic grin, his fingers tightening over mine. I mused, "Sally Kendrick from Yale. Might be worth following up."
"I don't think Elena would have maintained any of her old contacts when she went off to work for Strughold. We'd be better looking into that thymine nucleotide business - didn't Samantha mention it in her diary?"
I considered. "You're probably right. Thymine's got something to do with DNA, I think - it's like one of the building blocks. That would fit with the cloning and the hybrids."
"It would. I'll spend some time online when we get back - see what I can find out." Alex nodded to the retreating figure behind us. "That Charne-Sayrre woman knows her stuff. She might be useful down the track."
I snorted. "Yeah, as long as I can continue to pass myself off as a scientist."
"That pharmaceutical contract guff was good."
"I think fast on my feet."
"And such beautiful feet they are," he said, turning to face me, linking his free hand with mine. "You know, if we went back to our hotel I could rub them for you."
"You want to rub my feet?"
He gave a mischievous grin. "For starters."
I turned and led him back the way we came. "Let's go."
"So," I said, dropping onto the bed in exhaustion a couple of hours later. "Nicolai Arntzen?"
Alex sidled up beside me, running a hand over my thigh, teasing it up over my belly. "My middle name and my grandmother's name." He lowered his mouth to my shoulder and kissed it, sucking on my flesh there, and I felt myself wanting him all over again.
I ran my hand idly through his hair. "Nicolai isn't patronymic, though, is it?"
He looked up, resting his chin on my arm. "No. It was for my sister. She died before I was born. Her name was patronymic, but when they had me it was more important to them to honour her. My father was Czech, so it wasn't really his tradition anyway." He leaned forward to kiss me.
I drew back. "Her name was patronymic?"
"Yeah. Nicola Petyrovna."
"I never knew girls got patronymic names, too." My brow furrowed. "I don't have one."
He shrugged easily. "Your mother defected when you were three days old. She probably wanted you to have an American name."
I sat up, crossing my arms over myself. "No, that doesn't make sense. What about Elena's name? Ekaterina isn't American."
Alex sat up, too. "No, but it can pass for German. It's not in-your-face Russian like a patronymic. Remember, people weren't kind to Russians here in the seventies." I wasn't convinced, and he went on, "Look, maybe she was missing your father. Maybe it hurt too much to give you his name."
"You'd think that would make her want to honour him more. She adored Papa - she still carries his picture in her wallet, even now. And my mother isn't given to sentimental gestures."
"You'd think so - but grieving people do strange things. Anyway, maybe he didn't care for the tradition either - Covarrubias isn't a Russian name."
"No," I conceded. "It's Mediterranean. A few generations back, though."
"Well, there you go."
I searched his face for signs of doubt, and found none. "Do you really think that's all it is?"
"Absolutely," he said. "What else could it be?" I shrugged, and he leaned forward, cradling my shoulder with his palm, drawing me close. "Besides. I love your name."
"You love my name?" I said dubiously.
He eased his hand down my body, and I arched my back a little, getting closer. "It rolls off the tongue."
"You know, you shouldn't smooth talk. You don't do it very well."
He grinned. "Made you smile, though."
I grinned back. "Yeah, you did."
He lowered his head to my throat and kissed me there, and I sighed, sliding my leg between his. His thigh was up high, pressed hard against me, and I shifted, relishing the feeling. He murmured, "So are we heading back, or are we just going to elope and be done with it?"
All my arousal, all my good feeling fell away in an instant. The tightness in my chest was suddenly back at full force. My smile faltered a little, but I forced myself to stay neutral. "We should go back. Want me to ring for a flight?"
"Sure." He looked a little disappointed, but he didn't protest when I extricated myself from his arms.
Suddenly, him touching me was the last thing that I wanted.
I hated Westminster.
In fact, between Michael's murder and The Den, I was willing to extend that feeling to the whole of Maryland. That wasn't exactly a newsflash, but after nearly a month in Boston the feeling was acute. Gazing out over the rolling hills and the trees to the distant walls that fenced the compound, I felt imprisoned. For the first time in my life I had tasted freedom, and it wasn't enough. I wanted more. More time, more space, more Alex. Especially more Alex.
Diana's voice came from behind me. "They're just like little old women."
I turned away from my stance at the window. "What?"
She nodded towards Edward and Alex. "Look at them. They're like little old ladies with her."
I looked, and I couldn't resist a smile despite my disquiet. Alex was holding Elizabeth, grinning broadly. Edward was pointing at her cheek and laughing. "What the hell are they doing?"
"I don't know. Pointing out dimples or something. I left when the words got down to two syllables." We laughed, softly, in that indulgent way that women do about their men. She sighed, her gaze lighting on Edward. "It's good to have him home."
"I'll bet. When does he fly back to Tunis?"
We were silent for a few moments, watching them. I said hesitantly, "Diana, this wasn't just a courtesy to me, was it? Having Alex as godfather?"
Diana stared at me, surprise apparent in her face. "Not at all, Marita. I know we haven't known him that long, but he's decent. Edward and I don't know many decent people."
I supposed that was true enough. "It means a lot to me. To him, too, I know." Presently, I said, "It's a big commitment."
"Being a godparent?" she said quizzically. "You know, it's not the whole guardianship thing people think it is. You talked to the priest - it's a formative responsibility, that's all."
"No, I know - I don't mean that." The idea of me having a formative influence on a child was laughable in its own right, but I had bigger fish to fry. "But going into it together - I mean-" I broke off, my brow furrowed.
Diana's voice dropped a level. "Rita? What is it?"
I glanced up at Alex, then away again. "He - he mentioned marriage."
"Alex proposed?" She didn't sound particularly surprised at the idea, and that sent my fears soaring.
"No...no. It was just, you know, a throwaway line. But men don't joke about marriage - do they? Not unless they're thinking about it."
Diana looked uncomfortable. "Look, Marita, normally I'd agree with you; but Alex isn't your typical man. I don't think you can apply conventional women's-column wisdom to him. It might not mean anything."
"Maybe," I conceded. A shiver rippled through my body, and I shifted my shoulders, crossing my arms over my body.
Diana watched me, her brow furrowed, concerned. "Marita, this has really got you spooked, hasn't it? I mean, look - even if he is thinking about it, you must have known he was serious about you. He waited, what, four months?" I nodded. "Men don't wait like that unless it matters to them. It's a little fast, maybe, but we're all on a reduced lifespan here." I passed my hand over my brow and back over my hair. It was a nervous, clumsy gesture. "Don't you want him to be serious? I mean, am I totally misreading this? I thought you loved him."
"No - I - it isn't -" I fanned my hand over my face, feeling it grow red and warm. I tasted tears in my throat, and I could feel the tightness rising in my chest. "It's just all too much - I can't-" I broke off, my hand clasped to my mouth.
Diana's arm was around my shoulder. "I've upset you. I'm sorry." She turned me away from the men and pulled a tissue from her jacket pocket. "Come on, quickly. Before they see."
My breath caught in my throat, a pathetic, hitching sound. "I'm so afraid." I pressed the tissue hard to my eyes, stemming tears before they fell. "God, Diana. Why is this happening to me? Why can't it just be - be easy? Like for everyone else?" She passed me her wine, and I downed it in a single gulp. "I just want-" I stopped, unable to finish.
I heard Edward's voice behind me. "Hey, Alex, let's see what Diana and Marita-" and then I saw Diana look over her shoulder, shaking her head. "-bought for the baby. Come over here." Hurriedly, I dried my eyes and glanced to the mirror on Diana's dresser for reassurance. There was no sign of the recent storm.
"Come on, Rita. Don't do this to him. He doesn't deserve it." The words were harsh, but her voice was kind.
"I know," I said, breathing deeply. "I know that, Diana."
"You ready to go over to them?"
I nodded. "Yeah. Come on."
The men looked up at our approach. Alex was still holding Elizabeth. She was playing with the zipper on his jacket, steel inching along leather. He looked up from child to mother with real fondness. "She's lovely, Diana."
Diana laughed. "You're biased." She looked pleased anyway.
"I deny that. I've been saying it for months."
I still felt shaky, but I forced myself to join in the banter. "So you're merely endowed with good taste, then," I said. He held out his free hand, and after a moment's pause, I went to him and settled into the crook of his arm, letting him sling it companionably around my shoulders.
"Yeah," he said, squeezing my shoulder a little. "I am."
He went back to fussing over Elizabeth, and I watched him in profile. I could feel myself smiling. Just for a moment, what Diana had with Edward - what I had with him in that fragment of a moment - seemed so right. So warm. I could sense the peace and the companionship that life could bring me, and when he looked at me once more, I kissed him, impulsively tender. In that moment, the unreasoning terror ebbed away, cold countered by warmth, and all I knew was that I longed to be warm like that all the time.
But that night in his arms, when I thought back on it, the old, familiar fear rose in my chest and tightened around my heart once more.
I wondered whether I would ever be warm again.
"The Den saved me."
I look up at her, closing her journal and setting it aside. She's been reading over my shoulder - for how long exactly, I'm not sure. No-one else could do that - not even the children - but she's so much a part of me that she doesn't even trip my sensors anymore. I can't distinguish her scent from mine, except when I really breathe in and decide to do so. All the senses that kept me alive for all those years go by the boards with her.
Now, I turn away from the laptop, and she slips down onto my lap. I curl my arm around her waist. "How so?" I say, leaning in to kiss her cheek.
"I'd have just found another protector, Alex. If I hadn't been put somewhere that took all my fears and all my needs and stirred them up the way that place did, I would have just continued along the path, and I'd have died inside."
I agree with her, but I'm surprised that she recognises it. It's something I've never said to her - indeed, there are a lot of things about this time that we've never talked about. I wonder, sometimes, whether she resents me for dredging it all up. She's never asked me not to, but she's fidgeting a lot lately. If she weren't nursing, if we weren't trying for another baby, I think she'd be smoking again.
"Do you mind me doing this?" I ask her.
"Sometimes it's hard," she admits, "but no. I think you need to do it."
"And I think you need to read it."
That makes her pause. Slowly, she says, "Maybe that's true. Maybe I need to face up to who we were and who we've become as much as you do."
I don't know what to say. I'm competent on a laptop, but now, when she really needs me to say the right thing, the words all dry up. I tell her lamely, "You don't have anything to face up to," but I know that isn't really true.
She bows her head. "I'm not proud of the person I was then. When you met me - I was a prostitute, Alex. It doesn't matter that it was for information rather than money; it doesn't matter that they didn't really touch me. I was a whore. I was so much a whore that when someone came along that really mattered, I almost couldn't - couldn't-"
I'm floored, listening to her. Eight years together, and I've never heard her speak like this. I'm starting to think we should have talked about these years much sooner. "Mare, you were beautiful then. I worshipped you - every bit as much as I do now." If there was any question in my mind about going on with it, that question is settled now. I will finish it so that she can see what I see. So that she can embrace the woman I love, the woman that is herself.
Her voice is heavy with pain; the words come thick and fast. "No, but you don't understand, Alex; you think it was all done to me, but I made choices! I chose all of that!"
It makes me angry, hearing her bear their guilt like that. "No, don't you do that. Don't you take their manipulations and their rationalisations and say they're more truth than our truth. Their truth is dead! It died with them. And ours lives on. It lives in our marriage and our children and the life we have here. Ours endures, Mare. That counts for something."
I don't know if she's convinced, but her eyes are bright, and the beginnings of a smile flit across her features. She puts her arms around me, fiercely tender. "I love you, Alexi."
"I love you too, Mare." Suddenly one arm doesn't seem to hold her close enough.
She draws back to look at me, her forehead touching mine. "Some of the things you write about us...they're beautiful, Alex. It's like reading a love letter."
"You don't mind me doing it, then? Even though it hurts?"
She shakes her head. "No." She leans in and kisses me, warm and slow. "But will you leave it for tonight? Will you come to bed? Please?"
I stroke back her hair. "Okay. Do you want to-"
She pre-empts me. "Not tonight. Will you just hold me? Like you did back then?"
The words, 'come walk with me outside for a while' die in my throat. She thinks I was about to ask to make love to her, and that disturbs me somehow. I nod, not trusting myself to speak. She rises and holds out a hand, pulling me up, leading me to our room. I hold her as I said I would hold her, but lying there with her in the dark, I'm afraid.
Please don't pull away from me over this, Mare. Please.