Welcome To The Harem

Not My Lover by Deslea R. Judd Part 3 of 9
Summary: In a world of changing allegiances, only Alex and Marita will have the strength and permanence with which to lead the Russian project. But will they have strength to survive the American agenda? Tells S3-7 from Alex and Marita's perspective. There is a prequel, Not My Lover: Enigma (in progress) but the stories can be read independently.

Not My Lover *NC17* 3/7

Deslea R. Judd
Copyright 2000

ARCHIVE: Yes, just keep my name on it.
DISCLAIMER: Characters not mine. Interpretation mine.
RATING: NC17 for sex and language.
SPOILERS/TIMEFRAME: Mytharc Ascension to Requiem.
CATEGORY/KEYWORDS: romance, angst, mytharc, Krycek/Covarrubias.
SUMMARY: In a world of changing allegiances, only Alex and Marita will have the strength and permanence with which to lead the Russian project. But will they have strength to survive the American agenda? Tells the mytharc from Alex and Marita's perspective.
MORE FIC: http://fiction.deslea.com
FEEDBACK: Love the stuff. deslea@deslea.com
AWARDS/ELIGIBILITY: Top 3 Finalist, Spooky Awards 2000, Outstanding Krycek Characterisation and Outstanding Other Series Character Romance. Commended in the B.I.T.T. Awards 2001. Cover Art was a finalist in the 2000 F.O.X. Awards (Outstanding Krycek Story Cover Art)

Story so far: After stealing the digital tape (Paper Clip), Alex and Marita obtained the data necessary to work independently on a vaccine for the alien pathogen, the so-called Black Cancer. Their 1996 marriage (after Apocrypha) has protected them from Spender's wrath so far; but their clandestine operation in Tunguska has cost the lives of her mother, Larissa, and the dark man, X (Herrenvolk). Now, they have learned that their accomplice, variola expert Benita Charne-Sayrre, has betrayed them to the English Consortium man, Donovan (Tunguska).


I don't think she knows just how much I love her as she is now.

This is my favourite Marita - strong, principled, truthful. I hate that she hurts, but I love why she hurts. She hurts because we killed a man, a man she had loved, and it is not in her to shy away from that truth as I do with my numbness and my silence. She faces it and lives it, carrying its weight in the lines of her face like a mark of Cain.

The irony of it is that she considers herself weak. She speaks of the dark man's death, and our part in it, as though she had the power to prevent it. She speaks of it with bitter self-loathing, and the fact that she was exploited by everyone - by her mother, by Spender - means nothing to her. She sees not the powerlessness of her situation, but her own, personal powerlessness to act; and she condemns herself for it. And though I took the gun from her trembling hands, and killed him in her stead as I swore I would do, still she looks on what she did as murder.

Killing is never easy. It is not, as those who have not killed suppose, a bridge you cross once, never to return. You don't become a monster on your first kill, or your second, or your third.

But you lose a little of your soul each time...never doubt that.

Killing the dark man was no easier than my first kill, that of an innocent lift operator on Skyland Mountain. I was more technically experienced, that's all. But this time, perhaps, there was a glimmer of redemption; for I killed him that my wife would never know the coldness that I know, that I carry with me like an ache.

The coldness of the dead.

Thankfully, that cold was tempered on this occasion. Whatever judgement the dark man may have had for Mare, he either forgave or pretended to forgive her, to give her some measure of peace. And whatever he thought of me, he chose in the extremity of death to tell us what he knew, that we might continue the work.

The damned work.

Six months.

It had been six months apart, and I had felt every day of them. I ached for Mare, as though for some missing part of myself. I look back on those freshly-written words with considerable amusement, because even a year before, when I was beginning to love her, I would have dismissed them as nonsense...the stuff of fairy tales written by middle-aged women wistful for lives which weren't their own.

You know what? They were right on the money all along.

I hadn't had a lot of time to think of her, though; that was a blessing. I carried her in my heart like a talisman, but I was spared the torture of dreaming of her and remembering her: there was no time. Even the coldness and emptiness of my bunk in Norylsk was only a fleeting pang, because I slept, exhausted, almost at once. Managing the Russian operation was a full-time job, and I had the task of raising its ongoing costs, as well.

I wonder if you can imagine the magnitude of that responsibility. You can't support a testing regime on a hundred prisoners on Marita's income, even in Russia. We were paying Benita Charne-Sayrre fifteen thousand a month, and that was about what Mare made from the Consortium. Most of her modest United Nations income supported the Tunguska compound. That left me with the task of supporting Norylsk, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. I made a dozen trips to Morocco, selling Russian weaponry. We were only just breaking even.

In the end, I decided to risk a trip to America. I was wanted there, but the market price for weaponry was much higher. I escorted a container of merchandise to Saskatchewan. A neo-Nazi group just over the Canadian border had promised a dazzling figure that could support all five of the gulags for six months. The deal was made, funds were exchanged, and I made my way to New York and put the money in Mare's safety deposit box in Manhattan. Marita would put the money in and out of casino chips over several months, then wire it to me. This served a dual purpose: it legitimised the money as gambling wins, and it supported a rumour we had carefully orchestrated of a significant gambling habit. Some months Mare lived on less than a thousand dollars, and on her income, she needed a plausible reason why.

The money was not the only thing I left in the safe deposit box. I left a vial - a precious, precious vial. A vial with a miracle inside - a secret miracle, only a few weeks old.

A weak vaccine.

I went to her apartment, eager to surprise her. It was empty, and a phone call to her office revealed she was away for several days. No forwarding number. Her cell was turned off. Suppressing my alarm, I telephoned Benita Charne-Sayrre. I intended to tell her of the vaccine, but she pre-empted me with news of a new wealth of information: hard drives containing the US government's smallpox identification data, recovered by Scully while investigating the Jeremiah Smiths. She had already sourced copies, and they were en route to Norylsk. My jubilation at this admittedly fantastic find was muted; I knew Benita, and she was using her Worried Voice. It was then that I learned of the death of Larissa Covarrubias, and of the planned hit on the dark man.

"What do you make of this?" I asked cautiously.

"Maxwell thinks it's awfully coincidental that Marita's two closest affiliations will have died in twenty four hours. He thinks Larissa was sanctioned. That's my feeling as well."

Filing away her easy use of the Englishman's name for future reference, I said only, "I'm inclined to agree."

"Do you think she could be in danger of being exposed?" Benita asked. "Could someone be protecting her?"

"If so, there will be loyalty test," I mused. "I wonder what-" I broke off with a gasp. "Oh, hell. Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

"The mentor," Benita said firmly. "No doubt about it."

"Can you find out where she went?" I demanded harshly.

Benita's voice was dubious. "I can try, but you can't stop it, Alex. If she doesn't do it, they'll kill her."

"No," I agreed gravely.

"But I can do it for her."

I was in time - just.

I found her at Mulder's, about to put a bullet into the dark man. I coaxed the gun from her trembling fingers and drew her against me, shooting him myself. She gave in without a fight, leant against me with a sound of agony. And then we had left him - but not before hearing his final words.

"Alexi?" Mare said softly the following morning. The timbre of her voice was still bruised, still more husky than usual; but she was more like the Mare I knew. I felt my worry for her ease a little. It would be a long time before the scars of the last forty-eight hours faded, but she would come through. We both would.

I said nothing of this, but only looked up at her questioningly. She was brushing her hair vigorously. She went on, "Do you really think Benita is compromised?" I don't think she truly doubted her mentor. She was sounding me out.

I looked back to the mirror and shrugged. "It's possible. She knows a hell of a lot about the American project," I pointed out, rinsing my razor. "Why would Donovan give a scientist the Jeremiah Smith hard drives? I know it's variola related, but that's hybridisation material, not vaccination material. It's not need-to-know if she's really doing the work for him she says she's doing."

Mare nodded slowly. "Okay. But why side with him? He's probably paying more, but she's independently wealthy. We have the best data and the least compromised operation." She put the finishing touches on her coif, or whatever the hell women call it. Severe-looking bun thing, lots of pins. "She's always said that's why she wanted to work with us."

"I think they might be lovers," I said in a low voice. "There was an intimacy about how she said his name - I'm almost sure of it." She opened her mouth, about to play devils' advocate, but I forestalled her. "It could just be a fling - or she could have done it to get information..." I trailed off.

"But funny things happen to loyalties sometimes when people make love," she supplied, frowning. At my nod, she went on softly, "You and I know that, of all people." Her voice was suddenly husky, and my gaze locked on hers. She flushed. Then, in a whisper, "Alexi."

I hadn't been aware of the desire - the longing for her, always simmering just below the surface - but suddenly I was crossing the room to her, grasping her arms, lowering my mouth to hers. "God, Mare, it's been too long," I whispered urgently, my lips brushing hers as I spoke. Her warm breath on me was intoxicating. "Too damn long."

"Alex," she breathed. "Every day I wish-"

There was more, but it was lost as her mouth opened beneath mine, as she wound her arms around my neck, pulling me closer. I slid my hands down over her arms, the fabric of her dress catching, and I felt her breath against me quicken. I held her, one hand in the small of her back and the other higher up, pressing her torso to mine; and still it wasn't close enough. I could still breathe air that wasn't hers, could still see and hear things that weren't her...still my senses were assaulted by that which wasn't her, and so it could never be enough.

She kissed me, hard, backing up to the dressing table. I followed her, stumbling. I lifted her onto it, dragging up her demure dress to the waist, finding her bare beneath. A teasing line of fire shot through my veins, from my hand straight to my groin, and I gave a low sound against her mouth. "Going commando today?" I said thickly.

She gave a low, indulgent laugh. It was throaty, delicious. "I haven't finished getting dressed yet, you idiot." I laughed too, but my laugh became a sharp gasp as her mouth found mine once more. I'd been lifting my hands to touch her somewhere - breast, neck, between her legs, it didn't matter - but I let them fall again, realising the uselessness of it. I couldn't remember the last time I'd caressed her, or given to her with my mouth, or she to me...the fire between us was just too strong for that. We kissed, we held, and we had to have each other, right now; because the point wasn't the thrill of technique, or the languid teasing, as much as I loved those things. The point was her - her scent, her taste, her touch; and everything else was both too much and not enough.

She rocked against me, a single cry of need escaping her in a hiss; and that sound undid me. Urgently, I picked her up and carried her to the bed, holding the length of her body against mine, my mouth finding hers once more. I laid her out on the bed, and she made only the mildest, most teasing of protests:

"You're going to *ruin* my hair."

"Yes," I growled. "I am."

I stayed in America.

My reasons were many, chief among them an urgent need to be with my wife; but undeniably the most pressing one was the need to monitor Benita Charne-Sayrre. I commuted between Washington, Florida, and a half-dozen other hotspots in her work, along with fortnightly trips to Tunguska. I was still wanted for multiple counts of murder and treason, so it stood to reason that I should shelter with others in a similar predicament - in this case, a couple of my Canadian gun buyers. I did not dare live with Mare; but I based myself in New York, close enough to see her, close enough to touch her, and close enough that if she ever had to flee from Spender, we could run together.

"I think we need a safe house," I said abruptly one day.

"A safe house," Mare echoed, standing a plate in the rack. She didn't question me, but simply waited. I turned and watched her in mischievous silence for some seconds. It doesn't pay to be that predictable. At last, she said fondly, "Being elliptical doesn't work with me; you know that."

Dammit, she was laughing at me.

I shot her a mildly reproachful look, but gave in good-naturedly. "Somewhere we can run to," I explained, turning back to the basin. "Somewhere each of us can go if we're ever separated to wait for the other."

She was nodding. "Good idea. Any thoughts on places?"

"Maybe Morocco," I suggested, handing her a bowl. "Lots of points of entry. It's pretty neutral as far as the alien agenda is concerned. Who knows what could change down the track - we could have the Russians or the Americans after us, or both," I pointed out.

She looked alarmed. "You're not planning a double-cross, are you? The Russians have been good to us, and we're well established there." She stopped wiping to look at me.

I shook my head. "Not at all. But they might sell us out, too." A look of pained surprise crossed her features. I understood her reluctance to consider this possibility, but it had to be said. "Aside from our problems with Spender, I have some concerns about Mikhail. I'm just being cautious."

She nodded slowly, reluctantly. "Fair enough. What about Tangier? That's accessible by sea from Spain if necessary, and it's not as busy as Casablanca," she pointed out. "It's supposed to be beautiful," she added, her voice suddenly wistful.

"It is," I said, brushing a stray soap bubble from her nose. She shot me a gorgeous smile that made me almost forget about safe houses. I had planned something utilitarian, but I suddenly decided to get something nice - something we could live in together when all this was over, if it ever was. Somewhere we could wash dishes together for all eternity if we wanted.

Jeez, Alex, you've got it bad.

I said nothing of this; only, "Okay. Remember - if we get separated, we wait in Tangier for the other to appear. No matter how long it takes."

"As long as it takes," she agreed softly. The lines of her face were suddenly softer, as though I had addressed some fear she had not expressed. I thought I knew what it was, too: the thought that we might one day have to run and lose track of one another haunted me.

We washed in silence for a while. I studied her thoughtfully from the corner of my eye. She wore domestic day garb - faded jeans, paint-spattered shirt, hair pulled back in two braids. Braids, for God's sake. I'd married a schoolgirl, I reflected; and yet she was so right, so *Mare*. So removed from the cool, manufactured Marita who was called upon more and more these days, largely because of me. I had a sudden, mental flash of lifting her onto the bench, of sliding into her in an instant. It was a crude image, but it disguised a deeper truth: that *this* was the Mare I loved, that I craved, that I belonged to; and I longed to give her the kind of life where she could be that Mare all the time.

"Are you going back to Flushing tonight?" she asked at last, arranging her dish cloth neatly on the rack.

I nodded; said with distaste, "Neo-nazi scum meet tonight."

"You're going to slip up and call them that to their faces one day," she warned, opening a cupboard. She began to put cups away, her voice grave. "I know they've been a source of protection, but there have got to be other ways."

"It's not going to be for too much longer," I revealed. "They're planning a major bombing next month, and I'm not going to let it happen."

"And how do you plan to prevent it?" she demanded, whirling to face me, aghast. "It's not like you can turn State's evidence against them."

"I'm going to give them to Mulder." The cup she was lifting stopped, mid-air. "Goodwill gesture. We're going to need him sometime down the track." She put the cup up, more slowly than before.

"That's not bad," she said with some admiration. "Not bad at all."

But as it turned out, we needed him sooner than we thought.

Benita was, indeed, compromised.

Donovan was receiving as much information about our work as we were about his. He was playing us, anxious for us to find a vaccine that he could copy and present to the Consortium in order to halt the hybridisation deal. That would be fine - as much as I owed the Russians some fealty, my interest was salvation, not politics - but if the Consortium got the vaccine before it was in general circulation, there was a significant risk that the alien race would find out, and speed up the colonisation timetable. Mare and I would receive nothing for it - neither power nor money - and would probably wind up where we'd been not so long before.

Facing the death penalty.

There aren't too many geniuses out there, though, so we continued to use Benita. Marita misreported results in the nursing homes, directing her towards another, similar formula, hoping for clues on how to refine the formula that worked. Benita continued, following the same biomedical trail, unaware that she had already passed the biggest hurdle. Vaccine and alien samples were trafficked merrily between us. Everything was going well.

Until someone spilled it.

Our couriers had been trained, hypothetically, about what to do if ever such a thing were to happen; but none of them thought it would. For his part, our man was a perfect courier - polite, inoffensive, and totally forgettable.

But not, perhaps, a man equipped for an emergency.

It happened in Honolulu. Our man flew in from the Republic of Georgia, en route to make a sample delivery to Benita. For reasons known only to Customs, he was subjected to a search in spite of his diplomatic passport. Our courier panicked. The canister containing the alien pathogen was opened, and an officer died. Our courier was taken into custody and, we presume, passed on his limited information before being killed. He could give them little - places and a few names - but it was enough to bring us to the attention of the group. And while Donovan and Spender had each quietly allowed our work to continue for their own purposes, once we came to the attention of the others, they were forced to act.

I was on one of my jaunts to Tunguska, and the first I knew of what had happened in Honolulu was when I received a coded message from Mare. It was brief - one of our agents had fallen. A lowly one at that. Nonetheless, I knew our work had been irrevocably compromised, and I flew back to America at once.

Within thirty-six hours of her message, Mikhail, my second-in-command in Tunguska, contacted me with the news that an American intruder had stolen a piece of Tunguska rock. Mare and I had an emergency meeting, and she agreed more emphatically than I had expected when I broached the subject of terminating Benita and her work. But her expression darkened when I spoke of the dark man and his dying words.

"He knew something like this was going to happen," she said softly.

I nodded slowly. "I think he understood a lot more about this than either of us gave him credit for."

"I should have brought him over to our side," she said bitterly.

"Don't do this to yourself," I reproached. "You didn't do this. Your actions were forced by Larissa and by Spender. You were used, Mare."

She nodded. "Yes, I was used. And a man died." She looked away for a moment, then faced me once more. "Do you think he knew we would need Mulder? Do you think that's why he led him to me?"

I thought on this; said at last, "I think so. Mulder can be manipulated. If we play him right, we can use him to get back that rock."

Marita looked nervous. "We'd better. The difference between our operation and theirs has always been the availability of the alien pathogen in dormant form. All the samples they've had have been sentient and capable of generating radiation - they haven't dared use them for vaccine testing. They're at a disadvantage, and it's crucial that they stay that way."

I made a sound of exasperation. "Damn it, if the group gets a vaccine before we refine ours, we can kiss our lives goodbye. That's the only reason Spender and Donovan haven't done it - we're their insurance."

She was shaking her head. "I just don't understand why it leaves the subjects so weak. What the hell does it *do* to them?"

"Benita would know," I said sardonically. "Pity we can't ask her."

"It's infuriating! Without the vaccine, we're strong enough to beat the alien race with numbers and brute strength, but we're defenceless against the pathogen. With the vaccine, we can beat the pathogen but we're too weak to fight them. Oh, hell, why do I keep rehashing this?" she demanded, upset.

"Easy, Mare," I said softly, though I shared her frustration. "We'll work it out. We have a vaccine - that's the main thing. The rest of it will work itself out, as long as we can keep the group at bay."

"All right." She bowed her head for a minute, breathing deeply, then looked up once more, calm. "Do you have someone in mind for Benita and the rest of the cleanup?" she asked. "My position is risky right now. I can't be involved in that."

"I have a man in St Petersburg. Why is your position risky?" I demanded, worried.

"There are a lot of questions being asked about my lifestyle - or rather, why I don't have one. People are starting to ask why. The rumours about gambling debts are wearing thin." I nodded slowly. I'd been expecting this.

"We can't have that. Pull a hundred grand from Switzerland. Get this place redecorated - really rich lavish stuff, antiques; the whole deal. Get a car and a new wardrobe and an expensive watch. We need you in the American loop."

She protested, "Alexi, that only leaves four hundred thousand for the Russian operation aggregate total. You can't fund medical research on that, even in Russia. How much are you going to pay your man in St Petersburg?" she demanded.

I shrugged. "Multiple crimes in multiple jurisdictions...risking execution for treason...maybe a hundred grand," I hazarded.

"Leaving three hundred thousand in Austria. And the Austrian currency is low. It could stay low for six months. We don't have Jeraldine to sell secrets for us anymore, Alex."

"Let me worry about the money, Mare. You worry about staying alive and in the loop. Use whatever you have to. We can cut corners on the Russian operation." At her querying look, I elaborated, "We can trim Norylsk, Georgia and Azerbaijan back to admin and pathology research - get rid of the prisoners and the guards. I'd shut them altogether, but having them makes the governments feel like they have a stake in us so they leave us alone. But I'm not cutting corners on you."

She sighed. "All right." A new thought occurred to her, and she said suddenly, "Mulder would know about the UFO crash in Tunguska. Once he finds out where the rock is from, there's at least a fifty-fifty chance he'll decide to go there - you do realise that, don't you?"

I met her gaze thoughtfully, wondering where she was heading. "Actually, I hadn't given it any thought, but you're right," I agreed.


"Just an idea I had," she said softly. "He's going to be useful - especially if we can't prevent colonisation. He'll probably be a major player in the American resistance, if he doesn't self-destruct first."

"Most likely," I agreed. I looked at her with sudden awe. "You think we should try to make him immune?" I demanded admiringly.

"It's worth a shot. It would only take one test series to be sure of his immunity, and you could fast track that - say a week at the Tunguska compound. He'll be sick for a while, but I don't think the Consortium has anything planned that would require him to be on duty, from our perspective."

I nodded, my mind rapidly ticking over the possibilities. "All right. We'll play that one by ear - see if we can play him in that direction. That will be your job - if I do more than direct him to the rock, it will look too much like a put-up job. I want him to think I'm a pawn, too." It felt good to be conspiring with her again. I felt the lethargy of helplessness lifting, my sense of control over our situation returning. My blood was pumping with it.

She nodded her agreement. "There's something else. Mulder may have some immunity to the retrovirus carried by the morphs, thanks to his adventure in Alaska a couple of years back. Might be worth taking some blood, seeing if we can synthesise a vaccine. If the alien race can't control us with the pathogen, eliminating us with the retrovirus could be the next prong of attack."

"Will do. I'll have someone standing by to work on that in Tunguska." I shook my head. "Damn it, if only we didn't have to lose Benita. The woman's a genius."

"We'll find another genius, Alexi. Just get Mulder in and out of the compound alive. Everything else will fall into place."

We made these plans, and we parted reluctantly, the need to touch white-hot after weeks apart. Our fingers brushed as we said our farewells, and it galvanised us into action. We found one another instantly, held one another's faces between our palms, mirroring each other; kissed with a strange, urgent tenderness. We broke apart reluctantly, for there was no time. I felt her cheeks beneath my palms, felt how perfectly they fit there, and captured forever in my mind how she looked when I held her that way.

It was the last time that I touched her with both hands.

I returned to my fascist friends easier in mind.

I e-mailed Mulder his final tip-off, alerting him to the location of the Canadians. Meanwhile, I played up to my role as the psychotic genius, spouting at length about the Black Cancer. When they got that glazed-over facial expression, I knew I'd had the desired effect. After the bust, I expected, they would give Mulder anything he wanted to hear about their traitor. Hopefully, he would start to put things together from that, and come up with as much of the picture as I wanted him to know.

When the time came, I handed them over to Mulder. Once that goodwill gesture had been accepted and I'd taken the obligatory punch, he and Scully and I settled down to talk.

I told them about the incoming courier from Russia with a diplomatic pouch, and waited patiently as they took off after the American thief. When they returned, diplomatic pouch in hand, I was relieved to find that it indeed contained the Tunguska rock. With little choice, I submitted to custody, knowing Mulder wouldn't leave me in the county lockup. The rock would go somewhere secure and comparatively independent with Scully, and I would get a safe house.

A relatively safe house.

Mulder and Scully left me with Skinner, who threw a punch of his own - a real one, not the pissy ones Mulder does - and left me to freeze, handcuffed to the railing on his balcony. The next morning, he threw some toast at me, glowering, before storming off to work. I thought Skinner's reaction was a little extreme, given that I'd really only punched him a couple of times.

But then I remembered Duane Barry's death and the heat he took for that, not to mention Scully's sister and Scully's abduction - he'd always had a soft spot for her - and that asshole Cardinale had shot him, too; maybe he thought I was part of that. I had a bit more understanding of his attitude then, and chalked one up to bad karma. God knew, I'd earned a bit of that.

I was still cold, though, dammit.

The American thief broke into Skinner's apartment later that day. As Mare explained to me later, conflict had broken out in the group about the vaccine in the wake of the rock incident. The courier had wisely not given himself into custody; but instead hoped to recover the rock and save his own hide. I was more worried about my own: caught between a rock and a high place, I threw myself over the seventeenth storey balcony and prayed the cuffs - and my wrist - would hold. When the courier found me, I wrestled with him and pulled him over the side - the longest ten seconds of my life. No guilt on that kill - it was the only defense I had.

I was still there, dangling between life and death when Mulder retrieved me a half-hour later. "Stupid-ass haircut", he says with a punch, when I just damn near got killed in the so-called safe house he'd set up.

One of these days I'm gonna quit playing penitent for his father and slug him back, I really am.

When I woke, I was alone.

I was still handcuffed to the steering wheel, my shoulder aching, my wrist abraded and bruised. We were parked outside Mare's, and Mulder was gone. I was refreshed in mind, if not in body.

I watched the lights and shadows of the windows, trying to work out what was going on. Mare was moving back and forth - I could tell from the shape of the head - but there was no sign of Mulder. His cell phone was on the dash, plugged into the car charger; and after an hour had passed, I decided to risk using it. I phoned Mare, and after several busy signals, I got through.

"Where are you?" she asked urgently.

"Right under your nose. Mulder has me handcuffed to the steering wheel of his car downstairs." The curtain flickered as she peered down at me. "Can you speak freely?"

"Yes - he's asleep. I'm just about to wake him and feed him the pouch information. I'm not going to give him Tunguska - just the entry point in Norylsk. I think it's better if he works it out for himself. You know what he's like."

I nodded slowly. "Good. It's all arranged with Mikhail - they're expecting us." Then, "Did you hear about the courier?"

"Yes," she said grimly. "What happened?" At my explanation, she said furiously, "Damn it! They had no right to put you at risk like that!"

I laughed at that. "You're like a mother hen sometimes, Mare." It felt good, that someone got that angry on my behalf.

"You're my husband," she said simply.

"It wasn't a criticism," I said gently. "I like it when you get protective."

She smiled indulgently - I could hear it in her voice. "There have been some Consortium developments," she said. "Donovan's buddy Senator Sorenson is calling a congressional enquiry into the American courier's death. Total smokescreen leading to nothing, but Donovan wants to publicly distance the group from the rock theft. Seems some of our Russian comrades aren't too happy with Camp Spender right now," she added sardonically.

I smiled faintly. "The enquiry doesn't really affect our position, and the more preoccupied Donovan is, the more exposed that leaves Benita. I'd say let it be." Then, as an afterthought, "It could even be to our advantage, if it buys Mulder's work some protection."

"That remains to be seen."

"Let's worry about what we can change," I counselled. "Speaking of which, can you have the billing entry for this call wiped from Mulder's phone bill?"

"Piece of cake. You should see my newest hack program," she added gleefully. "You could co-opt the government of a small country with it." I had to laugh - she was such a computer nerd. "I'll go wake him now - get him moving. You must be cold down there." Her tone was solicitous. I could imagine her serving me chicken soup in my sickbed with that voice. The image amused me very much. What had Mare said once? Something about things that happen to normal people, and not people like us?

She was waiting for a response. "More like profoundly relieved," I snorted. "I swear, if he hits me one more time-"

"You two always did like a bit of B&D," she laughed.

"That was a long time ago," I said irritably. "I'm serious, Mare, he's driving me nuts."

"Mulder drives everyone nuts. Even Scully shot him." We laughed, but then she sobered. She cautioned, only half-joking:

"Don't kill him. We need him."

He did hit me again, and I didn't kill him. How much of that was self-control and how much the handcuffs, I don't know.

My little display at the airport was fortunate, but totally unplanned. I was pissed off and humiliated. Twenty-four hours with Mulder and I'd been punched on at least four separate occasions and left to dangle in the cold over the side of a seventeenth-storey balcony. Pissing in the wind, you might say. His snide remarks were not much more than schoolyard bullying, and that was about how they made me feel. I cursed him in English, and then my English left me as it sometimes did when I was very worked up, and I cursed him in Russian.

That was when he decided to bring me to Tunguska with him.

I suspect, though, that he intended to bring me all along. I think in retrospect that the whole thing was just one more bit of bullying. I wondered if Scully ever saw this side of him. I doubted it.

We arrived in Tunguska without incident. Mulder backed off a bit, perhaps realising he had pushed me too far; or perhaps just concerned about alienating his only interpreter. Regardless, we were imprisoned, and I was immediately taken to Mikhail. I directed him on Mulder's vaccination program, and had them throw me back in with Mulder once more. I convinced him that I had been interrogated, and he responded by shoving me against the wall.

Like you couldn't have predicted that.

"What did you tell them?" he demanded.

"That we were stupid Americans lost in the woods," I snapped. His breath was hot on me, and I had a fleeting memory of another time; but I dismissed it. I shoved him away, sick of being his punching bag. "Don't touch me again."

Mulder stared at me as though I had lost my mind. "Don't *touch* you?" he demanded, misinterpreting my words. Maybe I wasn't the only one with a memory of other times. "What are you, married or something?" I turned and glowered at him, and he scoffed incredulously, "You're kidding! Who? La Femme Nikita?"

"Fuck you," I snapped, turning back to look out the barred window. "You're such an asshole, Mulder."

We each paced for a bit, avoiding one another as well as we could in such close quarters. Subjected to the cold and the filth and the stench, far worse than the already-awful conditions I lived in myself in Norylsk, I felt pity for my prisoners; but it was only fleeting. They were all violent criminals, otherwise destined for the death penalty. They had all accepted this arrangement in exchange for parcels of land and money for their families. In the circumstances, their consent wasn't exactly free and heartfelt, but whose is to anything in life? Mine sure as hell wasn't. And it wasn't as though Marita and I were living in the lap of luxury - we worked our asses off to feed and shelter them. That creepy geologist in the next cell was the worst - he'd taken a rock with the alien pathogen and used it to wipe out his wife, her lover, and her family. Only the wife got the vaccine in time, but she came out catatonic.

At last - partly to make peace and partly to pass the time - I said quietly, "You know, Mulder, sooner or later you're going to have to come to terms with the fact that if it hadn't been me that night at your father's house, it would have been someone else."

"Yeah," he grunted by way of concession. His voice was not that of fresh anger, but dull with bitterness. "But it *was* you." He leaned against the wall, his arms folded, watching me.

I nodded with some understanding, but said only, "If I had said no, Mulder, they would have killed me or mine."

"You mean your wife."

"We weren't married at that stage," I said, looking up at him from my stance on the floor, "but yeah."

He thought on this. "Does she know you swing both ways?" he asked curiously. Then, before I could answer, "Does she know what you *do*? I mean she doesn't think you're a travelling encyclopedia salesman, does she?"

"She knows everything," I said darkly. "Everything."

He looked at me quizzically. "But doesn't she - well, mind?"

"Of course she minds," I snapped. "We both do. You think this is the life I grew up wanting?" I demanded bitterly.

He frowned, but didn't reply; and after that we spoke no more.

Next time I decide to take Mulder prisoner, remind me to take a straightjacket.

After I was removed from the cell, we ran the treatment on Mulder. We drew some blood and sent it to Norylsk to attempt to isolate the alien retrovirus. We gave him the vaccine. We gave him the pathogen. We continued this way, vaccine and oil in turn, for much of the night. We had been trialling it this way, incrementally, attempting to overcome the terrible malaise that struck the subjects in the aftermath of the treatment, but to no avail.

Every rule has an exception, though.

We weren't expecting any trouble from Mulder the following day. Usually, the newly- tested prisoners were only semi-conscious, stumbling blindly to keep up with their comrades. Exchanging small-talk with Mikhail, I didn't even look for him, expecting that he was passed out in his cell. He was almost on top of me before my guards and I realised what was happening; and by the time I came to myself, he had me in the back of a hurtling truck, several miles from the compound. I knew of the sometimes-erratic effect of the vaccine on the psyche, and Mulder struck me as someone predisposed to that outcome. The danger was real.

So I jumped.

I fell on my left arm - the same one that was hurt from the balcony episode and the cuffs. Hopelessly lost, I ran in the unfamiliar territory of the woods, clutching it, little dreaming that I would soon crave the feeling of pain it sent through me. At that point, I thought I would be quite happy for the damn thing to fall off and be done with it.

God and irony conspire in their little jokes sometimes.

When I encountered the boys, I was relieved. Naturally, I knew of them, local boys and men who had cut off their left arms in a bid to avoid being tested. It was a pointless exercise - we only ever tested convicts, and some of the boys were too young to have ever received the smallpox inoculation anyway. But one loose- lipped guard had spread the word of a one-armed prisoner we had refused, and then suddenly Tunguska was filled with amputees. I thought the whole thing was darkly funny - it appealed to my sense of the macabre. I still do, actually; though it's taken me a while to reach that point.

I convinced the boys that I was an escapee, my main concern. They would have killed me if I hadn't. Laughable. I was their enemy, in their eyes; but I would no more have harmed them than a butterfly. Like I said...God and irony.

I will draw a curtain over what happened next. I have never spoken of it, not even to Mare; and in that uncanny way she has, she has known not to ask. I will put it baldly for posterity; but details are something I cannot give, even now.

They waited until I was asleep, and then they cut off my arm.

Deliberate choice of words. Amputation just doesn't fit, you see. There was nothing clean and efficient about it. They took a hot knife and sawed at my arm until it was gone, and by then I was hysterical, screaming incoherently with pain.

When it was over, I found myself locked in terror, paralysed by a chilling fear that they would maim me in some other way. I knew it wasn't true - that their violence was not malicious and their interest was in my protection - but I was beyond all reason. I flinched when they came near me to feed me or bandage my arm; and I refused to go with them when they decided to move deeper into the woods. I couldn't have: I could barely move. The shock and the cold were slowly overtaking me.

It was a relief.

Mare found me.

As she explained later, she had arrived in Norylsk just hours after Mulder's escape from the camp in Tunguska. She had taken advantage of Spender's absence, as required by the enquiry, and followed us, aware that her own position might be tenuous in the aftermath of Benita's death. Upon learning of Mulder's escape and my disappearance in his wake, she had taken a crew and followed the near-perfect tracks in the frozen ground. They knew where I fell from the truck: I lost a shirt button. Yeah, you read it right. I laughed when they told me that.

A fucking button. Who but a wife would know me by my button?

They searched the area - the whole crew by day; just her and a dedicated guard by night. That information washed over me when I heard it - I had expected nothing else of her - but later, when I really thought about it, it was so damn comforting. She did that for three days. By now, given the sub-zero temperatures, she was too worried to bother with subterfuge.

"Alexi!" she screamed. "Alexi!"

I heard her crying out that way for hours; but, hoarsely paralysed by hypothermia, shock and blood loss, I couldn't respond. I fought for consciousness, and in the extremity of hunger, I gnawed on the remains of my own limb, discarded by my misguided saviours. I toyed with my wedding band, now on my right hand, and waited patiently, knowing that she would never give up. And she never did.

At last, her hoarse cries drew near, and I cried out as best that I could. I heard her footsteps grow nearer, heard her break into a run. I hid my arm under leaves and, pulling myself into a sitting position, I pulled my jacket around me, wanting to spare her the shock. I would tell her - warn her.

She ran into the clearing, gasping for breath, and she slumped with exhausted relief at the sight of me. She came to me, dropped to her knees in front of me. Wordlessly, she threw her arms around me, silent tears streaming from crystal-clear eyes. I held her with my one arm, and I felt her stiffen as she registered the absence of the second. I felt her right arm, which embraced my left side, tighten, instinctively looking for that which should be there but was not.

She pulled back, her face querying, the suspicion not yet fully formed, not yet articulate. She knew that something was wrong, but not what it was. She cried out in Russian for her crew to stay back, and I knew I should tell her before she worked it out, but I couldn't speak.

I remember the exact moment when she realised; when the pieces of the puzzle came together. Her querying look was flooded with horror, as though she had been slapped, when she remembered the rebel amputees. She pulled my jacket aside, but did not look, still staring up into my eyes. I stared back, afraid of her grief, her disappointment, her rage; for then I must feel my own.

She felt her way, her hands tentatively finding my shoulder. They moved down my stump, and when she found the sudden absence mid-bicep, I saw her breath catch in her chest. Her fingertips moved fearfully over the sodden bandage, and it hurt so much, teasing over the deep wound, even as my phantom itches clamoured for her touch. But somehow I couldn't ask her to stop: I needed to confront her with it, to see her pull her bloodied hand away and accept it anyway.

Maybe then I could accept it, too.

"Oh, Alexi," she whispered, and pressed her mouth to mine.

We stayed there for a long moment, but finally, she pulled away, her silent tears dried to powdery ice on her cheeks. She said softly, "Where is it? This cold - even after this time, perhaps it can be saved -" but I shook my head before she could finish.

"They took it?" she demanded.

I shook my head, and motioned with my head to the pile of leaves, reluctantly. It was a direct question, and I had never lied to her. I waited while she uncovered it, seeing it as though in slow motion. Her movements slowed as she saw the teeth marks and the desecration, and she stared up at me in horror as she realised what I had done. I averted my head, ashamed; but she said sharply, "Look at me." I shook my head, and she said with fresh tears, "Look at me!"

At last, I complied; and she said softly, "If this is how you stayed alive for me, I'm glad, Alex. Don't you ever be ashamed of this."

I shook my head again, my face twisted with pain. The gulf I had perceived between us, when I had killed and she had not - the unworthy bloodiness I felt - it was nothing compared to this. I felt an essential, unnavigable wall rise between us, and I was sure it could never be breached. I heard her saying, dimly, "Don't do this, Alex; don't leave me," but I retreated into myself, staring off into the distance, far from her.

She watched me for a long moment; but then, at last, she came to me, carrying my arm. She crouched in front of me and waited patiently for me to look at her. At last, I did it, watching with numb horror as she lifted my arm in front of me. "Look at it, Alex. Look at what you did. You did it for us. And so will I."

I stared at her, bewildered and perplexed, as she used her fingernails to pull off a few twisted strands of tissue from the bone. They were frozen; little beads of ice crumbled through them. She looked at them for a long moment, steeling herself in a way I understood all too well, and then put them into her mouth, closing her eyes briefly as she swallowed hard.

When she opened them, I was still staring, unaware of my tears until she brushed them away. "We all do what we have to do to survive, Alexi," she said gently. "You don't have to punish yourself - or me." She looked down at my arm. "We are man and wife. Your sins are my sins. There is no room for punishment between us."

And then, at last, I gave way; and she held me; and I was comforted.

She took me to St Petersburg.

We slept fitfully on the plane, and the hospital was a whirlwind of doctors and specialists, who proclaimed me to be in surprisingly good condition for my ordeal. The prosthetic specialist was optimistic about my prospects for rehabilitation. I would be able to drive a car and button my clothes and all of that. I wondered aloud if I would be able to knit, but Mare said she thought I would only be able to knit as well as I did now. I told her that didn't bode very well. She just laughed, a little wanly, but a laugh just the same.

My stump itched and it would take time to heal - certainly I would not be able to use a prosthetic for a while - but I was able to try one on. "I look like a Thunderbird," I said disgustedly.

"Thunderbird?" she echoed, bewildered.

"Sixties British kids' show. The parts were played by marionettes." I started humming the theme and did a little impression, tip-toeing across the room, bobbing the prosthesis up and down. She really laughed then, and it made me feel that I might be able to laugh again too.

Back at the hotel, when at last we went to bed, she spooned against me as usual; and I felt more potently than ever my loss. We lay there against one another, and I couldn't hold her. That hurt in a way that all the little irritations had not. I tried to compensate by nuzzling her neck; but at last, I pulled away in distress. She rolled over, trying to get close, but I turned away.

She watched me for some time, but finally, she rose. I heard her moving behind me, before she came around the bed into view. She knelt before me, saying diffidently, "Alexi, make love to me."

"Mare," I protested weakly, but she cut me off.

"Do it, Alex. Show me that you love me. Show me that you want me. Make me know."

I sat up on the side of the bed, cradling her cheek with my hand, and leaned against her, my head on her shoulder. I didn't intend to do as she asked; but I inhaled her scent, and it was intoxicating. It was sex and heat and lust; it was the gentle warmth of comfort and compassion; it was adoration. She was my lover, my mother, my wife. Everything I'd ever craved in another person. In the depth of my loss, I felt every part of me reach for her, needing her close; and then I was cradling her with my arm, holding her to me as I kissed her urgently, needing her comfort and her warmth.

She touched my face wondrously with her fingertips. "Alexi," she whispered. Her arms wound around me, not at my shoulders or my waist as usual, but one arm at each, bridging the gap where I would normally have held her. She was compensating for me, freeing me to touch her with my hand. She moved closer to me between my legs, pressing herself against me, moving with me as my lips found hers, as I sought her taste and her scent hungrily. I touched her, craving the feel of her under my palm, missing its mate but not minding as much as I'd expected.

I opened my eyes, and hers opened at the same instant, our gazes locked in breathtaking union. Her eyes were like quartz, her irises such an elusively pale green that they were almost clear, trailing delicately around blue- black pupils, bottomless and unfathomable. They spoke of great pain and great love, and it made me ache to know that I was responsible for both. I rested my head against hers for a long moment, breathing her name in an erratic melody. Her hands were at my neck, cradling me like something precious. I felt loved.

I touched her.

Cautiously, tentatively, I moved my hand over her skin - skin I had touched a thousand times before. I touched her with wonder, the feel of her beneath my hand a revelation. I trailed curious fingertips down over her flesh, over the thin silk of her nightshirt. I found her nipple with the back of my hand, and I teased it, relishing the feel of it moving across my hand, catching at each knuckle; the feel of the silk rustling over it, a mere sliver of a barrier between us. I slid my hand beneath her shirt and took her breast in my hand, explored it curiously, and found out what she liked all over again. I toyed with it, gentle yet childlike, treasuring as though for the first time that simplest of pleasures: that of touching my wife. I was oblivious to her need and my own, fascinated by the feel of her beneath my palm. I explored further, my hand drifting over her belly, and felt her shudder against me. It was only then that I saw her predicament, or was conscious of my own. She was watching me, her skin flushed, her eyes bright; and my need was white-hot.

I kissed her fiercely; whispered, "I'm sorry - I just-"

She stopped me. "I know." She took my hand in hers and guided it back to her belly, and kissed me, hard. "Do it, Alex," she gasped between breathless kisses, her harsh whisper scraping across my desire like a knife. "Touch me. Anywhere you want."

"I want you everywhere."

And then we were kissing once again, ravenous for one another. I pushed at her with my head, chased her with my mouth, devouring her, unable to get enough. She stood, pulling me up, moving backwards, letting me push her. The solid wall behind her, she pressed herself into me, flinging her head to one side. Roughly, I pulled aside the shirt and nuzzled the soft hollows of her neck like a man possessed. She leaned against me weakly, making soft sounds of longing. "God! Alex," she cried out, her breasts pushing into me, her body swaying in agonising need. "I want you so bad."

"I can't wait," I breathed, grabbing the silk of her shirt in my hand. "I want you, I need you." I lifted the shirt over her head, awkwardly, and she made a low sound as the fabric dragged on her nipples, teasing them. I dropped the shirt, heedless of where it landed.

She drew me close. Her fingertips dragged across my shoulder, the top of my dressing, her smooth skin skittering across the raw nerves there. I felt the ruthless twinges of new flesh forming, and they sent ripples of pleasure through my veins, right on the knife-edge of pain. I sank to my knees before her, my head pressed against her, moaning with the exquisite pain/pleasure of it. She cradled my head against her stomach, bending to kiss me with sudden tenderness.

I held up my hand to her, and when she took it, I pulled her down to straddle me. The floorboards were hard and cold against my back, but I was heedless, drunk on her, craving her like an addict. I wanted to fill her in every way, to make her forever mine, because I was hers. We rolled around the floor like animals on heat, knocking furnishings and our belongings about carelessly; yet what I felt for her then was not primal, but spiritual. It was that gift of God, of soul meeting soul. I cradled her head with my arm - the only time I truly grieved the absence of its mate - and I worshipped her.

At last, we staggered up, and I laid her face down on the bed, stripping her silk trousers and my own. I parted her thighs, laying her open for me, and knelt between her slightly bent knees, moulding my body to hers. I kissed the back of her neck, pushing her hair up and away, breaths heavy with aching desire. She took my hand in her own and drew it under her shoulders so that my arm cradled her. She laid her cheek against my palm, waiting a moment for me; but then she realised my dilemma, and reached beneath her to guide me inside her. I laid my head against her shoulder, pushing into her, felt her body part willingly to make room for me. She was slick and ready, and she gave a shocked gasp as I filled her, thrusting back at me stroke for stroke, pushed to the hilt at last yet seeking more. Her face deep in the bed, I heard her crying out in breathless need as she came, felt her grow hard and tense, then relax, shuddering, in the cradle of my arm. And when at last I emptied myself into her, and we fell apart, she was weeping; but her tears were of blissful exhaustion; and she turned over, laughing joyfully through them, and pulled me down to her. I was alive, we were man and wife, and we had made love. My arm was gone; but the world was back more or less the way it should be.

And I felt whole once more.