He waits for her at the small airport of Essaouira, Morocco, sticking out like a sore thumb from the tourist and surfer crowd in his black leather jacket and black jeans and gloves. It's eighty degrees in the shade, but somehow he manages to look cool. His eyes, insulated against the wary glances of the people around him, are slivers of ice, warming when he sees her. She left Geneva dressed in a business suit and trench coat, and feels like she's going to melt away under his gaze, under the beating sun.
"You came," he remarks like he's wondering at the fact.
"What's going on?" she asks, sweaty and flustered as he keeps studying her and almost smirking. "You'd better have a good reason for making me drop what I have in my hands to rush to the middle of nowhere--"
"Just admit it, you were miserable spending the holidays all on your lonesome in that crackerbox in Geneva. Marshden's a bastard, isn't he?"
She's tired, and she's been inwardly shaking with nerves about seeing him again. She sets her jaw in frustration. "You said it was urgent. I assume you wouldn't use that term lightly. What interest do the Russians have in this area now? Are the Tunisians trying to butt into your vaccine program again? What's the game, Alex?"
"Nothing," he says with a frown, a lack of smoothness that could be evidence of dishonesty or truthfulness, or any shade of deception in between. "I just thought it was about fucking time we spent some time together."
Marita looks at him--no, stares at him, at his gloves and his ice eyes and his frown and his almost-smirk. Her mouth turns up involuntarily, although she wonders whether to believe a word he says. But he has never lied to her that she knows of, and she'd like to think that this may be significant. "About fucking time?" she repeats, eyebrows raised.
"Hell," he says. "It's Christmas," and she can't help but laugh.
There's a hotel room waiting for them, with a balcony overlooking the sea. The water seems to span out into the universe from there, an endless warm-looking expanse of hazy-azure. A still, iridescent green lizard clings to the white-washed wall by the screen door, hiding from the fire of the high afternoon sun in cool, dappled shade. There's a gardenia tree flowering outside, palms and eucalyptus, and yellow jasmine.
By tacit agreement, they act as though the last year never happened. She showers, then sleeps for a couple of hours next to him on the double bed. Alex sits propped against a pillow at the headboard and works on his laptop. The quick, steady rhythm of his hand on the keyboard lulls her, a hushaby of tap-tap-taps. A couple of times, she drifts close to the surface and senses him near, then sinks back down, warm and heavy. She wakes up to find him lying beside her, stroking her hair back from her forehead.
"It's seven thirty. You want to get up, go somewhere and eat?" His hand trails away, leaving a delicate prickle of longing in its wake.
"Sounds good," she says, and sits up. He's still lying down, and she puts her palm lightly on his stomach outside his shirt. He places his larger hand over hers, stilling it before it has a chance to move. She looks at their quiet hands, troubled by his response. To the extent that she's figured out what they're doing in this place, her hope has been that it might have to do with getting back to where they were before this hard, hard year. Before Tunguska, before Prague.
"You look good, Alex," she says quietly.
"You look tired," he counters, but his voice isn't harsh, and his eyes say other things.
For a moment, despite the warmth, she relives that bleak Prague dawn-- the streetcars rattling by his hotel room in the searing Easter cold, the shiver of goosebumps on her bare skin, and Alex by the icy window: the new, stiff awkwardness of the prosthesis and the bitter endurance in his eyes, a tiger grievously maimed and hiding to regain his strength.
She can hear his voice as he spoke to her, low with defeat. *You've got to give me time.*
She slides her hand away from under his. She has given him nine months. She can give him a little more.
Marita changes into a sleeveless dress. Alex dons khaki pants and a white long-sleeved shirt and leaves the gloves on the bedside table. They walk through the lobby, into the balmy sweetness of the night, and he slips one hand into his pocket. His other is at the small of her back, living and warm.
They sit at a window table at a restaurant overlooking the beach. The world is blue and deepening into darker blue. It's not the blue of winter nights and cold hands and Geneva Christmas streets; this is the unbearably tender hue of space and deep oceans, heliotrope and indigo... They look at the sea. They have too much to talk about and nothing to say.
"Well," she says finally. "It's been a while, Alex."
"Sorry to hear that," he comments with quick, sharp mischief.
Heat creeps into her cheeks and neck at the innuendo, because that is certainly true also, and wouldn't he love to hear just how long. But she faces him down with the cool he'd expect. "I can't help but wonder what you Russians are up to in such ominous silence. Why did you want me to come here?"
"You Russians?" he repeats, nailing her with a smile and a look of amused indulgence. "Well, there are some possibilities we need to discuss. Concerning 'us Russians,' among other things. But we should wait until we're alone."
No, she thinks, looking past green into all that tender, ungentle blue. Why did you want me to come *here*?
She switches to Russian. "Keep your voice down, and tell me."
He shrugs. "I've gotten new orders. I'll be stationed with a troup of men in the Caucasian mountains starting in January," he says. "Close to the Kazakhstan borders. There have been a couple of incidents. Sightings, floating lights, disappearances... burnings."
She frowns. "Burnings?"
"Just rumors. The Kazakhstan military cleaned up the sites before we could get there. Now Levertov is placing me there so we can move quickly if it happens again. The Kazakh military intelligence has been both threatened and sucked up to, so they'll cooperate. We hope."
She bites her lip. "Funny. Marshden's pulled some strings recently. I'll be dividing my time between Chechnya and the Balkans in the coming year. He said there's been some unconfirmed intelligence of activity in Central Asia, and wants me in the general area."
Alex leans back, nods. "Yeah, I got news you'd been reassigned, I figured the Brit would be behind it. I wonder--"
"What?" But she already knows.
"Whether Marshden's talking to one of the Russians."
"Besides you," she remarks, not without irony, and he chuckles, but grows serious again.
"Funny choice of operatives though--especially since Marshden and Levertov are involved. They both know that you and I..." He breaks off, and looks uncomfortable as he drops his gaze. When he looks up again, his expression is grim. "Could they be planning to use us? Against each other?"
Her stomach clenches, cold. Her voice is dry. "I guess we'll just have to wait and see, won't we?"
He chuckles again. His eyes burn her. "I guess we will, Marita."
She sips at her wine, looks at the menu to get away from that gaze.
"I'm... sorry about your mother," he says abruptly, still studying her with that passionate concentration. But the gravelly hush of his voice is tempered by something that's as close to mildness as Alex is capable of.
"I..." She falters in a stab of pain, hadn't expected him to bring it up. "I know. You told me, remember?"
She vividly remembers the last time they spoke: she was raw with grief and crying and he was offering comfort on a bad telephone line. It should be a terrible memory but strangely, it's not.
"I guess so," he says. "Still, I haven't seen you since it happened."
She thinks of that night, on the eve of the St. Petersburg funeral of her mother, a ceremony she'd been warned by Spender not to attend. Her father had called her about the death the week before and come by a couple of evenings to sit with her in his dour, quietly tender way, but how could he really be expected to say anything good and releasing about a woman who had left him and taken one of his children with her, a woman who'd scathed his sacred notions of family--a woman he'd not been able to live with?
Later her sister and aunt had called from Russia to cry and dole out guilt and back-handed comfort in equal measures. But it wasn't until Alex called on the night after the funeral on the flimsiest of pretexts, and too casually asked how she was holding up, that the dam burst. He'd avoided calling her about personal matters after their Prague encounter, and the unexpectedness of his concern proved her undoing.
"I didn't thank you, did I?" she says, looking down at her hands.
"For what?" Warm and cold shivers run down her spine. When Alex's voice has that raspy quiet, there's no more compelling sound in the world.
For listening without making it into a goddamned pep talk. For not making her the sin eater for all their guilts, the cross-bearer of all their anxious expectations. For allowing her to be confused and lost, and then with a circumspect sentence telling her that she, more than anyone, had his trust.
"For being there," she says with an unenthused wince at her own lameness.
"I think I got a Hallmark card saying something to that effect," he quips dryly. "I wasn't *there*, Marita."
She looks up in annoyance at his contrariness, but at that moment the waiter approaches, looking with world-weary irony at them as they measure each other like foes.
They order food. She eats spicy lamb couscous and drinks a local red wine and mineral water. Alex has the same, only without the wine, shuffling the food down economically with his good hand. They listen to the band while other couples dance.
Afterwards, they stroll the lively streets, where darkness is a living warmth that breathes of heady white flowers and hot food spices. From the Christian church up on the hill, jubilant church bells are tolling to vespers for the Christ Child, but in the souk and the bazaars business goes on as usual; sales stalls are thriving. Marita stops, admiring the enamel and mother-of-pearl jewelry spread out on a saleswoman's dark carpet. She touches the lid of a tiny gold and rose- enamel box. Before she knows, he has bought it for her, and places it in her unconvinced palm, closing her fingers around it. She can't tell from his furious scowl whether he is amused, pissed or hurt at her hesitance.
At an outdoor clothing stall, she buys a man's T-shirt and he looks quietly alarmed.
They go back to the hotel and she goes into the bathroom. When she comes out, she stops by the door, tired and wondering. He appears to be asleep on the bed.
The next day as he comes out after a shower and shave, fully dressed, she holds up the T-shirt for him. He sits down on his side of the bed and looks at it.
"Are you making some kind of point, Marita?"
She's not unafraid. She smirks cautiously. "That it's warm outside?"
He looks out through the open screen door of the balcony. Over the sea, the air shivers with all the fata morganas of the heat.
"Come on," she says softly. "What is the worst that could happen? A kid could point at you? People could stare? They already do, Alex, and not because of your arm."
With a long-suffering expression he yanks the T-shirt from her and tosses it on the bed. He turns towards her, a bull's challenge in his eyes as he stands up and pulls his shirt off in a slow, belligerent strip-tease. It's the first time she sees the amputated arm, but she has braced herself good and well beforehand; she doesn't flinch. Only her eyelids tremble, just for a fraction of a moment.
She's chosen the T-shirt with a snug fit, and the shirt sleeve covers the amputation point and the straps. No one would claim it looks good, but it doesn't look awful either.
"You wouldn't have a pair of shorts, I guess," she says, holding his gaze.
Alex glares, then walks past her and unearths a pair of shorts from the suitcase. "Happy now, Ms. Covarrubias?"
She sits on the bed with her arms embracing her knees, the beginnings of a smile on her face as he strips off his pants and pulls on the shorts. "Yeah, better." He's so long-legged, he'd almost look out of balance in shorts except these are fairly long, a no-nonsense khaki variety. She allows herself to admire the view for a moment but looks away before he can bust her on it. "What are the plans for today?"
"No plans," he says. "The idea is for you to have a good time."
"Really?" She can't curb the doubt in her voice.
"A vacation," he says with a quick, wicked grin. "You don't remember the meaning of the word, do you? What do you want to do?"
She draws a blank, completely unprepared to answer that question-- eventually the easiest, most inane answer just pops out of her mouth by rote. "The beach, maybe. I can't remember last time I was on a beach." Under his steady, amused gaze, she shrugs. "Is this a test?" she inquires, her voice cool.
His mouth twitches. "Marita... not everything is a conspiracy."
The laughter in his eyes makes him so handsome she could actually resent it. She picks at the bedcover, heat storming to her face as desire and frustration let too revealing words escape. "Why haven't you fucked me yet?"
His grin stays frozen for a few seconds, fading gradually into a half- smile, rueful. "Is that what you want?"
"You said the idea was for me to have a good time," she points out, studying her kneecaps with rapt interest.
"Jesus, Marita." Worry seeps into his voice. "I... haven't seen you for nine months. Yeah, believe it or not, I've counted the months. And the way we left it off... I didn't want to assume anything."
"You, Alex," she says with slight but ironic emphasis, "didn't want to assume anything? Have I fallen down some damned rabbit hole without noticing?"
"Oh, shit," he says. "That's what I get for trying to... Listen, I figured you might want... some time. Talk first, straighten things out..." He jabs a hand back through his short hair, and turns an almost accusatory glance her way. "Fuck, isn't that what all women always want?"
Even through the torment of this unprecedented, mutual embarrassment, she has to bite her lip not to burst out laughing at his expression. Alex can't help but see it, of course. His eyebrows knit close together.
"All right, so do you want me to fuck you? Now?" His flat voice must be covering up some slighted male pride.
Yet now, perversely, this doesn't feel quite right either. What happened to spontaneity, to the way he used to sweep her off her feet, unquestioning and all the way the masterful lover? She looks at him, ridiculously disappointed. In the pregnant pause that ensues, her stomach growls loudly, at which Alex lets out a low bark of laughter.
"Breakfast," he says. "And let's go to the goddamned beach. Why the hell not?"
They have breakfast in the hotel's small dining room and walk to the beach. There's a long stretch of fine sand, and a tall, rough harbor wall to fend off the aggressive Atlantic waves. Beyond the wall, surfers navigate their boards, bright dots of color buoying up and down among the froth of whitecaps and outlining the swift, hard surge of the sea with their motion.
They lie on their big hotel towels, he in his T-shirt and shorts, she in her swimming suit. Alex rubs sunscreen into her back and legs, slow invasive strokes curving over and around and between.
She cranes her neck up and looks at him. He is lying on his side watching her, olivine light flickering through the shade of his lashes. She shuts her eyes as she inches closer, nuzzling into the semi-circle of his fake arm, and they lie unexpectedly comfortable in the downpour of the sun.
"Why *do* they stare?" he mutters into her ear.
She trembles with laughter. "You'd just love for me to tell you, wouldn't you Alex?"
"Tease," he says, nipping at her earlobe. "Let's go back to the hotel."
Marita hears the door lock shut behind him and stands still in the middle of the room, hands clenched, heart thumping, body strung tight with wanting. She feels him come closer behind her. He takes one of her fisted hands in his good one, unfurls it carefully. His mouth is warm on her skin, covering the junction between her neck and shoulder with light bites and kisses, and she sighs and turns weakly around to look into his hungry, wary face.
It's awkward at first--they're both nervous. Their last time, in Prague, was hurtful, heartbreaking. But once they get past the first kisses it's so much easier this time; he takes off his shirt and allows her to touch him, lets her meet him halfway. They undress on the floor, move to the bed, mouths barely parting throughout their migration. In the dancing light sieved through palm fronds they tangle in sweaty sheets; they glisten and strain and cry out, then rest in each other's possessive embrace.
While Alex drowses beside her, Marita lies waking, thinking back. She's grateful it was easy. It's always been good between them, but it's not always been easy. Their first time together was pretty near a catastrophe, and that it eventually turned out better than awful was perhaps more to Alex's credit than hers.
They'd been sitting side by side at the round oak table in Marshden's library, discussing maps of the Russian compounds, when he looked up at her, and she looked back, and neither seemed able to stop looking. The hair rose at the nape of her neck. They'd been circling each other for the better part of a month. He'd been too weak from his encounter with the oil at first to do anything but meekly accept her having the upper hand--but she'd learned soon enough that this was uncharacteristic behavior from Alex.
There was nothing meek about his face as he leaned in and sought out her mouth with his. The kiss was searching at first, spinning fast out of control. Her hands gripped his shoulders hard. Outside, the rain drummed viciously against the pane, matching her painful heartbeat. He was different than the rest, different than any other man she'd met, and she wanted him more than she'd ever wanted anyone.
That didn't make her particularly happy. Poise and control were her safeguards, what she relied on and never allowed anyone, lover or not, to compromise, and in his company she felt them rocked and threatened. There was nothing halfway with Alex. Everything about him was distilled, focussed intensity. He kissed her as if demanding her very soul, and she was accustomed to giving far, far less than that.
They made it quickly up to his bedroom without looking at each other or speaking, Alex's hand tugging at hers in impatient determination. Marshden was away for the weekend, but they both realized that fucking in front of his library fireplace would be tempting fate.
On Alex's bed, their clothes came off. He touched her with a relentless intimacy that caught her completely off guard. She tried her usual tactic--caressed him aggressively to drive him crazy and make him stop focussing on her response. Alex accepted the expert treatment with obvious appreciation for a while, then batted her hands away.
It was too much: his mouth trespassing, fingers intimately exploring, his eyes always on her, aware of her slightest giveaway sound or movement. She was driven to a frenzy she didn't trust to be delivered from, like being trapped in a labyrinth of fire. She pulled him up to her and he spread her legs and tried to enter--too fast. She was rigid and trembling. Alex strained in vain, panted and gave up as she stammered out a sharp warning, then lowered his hot forehead to hers.
"*Please*, Marita, tell me that you're not a--"
A half-choked, despairing laughter rose in her throat. "Alex, have you been reading Marshden's Regency romances?"
She heard a reluctant smile in his voice. "Then tell me what I'm doing wrong."
"It's not your fault." Her voice was not quite steady. "It's often...sometimes... diff... difficult for me... It's easier if I can be on top."
"All right," he muttered with a pained grin. "Let's try it before the moment's gone, shall we?"
He pulled her around with him, she arranged herself astride his hips, and with that veneer of control she managed to will her stubborn body into accepting what it wanted so badly. She lowered herself around him, inch by inch, aware of the tense mask of desire on his face. He wasn't going to last long. She was glad. It was hardly Alex's fault that the position that made it easiest for her to accept a man inside her, was also one in which she was unable to climax.
He held back longer than she'd expected, jaw clenched as he fought to stretch his control out thinly, meeting her downward movements with slow, deliberate thrusts of his own. His hands moved experimentally between her breasts and her clit, striking flares of response that flickered and died as suddenly. She felt dizzy and alarmed by the burning, unyielding sensation of him inside her. Her thighs trembled in tension as she kept riding him. He must have noticed because his hands came down to massage them in long, gentling strokes. The gesture made her feel found out and exposed, touched her more intimately than the more sensual caresses had done. She felt so fucked up and sad. She willed herself not to let it show. She was going to have to be able to face Alex again somehow, work with him and meet him as an equal, after this.
So she prepared her little show, as she felt his urgency increase. Started rocking faster in time with his thrusts, staging her breath and her sounds and her expression to imitate impending release. But her thighs still trembled, pitifully so, and maybe that was what gave her away. Alex's pleasure-fogged gaze fixed on her in an expression that made her stomach lurch coldly... not fury, exactly, but suspicion flaring into surprise and unmistakable, extreme annoyance.
She can smile at it in retrospect--barely. He can be such a horrid grouch. Only Alex could manage to look so totally pissed off two seconds before coming. But it wasn't funny then. He climaxed, groaning in pleasure as he bucked under her, and then fell back panting, pulling her down to him in a tight, none too tender hold.
He hadn't even started to regain breath before he snapped, "Don't *ever* try that again with me. Clear? Jesus, what the fuck was the point of that?"
"Let go of me!" Marita demanded and tugged to get away, so humiliated she felt sick, close to throwing up. He granted her a few inches to fall down on the mattress beside him, and then looked into her face, which was half-hidden by her hair. His expression changed after a few seconds, relenting into puzzlement, as if he couldn't quite interpret the situation.
"Christ. Don't look like that," he said, and then took her hand with unexpected gentleness and brought it between her legs. His voice fell to a softer pitch, too. "Give me a fighting chance here, Marita. I'm willing to learn. Show me. Please."
"No--" A gasped-out protest, instinctive and outraged. But his hand started grinding down on hers, slowly.
"It's just about feeling good. No big deal. You deserve better than what you got."
His touch was light and she sensed that he would let her go without a question if she really needed to. Maybe that was what made her stay despite her misgivings. Her fingers moved lightly, carefully over well- known territory, reluctant to touch in the practiced way that would bring her release. Alex watched her struggle with herself, intently for a minute, and then reached out his free hand and turned off the light.
"Is it easier like this?"
His voice seeemed closer and warmer through the dark. She'd never have expected him, not anyone, to understand. In the darkness her mask fell, she allowed herself to soften and quiver and thrum with desire--hidden, and so finally safe. His hand opened over hers and molded to it, slid carefully around and between her fingers, learning her technique by touch. She'd seen his capacity for patience before, a focussed, practical frame of mind he brought to their work, but it felt very different to have it directed at her in this intimate way.
His face was close to hers, kissing slow and deep occasionally. He seemed intent on soaking up every change in her breathing, every small revealing sound over her lips, meeting each of them with murmurs or gestures to spur her on. As she started tensing and trembling for deliverance, her breath turning to quick sharp gasps to fill her lungs, he nudged her hand away and his own took over, increasing the rhythm and pressure to coax her the last bit to the edge.
She peaked under his touch, electrified and helpless, but it was the way he gasped her name that made her cry out aloud, the sharp possessive awe in his voice breaking through a barrier between them as surely as if she'd been the virgin he'd mistaken her for.
Thinking back now, Marita believes she began falling in love with Alex that night. As he granted her the protection of darkness, and then claimed her through the darkness by touch, by voice, by name.
She wakes up to find him fresh from the shower, towelling off. Whether he's meant for her to see it or not, the prosthesis is off and for a second it shivers cold through her, the howling unfairness of how it happened, how it turned out for him. But she has years of practice at concealing what she doesn't want to show, and besides he is still beautiful in the way that is Alex, strong and sleek and dangerous. She turns to him, stretching.
He sits down at the side of the bed, takes her hand and kisses her fingertips.
She wonders at what's happened to elicit this ease. It's only nine months since that night in Prague, when every glance he gave her resounded like a scream of pain, every touch of his remaining hand felt like an angry strike against merciless fate. It seems too fast for the raw wound of his agony to have scabbed over, let alone healed. But maybe it's just the knowledge of what lies ahead that has forced him to heal quicker than nature intended. The scar on his arm may be neat and shiny and stitched up according to every rule in the book, but the scar on his soul, she thinks, must have healed puckered and ugly and sensitive. But healed, in its makeshift, stubborn Alex way.
Her cellphone beeps on the nightstand. It is Marshden, the Englishman. She sits stiff and naked on the bed, with Alex nuzzling her shoulder, unmoving and alert. The lies roll easily off her tongue. Yes, she had to leave in a hurry, strictly UN business but possibly related to the vaccine programs they are monitoring in the area. How long it'll take? She looks at Alex, who mouths 'three days'. She feels hollow with a sense of finiteness, of hurry, as she tells this to Marshden, who then informs her with poorly stifled rage about a hybrid clone project that's been exposed in California. It's been a secret of Spender's, and now a little girl has been discovered by Agent Scully and Mulder is on his way out there. Exposure. Risk. He spills those words like curses. He wants her back in the States within those three days at the latest.
They dress and go out for drinks and dinner, but Marita has been subtly stabbed by fear.
At her request, they go by the church on the hill, where a service is in progress. The ritual, in French and Arabic, seems both exotic and universal, a colorful tumult of adoration. At the choir, a Nativity crib has been set up with a dark-skinned baby doll; Heaven resting on the golden straws of Earth. Feeling like an intruder, she lights a candle, crosses herself and says a silent prayer, then stays for a minute more, her emotions surging and spindrifting like the restless Atlantic against the harbor wall down the hill. Alex is standing a few steps back, a stony and desert-stranded sphinx. She wonders whether he has retained any concept of mercy. Maybe he has got too much to forgive, and too much to have forgiven.
In imagined dialogue, she gives him passionate assurance that so does she--and if not yet to the degree that he has, by the time she's run her distance in this dirty life-and-death game she surely will. She looks up at him as she turns, a remnant of that complicity shining in her eyes. But Alex shakes his head minutely--perhaps refusing that complicity; perhaps responding to something else entirely. Perhaps he just wants out of there.
But the usher at the door nods to Alex as they leave, seeming to know him, and Alex, casually, nods back. Marita doesn't know what to make of that. Aleksei, the upright, dedicated Komsomol boy, steeped from birth in his Party father's State-sanctioned atheism. She highly doubts he is a regular at any place of worship.
Outside again, as they walk in step down the cobbled winding streets, her unease builds. With her pulse beating a slow cold pace of doom's drums, she says, "Alex, tell me the truth. Why did you send for me here?"
"Do you really need me to say it?" he asks in mild surprise, glancing down at her.
"Yes!" she snaps with sudden ferocity. "Yes, damn you, I need it!"
Alex turns to her, stopping, and cups the back of her head in his palm, stroking his thumb over her temple. With the sunset at his back his eyes are in shade, a green calm like shadowed shiny foliage. "No," he tells her in the softest rasp of his voice. "You don't," and her stomach drops.
She orders a drink like a tropical sunset--in fact, that may be its name. It tastes as sweet and dangerous as the ruby fruits of Eden. He sips at plain vodka on ice, watching her with an expression that pleases and alarms her.
She pushes her glass at him. The smile on her lips feels like it could tremble and fly away from sheer lightness. "Taste it."
He shakes his head. "I'm fine."
"For my sake," she explains with a sly, sweet heat in her eyes. "It will taste even better if you know how good it is too."
His tone is wry. "Really, Eve." But the lines around his eyes crinkle up and he raises the drink to his lips. Tastes it gravely, a frown of concentration on his face, and returns it with an appreciative nod.
They have dinner, they get a bit tipsy, and afterwards he asks her to dance. Marita is more than surprised and can't quite hide it. They stand nearly still and sway to a slow piano tune. There's smoke in the room, dour patrons at the bar, a white crescent moon outside like a slash in the night. Everything feels like a scene in some vintage movie that will not end well.
His real hand is at her back holding her to him, his fake hand hanging down at his side. She endures it for a minute, then curls her fingers lightly around the plastic fingers. The lifeless material takes on her warmth and feels almost human, but she gets angry with herself at the thought. She won't pretend. She respects him, cares for him too much--so much.
She can't say where the emotional overload comes from, but it seeps through his shirt and alerts him to her plight. He stops moving. His hand at her back slides up and around to tilt up her chin. His fingertips come as kind as new tears to her cheek although his face, like his voice, is sharp and relentless above her.
"Tears for me? You can keep the pity, Marita."
She hisses through the thick lump of tenderness and elation and dread. "It's not pity, you... asshole; it is... it's how I feel for you. If you're *still* too dense to get the difference--"
Alex looks momentarily shocked, then reflective, and finally like he dares not quite laugh. "I get it. That didn't sound like pity."
"You're damn right. Now shut up and dance."
And so they do, under the heliotrope sky and the dagger moon.
Prague was terrible. Worse than she had imagined or expected, and she had tried to prepare herself for the worst.
It would be Kolya, Alex's brother, tactless, well-meaning, loving boor who would call her and tell how bad it really was.
"I *know* he hasn't called you, Marita, and he won't. It's a matter of pride. With the arm lost, he doesn't think you'd want him anymore." Kolya's voice grew worried. "This thing is destroying him. His eyes-- like those of a ghost. I am not sure he's even had a woman since it happened."
She was pretty much insulated against Nikolai's staggering insensitivity. No matter what he inadvertently implied, she didn't think Alex had slept around since they'd become lovers, and she also was pretty sure that four months after he'd lost an arm, getting laid wouldn't be the most pressing thing on his mind. But what Kolya said about Alex's eyes struck her like a blow.
"You haven't been to see him," Kolya had said, a half-accusation.
"I tried," she defended herself. "I can't go out that way too often--my employers would get suspicious--but I went there and they wouldn't let me see him." After someone had finally bothered to inform her about what had happened to Alex, she'd stood a whole afternoon and an evening outside general Levertov's grandiose St. Petersburg house on the Neva riverfront, pushing the doorbell and annoying the hell out of poor Vassily Peskov who could only repeat that Alexei was not well enough to see her and Levertov wouldn't let her in, and would she please go home to America and stop leaning on the doorbell?
But after talking to Kolya, she arranged an errand to Prague for herself, and went to the hotel he had mentioned.
Alex was with a woman, a prostitute who stood buttoning up her blouse behind him as he opened the door. Stepping back with a stunned expression that immediately was masked by indifference, he let her in.
The woman was in her twenties, with dark curls and too much makeup slapped on a sweet, heart-shaped face. She shot Marita a cautious look and gathered her coat and her shoulder-bag from the chair she'd left them on, saying something in Czech to Alex which sounded like a cool question. He answered her softly, slipping a large bill into her coat pocket as she passed him, meeting her gaze with a hint of a smile.
He waited until the woman had closed the door behind her before speaking. "What are you doing here?" His flat, raspy voice negotiated a knife's edge between civil and hostile. He'd spoken immediately in Russian, which sent the same message: he'd always made a point of addressing her in English, which she suspected was a matter of politeness for him, even though her Russian was as fluent as his American.
She met his eyes, responding in the same language. "I had business at the American embassy. Kolya had mentioned that you were in Prague and I decided to see if you were staying here."
"Akh, Kolya." Alex's mouth curved up into a grimace of reluctant indulgence. "Kolya means well. But he's an idiot."
She walked over to the window. In the wastepaper basket by the mirror, a tissue with blotted crimson lipstick caught her eye. Next to it was a discarded condom, more crumpled tissues. She looked away in a surge of nausea and jealousy--too sharply; Alex caught her distaste and his eyes retraced the route of hers. His cheekbones flushed for a moment, his gaze flickered, then dropped. So he wasn't completely devoid of shame or modesty. Imagine that.
"Do you see her often?"
"I wasn't aware I had to answer to you." His tone was conversational. He still didn't look at her. "But since you ask, whenever I need some."
"And you call Kolya an idiot," she said quietly.
He snorted. "What is that supposed to mean?"
Her nails dug into her palms. What *did* she mean? They'd never made any professions of faithfulness, and yet somewhere along the way she must have started to assume it. In her gut, the idea of Alex with that woman churned with a jagged pain, like digesting broken glass. She crossed the small room, stood right in front of him and captured his gaze, clutching on to her cool demeanor by a fraying thread. She switched to English. "You truly believe that what you need is to screw someone who'll take you for your dollars and fake her orgasms?"
She regretted the last part the instant the words were out of her mouth. Alex's voice was ice-cold when he replied.
"She doesn't fake anything. I don't want her to flatter me." He shrugged. "She doesn't kiss on the mouth, either, but I figure that makes her a lot like me. I pride myself in not taking pleasure in the killing, as if that could save my sorry virtue. I guess it takes one whore in denial to know another, doesn't it?"
Towards the end of that speech his words were snapping out like bullets and her eyes were wide with disbelief. "You can't believe that!" she protested. "It's the work... our work--it's important, critical. You're just... Alex, you're experiencing some kind of post-traumatic reaction... and I understand that, but--"
He broke her off. His features were drawn back in a near-snarl, aggressive in a way he'd never been with her before. "Don't you dare presume to understand. I guess you've come here to save me, Marita. But you know what? I prefer to be taken for my dollars rather than be taken on as charity."
"It's not charity," she burst out. "How can you be so stupid?"
He smiled, and not one of his pretty smiles. "So you came here because... what? Because you love me?"
She froze, tongue-tied, deer-in-headlights under his challenging scrutiny. Those were words they'd never said to each other. There'd never been any need to define what they had.
He took in her hesitation, then his good hand closed very gently around her upper arm, before tightening to a painful hold and reeling her in close. His eyes were fevered as though he was burning up from the inside. He spoke too loudly, the strained desperation in his voice so naked it hurt her. "What exactly are you offering, Marita? That you'll give me true love and that you'll kiss me on the mouth and when you cry out my name it'll be for real?" His gaze dropped from her eyes to her mouth, thoughtful, and his voice lowered to a soft hiss. "You realize, don't you, that if I kiss you now I won't be able to go to her, not to anyone like her again? I don't know whether you'll damn me or save me, but you'll owe me, Marita."
Her heartbeat thundered against her ribcage. She tried to collect her thoughts, but it seemed the whole world had narrowed down to the despair in his eyes, charring all her reason to flying ashes.
"That's all right," she whispered, feigning certainty because she sensed that nothing less would be acceptable. "Anything, Alex. It's all right."
Then, seeing her words were only fuelling the frustration and agony in his gaze and not knowing any other way to deal with it, she simply twined her arms around his neck, stood on tip-toe and kissed him.
In the next second, she was tumbled over a precipice into an abyss of hopelessness. Alex responded with clumsy ferocity. He hadn't even washed the prostitute's sweat and perfume off his skin. The bed reeked of them as he walked her over to it, maneuvered her down on the rumpled covers with the pressure of his body. His right hand pushed at her clothing; the other arm, the not-arm twitched useless at his side. Sweet God, the expression on his face--he looked as though he was crying, tearless, soundless, oblivious. She fell on her back, reached out for him, whimpering with his pain.
There was no right thing for her to do. He didn't accept her touch, her help, in any place, any way, so in the end she lay trembling, helpless and tender and let him take what he needed, give what he wanted. Accepting pleasure and anger, sorrow and pain because it was honest and it was all he had to offer, she whispered his name, over and again, by way of reassurance for them both.
Afterwards, he lay with closed eyes, quiet beside her. She wrapped herself around him at last and he closed his eyes tighter and turned his face into her shoulder with a sound of exhaustion.
God only knew if either of them slept at all that night.
In the morning, she opened her eyes to find him standing by the window, dressed against the biting cold in his jeans and the shirt he'd worn all night. On the cheap, one-layer window glass, ice roses bloomed, petrified in a haze of both their condensed breath. He had rubbed a portion of the pane clear and was looking out at the street, but sensing her gaze on him he turned.
"Marita." Just acknowledging her, all the raging bitterness of a few hours earlier present only as a residue of weariness in his low voice.
She sat up, quelling a soft moan as she realized she hurt in several places. Love-hurts, though worse than she'd felt them with him before. Alex raised his head, alert. He walked over to the bed and she felt the mattress give where he sat down. Gently, his hand went to her blouse and slid it off her shoulders. She shivered with frost and with his touch. She thought he wanted sex again and braced herself because she couldn't quite bear the thought of the same intensity all over, but was determined not to reject him, either. He looked intently at her face and gave a sad smile, but his touch remained clinical as he eased away clothing, pulled down the bedcovers, pushed up her skirt.
There were bruises, scratches, even faint bite marks. Nothing really brutal, nothing that hadn't occasionally been bestowed between them in passion and joy before, but his gaze made them ugly somehow, tainted by his regret.
Alex's gaze was compassionate, but distant. "You should leave, Marita."
"This is nothing," she protested, her voice hoarse. "Alex, you didn't hurt me."
"It isn't right." He looked washed-out and pale in the white winter light. "If we do it again, eventually it will hurt you. Both of us. Listen, you've got to give me time."
There was no arguing. He was closed off, empty-sounding. She dressed, stood exhausted and immeasurably sad before him. Her voice sounded empty too. "What will happen now, then?"
"I'll stay in touch. We'll need to work together like we've done before, of course." He was quiet for a moment, tender as she'd ever seen him. "Give me time. There's time, right?"
"As much for this as for anything," she said with just a hint of tartness, and he smiled.
"Did you come here to save me?" he wondered.
"No," she said, which might not have been the whole truth.
"Maybe you've done that, all the same, malenkaya." Her eyes watered at the endearment, though she'd have given him hell for saying it in English--then widened at his next words. "But you should never save someone unless you're prepared to save them for life."
She had no idea what he meant; if it was promise or rejection. His lips were on her cheek, then grazed the corner of her mouth, and then she turned to go.
She dreams of holding Alex's baby in her arms, a frail dark-haired girl she folds mutely to her heart. In the dream, she's cindery with sorrow, crumbling with grief. Alex is not there, and the child is dead.
She sits up awake, sobbing her denial. Alex is close, ghost-pale in the dark, muttering incoherent nothings as he pulls her to his warmth. Her heart hammers, her breath labors.
"Wanna talk?" Perfunctory if sincere offer, he's half asleep. Outside the screen door, there's the dagger moon again, a white claw caught on the swooning tapestry of midnight and stars.
"No." Her voice is raspy dry. "It was just... someone walking over my grave, I guess."
That rouses him. His response sounds more coherent now, and almost vehement: "Don't talk like that." His hand drifts to her naked breast, holds it for a second, then caresses in a smoothing pattern, trying to guide and calm the painful pounding underneath. "You're alive, Marita. We both are. We'll work to keep it that way."
So it's him, this time, offering pleasure as comfort. And he's good at it, gentle, amazingly so. She responds to his tenderness with tear- stained lips, greedy movements. Is eased back on the pillows, accepting and grateful, and lets his heat and scent and solidity drown her like a heavy monsoon rain.
They're alive. They both are. They'll work to keep it that way.
The next day they go to a place with no tourists. They rent a car that she drives while Alex lounges against the passenger seat back, as relaxed as a big cat lazing in the sun. He wears a faded khaki-green chambray shirt, with the sleeves folded up, and she can't stop glancing askance at the way the light tan hair on his right forearm catches the sun as it rests in the open window. Following directions at a village cafe she navigates narrower and narrower paved roads, then a path-like dirt road. They walk down to a beach and cove.
Here, the world is a semi-circle of trapped light falling from the sky, glimmering in golden sand, reflecting in elusive facets from the waves. It's as though the light is too much for the enclosed space, as if it's compacted and moving about and spilling into other dimensions. They sit on a blanket and have a messy meal of ripe dripping fruits, strong goat's cheese and bread, and wine.
She reaches into her shoulder bag, takes out the enamel box he gave her. It glows like blood and fire in the sun. She catches him looking at her as she takes off the lid and scoops with the box in the sand, fills it with a thimbleful of dry, fine-milled gold. A faint blush warms her cheeks. "For luck," she says, feeling foolish but brave for showing him. He only leans over and kisses her, quick and hard.
"I'm sorry"--a light breath of regret and she thinks she knows what he is saying, and suddenly she feels mild fatigue at all their evasions and roundabouts.
"Please," she smiles into his neck, "could we have just one day when neither of us is sorry?"
They dip in the sea--although for Alex it is more a matter of wading, with his prosthesis on and the open shirt to cover it. It's awkward agony the second Marita realizes that of course--God, *of course*--he can't swim any more. But her passionate smile comes straight from her heart as she splashes water on him and goads him into following her, until ultimately he chases her in the surf and drenches her with salt water. Something about the game translates into the kind of seriousness kids get caught in, playing, so that her heart beats in near-real fear at the sound of his steps in pursuit behind her. She dodges him, makes a lightning turn and ducks under his arm, then stops and falters in horror as he buckles to his knees, clutching soundlessly at the juncture of prosthesis and amputation point.
With a triumphant snarl he grabs her by the ankle, and she does an inelegant half-salto in the air and lands flat on her back in the soft tawny sand. He is above her, shaking with laughter, all dazzling green eyes and white teeth.
"*You*--" she all but spits with affront. "You *scared* me--"
"I'm going to--"
"--forgive me? Forgive me." He's still laughing. He comes closer, brushing soft lips over her cheek, her lips, her eyelids, until she laughs too, still in half affront, and turns to catch his mouth.
She forgives him. They lie in a heat daze of mellow desire and explore. He leans on his fake arm, caressing her with his mouth and hand. She returns every caress with palms and fingertips, lips and tongue. Their scant clothing gets eased and coaxed away.
And then he's sliding over her and inside her and rocking her and held by her, and it's like cradling the sun or being cradled by it--bright and searing, blissful, just blissful. She brings one hand down between them, helping him and herself. He moves with luxurious care; she can barely understand how he can love her as though time were a slow golden slide in an hourglass, rather than a frenzied dark hurtle towards apocalypse--like they had all the time in the world when they both know that they don't, they don't... But oh, she loves him for this slow warm pace. Like nothing they ever had before. Like something they've both been waiting for too long to hurry it.
She can't believe the times she craved the darkness to cloak this surrender--that there has been a time when she wanted to hide from him at all. She's as open as she's ever been, eyes open filling with tawny tears, mouth open spilling sounds like restless light, thighs open to accept him and release him in this surge and recede, surge and recede, tide of the seas.
Like nothing ever before.
"Wait," he says that night as they park the rental car on the street of their hotel. "Let's walk for a while."
She nods, cooling after the hot day but still mellow, and yields to his whim, warm in the crook of his arm, her own snug around his waist.
They walk through the dissembling, quieting souk, walk under sun-sated golden stone arches and past white-and-blue facades, walk on intricately patterned cobblestones and dark hard-trodden dust. They walk uphill.
Marita looks up to the top of the hill, which lies shrouded in stars and darkness. She's starting to feel chilly, anxious even. "Are we going anywhere in particular?"
"I don't know," he replies cryptically, stops and turns to gaze down the hill the distance they have come, to the booming, light-fringed dark void past land and certainty. Then he speaks his revelation in a dry hard tone. "I want us to be married, Marita."
She takes a quiet rush of breath. "*What*?"
He lets go of her, and rubs his temple distractedly with his fingerpads. "It's what people do," he says, "when they feel this way." One should think the feeling were seated there beneath his fingertips somewhere, a nagging half-luxurious ache in his mind.
"Some," she says, not knowing what she's arguing. "Others don't. And many do it without feeling this way. It's just... We're not like most people. I don't need... You don't need to..."
"I know I don't need to," says Alex, beginning to sound annoyed. "Shit. Is that a no? Or do you want me on bended knee?"
"No," she says. "I mean, yes. To the first, not the second." She laughs nervously. She can't believe she's babbling, and throws her hands out vaguely. "That is, to the proposal. Or, I don't know!"
They stare at each other, hurt and puzzlement and hope stumbling over one another and stranding them in indecision. Marita's thoughts spin. Do they feel enough? Yes--*yes*--but do they feel too much? Would it be right? Would it be used against them, if anyone were to find out? Will it ruin what they have? God, what *is* it they have?
Then Alex swallows. Gentles perceptibly before her--his expression, his voice. "I told you," he says. "Back in Piter... they want me to use you. And the Americans, when they find out--and they will find out--will want to use you against me. We'll be played against each other, and we'll try to turn that to our advantage but there's no fucking way we can stop them from doing it."
For Marita, all the muddled reactions abruptly stream into a strong yet helpless feeling of being touched. Moved, physically moved by understanding of his care, of his foresight. She finds herself one step closer, craning her neck slightly to meet his gaze.
"So you think this would help."
"I don't know if it will help, but it will last. When everything's over, for better or worse..."
He grins at his own choice of words. She smiles too.
"All right," she says. And it's literally true, strange and simple as it is; it feels right, all of it.
Alex raises his good hand and lets his fingertips trace the line of her eyebrow, then the shape of her face with great tenderness. Words seem to be catching in his throat, before he pushes them out with determination. "Also," he says, "I love you. There's that."
Her eyes fill up and threaten to spill over. "I never thought we'd be able to say it," she says haltingly, and then, as she realizes some mutuality would be good, "I do love you, too."
"Don't you start crying again," he warns her, though he looks rather pleased. "I've talked to the priest up there. The paperwork is ready. There'll be people there until midnight."
She laughs all of a sudden. "So that was the reason for that shifty look you exchanged with the usher yesterday. What's the denomination up there, anyway?"
Alex looks, just briefly, embarrassed. "French-Arabic Catholic. But there won't be questions. Some money was put on the table." He clears his throat. "For the ongoing church restorations."
She smiles. "I'm lapsed American-Orthodox. What are you?"
"Lapsed Komsomol atheist," he shrugs, smirking back. "Seems we've got all the bases covered."
They embrace briefly and then, unspeaking and entwined, they walk up the hill.
"I mistook you for the sun once," says Alex, drowsy-content. They're lying afloat and awash in the morning sunshine on the bed, unwilling to move. It's only four hours until her plane leaves. They don't speak of it.
She quirks her eyebrow, smiling, and waits for the wry punch line. But he goes on, quite serious. "In the silo. In the dark. With your hair-- lit by your flashlight. Or maybe it was Marshden's flashlight, behind you, making this fuzzy corona of gold around your hair. I was so out of it, and everything else was filthy and pitch black in there. I looked up at you and thought you were the sunrise, that I must be outside."
His fingers, she realizes, are in her sun-warmed hair, smoothing it back, lifting and separating strands, petting.
She smiles at him, speechless for a few seconds. "Alex, you do surprise at times."
"I do, hm?" he says, looking pained, and she chuckles.
"Mm-hm. You aspire to be this American badass but that sentimental Russian soul keeps tripping you up."
He levers up on his elbow and considers her, narrow-eyed. "I'll give you sentimental."
He comes over her prowling. Tiger's grin, hungry eyes. "No," she says meekly, stifling a giggle. "Oh no, I take it back. You're an American badass. None of that soul nonsense."
"Oh, it's too late now," he assures her with a sneer. "You'll pay dearly for your disrespect, Mrs. Krycek."
For some reason, the title cracks them both up. Is it wonder, relief, fear? Between their giggles and their kisses she thinks to remind herself that Fate is a laughing trickster goddess and that they would be wise not to tempt her to her face. But she elbows the feeling away, annoyed at the intrusion.
They are tricksters too; deceit and gambles form the gridlines of the game. They're playing Fate by her own rules, and god damn it, they're getting good at it. So let the wheels spin and engage, whispering out the fabric of the future.
But she cups his head in her hands, holding him to her, for the thought of later is like a peregrine cloud passing over the white-gold sun.
1. Russian mini-glossary: "Piter" is the affectionate term which the citizens of St. Petersburg, Russia, like to use for their own city. The term "malenkaya" which Krycek uses means "little girl". "Akh," means "Oh". "Kolya" is the pet form of "Nikolai".
2. Additional disclaimer: The town of Essaouira exists. And there is a Christian church there--one web page I used for my research said that it's "the only place in Morocco where the church bells are allowed to ring on Sundays". Having said that, I don't know whether this practice is also allowed for the Christmas church services. Though loosely based on my web research, the story's descriptions of the town come mostly from my own imagination, and the church and clergy in the story are fictional creations. In other words, the suggestion that the church staff in the story are susceptible to bribes, does not at all reflect on the integrity of any actual persons. Even for such a good cause. *g*