TITLE: Three's A Crowd
Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind III: Three's A Crowd
by Josan, aided and abetted by Virgule Vaughan
"You know," said Sebastian, looking around the square, eyes devouring every detail, spirit revelling in the mathematical balance of the architecture, "I've been to Italy several times, but this is my first visit to Venice. Quite surprising how different it is from the rest of the country."
Alex grunted in agreement. His experience of Europe was mainly with its eastern countries and a couple of quick visits to England with the Brit. Italy was a new experience for him. Like Sebastian, he too was checking out the square, though Walter knew that security was the reason behind Alex's careful examination. You could take the man out of the Consortium, Walter thought, but he brought his paranoia with him.
This was also Walter's first visit to Venice. He'd been to Rome once for a conference on terrorism back in his AD days. Then, he'd been taken aback by the energy of the city. Here, there was a sense of energy as well, but it was older, hazier, more laid back. People took their time strolling to get from one place to the other; there wasn't any of the frantic rushing so common in other large cities. Probably because there were no real streets to hurry along.
There had never been any doubt that Sebastian would be joining them, so Walter had waited until the Professor had some time off to make his plans. All he had told them when he'd organized this trip was their destination, that they were going to meet a contact. Nothing else. They were still pouting about that.
Walter dawdled, letting the two brothers get ahead of him. The view, he grinned, was really quite nice.
Sebastian, thought Walter, looked like what he was. An academic on tour. He wore a light summer suit, sandy beige in colour that made his severely combed-back hair look more brown than black, a pale beige shirt with a brown tie, even in the morning heat.
Alex was more casual. He wore his usual jeans, a relatively new pair --the seams weren't yet white from use, a light chambray shirt, with the sleeves down, cuffs unbuttoned. Alex never rolled up his sleeves in public. His hair was less controlled, the light breeze ruffling it slightly.
Walter had felt the occasion called for something less formal than a suit, less casual than jeans. He was wearing a pair of light grey slacks with a summer sweater of a slightly darker grey.
Sebastian slipped his hands into his pants pockets, pulling the material tighter across his ass. Walter smiled. Nice ass. Actually, as he inspected the denim clad one next to it, a nice pair of asses. And from one or two glances he'd intercepted, he wasn't the only one who thought so.
Alex looked over his shoulder to make a comment, caught the grin on Walter's face. He nudged his brother. "So, Walt, enjoying the view?"
Walter's grin filled his face. "Oh, yeah."
Sebastian questioned Alex with a raised eyebrow.
"He's checking out our asses," explained Alex. Sebastian looked startled as he turned to face Walter.
"And a fine pair they are," Walter tried to assume a serious, academic face to go with the fine academic tone.
"Alike, are they?" Alex shifted his weight to a hip, waiting for Walter's answer. But Walter had caught the slight thread of insecurity that underlay the question. He came up to Alex and smiled at him.
"Yes, pretty much. Just like the rest of you. But, strangely enough, there's only one of them that I want to fuck."
"Only one, eh?" Alex nodded as though he were considering the statement.
"Only one." Walter reached for Alex's face and pulled it to his.
Sebastian responded to the kiss with a raised eyebrow and a slight clearing of his throat. Then he just gave up, turned and looked at the graceful arches that decorated one of the palazzi.
One or two people stopped to look at the male couple, arms around each other, kissing in the morning light. One young man applauded. Walter and Alex pulled reluctantly apart.
It always surprised Walter to see how some things could make Alex blush. Sebastian merely took out his handkerchief, polished his glasses while pretending he had seen nothing.
"Just remember, Alex," Walter slipped his arm under Alex's, reached out for Sebastian, pulled them both in the direction he had been given by the owner of the pensionne where they were staying, "I could pick your ass out anywhere, even in a stadium filled with Krycek clone asses, because it's the only one I love."
Alex said nothing, but his smile made his eyes shine.
"Now *that* is so very romantic," scoffed Sebastian. But he too smiled.
"Hang on. I think this is it."
Walter stopped in front of a door, checked the name on the discreet brass plaque against the one on the piece of paper he took out of his pocket.
The walls of the lower floor had been removed, probably even the floor above, leaving a wide open space with light flooding in through two levels of tall narrow windows.
And the artwork in the gallery needed it. The canvasses were large colourful pieces of abstract art.
At first, neither Alex nor Sebastian did more than glance around the gallery, one checking out entrances and exits, the other the set up. As they worked their way visually around the space, Walter noticed that first Sebastian, then Alex, began paying closer attention to the art work. Alex, Walter knew, was not that enamoured of modern art. The few pieces Sebastian had on his walls at home were more photographic than interpretive.
Walter found a table to one side that had some brochures on it and a thin stack of paper that turned out to be a price list. He hitched his backside against the edge of the table, crossed his arms and watched as his lover and the man he now thought of as his brother-in-law slowly made their way around the room. Apart from a young woman who was focusing all her attention on a sculpture at the far end of the gallery, they were alone.
The canvasses ranged in size from about 3 by 4, to two huge pieces that were easily 10 by 20. The colours were vibrant jewel tones, in which a scarlet red, a dark turquoise, a matte black seemed to be favourites. The pieces resonated with emotion, with the force of the artist's personality.
Alex was chewing on his bottom lip the way he did when he was faced with something he had to work out for his own satisfaction. Sebastian was polishing his glasses again, a nervous habit, Walter had quickly picked up, when he wasn't sure what to do. It was obvious that they were attracted to the paintings, though it was just as obvious that they didn't really know why.
Somewhere a door opened and the sound of an argument flashed into the room, disappearing when the door closed. A harried looking young woman rushed into the room from a small hallway, noticed Walter who smiled at her. She looked back over her shoulder, shrugged, said something in a very quick Italian and continued on her way out.
The door must have opened again because the sound of two male voices arguing could once more be heard. Growing louder as the men made their way down the hallway, into the gallery.
One of the men was short, round, dressed in a business suit. He seemed to be trying to explain something to the other man who was gesturing wildly, obviously very upset about something.
Alex and Sebastian came and took places next to Walter, both very quiet, watching the emotional drama that was playing out in front of them.
Business Suit was pointing to the small red dots that indicated a piece had been sold, making a point by slapping a fist into the palm of his other hand. The other man, who had to be the artist, was not pleased about something. His arms flung out, as if to embrace the entire room. His voice certainly did.
"Jesus!" whispered Alex.
"Oh, my," agreed Sebastian.
Walter grinned, just enjoying the spectacle.
The artwork was signed in a large, bold hand: Massimiliano. The brochure was for the exhibition of one Massimiliano de Gama.
The face of the man who was Massimiliano de Gama was the same as the two next to him, but that was the only thing that was the same.
The hair, unbound, hung below the man's shoulders, midway to his waist. The wave that made Alex's bangs sometimes droop, that Sebastian tried so hard to control had been given full reign here.
The faces next to him, so controlled unless under great emotion, suffered no such restriction in this third brother. Eyes flashing, mouth moving in rhythm with the wide arm, body gestures, no one had to guess at Massimiliano de Gama's emotions. As he paced the space in front of his artwork, the steps were long, aggressive, determined. The arm gestures encapsulated the entire room.
He was dressed differently too. Walter would bet anything that he would never see either Alex or Sebastian in a white blouson shirt, the oversized sleeves fluttering like wings with every outflung gesture. Nor the bolero-style black leather vest. The tight black pants that cupped ass like a second skin, that left little to the imagination at the groin. The thigh-high, tight black leather boots with the heels that easily added a couple of inches to Massimiliano's six foot height were even more unthinkable.
"Well," said Sebastian to his companions, "we now know where all the extroversion went."
"The flamboyance, too," agreed Alex.
At the sound of other voices, Business Suit looked away from the man yelling at him. His double take was almost cartoon-like. His reaction caught the other's attention. Massimiliano de Gama looked over his shoulder, ready to dismiss anyone who dared intrude on his discussion with his agent. He barely registered what he saw, turned to continue his diatribe with the man who now forced his attention back to his artist.
"Heterosexual," said Alex.
"Hmmm?" questioned Sebastian.
"In spite of all the yelling, his eyes keep checking out the woman by the statue. She's certainly keeping her eyes on him. And he knows it. He's playing to her."
"One less ass for you to worry about," teased Sebastian, though his eyes too never left this brother who acted as though he hadn't realized that his face was staring at him from two other bodies.
But he had.
Taking everyone by surprise, Massimiliano suddenly strode over to the table where the three men were propped, watching him. He took a stance in front of them, legs apart, fists on hips, looking them over with a slight sneer to his lip.
He said something to them, a short clipped sentence.
All three men shook their heads.
"Sorry," said Sebastian, "I'm afraid I don't speak Italian. English, French and German."
The sneer grew as he turned his gaze onto Alex.
"English," started Alex.
"American," corrected Sebastian.
Massimiliano's eyes moved from one speaker to the other, his disapproval obvious.
"American, French, Russian. I get by in some of the Baltic dialects."
The eyes found Walter who shrugged. "American and Spanish."
There was a moment's silence then the man sighed, as if the weight of the world had been dropped onto his shoulders. "So. It is a good thing that I speak some of your English, some of your American." His voice was Alex's with a light Italian inflection.
Eyes glaring at all of them, he snapped something over his shoulder at Business Suit who hurried up, handing him a small note pad and a pen. Massimiliano barely looked down at the paper as he wrote something, tore the small sheet from the pad. He held the paper up in his hand, looked the three of them over as though assessing them. Then, with a haughty raised eyebrow, he handed the paper to Walter. "This afternoon. Any time after two."
He turned, smiled at the young woman who had approached, holding the brochure in her hand. With a sexy grin, he took it, signed it with a flourish, said something in a soft, sensual tone that had her blushing. He offered her his arm, and still blushing, the young woman took it. Together they left the gallery.
"Excuse me," said Sebastian to the Business Suit. "Do you speak English?"
"Yes. Of course. I'm sorry, but are you related to Massimiliano?"
"That's what we're here to find out," said Walter.
"Not to get personal," Sebastian sounded apologetic, "but is the young woman his wife?"
Business Suit laughed. "His wife? Massimiliano de Gama with a wife? No. She must be a fan. He has become quite well known with his last few shows. And I'm pleased to say that there is nothing left in this showing that is unsold."
Someone familiar entered the gallery and Business Suit left to attend them.
"Well," said Alex, not sure how he felt, "he certainly is a fast worker."
"Not," agreed Sebastian, "a personality trait either of us shares with him, I don't believe."
Walter just smiled.
If Alex and Sebastian got any more nervous, thought Walter as they reached the fourth landing, he was going to have to frisk both of them for weapons. He knew from Alex's behaviour that he was jumpy enough to shoot-first-ask-questions later at any sudden noise. Fortunately, the only noise in the stairwell was the sound of their feet going up the wide stone stairway that had been worn thin by centuries of use.
"Considering the prices he gets for his stuff," groused Alex under his breath, "you'd think he could live in a place with an elevator."
"They didn't build palazzi with elevators in the sixteenth century," countered Sebastian.
"Actually late fifteenth," said a voice from above.
Massimiliano de Gama was slouched against the wide doorway at the top of the stairs, arms crossed over his chest, watching them. He waited until they neared the door then turned and led the way in. The hair was in a thick braid that bounced slightly between his shoulders. The body was clad in paint-stained denim overalls, all he was wearing. He was barefoot.
The corner room was obviously his studio, its size indicating that walls had been removed. Light came from the two outer walls of windows and the sky-lights over head. The air held the smell of fresh paint. A large canvas against the inside wall shone with its fresh undercoat. Massimiliano hoisted himself up onto the corner of a heavy table laden with cans of paint. He reached over, took a narrow case in hand, opened it then pulled out a narrow cheroot and lit it. He blew the smoke skywards all the while examining his guests as they, in turn, examined him.
"You have names?" he finally asked.
"Walter Skinner. This is Alex Krycek. That is Sebastian Tarquinn. We have cause to believe, Mr. de Gama, that you might be related to these two men."
De Gama scoffed. "I think more than related, Mr. Skinner. I am not blind. We carry the same face. What are we? Triplets?"
"Quads, actually." It had been agreed before they'd arrived that Walter would do the talking.
De Gama shrugged. "So where is the other one?"
"We haven't found him yet. So far, the only ones my sources have been able to track down are Sebastian and you, Mr. de Gama."
"Why?" De Gama stuck the thin cigar in his mouth, reached for a large sketch pad. Eyes on his brothers, conversation directed at Walter, he made rapid gestures over the paper with a thick piece of charcoal.
"Why what?" Walter stood deceptively at ease to one side. Alex and Sebastian were to the other, Sebastian at Alex's left, leaving his right arm free for any kind of necessary action. It crossed Walter's mind that those two understood each other too easily. He doubted that facility with the man sketching, tearing off a sheet, tossing it over his shoulder, sketching again with rapid movements.
"Why bother? Why search? Why come?" De Gama moved his stare to Walter. Head slightly cocked in a familiar manner, eyes concentrated with no sign of the emotional artist from the gallery, de Gama focused on the spokesman for the group.
"It's a long story. Perhaps you would like to hear it?" Walter offered. De Gama stopped sketching, inhaled, removed the cheroot from his mouth with the hand holding the charcoal. He blew the smoke upwards again, looking from Walter to the other two as he did so.
He pulled his legs up onto the table. Sitting crossed legged, he laid the sketch pad on his knees, clamped the cheroot between his teeth and went back to his sketching.
"But will I like this story, Mr. Skinner?" He was talking to Walter but his gaze was fixed on the two men who resembled him. The only times he moved his eyes from them was to glance down at the paper on his knees. He would make a few modifications, then go back to concentrating on them. Sebastian met his looks with a slightly raised eyebrow, a considering mien. Alex just stared back, face unexpressive.
"I really don't know. I know that Sebastian has accepted it but he did have to think about it first."
"May I ask what Mr. Tarquinn does?" De Gama ripped a sheet off the pad, tossed it behind him. He had started another sketch before the paper landed on the table top.
"Mr. Tarquinn," said Sebastian, less willing to consider, more willing to judge now, "is a Professor of Mathematics at Leeds University, in the North of England." His voice was pointedly upper class British.
"Ah. May I guess? Theoretical rather than practical mathematics." He smiled faintly at the surprise Sebastian was not quite able to hide. "You have the look of an academic about you." He pointed with his cheroot. "Your eyes have that slightly befuddled look of one who has left his tower for a visit to the village. And isn't certain he likes the difference."
"And what kind of look do I have?" Alex was using the neutral tone that usually sent Walter up the wall.
De Gama shrugged, kept on sketching. "You, my brother, are dangerous. What is it that you do? Soldier? You have the look of a man familiar with killing."
Walter quickly stepped up to de Gama knowing that Alex's tension was not a good thing.
"And you, Mr. Skinner. What is your role in all this?" Another sketch went flying over his shoulder.
"He's my lover," challenged Alex.
De Gama stopped drawing, looked from Walter to Alex. Incredibly, a smile appeared on his face. "Do you love him?" he asked Walter.
"But he is difficult to love."
Walter looked over his shoulder at Alex who was primed for some sort of action. "Not that difficult," he said softly. He saw a little of the tension leave Alex. He turned to face this third man with Alex's face.
The man was once more sketching, this time his eyes on Walter.
"Is there a reason for your seeking us," he pointed to Sebastian and then himself with the piece of charcoal, "out?"
Walter was beginning to wish that de Gama would put the sketching aside and pay attention to him. "You're Italian, Mr. de Gama."
De Gama gave a little laugh. "Yes, Mr. Skinner. I have been for the last thirty years. What does my being Italian have to do with this?"
"It has always been my impression," continued Walter, "that family is important to Italians."
De Gama finally put down his charcoal, took the thin cigar out of his mouth. "Is this truly about family, Mr. Skinner? Only about family?"
"Only about family. There is no hidden agenda. This is only about finding Alex's brothers."
De Gama looked at Sebastian. "And is Alex worth having as a brother, Professor Tarquinn? Are you?"
Sebastian frowned at the Italian. "I think I might wonder more if you are worth having as a brother, Mr. de Gama," he snapped.
De Gama cocked his head in what Walter was beginning to see as an inherited gesture that all three brothers shared. He looked as though he were considering the question seriously. "I think that I would very happy," he said, gravely, "to have such a magnificent brother as I would be."
There was a stunned silence that Sebastian finally broke. "And humble with it."
De Gama shook his head. "Humble I am not. It's impossible for one as talented as myself to pretend to humility. But then, within family, there is no need to be humble. I am certain that you, Sebastian, are a magnificent mathematician. And that you, Alex, are a magnificent... marksman. We are copies of each other, are we not?" De Gama's smile was Alex's. The expression on his face a duplicate of the ironic one on Sebastian's. "If I am magnificent, can either of you be less than I?"
Walter couldn't help it. His laughter filled the open room. Alex grimaced slightly, not certain that he was comfortable with what was happening. Sebastian slowly shook his head in reluctant admiration.
De Gama ripped his last sketch off, tossed it back with the others as he hopped off the table. He stubbed out his cheroot against the table leg whose condition reflected this habit, strode over to a small cupboard where he took out four wine goblets. He reached under a table, came out with an unlabelled bottle of wine, found the corkscrew and opened it. He came back to the table, carrying the four glasses in his hands, the bottle clasped to his body by an arm. The goblets were individual masterpieces of Venetian glass, probably, thought Sebastian, worth a small fortune. The wine being poured was a dark ruby red.
"So," said de Gama, taking his glass in hand, passing it under his nose, relishing the bouquet, "perhaps now is the time to tell me this story you seem so anxious to tell me, Mr. Skinner."
Walter picked up his glass, sipped. The wine went down like velvet. Whatever reason the bottle was unlabelled it was not because it was a rough new wine. This had the rich taste of aging.
Sebastian sipped his, considered. With a beginning smile, he offered a silent appreciative toast to his new brother. De Gama returned it. Alex was the last to pick up the wine. He looked at their host as he too sipped. There was no overt reaction apart from his taking a second sip. De Gama grinned at Walter. "Difficult, but worth it, is he not, Mr. Skinner?"
Walter grinned back. "I think you'd better call me Walter."
De Gama nodded. "I am Massimiliano. My friends call me Mass. Can family do less?"
Mass gave them a quick tour of his studio. Alex stayed at the table, eyes on this newest brother whose charm seemed to have captivated his lover and his brother. He wasn't so sure.
Checking to see that the others were involved in some conversation, he reached over, pulled the drawings over and studied them one by one. There was one of Walter that with just a few strokes of charcoal caught the serious pleasure that he so loved to see on Walter's face. From the order, it must have been when Walter had openly admitted his love. That Walter was never shy, never too reticent to admit his feelings for an ex-assassin, a clone, a Fourth One was one of the wonders of Alex's life.
There were a couple of Sebastian. The befuddled academic was one of them, with that faraway look his eyes got when he was contemplating some abstract theorem. The other made Alex aware that this brother may be far too perceptive. This Sebastian was anything but a befuddled academic. It was the face of the man who would think nothing of pulling out an illegal weapon on a stranger from America.
Alex hesitated before placing that one on the others. The next one was of him. The face was that of Sebastian in the last sketch, but harder, colder. More threatening. More dangerous. The killer.
All right, he thought, so he wasn't that good at hiding what he was. What he had been. He flicked that one onto the small pile with a sense of disdain. And then looked at the next one and his heart stopped. This face was one that he was certain only Walter had ever seen. Head held stiffly, mouth tightly clasped shut. Eyes revealing all the pain he thought he never showed. The fear.
Fuck, he thought.
"That one displeases you?"
Alex tore his eyes from the sketch to look at this brother. Mass bore the anger of his gaze.
"Ah, you don't like that I can see so much of your soul?"
Sebastian looked over Alex's shoulder, placed a protective hand on it.
"I think it is more whether there is yet another person who is linked with him."
"Linked?" Mass looked from one brother to the other. Alex, he knew was controlling his anger. Sebastian looked ready to defend him. He let some of his confusion loose. "What? What is it that you're hiding from me?"
"What made you sketch Alex this way?" Walter picked up the drawing, marvelling at Mass's skill.
Mass looked as though he was ready to retract his offer of friendship to them. Then he caught the glance Sebastian sent Walter and he forced himself to calm down. There was something here he did not yet understand. But he would.
"There, there and there," he pointed to Alex's face, to the corner of his eyes, to the edges of his mouth. "The signs of a man used to holding back his emotions. Men, even men as controlled as he is, do not hold back happiness, joy, pleasure. I am an artist. An excellent artist. As Sebastian reads his numbers, I can read faces. And that," he pointed to the sketch, "is what I read. Now will someone tell me what it is I should know and what it is you are not telling me?"
Prozia Maria-Louisa took her place at the head of the table and signalled to Raphaella to begin serving.
Mass, at the other end of the long table, smiled at the family matriarch. A mere 92, Prozia Maria-Louisa was a tiny, wizened woman who dressed always in a jet-black that matched her shiny bird-like eyes, eyes which never missed anything. She would nibble at the tablespoon servings of the feast all the while listening in on the many conversations, adding her opinion loudly in that old woman shrill voice when she felt it was warranted.
The fact that this gathering was bilingual would not be a deterrent. She had placed her people around the visitors so that not only they but she too could follow the gist of the table talk.
As was her due, Prozia Maria-Louisa was served first by Raphaella who was herself only a decade younger. The kitchen work had long ago been handed over to her daughter and granddaughter, but she still oversaw its workings, always personally served her mistress. The two of them had been together for most of Raphaella's life and communicated as one.
The feast -- not that the de Gamas needed any great reason to hold one -- was in honour of the three men who had, at Mass's insistence, joined the household, moving into the third floor of the palazzo where Mass had his private quarters. As people passed around the huge platters of the never-ending parade of food, Mass watched the reactions of his newly-found brothers and their friend to his family.
Sebastian, at first, looked overwhelmed by the noise, the smells -- Mass would swear that he saw Sebastian's nose twitch in surprise at all the new aromas that assaulted it. It didn't take more than a couple of glasses of the robust wine the family favoured for him to succumb to the food, the atmosphere. To the attention that Raphaella paid him, worrying aloud about his thinness.
"Signore Sebastino," Piero, the family black sheep, translated between mouthfuls of the scallop and mushroom salad, "Raphaella wishes to know if you have been ill?"
Sebastian, amazed at the food that appeared on his plate without his reaching for any, shook his head. It was hard for him to speak because his mouth was filled with avocado stuffed with cheese and nuts. "Then, she asks, why is it that you have so little flesh on your bones? Do you not eat?"
Sebastian swallowed hastily, looked surprised to find a glass of cool wine in his hand. He took a sip, eyes closing in appreciation. "Yes, I do eat. But never anything as wonderful as this. Please, convey my appreciation to Signora Raphaella."
Raphaella grinned at him, patted him on the shoulder, said something to Prozia Maria-Louisa that had them both cackling.
Walter was seated between the two members of the family who shared Mass's studio space on the uppermost floor. Carlo was a sculptor; Matteo, a portraitist. Mass was fussy about sharing his space. That he had chosen to do so with these two, even though they were only in their twenties, was a sign to all that they had definite futures in the family business.
They translated for Walter, between the perpetual arguments about their own career choices, which they conducted behind, in front of, around Walter.
From the quick explanation Carlo had provided, with Matteo adding his two cents worth -- often at the same time as Carlo, Walter learnt that the palazzo was home base for all members of the family, whether they lived in the area or not. That the palazzo served as a sort of hotel for those members who travelled throughout Italy and Europe.
The de Gamas were either artists, gallery owners -- Business Suit was cousin Marco, or agents. To add to the theatrics of the family, not that they needed any more, there were also several actors, a successful playwright and two designers.
Only Piero had chosen a career that almost embarrassed them when he mentioned it. Tall, thin, eyes inherited from his grandmother, Prozia Maria-Louisa, he was an accountant. But even he worked solely for the family, keeping their books, doing their taxes.
"Stifling our creativity," accused Marco, laughing.
"Keeping you out of court and prison," countered Piero, calmly helping himself to another serving of the seafood salad.
Alex had been placed across from Sebastian, between the two designers. His silence throughout the meal barely went noticed as Fabrizio, the stage designer, argued colours with Constanza, the costume designer. Only Mass seemed to be aware, as he regaled the table with his early exploits, that this brother sat watching the small dramas around him as though he were far removed from them. Like Prozia Maria-Louisa, Alex did not eat much, only tasted whatever appeared in front of him. But Mass did notice that he drank every glass of wine, accepting refills of the hardier ones.
Mass began telling the story of his "birth" as a de Gama over the first course, continued throughout the meal. He spoke in English, for the benefit of the new members of his family, with others translating for those who couldn't follow. It was no quick telling as everyone had comments to make, asides to throw in, arguments to "clear" minor points. Typical de Gama behaviour.
"Like Sebastian, I, too, was given to a company family to bring up."
"Poo!" said Prozia Maria-Louisa. "What a thing to do to a baby! Surely, there had to be family somewhere, was there not," she turned to Walter for confirmation, "who could have taken in such beautiful babies? Such beautiful men," she pointed out the three brothers, "had to have been beautiful babies. How else could they be now such beautiful men?"
Sebastian blushed as everyone at the table looked at him, then at Alex who met their smiles with a blank look.
Walter wondered aloud, as platters of pasta appeared on the table, "Are we really expected to eat all this?"
Marco looked up from serving himself a helping of spaghetti with garlic, olive oil and chili peppers. "We are only starting, Walter."
The de Gamas laughed.
Mass continued. "Unlike this brother of mine," he pointed his wine glass at Sebastian, "I was not so fortunate. This family accepted me because they had to, not because they wanted, or cared."
Raphaella shook her head sadly. She patted her chest over her heart. "So cruel. Not to love a sweet child like our Massimiliano."
"And they made certain that I knew I was not part of them. They told me over and over again," Mass drew out the melodrama of the moment, "that these people were *not* my family. The adults *not* my parents. Their children *not* my siblings. That I was with them only until *Someone* --an unspecified Someone, but always spoken of in hushed tones -- decided what was to be done with me."
Zia Fortuna, one of the elders though she was a mere 77, scurried over like the mouse she appeared to be, to give Mass a hug. "They did not know what a treasure they had!"
She made her way over to Sebastian, gave him a hug too. "And you, did the people who had you know what a jewel you were?"
"My mother loved me," answered Sebastian, already slightly drunk, eyes filling from the easy affection given him by these people who had never before even known of his existence. "Then the man she married was wonderful."
"Good," said Raphaella to Prozia Maria-Louisa who handed her handkerchief over to Zia Fortuna who was easily moved.
No one, Mass noted, taking a sip of his wine, approached his other brother with a similar sentiment. Something about him told them that it would not be appreciated, nor accepted.
"Now, even though I was then a Roger..."
"Roger! What a name, that!" Delizia was one of the stars of a popular soap opera.
"What? It's a good name! I used it for the hero of my last play."
"It's a boring name, Mish. Your character who bore it was boring, too. Admit it! You had to give him a boring name to go with his boring personality."
Mish took offense. He stood, gesturing with his fork at his pretty cousin. "*Roger* is *not* a boring name!"
"Prove it," she challenged him, forking a tortellini stuffed with aubergine and zucchini into her mouth. "Hmmmmmm, Raphaella, perfection. As always."
"There are many Rogers who are not boring. Roger Moore. Double-O-Seven. You cannot say that Double-O- Seven is a boring man!"
"The exception, Mish. It proves nothing."
Mass raised his voice. "I did not miss having them as family," he continued as though he had never been interrupted. "We moved a great deal. Everywhere we moved to there were other people, friends, to become a sort of family."
"How long were you with them?" asked Walter, ignoring the argument about this year's greens versus oranges waging behind him. He refused a second helping of macaroni stuffed peppers.
Prozia Maria-Louisa's thin, shrill voice cut through all conversations.
"That a boy should have family and yet have to call others his family... shame on them. They should be ashamed to call themselves family."
Mass shrugged. "It was not that bad. The people who were my friends were people like me, misfits." He grinned widely at some memory. "The adults who had been given me spent a great deal of time in the offices of the principals, wherever we went."
"A juvenile delinquent, Mass, that's what you were," teased Matteo, whose own exploits with the directors of schools, even the police, filled the arrival of the main part of the meal.
For several minutes there were only the sounds of ohs and ahs over the dishes, serving implements against china, moans and groans of appreciation. Raphaella blushed with pleasure, as did her daughter and granddaughter as they passed along the meats and fish they had prepared for anyone's and everyone's delight.
Carlo went around refilling glasses, having his cheek pinched by Cugino Uberto who had forgotten that Carlo was no longer a small child.
When all the dishes had been tasted, Mass claimed centre stage once more. "Now then, this Roger that I had been, he knew what he wanted to do with his life, Someone or no Someone. He wanted to be an artist."
"Of course," said Marco. "All too obvious to anyone with eyes."
"And I said so. Often. To the annoyance of these people I lived with."
Zia Fortuna tut-tutted loudly.
"They informed me that whatever had been planned for me, I could be certain that Art had no role."
Some heads shook sadly.
"That Art was nothing but a waste of time."
This time there were scandalized sounds all round the table. Even Sebastian voiced his astonishment.
Walter, savouring the tender lamb, eyed the dramatics with a chuckle. Delizia was emoting her shock worthy of an award to an appreciative Mish. The artists shook their heads, muttering about people who cast such aspersions as to the worthiness of their craft.
Even Piero was shaking his head. "I do not understand this attitude," he told Sebastian, serving him more of the rabbit on Raphaella's orders. "It was," Mass informed the table with a grin, "the only time I was beaten."
"By them," said Fabrizio. "I seem to remember giving you a bloody nose or two."
"Sheer luck," countered Mass.
"Some pretty girl must have been passing by," smirked Constanza, whose own dramatic looks coupled with a flare for the flamboyant -- she was wearing an outfit composed of the argumentative green/orange combination -- had been known to stop traffic on occasion.
"That must have been the last straw because the next day, when I returned from school, I arrived to find that what little I owned had been packed into a couple of small suitcases and these, along with the father, were waiting for me in the foyer."
"What a way to treat a precious child!" moaned Prozia Maria-Louisa, reclaiming her handkerchief from Zia Fortuna. Raphaella patted her on the shoulder, putting her own handkerchief to use.
"I was told that we were leaving for Geneva where a representative of the Consortium would be taking me off his hands."
"As if he deserved keeping such a prize!" Alicia, who was Piero's twin sister and who owned three art galleries, one of which was based in London, commented in her usual sarcastic tones. Mass answered her with a haughtily raised eyebrow. She turned her body so that the Elders wouldn't see her and made a face at him. She was still upset that he hadn't used one of her galleries for his last show. Marco grinned, unrepentant.
"At best, he told me -- with some relish," Mass ignored Alicia's knowing nod, "I was headed for a military school where some discipline would be instilled in me."
Mish made a rude noise at that. Everyone laughed.
"Vittorio had a great time trying to instill some of that in you as well. I seem to remember some truly loud 'discussions' between the two of you," Marco chuckled.
Prozia Maria-Louisa and Raphaella both nodded, rolling their eyes. Prozia Maria-Louisa even clapped her hands over her ears. "Ah, the noise! You two could never have a quiet argument."
"An argument," pontificated Mass, "is not conducted in silence. Besides Vittorio enjoyed arguing as much as I did. Where do you think I picked up my ability to wear out agents who refuse to hang my masterpieces properly?" He glared at Marco who ignored him to accept more of the chicken. Alicia smirked.
"At worst... well, he didn't care. He told me I deserved whatever happened to me. I had asked for this by my refusal to behave properly."
"Disgusting. There are people who should never be allowed near children, do you not agree, Signore Sebastino?" Raphaella served him more of the ossibuchi.
"But this Roger that I was also had plans."
"Of course you did," said Carlo. "When are you ever without a plan?" he laughed.
"The things I will tell you about our Mass and his plans," whispered Delizia around Cugino Uberto to Walter who was trying to decide between a second helping of the gnocchi or of the risotto.
"So we landed in Geneva, as Roger's luck would have it, at the same time as some actor, a then sex symbol, arrived to shoot a new movie."
"Who was it? Do you remember?" Marco wanted to know.
"Some flash in the pan," replied Mass, stealing the last of the scampi as the platter went by. "There and then no more. I think he now runs a restaurant in Soho, somewhere. Maybe Sebastian will know."
"Don't look at me," countered Sebastian, replete with food, wine, good humour. "The last film I went to see was 'Ghost' with my then companion."
"Oh! That was a wonderful film," sighed Francesca, who until then had been quiet in the way of the younger members of the family. She was still new at this joining the adults for these meals. The last thing she wanted to do was mis-step her way back to the children's table.
"Bah," scoffed her slightly older cousin, Dante. "It was pure bunk."
Prozia Maria-Louisa pulled rank and made them stop before another argument began. "I liked that film. Pa-ta-rique Swayze was beautiful in it. Of course, not as beautiful as you will be, Dante, when you play such a role."
"The terminal was filled with screaming females, security people, publicity agents, the Media. In the confusion, the father "lost" Roger."
"Only right," said Raphaella as she supervised the cleaning off of the table, in preparation for the desserts.
"Now then, I was not stupid. I did have a small hoard of money with me. It did not take great intelligence to read the signs that the parents were losing whatever patience they might have had with me. For some reason," Mass tried, rather unsuccessfully, to look bemused, "they found me to be an extremely bad influence on their own children."
"Now that is something hard to imagine," Piero and Mish exchanged toasts as Carlo poured champagne to accompany the desserts.
Mass grinned, raised his in salute to them. "I had planned to escape, but I hadn't really been quite ready. Still, one doesn't refuse a gift when it is offered.
"With only the clothes on my back, a cache of money that would barely keep me for more than a couple of weeks, a tourist map I pinched from one of the airport kiosks, the Roger I was no longer made his way into Italy."
"Bravo, Massimiliano," chirped Zia Fortuna.
"And I knew exactly where I wanted to go."
Here the table grew very quiet. They had heard this story many times, but this was the part they all loved to hear.
"To Venice. To the Atelier of the renown Vittorio de Gama."
Prozia Maria-Louisa took out her handkerchief again and wiped her eyes. "He was such a good man, my cousin, Vittorio. As well as being a great artist. I miss him still."
Everyone around the table, with the exception of Alex, nodded.
"I had read an article about this great painter/sculptor in a friend's home. My heart ached with the beauty of his work."
"And it was beautiful," agreed Carlo quietly.
"Spoke to the heart," said Matteo, "because it came from the heart."
"The article had included the location of the Atelier and the information that de Gama sometimes took on students whom he felt were worthy of his attention."
"Of course," said Matteo, "it never crossed Roger's mind that he wouldn't qualify."
"Of course not," said Constanza. "Even as a Roger, Mass knew his worth."
Delizia and Alicia exchanged knowing smiles.
"I did make it to Venice. With only the very few words of Italian I had taught myself with a dictionary..."
"Such courage!" Prozia Maria-Louisa smiled at the man who sat opposite her.
"...It took me a mere three days. My luck was good," conceded Mass humbly. "I found people very sympathetic to the story of a young lad, abused by his step-father -- I had the marks on my back to prove it..."
"Barbarians!" Raphaella directed her granddaughter to place the desserts on the table so that people could help themselves. And then she, her daughter and granddaughter found chairs and joined the table. Walter poured each of them a glass of champagne.
"I was but a poor boy who wanted nothing more but to be reunited with his father's family. The last person who picked me up not only brought me the rest of the way to Venice, he even escorted me to the door of the Atelier.
"Let me tell you, Vittorio de Gama was surprised to find that he had a grandson who was willing to put his very life at risk to return to the family fold. Especially as his only child, a daughter, had died as a teenager."
"Maria was too good for this world," sniffed Raphaella.
"She had a heart as big as her father's, even as a baby. Everyone loved her," said Marco who remembered his cousin from his childhood.
"See this scar," the stage designer pointed to a whitish mark about an inch long on his chin, "she put it there, this angel."
"You deserved it, Fabrizio. You were teasing her."
"I'm just reminding everyone that she also had her father's temper."
"And his aim. She hit you with a stone, didn't she?"
Fabrizio grinned. "I bled for hours. She never apologized for causing me such pain."
"She was an imp," agreed Prozia Maria-Louisa, "but we loved her so."
"What did she die of?" Walter asked.
"The meningitis," said Matteo. "She was sixteen. It nearly killed Vittorio."
There was a moment's actual silence as those de Gamas sitting at the table remembered that time.
"Vittorio was intuitive enough to wait until the kind stranger left, looked at me, this 12 year old boy who had come out of nowhere claiming relationship, and told me that he would be informing the authorities about my presence in the morning."
"So what did you do to change his mind?" Walter sat back in his chair, face ruddy from all the wine and food he had consumed.
"I said nothing. He went up to his studio and I followed him.
"Heaven," said Mass. "I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
"He ignored me as I looked around. Later, he told me I resembled a child in a candy store.
"I found a sketch pad and a piece of charcoal. He still didn't say anything when I hoisted myself up on this table he had in the corner. He left me alone. I must have done a dozen sketches of the studio and him when he came up to me and took the pad out of my hands. He went through all of them before he began questioning me. Who I was. Why I had run away.
"He listened to me. Really listened to me." Mass shook his head in awe, still amazed by the fact after all these years. "No one had ever listened to me the way he did."
He looked around the table at these people, his family, smiled tenderly. "He listened and then he let me stay."
"Well, Vittorio did contact certain people to see if the boy was being looked for," said Piero, who also had access to all the family papers. "No one could find a bulletin for a boy who fitted Mass's description and who had gone missing.
"He waited one year, then called a family gathering. Announced that he was adopting the boy as his grandson and did anyone have anything to say about the fact."
Piero looked at Mass and grinned. "As if anyone would have dared. Fortunately, Mass is adorable." Everyone laughed. "He has assumed the mantle of elder de Gama artist in a way that would have made Vittorio proud. He makes us proud to have accepted him into the family as one of us."
Piero stood up, raised his glass of champagne along with everyone else and saluted the head of the family with a toast that, though offered with laughter, was no less sincere for it.
"Massimiliano, our leader. Beloved by all."
Well, Walter had to admit to himself after three days, by all except Alex.
Sebastian was attracted to Mass as he had been to the paintings in the gallery. Attracted without really knowing why and not totally comfortable with it. Hesitantly, because it wasn't in his nature to be gregarious, and the concept of a large family being fairly foreign to him, Sebastian hovered along the edges before finally allowing himself to be pulled in, if only so far.
He felt far more at ease in the company of Piero than he did the dramatic members of the family. Piero, on his side, was delighted to be able to discuss the beauty he found in numbers with someone who would not treat him like a philistine because he did so.
Walter was also accepted as enthusiastically as Sebastian. And Walter was enchanted by this multi-generational conglomerate. Their boisterousness, their generosity, their loudness. He had been brought up in a large family that, though not as energetic as this one, had had its comparable moments.
And he found he enjoyed learning the history of the palazzo with Prozia Maria-Louisa and Raphaella as much as being cornered by Mish, the playwright, whose next work was to include a murder. Mish wanted to make certain he had all his facts about corpses right.
Alex did not hover around the edges, did not join in. He sat firmly on the outside looking in, as he had most of his life. Scully would have informed him that he was Kryceking.
It wasn't that he wasn't included, that Mass didn't try to reach this man who was so different from himself. He always tried to include Alex in the conversations that took place around the table.
A couple of days after the feast, Mass invited Alex to join him on a tour of the family galleries. But though Alex did go, he didn't speak unless specifically addressed. When they returned to the palazzo, Alex politely thanked Mass for the tour and then went up to the room he was sharing with Walter.
The more the de Gamas tried to include him, the more Mass tried to understand this youngest brother, the more Alex withdrew.
Walter was having too much fun to notice. He knew that Alex was more reticent than most people, but the way he and Sebastian had almost immediately clicked together made him less aware of Alex's reactions to this brother. And the continuous family celebration of the arrival of Mass's brothers made it hard for Walter to go to bed sober.
By the fourth day, the relatives were slowly returning to their own homes, to their work and Walter finally noticed Alex and his lack of enthusiasm. When he approached Alex about it, Alex merely shrugged, told him he was all right. That nothing was wrong.
Walter wasn't sure what woke him that night. He thought maybe it was Alex having a nightmare but discovered that Alex was not beside him in the bed. That he wasn't in the room. Quickly, Walter found some clothes, threw them on. The palazzo proved its age at night: there was no central heating system and the rooms were cold by American standards.
He quickly checked the other rooms on the floor. Sebastian was sound asleep, only the top of his head showing from his cocoon of blankets. The office, salon were empty. So was Mass's bed. So the two of them weren't talking there, thought Walter. Probably up in the Studio. He would quietly check: Mass and Alex needed some time together. He had also noticed Alex's observation of Mass as though he were an unexpected result of some experiment.
Walter went to the door that opened into the stairwell and there he found Alex. Sitting on the third step down, staring at nothing in the semi-darkness. The only illumination came from the skylight.
Walter slowly sat on the top step. He had seen enough by the faint light to know that this Alex was one he hadn't seen since the night Alex had rescued Lissa. An Alex who was expecting to be rejected. Walter silently cursed himself for not having picked up the signals that, on looking back over the last days, were blatantly obvious.
"Alex?" He made his voice calm, concerned. "What's wrong?"
Alex said nothing. Walter didn't push the issue, knowing that Alex had heard him. He would wait. It took several minutes during which he wondered if Alex wasn't cold, sitting there on the stone step wearing nothing but a pair of Walter's sweat pants. He was debating whether he should get a blanket when Alex broke his silence.
"He's not like me."
Walter winced at the depressed tone. "Did you expect him to be?"
The back of Alex's shoulders raised slightly in a hesitant shrug.
"I guess," Walter spoke softly, "after meeting Sebastian, that was a reasonable expectation. You and Sebastian hit it off so well so quickly probably because the two of you are more similar. Sebastian may not be a Fourth One, but the connection between the two of you is strong. Maybe," he offered gently, "it was too much to expect that this connection would exist with Mass as well."
"Maybe," agreed Alex. "But..."
"But?" And waited.
Alex leaned his head against the railing that led to the landing. "But I didn't think he'd be so much more human than me."
Walter closed his eyes, grimaced. Damn! He took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. "Alex. Do you think that Sebastian is more human than you are?" Alex's shrug was undecipherable.
"He is closer to you in temperament. That's true. Alex, Mass is not more human than you. Just of a different temperament. It happens. In families where there are more than one sibling, they share similarities, but they are usually very different as well. That's all this is. You're the introvert of this trio; Mass, the extrovert. One is not more human than the other. Not less human. Just different."
"He's more than different. He's more appealing. If I had shown up at Vittorio de Gama's door, he wouldn't have let me in, never mind adopted me. And he's more likeable. Everywhere we go, when he talks, they hang on to his every word."
"The de Gamas. He's not one of them, but they've accepted him like he was."
"Of their blood. Yes. They have."
"And Sebastian likes him. Finds him amusing."
"Yes," agreed Walter, knowing where this was going. "I find him amusing, too. Is that part of the problem?"
Alex's head lowered as though he were inspecting something at this feet. He sighed. "I don't know." He raised his head, spoke over his shoulder, not looking at Walter. "Maybe. Maybe," he continued before Walter could say anything, "it's because, watching him, I know he wouldn't have reacted to... to things the way I did."
Walter wasn't sure he wanted to go into this territory tonight: there were too many minefields waiting to explode. Still, he straightened his spine, kept his voice as calm as he could and plowed in: "How do you think he would have reacted?"
Alex rubbed the truncated arm the way he did when he had phantom pains. When he first started talking, his voice was so faint that Walter had to lean over to hear him.
"Once... I guess looking back I must have been about Mass's age when he ran away... I was moved to a house.
"From the window in the room I was given...the window was barred, but I could see outside. There was forest all round the side, the back of the house, forest that seemed to go on forever. I used to watch that forest whenever I could.
"In the mornings, I was taken to the library of the house and someone the Creator had chosen taught me. School subjects. My afternoons, sometimes the evenings, they belonged to the Creator. Then they would take me upstairs and lock me into the bedroom. If I could, I would go to the window and look at the forest.
"It was lit up by the house lights and at the far side, there were some lights that shone on the trees. I guess, for security reasons.
"I didn't look at the forest with anything in mind. It was just there. I do remember wondering if it went on forever. And that looking at it helped me blank out whatever had happened that day.
"Then, one day, there was a break in the routine. Instead of taking me to the Creator after classes, the tutor took me outside. He left me there. Told me not to move.
"There was a wide patio at the front and side of the house. With steps that went down to the grounds. To the forest.
"I stood there. Looking at the forest. The next thing I knew I was running for it, through it. Running like the devil was after me."
Jesus, thought Walter, his throat closing.
"I don't really know if I thought I could get away. I just ran. After a while, I could hear dogs. Behind me. So I ran faster. The trees were really close together so I never saw the fence until I ran into it. It was electrified. Not high voltage. Just enough to stun me."
Alex made a sound that might barely have passed for a chuckle. "I didn't know that in Europe they fenced in entire forests."
Walter found it hard to breathe.
Alex continued. "I ran along the fence, looking for some gate, a way to get out. Finally, I took off my shirt, wrapped my hands in it and tried to get over the fence. They had raised the voltage. Enough to throw me to the ground. The dogs found me. Then their trainers.
"The Creator was waiting for us at the steps when we got back. I was scratched from running through the trees, my hands were burnt from the fence. He laughed when he saw me.
"He said, 'Clone, where in heaven's name did you think you were going? I see there are a few more lessons you need to learn.'
"I don't know how long it was after. Maybe a couple of months. There was some snow on the ground. The Creator came for me early and took me outside. To that same place at the top of the stairs. He didn't say anything to me. Just left me there. It was cold and I wasn't dressed for the outdoors. But I stayed there. Not moving. Until he came for me."
"Alex." The revulsion he felt growing within him as he listened made Walter wish he hadn't killed the Creator just for the pleasure of doing so again.
"That's the difference between me and Mass." Alex's tone had turned considering. "I stood there. Mass, he would have made for the fence again. No matter what was done to him. He would have found a way over the fence."
"Alex! You can't be sure of that."
Alex ignored Walter's horrified voice. "Once the Creator told me that I learnt best with pain because it was one of the few things I felt. That I enjoyed. Maybe he was right. Maybe that's why I didn't try for the fence again. Maybe I didn't really want to get away."
Walter's voice harshened with his anger. "That's bullshit, Alex. And you know it. You didn't enjoy pain. You *don't* enjoy pain. If you did, our relationship would be very different than what it is. Probably it wouldn't even exist because I don't see how giving pain, or taking it, is something I would want in any relationship.
"Alex," Walter reached out for his lover. "Shit, Alex! You're a block of ice. Enough of this. Come back to bed and let me get you warm. Jesus, Alex. Come on. Stand up. That's it." He slipped his arm around Alex's shoulders and pulled him back into the hallway, closing the door behind them.
Curled tightly into himself on the small landing by the studio door, Massimiliano de Gama finally moved and silently used his shirt sleeve to wipe the wetness, the mucus off his face.
The next morning, upon getting up, Walter sought Mass out in his studio, to ask him for the name of a hotel he could spirit Alex away to for a day.
Instead of the usual ebullient artist, he found a man whose pensive quietness reminded him more of the man sleeping in his bed. Mass merely inquired what it was he needed, called the hotel and made all the necessary arrangements.
Walter was on his way out of the studio when Mass stopped him. "You do love him, don't you?"
"Yes." Walter wondered again what could have happened to quiet Mass to this extent.
"As he is?"
"Yes. As he is."
Still serious, Mass nodded, letting Walter go.
Sebastian was not all that surprised at the announcement that Walter and Alex were off for some time by themselves. But then, thought Walter, he was more in tune with Alex.
Alex was slow to rouse. Slow to dress, to follow Walter out of the palazzo and into a motorboat that served as taxi.
Alex barely registered where they were going. Eyes squinting against the light, staring dully ahead, he showed no interest in where they were headed.
More than anything else, his lack of concern to possible danger in their surroundings worried Walter. Alex never went anywhere without checking for possible escape routes; it was ingrained in him.
The water taxi pulled up at a dock where a liveried man helped hold the boat steady as Alex, once nudged, preceded Walter onto the landing and into the lobby of a hotel. Walter watched Alex's eyes barely peruse the area once and then come back to watching him sign in.
The building had been modernized not that long ago. The elevator that took them and another liveried staff member up to the top floor, the sixth, was shiny new. As was the card that their escort used to let them into the large open room with its king-sized bed and balcony that overlooked the lagoon.
Alex waited until the man left before he focused his attention on Walter.
"Is this," he spoke as if he barely had the energy to do so, "where you tell me good-bye?"
Walter shook his head. He came to stand in front of Alex, brushed the back of one hand across the cheek of the man watching him with heavy eyes. "No. No, Alex. Just some time for the two of us. Together. Alone. That's all."
Alex's face lost some of its blankness.
And then Walter placed a finger on Alex's mouth, shook his head. When he was certain that Alex understood he was not to speak, he placed a finger on his own lips and nodded.
There was to be no speaking. From either of them.
The first thing Walter did was draw the drapes, shutting out the bright morning light, darkening the room.
He left Alex standing by the bed and went into the ensuite bathroom, came back out with a couple of the white bathsheets, a bottle of something in his hand. He tossed the items on a chair by the bed, threw his jacket on top of another and methodically turned down the bed so that the bedspread, the blankets, the top sheet were carefully folded into a narrow strip at the foot of the bed. Then he spread out the bath sheets, one on top of the other, in the middle.
Alex watched, waiting, beginning to show some interest in the proceedings. Silent as he had been bid.
Walter stood in front of Alex and began undressing him. Alex raised his hand to help simply to have it captured and returned to his side. He moved only when Walter signalled him to lift first one foot, then the other, so that boots and socks could be removed, along with jeans and shorts.
The prosthesis was taken off, laid on a bureau top along with Alex's watch. Walter added his glasses and watch to the collection.
At Walter's signalled instructions, Alex took a place, face down, on the thin mat of towelling on the bed. He automatically spread his legs apart, raised his hips, as if waiting to be penetrated.
Instead, after the few moments it took him to undress, Walter straddled his body and placed his hands on Alex's head, slowly massaging, working on the headache he knew was drumming away at the inside of Alex's skull. Alex straightened his legs and closed his eyes. After a few minutes of the fingertips rubbing all the right spots, he sighed deeply.
What followed was a leisurely, thorough body massage. Walter had given Alex a few when the truth about his background had become known. Alex had needed touch then to overwrite the memories of his time with the Creator. Walter really couldn't pinpoint the last time they had done this. Obviously, too long ago.
Now, Walter required nothing more of Alex that he submit.
Alex was twitchy at first. It had always taken some time for him to flow into the massage. There was nothing sexual about the way Walter touched him. There was instead the offer of comfort, of acceptance, of love as his lotioned hands found the hardened muscles, broke the tight knots, soothed away the tension that had accumulated over the last few days. Walter carefully worked on the calloused stump, knowing from feeling the jumping nerves under the skin that the phantom pains had made themselves part of Alex's life too often of late.
Gradually, Alex relaxed. To Walter's pleasure, he slipped into sleep.
Walter, however, continued his massage until he had finished with Alex's feet, smiling when, although sleeping, Alex sighed loudly. His feet were a particular Alex erogenous zone.
When done, Walter covered Alex with the thick bathrobe he had found in the bathroom, wrapped another around himself and sat in the chair by the bedside, looking at this man who never seemed to fully accept that he could be worth loving.
And he was never quite sure if what Alex doubted was his ability to love, or Walter's to love him. Surely, after all this time, Alex had to be aware that Walter truly cared for him, loved him?
Damn! But it was frustrating!
Still, Walter chastised himself, he shouldn't have forgotten that Alex was a Fourth One. That he, like Lissa, had trouble with crowds of people. That their nervous systems seemed to short out when with too many people beyond their tolerance levels.
There were times that even her family was too much for Lissa. Dana Scully had called one day to ask Alex why Lissa had begun hiding in her closet. She had just started school and all seemed to be going well. No one was picking on her -- as if anyone would have dared with Domina watching over her youngest sister. She seemed to like her teacher who, having an above-average intelligent child of her own, understood that Lissa needed to be challenged, but not aggressively. She had even made friends with a little boy who, like herself, preferred to sit in a corner reading. So why was she suddenly hiding in a closet?
"Because it's quiet. And dark..." Alex had offered tentatively. "If she's like me, all those people, it's like being hit with colours and noise and light, all at the same time. It's okay in small doses, but when there's so much of it, it's like being bombarded...." Unseen by Scully, he had shrugged.
"Look, all I can tell you is that for me, sometimes as punishment, I was made to sit in a room with nothing in it, all dark. Except that it wasn't punishment. It was soothing. Calming. Relaxing. I could hear myself think."
Scully had thanked him, emptied out a small storage closet and handed it over to Lissa to do with as she pleased. Lissa had asked for a low wattage light, a large sitting cushion and had moved her favourite books into it. The door to the room now bore a sign: Lissa's Cocoon. And no one entered it without her invitation.
Walter sighed. He should have remembered. The de Gamas were warm, welcoming people. Boisterous. Too boisterous for Alex, especially coming this soon after meeting Sebastian. That had worked well because although Sebastian had had family, parents who had loved him, they were both dead. The only relatives Sebastian had left were distant cousins, also academics. Alex had had the time, the quiet to absorb the existence of Sebastian, his presence in his life.
It was, Walter had to admit, a bit unreasonable to expect the same relationship to arise again. The situation was different. This new brother was far too unlike Alex, almost his exact opposite, for them to meld.
Still, contact had been made. And in itself, that was not a bad thing. Walter reached for his watch. Alex had been sleeping a good half hour. With a smile, Walter got up, went to remove the bathrobe from his lover. "Roll over, Alex. That's it, love. Wake up. Now just roll over. You're only half done."
Alex's eyes peered up at him through lids that seemed too heavy to raise fully. They soon closed, though Walter doubted Alex was more than dozing. The flaccid penis that was slowly turning into a hard erection told him that one part of Alex's body was more aware than the rest of him seemed to be.
Walter avoided that erection until he had paid careful attention to every other part of Alex's body. Only when he moved his hands up to work on Alex's inner thighs did he change the massage from one of ease to one of arousal. Alex's hips jerked as his fingertips travelled the sensitive areas of Alex's groin. After nearly three years of loving this body, Walter knew all the secret places that only intensified his lover's arousal.
And Alex lay accepting his lover's ministrations, as still as he could keep. Until Walter's mouth closed, hot and wet, around his throbbing erection. Until with just a few experienced, perfectly pressured sucks, Alex's body responded.
Walter, his mouth still shiny with his lover's come, looked up to see why Alex's usual cry of completion had been muted. Discovered that Alex has stifled the cry with the back of his arm.
Walter shook his head. So they were back to that, were they: Alex trying to hide the pleasure he had felt because he had been trained that *his* orgasm was not of primary importance. That whether or not he came meant nothing as long as the man or men he was with had had their orgasms. That their pleasure was paramount.
This time, after covering Alex, Walter took the phone into the bathroom, closed the door. The order he had placed even before leaving for the hotel soon arrived. A discreet knock, a hefty tip and the short table on well-oiled wheels went into the bathroom. There he turned on the faucets in the huge tub that also served as jacuzzi. When he was happy with the temperature, the quantity of water, he went to rouse Alex.
"Wha..." Alex was reluctant to wake. Walter placed his finger on Alex's mouth, reminding him that he wasn't to speak. Alex nodded and allowed himself to be helped off the bed, into the bathroom. There, following Walter's directions, he gingerly slid into the hot tub, sat forward, allowing space for Walter behind him.
Walter pulled Alex back against his chest, settled his head on his shoulder and turned on the jets. They sat there, enjoying the heat of the water, the pressure of it as it shot against them, the pleasure of just sitting there in silence.
Now and then, Walter wiped his hand on a towel he had placed on the shelf by the tub, reached over to the food on the short table. One by one the canapes disappeared, as did the wine. Walter never allowed Alex to do more than open his mouth to chew or swallow. Now and then, Walter reached up and turned on the hot water to keep the temperature at a reasonable level, the overflow quickly draining away.
At one point, Alex shifted so that he could reach the side of Walter's face, throat with his mouth. The cat licks, small nips grew more demanding until Walter turned his head so that their mouths met, held. They tasted of the spices that flavoured the food, the light dryness of the wine. And each other.
When he pulled away, Walter checked out Alex's eyes. Dark. Heavy. Erotic.
Yes, thought Walter, feeling a little thrill that his care was drawing Alex out of those bleak places his spirit could inhabit.
He turned off the jets, placed his hands on the sides of the tub and heaved himself out of the water. Alex never took his eyes off him.
Eyes on Alex, he quickly dried his body before offering Alex a hand to get out of the tub. Standing on the bathmat, ripples of water descending his heat-flushed body, Alex stood while Walter gently towelled him dry. Another kiss. This one, of promised pleasures.
Alex once more allowed himself to be led into the bedroom. Walter pulled the bathsheets off the bed, tossed them onto the chair. He pulled Alex, now wearing the seductive hint of a smile that always heated his lover up a notch, into his arms. This kiss lit fires in both of them.
The lovemaking that took place on that huge bed in a hotel in Venice was the kind that usually occurred on stormy winter days in Newport, when the house was warmly heated, scented with smell of burning apple wood. When they were snowed in with nowhere to go, no work to be done. When time stood still and all they had to do was rediscover each other and their love.
Without fear of interruption.
Without needing to keep an eye on the clock.
Without fearing to wake a neighbour, Sebastian, anyone up.
When Walter realized that he had needed this time out, by themselves, as much for himself as for Alex.
This time, Alex did nothing to mute the cry that expressed his complete capitulation, laughed to hear Walter's as loud as his own.
They dropped off to sleep, arms wrapped around each other, barely having been able to pull up the covers.
Walter slowly stretched, enjoying the feel of well-loved muscles pulling, of joints loosening. He felt sated from the tip of his toes to the top of his head and sighed loudly at the pleasure.
He opened his eyes to find Alex, propped up on his left side, stump supporting the weight of his upper body, watching him. The cat eyes were clearer than they had been that morning though there were some clouds still hanging in them. Walter returned the smile he saw beginning not just in the eyes, but on the face of his lover.
Alex's right hand settled on Walter's chest, the fingers raking through the greying hairs, smoothing them back. There was nothing sexual about the gesture, more by way of a tactile connection between them. Walter raised a hand to Alex's face, brushed the back of his fingers along the jaw, across the cheek, down the throat to come up under the chin. It was a touch that usually had Alex purring, especially after sex. But now he merely leaned into it slightly, the smile in his eyes growing stronger.
But no purr.
So, thought Walter, we're not done yet.
"I don't understand..." Alex started sleepily, his voice still thick from dozing after their love-making.
"What don't you understand?"
Alex dropped his head, eyes no longer meeting Walter's. He gave a small, uncertain shake of his head.
"What, Alex?" Walter lay his hand on his lover's shoulder and rubbed it.
"Why..." He looked up, decision made. "Walter, why do you love me?"
Walter opened his mouth to make some quip, then stopped himself. Alex was serious. He was asking for an explanation that, even when Scully had asked him, Walter had brushed off, not really answering. Maybe this was the time to do so.
Reaching behind him, Walter pulled down a pillow, propped his head up on it and took a good look at the man with whom he had been sharing his bed, his life. "Other than I do?"
Alex pulled his hand back but Walter caught hold of it, "Sorry, Alex. I'm not that good with words. Especially in trying to put into words, something as important as the way I feel about you. Give me a minute, okay?"
Alex relaxed his hand and waited.
Walter balanced his hand against Alex's, palm to palm, as though measuring one against the other. His palm was wider than Alex's, longer. The fingers were blunt compared to Alex's narrower, longer ones. The hand of a man descended from European peasant stock balancing that of a man whose original was European scientific aristocracy.
Walter folded his fingers against that hand. Alex looked from their hands to Walter, slowly folded his.
"Who do you think I should love, Alex? Sebastian? Mass?"
"Would make more sense," admitted Alex.
Alex stared at their joined hands. "Well, to begin with, neither of them killed you."
"True. And I can't say that I've forgotten. You don't exactly forget something like that." He tightened his grip on Alex, drawing their hands to his cheek, as if to keep Alex from bolting.
"I didn't know what else to do." Alex's calm tones belied the sudden despair in his eyes. "They ordered me to test out the nano program on you. Then to kill you. And they were watching. They weren't particularly happy with me just then. If I hadn't..."
"I know," Walter interrupted. "When we were working together to find Mulder, you explained you did it to save me. To keep me alive. I will admit that I would have preferred your finding a different way to do so, but," he shrugged, accepting, "you had others to keep satisfied, orders to find your way around. And I believed you. I still do. Because I'm here, alive, and the others are dead."
Except Walter wasn't sure that Alex believed *him*. They had never really spoken about that event beyond the day that Alex Krycek had felt it necessary to explain to the man he was working with why he had killed him. And that only because of some documentation that had fallen into their hands.
"And it *is* in the past, Alex," Walter put as much conviction into his voice as he could, "where it belongs."
"It is?" Alex's eyes searched his face, as though he needed some reassurance.
Whatever forgiveness Alex needed to hear in his voice must have been there. "Thank you," he whispered, his eyes relieved.
"Now, as for Sebastian...and Mass. Yes, they look like you, but they're not you, Alex. What attracts me to you is more than your looks, you know." With the index finger of his free hand, Walter traced the slightly opened lips of his lover.
"Not that they're not a consideration. You may have noticed," he tried to lighten the tone of this discussion, "that I do like looking at you. "And," Walter's embarrassment took him by surprise, "our sex life is great. Well...it is...from my stand-point...and it seems to me...well, you seem to enjoy it, too." Walter raised his eyebrows, silently looking for some reassurance.
Alex nodded, face getting a light flush. "Walter, I've never pretended anything with you. Haven't had to. Even when all you do is sleep against me..."
"It's called cuddling, Alex," Walter smiled gently.
"Whatever. I enjoy...I love what we do in bed. And what we do out of it," he added with a hint of a shy smile.
Walter's smile was more confident.
"As for the rest of it," Walter reached up with his free hand to cup Alex's face. "There are so many different facets to love, Alex. And you satisfy so many of them."
Alex met his eyes, almost disbelieving. Still needing reassurance. And hoping he would get it.
Walter brought their joined hands to rest against his chest. His ex-wife, Sharon, had often accused him of not sharing himself with her, his thoughts, his feelings. And it had cost him his marriage. For some time after, he had felt unloveable, a failure in matters of the heart. Until Alex. He wasn't going to let his reticence, his up-bringing that emotions and talking about them was unmanly, cost him this relationship. Still, it wasn't easy. He often hunted for the right words.
"I need..." He sighed. "I need to be needed, Alex. And you need me. For more than chasing the nightmares away. To remind you that, flaws and all, you are human. And all that goes with that.
"And I need you, too." Alex looked startled, as though this was news to him. Walter wondered if they shouldn't have had this conversation months ago. "Yes, I do."
Walter moved awkwardly on the bed, trying to find a more comfortable spot, trying to put awkward thoughts into words.
"You're not the only one with moods, Alex. Because, let's be honest here, I have them, too." He looked at Alex, ruefully. "That's one of the things Sharon was very explicit about when she explained why she was leaving me. And when I get moody, like you, I stop talking." He grimaced. "I find it hard to explain the things that consume me."
Alex, he noticed, did not contradict him. With more courage than he had had to find in a long time, he continued.
"Maybe because we're both men, you don't feel the need to understand the 'motivation' for my behaviour. Maybe it's because we've both walked some of the same ground that I find I don't need to explain myself to you. You understand why I need to get drunk around Memorial Day. And why I don't want to talk about it."
Alex finally spoke. "That doesn't stop you from asking me what's bothering me." He shifted his body so that his left shoulder bore his weight rather than his stump.
Walter scowled. "Yeah, well, you do tend to take the silent bit to new extremes. And you have to admit that you sometimes need to talk about things, Alex."
Alex didn't seem to be anxious to concede that point.
"And we have other things in common. We've both done things that we now regret, but that we didn't have many options to do differently back then. And we've both lived through them. We've come out on the other side, not better men, but certainly different ones. Both of us have survived where others haven't."
Walter shifted so that he could see Alex better. Alex rested his chin on Walter's collarbone, eyes focused on his lover's face.
"As for other reasons." Walter was beginning to feel more easy with the direction of this talk. "You and I have similar feelings about politics, about religion. About fidelity. Our habits merge without too many problems. You're neat. I know it sounds stupid, but messiness drives me up the wall."
"Really." Alex tried to sound surprised by that admission. The loving grin on his face made it a lie.
Walter ignored his lover's reaction.
"We can discuss our opinions without coming to blows. We meet in a comfortable middle ground and it makes for a comfortable life together. And comfort is important. I'm not twenty years old, Alex. Neither," he added with a grin, "are you. Doesn't mean that passion isn't important: it is. It's just that, if we're both honest enough, we'll admit that passion is easier on the bones in a comfortable bed."
"Does this mean you don't want to do it on the couch any more? Or the table?" There was laughter in the voice if not on the face.
Walter raised his head, managed, barely, to stroke his mouth over the one hinting at a pout. Alex lifted his chin up to allow his mouth to be taken.
"Could we eliminate the wood pile?" Walter settled his head on the pillow, pleased to see that the clouds were lifting from Alex's eyes. "I was still finding splinters two days later."
His lover's sigh sounded very put-upon, but his smile was a tease.
"Okay. But I'm not giving up half-time quickies. They're the only way I can get through one of those so-called football games of yours."
Walter laughed. "And I *like* you, Alex. I really do. I like all sorts of things about you. Your sense of humour, especially of the ironic. Your relationship with Lissa and her sisters. With Scully. Which I know wasn't easy for both of you." He lightened up. This was getting into darker territory than he wanted to enter. "I like it that you stepped in to help with the bar so I can go off to Boston to play at being a teacher.
"I like the fact that I miss you when you're not around."
"Yeah?" Alex appeared surprised at that revelation. "I thought," he offered, hesitantly, "that was only me."
Walter shook his head.
They looked at each other, sharing a silent moment of communication.
"Not," continued Walter, "that you're perfect, not by a long shot. 'Cause there are things you do that annoy me, just like I'm sure there are things I do that annoy you. But I think they're things we can both live with."
"What do I do that drives you crazy?" Alex's body was completely relaxed against Walter's. Like a cat's, once more reassured of his place by the fire.
Walter shuddered dramatically. "You put maple syrup on potato chips." Alex's eyebrows disappeared under his hair. "Well, I could understand that reaction if the chips were flavoured, but they're plain. What else?"
"Once, just once, I would like to play a game of chess with you where you follow the normal rules."
"No, you wouldn't. You'd be bored stiff. You'd probably accuse me of trying to throw the game."
Walter raised their hands to his cheek. "Yeah, probably." He looked at Alex whose smile was more of a satisfied smirk. "So while we're clearing the air about this, what do I do that drives you crazy?"
"You set your chess pieces in exactly the centre of the square."
"When you move a piece, you set it down so that it is dead centre in the square. I bet if I took out a ruler, you wouldn't be off by more than a millimetre."
"This drives you nuts?"
Alex nodded. "I can put up with the shoes exactly side by side. The shirts hanging all together, the suits, the slacks, the jeans, all in their place, the books in perfect alphabetical order, but the chess pieces... I don't know why, but once, could you just lay a piece down over the edge of the square?"
Walter grimaced at the obsessive picture Alex had drawn of his neatness. "I'll see what I can do about that. What else?"
"Fishing? What's wrong with fishing?"
Alex grew serious, his voice wary. "Nothing. You love fishing. It relaxes you. It's good for you. And I enjoy going with you, but I would rather sit on the bank watching you, or reading, or sleeping. Anything but join you in that water. Shit, Walter, the streams you like to fish in are always icy cold. I don't get a kick out of freezing my balls off. On the other hand," he purred, eyes promising, "I don't mind warming yours up after you come out. I just don't like mine in the same state."
Walter sighed dramatically, eyes shining. "See, I told you, you aren't perfect. Okay. I'll freeze my balls off and leave you to 'unfreeze' them."
Alex passed his mouth across Walter's in thanks. Walter opened his mouth and captured a bottom lip as it stroked along his. He bit down hard enough to keep the lip from moving then sucked the small pain away. The crisis, thought Walter, was over. He would remember to pay attention to the warning signs from now on. He promised himself never to allow a situation to deteriorate to the point that Alex thought Walter didn't want him any more.
When Alex finally released his mouth, Walter opened his eyes. "So, Alex, my turn. Why do you love me?"
Alex moved so that his head rested next to Walter's on the pillow. He drew their still joined hands to his chin.
"Because whenever you look at me, I know that you're seeing me. Not just my body.
"You're right about the sex. It is good. The best I've ever had." Walter raised an eyebrow at that. "No, it is the best. Because when you touch my body, you care about how I feel. What I feel. Walter, I know what a fuck is, and even when we do it fast and rough, it's never that. I'm always more than a hole with you. And your touch always gives me pleasure, even when all we do is sleep with our arms around each other. And that's something no one else has ever given me. Thank you."
"Alex..." Walter found he had no words.
Alex's smile softened. "As for the rest of it, it's like you said. But more than that, for me, you were right: you make me feel human." Walter raised his head, ready to protest. "Yes, I know," Alex beat him to it, using a tone of voice that Walter recognized as his, "I may be a clone but that doesn't make me less human than the next guy."
Alex's face was intense, moving Walter so that his heart ached with fullness, as he said, "But only you can make me feel that. Believe that." Alex carried their hands to his lips. He passed his mouth over and over Walter's tightly holding fingers. "That I can love. That someone can love me.
"Only you, Walter."
"Funny, isn't it, how water always looks different by moonlight."
Alex looked over his shoulder at Mass, who was slouching against the French doors that opened off the studio. He was leaning on the railing of the balcony, looking out at the canal and the soft lights that came from the other palazzi near-by.
Mass took a step onto the balcony as Alex straightened. This was their last night here in Venice, in Europe for that matter. Tomorrow, Alex and his lover would be flying home. Sebastian was also going home the next day. Before they left, Mass wanted time alone with Alex, a wish that had been denied him until now.
Alex and Walter had returned after having spent twenty-four hours away, to announce that they needed to return to their responsibilities in America.
The Alex who had left and the one who had returned were not the same man. The first had been withdrawn, tight, silent; the other, less tense, happier, more content. Mass hadn't been certain of that first Alex, was afraid of doing something that would return him to the body of this brother in front of him, eyeing him warily.
"Please," said Mass, "stay. A few minutes. I would like us to talk together."
Alex eyed the open door, made a decision and rested a hip against the wrought-iron railing.
Mass smiled at him, came closer. He reached up to touch Alex's face, allowing him time to pull away. "I know. You don't like being touched. At least, not by anyone other than Walter. But, please. I am an artist. I see with my hands. And we both know that we may never again be this close together. Please?"
Alex gave a slow, considered dip of his head.
As they talked, Alex gradually grew used to Mass's fingers tracing his features. Mass waited until he was certain Alex had accepted this "invasion" before he began using his hands to stroke Alex's neck, his shoulders. Like a blind man, he etched what he touched into his memory. "You are happy to be going home." It wasn't a question, rather a comment. "I am happy that I met you, Alex. Fratellino mio. My baby brother."
Alex's eyebrows went up. It was obvious that he hadn't thought of himself that way. Mass smiled again.
"Yes. The baby. That is what you are. Walter explained to me all about this Fourth One business." Mass shrugged, very expressively. "As if that mattered to me. What does matter is that you are the baby."
Ah, curiosity, thought Mass, a fine bait. "In Italy, family is important. You would have to be dead not to notice how important it is in this family. We live in each other's pockets, meddle in each other's lives."
"Care for each other." Alex offered his understanding.
"Yes. The baby is a special child. Spoiled beyond belief. And you are more than just the baby. You are the baby of four, born at the same time. Here, such a baby would have every wish granted..." He felt Alex stiffen under his touch. He kept on anyway. "Be catered to. Carried everywhere. He probably would have to be taught to walk before the first day of school."
His hands caught Alex's face, holding firmly but not tightly. "You should have been treated with love. Cared for. Spoiled. My brother. Fratellino mio." His voice harshened. "Instead you were treated as a thing. By men who were lower than the lowest creatures on this earth. Who weren't fit to kiss the ground you walk on."
Mass kept his eyes focused on Alex's, letting loose the full force of his personality, determinedly holding him in place. "Walter tells me that the men who maltreated you are dead. Is this so?"
"Yes." Alex tried to move his eyes from Mass's but Mass wouldn't release him.
"All of them?"
"Yes. All the ones that mattered."
Mass nodded. "And did they die by your hand?"
"Some of them."
"Did you enjoy killing them?"
"Emotion," Alex sounded surprised to find himself explaining, "is not a good thing for an assassin to have. It gets in the way of survival."
Mass nodded once. "Then satisfaction. Did it give you some satisfaction?"
Alex was silent for a moment, as though he had to think about this. Then, "Yes." Said softly but firmly.
Mass released his hands, let them slide to Alex's shoulders. "Good." He took a deep breath as though preparing himself. "Now then, this man who thought he was God, who created us in his image, he too is dead?"
Alex swallowed. So, thought Mass, too many memories there. He would never go into those again.
"Yes. Walter killed him."
"Pity. I have connections. If he were alive, I would contact them. They would find him. Give him time to regret every second he spent with you." Alex said nothing, but his jaw unclenched slightly.
Mass waited a minute or so before continuing. His fingers shaped the muscles that joined shoulders to neck. He would do his brother in clay after he was gone.
"There is something more that must be said. That I must say to you. About that fence at the end of the forest."
"How..." Alex caught himself. "Did Wal..."
"No!" Mass interrupted. "No. No one betrayed you. I was sitting at the studio door. I used to go there to be near Vittorio when he was busy in the studio and would ban everyone from it. I had to be near him. It gave me comfort to sit there, curled up, ear against the door, listening to him mutter and swear.
"Vittorio," Mass smiled at his memories, "was not a silent artist."
"You loved him," said Alex.
"Yes. And he loved me." Mass caught a flicker of something that crossed Alex's face, a something that vanished almost as it appeared. "We loved each other, Alex, but we were not lovers. Love, baby brother, takes many forms. Vittorio and I, we loved, as father and child. Not as you love Walter. Nor as you love Sebastian."
Alex opened his mouth to say something, but nothing came out. He closed his mouth.
"I was sitting there, that night, talking in my heart to him, about you. I should have said something when you sat on the steps, but I didn't know what to say to you. Now I do.
"This fence that you think I would have kept trying for, maybe you are right. Vittorio always said I had a head as hard as granite. That there were things I only learnt the hard way. Probably, yes, I would have made for that fence again. But I don't think I would have gotten over it. "You find me uncomfortable, don't you, Alex? Too loud. Too boisterous. Too different. And I am. I am like a beautiful flower. Colourful. Desired. Arrogant. But take a beautiful flower and leave it out in a storm and it breaks. Throw it against a wall... an electrified fence... and it crumbles.
"On the other hand, a reed, plain, quiet, almost overlooked, bends, endures the storm, the wall, the fence. May come up tattered," Mass passed his hand along Alex's stump, stopping at the prosthesis, "but it survives. And you, fratellino mio, more than any of us, are a survivor. And that accomplishment is an art in itself."
Mass moved his hands back to Alex's face, to frame the eyes that were suddenly shy.
"Alex. I know that you and I, we will never be the friends that you and Sebastian are, will become. That I and Sebastian may be. But always remember that I love you. You are my brother, my baby brother, and I love you." And he leaned over while Alex was still dumbfounded, kissed him on one cheek, then the other, and once more on the first.
In the background, they could hear Walter calling Alex's name. He would find them soon enough.
Smiling, Mass stepped back, crossed his arms over his chest. "So. This Walter, you love him?"
"Yes." Alex's voice was firm. Mass liked that.
"And he loves you?"
"Yes." Softer, with a hint of wonder.
"He takes care of you?"
"He spoils you?"
"Oh, yes." Alex's smile was a match for the one Mass was wearing.
"How does he spoil you?"
The nearness of Walter's voice indicated he was probably on the steps leading up to the studio.
Alex leaned over, brushed his lips on one of Mass's cheeks, then the other, and once more on the first.
"He's given me my brothers."
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