Title: Sterling Silver

DATE: January 20, 2000

Author: Russianrat

Summary: K/Sk, NC-17. AU placed in the 1940's. Skinner hires a gardener, one Alex Krycek, a man with a shady past.

Spoilers: none, unless you count the basic plot for "Jake and the Kid: Grand Plans" and a touch of "The Shawshank Redemption".

Archive to: All Things Rat, Ter/Ma, The Basement, anywhere else, just ask.

Disclaimer: I've asked to buy them repeatedly, but these characters still belong to Chris Carter, 1013, and Fox TV.

Feedback: russianrat1@hotmail.com

Website: members.tde.com/linval/home.html

Thanks to: Anne Zook for fine beta, and Shael for encouragement and support.

***

STERLING SILVER

It was early spring, and the roses should have been in full bloom. For six years running Sharon Skinner's roses had been the talk of the small California town of Brookside, invariably winning a prize at the county fair. She used to concentrate on a new variety each year, starting with the deep red Charlotte Armstrong to mark her marriage to Walter Skinner. Next year it was the lively pink blooms of the Betty Prior. A climbing Mrs. Sam McGredy graced the latticework of their fence when Walter came home from the war, wounded but not seriously maimed. When the nation declared peace, Sharon was one of the first to plant the yellow Peace Rose. So it went, with a different color each spring.

Until last year, when Sharon traveled alone to San Diego to visit a cousin. A drunk driver ended her life on a rainy highway. Walter mourned, and both he and the garden suffered from neglect. He still went about his daily business, ran the hardware store and made a profit. But at night he went home and spent most evenings staring out across the withering garden, Scotch in hand. Only a strong will kept him from sinking completely into the bottle.

This evening started out no differently. Walter shrugged out of his jacket, poured himself a finger of his favorite amber liquid, and took it to the white metal chair on the porch. He sat, and sipped, and stared. From the living room, the radio changed from music to gossip. Walter Winchell intoned "Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America."

When Winchell's namesake could see the bottom of the glass, he tapped the side rhythmically as if to conjure another drink. A gust of cool air made him shiver. He had almost decided that one more wouldn't hurt when the Peace Rose caught his eye. Among the tangles of its leaves, Walter saw a tiny yellow bud swaying in the breeze. He got out of the chair stiffly, and walked over to the struggling bush. Gently, he ran his fingers over the velvety petals, just barely open.

Shame washed over him. This garden had been Sharon's pride and joy, and here he was ignoring it. Walter straightened and went back into the house. He washed and dried the glass, then sat down at the kitchen table to compose an ad.

Seven days and as many applicants later, Walter still had not found a gardener. Of course they could mow a lawn and pull weeds. But not one knew roses, at least not to Walter's satisfaction. He dismissed another man with a sigh and leaned back in his chair with his eyes closed, letting the sun warm his face.

"You've got blight."

Walter started awake. He wrestled with the frame of his glasses, which had slipped halfway down his nose. A stranger knelt in his garden, examining the roses. He wore a pair of faded tan khakis and a once white shirt with the sleeves rolled above his elbows. An old-fashioned porkpie cap obscured his features.

"What?" asked Walter, bewildered.

"Blight. On your roses. They need better drainage and ventilation."

"Oh." Walter pushed himself to his feet. He frowned at the stranger. "You're not from Brookside."

"Los Angeles." The man stood, and held out his hand. "Sorry, guess I should introduce myself. I'm Alex...Kramer."

Walter shook the outstretched hand, noting the firm grip and the calluses on the palm. A workingman's hand. Walter was a big man, but Kramer could look him square in the eye.

"You're a long way from home, Mr. Kramer. I know my ad didn't run in the L.A. papers."

"It's Alex." He grinned, showing large, white teeth. "I was on my way through Brookside and stopped for a bite to eat. I saw your ad and decided to check it out. Anyway, I need the job, Mr.--?"

"Walter Skinner." He nodded towards the front door. "Come inside, we'll talk."

Alex followed silently. Walter nodded him towards a chair, then turned to the icebox and rummaged through it while he talked over his shoulder.

"So you think you can save the garden, Alex?"

"Of course. With time and patience."

Walter chuckled. "I can't pay you much beyond room and board."

"That's fine. My needs are pretty simple."

"Ah, here's the tea." Walter spent a minute pouring iced tea into a couple of glasses. He turned to find that Alex had removed his cap and was gazing up at him with large eyes the color of flawless emeralds. Gooseflesh pebbled the back of Walter's neck. He found himself staring, without even knowing why.

"Mr. Skinner? Are you okay?"

Alex's husky voice made Walter start.

"Um. Sure. Sorry, I think there's a draft in here." He set the tea down quickly and sank into the chair opposite. "And it's just Walter. 'Mr. Skinner' sounds so formal."

"Fair enough." Alex turned to stare out through the front screen. "Seems a shame to let this place get so rundown. I double as a handyman, sometimes. No extra charge." He turned back to Walter with a grin, which fell when he saw the disturbed expression on the other man's face. "Did I speak out of turn?"

Walter shook off the tendrils of depression gripping him.

"No, it's okay. I was just thinking of my wife."

"You're married?"

"She...died last year. Auto accident."

"Ah."

Alex didn't offer any further words or meaningless platitudes, for which Walter was deeply grateful. He looked down a moment to allow the older man a chance to compose himself.

"When can you start?" asked Walter.

Alex focused those brilliant green eyes upwards again. His smile was gentle and slightly amused.

"My bag is on the porch."

***

Walter awoke at three in the morning. He stared at the ceiling for about ten minutes before leaving the warmth of his bed, knowing he would not get any more sleep that night. He grumbled his way to the bathroom, washed up, and stepped into the hall. The faint sounds of snoring from the next room were the only indication of his new houseguest. Walter went back inside and closed the door.

He had forgotten to turn off the bathroom light, and the reflection in the mirror over the sink startled him. He saw a man aged by war and loneliness, prematurely balding, his dark brown eyes looking soft and vulnerable without his glasses.

//So what was all that about this afternoon?// Walter asked his reflection.

His mind shied away from verbalizing the answer. Instead, he saw himself back in the foxholes of western Europe with his buddies. With Harris, the kid whose eyes got so big when he was scared. Big, green eyes. He had attached himself to Walter like a limpet, following him everywhere possible in the vain hope that he could keep Harris safe. Walter had grown very fond of Harris despite the youngster's naiveté.

Then had come that night of madness outside of Bayonne. The Germans had rushed their squadron in the dark, and one by one Walter watched his comrades fall. He was about to charge into the fight, even though he expected certain death. Then Harris had come stumbling over to his side. Walter had to choose quickly between a hopeless battle and the possibility of getting this boy back to his family. It was no choice.

They found a grove of trees away from the carnage and waited until the shooting stopped. Walter felt Harris's hand creep into his. He turned to say something, but the words died at the look in those green eyes. Two mouths met fiercely in the darkness...

Walter shook himself. It was only the natural reaction of being close to death, he thought. After he was injured, he came home to a hero's welcome and made himself forget the rest in Sharon's arms.

Until now.

//Stop it!// he admonished his memories. Walter turned off the bathroom light and shuffled back to bed. But it was a long time before he could sleep.

The smells of fresh coffee, bacon and eggs woke Walter around mid-morning. He showered and shaved, then threw on his old blue robe and headed for the kitchen, stomach rumbling pleasantly. A single place setting waited for him on the table. Sounds of humming and dirt being tossed about alerted him to Alex's presence in the yard. Walter supposed he had already eaten, and the plate looked too good to resist. Though he hadn't hired Alex to look after the house, he had to admit it was a nice bonus.

Half an hour later, Walter pushed back from the table, replete. He hadn't eaten that well since...for a long time. Quickly, he ran soapy water across the dishes and walked outside.

Alex crouched over the Peace Rose. He seemed to be studying it as he almost stroked the leaves and petals. His sleeves were turned up, and dirt streaked his forearms. The material of his thin cotton shirt was strained by the solid musculature of his back.

Walter exhaled slowly.

"How's it look?" he asked.

Alex turned around, favoring Walter with a smile.

"Well, I don't know that you'll have many roses this summer, but I can promise the ones you do have will be healthy. And it's not too late to plant some more." He gestured towards the yard with a trowel. "I'll clean out all the weeds and fertilize the soil while I'm at it."

"Sounds good." Walter paused. "Thanks for the breakfast."

"My pleasure."

Alex held his gaze just a fraction too long before returning his attention to the roses. Walter swallowed. He could swear that Alex's eyes had raked his body with more than casual interest. Walter suddenly felt too exposed wearing only his robe, and he walked back into the house, trying not to appear hurried.

//You're imagining something that's not there,// Walter berated himself as he dressed in dark slacks and a white short-sleeved shirt. He plucked the photo of Sharon from the dresser and stared at it as if to banish these strange emotions. When he felt sufficiently in control of himself, Walter replaced the picture, threw on a light jacket and left the house. He got in his car and sped off a little faster than necessary in the direction of the hardware store.

***

Alex watched the car disappear with a touch of annoyance. His new employer was an enigma, sometimes friendly, other times distant. Alex shrugged and went in search of a lawnmower. He could decipher Walter Skinner another time.

He found the mower in the back of a shed just off the house. It looked rusty and in need of sharpening. Alex shook his head. How the hell had Skinner managed to keep this place in any kind of shape? A file and a touch of oil soon had the mower ready to go. Alex pushed it out of the shed and got to work.

The day was warming quickly. Three passes across the expanse of lawn had Alex sweating freely, so he removed his shirt and finished the task wearing only his jersey. He stood back and surveyed his work. The lawn looked neat and precisely trimmed. The garden itself was still ragged, but Alex knew he'd have it landscaped in a matter of days. He congratulated himself on a job well done and went inside for a glass of water.

Alex quenched his thirst and ran some water over his face and hands before stepping back into the sunny yard. He was not the kind of man who liked to sit about idle. He cast his gaze around in search of another job, finally deciding that the porch itself was a good place to start. Alex noticed several loose boards, and he'd seen the toolkit when he was in the shed. The wood needed painting, but that would keep.

Whistling happily, Alex retrieved hammer and nails and set to work.

***

Walter saw his last customer off and decided to close up shop. He and Sharon had benefited greatly from the economic boom of the war years, and he'd bought the store just before going overseas. Sharon had run it admirably while he'd been gone, and once again Walter wished she were here to enjoy the rewards of their hard work.

After counting the till, Walter drove home in his old Ford. As he turned into the road leading to his house, he was startled by the sound of hammering. He got out of the car and saw his new boarder hard at work. Alex knelt on the top step of the porch. His right arm rose and fell evenly, the skin glistening as if oiled.

A gasp escaped from Walter's throat before he could stop it. Startled, Alex whirled around, bringing the hammer up sharply against his thigh. He dropped it and cried out in pain. Cursing himself, Walter hurried up the walk.

"You okay?"

"Yeah, I think so."

Alex touched his leg gingerly and grimaced.

"Damn, I'm sorry," said Walter. "Let's get some ice on that."

He put an arm around Alex's shoulder and helped him stand. Up close, the smell of fresh sweat emanating from the gardener's body made Walter twitch in sudden arousal. He pushed Alex into a chair rather rudely and turned to the icebox to distract himself from his own crazy reactions to this man.

It didn't help at all that Alex had lowered his slacks in order to examine the bruise forming on his right thigh.

Walter bit his inner lip. This was insanity. He didn't understand his reaction to this person he'd barely met (a *man* at that, he reminded himself acerbically), but he knew it had to end if he was to have any peace of mind. With a nearly inaudible sigh, he brought a towel full of ice over to the chair and handed it to Alex.

"Sorry I made you hurt yourself," Walter mumbled.

Alex raised an eyebrow. "Did you forget that I was supposed to be here?"

"Something like that."

Alex pursed his lips a moment, then returned his attention to the bruise. To give himself something to do, Walter looked out at the porch and the yard beyond.

"Nice job," he commented.

"Thanks." Alex pulled his slacks up carefully. "Guess I'd better get back to it."

"Don't bother. It's nearly time to eat."

Alex shrugged and got up to use the bathroom. He came out a minute later, drying his hands on a towel.

"I saw cornmeal and some canned beans on your shelf. If you've got greens, we can have a pretty decent meal."

Walter managed a smile. "You don't have to cook for me too."

"I know." Alex paused. "But I'd like to. That is, if you don't mind somebody taking care of you for awhile."

Walter mumbled something about cleaning up and left the kitchen before Alex could see him blush. He shut himself in the bedroom and sank heavily onto the side of the bed. He knew that Alex would think him strange if he couldn't control his own behavior around the handsome young man.

The tantalizing smells of cooking finally drew him out. Walter took several deep breaths to calm himself and walked back into the kitchen.

"Hope you're hungry," said Alex over his shoulder as he stirred something in a pot.

"Starved."

It was true, Walter realized. Once the food was in front of him, he forgot his nervousness and dug in. They ate in silence awhile. Finally Walter glanced up and caught Alex looking at him with an inquisitive expression.

"Spinach in my teeth?" Walter quipped.

Alex grinned. "In case you hadn't noticed, I didn't fix spinach. I was just--I was wondering if you'd always lived in Brookside."

Walter didn't mind the conversation opener.

"Mostly," he said, spearing the last piece of Alex's delicious cornbread. "Sharon and I grew up here. We lived in San Diego briefly, but came back to Brookside to get married and decided to stay."

Walter's brown eyes misted behind his glasses, but Alex appeared--or pretended--not to notice.

"Born and raised in L.A.," he offered. "Only child, both parents died young. Worked several places as a cook. Not much else to tell."

"And the war?" Walter raised an eyebrow.

"Congenital heart defect. I was relegated to civil defense." Alex chuckled. "I was one of those guys you'd see walking the streets at night to be sure everyone obeyed the blackout."

"Well, we all did our bit." Walter put down his fork with a sigh of contentment.

"Ready for dessert?" asked Alex, getting up from the table.

"God. When did you have time to fix all this?"

"I started early."

Alex set down two bowls of hot apple crisp. The smell of cinnamon made Walter's mouth water despite the full meal he'd just devoured. He spooned some into his mouth and closed his eyes in sheer ecstasy.

"You're trying to stuff me 'til I burst," he mumbled, not unhappily.

"The thought had occurred to me," Alex responded in a very soft voice.

Walter's head shot up at the apparent double meaning of the words, but Alex continued to eat without looking at him. The fierce blush on Walter's cheeks slowly faded. He finished his dessert hurriedly and got up to do the dishes, refusing any help.

"See you in the morning," said Walter, before disappearing into his room.

***

Alex's eyes tracked Walter's departure beneath lowered lids. When the other man was gone, Alex allowed himself a tiny smile. He thought he had fielded Walter's questions smoothly enough, and discovered some things about his employer in the bargain. He finished dessert at his leisure, then decided a bath was in order.

He stripped slowly, running his hands over his lean, taut body. His fingers brushed a nipple in passing, and he shivered reflexively. The work had tired him, though, so he promised himself some relief at another time. He sighed and turned the tap.

Alex soaked until the water grew cold. He stepped out again, toweling himself mostly dry, and padded silently down the hall leaving wet marks on the floor. As he passed Walter's door, Alex heard soft moans. Curious, he moved closer. The nature of the sounds from within was unmistakable.

Alex put an ear to the wood and listened, his excitement rising. The noises were louder now, and he could imagine Walter's hand stripping his cock as he brought himself to completion. Despite his fatigue, Alex felt his own organ grow hard beneath the towel around his waist. He pushed the cloth aside and began to stroke hot flesh to the beat of Walter's groans.

A strangled cry from beyond the door pushed Alex into orgasm. His head snapped back against the wall, semen pulsing over his fingers, the towel, and the floor. When his body had shuddered out the last drops, Alex used the towel to clean up the mess before slipping back into his own room.

***

"I'll be seeing you in all the old familiar places..."

The rich tenor voice outside his window was Walter's introduction to the morning. He rolled over and listened as Alex segued into another song.

"Don't sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me, anyone else but me, no no no, anyone else but me."

Walter smiled. The man had already neatened up the unkempt yard, fixed the porch, and cooked him two delicious meals. On top of all this, he could sing. Idly, Walter considered Alex's apparently solitary life. Perhaps he had broken some girl's heart and gone blithely on his way. Maybe Walter could manage to open the subject somehow. He told himself it was simple curiosity, then wondered why he had to tell himself anything at all, and got out of bed before his thoughts could lead him down dangerous paths.

Once dressed, Walter peered out the front door screen. He saw Alex in the yard on hands and knees, doing something to the roses. Alex looked up when Walter came out to see.

"I'm experimenting," he said in response to Walter's unasked question. "I've done some grafting before, and wanted to see if I could develop a new variety. Most rose growers try for true black...I'm more interested in purple."

"Purple?"

"Yeah. I know it can be done, if I just keep at it." Alex grinned suddenly. "Hope you don't mind. I promise not to neglect the rest of the yard."

Walter shrugged. "Be my guest. I'd like to see the results myself."

Alex finished tying the stem of the rose in his hand and stood up. "That's all I can do for now. Guess I'll go back to fertilizing."

"Okay. Say, I'm going to the general store for a new shirt. Do you need anything while I'm there?"

"Um, well..."

Alex looked down at himself. He was wearing the same pants and shirt he had arrived in two days ago, and Walter noted the frayed condition of the material.

"I can give you an advance for clothing," said Walter, hoping the offer didn't sound like a handout.

"Guess that would work," replied Alex.

"Okay. Climb in the car."

"Oh." Alex shook his head. "I've got too much to do here. Can't I just give you my sizes? You can take it out of my pay."

Walter shrugged, and wrote the information down on a scrap of paper.

"See you later, then."

Alex nodded, keeping his eyes averted. With a small sigh, Walter got in the Ford and headed for town.

Harry Matthews, store proprietor and inveterate gossip, greeted Walter as he walked in.

"Help you, Walter?"

"I need some clothes."

He showed the paper to Harry, who frowned at it thoughtfully. Looking much like an emaciated turtle with his gaunt face and scrawny neck, Harry ambled towards the clothing shelf.

"Got a shirt for you right here," he said, handing it back over his shoulder to Walter. "This other, though..."

Harry pursed his thin lips as if weighing an important matter of state.

"Would this be for the new gardener, then?" Walter nodded, but Harry went on without paying him much attention.

"Might have to order these from town. If you don't mind waiting." From town meant San Diego in Harry Language. "Saw him arrive. Just one suitcase. Wondered how come he traveled so light."

Walter just shrugged. Harry Matthews never ceased to amaze him. Born in Maine, he had moved to California in his twenties. The amusing result was one terse sentence stumbling over the next, as if the Yankee in him could not quite reconcile with the faster pace of his adopted state.

"How long do you think it will take?" he asked.

"Couple weeks, maybe. Don't know for sure."

"That's too long, Harry. Alex needs the clothes now."

"Alex, is it?" Harry glanced at Walter, who didn't respond. "Could have some alterations done, I guess. Cost extra. Ought to get him in here for that."

"Just use the sizes I wrote down. I'll gladly pay what you ask."

Harry looked disappointed that Walter would not talk more about the new gardener, but he finally took the paper and the money for the shirt.

When Walter returned home, Alex was no longer in the yard. He went inside to hang up the new shirt and was startled to find his bedroom door ajar. Alex stood next to the dresser, gazing at the photos of Walter and Sharon. He looked up at Walter's entrance, and immediately colored.

"I'm sorry," he stammered. "I finished the yard and was just--curious."

Walter's initial upset died at the genuine embarrassment in Alex's eyes. He glanced around the room, then back at Alex, only to see discomfort give way to coldness.

"I'm not a thief," Alex said tonelessly and walked past him without another word.

Walter stared after him, unsure what to say. He heard Alex leave the house, and a minute later saw him attacking the weeds with a vengeance. Walter went into the kitchen and sat down at the table with a glass of tea, feeling inexplicably depressed.

He spent the next hour paying bills and catching up with his correspondence. Every now and then he would look out the window to see Alex at some chore. When Walter found his mind wandering in the middle of writing to his best friend, he tossed the pen aside. He got up and searched the pantry for what he needed, more than ever grateful for the end of rationing.

He found Alex on his knees among the roses, covered with dirt.

"Thought you might like a cold drink," Walter offered in a mild voice.

Alex's head jerked up. He stared at Walter a moment before his expression softened. He reached for the frosty glass of lemonade and downed half in one swallow.

"Thanks."

Walter pulled up two of the white metal chairs. Alex sank into one of them gratefully and finished his lemonade, then held out the empty glass.

"More? Please?"

"Sure." Walter took the glass and returned shortly with a fresh drink. He smiled tentatively at Alex.

"I'm sorry," he said.

"No," rejoined Alex, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have been in your room without asking. I don't blame you for thinking the worst."

"Well, then. Fresh start?"

"Sounds good."

Alex smiled, a full-on, brilliant display of teeth that made Walter's heart pound.

"Oh," he said, trying to maintain his composure. "I'm having some new clothes altered for you. I'll pick them up by the end of the week."

"Thanks. Appreciate it." Alex took his glass and got up. "I'll go wash up and fix supper."

***

Alex woke early the next morning. He lay in bed listening to the warble of a lark in the big tree outside. It was so peaceful here, he thought. It would be a shame if he had to leave too soon.

But Alex seldom worried about the future. He got out of bed, threw on a robe and headed for the bathroom.

Basking in a warm tub, Alex sang; a more risqué tune than the Andrews Sisters would ever record, he thought gleefully. The words invoked images of hot, sweaty bodies entangled in various positions of lust. Alex had picked it up in his travels, having first heard it sung by a dark skinned beauty in a smoky night club. Alex had spent a few blissful weeks with that beauty, and had mourned sincerely when he was killed in a drunken brawl.

He drained the water and reached out for a towel. Alex swiped it quickly over his hair, then stepped onto the tiled floor to finish drying himself. The room had filled with mist, so he cracked the door before turning back to the task at hand. He thoroughly enjoyed these solitary moments, having experienced few of them in the past year.

As always, Alex dried his genitals last. He cupped himself in one hand, watching as the shaft swelled with hardly any stimulation at all. Groaning, he kneaded the thick head and used the liquid drooling from the slit to lubricate his fingers. Before he could build a proper rhythm, though, a noise at the door made him turn. He caught a glimpse of Walter, wearing a stunned expression. Their eyes met for an instant, then the older man hurried away.

Alex grinned slowly. He himself had never been prey to the societal restraints against men loving men. But Walter's reluctance to act on his obvious temptation would only make Alex's final conquest that much sweeter.

***

Walter sat on the porch, a glass of Scotch forgotten in his hand. Sometimes it seemed as if Alex were deliberately baiting him. Did it follow, then, that the gardener saw something in him that Walter refused to acknowledge?

He looked down at his glass, suddenly disgusted with himself. Drinking at eight in the morning would not solve anything. Walter got up to go inside, and literally ran into Alex as he was going out.

"Sorry!" said Alex, looking anything but.

Walter swallowed, unsure what to say. "How about joining me for lunch?" he asked impulsively.

//God// he thought, a little horrified. //Did I really say that?//

But it was too late to back down, and he waited nervously for Alex's response.

"Aren't you going to the store today?"

"I thought I'd call my assistant to look after things. That's the beauty of running your own business, you can take the day off whenever you like."

"Well, then." Alex flashed a grin at Walter. "Whatever the boss wants."

"Um, I had a picnic in mind."

"Sounds great. I haven't been on a picnic in ages."

He insisted on fixing their meal, packing fresh sliced turkey and French bread in a basket along with lettuce, pickles and spicy mustard. Walter stood back and watched Alex's quick hands at work. When everything was ready, Alex turned to ask their destination.

"There's a river about five miles south. We can fish, or read, or just sit."

"I opt for sitting every time." Alex hefted the basket. "Let's go."

//Am I crazy? What am I doing?//

Walter shoved the thoughts away and followed Alex out of the house. It was just a picnic, after all.

They arrived at the river and Alex grabbed the basket and jumped out of the car. Walter followed more slowly, envying Alex his youth and exuberance. He tried to look at anything but the muscular sway of Alex's walk as the younger man searched out the perfect spot by the water's edge. Having apparently found it, Alex set the basket down and smiled up at Walter.

"Ready to eat?"

Alex's voice emerged husky and wanton to Walter's ears. Walter swallowed hard and busied himself with fixing a sandwich. There was cold beer, and he quickly uncapped a bottle and drank nearly half before setting it down.

"Whoa, there. I don't think I can carry you home," chided Alex.

Walter dug into the food without replying. Alex shrugged and made his own sandwich, with lots of extra mustard. He bit into it and sighed with pleasure. When he finished he wiped his mouth and stretched out on the ground.

Walter took his time putting the uneaten food away. He sat with his arms around his knees, staring out over the river as it flowed gently past. In wintertime, he had seen this same river spill over its banks and create havoc on the surrounding land.

He felt Alex's eyes on him, like twin reflections of the verdant stream. Walter turned his head slowly, as if drawn by a magnet. He could not suppress a groan when Alex parted his lips with a moist tongue.

Alex tilted his head in clear invitation.

"Come here," he said softly.

"Alex--" Walter cast a nervous glance around.

"We've got this place to ourselves." Alex traced a path on Walter's knee, making the older man shiver. "Please, Walter. Don't deny what you feel."

The first touch of Alex's hand on his face stole Walter's breath. He saw himself poised above a long, slippery drop from which there could be no return. Then Alex pushed himself up on his elbow, cradled Walter's jaw with his hand and brought their mouths together in a soul-shattering kiss.

Walter closed his eyes and let himself fall. Alex's mouth tasted of the mustard he'd eaten and something else, a bit like clove. He worked his tongue between Walter's lips and stroked his head with nimble fingers.

"Let me please you," Alex whispered in Walter's left ear.

The words shot through Walter like a bolt of lightning. His cock hardened, and all thoughts of right or wrong vanished in the heat of the moment. He rolled over, using his superior strength to pin Alex to the ground. The young man's gasp of pleasure made Walter's heart sing.

"Yesss," hissed Alex beneath him. He arched his back, bringing the two of them into full contact.

Walter groped for and found Alex's penis through the cloth of his slacks. He kneaded the stiff flesh, making Alex groan deep in his throat. Growling, Walter wrestled with the fastenings until Alex swatted his hands away and freed himself from the restricting material. He rolled onto his side once more and opened Walter's fly deftly.

Alex wrapped his fist around Walter's cock. He rubbed the loose skin of the shaft up and down, while capturing Walter's cries of passion with his mouth. Then Alex put his thumb on the bundle of nerves just below the crown and pressed. Walter shuddered as his balls gave up their seed in intense, arrhythmic bursts.

Distantly, he felt the warmth of Alex's own ejaculate on his thigh as the young man brought himself to completion.

"Too quick," Walter murmured.

"Doesn't matter." Alex planted soft kisses across Walter's cheek. "I think you needed it quick."

They lay side by side on the grass, catching their breath.

"What made you think I'd--" began Walter.

"Shhh." Alex put a finger to his lips, then kissed him again.

Walter fell silent. Alex was right, it was not wise to question one's good fortune. He studied the young man openly, making the inevitable comparisons to Harris, his wartime buddy. Beyond the similar eye color they were nothing alike, he decided. Alex was strong and direct, and gave the impression that very little in life frightened him.

The damp had soaked through Walter's shirt, and he began to get uncomfortable. He sat up and tried to brush the dirt from his clothes.

"I think it's time to head back."

"Mmm. If we must."

"Alex--"

"...yes?"

"What do we do about this?"

Alex tilted his head thoughtfully. "What do you want to do, Walter?"

"Nothing. Go home and think." He could not bring himself to look Alex in the eye.

"As far as the world knows, I'm still just your gardener."

Walter didn't reply. He got up and began to gather their debris, which he put in a sack. Silently, Alex rose to help him. Neither of them spoke on the way back to the house. As they were going in the front door, Alex put his hand lightly on Walter's elbow.

"Walter?" he asked softly.

"I need time. To think," repeated Walter. He turned away. A moment later he heard the screen door close behind him.

***

Walter avoided Alex for most of the week. They saw each other only in passing. Neither of them mentioned the picnic, but it remained there between them in every gesture or brief word they exchanged.

Friday morning Walter drove into town and parked in front of the hardware store, then remembered the clothes he'd wanted altered. He walked across the street to Harry's general store. Harry saw him and went into the back room, returning momentarily with one pair of khakis and a shirt.

"Here you go."

"Thanks for getting them done so quickly, Harry. What do I owe you?"

Harry named a price, and Walter laid some bills on the counter. He turned to go.

"Say, Walter. What's your man's name again?"

Walter fought back a blush at Harry's turn of phrase.

"Alex Kramer," he said calmly.

"Ah." Harry appeared to mull that over. "Just wondering. You take care."

"You too, Harry."

***

It had taken a supreme effort of will for Alex to stay out of Walter's path. He wanted the big man fiercely, but he knew better than to even attempt coercion. So he concentrated on the yard and tended the roses.

Still, he couldn't repress a smile when he heard the Ford turn into the driveway. He watched Walter get out and stride down the walk, so graceful for such a big man. Alex felt his cock stir and had to look away until he could control himself.

"I've got your clothes," said Walter, handing Alex the brown string-wrapped package.

"Oh! Thanks, I'd nearly forgotten."

"Go ahead, try them on."

Alex smiled and took the package into the house. He opened it in his room and held up the shirt first. He was surprised to see that it was not utilitarian white, but soft green cotton. Quickly, he changed and walked back out into the kitchen.

Walter glanced up from the drink he was fixing. The smile on his face told Alex all he needed to know.

"I was right," he murmured. "It brings out the color of your eyes."

Alex moved slowly to Walter's side.

"You're not mad at me?" he asked quietly.

"Mad?" Walter looked startled. "I was never mad at you, Alex. Just--unsure of myself."

Alex gazed deeply into Walter's eyes, taking care not to touch him.

"Be sure of me, then," he said, and dipped his thick eyelashes provocatively before turning to walk away.

***

Two weeks after the picnic, Alex was getting restless. Walter had still not made any move towards him, though his nervous behavior spoke volumes. To keep his mind off his desires, Alex walked out to check on his "experiment". The sun was warm and all the other roses were blooming nicely.

Alex's shout brought Walter running from the house.

"What?" he gasped.

"Look," said Alex, pointing at his grafted rose. "Buds! I think it just may work this time."

Walter knelt beside Alex to inspect the rose. Sure enough, there were several tiny buds growing along the stem.

"It's too soon to be sure of the color," Alex mused. "And I don't want to take any chances by opening a bud too soon."

"Congratulations." Walter smiled at him.

"Thanks, though I think that may be premature."

Alex turned to look Walter in the eye. He wet his lower lip with his tongue before speaking, and was pleased to see the other man react with a shiver.

"Walter. We need to talk."

He saw Walter swallow.

"Yes, you're right," he responded softly. "Or maybe we *don't* need to talk..."

Walter leaned forward and pressed his lips to Alex's. The kiss quickly turned into a feverish play for dominance. When Alex reached for his shirt, Walter pulled away with a laugh.

"Inside. I want to do this right."

"Without having to worry about the neighbors," added Alex, but without rancor.

Walter nodded solemnly, then stood up and walked towards the house. Alex looked once more at the rose before he followed, smiling. In the coolness of the house, Walter waited. Alex touched his jaw with a fingertip.

"Bath first. Be ready for me."

Walter groaned, but headed for the bedroom. Alex washed up quickly and knotted a towel around his waist. He went up to Walter's door and pushed it open, letting the light catch him from behind. Like a Greek statue come to life he posed there a moment. Then Alex stepped through the door, shut it, and dropped the towel.

He heard the sharp intake of breath and smiled. Alex knew he had a good body. He'd worked hard to keep in shape, and Walter's reaction pleased him. Alex glided across the floor until he reached the side of the bed. He paused with his back to the window, his form illuminated by moonlight.

"Beautiful," whispered Walter.

He put out both hands to coax Alex into bed. Alex smiled and slid beneath the sheets, propping himself up on one elbow to admire Walter's broad, hairy chest.

"You want this?" asked Alex solemnly. "You want me?"

"Oh, yes," Walter replied without hesitation.

Alex smiled again. He lifted the sheet and disappeared beneath it. He found what he sought easily, an imposing presence of stiff flesh between his lover's thighs. Alex positioned himself close to the foot of the bed, moving the sheet aside just enough to be able to see Walter's face above him. He reached out and drew his lover's cock toward his lips.

Teasingly, Alex planted kisses along the shaft from balls to corona. Walter groaned. He tried to pull Alex's head down, but his lover would have none of that. Alex swatted Walter's hand away and continued the erotic torture. He pulled one ball then the other into his mouth, sucking the loose skin gently. As Walter's cock strained upwards, Alex followed its line with his tongue until he finally reached the top. He savored the bittersweet drops of precum, then took the entire crown into his mouth.

Walter shook as if electrified. Alex had to press down on his hips with both hands to keep him from writhing off the bed. He commenced a slow up-and-down rhythm along Walter's shaft, nipping lightly with his teeth on the upstroke.

"Jesus, Alex!"

"Patience." Alex took his mouth away and smiled at his lover. "Very soon, I promise."

He slid up along Walter's thighs, straddling his waist. Alex bent forward and kissed Walter deeply, rubbing their cocks together in the process.

"Alex. Please."

Smiling, Alex leaned over the side of the bed. He picked a small jar off the floor, unscrewed the lid, and dipped his fingers inside. He spread a generous amount of petroleum jelly over Walter's penis before reaching around to apply the rest to himself. Alex then raised himself, spread his legs wide, and took the thick cock into his body in a slow descent. Beneath him, Walter groaned his pleasure.

Alex set the pace, keeping his eyes on Walter the whole time. Each downstroke made Alex gasp as the crown grazed his prostate. He picked up speed, leaning forward and balancing himself on Walter's broad chest. Sweat poured off both men and soaked the sheets beneath them.

Moaning in ecstasy, Walter gripped Alex's thighs and held him still as the come pulsed through his cock. Alex quickly wrapped one hand around his own shaft. A few strokes was all it took for his own orgasm to boil over, and he spilled thick white streams of come onto Walter's stomach.

Alex collapsed on the bed next to his lover. He lifted one hand and rubbed the semen into Walter's skin lazily.

"Good?" he murmured in a husky whisper.

"You have to ask?" Walter turned his head and smiled at Alex. "You've given me something very special. Thank you."

Alex's return smile transmuted into a yawn. "Mmmm. 'Night, Walter."

He rested his head on Walter's chest and drifted to sleep cradled in his strong arms.

***

Walter cracked open gritty eyes onto a sunny morning. One hand sought the comfort of another body. When he felt only the sheets, Walter sat up in bed and turned towards the window.

Alex stood staring outside, his back to Walter.

"What are you looking at?" Walter asked.

Alex turned and smiled. He walked over to the bed, his heavy cock swinging enticingly between his legs. Walter felt himself swell with need.

"The roses," said Alex.

"What?" Walter had nearly forgotten the question.

Alex laughed. He slid beneath the sheets and put an arm around his older lover.

"Regrets?" he asked softly.

Walter shook his head. "No. Life's too short for regrets."

"Good." Alex brought Walter's lips to his for a deep kiss. "I'm going out to check on my graft."

Walter watched Alex longingly as he threw on a pair of jeans and strode out the door. He got out of bed and put on his robe, then moved to look out the window. He saw Alex kneel to examine his rose, heard his startled exclamation and ran outside to join him.

"Walter, look!"

Alex cradled a fresh bloom. The petals had unfolded to reveal a soft but vibrant lavender.

"Not exactly purple," said Walter, kneeling beside him.

"I think it's even better. Almost a silvery color. And so pure."

"Sterling silver."

Alex stared at him. "Walter, I think you've just named my new rose."

Walter grinned. He slid one hand around Alex's neck to draw their mouths together.

"Care to celebrate?"

"We just did that."

"I want to do it again. And again."

Alex slapped Walter's cheek playfully. "We've got plenty of time. Now I need to fix breakfast."

***

"I'd like to take you to the fair," said Walter out of the blue a day later.

Alex glanced up from the morning paper, startled.

"Are you sure that's a good idea?"

"You mean, how would it look?" Walter's eyes twinkled with amusement. "I really don't care any more if people talk or not. If it makes you feel better, though, you can drive me. Say my arthritis is flaring up."

Alex grinned. "Well..."

"Come on, Alex. It'll be fun."

Walter got up without waiting for an answer. As he stood at the sink to rinse the dishes, he felt a pair of arms slip around his waist.

"Okay," Alex breathed into his ear.

They got in the car, Alex chauffeuring as promised. The fair was held each year at the outskirts of Brookside, with plenty of colorful tents full of homemade pies, quilts, flower displays, and woven baskets. People strolled the dusty field chattering and peering excitedly at each new offering. Alex parked at the far end of the lot, went around to the passenger side and helped Walter from his seat. He hovered solicitously, trying not to smile when the other man exaggerated his limp.

They joined the throngs unremarked. Many of the visitors to the fair came from out of town, and did not recognize them. Alex began to relax, and Walter chanced a smile in his direction. His heart beat faster when the smile was returned.

For an hour or so they wandered the exhibits. Every now and then Alex remarked on something, and Walter nodded, doing his best to hide the joy he felt from the world. It was so unfair, he thought, that it was necessary to do so.

Then Alex beamed at him, and Walter forgot about everyone else.

A couple of Walter's friends stopped to make polite conversation. He listened to sympathetic exclamations over his "ailment", and was relieved to see Alex's presence as helper accepted so easily.

When Alex tired of the festivities, Walter quickly agreed that it was time to go home.

"I have plans for you," he said in an aside, and was tickled to see the young man blush.

"You've certainly gotten over your inhibitions," Alex muttered good-naturedly.

As they rounded the corner of the last tent on the field, Walter felt Alex stiffen beside him.

"That man. I think I know him."

"Who is it?" asked Walter, frowning.

He watched Alex track a lanky figure across the lot. Apparently he got a better look at the man, for he relaxed again with a sigh.

"No, it's somebody else. Sorry, Walter," he said with a sheepish grin. "I thought it was an--acquaintance from L.A. Not exactly a friend, you understand."

Alex took Walter by the elbow and steered him towards the car.

"Let's go home," he whispered huskily.

The promise in Alex's voice drove the worry from Walter's mind, and he followed his young lover with no further thought of the incident. ***

Spring flowed smoothly into summer. The garden ran riot with color now, every bush and flower healthy thanks to Alex. His silver rose also thrived, its blooms often gracing the table at dinner.

Walter thought he had never been so content. One day in the store he absent mindedly checked the calendar and realized an entire month had passed since Alex had come into his life. The thought made him smile. Business was slow that day, so Walter turned on the radio to help pass the time.

A Glenn Miller tune had just finished playing, and the news came on.

"...in the latest news from Los Angeles state prison, two of the escaped convicts involved in last year's bank robbery have been recaptured. The third is still at large and considered armed and dangerous. Alex Krycek was tried and convicted for the murder of a guard as he and his cronies attempted their getaway. Krycek is in his thirties, about six one with dark brown hair and green eyes..."

The box of tenpenny nails dropped from Walter's nerveless fingers and scattered across the floor. He gripped the counter top, unwilling to believe what he had just heard. No, he reassured himself, L.A. was miles from here. All he had to do was call home and talk to Alex.

He grabbed the telephone and dialed the number. The ringing sounded hollow, as if it were echoing in an empty room.

"C'mon, c'mon," Walter muttered.

No answer. Alex had to be outside, tending to the roses. Walter set the phone down and dashed out of the shop without bothering to lock it. The rare burglary in Brookside was the least of his worries.

He brought the old Ford to a stop in front of the house and jumped out. Everything looked the same. He ran around to the side, his heart beating hard with each step. No Alex.

Walter hurried up the front porch, saw that the door was ajar, and pushed it open.

"Alex?"

Walter paused, listening to the silence. No, not quite totally silent, he amended. The strains of big band music from the bedroom made him sigh in relief. He hastened down the hall and flung open the bedroom door.

"Alex, where--?"

Walter found himself staring at an empty room. The closet door was open, and the suitcase that Alex had arrived with was missing. The only presence in the room was the radio on the bedside table. The music played blithely on in counterpoint to Walter's distress.

Of Alex, there was no sign.

***

A week later two detectives came to visit. Walter let them in, his face a stony mask.

"Walter Skinner?" asked the older one with the red hair.

Walter nodded. The detectives exchanged glances.

"I guess you already know why we're here."

Walter nodded again. "Alex Krycek."

He thought bitterly of the strange looks he'd been getting from Harry.

"Uh-huh," said the younger man, a blonde. "We trailed him to Brookside from Los Angeles. Your gardener fit his description."

"Former gardener."

"He's not here, then?"

Walter seemed to come around from some dark inner place.

"I'm sorry, gentlemen. I've forgotten my manners. Would you like something to drink? Iced tea?"

"That would be fine, Mr. Skinner. We can talk in the kitchen."

Walter retrieved the pitcher from his icebox, then sat at the table with the two men, who introduced themselves as Detectives Morehead and Campbell.

"I had no idea," he began. "He showed up on my doorstep one day, looking for a job. Called himself Kramer. He worked hard, there was nothing to indicate he was a criminal."

"So when did you discover that fact, Mr. Skinner?" asked the redhead, Campbell.

"I was at my store and heard a radio broadcast about the escaped convicts. By the time I realized the truth and hurried home, he was gone." Walter shrugged. "The radio was on in--the kitchen. Krycek must have heard the announcement too."

Morehead nodded and made a note on his pad.

"Did Krycek talk at all about friends? Anyplace he liked to visit?"

Walter shook his head.

"He said his parents were dead. That he'd worked as a cook. Obviously he also picked up gardening skills somewhere. That's about it, sorry."

"He learned gardening at the State Pen, Mr. Skinner." Morehead chuckled humorlessly. "A useful trade."

Walter sat in silence a few minutes.

"There was one other thing. Maybe the local hospitals have some record of him."

"Hospitals?"

"Yes. Krycek told me he was born with a bad heart."

Campbell's mouth turned up in what might have been a smile.

"Oh, he was born with a bad heart, all right. Shooting a bank guard in cold blood. But otherwise, Mr. Skinner, Alex Krycek is as healthy as a horse."

The detectives rose from their chairs as if on cue.

"We'll take our leave now," said Campbell. He handed Walter a card. "If Krycek tries to contact you, give us a call."

Walter accepted the card and pocketed it absently. He saw the men out, then went back into the kitchen and sank into one of the wooden chairs. He asked himself the same question that had gnawed at him for the past week. Why had Alex betrayed him like this? Just when he had fallen in love with the young man...

Walter put his face in his hands and groaned. He still couldn't believe that anybody could put up such a good act for so long. Had Alex felt anything for him? Or was it just the universe's idea of a cruel joke?

Realizing he might never have an answer, Walter got up again and walked out into the garden to get away from the oppressive feeling of an empty house. The Sterling Silver rosebush trembled in the slight breeze. Walter bent over it and inhaled its heady fragrance. For a brief instant he was tempted to pull the whole thing out by its roots, but he knew he couldn't get rid of the one reminder of Alex. Maybe the only good thing the convict had done, for all Walter knew.

With a sigh, he went back inside, intending to do some housecleaning. Instead, he found himself staring out the window at the garden. He had been doing this for the last seven days in a row. //Wondering if Alex will come back?// he asked himself.

"Damn!"

Walter thumped his fist on the counter. This could not go on, or he would lose his mind. A thought began to form. He would try to find out everything he could about Alex Krycek and the crime he had committed. At least knowing the truth might soothe the ache in his heart.

He smiled grimly and went to the bedroom to pack.

***

Walter drove into L.A. hot and tired. He found his hotel, checked in, showered, ate a quick dinner and promptly fell asleep, still dressed in his robe. Tomorrow would be time enough for what he had to do.

Early the next day, Walter took a taxi to the largest newspaper office in the city. A clerk behind the front desk directed him to the morgue, where the back issues were kept. Walter made his way to the basement. Another clerk took his request, and returned after some twenty minutes with a small stack of papers. The clerk directed Walter to a table where he would be allowed to read at his leisure.

The papers he had chosen went back two years. Walter figured that would be enough of a timespan for him to find the information he sought.

He skimmed several months without any luck. Finally, he came to the April fourth edition of the previous year. The robbery had made headlines only because of the killing of the guard. Walter looked down the page and there was a photograph of Alex, staring at the camera with haunted eyes.

Walter felt sick. Up until this very moment he had kept a vestige of hope that there had been some mistake, that the Alex he knew was not the same person who could shoot a guard without any remorse whatsoever. He made himself look at the picture again. Alex didn't look like a desperate criminal, Walter had to admit, just a man caught in a bad situation. Then he shook himself and steeled his heart to the grim possibility that he had taken a murderer into his bed.

The article gave the facts as follows: Alex and two other men had held up a bank in downtown Los Angeles. Alex was driving getaway. He had been seen waiting outside the bank with the engine running when the other robbers had burst through the front door. A guard gave chase. Shots were exchanged. One of the robbers was wounded, and Alex was seen jumping from the car and running towards his accomplices.

The story at that point became a little muddied. Some witnesses stated that Alex had pulled a gun and shot the guard. Others said they weren't sure, they believed the robber still standing had done it. But the fact remained that when the police arrived and grabbed Alex, the gun had been in his hand. It was the only weapon other than the guard's that had been fired.

Walter shook his head sadly. The evidence was damning. He turned the page, but that was the end of the article.

The next day's paper recounted Alex's background, or as much of it as was known. It said Alex was an orphan and a drifter, making a sketchy living as a cook. So at least part of what Alex had told him was the truth, Walter mused. He looked at the picture taken of Alex seated in the courtroom, head bowed. Everything in his posture reflected defeat.

Walter rubbed his eyes beneath his wire rimmed glasses. He picked up the next paper. There were articles about the other two criminals. The one who'd been shot had been patched up for the trial, but it was obvious that the DA intended to throw the book at Alex.

Walter sighed as he continued to turn the pages. After a couple of weeks, the press seemed to lose interest. The trial itself was short and unspectacular, and all the paper had to say was that two of the men were convicted to life in prison.

Alex received the death sentence.

There were a couple of editorials printed on the day of the sentencing, each with a differing opinion of the trial. One was caustic, the reporter basically saying that Alex deserved to die and offering to carry out the execution himself. Walter only skimmed it, sickened by the words.

The other took a softer tone. This reporter had obviously done some in-depth investigating. He had interviewed the other defendants, to witnesses, and briefly to Alex. Now that the criminals were behind bars (said the reporter) those who saw the deed were more willing to talk. At least three of them stated clearly that they had seen one man shoot the guard, then toss the gun to Alex.

"It is this reporter's feeling that Mr. Krycek has not received a fair and impartial hearing," the article concluded. "The police are quick to protect one of their own, and the prosecutor clearly felt it was an open and shut case. Yet one wonders how many men have gone to jail because no one cared to dig into the facts. Now Alex Krycek faces death for a crime that he may or may not have committed.

"Mr. Krycek said little in his own defense, perhaps in the knowledge that the minds of the judge and jury were already set. But neither judge nor jury spent time in his jail cell, looking into his eyes. This reporter has, and she begs the people to reconsider the next time they are asked to change the course of a man's life. Study the facts. Then and only then should they pass judgment."

Walter blinked. 'She'? He glanced quickly at the byline. Jennifer Marshall. He laid the paper down, lost in thought. Miss Marshall seemed to be the only person sympathetic to Alex. Maybe he could contact her and find out more.

There was nothing else to be learned here. As Walter picked up the stack of papers, his eye fell on the gardening section. A photograph of a rose, its delicate petals shimmering with dew, caught his eye. A pang went through his heart. Nevertheless, Walter found himself reading the copy.

"Soft lavender roses are superb in their classic hybrid tea form," it said. "Alas, they will surely break the heart of most who attempt to grow them in their gardens due to their temperamental nature. In flower lore, the color lavender is said to represent enchantment."

How true, thought Walter sadly. Alex Krycek had surely enchanted *him*.

He took the newspapers back to the desk and handed them to the clerk.

"Did you find everything you wanted, Sir?"

"Almost. Does Jennifer Marshall still work here?"

"Sure does. Upstairs, second floor. Her desk is towards the far end of the room, near a window."

Walter thanked the clerk and hurried towards the elevator. As he stepped out onto the second floor, a cacophony of voices assailed his ears. The clatter of typewriters added to the din. He winced and walked quickly down the narrow aisle between desks.

Jennifer Marshall was easy to spot. She sat perched on the edge of her battered wooden desk, her tight skirt riding up one thigh, a telephone plastered to one ear. Her hair was arranged in a basic wave to her shoulders. It was so red it nearly glowed, and Walter was sure nature had been given a hand in order to obtain that shade.

"Miss Marshall?"

He had to shout to get her attention. She turned, surprised, to reveal bright blue eyes over a strong nose and bee-stung lips painted coral.

"Just a sec."

She said something else into the phone, then hung up and gave Walter a very direct look.

"Help you?" she said.

"You are Jennifer Marshall?"

"Yep, that's me. And you're--?"

"Sorry." He held out his hand. She shook it, her grip firm and dry. "Walter Skinner."

"What can I do for you, Mr. Skinner?"

"Er, is there someplace quieter we could talk?"

She chuckled. "Sure. Follow me."

Walter trailed after her into a back room. Jennifer shut the door, cutting off at least ninety percent of the noise.

"The society editor's out sick," she explained.

"Miss Marshall--"

"Jennifer," she interrupted. "Hold on a minute."

She pulled a slim cigar from somewhere in the folds of her blouse, clipped it neatly, and lit it.

"Ahhh." Jennifer exhaled a cloud of acrid smoke. "Boss won't let me smoke these on the floor."

Walter chuckled. He liked her already.

"Jennifer. You did a piece last year on the bank robbery."

"Which one?" she snorted.

"First Federal Bank. A guard was killed."

"Oh, yeah. The three that just broke out of prison. The Feds rounded them up."

"All but one."

"Yes." She took another puff on her cigar and arched an eyebrow at Walter. "Alex Krycek."

"You're still following the case?"

"Don't look so surprised. I took a personal interest in that case, as you should've guessed from my editorial."

"Do you believe Krycek is innocent?"

"Hah. I wouldn't go that far. I just don't think he was the shooter."

Walter nodded. "Neither do I," he said softly.

Jennifer stared at him shrewdly. Walter realized what he'd said, and couldn't stop the blush from rising.

"Look. Walter--is it okay if I call you Walter?"

He nodded, not quite able to meet her gaze.

"I don't want to know the details. I'm not the police, and they're no particular friends of mine. The less you tell me, the better."

Walter smiled, relieved. "You sure don't talk like a reporter."

"Hmmph. Depends on the circumstances. Let's just say I don't think Krycek deserved the death penalty." She took another draw on the cigar before grinding it out on the sole of her left pump. "So, did I answer your question?"

"You've given me a place to start." Walter held his hand out once more, and Jennifer shook it heartily. "I appreciate your time."

He walked towards the door.

"Hey."

Walter paused, his hand on the knob. He turned back to look at her.

"You tell him to be careful," said Jennifer with a solemn expression.

***

Back in Brookside, Walter sat in his kitchen thinking. He wasn't sure how much he'd really learned, but at least he'd found some sympathy for Alex. He reddened again, remembering Jennifer Marshall's parting words. Damn, he hadn't meant to be so transparent!

There was no help for it. He had to put Alex out of his mind, whether the man was a killer or not.

Walter sighed and pushed himself slowly up from the chair. He felt as if he'd aged ten years over the last few days. A bath would help, he thought. That, and a good night's sleep. He went to the medicine cabinet and rummaged until he found an old prescription of Sharon's for insomnia. He stared at the bottle a long time before shaking a single tablet into his hand and downing it with a large glass of water.

***

Two weeks went by. Walter managed to smile and make small talk with his customers as if nothing was wrong. When one of them mentioned his absent gardener, he just shook his head and frowned.

Detectives Morehead and Campbell dropped by one more time, but Walter had nothing new to say. They seemed satisfied that he was telling the truth, and left again.

No one saw the tears he shed into his pillow every night.

One warm July night Walter came home late, to find his bedroom window open. Puzzled, he honestly could not remember if he had just forgotten to close it himself. He went around to the front door. Everything seemed normal, there were no sounds from within the house. He put the key in the lock and stepped inside.

A trail of sweet perfume met his nose. Walter glanced around but could not immediately identify the source. Moving carefully so as not to make any noise, he walked down the hall. He saw no one and nothing out of the ordinary, beyond the strange scent. Very slowly, he pushed open the door to the bedroom.

A bright moon lit the room through the open window. Nothing looked different. The perfume, however, was strong in here. Walter scanned the room slowly, until his gaze came to rest on the bed.

A single lavender rose lay across the pillow.

The hair on the back of Walter's neck bristled. Instinct had him half turned around when he heard the familiar husky voice.

"I hope you don't mind," said Alex, stepping into the moonlight. "Seemed a shame to let them go to waste."

For an endless, frozen moment the two men stared at each other. Alex finally broke the silence with a sigh.

"Do you want me to leave?" he asked softly.

"No," said Walter. He didn't even have to think about it, the answer had been there all along.

Alex held out his arms and Walter walked into them. He touched Alex's face, feeling the two day growth of beard, seeing the sadness in those green eyes. Walter knew he would do anything to erase that sadness. He took Alex's chin in one hand and lifted the younger man's lips to his. Alex slid his tongue over the soft palate of Walter's mouth, making him groan.

Walter slipped the denim jacket Alex wore from his shoulders and started to undo the buttons of his shirt one by one. His fingers found the hard nub of Alex's left nipple. Alex shivered and pushed his growing erection against Walter's thigh.

"Please," Alex gasped.

Walter took his lover by the hand and steered them both towards the bed. Alex wrapped an arm around Walter's neck. They sank down on the covers as one, busily tasting each other's mouths. Alex paused only to tug impatiently at Walter's clothing, then to divest himself of his own.

The moonlight illuminated Alex's sturdy form, reminding Walter of another night not so long ago. He groaned as Alex stroked his stomach and teased his pulsing erection with nimble fingers. The two men wrestled in erotic abandon until arms and legs were totally entwined.

Alex's cock nudged between Walter's thighs. Walter was suddenly overwhelmed with the need to be filled, and he lifted and spread his legs, locking them around Alex's waist. The look of passionate joy on Alex's face made Walter grin and he reached up to draw their mouths together once more.

Walter arched his back into the first thrust, crying out as the tight ring of muscle was breached. Alex withdrew quickly and reached for the jar still next to the bed. He murmured apologies to Walter as he prepared himself, then slid more carefully into the tight passage. Walter made himself relax, until Alex was deep inside.

Then Alex began to move. Walter gasped as the cock in him rubbed over a spot he never knew he had. He clutched at Alex's shoulders, encouraging him, and Alex moved faster. Again and again Walter was jolted with pleasure. The cords in his neck stood out, he ground his teeth. Abruptly, he sprayed Alex's chest and his own stomach with semen. Walter's muscles clenched, and he watched through dazed eyes as Alex stiffened in ecstasy, filling Walter with the heat of his seed.

Alex withdrew, slipping down exhausted onto the bed. He caressed Walter's face lazily.

"Was that your first time?" he asked.

Walter turned to him and smiled.

"Almost," he admitted. "If you don't count some self-experimentation with garden vegetables."

Alex roared with laughter, and Walter grinned.

"You amaze me. Here I thought I was getting a virgin."

They lay together for some time in silence, enjoying the pleasant afterglow of lovemaking. Walter thought Alex had gone to sleep, but then the younger man stirred.

"Walter," he asked softly, "what did you find out in L.A.?"

"I read the papers and talked to Jennifer Marshall," Walter replied, not really surprised by the question.

"Ah. She was one of the few who believed me."

Walter ran the back of his fingers across Alex's cheek.

"Is that how it happened?" he asked.

"Yes. That damn O'Grady shot the guard, then threw the gun at me. I caught it without thinking, and all of a sudden the cops were all over me." Alex grinned crookedly. "But neither O'Grady nor Thompson knows that I turned them in after we escaped together."

Walter nodded. "So what do we do now?"

"We?" Alex shot him an astonished look. "I had planned to go down south, but--"

"But I'm not letting you go again," interrupted Walter. He sealed the words with a kiss on Alex's mouth.

"Walter, are you sure? I didn't kill the guard, but I'm far from innocent. We may have to look over our shoulders for the rest of our lives."

"I was reborn when you came into my life, Alex. Better a short time with you than a long time alone."

"I was telling the truth, you know. When you came in and found me looking at your pictures. I've done a lot of things, but stealing from my employer never entered my mind."

"Too late," said Walter solemnly. He took Alex's right hand and laid it on his chest. "You've already stolen my heart."

Alex stared at Walter in the light from the open window. His eyes glistened.

"We should leave tonight, then. Do you have much to carry?"

Walter shook his head. "No, but I do have one question, Alex. How will we support ourselves?"

Alex laughed delightedly.

"Did you really think that was the *first* bank I'd robbed? So if you don't mind living on ill-gotten gains..."

Walter just smiled and kissed him again for an answer. They sat up of one accord, holding hands.

"Time to get dressed," said Alex. "You know," he added thoughtfully, "I've always wanted to see if the Pacific is bluer off the beaches of Mexico..."

***

Epilogue: The house in Brookside stood vacant for many years. No one wanted to buy a property with scandal attached to it, even if the rumors were only vague and unsubstantiated. In time, the house deteriorated, and the garden went to seed. The only living thing remaining was a rosebush covered with fragrant lavender blooms, standing proud in one corner of the yard as if keeping vigil for its true owners.

END

 

NOTE TO ROSE GROWERS: I am aware that Sterling Silver was not introduced as a variety into this country until 1957. But perhaps that makes Alex's achievement that much more special...and just a little magical.