Title: "Descent"
Author: JiM
Pairing: Sk/K
Date: 9/00
Summary: When you think you have nothing left to live for, how do you
fill your time?
Note: This is a bit darker than my usual stuff and a character is
dying of a very real and dreadful disease. For more information, check out:
http://www.alsa.org/als/whatis.cfm
Thanks: to Amirin, who started it all; to Ruth and Livvy and Karen and
Dawn and MT and Kass and Ness and all those who routinely push, prod,
cluck and jolly me along. You are all very dear.
Archive: Sure, just let me know where first
Webpage: www.geocities.com/Paris/Metro/4859/JiM.html (Thanks, Mona!)
Feedback: jimpage363@aol.com

* * *

"Descent"
by JiM

* * *

It was in late April that Walter Skinner began to trip over things that were not there. By mid-May, he had begun falling down for no good reason and it annoyed him. In early June, the doctor was jovial and reassuring. By the end of July, he was grave and offering options that weren't truly options and they both knew it. In October, Skinner began using a cane and by Thanksgiving, he had come to terms with the fact that his retirement fund wasn't going to get a chance to mature.

He hated the tremor in his hand as he reached to dial a phone number that had cost him a very large amount of money to obtain. It was the same damned tremor he now felt in his leg. But his voice was steady as he said into the receiver, "I have a business proposition for you. If you're interested, meet me at my place in an hour." Then he hung up and went home to meet a man he'd hoped never to see again.

* * *
Krycek was punctual; there was an automatic pistol pressed against Skinner's skull 57 minutes after he had made the call. "OK, Skinner. What are you trying to pull?"

Skinner didn't flinch, although the hand holding the coffee mug shook slightly. "Just trying to hire the right man for the right job."

The gun didn't move from his temple. "Which is?"

"I want some people killed." His calm words shocked Krycek enough that the weapon dipped, then slid away entirely.

"Are you feeling all right?"

"No. How much?"

Something in his too-calm tone convinced the assassin that he was serious. Krycek stepped away and sat down in the other chair at the kitchen table. He stared at the other man for long moments before saying, "It depends. Who are they and how well protected are they?"

Skinner put his mug down and slid a handwritten list of names across the table. Krycek picked it up, read the first five and whistled softly. "You've set your sights high here, Skinner. These will cost. A lot." He read a grim kind of determination in the deeply shadowed eyes that met his in the empty kitchen. "Thirty thousand a piece for the top five. The others will be less."

"Twenty." Skinner's voice was hoarse. "No collateral damage."

"Twenty five," Krycek countered, watching Skinner's fingers quiver against the tabletop. "I won't subcontract on these. It'll be precision work."

Skinner finally nodded in agreement.

"How do I know this is on the level?" Krycek asked. Skinner reached down toward a black gym bag on the floor beside him. Krycek's gun was back in Skinner's face before his fingers had touched the nylon. Skinner held up his hands to show his peaceful intention and the air between them was thick with the ashes of the past. Krycek put his weapon up and Skinner bent down again. He pulled several thick packets of bills out of the bag and dropped them on the table in front of Krycek.

"Twenty five thousand. The first name on the list."

"When?" Krycek didn't touch the money.

"ASAP. When you've done it, come back and I'll pay you half the price of the next job."

Krycek still sat and stared at him. "Why are you doing this? This isn't your style."

Skinner grimaced and didn't look at the assassin. "My 'style' has changed, Krycek. I don't have the time to wait around for justice to overtake these bastards."

"What's the rush?" The assassin made his decision and reached out a black gloved hand toward the stack of money. Skinner watched him stow the cash in the inside pockets of his battered leather jacket, pistol left carefully within his own reach.

"Just get it done. Let me know when you're successful."

Sensing the dismissal in the words, Krycek got to his feet and holstered his pistol. "To be honest, Skinner, it's gonna be a pleasure to take that guy out. He's done things you can't even imagine."

"I don't have to, Krycek, I know what he's done. Just take the money and ..." Suddenly, Skinner's voice trailed off and his shoulders slumped. "Just do it," he repeated.

He didn't hear the assassin leave, he just stared into his cold coffee and wondered if he would be at peace with this decision the next time he heard from Krycek.

* * *

The call came in three days.

"It's done. No problems." And the line went dead in his hand.

Skinner had already seen the preliminary reports. The senator had been killed execution-style in his private office. There were no witnesses, no clues, no leads. A nice clean hit and Skinner felt something that was sludgily close to pride at the neatness of the job. Krycek came that night for his next installment. The assassin was nearly genial. "It went like clockwork. Textbook," he grinned, suddenly boyish, and Skinner found himself swallowing rapidly. He studied Krycek, wondering if he would have had the same sated look in his eyes if he had been the one to pull the trigger.

"Good job. The next one will be just as easy." Skinner tossed over a dossier copied at the Hoover Building weeks ago in preparation for this moment. Krycek skimmed the contents of the folder standing in the middle of Skinner's kitchen. Skinner sat and watched the skin of his own forearms ripple minutely; the tremors had begun on the right side now, months ahead of his doctor's predictions.

When the folder hit the tabletop, Skinner looked up to find Krycek watching him narrowly. But he said nothing more than, "She won't be a problem. You'll hear from me within the week." He pocketed the packet of cash and left without another word.

Five days later, the world was appropriately and momentarily shocked at the apparent suicide of a genetic researcher at a private college in rural Pennsylvania. That she had chosen to immolate herself and all of her research notes in her laboratory was a matter of fruitless speculation that died out quickly in all but one select and rapidly diminishing group of people.

* * *

Skinner stared at his favorite and most annoying agents with rising irritation and a sense of something that he would later realize was shame. "No, Agent Scully, I'm fine, thank you." The fall had been his own damned fault, he'd gotten up from behind his desk too quickly, startled by the knock on his door. The two agents had leapt to help him and he had seen the surprise in their eyes when he clambered slowly to his feet, clumsily grabbing for Mulder's shoulder when his left leg cramped.

"Just spent too much time at the gym yesterday," he said stupidly, knowing from the worried narrowing of their eyes that they weren't buying it. He cursed internally; he used to be a much better liar. He straightened slowly and moved back to sit behind his desk. "Now, I had some questions about the Jordan case," he said firmly.

* * *

The third assassination also took place without a glitch and Skinner was bleakly pleased to think that he was getting value for the thousands of dollars he kept handing to Krycek. His banker expressed some dismay at the large sums of money that he was taking out of his retirement fund and the early withdrawal fees were galling, but Skinner was able to assure him that he was investing the money wisely. He considered it an investment in the future; if not his own, then in that of Mulder and Scully and her baby. The child would grow up in a world made just a tiny bit better by the removal of some of the most evil people he had ever encountered.

He wanted to consider it a fair trade and sometimes on sunny days, watching Mulder smile or hearing Scully's laughter, it almost was. But deep in the night, lying in his newly-purchased hospital bed, feeling himself becoming weaker every day, the rage rose in his throat, thick and black. He wondered if the disease was really responsible for the trouble he now had swallowing or if it were nothing more than the fury that couldn't be suppressed.

Then something went badly wrong with the fourth name on the list.

* * *

Skinner heard about it on the 11 o'clock news. A special report detailed the kidnapping attempt on the CEO of a small pharmaceutical company in Reston, VA. The assailant had managed to seize the man and force him into a car, but bodyguards had given chase and run the car off the road. The driver had been injured but escaped into the snowy night. The drug manufacturer had been taken to a local hospital where he remained in serious condition and under heavy guard.

When Skinner called Krycek's number, it went unanswered.

He heard the thump on his front door sometime after 3 am and he knew exactly who it had to be. When he opened the door, Krycek was slumped against the doorframe, snow melting off his hair and battered face. Wary green eyes fixed on him and Skinner knew suddenly that Krycek didn't really expect any help. He didn't hope, didn't have any options and probably expected to have his ass kicked for failing..

Skinner held the door open wider and let the wounded man stagger inside. Krycek limped to the couch and sat down, slush dripping from his boots and staining his jeans. Dried blood was smeared down one side of his face and his left eye had begun to blacken. Small cuts, most likely from flying glass, oozed a little blood as he grimaced at his unlikely host. "This one didn't go quite according to plan," he finally said.

Skinner nodded. "Good. Because a plan that leaves the mark alive and the assassin half dead sucks." Then he slowly turned and made his way to the bathroom, trying not to notice the way Krycek stared at the pair of aluminum canes he was now using.

When he returned to the living room, Krycek was asleep on the couch, head thrown back, mouth slightly open. Skinner realized that he could kill Krycek where he sat, no difficulty even for a man as weak as he was now. He dropped the plastic first aid kit with a clatter onto the coffee table. Krycek jerked awake, hand scrabbling inside his jacket for a weapon before his eyes were fully open. When he focused on Skinner's expressionless face, he relaxed minutely, then winced as his injuries made themselves known.

"Is anything broken?" Skinner asked.

Krycek shook his head and shrugged a shoulder, then caught his breath with a gasp. "I might have a cracked rib or two."

"Look at me," Skinner growled and waited until Krycek's gaze fixed on him. He stared into mismatched green eyes until the other man fidgeted, then snarled at the pain the movement caused him. "I think you might have a concussion."

Krycek swore, then slowly began to paw through the kit, laying out gauze pads and alcohol wipes and bandages. Skinner watched him for a minute, then turned and made his way to the kitchen. He got out a plastic cup and filled it half full of water, then grabbed the aspirin bottle from the table and put it in the pocket of his robe. It was a clumsy business, carrying water when he needed both hands just to walk, but he had begun to learn the tricks. The half filled cups, the deep pockets in everything he wore now, sometimes carrying things in his teeth... they were part of the hundreds of small adaptations and adjustments he made, nothing more than stopgap measures that would let him stay independent a few months longer.

He managed to bring the cup to Krycek without spilling it. "Here," he said gruffly, handing it to the startled assassin. Then he pulled out the aspirin bottle and put it on the table, feeling it slip the last inch from his fingers and clatter onto the glass. Krycek wiped away the blood from above his eyebrow and reached for a fresh dressing. "What's wrong with you?"

"You mean besides the fact that there's a beat up contract killer on my couch?"

"Yeah."

"None of your goddamned business," Skinner said evenly. "There are blankets in the hall closet. Good night." And he went slowly back to bed, trying very hard not to think about the man in his living room.

* * *

He might have even been successful in his attempt to forget entirely about Krycek except for two things. One, the man was still sleeping deeply in his living room when Skinner left for work. He had roused muzzily when Skinner shook him at 6 am, just to make certain he hadn't slipped into a coma. Then he had clumsily turned over and went right back to sleep.

The second reason Skinner was unable to decently pretend that Alex Krycek didn't exist was, predictably, Mulder. He was at his most earnest and mule-headed, presenting the rumors that Krycek had been seen in the vicinity of Reston on the same day as the kidnapping attempt. His theory about Krycek's involvement was eerily accurate, right down to the motive that someone was trying to assassinate former Consortium support people. He tossed over three file folders with names that Skinner recognized all too well. Then Mulder said, "Every one of these people was involved in medical research or pharmaceutical development and is tied in with Consortium interests, sir. Doesn't that pique your curiosity at all? I'd like permission to investigate."

It was too much. Skinner felt crazy laughter rising in his throat and he used it to push the words out. "No, Agent Mulder. You will *not* investigate this. Those cases are being adequately pursued by other agents and by the police. " No one else had seen the connection, no one but Mulder. Once again, Skinner had to admire the man even as he wanted to strangle him.

"But, sir..." then Mulder stopped and looked more closely at Skinner. "Is it Krycek, sir? Has he contacted you, threatened you in regard to these cases?"

Well, at least that was something he could answer honestly. "No, Mulder, he hasn't. I'm just trying to prevent you from wasting your time and the Bureau's resources on something that won't pan out."

"Would you tell me if he were? If Krycek had reactivated those nanocytes?" Mulder was heartrendingly sincere and Skinner felt a deep stab of shame that had everything to do with the fact that Mulder would be appalled if he knew Skinner's real relationship with Krycek now and the connection to the murders in the pile of manila on the desk between them. There was nothing to do but nod reassuringly and shuffle some papers with his trembling hands.

"You're sick," Mulder said baldly. "If it's not Krycek, what is it?"

"None of your business, Agent Mulder," Skinner said in his most chilling tone. Not this, not today. He wasn't ready to have this conversation yet. Of course, Mulder ignored all the warnings as usual.

"Come off it, Walter. The last time you looked this bad, you were dying." The mocking tone echoed flatly in the long room and Skinner watched as Mulder finally got it. The younger man suddenly slumped back in his chair and stared at Skinner, brows knit and mouth hanging open, stricken. Skinner could only nod, suddenly and perversely glad that Mulder knew.

* * *

"Lou Gehrig's Disease," the voice said out of the darkness of his living room.

Skinner slapped at the light switch beside the front door. "You're still here," he frowned in concentration as he slipped out of his coat and hung it on a large hook recently installed beside the door.

"Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis," Krycek said musingly. He was sitting on the couch still, looking even worse than he had the night before. Skinner was irritated to see that Krycek was wearing one of his sweaters. All of Skinner's medications were arranged on the coffee table in front of him, along with a hatefully familiar palmtop computer. "A little research can turn up a lot of information once you finally know what you're looking for."

"Gee, Krycek, I didn't know you cared. Now you know why there's a tight timetable on this job."

"Now I know," he agreed. And said nothing else.

Unable to face the tedious task of preparing and trying to eat a meal he didn't want and was pretty sure he couldn't swallow anyway, Skinner turned his attention to the failed assassination. He felt a small, mean pleasure in throwing Krycek's own failure back in his face. "Why the hell did you try to kidnap him in the first place?"

"Because you said 'no collateral damage'. He was supposed to spend the evening at home with his wife and bodyguards. It was the best I could come up with. Otherwise, there would have been a nice, easy gas leak at the house and the problem would have been solved."

Skinner wanted to snarl but there was no point. Krycek hadn't failed; he'd tried to fulfill the contract according to the rules and it had gone sour. There was no help for it.

"Yeah, well, we have another problem. Mulder got wind of it and he put it together in a neat little package with the other three jobs; delivered it right to my desk this morning. He doesn't know I'm connected, but he knows you're responsible."

Krycek swore, then Skinner was surprised to see a grudging smile form. "Mulder. What were the odds? Who else can screw up an operation faster?"

"Yeah, it's a talent he has." They shared an almost companionable grin in honor of Mulder's God-given gift to stumble into any carefully laid plot. Then Krycek's face went professionally blank.

"Do I need to take any action there?"

"No!"

"Still got that soft spot for him, huh Skinner?" Krycek's sharp grin wasn't pleasant. "The Smoker used to wonder about that."

Skinner ignored the dig. "Let's be clear here, Krycek. If Mulder is harmed, you get nothing."

"More rules. You've got too many scruples for this game. What if he manages to find his way into the next operation? Hell, he probably knows the next three names on that list."

"No collateral damage," Skinner reminded him. "If he stumbles into an operation, drop it."

Krycek shook his head in disgust but didn't challenge it further. Skinner had the curious sensation that Krycek was almost relieved at the new stricture.

* * *

Christmas came and went and Skinner paid little attention to it beyond politely returning greetings of the season and giving his assistant two days off. On the afternoon of New Year's eve, he finally had his meeting with the Director. Once the polite expressions of shock and sympathy were out of the way, they discussed options for scaling down Skinner's workload and the reassignment of the departments under his supervision. He requested that the X-Files remain under his supervision for as long as possible and wasn't surprised at the Director's thin smile. "The problem, Walter, will be getting someone to take them over once you're gone."

Skinner walked slowly back to his office, the words 'when you're gone' coiling around him. For the first time, he noticed the faces that turned away from him in the hallway, the shocked glances that slid over him and never quite met his gaze. Finally, other people were beginning to see what Mulder had seen weeks ago, what he saw in the mirror every morning now. He was thinner, weaker, paler. Dying. He could say it now and he didn't feel that surge of anger any more. He half-suspected it was because he was too tired to waste his energy being angry. There were no bargains to be made, no way to deny the truth. All that was left was acceptance. And revenge.

Sitting in the middle of his desk blotter was a Christmas card. When he opened it, it was blank, no name scribbled under the generic swirling message about peace on earth. A copy of his own special list fell out with the fifth name on it crossed out in heavy black ink. His laughter echoed through his office, jagged as ice cracking on stone. Krycek's own version of holiday cheer and he was appalled but perversely pleased, which made it all the worse.

Krycek had been gone the morning after he had discovered Skinner's illness and there had been no contact since. They had agreed to leave the fourth mark on hold until Krycek had healed entirely from the car accident. Two days later, Skinner had seen a news report that the drug manufacturer had died from a sudden heart attack while still in the ICU. He might have suspected Krycek but the assassin hadn't arrived to collect the second half of his payment. Apparently there was honor among thieves and he didn't intend to charge for a half-finished job.

Skinner propped the card up on the edge of his desk and went back to work.

* * *

Krycek showed up not long after Skinner got home that evening. He hadn't broken in after that first time, but he must have been lurking somewhere close by to arrive before Skinner had finished loosening his tie. He came in without a word, raindrops sparkling in his hair and on his wool overcoat. In one hand, he held a bottle of scotch and Skinner was curiously unsurprised to find that it was his favorite brand. There was a dusty bottle with no more than a half inch left in it on the shelf in his living room, but the bottle Krycek had brought was thirty years older, much rarer and more expensive.

"Come into some money recently, Krycek?"

The other man grinned, flashing sharp teeth. The bruises from the car accident were a patchwork of faded purple and yellow along the side of his face. "Business has been good lately. I can afford the indulgence." Skinner nodded and almost smiled in return and Krycek seemed to take that as an invitation. He took off his coat and hung it to drip beside Skinner's.

"Have you eaten yet?" Now Skinner had surprised Krycek. "Come on," he said and led the way to the kitchen. "It's nothing special. Cream of broccoli soup."

"Well, it's more than I planned on. I was just going to drink until I passed out."

Skinner pulled a plastic container of soup from the refrigerator, then turned to cock an eyebrow at his guest. "Isn't that dangerous for a man with your... connections?"

The sharp smile again. "I like to live dangerously."

"I thought you just liked to live," Skinner said sourly and fumbled the saucepan so that it clattered on the stovetop. Krycek said nothing but was suddenly there, taking the pot and the soup out of Skinner's hand. Skinner found himself staring at Krycek's artificial hand, watching as the gloved plastic fingers gripped the edge of the pot firmly. His own left hand twitched and jigged against his thigh. When Krycek looked up, Skinner looked away, then slowly moved to sit down.

"You look tired," Krycek said, letting the greenish mass of soup glop into the pot.

There was nothing to say to that; Skinner knew exactly what he looked like. So he answered the question he thought Krycek was really asking. "Three months, maybe four."

Krycek nodded. "I ought to be able to finish your list by then. Maybe even add a few special projects you might like. Some research facilities, a few "specialized" surgical units, a couple of closed army bases." He turned the heat on under the pot and stirred the soup with a spoon from a crock on the countertop.

"How much?" Skinner let his fingers rest against the cool glass of the whiskey bottle Krycek had set down on the table and stared at his back.

The assassin turned around and his lip curled. "I'll give you a bulk discount. And an exclusive contract. No other jobs until ..."

"... until I'm dead," Skinner finished for him.

"Or the money runs out."

"It won't. There are bowls in the cupboard to your right." Skinner watched as Krycek took down two brightly colored deep bowls of thick institutional plastic. He held one up and stared at it. "Not your style at all," he mused. He began ladling the thick green soup into it.

"They don't break when I drop them," Skinner said flatly. Krycek looked up quickly and started to say something, then thought better of it and turned back to his task. After a minute, he said over his shoulder, "It took me six weeks to learn how to cut into a steak again."

They ate in silence, Krycek carefully not noticing the times Skinner's hand wouldn't cooperate or the trouble he had swallowing. After Krycek finished his second bowl, he took down two thick plastic tumblers, then cracked the seal on the whiskey. "Let's get started. We've only got a couple of hours left to get too drunk to watch that damned ball drop."

"I'm not supposed to drink," Skinner said, pushing his bowl away.

"You're not supposed to kill people, either. You like it neat or on the rocks?"

"Straight up," Skinner said and reached for the half-filled cup Krycek held out to him. "Happy New Year, Krycek."

* * *

"Do you like killing?" Skinner asked, a scant half inch into his whiskey. "Is it just a job to you or is there something more to it?"

They had moved into his living room and watched the crowd milling in Times Square on the muted TV. Krycek sat on the couch next to Skinner's armchair, bottle within easy reach on the coffee table before them. In dark slacks and a crimson sweater, he looked too clean cut and normal to be the person who had done or seen the things he had. He pursed his lips, considering the question, eyes fixed on his glass. Finally, he said,

"Mostly, it's a job. They told me who to kill, I did it. I knew some guys who got a charge out of it, but I never did. Not really," he added after a moment.

Somehow, Skinner had always imagined Krycek delighting in the blood flowing over his hands, the hot fresh scent of it rising to make him smirk. This workman-like attitude was an unwelcome surprise, tilting his world-view too sharply for the whiskey to compensate. "And me?" he grated. "Did you get a charge out of killing me?"

He had startled Krycek, he could tell. The other man opened his mouth, then closed it. Then he said only, "No. You were just a job."

Somehow, that soothed him. Some raw place that burned and bled inside at the idea that he had been a source of boyishly cruel pleasure was eased. Then Krycek struck back.

"You were a soldier. Did you like killing people?"

"No!" He hadn't. He'd hated it. So he had tried not to think about it. Had gotten very successful at not thinking of his targets as people at all. It had been easier to simply shoot at the dark smudges, to return fire in the jungle, to do his job. "I followed orders." Pushing weakly at the truth trying to slip around whatever was left of his defenses.

"So did I."

"It's not the same, dammit." Skinner let a half teaspoon of excellent whiskey trickle down his tight throat.

"It is," Krycek said quietly. "We both took orders, we killed who we were told to, they paid us for it."

"I was a soldier! You're an assassin."

"And the difference is...?"

Suddenly, the difference between them seemed almost negligible. Skinner tried to shrug it away, then gasped as the stiff muscles of his shoulder and neck caught and cramped. One more of the endless symptoms of his disease; he had forgotten to take his evening dose and the heating pad was three rooms away. He dropped his head back, gritted his teeth and waited for the spasm to pass.

Then Krycek was there and a strong hand was working at the locked muscles, battering at them, demanding that they ease. It was awkward, that one-handed massage. It hurt. But slowly and surely, he could feel the spasm easing. Krycek was more gentle now, soothing the loosening muscles, cajoling them. Skinner let his breath out slowly. Then he inhaled slowly, carefully, half-expecting the tearing pain to ambush him again. Krycek's hand was warm on his neck, rubbing lightly at still-twitching muscles.

"Does this happen a lot?"

"Often enough. I have quinine to take for it." He gestured toward the regiment of pill bottles lined up on the counter of the breakfast bar. "I forgot."

Krycek crossed the room and picked through the medications until he found the one he was searching for. He shook one out, then came back to Skinner. He picked up his own cup, the liquid in it now mostly a puddle of melted ice, and held it out with the tablet. Skinner swallowed it and nodded. "Thanks. This isn't part of the job description." He didn't meet Krycek's eyes. He had thought himself beyond stupid pride, beyond caring what anyone else saw when they looked at him now.

Krycek sat back down and helped himself to Skinner's cup, pouring himself another generous measure. "No problem. It beats the 'perks' Spender used to want." Then he looked faintly surprised, as if he hadn't expected to hear himself say that.

They sat and watched the muted surge of humanity in Times Square. Krycek drank and Skinner concentrated on flexing each of his fingers, one at a time, wondering if they responded a fraction more slowly than they had yesterday.

"Krycek? Would you kill me?"

Suddenly, it was very quiet in the apartment. Skinner could hear the faint sounds of merry-making from New York. He could hear Krycek swallow, then set his cup down very carefully. "Now?"

Paradoxically, he felt a trickle of fear. "No, not right now. When it gets too bad. When we've finished the list and gotten through some of those special projects you mentioned. Before I need a fucking feeding tube and ventilator. I won't be able to trust my hands by then or I'd do it myself. I'll tell you when."

Krycek nodded. "How much?"

"Five grand."

Krycek snorted in disdain.

"It's not like the target is going to be all that tough to track down," Skinner pointed out. "Low overhead - one bullet."

"Ten. I'll make it painless and I won't leave you splattered all over the landscape. *Which* a bullet would."

"What do I care? I won't have to clean it up."

Krycek hissed in annoyance. "Scully. Mulder. You want their last memory of you to be a crime scene photo?"

After a stricken moment, Skinner nodded jerkily. "OK, ten grand. And you'll take care of the details. So they... so it's clean."

Krycek nodded. "No problem." Then he held up the bottle. "Want some more?" He didn't wait for Skinner's reply, pouring a splash into the empty cup. There was a strange half smile on his face. "All those people trying to kill you, *paid* to kill you and you outlasted them all."

"Except you."

"Except me. And now you want to *pay me* to do it. I think my life actually just got weirder than Mulder's."

Skinner slowly raised his cup in a silent toast which Krycek returned solemnly. Then they drank.

* * *

Skinner would have given a lot not to remember how he'd gotten to bed after that. Unfortunately, lying in his too-fucking-convenient hospital bed, the gray morning light filtering past his closed curtains, he remembered with a kind of knife-edged clarity that cut deeper than any hangover could.

* * *

2 am had come and gone and the level in Krycek's bottle was significantly lower when Skinner finally began the long slow business of getting himself to bed. He left Krycek sitting on the couch, staring blankly at the TV. The drink and the muscle spasms had dulled his curiosity about whether or not the assassin planned on staying. He was propped against the vanity of his bathroom, concentrating on the job of getting his fumbling fingers to unbutton his shirt, when Krycek's hand slipped around him and began easily slipping the buttons through their holes.

"What the hell are you doing?" Skinner jerked away and overbalanced. Krycek caught him and held him under the elbows until he regained his uneasy equilibrium. The prosthetic hand was cool and gripped his arm too tightly, even as Krycek reached around again and unfastened the next button with his other hand.

"Helping you." Krycek's face in the mirror was flushed and his eyes had a whisky-sheen to them. He slid the shirt off Skinner's shoulders, slowly threading Skinner's shaking hands through the still-buttoned cuffs.

"Why?" Skinner rocked dangerously and grabbed for the counter top of the vanity.

"Because you need help. Because I can. Because you're the man with the money." Krycek shrugged. Then he peeled Skinner's undershirt off and turned away toward the hamper, the wadded up shirts in his hand.

Abruptly, Skinner hated the man behind him. "Is this one of those special 'perks' you used to give Spender?"

Krycek's head snapped up, all trace of drunken haze gone from the eyes that met Skinner's in the mirror. "Don't make me want to kill you, Skinner."

As quickly as it had come, the hatred was gone and Skinner didn't look at himself in the mirror as Krycek's hand easily unbuckled his belt and unfastened the single button on his slacks.

"Brace yourself," Krycek said shortly, then knelt at Skinner's feet. He tapped at Skinner's right shin and it took him a moment of concentration to shift his weight off that foot so that Krycek could pull off his loafer and sock. They repeated the sequence on the other side, Krycek straightening up slowly, a hint of stiffness as he stood and took the shoes into the walk-in closet.

Krycek disappeared while Skinner brushed his teeth and used the bathroom, then took the handful of pills that were becoming harder to swallow every night. He found it was too difficult to walk with his slacks unbuttoned and canes in both hands, so he just let them slide off his hips to the floor. He stepped out of them and moved into the bedroom to find that Krycek had turned down his clumsily made bed. The assassin was standing beside the bed, considering the abstract watercolor that hung above it.

"I never figured you for an art lover."

"My wife gave it to me," Skinner grunted as he dropped onto the bed. Krycek moved to catch one of the canes as it clattered against the bed rail, then to the floor. He watched dispassionately as Skinner lifted his too-heavy legs into bed, then he flipped the covers up over him.

"Are you gonna check the closet for monsters, too?"

"Look, what's the problem? You need help, I'm here, you get help."

He was too tired to be this angry. Rage required strength and muscles to which he no longer had any lines of communication. The best he could do was to strike out weakly at Krycek with words, a man he had once battered down with the same hands that now trembled on top of the blankets. "What other help are you used to giving your employers, Krycek?" The sharp taste of bile was in his mouth even as the taunt passed his lips.

The other man stared at him coldly. "Were you always this much of a bastard? Or is it the disease?"

Skinner's lip curled. "They tell me that ALS doesn't affect your personality."

"Maybe you just need to get laid."

"Fuck you," Skinner said, admitting defeat, not even able to sustain his fury. There was no answer. When he looked up, Krycek was looking at him speculatively. Skinner had the unpleasant feeling that he was being weighed, measured on some internal scale that only Krycek could balance.

Then the assassin was leaning toward him. Again, Skinner felt that idiot frisson of fear. What did it matter if Krycek killed him now or later? But Krycek wasn't reaching for his throat; instead, he peeled back the blankets, exposing Skinner's body again. He waited for Krycek to sneer, to repay his evil temper with the simplest and most devastating truths - that his body had wasted away until he looked like a twelve-year-old boy, too skinny, no shape to him any more, no power left. "What the hell are you doing?" Skinner demanded for the second time that night.

"Solving your problem," Krycek said tightly and slipped his fingers beneath the waistband of Skinner's briefs. "You definitely need to get laid." Skinner batted ineffectually at the assassin's relentless hand as his underwear was stripped away.

"Krycek! Get your hands off me NOW!"

Krycek ignored him, turning to consider Skinner's too bony legs and hips. Then he sat on the edge of the bed and shoved Skinner's left leg, shifting it to arrange Skinner's legs more comfortably around him. It was a final humiliation, to be naked and exposed and so fucking *weak* before this man. What a rat bastard son-of-a-bitch way to show who had the power here.

"Are you so hard up you have to rape cripples?"

"Therapy," Krycek said indistinctly and Skinner remembered that more than half that fifth of whisky had gone down him in just a few hours. "He used to call it 'therapy'. Said it made it possible to sleep, no matter what was going on." He slid his hands up the outside of Skinner's thighs, one warm, one chilling. "Let's see if it'll work on you."

"Who? Who used to s-s-say that?" Skinner tried to keep his tone even as Krycek's hand began stroking at his limp penis. Slowly, Skinner began reaching for the pistol he kept in the bedside table, then gasped as warm fingers took a firmer grip and began sliding up and down. He didn't want it to feel good, certainly not this good. He took a deep breath to stifle a whimper, whether of pleasure or mortification, even he couldn't say as Krycek's fingers tightened, finding the sweetest spot again and again. Skinner's fingers touched the butt of the pistol.

"How long has it been, Skinner?" Krycek asked with mild curiosity, most of his attention fixed on the slowly hardening length in his hand. "Weeks? A few months? A year?" His eyes barely flickered when Skinner shoved the pistol in his face. His gaze met Skinner's and he licked his bottom lip. "You need this," Krycek said, brushing the pistol out of the way with his left hand. "A blow job is a blow job. Doesn't matter whose mouth it is." Then he bent his head and took the half-hard organ into his mouth.

Skinner dropped back onto the pillow with a strangled shout. "Jesus!" The gun clattered to the floor.

Krycek smiled briefly around his mouthful, then began licking and sucking in earnest. It was, Skinner thought disjointedly, one of the best and worst blowjobs he had ever gotten. Krycek's mouth was delicate and thorough, hot, wet, and he had a kind of genius for finding the most sensitive spots and waking them to the point of explosion. Skinner had almost forgotten that he could feel that kind of surging pleasure from the same body that was failing him so completely, day after day. But he couldn't quite forget, as he shuddered and came, that his fingers were clamped around the head of a hired killer.

Who was lapping at him like a sleepy puppy, cleaning the last drops of his pleasure off his skin. Skinner loosened his shaking grip from Krycek's hair and stared at the ceiling. Krycek pulled away, then straightened abruptly. His face was blank as he flipped the covers back over Skinner, pulling them up to his still-heaving chest.

Skinner felt sated, shrouded with a forbidden pleasure, sleepy and boneless and stupid. "Krycek..." But Skinner had no idea what he'd planned to say and Krycek turned away without missing a beat. The assassin picked up the pistol and put it back in the bedside table, then turned out the light.

"Good night." He moved away in the darkness, a deeper shadow than the night.

"Krycek..."

The dark shadow paused at the door.

"There are blankets..."

"... in the hall closet. I know." But Skinner could almost hear those lips parting and the edge of a grin showed pale in the darkness. "Sleep well." Then he was gone.

* * *

But Skinner could hear him moving around the apartment even as he continued to lay in bed, not quite ready to face the day or Krycek. He had slept for ten straight hours and his head was ringingly clear despite the sour taste in his mouth and the strong suspicion that he was turning into someone he wouldn't even recognize in a few weeks.

"Do you need a hand getting up? There's coffee in the kitchen; might as well have your heterosexual freak out there." Krycek was standing in the doorway, a mug in his hand. With an irritation that bordered on some unknown raw emotion, Skinner saw that Krycek was once again wearing one of his sweaters.

"It's better in the morning," Skinner said obliquely and sat up slowly. He swung his legs out of bed, turning his naked back to Krycek as he reached for his canes. When he'd gained his feet, he turned to stare Krycek down, but the doorway was empty. So he got dressed and went out to the kitchen.

His hired killer was sitting at the kitchen table, a plate of dry toast and a mug of black coffee in front of him. Krycek was reading the editorial page of the Post and rubbing fretfully at his forehead. Thinking about exactly how much whisky was no longer in that bottle, Skinner took the aspirin bottle from the cabinet and put it on the table in front of Krycek. Then he went to pour himself half a cup of coffee.

He sat down just in time to see Krycek swallow six tablets with the last swallow in his mug, then push the plate of toast across the table. Skinner shook his head. "You look like shit." He broke off a crust and began to chew it carefully.

"I'm too old to drink like that any more."

"I always was. Hell, the last time I got that drunk, I woke up next to someone dead."

Krycek raised bleary eyes to his. "Your drink was doctored that time. She put rohypnol in it."

Skinner was very still for a moment. Then he closed his eyes and thought of the prostitute, beautiful and used and dead. "Was it you?"

Krycek shook his head. "I heard about it later, from the guy who set it up. It was a classic blackmail scenario, with a nasty twist." Skinner opened his mouth, and Krycek said, "He's dead already."

"Good." And Krycek nodded.

Skinner ate most of a piece of toast and drank his coffee and watched Krycek try to beat back the worst of his hangover. The sidelong looks the assassin was giving him eventually annoyed him enough to snap, "I'm not going to 'have a heterosexual freak out'. I don't have *time* for that shit any more.

"But if you ever touch me again without permission, I *will* shoot you."

Krycek nodded solemnly, then a small, evil smile quirked his mouth. "Unless I can get my mouth on you first."

* * *

The next assassinations were simple, elegant and precise. In fact, for two weeks afterward, they weren't even recognized as anything more than a tragic accidents. One killed two middle-aged Canadian entomologists whose work with unusual strains of honey bees had been recognized worldwide and the other was reported as an accidental overdose by a child psychologist with a very select clientele.

He and Krycek had planned them both out during the long gray afternoon of New Year's Day. Skinner wanted to be appalled at how much he enjoyed the mental challenge of plotting the perfect murders. He wanted to be shocked at the way Krycek's admiring glance warmed him. But the simple truth was that his refinements to Krycek's functional but somewhat crude plans *were* improvements. The planning process made him realize that it was only his body, not his mind that was failing. And his ethical standards, he added mentally.

Krycek did not leave again. When Skinner had growled in outrage, Krycek merely held up a letter from the hospice group that Skinner had contacted. Apparently he had spent part of his hungover morning hours perusing Skinner's mail. "A full time nurse might wonder about your little hobby. And me."

"Hell, *I* wonder about you, Krycek."

But Krycek had moved a small duffel bag of clothing and a large case of hardware into Skinner's spare room and had unobtrusively taken over the more mundane tasks of the household, in between contract killings. Groceries and cooking and the thousand and one details that made up a normal life were suddenly taken off Skinner's shoulders. It gave him more energy for his work, which came in handy as the New Year began with a bang, at least as far as Mulder and Scully were concerned.

* * *

Reviewing the case file, their report and the police logs, he had to admit that his agents really had done everything they could have to minimize the damage. Unfortunately, the damage covered two counties, three police departments and the governor's mansion of a southern state. Technically, the case had been solved, but none of the families involved were going to like the solution.

Skinner lectured Mulder and Scully on discretion and tact and working in tandem with civil law enforcement - but they had all heard this lecture before and he broke off in mid-sentence with a sigh, slapping the folder into his "Out" box.

"To Hell with it."

"Sir?" Scully's left eyebrow was raised and she looked faintly outraged, as if she were being deprived of her justly deserved scolding.

"I don't care, you don't care and in two weeks, the governor won't, either. You did good work on this one, agents. Now go do some more." He waved a hand toward the door.

"Sir?" Mulder this time.

"Out," he clarified. Still looking faintly confused, they both got up and made their way toward the door.

"How are you feeling, sir?" Scully asked gently.

"Fine, Agent Scully. Thank you. How's the baby?" The words were cool and courteous and warned her that she was too close.

"She's just learned a new word; the word 'No!' The 'Terrible Twos' really are," she sighed.

"Funny, Scully, I don't have a problem with her," Mulder said cheerfully, holding the door open for her.

"That's because you spoil her rotten. You're not the one who has to discipline her." Scully nodded politely to her boss.

"Discipline has never been my strong suit," Mulder admitted, letting her slip out under his arm.

"No kidding," floated back from the outer office.

Mulder turned back, still smiling. Then it faded and he said, "Sir? Do you need any help?"

"Help, Agent Mulder?" Skinner tried for his most forbidding expression, but he should have known it wouldn't faze Mulder in the least. He looked shy, but his jaw was determined.

"Grocery shopping or errands or anything like that. I'm here."

"I...uh, that's very kind, Agent Mulder, but I don't need any help."

A stubborn line appeared between Mulder's brows. "You can barely walk. I can do whatever you need done. I want to," he added.

"Mulder. I just told you. I don't need any help. Thank you, but I'm fine." He decided that a judicious bit of truth might go far here. "I have someone to do what I need done." A brief flash of the specific services that Krycek provided tested Skinner's self-restraint considerably.

"You're sure?" There was a flash of hurt in Mulder's eyes.

Skinner nodded and gave him a small smile. "I'm sure. *Thank you*. Now get out of here and let me work, all right?"

Mulder nodded and left, a worried frown on his face. Skinner realized in retrospect that that expression was really his first and only warning that it was all about to go to hell, courtesy of Fox Mulder.

* * *

It became very clear to him, three nights later when he came home to find Mulder standing in his living room, a gun pointed at a beaten and bleeding Krycek on his sofa.

Skinner sighed. "You know, I remember a brief time when we all worked on the same side. No one bled on anything." The two men in the room stared at him as he took off his dripping trench coat and slung it on the hook by the door. "Mulder, what are you doing here?" Skinner asked tiredly. "And put the gun away."

Mulder glared in outrage. He said through gritted teeth, "I came to talk to you about some disturbing files that appeared on my desk this morning. I found this bastard breaking in."

Krycek sighed and wiped at the blood from his split lip. "Mulder, think for a minute. Who breaks in with groceries?"

"So that's how he got the jump on you." Skinner's lip twitched at the furious look Krycek gave Mulder. At least Mulder looked roughed up, too. "I said to put the gun away, Mulder."

Skinner ignored his agent's frustrated glare and went into the kitchen. He stared at the bags of spilled groceries, noting the milk and ice cream laying on the floor. Carefully, he bent down and picked them up, leaning heavily on the counter. He put the two containers away, then grabbed two bags of frozen vegetables from the freezer. Holding them in his teeth, he made his way back to the living room, breaking up the venomous tableau. He tossed one bag to Krycek. "That's for your face." He tossed the other to Mulder. "That's for your hand. And put the fucking gun away NOW."

He watched as Mulder sullenly complied. "Now. Sit down and tell me why you're here."

"Why don't you tell me why he's here?" Mulder jerked his chin at Krycek even as he wrapped the frozen vegetables around his bruised knuckles.

"Because it's none of your business, Agent Mulder."

Mulder pointed to a pile of manila folders on the coffee table in front of Krycek. "Those arrived this morning from an unnamed source. Interoffice mail. They make for interesting reading; the four original cases have been joined by three more. All Consortium-linked people, all dead. Most are murders, some appear to be accidental or illness.

"You wouldn't let me investigate the original murders, even though I knew *he* was involved. Why not?" Mulder asked quietly.

Skinner let himself down carefully into his armchair. He put the two canes on the floor beside him, then looked up at his agent. There was no point in denying anything any more. The worst was about to come and he felt a kind of numbness spreading over him that had nothing to do with his illness. "You know very well why I didn't let you investigate those cases."

"Was it because Krycek was blackmailing you? Because he still has control over those nanocytes?" Mulder's voice was low. Skinner just shook his head and leaned back tiredly. He closed his eyes.

"Mulder," Krycek said urgently, "just let this one go."

"I can't. I have to know the truth."

"What good has your truth ever done, Mulder? Tell me that," Krycek demanded. Mulder ignored him.

"Walter?"

"Krycek is working for me, Mulder." Skinner took a deep breath, then opened his eyes and looked straight at him. "I'm sorry, Fox. Is that what you want to hear? I'm sorry I'm not who you thought I was." His head felt too heavy again, so he laid it back and waited.

There was a kind of gritty silence then. Skinner almost thought he could hear the ice crystals melting against Krycek's face and in Mulder's hand. Mulder stumbled across the room and sat down on the sofa at the far end from Krycek. He tossed the bag of melting vegetables onto the tabletop, then dropped his head into his hands and ran his fingers through his hair.

"Someone knows what you're doing. They can't or won't move openly against you, so they're sending me the material, hoping to get me to do their dirty work for them."

"The only question is: will you?" Krycek asked.

There was only that gritted stillness again, but when Skinner opened his eyes, Mulder was shaking his head. "Thank you."

Mulder looked at him then, a long, wordless, infinitely complicated look. "I would have helped you," he said softly. "All you ever had to do was ask."

Skinner shook his head. "Think about it, Mulder. We're talking murder here. Cold-blooded murder. That's not what you're about."

"I would have helped you," Mulder said more softly, earnestly.

Skinner nodded then, accepting the gift of loyalty beyond reason even as he knew that Mulder was lying ...to himself, if no one else. Then he said, "Go home, Mulder. Play with the baby. Wash the dishes. Argue with Scully. Live."

Krycek spoke suddenly. "Mulder. Can you screw up your investigation for ten or twelve days?"

"I'm not going to investigate anything!" Mulder snapped at the assassin.

Krycek rolled his eyes and spoke slowly, as if to an idiot child. "If you don't, whoever sent the files will know you've figured it out. He may get desperate and move against Skinner openly. Or he may decide to put some pressure on you; you can't watch that kid every second of every day."

"Krycek's right, Mulder. Just make it look like you're doing what they want for a while. By the time he starts to get suspicious..."

"I'll have tracked him down and eliminated him," Krycek said coolly.

"... I'll be dead," Skinner said, equally coolly.

"Two weeks?" Mulder whispered, stricken.

Skinner nodded, then said again, "Go home, Fox."

Mulder rubbed his hands over his face again and he stared at the floor for a moment. But then he stood up, straightened himself and squared his shoulders. He crossed the room to Skinner's chair and dropped to one knee so that his face was level with Skinner's. He held out his right hand and smiled a little when Skinner took it. Then Mulder leaned forward and took Skinner into a clumsy hug. He held tight for long minutes, head bent as he pressed his face into Skinner's shoulder.

Then Mulder clambered to his feet and gradually released Skinner's hand, fingers sliding away slowly. He turned, scooped up his files and left without a word.

* * *

Skinner didn't see Mulder again. It took three days for him to finish the tedious business of resignation and he waited until Mulder and Scully were out of town on a case. On his last day, there was a somber good-bye luncheon attended by most of the senior staff. He couldn't swallow most of it, nor stomach the patently false expressions of regret from his erstwhile colleagues. When the farce was over, he shook hands with most of the bastards, a few good friends, kissed his PA and brushed away her tears. Then he left.

He made his way slowly down to the parking garage, trying hard not to recognize the feelings flooding through him; relief, freedom, renewal. He might have less than a month left in his life, but at least it was his own again.

Skinner was panting by the time he made it to the level he had parked on for more than a decade. There was a man in black leaning against his car, one hand in the pocket of his expensive overcoat. He stared at Krycek for a moment, who returned his stare calmly. Then Skinner tossed him the keys and walked slowly to the passenger side. "Get me out of here."

Krycek drove them out into the thin winter sunlight, then turned into mid-day traffic in the heart of Washington DC. Skinner watched his hands, both flesh and plastic, competent and skilled on the wheel. He touched the corner of his own mouth with a hand that shook, the drooling just another new and degrading symptom of the disease.

Krycek handed him a crisp linen handkerchief, face still expressionless. He kept his eyes on the road as Skinner wiped his mouth. Then, when he had finished and folded the handkerchief into his breast pocket, Krycek turned to him with a cheerful flash of teeth and asked, "Who would you like to kill today?"

* * *

// He was watching himself, lying on a hospital gurney, his veins and arteries traced out in blue, gasping for his last breath. His blood thickened and slowed, his heart pumped sluggishly one more time, then it all stopped. He watched the husk of himself die, then took a long, bitingly cold drag from the cigarette held between his wrinkled fingers and knew at last who he really was. //

His own shout woke him, still chasing and echoing around the room when Krycek came skidding through the door, pistol at the ready, eyes wide and wild. It took the assassin only a moment to realize that there was no danger. He lowered his weapon and crossed the room to turn on the bedside light, then looked down at Skinner. Strangely, there was no scorn in his eyes when he asked, "Bad dream?"

Skinner nodded jerkily, wiping at the corners of his mouth with his hand. Krycek put the gun down, then handed him a half-full cup of water from the bedside table. He watched as Skinner drank, then quietly took the emptied cup, refilled it and put it back down. When he turned back, he saw Skinner watching him and scowled.

It was the first time Skinner had seen Krycek without his prosthesis. He was wearing only a T-shirt and boxers and the maimed limb was pale and raw. The scarring twisted all around the crude cap of the arm, just above where Krycek's elbow had been. Skinner could feel something like pity trying to steal onto his face, but managed to twist his lips into a rueful grimace instead. Krycek had never given him pity and Skinner had never wanted it. The least he could do now was give Krycek the same courtesy.

"There's some cream in the bathroom," he offered. "They gave it to me for my hands when I started getting pressure bruising from the canes. It might help."

Krycek nodded shortly, eyes dark and impossible to read in the dimness. After a moment, he reached out his hand and laid it on Skinner's shoulder, testing the spasming muscles under his hand. "What about you? Do you need some help?"

Help. Krycek's word for his own special brand of physical therapy, a mixture of deep tissue massage, lighter stroking and oral sex that never failed to put Skinner to sleep, no matter how bad the spasming had been. Krycek never asked Skinner's permission, ignored any protests and routinely made him stupid with a purely physical pleasure that he'd never expected to feel again. He never offered any explanations, saying only, "You need this." And the hell of it was, he did.

But not tonight. Not when it would just underscore the thinness of the line that separated him from that smoking bastard. He knew very well what he'd been telling himself with that dream. He was too close now not to be honest with himself; dying was nothing if not an incentive to truth.

"Not tonight, Alex. Please. I can't do it any more." Skinner hated the defeated tone in his own voice. In past days, he had shouted, made acid remarks, demanded to be left alone, complained and growled. But he had never simply asked.

Krycek's hand tightened fractionally on Skinner's shoulder. Then he sat on the edge of Skinner's bed and began gently rubbing at the tight muscles under his hand. "Tell me about this dream."

Skinner shook his head. Krycek said nothing but continued to rub, his strong fingers curving around to loosen the bow-tight muscles of Skinner's neck. After a while, Skinner heard his own voice, as if from a great distance, saying, "I was him. First I died, then I realized I was him."

"Who?"

"Spender. I could even taste the Morley in my mouth." Christ, it sounded stupid when he said it aloud.

Krycek was quiet for a moment, hand still massaging. Then he shook his head. "You're not him. It's not in your nature." The firm conviction in his voice pissed Skinner off even as it comforted him.

"Really? How am I any different? I kill people. I plot their murders, then I pay *you* to carry them out. You work for me now, just like you worked for him. Hell, if what you say is true, then you're even giving me the same 'perks' you used to give him. And, God help me, I *like* it. I like all of it."

Krycek stared at him for a while, then he licked his bottom lip and smiled, a shockingly sensual and hungry expression. But it died quickly and he said only, "You don't enjoy it the way he did."

"I just told you..."

"I heard you," Krycek snapped, his hand warm as it kneaded at the base of Skinner's skull. "But you didn't hear me. He *liked* it. He liked using people. He liked to break them first, then kill them. Or pay me to do it. You're not him."

Skinner shook his head, but he wanted to believe. He realized that he was trembling. Krycek noticed it, too. "You're freezing," he said, after laying his hand on Skinner's bare chest for a moment. "Lie down." Skinner complied, moving stiffly. He found that he was having trouble taking a deep breath.

"Krycek. It'll have to be soon."

The assassin paused as he pulled up the covers to Skinner's chest. "I know. There's one more name on your list and one more project on mine that I think you'll especially approve of. A Tunisian-funded medical research facility in Vermont. They're having a buyer's meeting and demonstration next Friday." He grinned at Skinner then, without apology or pretense. Then the expression was gone, wiped away as he said, "One week. Can you hold out that long?"

Skinner listened to his failing body, felt the heaviness in his lungs and the iron weight of his useless muscles dragging at him. He nodded tiredly. "I'll go with you to Vermont. We can do it there, after you've finished the research facility."

Krycek frowned. "Not here? I thought..."

"No. I'm leaving the place to Scully and Mulder. I don't want them ..." He shrugged, then said only, "I don't want them to have bad associations." Skinner shifted fretfully, trying to find a comfortable position for his head. Krycek began massaging at the junction of his neck and left shoulder.

"Do you love them?" the assassin asked curiously, as if practicing a foreign language.

Skinner spluttered for a moment, then remembered that he was dying. "Yes, I guess so. They were my people; we've been through a lot."

Krycek's lip quirked. "You don't need to worry about becoming Spender." Then he stood up, turned out the light and left without another word.

* * *

But after lying and shivering, staring at the wall for half an hour, Skinner realized suddenly that he wasn't alone. "What's wrong?"

There was no answer, but Krycek stepped closer to the bed. Light from the street drew pale orange lines down his body. Then he disappeared in the deep shadows closest to the bed. Skinner felt the covers being drawn back and a puff of icy air rushed against his back.

"No. Krycek, no. Not tonight." Desperation almost made him choke and he coughed, trying to take in enough breath to shout the other man out of his bed.

"Shhh." Then a rush of warmth as Krycek's body settled close to his. "Just relax. It'll be OK."

"The hell it will," Skinner gasped as warm legs slid against the backs of his thighs. He felt an arm push under his neck to cushion it. Krycek's hand came around him and began to rub at the jerking muscles of his upper chest. He was, he realized, lying on Krycek's maimed limb; the flesh beneath his cheek was thick with scarring. "Does it hurt?" he asked, raising his head a fraction.

"No. Go to sleep." His head was pushed back down.

And somehow, before Skinner could protest, he was sliding into sleep, cradled in warmth and surrounded by the scent of gunpowder.

* * *

The inside man who had been feeding Mulder information on the cases turned out to be a friend of Skinner's from his days as a field agent. An old friend of Skinner's, but a closer friend of the last name on his list. Krycek had made that last hit clean and quick, but argued about leaving the informant alive. Skinner refused to pay for the death of a friend, no matter how false. Krycek spat something about throwing it in for free and was halfway out the door when Skinner's weak roar pulled him back.

Krycek snapped and snarled, argued and reasoned, but finally gave in to Skinner, promising not to kill his old friend. He did, however, indulge himself by catching the man alone in the parking garage of the Hoover Building early that evening. He managed to put the fear of God and dark places into the bastard and returned to sulk at Skinner for the rest of the night.

His brooding did not prevent him from spending the night in Skinner's bed, where he had spent every night since Skinner's nightmare. It didn't prevent him from massaging Skinner's spasming shoulders and neck, but when he went to slide silently downwards, Skinner's hands in his hair stopped him. The weak tugging brought him back to lie beside Skinner, silent and resentful. Skinner put one cool hand on his chest and rubbed it slowly, clumsily back and forth. The only sound was Skinner's hoarse, shallow breathing.

Finally, Krycek sighed and said into the darkness, "I don't understand."

"I know. But he doesn't need to die. It's over. I just don't want any extra deaths on my conscience."

"But..."

"He has a wife and three kids, Alex."

"You and your goddamned 'collateral damage'. Some of the other people on that list had families, you know."

"I know," Skinner said shortly, his hand stilling on Krycek's chest. "But they were complete bastards who caused god-knows how many deaths. This guy was just passing information."

"Information can be a deadly thing," Krycek said in the darkness. "I ought to know."

"But after tomorrow, his information won't matter to either of us," Skinner pointed out and started rubbing Krycek's chest again. Tomorrow. Tomorrow, Walter Skinner would be dead and Alex Krycek would disappear into the world again, with nearly a quarter of a million dollars of Skinner's money and the dubious satisfaction of having fulfilled a dying man's last vengeful wishes.

An irritated snort from beside him. "Too many scruples, Skinner. You wouldn't last a year at this."

"I know. Go to sleep, Alex."

Walter Skinner slept that last night with a slight smile on his face.

* * *

The flight to Vermont was difficult, made more so by the weather and by Skinner's abruptly worsened condition. It was as if his body had gotten wind of his plans and was trying to shut itself down before he could end it cleanly. The freezing temperatures seemed to steal away whatever coordination he had left and Skinner found that his words were now slurred, no matter how carefully he formed them.

He had given into Krycek's insistence that he use a wheelchair through the airport and down the jetway with extremely bad grace. His glare and the set of his jaw froze even the cheery smile of the stewardess who was trying to assist him into a seat in first class. Krycek wordlessly settled him into his seat, ignoring his glare long enough to fasten his seatbelt and cinch it tightly around him. Then he dropped into the next seat and fastened his own seatbelt. When the now sympathetic stewardess came to him, he ordered two premium scotches and glared at Skinner until he took the first shaky sip. When the glass began slipping from between Skinner's trembling hands, he coolly steadied it from beneath so that Skinner could take another sip.

After the plane was in the air and half of Skinner's scotch was in him, he finally said, "I waited too long."

Krycek's brow knit, then he said only, "We'll be there soon."

* * *

'There' was Burlington, VT. For reasons known only to themselves, the Tunisians had chosen a tiny town fifty miles from anywhere in which to conduct their research into nanotechnology and the ways it could be used to help... or control the human race. Skinner waited in the heated rental car for an hour, staring out at the snowy forest as Krycek did a reconnoiter and placed his charges.

He was dozing, his breathing the only sound in the still winter afternoon, when Krycek returned as silently as he'd left. The assassin got back into the car, face ruddy with the cold, eyes very bright as he grinned tightly at Skinner. He took a palmtop computer out of his jacket and flicked it open. Then he held out the stylus to Skinner and said, "You want to do the honors?"

Krycek helped him wrap his clumsy fingers around the thin metal rod and he took a deep breath. Then they touched it to a glowing box on the screen and half of the forest exploded. Clods of earth and shattered bits of wood fell onto the car as they watched the smoke billow into the perfect gray sky. Muffled smaller explosions sounded from underground and more smoke belched out of the yawning pit.

Skinner felt an evil grin curl his trembling lips. "See you in Hell, you bastards."

They were silent for a minute longer, then Skinner fumbled inside his overcoat and finally pulled out an envelope which he tossed over into the other man's lap. "Paid in full, Krycek."

The assassin looked inside the over-stuffed envelope and riffled his fingers over the contents, counting quickly. "Skinner, there's over fifty thousand in here. We agreed on fifteen."

"Consider it a bonus... and severance pay. You do good work." Skinner was amused to see Krycek duck his head and flush a little at the compliment. "Now, it's time."

He had startled the other man. "Here? Now? I thought..."

"Here." Skinner wiped at the drool that was trying to slip from one side of his mouth. "It's past time."

Krycek nodded tightly, tucking away the envelope of money and bringing out a capped hypodermic needle from an inside pocket.

"I hate needles."

"Now you tell me..." Krycek was flicking at the barrel of the hypo, releasing air bubbles. "I promised you quick and painless and clean, Skinner. You never said anything about needles." He leaned over and gently pushed Skinner's head back against the headrest. Then his hand fumbled at Skinner's throat, opening the collar of his coat, pulling away his muffler and unbuttoning the top of his shirt. Krycek shifted the hypo to his right hand and fidgeted awkwardly until he got the right angle and the tip of the needle brushed Skinner's carotid artery.

"You ready?"

Skinner nodded jerkily. "Alex..." But he had no idea what he would have said. "Good-bye," he said simply.

Suddenly, Krycek was peering at him intently. "Skinner - if this could be different, if you were offered a second chance, would you take it?"

"Don't be s-s-stupid," Skinner snarled.

"Would you take it?" Krycek insisted, green eyes burning strangely at him. "Even if it meant that you could never go back to who you were before?"

Skinner let his eyes close. He was so tired and he was tired of pretending that he wasn't terrified of dying here, in this lonely place, with this strange man who had killed for him, who had killed him once and was about to do so again. He opened his eyes again, then lifted his so-heavy left arm and managed to catch his fingers on the edge of Krycek's coat. He yanked weakly, bringing Krycek's face close to his. "Yes," he breathed, then lightly touched his mouth to Krycek's chapped lips. A first kiss, a last kiss.

"Now, stop fucking around and do it." He smiled a little at the shocked expression on the younger man's face, then closed his eyes again.

After a moment, there was a sharp nip at the side of his throat, then a heavy warmth pulling him down and down. The last thing he heard was the sound of Krycek's cell phone dialing.

* * *

The first thing he heard was the liquid sound of voices speaking a language he didn't know. He felt something cool and smooth pressing into his wrist and opened his eyes to blink at a pretty blonde woman wearing a blindingly white lab coat. She smiled, chirped something unintelligible and finished taking his pulse. Then she put his hand back on his chest, patted him reassuringly and left.

He sat up slowly and looked around the room, trying to make sense of what he was seeing. There were heavy velvet drapes looped back from soaring windows, beyond which he could see a purple twilight falling. The floor was covered with a thick oriental in calming shades of blue and green. The furniture in the room looked to be Louis XIV and the bed he was lying in was huge, the sheets made of very fine linen. Midnight blue silk pajamas whispered against his skin. There was a heart monitor beeping away in slow idiot rhythm and an empty IV stand tucked discreetly against the head of the bed.

A hospital. Upscale and terribly exclusive, but a hospital all the same. The lying rat bastard had double-crossed him and he was lying in a fucking hospital and he'd lost his chance to die quick and clean. Doctors and nurses would keep him dying by inches, growing more and more helpless with every day...

The rage swept through him and rose high in his throat, but he clenched his fists and beat it back, holding onto his self-control until he was white-knuckled. The beeping was faster now, punctuating the throbbing in his head. In fact, the sound distracted him; it was some time before he realized that his hands were clenched so tightly that his fingernails were biting into his own palms. His hands fell open and he stared in shock at the reddening crescents in his skin. Then he was tugging at the monitor leads connected to his chest, pulling them off until the machine was suddenly silenced.

"Calm down, Skinner. You're scaring the nurses," Krycek said from the doorway. Behind him, two or three blonde heads bobbed in agitation. He said something in that soft, fluid language that seemed to appease them. Then he came into the room, the golden oak door closing silently behind him.

"What the hell did you do, you bastard?! Where are we?"

Krycek crossed the room to sit in a chair that had been pulled close to the side of the bed. "Finland."

"Why?"

"This hospital is so state-of-the-art that almost no one knows it's here. The Consortium sent them a few special cases from time to time. I've had dealings with them myself." He gestured expressively with his left arm. "It took a lot of string-pulling to get you in here."

Skinner stared up at the molded ceiling then said, "It was supposed to be a simple hit, Krycek. A stationary target. How could you possibly fuck it up?"

"You don't remember, do you?"

Skinner brought his gaze back to the casually dressed man who sat beside his bed, smiling slightly. That smile was so knowing, so pleased with itself, that Skinner wanted to batter it to the floor. "Remember what?" he growled.

"I asked you if you would take a second chance if one were offered. You said yes." Krycek sat up and leaned forward, suddenly very intent. "This is it, Skinner."

"What are you talking about?"

"You can't go back, but you can go forward. The disease... they stopped it. Reversed a lot of it, in fact. You'll probably always have some balance problems, maybe slur a little when you're tired, but you could have another twenty, thirty years. If you watch your cholesterol." The assassin's smile widened into a grin. Memory flashed and Skinner saw again that same strange, hopeful light in Krycek's eyes, the only color in a winter forest filled with smoke and ice and his own death.

His own death. He'd been ready for it. Scared as he had been, he had finally come to long for it. An end to the months of watching himself grow weaker and more useless with every passing day, knowing that there was no respite in sight. And now? Now he was done with that and was still alive. If Krycek was to be believed, he had his life back.

An iron-cold thought settled on the back of his neck. "You mean you *knew* there was a cure for this disease and you let me fucking waste away...!" The memories of being helpless, of being fed and held and dressed were a biting taste in his mouth and he wanted to spit them out but said instead, "The nanocytes. I should have known. It was all a game to you, wasn't it, Krycek? See how long you could string me along, get me to do your dirty work, to be like him...why?"

Krycek's face went cold and remote. "No, you sorry son of a bitch, I *didn't* know there was a cure. Not until they called me that last morning, in the airport. Until then, I was just going to give you that injection and let you slip away.

"And I was doing *your* dirty work, or have you already forgotten your little list?"

Skinner looked at his hands suddenly, at his white-knuckled fists. Slowly, he loosened them, stretched out his fingers, then stared at them. He flexed his hands, not quite able to believe that thought and action were one again. "I didn't forget," he said in a low voice. "I'll have to live with that for the rest of my life. Which is suddenly a lot longer than I thought." His voice trailed off and he looked at his hands again, fiddled with the coverlet. "I just... I don't understand." He raised his head and stared at Krycek. "Why did you do this?"

Now it was Krycek's turn to look away. He shrugged.

"Alex?" Skinner probed in a softer voice.

The assassin stood up jerkily and pulled a packet of documents out of his jacket. "Your name is David Winterborn. You're Canadian, widowed, a former small business owner. You have no fixed address but are traveling on a leisurely world tour." He tossed a Canadian passport, driver's license and a thick sheaf of papers into Skinner's lap. A discreet leather passbook followed it. "That should get you started, keep you going for a couple of years until you decide what you want to do with the rest of your life." He looked up at Skinner then and added, "I don't recommend becoming a hit man."

"I know, I have too many scruples for it," Skinner said wryly.

A flash of something like humor in Krycek's eyes, then he turned and walked away. "Good luck."

"Krycek! Where the hell are you going?"

When the other man kept walking, Skinner swore savagely and rolled out of bed, intent on catching him. Unfortunately, while the doctors had reversed the disease, his leg muscles were still far too wasted to hold his weight easily and he went crashing to the carpet. In an instant, there was a hand under his shoulder, then he was heaved to his feet. His arm was slung around Krycek's neck and he was half-carried back to the bed.

Krycek lowered him carefully to sit on the side of the mattress, scattering David Winterborn's entire life as he held on until Skinner was steady. Then he took a step back and glared down as Skinner stared up at him. "You really are a pain in the ass, you know that?"

Skinner nodded, but said nothing.

"You can't go back. Your 'friend' in the FBI would turn you in within hours of your return. And me," he added.

Skinner nodded again.

"You've got another chance, Skinner. Use it wisely." He started to turn away again.

"What are you going to do?"

Krycek looked back and shrugged. "Do what I do best - survive."

"Do you have another job lined up?"

Krycek shook his head. "Something'll turn up. It always does. And until then, well, I just finished a pretty lucrative contract." He bared his teeth in a grin so sharp Skinner wondered which of them would bleed first.

The assassin was halfway to the door this time when Skinner said quickly, "I want to hire you."

"What? You haven't lost your taste for killing yet?" Krycek taunted.

Skinner knew he flinched at the hard look in the other man's eyes. "No. I'm going to need some help..." he stuttered to a stop as he heard himself. Krycek turned around slowly and stared. Once again, Skinner felt himself weighed and judged in some indefinable way, against some internal scale that only Krycek knew.

"You want my ... help?"

Skinner nodded, not quite able to say the words.

"Why?"

Damn Krycek. Skinner cast about desperately for the right thing to say, the one thing that would convince them both. The moment stretched to the breaking point and all he could find to say was, "I liked it."

Krycek stared for a moment longer, then came back to Skinner and sat in the chair beside the bed. Their knees touched and Skinner could feel the warmth of the other man through the silk. He pulled away, then pressed his leg back again, the animal joy of movement capturing his
attention.

"This isn't smart."

"I thought you liked to live dangerously."

"I thought I just liked to live," Krycek said with a half-smile.

"We can do that," Skinner said.

"You'd be a piss-poor assassin."

"I know."

"We'll need to figure out some way to support ourselves eventually."

"I know."

"My life is definitely weirder than Mulder's now."

"Congratulations," Skinner said.

He wondered what sort of man David Winterborn would become. He would probably never know what it was that had made Krycek save him. In the end, it didn't matter. They would live and work hard to forget the men they had been and the things they had done.

You can't go back, he reminded himself and put out his hand, now steady and sure. Krycek took it and it amused Skinner in some pointed way to see that the other man's hand shook slightly. Forward, he thought and tightened his fingers on Krycek's.

* * * Finis * * *

 

The descent beckons
as the ascent beckoned
Memory is a kind of accomplishment
a sort of renewal even

...

No defeat is made up entirely of defeat -- since
the world it opens is always a place
formerly
unsuspected. A
world lost,
a world unsuspected
beckons to new places
and no whiteness (lost) is so white as the memory
of whiteness

...

The descent
made up of despairs
and without accomplishment
realizes a new awakening:
which is a reversal
of despair.

For what we cannot accomplish, what
is denied to love,
what we have lost in the anticipation --
a descent follows,
endless and indestructible.

 

--William Carlos Williams, excerpts fromm "Descent"

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