Title: BRUTAL FORCES
Story in 4 parts, 10 sections.
Author: Josan
Betas: Kai: Thanks for taking the time away from THE
PRETENDER to do this for me, and Solan
Date: Written June, 1999
Posted September, 1999
Summary: The encounter on the Balcony leads to other
situations. Starts badly, violently, but maybe they can work it out.
Pairing: Sk/K
Rating: NC-17: not just for sex, but for PART 1's
sexual violence, PART 3's suggested
sexual abuse.
Archive: No one without my permission.
Comments: jmann@mondenet.com

DISCLAIMER: These are the property of CC, Fox and 1013.

*****************************************************

BRUTAL FORCES was written last June but it has taken till now for me to finish tinkering with it.

This is not like the EATING series: it is not, as one feedback called that one, "sweet".

PART 1 is brutal, sexually violent, physically and emotionally difficult for both Skinner and Krycek.

PART 3 deals with suggested sexual abuse.

Each of these sections contains further warnings.

If, in spite of all this, you venture forth and don't like the subject matter, just delete. Don't bother with the flames: I have warned you.

Critical evaluations always appreciated.

NOTE: Skinner's and Krycek's backgrounds are different in this one than in EATING. Thomas Nash made his first appearance in BRUTAL FORCES.

SR819 never happened.

********** WARNING!!!!!! WARNING!!!!!! **********

PART 1 contains NON-CONSENSUAL SEXUAL VIOLENCE.

Lots of it. If you don't want to read it, don't: there will be a summary of the contents at the start of Part 2.

******************************************************* *******************************************************

PART 1

*******************************************************

Walter Skinner watched the man huddled against the railing of his balcony. It was cold out there for DC, but he was sure the man had endured much colder temperatures wearing just what he was wearing now.

Alex Krycek was very aware that Skinner was watching him from behind the curtains. With luck, that's where the man would stay till Mulder came and got him in the morning.

Shit! Safe house! Mulder had promised to stash him away in a safe house. Obviously they had different ideas as to the meaning of the term. Damn Skinner with his "Think warm thoughts" philosophy.

Krycek checked the windows: no Skinner. Maybe he'd get some sleep after all. He pulled up the collar of his jacket, burrowed into it like a turtle, stuck his free hand into the pocket and curled up to conserve heat.

The balcony door opened very quietly. Krycek was just cold enough, tired enough, to be slow in his reaction. His free hand was grabbed, cuffed, and then pulled over so that when Skinner clamped the other cuff to the top of the railing, Krycek was face down, arms stretched out to their fullest. Skinner dropped his weight against Krycek's shoulders effectively pinning him down. Krycek opened his mouth, swearing, only to have a bit gag roughly pulled into his mouth, tied so tightly that he felt it might tear into his cheeks.

Skinner's weight left his body, and Krycek managed to turn his head to see the big man lean a shoulder negligently against the far wall. What scared him the most was that there was no expression at all on Skinner's face. After a couple of minutes, Skinner moved into the apartment, closing the door behind him.

Krycek tried to see if he could get loose: maybe the cuffs would miraculously loosen. As was, the pressure building up in his shoulders from the position he was in was going to make the rest of the night seem incredibly longer.

Skinner gave it an hour before he went back out again. The night was almost black, no moon, no stars. The only light came from the hallway light behind him and whatever could make it up to the seventeenth floor from street-level.

Krycek barely struggled when Skinner grabbed his foot, took off boot and sock. Grabbed the other foot, did the same. It was only when his hands went to undo the jeans that Krycek pushed his weight forward, and kicked back with his heel. He got Skinner just under the knee: a couple of inches higher and the kick would have kneecapped him.

Skinner pulled back, silently cursing. So the ratbastard still had some fight left in him. *That* would add some flavour to his plans.

Krycek's eyes, enraged, tracked him as much as they could. He had no illusions about what Skinner was planning to do to him, but he had no intention of making it easy for him.

Skinner waited till the pain in his leg became a dull ache. Krycek never once took his eyes off him, swinging his head around when Skinner moved behind him.

When Skinner came in close, he threw all his weight onto Krycek, slamming him hard against the balcony railing, knocking the breath out of him. Before Krycek could fill his lungs again, he had hauled the jeans and shorts off the man.

This time, Skinner wisely stayed far enough away from those feet. He dropped the clothing on top of the boots and went back in. He would have to do something about those feet. Krycek was as lethal with them as he was with his hands.

For a moment, Krycek let himself believe that was all Skinner had wanted, to have him spend what was left of the night, bare-assed and cold. However, he wasn't really surprised when Skinner appeared with something in his hands.

This time when Krycek's foot lashed out, Skinner was ready. He grabbed the offending leg tightly while quickly wrapping something around the ankle. Fully extending the leg, he walked to the railing and tied the free end of the restraint to the top of it.

The pull on Krycek's body effectively immobilized him. As it was, there was no need to bind the other foot as Krycek's balance was too precarious for him to get too active. True, if he went over the top of the railing, the cuffs and the restraint, the last tie Sharon had bought him before the divorce, would probably keep him from plunging down the seventeen storeys to the ground, but he didn't think Krycek would want to chance it.

However, just to test out his theory, he went to stand behind Krycek, well within kicking reach of that second foot.

Krycek knew when to admit defeat. If he tried anything now, he fully expected Skinner to tie his other foot to the railing so that he'd hang like one of those boneless asexual gymnasts on a balance beam. If his foot were free, he might, just might, be able to get one solid kick in before this was over.

Skinner's grin was lupine when Krycek managed to turn his head to find him. Still smiling, he reached out and drew a finger down the taut muscles of Krycek's ass. Krycek glared as much as he could around the gag, promised himself Skinner would pay for every second he spent on his balcony, and turned his head to look over the still city.

Waiting. For whatever it was Skinner was going to do to him.

In the silence of the seventeenth floor, the sound of Skinner taking off his belt was enough warning for him not to be surprised when the looped leather passed over his ass, gently, almost like a caress. Over the inner muscles of the stretched-out thigh. Back again to his ass. Down the other thigh, now trembling with the cold and strain of supporting his weight. Back up the inner muscles to tease his balls and flaccid cock.

Krycek's hands grabbed the top of the railing, bracing himself for the blow that finally arrived. Skinner had moved to one side so he could get a good swing on the belt. And Krycek certainly felt it when it landed, across the fullest part of his buttocks.

He sensed Skinner behind him, held back the sound that wanted out of his throat when one of those big hands inspected the path the belt had taken. And braced himself for more.

Skinner didn't disappoint him. Five more times the leather raised a path of fire across his ass, and five more times he refused to give Skinner the pleasure of hearing him scream.

Then, with a slight shifting of Skinner's position, the leather moved to his thighs, first one then the other, as if Skinner wanted to distribute an equal amount of attention to each.

Occasionally, the tip of the belt would flick his balls, or the head of his penis. And then, the sharpness of the pain made it impossible for Krycek to contain his groans. The bit gag effectively muted the sounds, reducing the timbre.

But Skinner heard them. And enjoyed them.

After a few more blows, he stopped to inspect the damage. There were some nice weals rising on Krycek's skin, weals he roughly traced with his thumb. Krycek flinched, made a sound in the back of his throat that pleased Skinner greatly. He dropped the belt on top of Krycek's clothes, used his two hands to massage the aching muscles of ass and thighs. Krycek greyed out, his head sagging, adding further strain on already over-strained shoulders.

Skinner pulled back, went to lean against the wall where he could keep an eye on Krycek's face. He waited while his prisoner recovered from the rough treatment he'd just inflicted on him. Wanted him fully conscious and aware for his next move.

At this stage of the game, Krycek wished Skinner would just hurry up and rape him and get it over with. The strain in his shoulders had passed the burning stage, and was now making itself felt in his spine. His ass and thighs were on fire where-ever the belt had landed, the head of his cock was sore. And the coldness of the cement balcony floor was eating its way up his free leg.

What the fuck was the bastard waiting for?

The first clue Krycek had that Skinner might have a different plan in mind was when he heard a "snap". Like the one made by a latex glove when it was snapped into place.

Krycek tried to see what Skinner was up to, but the man had hidden in the shadows. Krycek could make out his shape, knew he was doing something with his hands, but couldn't make out what. He felt panic rising up in him, tried to control it. If what he thought was going to happen, there was a good chance that Mulder wouldn't have much use for him in the morning.

When Skinner moved out of the darkness, Krycek was waiting for him. This would probably be his only chance to get a good kick in and he went for it as soon as he thought Skinner was in reach.

But Skinner had been waiting for the move, anticipated it, and with another brutal slam of his body imprisoned the leg against the side of the balcony. Krycek was going to be black and blue wherever the railing met his body.

Krycek caught his breath and forced himself to relax. Less chance of damage if his muscles weren't tensed.

The first finger invading him told him that Skinner was indeed gloved and that the latex had been lubed.

The second that there would be no side benefits to this, no chance of even the slightest twinge of pleasure, even if he did get off on this type of stuff.

The third finger stretched him more than he had been for a time. It was beginning to hurt. Especially when Skinner spread them open in him. The fourth only added to the burn.

Krycek tried to control his breathing to merge with the penetration. Skinner let him think it might help before he twisted the fingers around, making way for the thumb.

From this point on, Krycek just conceded that nothing he was able to do would mitigate the pain of being fist-fucked. He emptied his mind and tried hard to stay very still, anything to minimize damage.

Krycek couldn't prevent the grunt of pain as the widest part of Skinner's hand forced itself into him, holding in place.

"Are you enjoying this, Krycek?" Skinner leaned over, placed his weight behind his elbow, adding to the build-up of pressure on Krycek's anal muscle. "No? Funny, this is how I felt when you fucked around with my department in the Bureau."

He added just a bit more pressure. "This is what it feels like when one of your agents turns out to be a fraud."

More pressure. Enough so that the entire hand was now in him. The pressure on his anal muscle decreased slightly when all that stretched it was a comparatively narrower wrist. "When you get called on the carpet by the Director, to explain how such an incident could have happened in your department."

"When OPC reams you out for two days, investigating why you couldn't tell that so-called agent was a fraud."

Skinner twisted his hand: Krycek screamed.

"When that so-called agent turns out to be nothing more than some thug whose continuing existence keeps reminding your bosses that somehow, in spite of all their precautions, he managed to slip past all their security measures."

With a savage brutality he hadn't felt since Vietnam, Skinner yanked his hand out. This time, even the gag didn't prevent Krycek's scream from piercing the night.

As he stripped the glove off his hand, Skinner watched the limp body of the ex-agent hanging on his balcony railing. Krycek was still breathing, though shallowly.

Holding the glove now inside out, he picked up the towel he had dropped on the floor, used it to wipe the lube remaining on his arm. Almost as an afterthought, he wiped Krycek's ass, wrapped the glove in the towel. He dropped it by the door.

He released Krycek's leg, removed the tie from his ankle, let the foot drop.

Standing behind Krycek, he grabbed the man's hair. Short though it was, he managed to get a good grasp by the front. Pulled the head back with one hand, released the bit gag with the other. Krycek's face was wet with tears of pain.

With no word, no show of any further expression, Skinner used his key and released his handcuffs from the inert body. Krycek slipped to the floor, whimpered.

Skinner picked up his belt, the towel. With a foot, he pushed Krycek's clothes, boots close to him. Went into the apartment, closed and locked the balcony door behind him. Dropped the towel down the incinerator shoot, turned off the lights and went to bed.

In the morning, Skinner made his usual breakfast of cereal and coffee, ate it while reading his morning newspaper, grabbed his coat and left for work.

Not once did he go near the balcony door or windows. Not once did his eyes even wander that way. It was as if Alex Krycek didn't exist.

*******************************************************

The Consortium had imploded.

Between suspicions, betrayals, power plays, misinformation supplied by a one-armed double (triple? quadruple?) agent who had worked his way deep into the Consortium itself.

Because of alien rebels, outside influences suddenly decided that the cost would be too high for their own personal interests.

Because Mulder finally had gotten his hands on actual documentation, irrefutable evidence of fraud, financial laundrying, treason provided to him by his one-armed informant.

For all these reasons, and probably many more never to be discovered or understood, it was over.

There had been a sleuth of investigations, of Grand Jury indictments, suicides and even a few murders. And, apart from several minor players and one major one, all had been accounted for.

Skinner's department had become the pride of the Director: Fox Mulder, once the embarrassment, was now the darling.

Skinner snorted to himself at the irony and hypocrisy of the situation. Mulder merely accepted it all as his due, his vindication of so many years of mockery. Krycek was just pleased to have all and any charges pending against him dropped.

Walter Skinner was walking back from a meeting when he realized that the front entrance of FBI headquarters was swarming with the Media. Again. Not that they were there for him, but making his way through the scrum was not something he was in the mood for right now. If he went around the building, there should be a back door he could use to get back to his office and the paper work that seemed to be reproducing overnight.

He had just turned the corner when a man fell into step with him, quickly came up behind him. The barrel of a gun jammed into the small of his back.

"It would be wise to come with me, AD Skinner, or would you prefer spending the remainder of your life in a wheelchair, assuming you survive?" When there wasn't an immediate answer, the man shrugged noncommittally and pressed the barrel into Skinner's spine. "The choice remains yours."

Skinner let his briefcase slid quietly down the front of his leg, to his foot, to the ground. He turned in the direction the gun wanted him to, walked over to the darkened limo that was waiting back at curbside. Somehow, the Media seemed to be focused on the big man, easily identifiable now, and the man with him, a man who still appeared on the list of possible suspects.

The limo door opened and CGB Spender, aka Cancerman, aka "that cigarette-smoking bastard" greeted Skinner like a long-lost brother, helped the two men into the back of the limo and the car sped away.

All captured on video for the six o'clock newscasts.

"How nice to see you again, Mr. Skinner." Spender lit another of his innumerable cigarettes. "I didn't want to leave without thanking you for all the help you and your department have given me over the years."

Skinner assumed, rightly, that the conversation was being taped. He said nothing, sat stoned-face in the middle of the back seat, between his "escort" and another man also wanted for questioning. Both were holding guns on him.

"You know," Spender rattled on, "we never would have lasted as long, or been as prosperous, had you not slipped us all that useful information." He smiled around the cigarette. "No, couldn't have done it without you, Skinner. Of course, the bank account in the Caymans will certainly bear proof of that. You should have a nice comfortable retirement. As you said, much better than anything the Bureau could provide you with."

Spender nodded to one of the men, who pulled a syringe out of a pocket. Skinner had his eyes on Spender, was aware of the syringe only when it was jammed into the back of his neck. He started to turn, hand rising to pull it out when he fell forward onto the floor.

Spender reached up and pushed a button in the roof of the limo. A cassette dropped into his hand. He stuck the cigarette into his mouth, eyes squinted against the smoke, and placed the tape into an already addressed envelope. At the next mailbox, the limo stopped, and the pack was dropped into the shoot.

*******************************************************

Skinner regained consciousness slowly.

Because of the drug hangover, it took him some time to really understand the precariousness of his position.

His hands were stretched above his head, the weight of his body straining shoulder muscles to the point of burning cramp. He tried to stand only to realize he could only do so on the front part of his feet. He was naked.

His head eventually cleared enough for him to figure out that he was hanging from a metal bar which in turn was hanging from a lever. He was in some barn, so he assumed the lever was for lifting bales of hay into the upper loft of the structure.

He had no idea how long he had been hanging here though the pain in his upper body told him if had to have been some hours.

He had no idea where this structure was located. He assumed that, since he was not gagged, it would not be near people. Did he want to take a chance and try calling out? What if the only attention he attracted was that of Spender and his friends?

But the decision was taken out of his hands when Spender and his associates came out of a side door from what seemed to be an office of some kind.

"Ah, Skinner, you've decided to join us. How nice." In spite of the hay and straw on the floor, Spender took out a cigarette, lit it with his lighter.

"You'll be happy to know that my contacts will be picking us up a bit later on this evening. Maybe less happy to know that we find ourselves with time on our hands until they get here."

He took a deep inhalation, held it, released the smoke in a series of rings. Smiled at the circles that slowly made their way up, dissolving into the upper reaches of the barn.

"Well," Spender smiled, "that's the limit of my entertainment skills. Let's see just how much fun you can be, Skinner." He took another deep inhalation, watched the tip of the cigarette turn brilliant red and, with real pleasure, butted out the smoke on Skinner's chest.

*******************************************************

The pain hadn't stopped when the helicopter had arrived.

The hands hurting him had gone, but the pain had just continued throbbing in time with his heartbeat. He faded in and out of consciousness, finding it harder to breathe because of the constant pressure put on his lungs by his up-stretched arms.

He was out when a figure all dressed in black slipped into the barn. It avoided him, although it was obvious that he was there. The figure went through the structure, verifying that he was alone before slowly walking around him, objectively evaluating the state of his body before coming to stand in front of him.

The barrel of an uzi was placed under his chin and upward pressure forced his head up.

Through the pain, Skinner felt the presence of another person. The need to know which of his tormentors had returned forced him to open his eyes.

Instead, after some moments of trying to focus his sight, he realized that a new character had joined the party. It took him several tries to get enough moisture in his mouth to croak "Your turn," to Alex Krycek.

Krycek swung his weapon over his truncated shoulder, used the prosthesis to balance it there. Took a cell phone out of his pocket, speed-dialled it. "I found him. Send an ambulance."

*******************************************************

Using the information Skinner managed to give them, Spender and his goons were caught as they were transferring from the helicopter to a private jet on its way to Libya. In the ensuing gun battle, Spender was wounded, unfortunately, not critically. His men had not been so fortunate. One had died on the spot; the other the next day in hospital, though his wounds had not been life-threatening.

Spender was immediately transferred to an extreme security cell where he was waiting for an appearance in front of a Grand Jury. Which would take place as soon as Walter Skinner was able to testify.

*******************************************************

WARNING: As a Canadian, I have no experience with Grand Juries, apart from some examples in movies. If any of this is inaccurate, blame me. My betas did their best and I did make some changes but if not enough, then just assume this is an AU where such situations could occur.

WARNING: Discussion of rape.

*******************************************************

The Grand Jury investigating the charges against CGB Spender was in its last days. The final witness to be heard from had just been released from hospital. Less than four weeks after being found by Alex Krycek, Walter Skinner, accompanied by a Bureau lawyer, was sworn in.

There had been some dissension by a few of the panel about the veracity of this witness, considering the news videos, the cassette recording, the Cayman bank account. The fact that the Director himself had finally come out and stated "positively" that, based on his knowledge of both Spender and Skinner, he did not feel that AD Skinner would either betray his country nor secret away money in an off-shore bank didn't make him more reliable.

In general, the questions covered the relationship Skinner had with Spender, Spender's actions within the Bureau itself, his involvement with the X-Files Department. Once or twice they touched the matter of the cassette and the bank account, stayed away from the kidnapping and reasons for his stay in the hospital.

Until it was the turn of Senator Matthews.

"Well, Mr. Skinner, you seemed to have convinced my colleagues that you ran an honest show. Perhaps you may even eventually convince me.

"As you know, in addition to all the charges against Mr. Spender, there have been added, among others, kidnapping, forcible confinement, gross bodily harm.

"You'll have to excuse me, Mr. Skinner, but I find these charges quite unwarranted. In fact, I'm sure, if you will only be honest with us, Mr. Skinner, these charges are there only to cover up your activities in relation with Mr. Spender."

There was a negative reaction from most of the panel members.

"No, no, gentlemen, I intend to show that Mr. Skinner was a voluntary participant in this so-called kidnapping. And that the last day's testimony has been nothing more than a sham."

He waited till the room quietened down.

"Mr. Skinner, have you ever had consensual sex with a man? And before you answer that question, I would just like to submit the following photos as evidence to the panel that this" his voice showed his disgust "fine example of the Federal Bureau of Investigations is a practising ho..mo..sexual who is into games of say..do..mas..o..chistic bondage."

Skinner's lawyer accepted the duplicate of the package that was now making its way along the panel. Skinner barely glanced at the photos of Mulder and himself, taken in Mulder's apartment, with Mulder in handcuffs. All with Mulder's face blacked out.

His lawyer slowly began pulling away from him. By the end of the session was sitting almost away from the table.

The questions had been another rape.

Didn't he enjoy being tied up? Didn't he enjoy rough sex? Wasn't what had happened to him been just a bit of rough sex that had gotten out of control? He, Senator Matthews, understood that it was quite acceptable for a whip to be used in this sort of activity. Burning, too, or so his expert witness had told him: not that he himself would know about "such things".

Hadn't he actively participated in group sex? How was this episode so different? After all, he understood that four way sex was not unknown in "such things".

And as for the damages to the "anal canal" done by the barrel of some gun, well, he understood that "object penetration" was a common practice in "such things" and some injury was only to be expected.

Alex Krycek sat at the side of the room where this inquisition was being played out. Neither Scully nor Mulder was around: someone had seen to it that Scully had been safely ensconced with a series of autopsies in Quantico for the past four days; Mulder was with the Director being shown off like some rare species at some conference.

And someone had certainly seen to it that Senator Matthews had been provided with all kinds of fascinating photos and documents.

Krycek took it from the Cheshire-cat smile on Spender's face that he was getting in his final twist of the knife in the man he held responsible for not controlling Mulder and his X-Files investigations: Spender was going down, but he wasn't going alone.

And that fucking idiot lawyer the Bureau had provided was certainly not doing his job. Or maybe doing it too well. With every little revelation, most of them doctored to some extent, all the motherfucker did was look horrified, pull further away from Skinner who only sat there, stone-faced, not even trying to defend himself.

But Krycek knew a few things about Senator Matthews that could prove interesting. He stood up and held a short conference with a couple of people who would not really want their connection to him known. He waited until the panel called a short recess during which they argued with each other as to Matthews' line of questioning. Then he went over to the table where Skinner sat.

Krycek patted Skinner on the shoulder, bent over and covered the mike with his hand. "Listen to me, Skinner. At this rate you're going to be sharing a cell with the Cancerman over there. So you're going to do as I say, understand? Start giving Matthews the details he wants. Long, involved juicy details. Think of him as a vampire and feed him the blood he needs. I'll take care of the rest."

Skinner's eyes were unalive behind his glasses. He met Krycek's eyes, but couldn't hold them. When Krycek had found him, he had expected the man to take revenge for what he had done to him on the balcony that cold fall night.

Instead, Krycek had lowered him onto the ground, stayed beside him till help had arrived in the form of Mulder, Scully and some other people dressed all in black. He'd managed to stay conscious long enough to pass on the information that led to Spender's capture and arrest.

So, if Krycek had picked now for his revenge, he had nothing left to fight him with. And why shouldn't Krycek get his pound of flesh like everyone else?

At Matthews' next question, Skinner's dead voice gave the man the emotional details he'd been pecking for. How he had hurt, how there was a difference between rough sex and what he'd undergone. That there was a difference between having a dildo stuck up your ass and the barrel of a Glock.

The spectators drew silent, listening intently to the softly spoken answers, a dark contrast to Matthews' condescending questions.

Behind the panel, the man Krycek had spoken to waited for his signal to walk over to Senator Matthews. As he passed the senator's chair, he somehow tripped and knocked both the chair and the senator in it backwards onto the floor.

"Oh! Dear God! Senator Matthews! You're
masturbating!"

The ENG people pushed the "shocked" woman out of the way in their hurry to tape the Senator with his cock out of his pants, semen-stained handkerchief spread over his crotch. The reaction of the man to the left of the Senator was caught for all to view on the six o'clock news, especially since family hour viewing precluded the sight of the Senator's quickly shrivelling member.

Krycek sat back, grinning. That should help detract some of the attention from Skinner. And, using his new connections, a little talk with Mr. Spender that night would see an end to this comedy. He tried to catch Skinner's eye, sure the man was getting some enjoyment out of this reversal.

Skinner didn't seem to be aware of what was happening around him. He just sat, staring at the front, waiting. His lawyer had disappeared, and people around him weren't interested in him any more.

Krycek got a strange feeling. He tried to get to Skinner but the panel leader was rapping his gavel, bringing the proceedings to a halt for the day. By the time Krycek got through the crowd, Skinner was gone.

The next day, when the Grand Jury reconvened, Skinner sat alone at the table, the Bureau not even pretending to support him. Krycek watched him more intently now. Finally seeing the signs of a man pushed beyond his limits. Krycek wondered just what was holding him together.

To everyone's surprise but Krycek's, Spender's lawyer rose with a request to address the panel. "My client wishes to read a statement into the record."

Briefly, Spender informed the Grand Jury that Walter Skinner had never ever been anything but a hinderance to himself and the people he represented. That the video op had been set up by himself, the tape faked, the bank account was his, not Skinner's. That the photos sent to Senator Matthews had been doctored. And that Senator Matthews had been in his pay.

Krycek smiled: it hadn't taken long for Spender to understand that any time spent in prison would be easier if he weren't in a wheelchair, paralysed from the neck down.

By the time the statement had been read, questioned by the panel leader, Skinner's reputation had been re- established: at least Krycek thought it should be. The panel leader finally addressed Skinner himself, indifferently apologizing on behalf of all the panel, the absent Senator Matthews excepted, for yesterday's line of questioning. Skinner said nothing. Waited till he had been dismissed, stood up, and with all eyes on him, walked out of the room.

********************End of Part 1**********************

PART 2

*******************************************************

Krycek pulled up in front of the cabin, parked by Skinner's car. The November rain made the Blue Ridge Mountains seem more grey than blue in the late afternoon light.

Krycek wasn't sure why he was here.

Skinner had disappeared the day the Panel had dismissed him. Had just left the Crystal City condo and taken off. Scully knew he had had a meeting with the Director that morning, knew he had a cabin in the mountains, had assumed he'd gone there to convalesce. She'd been livid at his treatment by the Panel and the Bureau. Grabbed the chance to teach at Quantico, taking her out of field work.

Mulder had been upset by Skinner's problems, but not enough to turn down his former boss's position, on an acting basis only, when it was offered to him. He couldn't pass up the opportunity to be in charge of the people who had made it their life's work to make him miserable.

Which was how they found out that Skinner had been told to take six months sick leave.

Scully had tried often to get Skinner on the phone, had managed it once or twice in the two months since the Grand Jury. She hadn't made contact with Skinner in at least three weeks and was worried.

"It's Thanksgiving next week, Scully. He's probably with his family," said Mulder, over-worked and enjoying every moment of it. He'd never known how much fun it was to have a group of people all on nerves, wondering when he would tell them to "Cut the bullshit and get to the point." Meetings were far less deadly when you were the one directing them.

But Scully was worried. Her own schedule meant that she couldn't take the time necessary to drive out to the cabin and check on Skinner in person. To everyone's surprise, including his own, Krycek offered to do it. He was still floundering around, not having found anything to do to replace his former activities, not even getting laid on a regular basis since Mulder had discovered the joys of bureaucracy and twenty-hour days.

The cabin seemed empty, but Krycek got the first frisson of something not being right when he discovered the front door was not locked. Old habits die hard, so he pulled his gun from the side holster he wore under the prosthesis and cautiously went in.

In the entrance way, he noticed the smell first, enclosed air, cheap booze, unwashed dishes and clothes, something else.

There were no lights on, but the windows in the kitchen let in enough for him to see the pile of dishes crusted over, the garbage overflowing with bottles of whisky and not much else. Krycek opened the fridge door. Empty except for a dried piece of cheese, a container of curdled milk.

The bathroom contained the dirty clothes piled in a corner and the smell of vomit.

The great room, with its cathedral ceiling, glassed wall, wooden floor also smelt of vomit, some of it crusted by the deck door, splattered on the windows by the door. Some by the fireplace.

Krycek checked out the loft bedroom with its king-sized bed and small wood stove. The sheets hadn't been changed in quite a while, smelled of rancid sweat. There were signs of vomit on the quilt that lay tangled at the foot of the bed.

Jesus Christ! What the hell was going on here?

Krycek made his way back downstairs, tried the deck to see if there was any sign of Skinner. Noticed something he had missed on his first turn around the room. On the coffee table in front of the couch lay a Glock, freshly cleaned and oiled going by the rag and can of gun oil next to it.

Krycek picked up the gun, checked to see if the safety was on: it was. If it was loaded: it was.

He slipped it into his holster.

The cabin had been built on a slope, the front facing away from the drop, the back porch built up on stilts. Steps led down from the deck which offered a great view of the lake. There, standing on the bank, Krycek spotted Skinner.

Krycek approached him with great care. Was horrified by the changes he saw in the man. He had lost a good twenty pounds while in the hospital, but it looked as though he had lost twenty more. And he could smell him from fifteen feet back.

Krycek made a small noise so Skinner could hear him coming. There was no reaction from the man.

"Skinner." Krycek spoke softly. Repeated the name a bit more loudly.

Finally Skinner turned around enough to see who was behind him.

"What do you want?"

Krycek thought he was prepared for changes in Skinner but had trouble recognizing the bearded scarecrow standing in front of him.

He took the time to look him over. The deep lines of pain etched on either side of nose and mouth were visible even with the beard. The redden eyes were sunk, dark purple bruises in a grey face that held no life. His glasses were dirty.

He had to have been standing in this rain for some time: he was thoroughly soaked. The rain dripped off the shirt-tails of the dirty black (navy? brown?) flannel shirt that hung on his body. The jeans were worn, grimed, hips barely there to hold them up. The unlaced boots were wide open, letting the rain in.

"Scully sent me to see how you were." Krycek slid the gun into his pocket, kept his hand on it.

Skinner turned back to the lake. Krycek went to stand by him, trying to see what it was that had caught Skinner's attention. There was a white mist rising off the water, adding to the eerieness of the entire situation.

After a few minutes, Skinner said in an indifferent voice, "You can go now."

Krycek shook his head, spoke with an authoritative tone, "No. It's been raining too much. One of the roads up here was already flooding. I'll be spending the night." And turned to go back into the cabin.

Once in, he quickly checked the place for more weaponry, confiscated the knives that looked as though they could cut from the kitchen. The safety razor and blades from the bathroom. Tossed the lot in the trunk of his car and locked it.

In the freezer he found a container of coffee and with some difficulty, the coffee pot buried in the rubble on the kitchen counter.

He used the taps in the tub to wash it out, fill it with water and got it going on stove, once he'd cleared the top of its contents.

Skinner still hadn't moved. Still stood looking out over the lake.

Jesus! thought Krycek. What have we done to you?

Krycek was on his second cup when Skinner finally moved and walking slowly, as if each step was impossibly hard, he made his way up the path, up the stairs, across the deck and, after hesitating at the deck doors, into the cabin.

He ignored Krycek and stopped in the great room only long enough to see that the gun on the coffee table was gone. In the kitchen, he opened a storage door and came out with another of those whisky bottles that littered the cabin. He opened it, found a glass on the counter and filled it with the liquid. With bottle and glass he moved back into the great room, sat on the couch.

Apart from filling the glass, now and then drinking, Skinner sat unmoving. Krycek was horrified at the fragility of the man he had once compared to "thick- skinned rhino". This man barely had skin left to hold him together.

In the evening, Krycek made a fresh pot of coffee, cooked the two beef pies he'd found in the back of the freezer. He used a couple of pie tins as dishes, the only things he could find that didn't need washing. Found a spoon and a fork that were more easily cleaned. Placed the one with the spoon next to Skinner on the couch. Ate his sitting on the bottom steps to the loft.

Skinner ignored both the food and Krycek. Eventually fell asleep, head resting on the arm of the couch. Still holding the almost empty bottle. Still dressed in the sodden clothes.

Krycek waited till he was certain that Skinner was deeply asleep before going to look at him.

The smell in the room was the smell of death. He knew that. Recognized it from having smelt it before.

Skinner, the one with the least direct involvement with the Consortium, was its biggest victim.

They'd all landed on their feet except him. Scully with her position at Quantico. Mulder with his new office: everyone thinking that he had taken Krycek as a lover as a way of getting information.

Even he had landed pretty well-off: all charges dropped, even a bit of a hero for having supplied all that documentation, all that data to Mulder for him to use.

They'd forgotten the man who had done his best to protect them. Who had given Mulder and Scully the time and leeway to pursue the X-Files. Had protected them from Cancerman. Had done things that certainly went against his training, his personal philosophy to keep them alive. Had even done things to protect him, Alex Krycek.

True, there had been that scene on the balcony, but even then, he had made his point without permanent damage. Hell, Spender and his goons hadn't used a lubed glove on Skinner when they'd torn him apart on the inside. And Skinner hadn't called the cops, even though he must have hated him for fucking his department around the way he had. Or even toss him off the seventeenth floor. Which he could have done, and no one have been the wiser.

He'd been violated twice: ripped apart twice. Once by Spender and his goons, once by the so-called Justice system. He'd needed more time to recover from what had been done...Shit! The man had been tortured, and four weeks later they'd tortured what was left of him.

Krycek sat at the other end of the couch and considered options. If he left now, Skinner was dead. And he didn't deserve that.

On the other hand, if he stayed...God! Scully should have been the one to come up; to handle this. Even Mulder, for Christ's sake! Not him. He had no idea what to do.

But he knew that if he contacted Scully -- or Mulder -- the only thing they would do is have Skinner hospitalized. And Krycek was Russian enough to be extremely suspicious of mental institutions. And the "treatments" that took place there.

He scrubbed his hand over his face. Reached over and took the bottle out of Skinner's hand. There was a mouthful of the stuff left in the bottom. He tipped it back and swallowed what had to be licensed rot-gut.

Skinner had been making small noises, been restless for some time when suddenly he screamed. Krycek went to touch him but Skinner sat up, white face beaded with sweat and barely made it to the toilet when he vomited. The smell in the room was overpowering as Skinner continued heaving even though nothing was left in his stomach to come up.

Krycek touched his shoulder and Skinner turned, eyes black with pain, vomit marking his beard, his lips. "Please," he whispered, voice hoarse with the effort of vomiting, "Please, no more."

Krycek felt his stomach clench. Found he had to swallow, to breathe shallowly to control the urge to vomit next to Skinner. The man had curled up, huddled by the toilet, as if trying to protect himself from blows.

Krycek crouched by Skinner, taking care not to touch him, not to do anything to set him off. Waited till the man had fallen asleep lying there on the floor, exhausted from the act of vomiting, from the lack of food. From the pain and fear he carried in him.

Krycek knew how Skinner felt. Knew the kind of depression that had Skinner in its talons. Had been there often enough himself. Knew that Skinner would have to be made to want to live again if he were not to take that Glock and put it to his head.

Krycek sat back on his heels and, after some time, made a decision.

*******************************************************

Skinner woke to find himself on the floor of the bathroom, not an uncommon occurrence these days.

His throat and stomach muscles hurt, his clothes were damp . He'd learnt to ignore the taste in his mouth some time ago. Slowly, he rolled over to his knees, sat back, and using the toilet as a prop, he finally made it to his feet. He was dimly aware that something was different today, but couldn't concentrate long enough to track it down.

He'd staggered to the doorway of the bathroom when he realized what was different. Krycek was standing in the kitchen, washing a sinkful of dishes. The kitchen, though not yet clean, was certainly a lot easier to find. Most of the dishes had been soaked, scraped clean and then washed. The top of the stove was cleared, except for the pot of coffee that was percolating.

Krycek wiped his hand dry on a dishcloth he'd found in one of the kitchen drawers. Between loads of dishes, he'd stripped the bed, found the washer and dryer behind louvred doors and was into his fourth load of laundry. Two more piles of clothes were still waiting for their turn in the appliances.

Krycek poured himself a cup of coffee. Drank it while watching Skinner absorb what was going on around him. When he finished, Krycek put the cup down and in a continuous movement, slammed Skinner against the wall, started stripping the clothes off him.

Skinner tried to push him away. Got slapped hard across the face for the effort.

"You," said Krycek through gritted teeth, "are a pig. You smell worse than a pig. No self-respecting pig would live in his shit like this." He pulled Skinner off the wall, turned him, pulled his arm high behind his back, the fake arm around his neck.

Angrily, he shoved the man back into the bathroom, manhandled him into the tub. Skinner had trouble standing, wobbled. Krycek stripped his clothes and prosthesis off, joined Skinner and turned the water on. It took a bit of fiddling to get the temperature to a bearable heat.

With very little difficulty, he got Skinner to his feet, braced his hands against the back wall and began washing him down.

Stripped, Skinner was in worse shape than he had appeared. Krycek felt he could have counted every rib, every disc of the spine, hung his hat on hip-bones if he had wanted. There were sores on skin that had dirt encrusted on it.

Even in depression, how could Skinner have let himself deteriorate to this extent?

As he washed Skinner down, Krycek couldn't miss the webbing of scars that lashed the back, buttocks, even chest of the man. The larger burns still had a reddish sheen to them. The cigarette burns freckled his chest, were denser in his groin area, penis and balls. They contrasted with the sharp operation scars on his ribs where they'd had to cut to clean out the shards of bone broken by gun butts. Krycek knew they had had to remove one of them completely.

When he finished washing Skinner, Krycek turned off the water, left Skinner where he was while he dried himself using one of the towels that had already gone through its cleaning cycle. Pulled his jeans on.

He tugged Skinner's arm, got the man out and dried. Wrapped a towel around his hips and shoved him into the kitchen. There he poured him a cup of coffee, added brown sugar and snapped, "Drink."

Watched as Skinner, hands shaking, got the sweetened drink to his mouth and sipped. Waited till he had drunk most of it before he began.

"Listen to me, you fucking bastard. I will be staying here for a few days. While I am here, you will obey me. In anything and everything I tell you to do. Do you understand?"

Skinner put the mug down on the table, held it between his hands as if to warm them. He didn't respond. Krycek moved to the table, hauled Skinner's chin up. "I asked you a question. You answer me when I ask you a question. Do...you...understand?"

Something flared for a moment in Skinner's eyes, then faded. He dropped his eyes from Krycek's. "Yes." Voice low.

Krycek grabbed Skinner's jaw in his hand, forced it up, forced Skinner to meet his eyes again. "Yes, what?"

Watched as Skinner's military training, his Bureau indoctrination took over, which he had hoped would in response to his tone.

"Yes. Sir."

Still holding Skinner's jaw, "I will be gone for the rest of the afternoon. When I come back, I will find you here. I will find the kitchen cleaned up. The bathroom cleaned up. I will find you sober. Is that understood, Skinner?"

Skinner nodded, "Yes. Sir." His voice was even softer.

Krycek waited for a moment before releasing Skinner's jaw. He set a bowl with some cereal, all he could find in the bottom of a couple of different boxes in the back of one of the cupboards, poured some water and sugar on it and presented it to the man. "You've got five minutes to eat this." An "or else" threat hung in the air. Krycek waited for Skinner to pick up the spoon, take a mouthful, and left to dress.

He was taking a chance, leaving him here alone, but the cupboards were literally bare and he had to get some food into the place and into Skinner. He had passed a small town not a half-hour away and thought that would have to do for now.

He had gone through the house, taken away as much as he felt could be dangerous, including all the booze he could find. He pocketed Skinner's car keys. At the door, he turned around. "Skinner!" Waited till he had the man's attention. "When that load is dry, you'll find pants and some shirts in it. Get dressed."

*******************************************************

He hadn't found all the booze.

He had found the town, spent a couple of hundred dollars buying canned goods, fresh food, meats to restock the freezer. Even added some fancy chocolate ice cream, a treat for himself which he did not intend to share. He stocked up on cheese, dry and fresh milk. At the small drugstore, he bought a variety of vitamins, food supplements, stomach medication, shampoo, soap, basic medical supplies.

He found out that for twenty bucks, the kid who pumped gas at the only gas station in the area would pick up groceries and deliver them to the cabin. For another twenty, wouldn't deliver Skinner's liquor order.

He was gone a total of four hours and returned to find Skinner passed out in the bathroom, hand bleeding from the bottle that had broken against the toilet when he fell. The kitchen was a bit cleaner. The bathroom not.

"Well, Alexei, now what do you do?" He had inferred a threat if his orders had not been carried out. How was he going to handle this "disobedience". Whatever he did, he had to consider the shape the man was in.

Then he had an idea.

He dragged Skinner out to the great room. Carefully he washed and bandaged the cut hand. "Shit, man, just what you needed, another scar."

Because the kitchen was open concept, an upright beam served to support its part of the loft. Krycek dragged Skinner face down to it, took the handcuffs he had found in one of the upstairs drawers, and cuffed Skinner's hands around the beam. He dragged over a couple of the couch cushions, piled one on top of the other, raised Skinner on them so that his head hung over the edge. That way, if he vomited, he wouldn't drown in it. And, just in case he did vomit, he placed a large metal pan on the floor under his face.

At the last minute, he tossed a blanket over the man, turned on a couple of lights so he wouldn't wake up in the dark, and drove back into the town for a leisurely supper in the town's one so-called restaurant.

It was nearly midnight when he unlocked the door and came in find Skinner's eyes wide open and black. He strolled over to the man, pulled the pan and its contents away and went to empty it in the bathroom. He took his time rinsing the pan, putting it in the kitchen sink for washing.

He crouched by Skinner, stroked his face with a finger. "Next time I tell you to do something, you'll do it. Won't you, Skinner."

He reached into his pocket, took out the key and unlocked the cuffs. His hand came away bloodied.

He pulled Skinner's hands to him. Both wrists were torn, bleeding: the result of Skinner's attempts to free himself. He turned to yell at the man, to find terror and insanity.

"Please. Don't chain me. Please. I'll do whatever you ask. I won't fight you. But please, don't chain me. Please!"

Skinner's voice had risen with hysteria; his body trembled, his eyes grew wide with fear. He curled himself tight into a fetal position, voice begging, words unclear except for the repeated "Please!"

Krycek cursed himself. He pulled the broken man into his arms, tried to get through the fear and hysteria. Too late he'd remembered that Skinner had been handcuffed to the metal bar that had kept him upright throughout his torture.

God! He didn't know what he was doing. He was only making things worse. Maybe this was a stupid idea. Maybe Skinner would be better off in one of those hospitals, drugged to the gills, not feeling anything but stoned.

How was what he had done to the man any different than Spender and his goons? Shit! He should have remembered!

He rocked Skinner awkwardly in his arms, back and forth till his legs went to sleep beneath him, his arm ached and his stump burnt with the stress of gripping Skinner. Gradually, Skinner calmed, holding tightly to Krycek.

Krycek thought he had fallen asleep when Skinner asked, "Please. When you've had your revenge, will you kill me?"

Krycek rubbed his cheek against Skinner's bald head. "My revenge for what, Skinner?"

"For the balcony."

Krycek did some quick thinking, hated himself for using the weapon Skinner had just handed him. "That depends. Will you obey me?"

Skinner nodded his head slightly against Krycek's shoulder.

"Then, when I'm satisfied, we'll discuss this again."

Skinner nodded again. Then faintly, "Please. Don't chain me. I'll..."

Krycek interrupted before the man was actually begging again. "No chains. No cuffs. I promise."

He waited a bit longer, but Skinner seemed satisfied with the promise. "Come on, Skinner. Let's get you on the couch. I'll wrap those wrists of yours."

Skinner fell asleep before he had finished the second wrist. Krycek made him comfortable on the couch, slipped a pillow under his head, tucked a blanket around him. He wrapped another one around himself, tried to get comfortable in the armchair, put his feet up on the coffee table and did some heavy thinking.

*******************************************************

Skinner made it through the rest of the night without waking. Not without nightmares.


By morning Krycek had decided against hospitalization, and had decided to give it a shot. What Skinner needed was food, exercise, sleep. Nightmares were something Krycek understood, something he had learnt to handle.

When Skinner got a handle on the nightmares, he'd be okay, thought Krycek.

In the morning, he made Skinner take a shower, put on clean sweats. Made him a light breakfast of strong, sweet tea and dry toast. Told him to take a nap.

All of which Skinner did without saying a word, without questioning. That bothered Alex Krycek more than he thought it would: the old Skinner would have told him to "Go to hell, boy!"

After an hour, Krycek woke Skinner, fed him more of the tea and toast. Gave him the pile of towels and socks that he had finally finished washing. Had Skinner fold the towels, pair the socks, then told him to take another nap.

It was like that all day long: food, some small activity that didn't require thinking, naps. Skinner made it to mid-afternoon before his stomach rejected the last batch of tea and toast. Krycek waited till Skinner had cleaned up the bathroom -- he hadn't quite made it to the toilet -- and then handed him some of the stomach medication he'd picked up. He gave it several hours before he tried food again: this time it stayed down.

The only time Skinner spoke that day was when Krycek indicated that he was to sleep upstairs with him. Skinner looked from him to the bathroom. "Please," his voice rough with disuse, "the couch is closer."

Krycek picked up a bucket he'd found in his cleaning spree, handed it to Skinner. "By the bed. But you're sleeping in the bed, not down here."

Up in the loft, he made Skinner strip to his shorts, get in one side of the big bed, and claimed the other side as his. He'd locked his gun in the car trunk, and felt quite naked without it. He couldn't remember the last time he'd slept without it at hand.

Which meant he slept badly, but that was okay, because he spent part of the night holding Skinner's head over the bucket.

When it was over, Krycek cleaned up the bucket, Skinner. He piled a bunch of pillows so he could sleep sitting up, grabbed a shivering Skinner and hauled him as close to himself as possible.

Skinner had flinched at first, lay tense but gradually, the heat of Krycek's body, the hand gently stroking his neck and back calmed him and he went back to sleep.

Krycek found that once more he was doing some heavy thinking about the situation. He was having a hard time believing that what Spender and his goons had done to Skinner was responsible for this kind of extreme reaction on Skinner's part.

The next morning, he changed the routine: he made Skinner run before feeding him. Skinner slept for two hours straight, soundly, after that. Had him replenish the wood pile by the fireplace before lunch. Twenty sit-ups, twenty push-ups before the mid-afternoon feed. Another run before supper.

All food stayed down, except for the bowl of cereal he had before bed. So there was part of yesterday's routine repeated after all.

Over the next four days, Krycek gradually increased the distance of the run, the number of repetitions, the quantity of the food. He left the length of the naps stable; Skinner needed all the sleep he could get.

The nights were bad: Skinner's nightmares seemed determined to keep him from getting a full night's sleep. Krycek began the nights on his half of the bed, ended them on Skinner's, holding the man.

He had worried about the cold turkey removal of alcohol from Skinner's diet. Wasn't too surprised that to find total abstention wasn't much of a problem. Skinner's wasn't an addictive personality. The booze had been there for some reason, but not because it was physically needed.

On Thanksgiving Day, Krycek had been there one week. Other than a sentence here or there, there had been no conversation between the two men. Krycek gave orders and Skinner carried them out. And apart from that, Krycek read while Skinner ran, exercised or slept.

There was a TV in the great room, but neither man had turned it on. Krycek knew from what Mulder had told him that Skinner was a football fan. He seemed to remember that this time of the year was saturated with televised games. So, after lunch, he turned on the set, found a game on and settled to watch it on the couch. Skinner was sitting at the other end, silent, waiting for the next set of commands from Krycek.

Gradually, he became interested in the game. For the first time since he'd arrived, Krycek watched as some animation appeared in the man. Not much, but enough for him to snort at some play that Krycek, who had never spent much time with this game, couldn't follow.

That game was followed by another, and by this time, Skinner had caught on that the day's activities were to be more easy. At one point, Krycek got up, went into the kitchen. He placed a bowl of some kind of pretzel- nut mixture by Skinner, sat at his end with a bowl of chocolate ice cream.

"I don't get the popularity of this game." Krycek licked his spoon. "I mean, you've got a bunch of over- sized, over-paid goons who crash into each other, try to dismember each other, feel each other up. This is a sport?"

"You don't understand." Skinner voice was hoarse, not just from the vomiting but because he'd spoken so rarely. "It's an American thing."

"Don't give me that bullshit! I was born here. I'm as American as you are, even if my parents were Russian. I had to put up with those stupid jocks all the way through school. They haven't a brain among them. And everyone thinks they're so great that even when they kill their ex-wives, they get away with murder. There's no real skill needed to play football. Just brute strength and the ability to endure pain."

Skinner sat very still. Krycek checked him out of the corner of his eye. Wondered if he was going to get any kind of reaction from him.

"There's finesse in the game. You just don't know where to look for it."

Ah, Krycek smiled into his ice cream. He almost sounded like the old Skinner there for a moment. "Okay. So explain it to me."

Shit! That sounded more like an order than an invitation to conversation.

But it got Skinner started. He began carefully neutral in tone, became more animated as the game progressed. He explained the action on the screen as if he were talking to some kid who had never seen the game before.

By the end of the game, Skinner had spoken more than he had in months. And he had begun gesturing, using his hands to explain rules. He slouched down on his spine, muttered comments about the commentary. Krycek smiled openly, delighted that this idea had borne fruit.

But when the game ended, it was as if Skinner found himself shocked by his behaviour and he withdrew, fell silent again.

Over supper, Krycek left him alone. He intended to push, but not today. Today had shown him that the old Skinner was still around: he would just need some time to come out of whatever hole he was hiding in.

A week later, Krycek handed Skinner an axe and told him to replenish the wood stack. There were at least ten cords of wood stacked outside, but some of the pieces need to be cut down, especially for use in the small wood stove in the bedroom and for kindling. The nights were getting colder and apart from a small baseboard in the bathroom, a larger one in the kitchen, all heat came from wood.

It was the first time that he'd allowed anything sharp near Skinner, but with only one arm, he very well couldn't do the chopping himself. And since he had no intention of leaving Skinner alone, he stacked the chopped wood in the lean-to set up for that purpose besides the deck steps.

After a while of working in the sun, Skinner took off his shirt, continuing to work just in his t-shirt. Krycek sat on the bottom steps and watched him.

He had managed to put on some weight. The exercise had helped it become muscle. He had more stamina. Slept better, except for the middle of the night. Except for the middle of the night, had stopped vomiting completely. His skin had lost that grey look, but that beard and the hair needed cutting.

After the game, there hadn't been much conversation, but what little there had been was easier. And Krycek had discovered the chess set on the shelf that held all sorts of well-used board games. He had intended to play against himself, to pass the time, but had been pleased when Skinner casually asked if he played too.

They played a game every night after supper. A sort of non-verbal conversation, thought Krycek. He pushed and Skinner, after losing too many games in a row, began pushing back. It amused Krycek to see that Skinner pushed using the rules while he tended to push against the rules.

They were in bed that night when Krycek caught Skinner wincing at muscles that hadn't been used for some time.

"Turn over," he told Skinner. Skinner's reaction was to freeze. That haunted look came back in his eyes, and he looked as if he was going to panic. Finally, he took a deep breath and obeyed.

Krycek had caught his mistake almost as soon as it came out of his mouth. He knew that he had just lost a lot of the trust he had been so slowly establishing.

He had been aware, in these weeks, that Skinner was almost afraid of being touched. Every night, when he had held the man, there had always been a period where he was tensed, relaxing only when sleep took over. And that was allowable only because he was usually so sick that he didn't have the resources to deal with more.

But now, it wasn't the middle of the night. He hadn't puked his guts out. He wasn't shivering in reaction to the vomiting and his dreams. He didn't need someone to hold onto, to keep those nightmares away.

Krycek carefully propped the pillows so they would support his left side: God! it was times like this that he missed his left arm.

He lay his hand on the nape of Skinner's neck, felt the slight tremor and left it there for him to get used to. Then gently, he began massaging the tight muscles of neck and shoulder. He didn't say anything, just worked on the knotted musculature, reminding himself that he had to remember to get some sort of lotion to make this easier on both of them.

After working on Skinner's neck and upper back, he made himself comfortable on his side of the bed. " 'Night," he yawned, and turned so his back was to Skinner, knowing full well that wasn't what Skinner was expecting.

The next day, he doubled all of Skinner's exercise. Timed his morning run. Had him spend the rest of the morning in sit-ups, crunches, push-ups, anything he could think of to wear him out completely. No naps either, had him run again in the afternoon after telling him to cut ten minutes off the morning time.

Skinner ached that night, so much so, that when Krycek told him "Turn over," he did so with a sigh of anticipation.

Krycek began propped up as he had the night before, but at one point, he found it easier if he just straddled Skinner's hips. He ignored the immediate tensing of the man. Shit! Skinner was going to learn to trust him!

And again, when he was done, he moved over to his side of the bed and went to sleep.

Skinner had his usual three o'clock nightmares, but this time when Krycek pulled him into his arms, there was no tensing up. And he went willingly.

The first snow arrived the next morning. In a nice little blizzard that would dump five to ten inches, and then the sun the next day would melt most of it away. Krycek didn't set a run that day, just the usual inside exercises.

During lunch, he realized that Skinner had been staring at him under his eyelashes all through the meal. As if really seeing him for the first time. Krycek decided it was time to push the trust issue just a bit further.

"Stay here," he said, after the dishes had been washed and put away. He pointed to the table. Skinner sat, waited.

Krycek came back with a bowl of hot water, scissors, shaving lather, a couple of towels, and a safety razor.

"I'm tired of not seeing your face," he wrapped a towel around Skinner's neck. "And it's not really you, Skinner. Not the beard. Not the long hair. You've never been scruffy, and if you've suddenly decided to go for the hippie look, well, you're too late now. You should have gone for it when you were the right age."

With the scissors, he trimmed the beard to a shaveable length. Skinner, he noticed, kept very still during the whole operation, only moving that part of his face that Krycek told him to move.

It took, Krycek smiled to himself, a fair amount of trust to allow a one-handed man, who used an electric shaver himself, to shave your exposed throat with a safety razor.

When he got to hair, Krycek just shaved all of it off as well. Skinner didn't protest, just made a little sound when Krycek said, "Well, it's not as if you have no experience with being a leather-head."

"I think," offered Skinner, "you mean a leather-neck."

"Whatever. It'll grow back soon anyway." He walked around Skinner evaluating the afternoon's effort. He stopped in front of Skinner, check out the smoothness of his work on cheeks and jaw with a finger. Felt only the tiniest reaction from Skinner to his touch.

"Better," he said.

Skinner looked at him, raised an eyebrow. "Yes," he admitted, "better."

Krycek understood he wasn't just referring to the shave.

*******************************************************

Skinner found himself waking, not because of nightmares but because of the sense that something was wrong.

He was alone in bed, alone in the loft. Slowly, he got out of bed, pulled his jeans on and went to see where Krycek was.

The idea passed through his mind that Krycek was fed up with him, and had decided to take off. Then he shrugged it off. He hadn't heard the door close, a car start. And he wasn't sleeping so deeply that he wouldn't have awaken at those sounds. Moreover, whenever Krycek went into town, he always made sure Skinner knew he was going, how long he intended to be away, and left a list of instructions of how to fill in his time while Krycek was gone. Krycek, Skinner had discovered, did not believe in idle hands. Besides, there was still plenty of that chocolate ice cream he ate so that he had no reason for going into town.

Skinner found Krycek on the couch, feet on the table. His face was in the dark, but Skinner knew from the way his right hand was massaging his shoulder and the upper part of his stump that he was in pain. He'd read about phantom pain, but this was the first time he'd seen someone experiencing it.

He quietly approached the couch, stood behind Krycek and waited till the man acknowledged he was there before placing his hands on Krycek's shoulder and using thumbs and fingers, began pressing deeply into knotted muscle.

Krycek dropped his own hand, sighed at the ease Skinner's hands were bringing him.

"Lean your head forward." Skinner worked on tight neck muscles, upper back muscles before moving to include the front of the shoulders.

Krycek groaned. "Thanks. It's not the same thing when you do it to yourself."

Skinner grunted. "Phantom pain?"

"Yeah. And then the nerves get into act. It's like I can feel the burning from my shoulder to my hand. I get the impression that if I could just rub my hand, the bloody pain would stop."

Skinner moved his hands to the stump, holding it in both of his. He could feel the muscles twitching. Very gently, he massaged the scared and mangled limb. "Does this hurt?"

"Yeah, but it's good pain, don't stop. Sort of like working a charlie horse out of a muscle. That kind of hurt."

After a while, Krycek rested his head against the back of the couch, looked up at Skinner who was still working on his shoulder and stump.

"Skinner. What happened?"

Skinner didn't pretend to misunderstand the question. He shrugged. Krycek's hand reached up and rested on the arm nearest to it. He tugged gently, and, hand still on Skinner, got him to come around to the front of the couch. To sit next to him.

"Listen, I know you strong silent types don't like to talk much, but Skinner, those nightmares won't go away if you don't get some of that stuff out of you."

Krycek turned slightly so he could look at the man sitting stiffly next to him.

"Look, it's not that difficult. With a name like Sergei, you must have had some connection to a church. What? Russian Orthodox? Roman Catholic? Which one was it?"

Skinner sat back, put his feet on the table next to Krycek's. Scrubbed his face with his hands.

"Come on, Walter. Don't make me remind you of your promise. Remember, I ask, you answer."

"Except," Skinner sighed, "you still haven't taken your revenge. And you won't kill me. Not now."

"No. Not necessary now. But it was close. That day I got here, you were going to do it. Put the Glock to your head and add to the general smell and mess of the place." He paused. "Why?"

Skinner still didn't answer.

"What Spender and his goons did to you was shit, but you never struck me as the type of guy who would let that kind of shit get to him. I'm not saying it wasn't bad, because it was. But Walter Sergei Skinner should have rolled with it, gotten up, found his feet and gone on with life."

Skinner decided to answer another question. "Catholic. My father found the Russian Liturgy took too much time. And the local school with the best football team was Catholic."

"So you practice?"

"No. Nam took care of that. And I haven't seen anything in the last thirty years to change my mind."

"But you're familiar with confession. That's all this is, Skinner. Confession time. Just close your eyes and pretend I'm Father O'Malley..."

"Father Kiwaulski." He found himself wondering just how far Krycek was going to play this.

"Father Kiwaulski then and tell me all your sins. You know, the venial ones first so that you can work your way up to the mortal and not shock the old wino."

Skinner quirked an eyebrow at Krycek. "You seem to know a lot about that."

"I've heard about it. I haven't done it." Almost defensive. Krycek tried again. "Look, do it whichever way you want, but get it out of your gut before it festers. Maybe it won't make the nightmares go away, but at least I'll know what we're dealing with. Maybe I can help."

Skinner looked carefully at the man next to him. The man who had bullied him back into life. The last man on earth he'd have ever thought would hold out a hand and pull him back from the blackness. A man he had abused, hated, had wanted dead, preferably by his hand.

Krycek didn't know where to go from here. He was tired and, in spite of the massage, his arm still hurt. It would continue hurting for no reason he could find and then suddenly stop, again for no discernable reason. Meanwhile, it left him tense, sore and gave him a headache. Normally he'd drink to handle the situation, but he had no intention of doing so in front of Skinner.

He was seriously thinking of finding some codeine tablets when Skinner suddenly started talking.

"Two weeks after you found me OPC came to see me in the hospital."

"OPC? What the fuck for?" And two weeks after he'd found him, Walter Skinner had still not been in any shape to handle OPC.

"The video and cassette. The bank account."

Krycek was stunned. "Are you telling me they believed that bullshit?"

"That's their job, believing bullshit." Even Skinner heard the bitterness in his voice. "They 'interviewed' me every day after that. I was put on notice that I was to consider myself guilty...no, a traitor unless they could prove otherwise. Like you, they wanted a confession. It would make things easier on me if I just told them the truth."

"Jesus, Skinner. But they knew you. Shit! Even I knew it was a set-up when I heard it. Surely it was obvious to them."

"Well, you see, there'd been problems with my department before, where they'd had to investigate..."

Skinner stopped to listen to Alex Krycek swear fluently first in English, then in Russian. He really didn't have much Russian, only his maternal grandparents had spoken it, but he did recognize a few of the expressions. His grandfather had always believed that Russian was a much better language for swearing. Krycek obviously knew a fair amount since he had yet to repeat himself.

Skinner waited for Krycek's anger to quiet. He hadn't really been surprised at the arrival of OPC. What had gotten to him was the vehemence, the acrimony directed at him. But eventually he had understood it.

"Eventually," he continued, "OPC had to admit that apart from the video, the tape and the bank account, which they couldn't trace definitively back to me, I 'seemed' to be clean. That's when the Director came out with his oh-so-supportive statement.

"I knew that they believed me dirty when I got to the Grand Jury waiting room and met my lawyer."

"That asshole!" Krycek's disdain was obvious.

"The Director's god-son, who passed his bar exams on, it is rumoured, his fifth try. I knew that they were hanging me out to dry. And then there was Senator Matthews and his questions."

Skinner turned to look at Krycek who had slouched so that his spine rested on the seat, head thrown back, eyes closed.

"By the way, thanks for that. You were the only one in that room who understood what he was doing."

"Yeah, right. I told you to feed him and you did. You know," Krycek opened his eyes to look at Skinner, "I actually thought you'd get a kick out of what happened to him. What I did was set you up for yet another assault."

Skinner slouched beside Krycek on the couch. "Actually, there was a day when I finally got a laugh over it, but it did take a while. And I was drunk at the time. But I do seriously thank you. You were the only one who even tried to help."

"Look," Krycek felt he had to explain, "Scully and Mulder weren't there because they didn't even think for a minute that anyone would take those things about you seriously. Neither of them knew about the OPC investigation, or they'd have been there fighting. Shit! We thought the bloody fighting was all over."

Skinner shrugged. The fact remained that of all of them, only Krycek had been there at the Grand Jury, had been the only one...again...to help him.

A new thought came to him. "So, what did you threaten Spender with that he confessed to all the next day?"

Krycek shrugged. "I just described to him what prison life would be like if he were paralysed from the neck down."

"Graphically?"

Krycek met Skinner's half smile with a grin of his own. "I'm very good at graphic detail." Then, "How did you know it was me?"

Skinner's smile grew. "You just told me."

Krycek snickered. That was more like the old Skinner. "So where did you disappear to, after you were dismissed."

"The Director's Personal Assistant was waiting for me when I left the Court. To take me to the Director. The PA had already updated him on the morning's revelations."

"And?" By now, Krycek had an idea where this was going.

"And I got told that I had brought too much disrepute to the Bureau for them to allow me to come back."

"Even if you'd been cleared?"

"Ah, but I hadn't been cleared. I had admitted in my own testimony that I was quote a practising ho..mo..sexual who was into games of
say..do..mas..o..chistic bondage. Unquote. That I had had sex with a subordinate who was too naive to understand what I was leading him into."

"Mulder? Naive? Shit! That asshole doesn't know our boy very well, does he?" Krycek's first and only reference to the fact that they had both shared in Mulder's favours.

Skinner ignored the comment. "That in spite of Spender's testimony, I was still under suspicion and therefore, until and unless I was completely cleared, irrevocably cleared by OPC, it would be required that I take leave without pay for at least six months while my work was investigated. Of course, should I wish to do the 'honourable' thing for the Bureau and its reputation, I could resign. They would even 'allow' me to take retirement if that was the route I preferred. After all, I did have my twenty years and was eligible. Of course, pension payments would have to be held back until I was cleared."

Shit! No wonder the man had hit the bottle.

"I really wasn't surprised then that Scully and Mulder weren't around. I had been their supervisor. I understood that considering the position I was in, they couldn't be seen to support me in any way and keep their careers..."

"That's bullshit!" Krycek's vehemence stopped Skinner.

"No. I was...I am poison."

"That's not what I calling bullshit, though that's also bullshit. No. You weren't just their supervisor. You covered for them more than you had to. You cared for them. Christ, Skinner, you were their fucking lifeline! They should have been there for you. Hell, Skinner! You were even there for me!"

Skinner looked stunned. "How the hell did you come to that conclusion?"

"Come on, the number of times you could have killed me. Called the cops on me. Could have thrown me off the balcony."

"Instead I tortured you."

Krycek rolled his eyes. "Get real. You of all people know that it wasn't torture."

"Really. So what was it that I did to you that night on my balcony?"

Krycek meet Skinner's eyes, saw the self-disgust in them. "I pissed you off and you lost it for a while."

"I lost it?!" Skinner was incredulous.

"Jesus, Skinner, you going to tell me that Spender put a glove and a ton of lube on one of those gun barrels before he shoved it up your ass?" He took a deep breath, tried again.

"Look, I'm not saying it didn't hurt: it did. But you didn't tear me." Well, he had, but not much. And he had had worse in his life. "Though, I did shit lube for the next two days. And face it, you did have legitimate grounds for hating me. It's not like you did it out of the blue.

"And, not that I'm excusing them, but Scully was up to her neck in corpses in Quantico, from the Johnson case. And Mulder was on the West Coast at some conference with the Director. Neither of them suspected what was going on. I swear, Skinner. They didn't know. Or they'd have been there. And they never for a moment believed any of that crap Spender invented."

There was a long bit of quiet while Krycek thought of some very inventive things he wanted to do to the Bureau Director.

"My family believed it." Skinner voice was very quiet.

The final piece, thought Krycek. "What did they believe?"

"The video, the cassette, the bank account. Even after Spender confessed, they thought there had to be a grain of truth to it because if there hadn't been, the Director would have come out right away to defend me."

Krycek was stunned silent.

"And then there's the fact that I sleep with men. It's bad enough I do it, but to admit it in front of a Grand Jury humiliated them to no end. They had to send for the doctor for my mother. They thought she was going to have a heart attack. My brother George wouldn't let me talk to her because if I did, it might kill her. When I tried to get her later on, she hung up the phone on hearing my voice.

"I thought if I gave it some time, things would calm down. So I waited, called my other brother, Tom. He actually talked to me. Told me how mom couldn't hold up her head in town any more. How Father Kiwaulski helped her pray for my immortal soul. How I was a embarrassment to the Marine Corps, the FBI, the American way of life. That he hoped that I would have the common basic decency, if people like me *had* any decency, to remember that there were children in the family and that my presence would not be tolerated around them.

"He probably had more to say, but I hung up at that point.

"That was the day you arrived."

*******************************************************

The next day, while Skinner was out running, Krycek got hold of Scully in Quantico. Told her about the OPC investigations, about the Director and his "support".

Heard, for the first time in his life, Dana Scully swear like the sailor her father had been.

"How bad is he?"

"It's getting better. He'd lost weight. Wasn't eating properly. Drinking too much. But he's got it under control again. More like the old Skinner."

"Are you sure? Maybe I should come out and see for myself."

"Wait, will you, Scully. Maybe later. But there are still a few things left for him to sort out, and it would be easier if he dealt with them first. And I promise I'll call you every week with an update."

Scully wanted to believe Krycek that things weren't bad, but had gotten the message that interference would not be welcomed. And since Krycek was the one who had gone up, she felt she had to trust him. "Every week. I'll expect your call every Wednesday at this time. If I don't hear from you, I'll be coming up. And, Krycek, I'll find out what's going on with OPC. After all, the new Acting Assistant Director used to be my partner."

"How's he doing?"

"Having the time of his life shaking things up. Got the budget people freaked out over his expenses approvals. Won't read reports longer than three pages. He's getting away with it all only because he knows he's still the Media darling. All that positive coverage is just delighting the upper offices."

*******************************************************

Krycek gave Skinner the day off for Christmas. Even allowed him some of his chocolate ice cream after warning him that should any disappear that he couldn't account for, he would break Skinner's hands.

Skinner thanked him very politely for the treat, then pointed out to Krycek that he really didn't like chocolate all that much, preferred butter pecan. Which Krycek added to the shopping list.

Once Skinner initiated a conversation of his own: wondering if Krycek didn't want to go back to his place to pick up some clothes, his mail, something.

Krycek had been wearing some of Skinner's clothes, his shirts, his sweats. Had bought socks, t-shirts, underwear in the town's general store.

"I don't really have any other clothes. I usually keep things down to a bare minimum. As for the apartment, I rent it by the week. So it's been long cleaned out and rented to someone else. And the only mail I get is addressed 'Occupant'."

New Year's Day. They spent the evening watching yet another football game. Skinner was watching, stretched out on the couch. Krycek was sitting cross-legged in the armchair, working his way through Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury", occasionally looking at the game.

He got up at one point, returned some time later with two drinks. Placed one on the coffee table by Skinner, resettled in his chair with the other.

Skinner looked at the drink, could smell it was scotch. Knew by the colour, it had to be prime. Looked over at Krycek who was watching him.

"Aren't you afraid I'll go back to that other stuff?"

Krycek shook his head. "You're no alcoholic, Skinner. One glass in the evening, now and then, isn't going to send you back that way. Not now." He raised his glass, said something in Russian, translated at Skinner's raised eyebrow. "To life!"

Skinner picked up the glass, toasted Krycek with it. "To life. Alex."

Alex smiled. "To life. Walter."

Walter took a sip. Felt the warmth of single malt scotch roll over his tongue, down his throat, into his stomach. He shut his eyes in appreciation. "Good stuff."

Alex shrugged. "You should know. That's the brand you had on the sideboard in your place that night."

Walter shook his head in rueful appreciation. Alex had spent what, ten seconds? in that part of his apartment, yet had noticed, and remembered, something that insignificant. No wonder the man was still alive.

*******************************************************

Alex was beginning to wonder when Walter was going to tell him to get lost. He'd been here two months, since mid-November.

He had to admit that he liked it here at the cabin with Walter. Had joined him in the morning and afternoon runs since the New Year. Their chess games had become battles of strategy since their evening games allowed them both to test old skills.

Scully updated him every week on the ongoing battle with OPC. "It's as if they want to find something to hang on him," she grouched. "And since they can't, they keep on digging."

"They don't want to admit they were wrong. That they abandoned one of their own. Not good for morale," Alex explained.

"Mulder's threatened to go public unless they tie it up real soon." Scully told him the next week.

"That should light a fire under them." Alex's tone was both bitter and sarcastic.

"I've got some time coming to me," said Scully. "Want me to replace you for a while?"

But Alex didn't want to be replaced, didn't want any outside interference.

Because he had finally clued in to the last bit of the Skinner puzzle; that feeling that no matter how well Walter was, there was something missing.

That morning, he'd passed the bathroom and noticed that while shaving, Walter didn't look in the mirror. As if he didn't want to see himself.

That got Alex thinking. Walter still flinched if he was accidentally touched. Except in bed, after a nightmare, he made no effort to touch Alex, even in passing.

And, unless he jerked off on his runs or in the shower, he had not had any sex at all, of any type, since the kidnapping.

Alex knew that he himself waited to jerk off in the shower. He tended to be a bit loud and liked the idea of privacy.

He knew now that Walter hadn't had much counselling in the hospital, none since leaving.

And he had been brutally raped, not just by gun barrels but by the three men themselves. Anally and orally.

Alex remembered how he had felt the first time he had been brutally raped. How long it had taken for him to even tolerate the sight of his body in the shower. Not to cringe at the touch of a hand.

He shook his head, refusing to go down that path any longer. But it made him look at Walter differently, picking up signals he had till then either not seen or ignored.

He waited till they were in bed to test his theory.

He had propped himself on a couple of pillows, near the centre of the bed, watching Walter stoke up the fire in the wood stove that heated the loft, undress. Walter was surprised to find him that close to himself, but just lay back, the way he did every night.

Alex waited till he thought Walter was comfortable before reaching out to pass a finger along his jaw. Walter's eyes opened, stared at the ceiling, didn't turn toward Alex.

Alex just kept on stroking the stubbly skin of jaw and cheek, felt the tension rise in the man with each pass of his finger.

"When we finally do it," he leaned over and whispered, "it will not be rape. You'll want it as much as I do." Walter's eyes turned to his. "Yes, you will. But for right now, we'll go slowly. Very slowly. Just a touch, till you get used to the feel of my hand."

He moved the finger across Walter's mouth, gently stroking the lips. Up to his nose and down it. Again across the lips. Walter's eyes holding his own.

"Till the feel of them is less than the feel of my hand on your skin."

Walter pulled away, sat on the edge of the bed, trying hard not to vomit.

Alex moved to sit on his heels behind Walter. He didn't touch the man, just let him adjust to his presence in his personal space.

"By now I think you trust me enough to know I won't hurt you. You're a hell of a lot better than what you were when I first got here, Walter. You're eating regularly. You're back in shape. You're back in control. Of everything except this.

"Before they raped you, you liked sex. You couldn't help but like it with Mulder. You probably even liked it a lot with your wife.

"They took a lot away from you, Walter. Your reputation. Your peace of mind. Your self-worth. You went down for a while there, but you've pulled yourself back up. And in the long run, you're going to win.

"But not if you let them keep this part of yourself. If you do, they'll have won your soul, your heart.

"And it's not an easy thing to do, to win back your soul. I know."

Alex took a deep breath. "I know what it's like to avoid looking into a mirror because you can't stand to see what's in your eyes. To shower and pretend it's someone else's body you're washing. Because if it's yours that's being touch, the idea will send you screaming through the night. To see marks on your body that disgust you.

"To have nightmares where the darkness is hands and other things hurting. To wake up screaming your throat to shreds. To the smell of vomit."

Alex paused, trying to control his own breathing. "If you want me to leave, I will. But I would rather stay, if you'll allow. And if you do, then I will touch you, Walter. I will allow you to dictate how much I can touch, but I will touch you.

"If the only way you can tolerate this is to say that this is my revenge for the balcony, then that's okay. I will tell you now, it isn't. I have wanted to touch you for some time now, but I wanted it to be a mutual want."

His voice softened.

"I would like once in my life for someone to want me as much as I want him. To want my pleasure as I want his. To touch me with care. As I touch him with care."

Alex rested his head against Walter's shoulder, whispered so low that Walter barely heard the words. "Not just be a piece of meat."

Walter let his head rest on top of Alex's. God! He was tired! It had hurt him more than he would admit to hear Alex understood his self-loathing.

Slowly, he turned and took Alex into his arms. It was his turn to hold and comfort. How many times had Alex done it for him since he'd arrived? How many times had someone done it for Alex?

He lay back on the pillows, holding Alex. They slept that way through the night.

No nightmares for either of them.

*******************************************************

Walter was aware that Alex had been very sincere in telling him if he stayed he would touch.

Because touch he did. Light, casual touches. On a shoulder. On an arm. Just in passing.

Standing closer to him than he had done. Sitting next to him on the couch.

Yet always watching for Walter's reaction. Careful not to push too long, too deeply.

Just getting him used to the feel of his hand, the nearness of his body. The fact that his eyes followed him.

And those were just the days. The nights were a bit more intense. Touching for a purpose.

Just the face to begin. A finger delineating his features. Eyes watching for the slightest nuance of pain, fear in his. Then a hand caressing. A comment about the roughness of his beard. About how, when they were going to have sex, he was going to have to shave first.

Then his mouth. Just passing over his skin, his lips. Then tip of tongue, tracing the path the finger had taken. Licking. Tasting. Soothing.

And done, gradually, over several nights. Sometimes as they went to bed. Others, to awaken him in the night at the start of a nightmare. In the morning.

So that finally, Walter realized that what he felt on his face was not the touch of the men who had hurt him, but of Alex.

That night, he turned to Alex, and began his own attack of touch, using, as Alex had, just a finger to begin with. Was rewarded with green eyes that showed surprise. Then wary pleasure. Watched as his touch brought a slight blush to Alex's face. Passed his own lips over the blush. Opened his mouth to Alex's taste and felt it overpower the sour taste that had been left behind in his.

Walter found that now he too touched in the days. The same light, casual touches. Fingers brushing when they played chess. A slight nudge of a shoulder against the other's, to point out a bit of action on TV. Feet "accidentally" resting on the other's on the coffee table. Slouching so that head rested against shoulder.

And understanding that a stump hurt after a day of wearing a prosthesis. That a massage of neck, shoulder, stump was heaven for a one-armed man who could never reach the right muscle.

Other than Scully's weekly phone call, and the weekly food delivery by the boy at the gas station, they were alone. And uninterrupted. Getting to know each other, each other's bodies gradually.

Like, thought Walter one night, curled up in bed with Alex after a necking session, two teenage virgins pussy-footing around each other.

He nearly said it aloud to Alex, but by now had pieced together enough information about Alex himself to know he had not had that kind of adolescence.

It became a game; what Alex touched one night, Walter touched the next. Necks, shoulders, chest were added to face.

Walter learnt that Alex enjoyed having his throat stroked, his collarbone nibbled, his nipples teased by tongue and teeth.

Alex discovered that Walter's underarms were an erogenous zone that made him flush from mid-chest to throat. That he liked having the soft side of his elbows licked. That he was ticklish on his left ribs, but not his right.

Each was careful of the other's scars. Gentle with them.

It took them a month of nights to finally work their way below each other's waists. Where Walter found it hard to take a hand, a light touch. But by now Alex had a better understanding of Walter's mind. Knew that words -- not that either of them was much of a talker - - would help distract Walter's attention from a hand that was travelling over badly used territory.

So, head resting on Walter's chest, hand making gentle forays on abdomen, groin, upper thighs, Alex tried to find stories from his past that would keep Walter's mind away from that hand.

He had made no attempts to conceal his past from Walter, knew that the man could put the bits of information that sometimes slipped out to their logical conclusion. Knew that from Mulder's reports Walter would know how he had survived in Hong Kong, how he had used his skills to start his way up the internal structure of the Consortium.

There were not too many light moments in his past, but he did find a few that he felt if he shared, Walter would not look at him with contempt or disgust and send him away.

In turn, Walter told him about Vietnam. About the boy who had given him his first blow job. About the officer who had taken his virginity. About his dying.

So that the night Alex finally put his mouth to Walter's cock, Walter just sighed, and let himself accept the wonders of Alex's mouth. Playing with him. Soothing him. Taking away the fear of the oh-so-acute memories of pain. Bringing him pleasure. And finally orgasm. Deep within the warmth, the security of Alex's mouth.

When Alex had finished with him, he moved up Walter's body to take his mouth. "Taste yourself, Walter. As good as chocolate ice cream."

And Walter tasted Alex, himself, flavours intermingled with the saltiness of tears that ran down his skin into his mouth.

Alex nestled against him, holding him.

And wondered if Walter would have any use for him after tonight.

But in the middle of the night, it was Alex who woke with the feel of a mouth on him. Walter took his time, remembering the comment about being taken with care. And he was careful because Alex also had his share of scars, his memories of pain centred on his groin.

And when he too had come, had gasped his semen into Walter's throat, Walter also moved up Alex's body to take his mouth. "Taste yourself, Alex," he repeated. "As good as sixteen year old scotch."

And wondered where they went from here.

*******************************************************

Walter noticed that Alex seemed to be fighting some depression. He recognized it easily enough from his own. More trouble sleeping. Time spent just staring out the window. Less appetite.

Not that there was less touching, there wasn't. Alex seemed more intent on increasing the sensuality of his touch. Light touches became caresses; tasting, kisses. There were times Walter felt that his skin burnt from the play of hand and mouth on his body: and that was with him still wearing his clothes.

Alex would surprise him, push him against the wall, or into the couch, or onto the floor and stroke him through his clothes till he felt that the merest touch of cloth against his cock would make him come. Except that Alex would suddenly stop, pull away and resume what he had been doing. Walter would have called him a cockteaser except that it was obvious from the erection behind Alex's jeans that he too was being left short of completion.

At night, there was a controlled element of franticness to Alex's love-making. Walter knew there was something not right, but he couldn't put his finger on it. Except that maybe Alex had been here three months and was feeling restless.

Walter suddenly found that thought depressing.

Then one night, Alex whispered into Walter's ear, "I want to come in you. Will you let me?"

Walter felt a frisson of fear. Alex picked it up. "Slowly. Not tonight, but when you're ready."

And Walter looked into dark green eyes and realized that he wanted Alex to come in him. So that he in turn could come in Alex.

Holding Alex's eyes, he turned to lie on his stomach. His hand drew the other's so that Alex lay on top of him. Alex sighed, nibbled the top of the shoulder under him. He slipped his hand under Walter's shoulder and slept there for the night. Walter felt like some big cat had settled on him, found comfort in the weight, the sound of the breathing, and slept.

The next night, he took the initiative for the first time. He dropped lube and condoms on the bed by Alex. Leaning over, he took Alex's mouth with his, let his hand stroke neck, slowly move down a taut body to Alex's hardening cock. His mouth followed his hand.

Alex pulled away. "Too quick," he gasped. "You're the one who needs to get ready."

Alex dropped his mouth to Walter's body. Played all the spots he had learnt made Walter forget to think. When he felt Walter was truly ready, he handed him the bottle of lube to open. Walter spread the gel on his fingers, and then turned face down.

Alex wished right then for his arm back, if only for the next little bit of time. The top position in this move was somewhat difficult for one arm. Resting his upper body on Walter's back, kissed the skin nearest his mouth.

"Take a breath, Walter." And gradually slipped a finger into Walter's very tight ass. Walter stilled. Alex waited till he was certain Walter had adjusted to the feel of the finger before slowly moving it back and forth. Gently. Talking him through this first penetration.

"God, Walter. A catholic miracle. The surgeons made you a virgin again." Felt a slight snort from the man under him.

Then, seriously, "Tell me if it hurts. I don't want it to hurt, Walter. I don't want to hurt you." Punctuated with kissing, nibbling, licking the whip scars by his face.

"You're not hurting me, Alex. The only way you can hurt me is to leave me hanging like this." Walter moved his hips into the rhythm of the finger. Gasped when a second joined the beat.

Realized that the position was not easy for Alex to maintain. With careful concentration, he moved to his hands and knees, taking Alex and those fingers with him. So that Alex was now kneeling behind him, between his knees, more easily able to control the action.

Alex withdrew his fingers, rolled on the condom, added more lube to it. He bent over Walter, kissed his back and slowly began pushing his way into Walter's body. He did it slowly, waiting for Walter to become accustomed to the stretch. He hadn't been kidding: Walter was tight, virginically tight. He wanted this to be pleasurable, not anything to remind Walter of the last penetration.

Had it been the Walter of a month before, it would have been necessary. This Walter appreciated the concern, but wanted to feel Alex in him, now. He brought back a hand to grasp Alex's hip, and, before Alex could do anything, thrust himself back, fully, on Alex's cock.

Alex swore. "Jesus! Walter!"

Walter bit his lip to the point of blood. For a moment, there was a burning pain. But then, that it was Alex in him, brought a sense of pleasure. He began moving his hips, "Alex! I'm okay. But I need you along for this ride."

Alex's hand came up to caress his stomach, stroke his abdomen, squeeze his balls. Hips moved in counter rhythm to Walter's thrusts, causing Walter to gasp when Alex found his prostate.

Walter rested his weight on one hand, brought up the other to grasp his cock, only to have Alex's hand slap it away. "Mine," he growled in Walter's ear.

The word became his mantra. As he thrust in, as he brought Walter to orgasm, as he spilled himself into Walter's ass. As he lay spent next to his lover, he whispered it.

And longed with all his being for it to be true.

*******************************************************

Walter woke the next morning, feeling as though a weight had been removed from his shoulders. Only to find, by the end of the day, that it had merely moved from him to Alex.

Alex was even quieter than usual. More...wary. His eyes tracked Walter all through the day with almost a hunger. As if he were storing up...something. Sometimes, something close to pain would flash across his features, and his breath would suddenly hitch as if to control the feeling.

That evening, while Walter was watching a hockey game on TV, Alex joined him on the couch, rested his head on one thigh, arm slipped under the other, and pretended to sleep under Walter's stroking hand.

When they went upstairs, Alex dropped the lube and condom next to Walter. Watched with darkly serious eyes, as Walter aroused him, barely participating in the act. Walter touched him gently, watched him shatter when he penetrated him, Alex's legs over his shoulders, face to face.

Walter wondered if Alex was even aware that his eyes shed tears all through their final thrusts, through both their orgasms. He withdrew carefully, as if Alex were made of glass. Got rid of the condom. Pulled Alex into his arms and wrapped himself around the silently weeping man.

Walter gently stroked Alex, long soothing caresses from the back of his head, down his nape, along the spine to the small of his back. Then back up again. Back and forth. Until Alex fell asleep.

*******************************************************

The Alex that woke up in his arms was self-contained, calm. As if last night had never happened.

Walter watched him puttering in the kitchen, making his breakfast. Realized with a shock that Alex was wearing only his own clothes, nothing of Walter's.

He sat back in his chair, coffee in hand, and thought over the last few days. Concluded that Alex was leaving. But not the reason why.

Or had he?

Or was it just wishful thinking on his part.

But he kept on hearing Alex's voice as it chanted "Mine", and decided to take a chance.

"Alex. I have a problem."

Alex turned slowly, leaned back against the counter- top, hand braced on edge. He looked like a man expecting a blow. Even raised his chin for it. "What is it?" His voice revealed little of his tension.

Walter looked from his coffee to the man watching him.

"How do you tell a man you once whipped and fisted that you love him?"

It wasn't what Alex had been expecting.

Walter stood up, went up to Alex. Raised a trembling hand to caress a whitened cheek.

"So," he whispered, "how do I tell him, Alex?" He bent and passed his mouth over Alex's bottom lip. Looked up into eyes that carried far too many shadows, far too much pain.

"That's..." Alex swallowed and tried again, a whisper. "That's not what I expected you to say."

"What did you expect?" Walter's mouth moved to those eyes now closing, his tongue drawing the shape of them.

"That it was time for me to leave."

Walter rested his forehead against Alex's, felt the pain, the expectation of rejection that Alex's indifferent tone covered.

He brought his hands up Alex's sides, from his hips to his shoulders, brought his hands around the tensed neck, to clasp the face in a gentle hold. He lowered his mouth to Alex's. Felt it tremble under his.

Hesitantly, Alex brought up his hand, moved it across ribs, back to shoulder. "Please," he whispered into Walter's mouth. For a moment, he leaned into the kiss, savouring, then pulled back. Walter saw Alex's soul stripped bare on his face. "Is this a joke of some kind?"

"No joke. I swear. Alex. Don't go. Stay with me. Please."

Alex pressed close to Walter, held him tightly, was in turn held tightly. Felt some of the pain that had enclosed him for the last two days dissolve.

*******************End of Part 2***********************

PART 3

WARNING: Suggested sexual abuse

*******************************************************

Walter propped himself up on an elbow and examined the face of his lover sleeping next to him on the bed.

The past two days had been fraught with tension, revelations, and a lot of sex.

Walter discovered that the car Alex had been driving was Mulder's Bureau issue.

That his bank account had been paying for groceries. Alex had used up the thousand he'd had on him when he'd arrived. Had simply forged Walter's signature to the cheques he'd used to buy anything after that. He *had* kept a meticulous account of the money he'd spent.

That Alex had been in weekly contact with Scully, who was keeping him up to date on the OPC proceedings.

All of this revealed with the expectation that it would be the straw that broke the infamous camel and Alex would find himself booted out.

It hadn't taken long for Walter to understand that all the patience and tenderness Alex had shown him during those days and nights to heal him, had torn up Alex's soul. He had given what he so desperately wanted himself but never expected to receive. That he, Walter, had returned the tenderness had only increased the anticipation of the pain when he would no longer be of use.

Walter realized that in his life, Alex had often been treated as a thing to be used then discarded as so much garbage when his usefulness was over.

It wasn't going to be easy convincing him otherwise.

Walter reached out with a finger and traced Alex's lips. The sensuous upper lip, the full lower lip. Watched as a smile slowly woke under his stroking. Alex turned his head, sighed, and opened his eyes.

Walter, now reading his lover better, saw the hesitant fear that flashed in Alex's eyes before he pushed it down deep within himself. Then saw the smile warm those dark green eyes.

As he bent for a kiss, Walter promised himself that one day Alex would wake without that initial reaction.

Alex licked Walter's lips, stretched sinuously against his lover. "Weren't you the one complaining of the lack of recovery time just this morning?"

Walter hummed a sort of answer, brought his head down to lick Alex's nipples. "You were wrong," between nibbles, "about my not having an addictive personality."

"Really?" Alex's hand caressed the large shoulders hovering over him.

"I find that I am getting quite dependent on the taste and smell of post-coital Krycek." Walter rubbed his roughened chin on Alex's neck.

"I understand," Alex sighed, rather dramatically. "I'm into eau de Skinner myself." And whooped as Walter grabbed him by the only ticklish spot he had on his ribs. And then had to retaliate.

It was, thought Walter, a bit like rough-housing with a jungle cat, claws sheathed, but still dangerous.

He ended the fun by rolling off the bed, grabbing a still laughing Alex and hauling him over his shoulders in a fireman's clutch. "Shower," he snarled, and started down the stairs with Alex, hanging upside down, wrapping his arm around a leg.

Just as they reached the bottom of the stairs, the phone rang.

In all the time Alex had been there, the phone had never rung.

By the third ring, Alex pulled himself out of Walter's grasp. Watched as Walter picked it up. Knew the man was hoping it might be someone from his family.

"Skinner."

Saw the disappointment quickly banished for a pleasant, "Agent Scully. Nice to hear your voice."

Alex sat on the bottom step, intent on his lover's face.

Walter showed real pleasure at something Scully said. Leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes, listening, face serious. Nodded occasionally. Still just listening.

"He did, did he? Yes." He looked at Alex. "Hang on, will you, Scully, I want to tell him."

Walter cupped the phone against his chest. Alex cocked his head, had an idea what the call was about.

"OPC's report was presented today. It fully exonerates me."

Alex grinned. "Are we surprised?" His tone was mocking.

Walter met his grin. "Back pay to the day of the initial investigation. Full pension re-instatement." Watched Alex stroll up to him.

"Nice."

"With," Walter continued, "the recommendation that I take the rest of the time I've booked off to consider my future with the Bureau."

Alex lost his smile. "Fucking shit!"

Walter reached out and pulled Alex to him. "I'd rather fuck you."

He put the phone back to his ear. "Scully, Alex feels pretty much as you do. Do me a favour and inform the Director's office that I'll do that. Yes, have them send everything to the condo."

He listened, hand stroking Alex's neck and shoulder. Then, "No. It's not worth it. A press release isn't going to change anything. No one will cover it; it's old news. And besides, it won't change people's minds. Those who want me to be dirty, will just think it's another government cover-up. And those who never believed it, well..."

He listened a bit longer. Alex rested his head against Walter's free shoulder, wrapped his arm around Walter's waist. "Yes. That would be fine. I think I'd rather like the OPC report to at least make its way around the Bureau. Who? Mulder's Lone Gunmen? Can they hack into...Oh, I see. Sure. That sounds rather appropriate.

"Thank you for all the support. Thank Mulder too. Yes, supper when we get back to DC. Yes. And Dana, thanks again. Bye."

Alex rested his chin on Walter's collarbone. "I'm sorry. I don't understand why they're taking that attitude. You've been exonerated. What more do they want?"

"They want me to stop being an embarrassment to the Bureau. And the only way I can do that is by not being around."

"So people forget." Alex didn't like that idea.

"So people forget," agreed Walter. "Well, there's still a shower that needs to be taken. And," he leered, "I believe you had an idea or two."

*******************************************************

"Walter. I need to go to Boston. Legit business. Come with me."

Walter looked over his morning coffee. "What kind of 'legit' business are we talking about here?"

"I've got a safety deposit box with some money in it. Clean money. If I'm staying here with you, I need to pay my share.

"Come on, Walter. You've been cooped up here since what? the end of September. We're in March. You need to get back into the real world. We need some new reading material. And there's a great little jazz club in Boston I think you'd like."

Because a good half of the records, tapes or CDs that filled the cabin's entertainment area were jazz. Which, to Walter's surprise, Alex not only liked, but was actually quite knowledgeable about.

"Look, we drive up. It'll take us a good day. We can spend a couple of days there. Stop in New York on the way back. What do you say?"

Walter quirked an eyebrow. "I suppose you've got a safety deposit box in New York as well?"

"No. Actually about four. Or five. Well?"

Alex drove the way he played chess: with very little regard for the rules. He broke the speed limit: "What the hell are radar detectors for?" He drove mostly in the right lane: "It's for passing, isn't it? And I am passing all those cars."

But, Walter had to admit, once his heart-rate had returned to normal, that Alex wasn't reckless, was attentive to the road. And sang along with the classic rock station in a very acceptable tenor.

"Why classic rock?" Walter was curious. "Apart from the jazz, you strike me as more of the hard rock type."

Alex grinned one of those grins that warned Walter he was going to get zinged. "Because I don't think you'd know the words to those songs."

"And these I do?"

"Well, it is a *classic* station, Walter."

"Is this a subtle reference to my age, Alex?" Walter's voice had become just a bit dangerous.

"Far be it for me to point that out, Walt. After all, I'm not the one who keeps on saying he's not twenty any more."

"Not all of us, Alex, have the recovery capacity of an otter."

"Otter, eh." Alex thought about that for a while. "As long as it's not a cat."

Ah, thought Walter, a little sign of jealousy. "Certainly not a domestic cat. Too pampered and slick for you."

He made a bit of a show thinking about it, enjoying the slight irritation that Alex couldn't hide. "A leopard maybe. Always untamed. Always just a bit dangerous. Always beautiful." He leaned over and bit Alex's ear. Alex purred.

His baritone harmonized well with Alex's tenor.

*******************************************************

Alex registered them into the Boston Hilton. Paid with a credit card. Wouldn't let Walter see the name on the plastic or the registration card.

He'd gotten them a large room that came complete with two king-sized beds.

Walter watched Alex toss himself backwards on one of the beds, bounce. Hold his hand out in invitation. "We have time to mess this one up before we head out for supper and the club."

The club was not what Walter expected. He thought they would head into a little rat-hole somewhere below ground level. Instead, in South End, near Northeastern University , Alex brought him to what looked like an old victorian house, at least three storeys high, complete with large wrap-around porch, lace curtain windows, well-maintained gingerbread decorations. And a discreet sign on the door: "Vodka and Jazz".

Alex seemed nervous to Walter. He'd gotten very quiet and kept on watching Walter for his reaction to the area, the building. Inside, he became wary.

Inside, Walter found that walls had been torn down so that the actual club space was a large room that took up the entire left half of the downstairs area. There was a wide beautiful staircase that went to the second floor, with a "Private" sign hanging from a thick velvet rope at the foot of the stairs.

To the right of the entrance was a door marked "Office". And from the smells, there had to be a kitchen behind the stairs and to the right in the back.

Alex led the way to a table in a dark corner, close to a door by the kitchen area that wasn't being used by the staff: they used the doors that were under the stairs.

The waitress asked them what they wanted to order. Reminded them that once the show began, no orders were filled or accepted. And that the show would begin in ten minutes.

Alex ordered a bottle of vodka, paid for it with cash. It came straight from the freezer, in a bucket of ice. Alex poured two drinks, toasted Walter, and tossed his back. Walter followed his example. The drink was so cold that at first he felt nothing, then an incredible warmth that filled his stomach, throat.

"Nice," he gasped to Alex. Alex nodded, refilled both their glasses.

The lights in the club, already dim, dimmed even further. A young black man walked over to the piano, was joined by a older man with a sax, a blond kid who looked like a teenager with a base fiddle, and an older woman who seemed to be a mixture of races. The music began, the woman picked up the mike, and Walter heard not English, but Russian play so well with melody and tone that it gave him the shivers.

The woman sang, the trio played and no matter the language, the style of song, Walter felt he had been handed a wondrous gift. He reached out to Alex, squeezed his arm and mouthed, "Thank you."

The set was a long one, over an hour. Though the club was filled there were no sounds from the audience above a whisper. And the applause was heartfelt.

After the last song, the pianist announced they would be back in an hour. The lights came back up, the staff appeared and the noise level rose.

Alex also rose, but stayed where he was. Walter turned and saw an older man approaching the table. Alex seemed to be braced for something. As Walter pushed back his chair and stood, he wondered what the hell was going to happen.

"Alexei." The man stood in front of Alex, smiled and gently touched his cheek. He said something in Russian that had Alex relaxing slightly. He shook his head, answered the man's question. Made a comment and then switched to English.

"Walter, this is Anton Rozanovski. He and his wife own the club. Anton, this is Walter Sergei Skinner. In spite of the Sergei, he doesn't speak Russian."

Anton Rozanovski looked like some absent-minded professor. He was slight, a couple of inches shorter than Alex. Had thick grey hair that curled over the collar of his shirt. Wore dress pants, expensively tailored, a dark tie to go with a slightly lighter shirt. Instead of a suit jacket, he wore a sweater which from its shape was a comfortable old favourite.

Walter figured he was in his mid to late sixties.

He had taken his time looking Walter over as well, decided he liked what he saw, and offered his hand.

"I won't hold that against him," Rozanovski said to Alex. "What part of Russia are your people from, Mr. Skinner?"

"My mother's grandparents came from St. Petersburg."

"Ah, very acceptable, Sergei. May I call you Sergei?" The man's blue eyes challenged him with a twinkle.

"If you wish. No one else does."

"Ah, but here, in a Russian club, it is a good name to use. Are you enjoying the music, Sergei?"

Walter noticed out of the corner of his eye that Alex was slouching against the wall, watching the interplay between the two of them. Staying out, but carefully evaluating.

"Yes. You have a rare combination here. Marvellous musicians, great booze and a very appreciative audience. Even rarer, a well-trained audience."

Rozanovski laughed. "Yes. One of the advantages of a small club is that there can suddenly be no place available for noisy customers the next time they show up. Sergei, I hope you don't mind, but I must have Alexei join me for a while in the office. We have some business to discuss. Will that be all right with you?"

Walter found it strange to be asked permission for Rozanovski to talk with Alex. He looked at the man slouching against the wall, was surprised to find himself feeling slight twinges of jealousy.

Alex straightened, came to stand by Walter and leaned over to kiss him on the cheek. "It really is just business. I'll be back before the next set." But also waited for permission.

Walter nodded. Watched as Rozanovski, face beaming, followed Alex out to the office.

Walter sat down, decided he had had his quota of liquor for the night, asked the waitress for a coffee.

A few minutes later, the door behind him opened and a different woman brought him his coffee. She set it down in front of him, spoke to him in Russian. From her age and clothes, Walter figured she was Rozanovski's wife and stood.

"I'm sorry. I don't speak Russian."

"You will have to learn then." She sat down in Alex's place. "Please, sit down. How nice that someone took the time to teach you manners. Today, that seems to be considered old-fashioned. Not too many people go out of their way to practise such skills.

"I am Mina Rozanovski." She held out her hand.

Walter took it. "Walter.."

"Sergei Skinner." She finished. "Word got back to me very quickly." She sat back in her chair. "So, Walter Sergei Skinner, let me look at you. And you can look at me."

Mina Rozanovski was about the same size as her husband, just as slim, with fashionably short grey hair, eyes a darker blue. Her age was harder to guess: she had that ageless bone structure, the type of skin that could make her forty or sixty.

She was dressed casually in pants and man's shirt, probably one of her husband's. Apart from her wedding ring, worn Russian style on her right hand, she wore no jewelry. Walter concluded that was out of personal choice because the clothes were expensive.

She seemed to be very pleased about something.

"So," she finally said, "our Alexei has chosen well. You seem to make him happy. Does he make you happy?"

Walter pulled slightly back from the woman. "How do you know Alex?"

"Since Alexei was a small boy. You haven't answered me: does he make you happy?"

"Yes. He does. What was..."

"Alexei like? Is that what you want to know?"

Walter nodded. And held his breath, knowing he was going to be given a key to Alex Krycek.

Mina Rozanovski leaned over and took one of Walter's hands in hers. With her thumb she stroked the knuckles of his hand.

"You are the Skinner who is an assistant director of the FBI?" And Walter's hand tightened involuntarily in hers. She ignored his reaction. "So," she continued, "you know the adult Alex Krycek." And got a hesitant nod. His eyes cooled and she decided that this man could make a good enemy.

"Alexei was four when he and his parents moved next door to our home. Not here, but in..." she waved with her hand, "not important. He was very beautiful. He is very beautiful now, but as a child...

"He was slender for his age. And those eyes! Large, green eyes that you could drown in. Black-haired. Fair-skinned."

She looked from their joined hands to Walter's eyes. "Except for the bruises, the marks."

She leaned forward, eyes intense. Her hand gripped Walter's hard. "In those days, one did not interfere with parental discipline. Do you understand? The times were not like today, with their social agencies, children's advocates. And even if they had been around, that part of town was filled with immigrants from countries where to involve the authorities was to betray one's neighbours. Maybe to end up in jail yourself.

"Do you understand, Walter Sergei Skinner?"

Walter's hand ached with the force of her grip. And he nodded, because he did understand.

She smiled sadly at him, let up the grip she had on him, though she didn't release his hand.

"He was very serious. Very shy. It took me weeks to coax him to the back steps. Then inside. I bribed him, with chocolate cookies that I made just for him. Gave him milk and cookies when his parents weren't around. He wasn't allowed in their house if one of them wasn't there.

"The bruises were always there. Other marks as well. He never cried. Well, never when he was awake. Once I found him on our back porch, very early one morning, curled up against the door, crying in his sleep. He never remembered doing it when he woke up."

"Why?" Walter had long ago guessed that Alex had been abused, but still his skin crawled at the images she was handing him. "Why did they hurt him like that? He was only a child!"

Mina Rozanovski leaned forward and passed her free hand over his cheek as if to soothe him.

"Are you old enough to remember Kruschev? What he looked like?"

"Yes."

"And his wife? Well, you see that is what Alexei's parents looked like. Peasants who worked the soil for the landowners. Except that sometimes the landowners or their sons would amuse themselves with the peasants' daughters. Alexei is a throwback to his mother's grandfather, who owned both large tracks of land and many serfs. Of which her father was one, even if his father was not.

"He was an embarrassment to them. I think they were both firm marxists, if not communists. One didn't ask one's neighbours what their political philosophy was. I think that to them he represented all they had been trained to hate. And they did hate him.

"There was nothing much we could do, Anton and I, except offer the child a place to come to when he had no other place to go.

"And they were his parents. And children do want their parents' love.

"They were our neighbours for four years. They ignored us, thought us inferior because we are from the Ukraine, and Orthodox. We ignored them because to get their attention would have been bad for the child.

"Then one day, Alexei was outside with a friend from school. He was doing well in school, liked it. The school authorities could make trouble for people, so the beatings were less often, less severe.

"He and his friend were playing, at something or other, giggling the way children do at that age. His father heard them. Came rushing out, yelling obscenities at his son for the sounds he was making.

"The friend ran away, terrified. Alexei just stood there, waiting. The man pulled off his belt and began whipping the boy, there, in the yard, in front of all the neighbours. Most of whom just went into their houses and shut their doors."

She paused, remembering the ugliness of that day. Walter took her other hand in his, as if to encourage her to continue.

"My Anton is not a big man. You've seen him, Walter Sergei. Nowhere near the size of that monster. And he is a gentle man, which was why I fell in love with him, why I still love him. I had never seen him angry. Until that day.

"He rushed over and pulled the boy away from the man. Picked him up in his arms and carried him away. His voice was very cold with his anger. He told the man if he ever saw him hurt the boy again, he would kill him himself.

"The boy was almost unconscious. We tended to his welts. We got some medicine into him. We took turns holding him so he could sleep.

"It was very late at night when she just opened the kitchen door and told us she wanted the boy back.

"I could not have children. I begged her to leave him with us. After all, they did not love him, did not want him, did not care for him. He was a bother to them. So why not leave him with us. We would love him, take care of him. His looks, his body were not his fault.

"Anton tried to persuade her as well. We even offered to buy him from them. But she didn't listen. Just kept on repeating that the boy belonged to them and that they wanted him back. Finally she threatened us with prison, for kidnapping. Said that who would the authorities believe, us or them, the parents.

"Alexei was on the couch in the living-room, hearing all this. When she threatened us with the police, he came into the room, went up to her. She grabbed him by the arm and dragged him away.

"They were gone the next morning. That week someone came and took their furniture and things."

Mina Rozanovski had held Walter's eyes through the telling. Had seen the anger, the pity and now the understanding in them. She raised the hand she still gripped and placed a gentle kiss on the knuckles.

She gave them both a bit of time to calm before she continued.

"It was ten years before we saw him again."

"He came to you?"

"Yes. One night." She took a deep breath, seemed to be making a decision. "You have good eyes, Walter Sergei Skinner. I think you also have a good heart.

"One night, in summer, there was some noise in the back yard. The trash cans fell over. Anton went to see. Sometimes the animals got into the garbage and spread it all around.

"There was a young man, lying on the ground by the cans. He must not have seen them and backed into them. He was having trouble getting up.

"At first Anton thought the boy was drunk, but when he turned his face, Anton could see that he'd been badly beaten. He could also see his eyes. Large, green eyes. He went to help the boy, called him by name. Eventually, persuaded him to come into the house."

"Did he tell you who beat him up?" He had an idea: but did these people who had loved the child know.

"No. We never asked. We just assumed it had been a customer. Or his pimp." She waited to see if this were news to Walter: it wasn't.

"How did you guess?"

"By the clothes. The smell on him. His injuries. He stayed three days. Slept most of the time. We told him he could stay. That we wanted him to stay. Told him each of us in turn. Told him together. But the fourth morning, he was gone.

"After that, he would show up, sometimes hurt, sometimes not. Stay for two, maybe three days. And leave. Sometimes it was months before we saw him again. Once, almost a year. Always, when he came, he waited for us to invite him in, as if he were afraid that one day, we would not allow it."

"But you did want him. Jesus! Why didn't he stay?"

"Tsk, Walter Sergei, do not blaspheme." Absently, like she was correcting a child. "A wild animal, Walter Sergei, if he is injured enough, if he is ill enough, will come sit by the fire. But not stay, because he fears the fire. We understand that, my Anton and I. Do you?"

"Yes."

She smiled at him, approvingly. Looked down at their clasped hands. Examined them. "You have good hands, Walter Sergei Skinner. Big hands. I think they are gentle hands. Hands that will not hurt our Alexei."

She felt him flinch. Looked at him differently, a little coldly. "You have hurt him. When?"

Walter knew he was being evaluated and was coming out on the short side. "Some time ago."

"Not lately."

He shook his head.

"Why?"

"Because he made me very angry."

"Ah, because he had done something to hurt you." Mina sighed. "Our Alexei sometimes does that. He doesn't understand the little things that hurt so much."

Then she smiled at him. "But you love him now." It wasn't a question, still she waited for his nod. "So all will be well, because he loves you too."

"Does he?" Walter suddenly wanted her assurance that Alex did love him: so far he had been the only one to say the words.

Mina leaned back in her chair, looked at him like he was not very bright . "Of course. Why else would he have brought you to meet us? He has never done that, you know. Never brought anyone here to his home."

She stood up, bent and kissed Walter on each cheek, on the forehead. "Welcome, Walter Sergei Skinner. Maybe next time you and Alexei will stay here, with us, in his room?"

"That would be nice."

She beamed at him. "Marise!" she called the waitress over, "Bring Walter Sergei another coffee." To Walter she said, "I'll just be a few minutes. You will be here when I come back? Good."

The coffee was good and strong, helped settle the feelings he had churning in his guts. He didn't hear Mina return. A large plate of perogies appeared in front of him, the smell alone making his stomach growl in appreciation. She handed him a fork, placed a bowl of sour cream in front of him. "Taste and tell me what you think."

Walter remembered the taste of his grandmother's perogies with nostalgia. His mother hadn't much time for what she called "ethnic foods": they were too time consuming.

And these had had lots of time spent on them. And because they were very, very good, and because he understood what they represented, he rolled his eyes, grabbed Mina's hand, kissed it loudly. "Mina Rozanovski, run away with me?"

She laughed happily, kissed him on the top of his head. "Eat. You're a big man. And big men need lots of replenishing. To keep their strength up."

Walter laughed. Especially with Alex, he thought.

*******************************************************

Alex slipped back into his chair.

"Hey! Leave me some!"

Walter started smiling, was going to make a comment. Stopped when he realized that Alex was incredibly drunk. His eyes had a glazed sheen to them, he was slightly flushed, his grin was almost feral.

He reached over, took a perogie with his fingers, used it to scoop a pile of sour cream and shoved the whole thing into his mouth. All the time, his eyes holding Walter's, daring him.

Daring him to what? thought Walter, sitting back in his chair. To comment about his being drunk? About what Mina had told him? Because he suddenly was aware that Alex's absence had meant that Mina could check him out, could fill him in on Alex's background. He had been tested, and found acceptable. By Mina and, he supposed, by Anton as well.

But Alex was drunk. And was, as Mina had said, a wild animal -- his leopard -- afraid of the fire it craved. Setting up the opportunity to be discarded because wanting was too painful.

"First of all," Walter spoke very softly, "you will keep your hands off my perogies. Secondly, you will give me the car keys."

"Like hell!" Quietly snarled.

"Alex, you're drunk. You won't be driving. Give me the keys."

Alex stared at Walter, eyes wild, almost covering the despair in them. Walter searched for a way to make Alex understand that he wasn't going to be discarded. Was interrupted by the appearance of another large plate of perogies.

Mina Rozanovski picked up the tensions right away. She stood by Alex, carefully placed a hand on his shoulder. Made a comment in Russian. Alex answered her in Russian, never letting go of Walter's eyes.

"Mina," said Walter, keeping to the very tone they'd all adopted so that the people around them would not be attracted, "Alex is drunk. He won't give me the car keys."

Mina took the angle he had handed her and used it. "Tsk, tsk, Alexei. By now you should know better than to try and drink Anton under the table. You never win." She was touching him like she was trying to soothe a nervous animal. The fact that she was succeeding told Walter she had had lots of practice.

Alex looked up at her, sighed some of the tension away. Reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out the keys. Mina took them from him, passed them to Walter.

"And, Mina," said Walter, hoping it would lighten the situation, "please tell him to keep his hands off my perogies." He reached over with his fork, took one back from Alex's plate.

He was watching Alex eat -- Mina had stayed at the table with them -- when Anton came and said, in an absent way, "Oh, Alexei, you're busy. Maybe, Sergei, you can came and help me?"

Well, thought Walter, joining the man going down the cellar stairs, the second vetting. Sharon's father had been much more obvious about it.

Anton Rozanovski turned on the light in what was the wine cellar, "Now I know it is here somewhere." He handed Walter a large flashlight. "Perhaps you could shine the light in this corner for me?"

If Alex was drunk, Anton was merely light-hearted. Whatever he was looking for, he accompanied himself with a Duke Ellington melody. Walter pointed the light in whichever direction he was told, and waited for the interrogation he knew was coming to begin.

"So you are with the FBI? An assistant director?"

Walter found himself tensing. "I'm on sick leave right now. I probably won't be with the FBI much longer."

Anton looked surprised. "Why not? It is a good job. Not the kind of job that would interest me, but a good job nevertheless. Why would you be leaving?"

"Because they don't want me around."

"Ah, that Grand Jury bullshit. Oh," he caught himself, "you must not let Mina know I used that word: she doesn't like that kind of language."

He came to stand in front of Walter, cocked his head up at him. Walter was reminded of a math teacher he had had in high school. "You are telling me that they believed the Spender scam." He made a little sound of disgust. "Idiots always float to the top, Sergei, simply because they have no brains. Nothing to hold them back."

"Did Alex tell you that I've been exonerated?"

"Exonerated? No, why would Alex speak to me about that?" He really was puzzled. "No, we discussed the club. Alex, you know, owns it with us." He sat on a small table that had some notebooks on it. "Mina says that she likes you. That you understand about Alexei." He sighed. "There are other things you need to know about Alexei."

Walter braced himself. What now?

"I love Alexei very much, Sergei, but you need to know. He is no good with money." He held up a hand to ward off any comment Walter was going to make. And finally Walter realized that Anton Rozanovski was in fact as drunk as Alex. Just showed it differently.

"He has no idea of the value of money except as a commodity for buying information, weapons, plane tickets. The small everyday things, like rent, insurance, taxes, he knows nothing about."

"Like grocery expenses, " offered Walter.

"Exactly. He lives..." raised an eyebrow at Walter, "lived?" Walter nodded, Anton smiled. "He lived on the run. Hotel here, plane there. Plastic money in the name of someone who doesn't exist. Mina, by the way, does not know all this."

Like hell, thought Walter. But nodded seriously. "Yet you say he co-owns this club with you. He told me that you and your wife are the owners."

Anton rubbed his face. Sighed deeply. "You would think at my age I would know better than to try and keep up with him.

"Where was I? Oh, yes. The club. Six years ago, I was fired from my job. Downsizing they called it. Actually, the old man who had owned the business died and his sons replaced me with a computer. I was an accountant.

"Alex knew about it. Somehow. He showed up one day, with a car. One of those Ford Taurus. You know this car? It's a nice car. Nondescript. Gets good mileage.

"Alex hands me the keys. Directs us to this house. It's a mess. The last owner started to renovate, lost interest. Alex says, I bought it for you. Make it the club you've always wanted to own."

He looked up at Walter. "When a man is handed his dream, he would be a fool not to take it."

"And it came from Alex," added Walter.

Anton smiled. "So, we have the club. It makes a great deal of money. It looks small, but the crowd tonight is typical of a weekday. Weekends, we have reservations for the next six months. We charge a great deal of money for the food, the alcohol. Because we only serve the best."

Walter nodded in agreement.

"And as I said, Alex has no concept of money. Every time he comes, he leaves behind money. He thinks we need it. We don't. But, because I am an accountant, I worry about him. So I have invested it. In property, mainly."

"Anton, are you trying to tell me that Alex has a dowry?"

"That he can pay his share. He knows that we registered the club in all three names, but he refuses to take his share of the profits. Keeps on telling us to use it for the business. I'll stop adding it to the investments, send him a check every month so he is not dependant on you, so he can pay his share of expenses. It's usually about two thousand dollars a month. Will that do?"

He'd gotten up, was browsing behind a wine unit when he laughed. "Ah, here it is. I knew it was somewhere. Here, hold this. Now where is the other one? It can't be far away. Eureka, I have it."

He handed Walter another dusty bottle. "This one you need to keep in the freezer. For special occasions."

Walter looked at the two bottles in his hands, gave a soft whistle. One was vodka, Kettle One, the latest darling of the "in" crowd. But the other was scotch, The MacAllan, one of the best single malts out of Scotland.

Anton smiled at Walter. "I have been saving that one for someone who will truly appreciate it."

*******************************************************

Alex had sobered up quit a bit by the time they left.

Mina hugged Walter to her, whispered, "Maybe you could come for Easter? Stay with us?" Said something to Alex in Russian that had him looking at Walter sheepishly. He was definitely going to learn Russian.

While he drove back to the hotel, Alex slouched against the door, not saying anything, as if waiting for some comment from Walter. He was less wary, but still tense. Walter wasn't sure how to deal with him right now. Waited till they had gotten into bed.

Alex stayed on his half of the bed, like he had before they had become lovers. Walter let him get away with it for a while, before he suddenly pulled him to the middle of the bed at the same time as he rolled over on him. He let his full weight hold Alex down, grabbed his wrist and clamped it hard to the mattress, immobilizing him. With his other hand, he grabbed a fistful of Alex's hair, pulling back so he couldn't move his head much.

Alex struggled a bit, but was seriously outweighed. And with the tensions of the past hours, the amount of vodka in him, he was tired. He had been waiting for some reaction from Walter and now he had it: he stilled, hoping the hurt would be quick.

"You bastard," Walter's voice was sharp, not loud, "you could have warned me that you were taking me to be vetted by your parents..."

Alex's reaction was extreme. He went white, his eyes widened with shock. "They're not my parents..." His voice was heavy with pain. Walter stopped with words with his mouth, controlling the panic he saw in Alex.

When Alex finally calmed, Walter pulled back just enough to watch Alex's eyes. "I'm not talking about your biological parents. I'm talking about Mina and Anton Rozanovski. Your foster parents, if you prefer. The people who love you enough to let you waltz in and out of their lives. Who worry about you. Whom you brought me to meet tonight as the person you have chosen to be with."

He rested his chin on Alex's. "I know you're not up on the latest social manners, but it is expected that the prospective mate bring a gift of some kind. It might have been nice to have some flowers for Mina, maybe a jazz album for Anton. Instead, I'm the one who's been given the gifts."

Alex was confused. "I don't get it. That's why you're angry?"

"Yeah, that's why I'm angry. Fortunately, Mina, your foster mother, approves of me. She likes the fact that I have manners. That I make you happy. That I love you. She liked me enough to feed me."

"Anton, your foster father, also approves of me. Enough to warn me that you are no good with money in the everyday sense of it. To assure me that you have money to pay your share of expenses. And to give me a bottle of eighteen year old scotch. As a welcoming gift."

He watched the play in Alex's eyes: confusion, hunger, hope. Fear.

"Alex," he whispered, "why the fuck didn't you stay with them when you found them again?" Alex's eyes closed in pain. "They love you. They would have taken care of you. Taken you in at any time. Christ, Alex, why didn't you stay?"

Alex had trouble swallowing. When he opened his eyes, Walter thought he had never such despair in a person's eyes.

"Because," Alex's voice was bleak, "by then it was too late. My masters would have hurt them if they had known about them. I could get away with disappearing for a little time, but any longer, and they would have hunted for me. Not because I was more important to them than any other whore in their stable, but to make the point that no one they bought got away from them. Unless they died or got passed on to a new set of masters."

Walter felt the most incredible anger build in his gut. "Who are these 'masters', Alex? Who sold you to them?"

Alex didn't answer right away. He tugged his hand, and Walter released it. Let go the pressure on his scalp. Alex closed his eyes again, not wanting to see Walter's reaction.

"My...biological...parents were sent here to spy on the Soviet immigrant community. Their contact in the Consulate in New York City ran the sex trade for the Embassy. Call girls, boys. The usual. They wanted to go home. He wanted me."

"How old were you?"

"About twelve." Heard Walter swear. "Eventually, I came to someone's notice who wanted me in Boston for a while. There were these private parties he liked to give.

"Actually, that's where I met one of the men in the Consortium, who decided my skills could be improved with better and different training. And the rest, as they say, is history."

Walter had rested his head next to Alex. Now he raised it to look at his lover. Alex just lay there, no expression on his face, his eyes staring vacantly at the ceiling.

"Are any of these so-called masters still alive, Alex?"

Alex took some time to answer. "No."

Walter made no comment.

"What happens now?" Alex asked after a few minutes.

Walter rubbed his cheek against Alex's. Punctuated his words with a series of unhurried kisses, cat licks across face and throat. "What happens now is that we have been invited to your parents' home for Easter.

"We will get tickets, the very best tickets, for the Saturday night hockey game, because Anton likes hockey. You will call Marise and find out which restaurant would be a real treat for them. And make reservations for the four of us after the game.

"Then we will go home with them. And you and I will sleep in your bed, in your bedroom, under your parents' roof." He stopped what he was doing. "Alex. How big is your bed?"

Alex made a sound between a laugh and a sob. "A double."

"Shit. I get in bed first. You can join me after I find a comfortable position." He returned to tracing Alex's face. "Where was I? Oh, yeah, in bed. Where, because of the fact that your parents are just down the hall, we will either not make love, or make it very quietly. So as not to disturb them."

"You've done this before." Alex's voice was thick.

"Yeah. The first time Sharon and I stayed at her parents' place. Just after we were married. Does that bother you, Alex?"

"No."

"Good. Now then, in the morning, we will accompany them to the Easter service at the Russian Orthodox Church, because it will please Mina. There, Alex, we will both be on our best behaviour.

"And then we will go home with them for Easter dinner. Where," Walter's voice became threatening, "you will keep your hands off my perogies. Is all of that understood?"

"Yes," whispered.

"Good." And moved his mouth down Alex's body.

*******************************************************

They spent three days in New York. Alex went and visited his safety deposit boxes. Walter went shopping by himself. They went together to music stores, book stores. Alex laughed when he saw the Teach Yourself Russian tapes and books.

He hid his laughter when, in the music store, some guy started to put the moves on him: Walter suddenly appeared at his side, looking very Assistant Director. Found it less funny when their waiter in the restaurant made it very clear he was interested in Walter.

That night, at the hotel, he made very certain that Walter knew he had a good thing going with him. By the time he let Walter come, Walter felt that the top of his head had been blown off.

So, when Alex woke sometime in the night, to find himself on his side, imprisoned in a pair of arms with hands that were busy arousing him, he sighed happily.

Hands were slowly working their magic, playing with his body, making him writhe within the circle of Walter's arms.

"Have I got your attention, Alex?"

"God, yes! Don't stop."

"I want you to listen to me. All right?"

Alex made a conscious effort to pay attention to what Walter was saying.

"I realized something important today." Alex made a slight purring sound to indicate he was listening. "I realized that I don't like it when you look at other men."

Alex felt a chill, pulled back against Walter's chest, trying to get away from his hands. Walter co-operated enough to keep his hands fairly still.

"And I don't like it when they look at you." He nibbled at Alex's ear. "Not that I know there's anything wrong with the looking. It's just that I happen to be insecure enough in this relationship to need some reassurance."

"I'm not encouraging it," protested Alex.

"You don't need to. All you have to do is breathe, Alex."

"It's not like you don't get your share of looks. Or give them either."

"And are you comfortable with that? Or was that growl you gave the waiter tonight a misunderstanding?"

"No. To both your questions." Alex's voice had chilled.

"So," Walter rested his chin on Alex's shoulder, "we need some ground rules here. Do you know what exclusivity means, Alex? In a relationship?"

"Yes." A bit hesitant.

"Well, Alex, that's what I want from you. A commitment of exclusivity." And felt Alex grow very still.

"Do I get one from you?"

Walter rubbed his stubbled chin against Alex's throat. "God, yes! I seem to have a strong streak of monogamy in me, Alex. In seventeen years of marriage, the only time I was unfaithful to Sharon our marriage was already at an end. And that was a fiasco."

"I remember. Mulder told me about it."

"So, yes, exclusivity both ways. I want only your ass in our bed, and I want to know your ass is only in our bed."

"Okay," Alex whispered.

"I think I want a bit more than an 'okay'. I think I want words like...like...I, Walter Sergei Skinner commit myself exclusively to Alex Antonovitch Krycek. Because I love him."

Alex's breath hitched, as if in pain. As Mina had said, the fire was a frightening thing.

He began hesitantly, "I, Alex...Antonovitch," accepting the patronymic Walter had given him, "...Krycek commit myself exclusively to Walter Sergei Skinner." He took a deep breath. "Because I love him."

He turned in the shelter of his lover's arms, mouth ready for his kiss. Wrapped himself around Walter and held on tight.

In the morning, while they were still in bed, Walter announced, "After we dump most of this stuff at the cabin, we're going to DC. I'm taking their offer for retirement."

Alex rolled over, rested his chin on Walter's chest. "You sure?"

"Yeah." He stroked Alex's back. "Maybe I could fight them, but it's not worth the effort it would take."

Alex looked thoughtful. "You going in to Headquarters to do it?"

"I'll call Kim, have her prepare the papers. But, yes, I want to go in and sign them there."

"Why, Walter, nice to see that in-your-face attitude of yours back in full swing. But you have to do it with flare."

"Flare, eh? Have you got an idea?"

Alex grinned evilly.

They stayed just overnight at the cabin. Walter figured they would be back within the week. Before they left the next morning there was one more thing he wanted to do to convince Alex that this was a serious relationship, that he wasn't going to find himself pitched out, away from the fire.

And, if he were being honest, he had to admit this was not just for Alex: he knew he was much older, was insecure in that knowledge. He needed this gesture too.

"Okay. That's it. All the stuff is in the car."

Only Walter's car was there: they'd paid the kid at the gas station a hundred bucks and a bus ticket back to deliver Alex's car back to Mulder while they were in Boston.

Walter was sitting on the arm of the couch, looking at Alex with an odd little smile on his face. A bit uncertain.

Alex leaned against the wall, shoved his hand into his leather jacket pocket. "What?"

"I have something for you. But I'm not quite sure how you'll react."

Alex shrugged. "I won't know till you give it to me."

Walter held out a small black jewelry box. Alex slowly straightened, came over to Walter. He took the box in his hand, and flipped open the lid with his thumb.

Inside there were two plain gold bands, one larger than the other.

"They're inscribed," said Walter, carefully watching Alex.

He held out his hand for the box. Watched as Alex picked the bands up, first one then the other. The inside of the smaller band read: "Mine. Walter". The larger one: "Mine. Alex".

Walter cleared his throat. "That way you can look all you want. And they can look all they want. But that's all."

He took Alex's hand, waited for permission -- a very slight nod -- and slipped the smaller band on the ring finger. Held out his right hand.

Alex looked up from his hand, eyes incredibly green, for once totally unshadowed. Holding Walter's eyes, he slipped the band on.

Walter stood into Alex's embrace. And held onto him for dear life.

Alex was very quiet on the trip to the city. He sat sideways in his seat, eyes on Walter. Just watching him, a small smile on his face. Thumb playing with the band on his finger.

Every now and then Walter would turn and look at him, and both of them would grin. Once, at a red light, Alex leaned over and tried hard to devour Walter in the time it took for the light to turn green. The cars behind them honked before Walter had the breath to drive on.

***********************End of Part 3******************

PART 4 (1/2)

*******************************************************

Scully was in Headquarters to attend a meeting of Section heads. Not that officially she was one, but in her capacity as assistant to the Head of Forensics, she was representing him.

They'd taken a break for coffee. She was in the hallway, listening to the on-going conversations when the hall gradually became silent.

"Oh, my!" said the woman nearest her, one of the new intake of agents, "I'm just getting used to the Armani, and here comes Herrara For Men."

Scully turned into the direction of the on-coming silence. Two men were striding down the hall: one, stone-faced as usual; the other, devilment personified.

Both were dressed all in black. It was the first time Scully had ever seen Skinner in Headquarters not wearing a suit and tie.

Skinner wore slacks and one of those crew-necked silk knit tops that clung to the musculature of his chest. An open loose linen jacket. The only colour was the narrow silver buckle of his black leather belt, which drew a great many eyes to the narrowness of his waist and hips.

Krycek wore his usual jeans, except these hadn't come from any bargain basement. The fit was just this side of decent. The loose t-shirt tucked into the jeans, the leather jacket all added to the bad-boy image.

As the men walked past her, Skinner nodded. "Agent Scully."

"Assistant Director Skinner," she acknowledged.

Krycek just grinned at her, one of those angelic grins that forecasts trouble of some kind.

She watched the two men get into the elevator that would take them to Skinner's old office. Heard the cell phones being dialled as the news made its way around the building.

The woman next to her gasped, "That's AD Skinner? And who was the other stud?"

Scully debated using her cell phone to call Mulder, decided against it. "What?"

"Who was with AD Skinner? The guy in the jeans."

"Oh, that's Alex Krycek. Excuse me, I just remembered a message I forgot to deliver." And went for the next available elevator going up.

Mulder came out of his office muttering to himself over the papers in his hand. "Kim, I can't seem..." He looked up and saw Alex Krycek leaning against the outer office doorway, looking like sin. "Alex."

Krycek cocked his head, just smiled.

"It's been a while," Mulder was wondering how the hell he was going to get Krycek out of the office before anyone knew he was here.

"He's with me." The voice was icy, possessive.

Mulder turned to see Walter Skinner, a Walter Skinner he wasn't sure he recognized, sitting at Kim's desk, signing wherever it was Kim was indicating.

"Sir."

Skinner raised a sardonic eyebrow at the neutral tone of address. Watched as Mulder straightened, his usual reaction to that look.

"Assistant Director Skinner is here to sign his retirement forms," explained Kim, obviously unhappy with the whole situation.

"Oh." Mulder shuffled his feet, unsure of what his reaction should be. He knew how the Upper Levels felt about Skinner. Didn't know how Skinner himself felt. They'd been out of touch too long for him to know whether commiseration or felicitations were called for.

Krycek seemed to be expecting something from him, so he cleared his throat, uncomfortable, wanted to say something, anything. "You're looking well. Sir." Fucking sexy, he thought, now having had a good look at the man. Skinner had stood, was recapping his pen before slipping it into the jacket's inside pocket.

"Thanks, Kim. For handling all this paperwork. I appreciate it. And for everything else." He took her hand, began to shake it. Leaned over and kissed her instead.

Krycek straightened quickly, made a growling sound. Mulder's attention swung from Skinner to Krycek. Correctly interpreted the growl. Looked back to Skinner, his surprise written on his face.

Skinner stopped in front of Mulder, quirked an eyebrow at Mulder's reaction. "My desk for Krycek." He spoke softly, so only Mulder would hear. "I got the better of the trade."

At the door, he turned once more to Kim. "Thanks again." Krycek followed him out.

In the hallway to the elevator, there were suddenly groups of very involved conversations going on. Whereas the hall had been almost empty on their way in, now, it was as though offices had all spontaneously emptied. Skinner even recognized some of the people from the top floor.

He stopped half-way down the hall. Alex nearly bumped into him. "What's wrong?" He wanted Walter out of this place as soon as possible. He was used to these kinds of over-the-shoulder, barely-contained sneers; Walter wasn't. These people had been his colleagues before they had turned on him, abandoned him. Walter ignored the looks, found Alex's eyes on him, worried.

"I've just realized how much I hate this place." Astonished.

Alex grinned. "About bloody time."

Walter grinned back, a wide, evil grin. He reached out and grabbed Alex by the back of the head. Pulled him in for the type of kiss he usually kept for initiating sex.

Alex stepped closer, mouth devouring and devoured. Knew he was adding fuel to the fire, that they had a disapproving -- on the whole -- audience. Controlled himself, with difficulty, from rubbing his hips against Walter.

Had some trouble with his breath when they finally pulled apart. Walter's grin had become laughter, delighted, happy, raunchy. He grabbed Alex's wrist and pulled him along to the elevator where someone had a finger on the "open" button.

He slapped the finger down as they got in and the door closed behind a jubilant Alex.

Standing by Mulder's door, Scully turned and looked at her former partner. She couldn't resist. "Tell me, Mulder, did either of them ever kiss you like that?"

Mulder grunted, went back into his office.

Kim and Scully exchanged raised eyebrows, knowing grins.

"He never looked that hot when he was working here." Kim said. "Otherwise I would have made a play for him after his divorce." She sighed over lost opportunities. "And I think I'm not the only female," she looked around at the people still milling about, "or male, who's thinking that way."

*******************************************************

That evening, after buzzing Scully up, Walter was waiting at the door to let her in.

She shook her head ruefully at the now dressed down, now retired AD.

"Well, Sir..."

"Walter. I don't carry the ID any more, Dana." He offered to take her coat.

"You may not want me to stay once you know why I'm here."

Alex slouched against the door to the kitchen.

Scully handed Walter a thick envelope. "Your retirement papers, sir. All signed and approved."

Walter took them from her. Weighed the packet in his hand. "That was quick." He explained to Alex, "Usually takes weeks, three or four, to process retirement papers."

Alex swore under his breath, straightened up and came over to stand by Walter.

"Scully, there's a pot on the stove. Could you go and stir it, please. It shouldn't be boiling."

Scully slipped off her coat and went into the kitchen. There was a wooden spoon by the stove and she picked it up and stirred what had to be borscht. She tasted it, closed her eyes in appreciation.

Alex caught her. "Care to stay for supper, or are we too dangerous to your career to associate with?"

Scully ignored his snide remark, knowing that Alex was upset because Walter had been once more badly treated by the Bureau.

"This needs more pepper," she said. "Apart from that, it is the very best borscht I've ever tasted."

Alex dropped into the chair by the table. Scully went back to stirring. After a minute Alex said, more calmly, "It does not need more pepper at this stage. Later, just before serving."

"Is he all right?" She was very interested in the pattern the spoon made in the thick liquid.

Alex rubbed his face. "Yeah. I think he was expecting it, but it's still a bit of a shock. He's not used to being discarded so easily."

"Well, if it's any consolation, it's going to be a long time before the...manner of his leaving stops being a subject of discussion." That got a bit of a smile from Alex. "It is the general consensus, at least among the female members of the Bureau, that the kiss rated beyond a ten. That, if there is a God, you are both bisexual. And that your jeans...Oh, and Skinner's sweater...should be bronzed."

"Certainly the jeans," Walter came and sat next to Alex. Shared a smile with him.

"She thinks it needs pepper." Alex reached his hand out to rub Walter's shoulder.

"Make her wash the dishes after supper. That'll teach her to criticize the chef."

"You just want to get out of doing them."

Scully listened to the exchange, marvelling at the comfort and facility between the two men. Two men she would never have associated with comfort and facility. And certainly never with each other.

The evening provided a few more surprises, the matching bands being the first. Then there was the fact that they never seemed to be more than an arm's length away from each other. She wasn't surprised to see Alex touching Walter as much as he did: he had always struck her as being a tactile person.

But Walter Skinner? Unapproachable old Stone Face, the man who went by the book, the AD voted most likely to have a steel rod up his ass? Whose hand reached out, casually, to rub a shoulder, touch a leg, tug at hair. Who smiled readily. Who laughed, easily.

Scully sat in an armchair, her feet up on the coffee table, brandied coffee in her hand, stomach filled with borscht and sour cream and black bread, watched Alex Krycek pull himself into a cross-legged position at the feet of Walter Skinner who sat, back against the arm rest, at the other end of the couch. In no time at all, Walter slouched, made himself comfortable with his feet on Alex's lap. The conversation never went near the events of the day of the day, instead ranging over a variety of casual topics like politics, books, movies. Lightly, ironically, with wit and humour. She was surprised when she realized it was nearly midnight.

"By the way, if you're not doing anything for Easter, my mother said to tell you you're both welcomed to join us."

And got yet another surprise when Walter thanked her, "But we're spending Easter with Alex's folks."

Scully raised an eyebrow. "Alex has folks? Somehow, I always thought you had been hatched, Alex."

Alex looked uncomfortable. "They're not...They're..."

Walter's hand rubbed the back of Alex's neck. "Alex is still having a bit of trouble with the concept of biology versus fostering. They're Alex's foster parents. But please thank your mother for the invitation."

He accompanied her down to her car, held the door open for her.

Because of the lines of friendship that had been drawn over the evening, she chanced "When he went down last November, just how bad were you?"

He rested a hip against the side of the car, folded his arms and looked at her for a moment before answering. "If he'd arrived an hour later, he would have found my brains splattered throughout the place."

Then regretted telling her when he saw the hurt and guilt on her face. "Scully...Dana, of all the people who could have come to the cabin that day, he was the only one who could actually have understood where I was then. The only one. And you helped in other ways. Without your pushing, OPC would have probably found a reason for shelving their investigation."

"Mulder pushed too."

"Yes. But you pushed him too."

She examined the face and body of the man before her. "You're slouching. I didn't think ex-Marines ever slouched."

Walter laughed. "Alex slouches everywhere. I seem to be picking it up from him." He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. "Drive carefully."

*******************************************************

They were working their way through the morning papers when the phone rang. Walter seemed a bit surprised at the identity of the caller, listened, finally covered the phone with his hand.

"It's Senator McCuen. He would like us to join him for dinner tonight at his place. Around eight."

Alex frowned. "Which one is he?"

"Finance Committee. Republican. One of the central southern states...I can't remember which one. Looks a bit like Sam Erwing."

"He say why we're being so graced?"

"Says he wants to discuss a proposal with both of us."

Alex shrugged. "Your decision."

Walter picked up the phone again. "Yes, thank you. We'll see you at eight."

Dinner was roast beef and all the fixings. Alex was well behaved, though Walter knew he wanted to challenge the Senator as to why they were here. The Senator and his wife were charming throughout the meal.

"Well, gentlemen, I'll leave you to your brandy." Mrs. McCuen smiled at the men as she rose from the table. "Besides, Haines wishes to discuss business with you and there's a movie on the television that I want to see."

The Senator suggested brandy in the library. When he had served them each, he sat in what was obviously his chair, made himself comfortable, took a sip of brandy.

"Actually, this is a proposal in two parts. I'll begin with Mr. Skinner if I may.

"As you know I am a member of the Committee investigating financial responsibility in some of our more secretive organizations. Of which the FBI is next on our schedule."

He kept his eyes on Skinner as he carefully approached his offer. "You have not been well treated by the FBI, Mr. Skinner. When they should have supported you in the face of an obvious set-up, they floundered. Their defense of you was more of an attack. And their subsequent treatment of you was more than shoddy."

He held up a hand, forestalling Walter's reply. "I understand your training, your integrity will preclude your desire for revenge. I ask you only to consider the following notion: if they did it to you, whose loyalty to the organization was never in doubt, what will stop them from doing it to someone else?

"The actual grounds for their investigation of your career were non-existent. What they were on was a witch-hunt. Your personal life is just that, Mr. Skinner. Personal. We live in a time of 'Don't ask. Don't tell.' Still rather repressive, but the beginning of an acknowledgement that people are different.

"Before I continue, I will tell you that I have a personal interest in all this. My grandson is gay. He was recently badly beaten up by several members of his campus OTP because he dared to try and sign up. All the male members of this family have served their country. My grandson wished to do so as well. His sexual preferences should not have been at issue. But not everyone sees it that way.

"I am not asking you to betray confidential Bureau information. Though I believe my security clearance is as high as yours. I do however believe that in a general way you could be of help in determining what is bullshit and what is not.

"If that involvement is still too close for your personal sense of honour, I think that your mere presence next to me on the panel, as an informed consultant, which will be perfectly legal as, by the start of the hearings, you will be officially retired from the Bureau..."

Alex snorted.

Senator McCuen stopped. Looked from Alex to Walter, bushy eyebrows raised in question.

"My retirement became official last evening. All paperwork done and passed."

"Ah. I see. May I continue with my proposal?"

Walter held the Senator's eyes, did some careful thinking. Did he want revenge? If so, to what extent was he willing to go for it?

Slowly he nodded his permission.

"The Director's appointment was a compromise. He is a political outsider. He seems to think that the Bureau exists as an employment agency for his family and friends. You have personally had some experience of that.

"It has come to my attention that he feels that the panel is there to logroll his budget through. I would like to dissuade him of that notion.

"If in helping me do so, you can get a sense of getting your own back for the legal support that was given you, so much the better. Personally, I would like to see that embarrassment be withdrawn from the legal department of the Bureau. And, though I am only a country lawyer, I find his presence in my profession offensive."

He got up, poured more brandy in all their glasses. Krycek seemed well pleased with his proposal: an ally in that camp was a welcomed surprise.

Their discussion over the next twenty minutes convinced the Senator that even if all Walter Skinner did was look over his questions for the Director, he would be more than well served. The man had the intelligence, the perceptions, the drive to have risen much higher in the Bureau than he had. Someone, besides Spender, had certainly been made very uncomfortable by this man.

They were interrupted by the doorbell ringing. "Ah, here comes the second part of my proposal."

A man, probably in his early forties, well-dressed in an executive type suit and tie, came into the room.

"Thank you for inviting me, Senator."

Walter had stood for an introduction when he heard a hiss from Alex. He turned and saw Alex become the killer he had once so hated.

"Krycek." The new guest nodded, reacting much the same way as Alex.

"Nash." Almost a snarl.

The tension in the library rose dramatically. Walter went on alert. He didn't know who this Nash was, but it was obvious Alex did. And didn't like him.

Senator McCuen filled a glass with brandy, went to stand between the two men. Offered the glass to Nash, who accepted it, never taking his eyes off Alex.

"I would," he said, in a very quiet voice, his accent suddenly very pronounced, "like to remind the two of you that you have both retired from the field. So cut out the bobcat dance, both of you, and sit down."

He waited till the two men had complied with his wishes, smiled at Walter, who also sat down, very slowly. He remained standing.

"Thomas Nash and Alex Krycek have a bit of a history," he explained to Walter. "I believe that each has tried several times to...eliminate...the other. Obviously with little success."

He waited till Walter responded with a raised eyebrow. "Mr. Nash decided some time ago to count his blessings and stop pushing his luck. He, and several other ex- ...What do you call yourselves, Nash? Ex-agents?"

"Operatives. Ex-operatives." He took a sip of brandy, still holding Alex's eyes.

"Ah, very good. Descriptive, yet neutral. As I was saying, Mr. Nash has set up an organization that trains bodyguards, provides business executives with the survival skills necessary for going into parts of the world that are inhospitable, but relevant for some of their business concerns. Quite above board, Mr. Skinner. And very successful."

He turned to Nash. "Perhaps you would like to continue, Nash." And he sat down.

Nash finally released Alex's eyes, looked down into his drink.

"I'm expanding. I understand from Senator McCuen that there is a possibility that Skinner will be accepting a temporary position with his office. I was wondering if a position as a sort of consultant with my organization would interest you."

Alex bit out, "Shit, Nash. Just what would you expect me to consult on?"

"Staying alive. For one thing. Self-defense for another. Especially when handicapped. Strategy. Conning your captors. Mental tricks to surviving torture."

He paused, dropped the "operative" persona, became the executive. "The staff I have is small, but each is an expert in his or her field. We all have two things in common. We're over thirty. And we're still alive."

"And that qualifies me?"

"Shit, Krycek, you've been in the business for what, ten, twelve years? You've got fucking Ph.D qualifications. Not to mention you survived the last four years with only one arm. Bets were that you wouldn't last two months when people realized the state you were in after Tunguska.

"There are conditions if you decide to come out and look over the place. You'll probably recognize one or two faces. Just remember everyone's retired, you included. No scores need to be settled. No physical attacks. No eliminations. On both sides.

"The pay's good. And it'll give you something to do with your time if Skinner's busy. Besides, you may discover you like the work. It's a hell of a lot safer than what you're used to, and you get to go home at the end of the day."

Alex shared a look with Walter.

"I think we need some time to think about these offers, Senator." Walter spoke for the two of them.

Nash finished his drink, stood up, He pulled out a case from his inside pocket -- Alex had tensed when his hand had gone under his lapel -- and handed Alex a card. "Come check us out anytime you want. Pleasure to have met you, Skinner. Thank you, Senator."

"I think we'll take our leave as well, Senator." Walter shook hands with McCuen. "I will seriously consider your offer, Senator. Please thank your wife for the lovely dinner. Alex."

In the car, Alex slouched against the door, watching Walter's face in the passing lights. He waited till they were home. "So how much help are you going to give him?"

Walter sighed, rubbed his face with his hands. "McCuen wants at least three maybe four months of my time."

Alex frowned. "I thought he was talking five to six weeks."

"The hearings begin in three weeks. The Bureau usually slots two to three more. That's if all goes well. They only sit three days a week. What McCuen is asking for will drag things out far longer than that."

"Are you going to give him what he's asking for?"

Walter yawned, suddenly tired. The last two days had been a roller-coaster for him. "He's right in that I would love to get some of my own back, especially for the Director's god-son. But I also know that budget cut-backs put the lives of field agents more at risk all the time."

Alex slouched low on his spine, toed his boots off and propped his feet on the table. "Seems to me that I heard Scully complaining about a redecorating spree in the upper levels. And," he continued after thinking a bit, "wasn't there some squawking about someone's promotion, just about the time Spender got you."

"The Director's new son-in-law." Walter rested his head on the back of his chair. "You going to be able to work with Nash?"

Alex grinned, knew both of them were going to be "gainfully employed" for the next little while. "It'll be interesting. I wonder who those 'familiar faces' will turn out to be."

"We'll have to go and close up the cabin. And you can break the news to Anton and Mina that you have an nine- to-five job." Suddenly Walter laughed. "And that you've joined the legion of tax-payers."

*******************************************************

The Director was quite pleased with the way things were going. Already in the second day of hearings he felt that this would be over in no time at all.

Then on the second day, things changed. The consultant sitting just behind Senator McCuen was absent. The proceedings had started when the chair was filled. By a large balding man wearing glasses. A man the Director had never expected to see again in his life.

The Senator smiled at the reaction the Director couldn't hide. The hunt was on and his own personal bloodhound, even if all he did was sit and look barely interested, was going to make the Director look over his shoulder for the entire length of these hearings.

Into the second week, Walter came home one day to find several messages waiting in his computer. Anonymous reports of internal improper budgetary expenditures. There were more of them by the end of the week. Most of them related to personnel appointed by the Director. Some mere rumours and innuendo. Others accompanied by scanned copies of actual billing, other documented support.

"Looks like some people have decided that you're their white knight." Alex, fresh out of the shower, wearing only jeans, curled up in a chair in Walter's home office.

Walter made a grunting noise, neither positive nor negative in meaning. He looked Alex over. "You're sporting a couple of new bruises. I thought this was a desk job."

Alex smiled. "Was too nice a day to stay inside. We had ... what do you call it? Oh, yeah. A field trip."

"So how did you end up with the bruises? Or should I ask what does the other guy look like?"

"Fergus was out with a couple of her crew. We sort of gave them a bit of a demonstration."

Fergus was one of those familiar faces Nash had spoken about. A tall, elegant woman, who knew as much about killing as Alex did. Their occasional clashes were always for the benefit of their students. At least, that was always the explanation.

He assumed that Fergus would also be sporting a new set of bruises.

Alex had adjusted to regular work, if training people in assault techniques could be consider "regular". He had gone with the notion of just hanging around the estate Nash used as his compound, so that Walter would take the position McCuen had offered him.

But he found that, not only was he good at passing on instruction, he actually liked the work. The ex- operatives were for the most part people like him, who were tired of the game, surprised to find that they were still alive, and needed a job where their skills would actually be appreciated.

There had been a few personality clashes, but Nash had been up front when he'd said there were conditions imposed on everyone who worked for him. If necessary, he was quite willing to put an end to confrontations himself, with his fists.

They both had made it a condition of employment that they would not be expected to be around come Easter. The visit to Anton and Mina had gone off pretty much as Walter had forecasted.

Except that when they got to Alex's room, the double bed had been replaced with a king-sized one. Mina had expressed surprise at their surprise. "Alexei, you yourself barely fit in that bed. Where did you expect Walter Sergei to sleep, on the floor?"

And there was a bit of tension at the hockey game. Alex had just bought the tickets, not checking to see whom Boston was playing that night. Unfortunately, it turned out to be Washington. After the first period intermission, Alex and Mina sat between the two hockey fans, trying hard to ignore the squabbling between Anton and Walter. Which continued into supper, until Mina put her foot down, hard, on both their necks. The subject of hockey was henceforth banned in her presence. Alex snickered.

For Easter services, Walter had brought a suit, but the best he could get on Alex was dress pants, a shirt and tie, and the ubiquitous black leather jacket.

"This thing lasts three hours," complained Alex as Walter was fixing his tie for him.

"Music is wonderful. All bass and baritone. Just think of it as a concert with lots of standing and sitting. You'll live."

Mina hugged them both tightly when they left, sent them home with enough food to feed themselves for a week. They'd eaten cold perogies on the drive back.

"So what are you going to do with all that information that keeps popping up on the screen?" Alex knew that Walter was trying to walk a thin line between his idea of loyalty and his anger at the re-routing of federal funds by the Director. Nothing overtly illegal, just all sorts of "perks" that added up to decreased budgets in the lower levels.

Years of being told to tighten their demands offset by overboard spending at the top. Had the Director really needed to lease a private jet to get him and his two PAs to the West Coast? Especially since the FBI had a plane-load of people going to the same conference. On regular flights. Squeezing into those too-small spaces the airlines allotted for human beings.

At the hearings, Walter was beginning to slip the occasional piece of substantiated information over to the Senator. Who did not question the change of heart. The Director found he sweated every time Skinner began writing on the pad the Senator kept by his side.

The Senator appreciated the information, used it judiciously. Found that all it took to draw the Director's attention to his end of the panel was for Skinner to shift in his chair. Old Stone Face, as one of his researchers had called Skinner, never reacted to the Director's glares, the occasional pointed barbs that were aimed at Skinner. He made a mental note to himself never to invite Skinner to participate in one of his monthly poker games.

"Excuse me, Mr. Skinner." Walter looked up from the papers whose information he was verifying. "There's a Mr. Nash on the phone for you. He says it's important."

Skinner thanked the assistant the Senator had assigned to him, waited till she had left the office, and picked up the phone, heart in throat. If anything had happened to Alex...

"Skinner here."

"I'll tell you first off that Alex is fine. But we've had some trouble here."

Walter felt relief then "What kind of trouble?"

"Alex nearly took out one of the students this morning. Don't freak out on me, Skinner. It was provoked. The rest of the class is behind him all the way. And it turns out the guy was an FBI plant."

"Cops getting involved?"

"No way. We get all candidates to the program to sign a waver of responsibility should they happen to get injured. The guy is just badly bruised. Though it'll be some time, if ever, before he gets to raise his voice."

"Okay. What happened?"

According to Nash, the new intake that came in that week was the usual except that one of the men seemed to react negatively to Alex's presence. Made more than a few cracks about cripples, gays, traitors. Alex had ignored the whole thing. Nash had found out about it when one of the other students had come to him to lodge a complaint about the idiot.

Alex had shrugged it off when Nash had asked him about the situation. He was used to it. Was nothing new. The guy wanted a rise out of him, and he wasn't going to get it.

But this morning, the guy had finally said something that had made Alex flip.

"What did he say?" Walter rubbed the bridge of his nose, feeling a headache coming on.

Nash sighed. "The asshole made a crack about you. Something about you being dirty, about traitors betraying traitors and landing in some cushy job sitting behind some senator. It took four of us to get Alex off the guy.

"When we did, the guy was trying to tell us that we would all go to jail, for letting Krycek attack an FBI agent.

"I just got off the phone with the president of the company the guy was supposed to be working for. Seems the Bureau came to see him, gave him a story of checking up to see that we were not some cover for some subversive operation. Told him it would be his patriotic duty to his country to give this agent a legit cover for his investigations.

"I've told him to take his business somewhere else.

"The other three in the class have given me hand- written reports on what occurred. All of them back Alex. One even says that if Alex had really wanted to kill the jerk, the guy would be dead. That he was just teaching him a lesson."

"Where's Alex now?"

"Fergus has got him demonstrating the move that he used to disable the jerk to her class and his. Christ! They'll all have sore throats by the end of the day."

"You're sure he's all right?"

"Yeah, he seems to be. Skinner, the student was right: if Alex had wanted to kill the guy, he'd have been dead before any of us could have done anything. And I've placed a call in to the Director of the Bureau to tell him that next time he wants to check us out, he should send someone who actually knows what he's doing. And I will lodge a formal complaint. More than that, I don't know what I can do."

Skinner growled, "You can tighten up your intake verifications."

"Goes without saying. I put my PA on verifying the rest of the intake right away. Everyone pans out." His tone changed. "Skinner, whatever you're doing at the hearings, you sure managed to piss someone off, big time. Be careful."

The Senator had been warned that a call had come for Skinner that had upset him. When Skinner sat next to him at the meeting, he made certain his mike was off before leaning over to talk to Skinner.

"What happened?"

"The Bureau slipped someone in at Nash's who's been riding Alex all week. This morning the jerk changed tactics and attacked me."

"And?"

"And the Bureau is going to find that they probably have an agent on permanent disability. And I'm going to give you much more than you want."

Walter moved the pad to in front of him. And began writing a line of questioning for McCuen to follow.

At first, McCuen just watched Skinner, finally realized that the man was dangerously angry. Another mental note: never attack the man's lover. By the third page of notes, McCuen had seen the Director go from smug to nervous to downright anxious.

By the time the hearings were over, it was just a matter of time before the Director would announce his retirement.

*******************************************************

"Skinner. You would have to pick today to drop in." Nash passed a harried hand through already ruffled hair.

Skinner smiled. "You did tell me any time. Is Alex up to something? I didn't find him in his office. Or in the classroom."

Nash moaned, dropped his head on his cluttered desk. "My assistant is off taking care of her mother who's just had a hip replacement. I can't find anything. Her replacement didn't come back the second day because she's sure someone's going to kill her.

"Fergus thinks she may be pregnant. Christ! She's forty if she's a day. What the hell is she doing with a biological clock?

"And Krycek decided that a game of tag with weapons is the perfect activity for a lovely autumn day. The only good thing that's happened today is that I convinced him to use paint-guns instead of live ammunition."

Skinner grinned "And now me. Would you like me to come back some other day?"

Nash sighed, thought about it for maybe five seconds. "No. Maybe this is for the best. I can play on your sympathy."

He got up, poured two coffees. "It's times like this that I wish I hadn't banned alcohol from the premises."

He sipped the coffee he had made several hours ago, nearly spat it up. "God, that is awful!"

Skinner laughed. "Reminds me of the crap you drink on a stake out."

Nash watched Skinner walk around his office, looking at the stuff he had on his walls to impress prospective clients. He sat on the edge of his desk. "How do you want it, smooth and slick or to the point?"

Skinner slouched against an elegant wooden filing cabinet in the corner. "To the point."

"Krycek tells me you're bored with the hearings. That basically you've given the Senator more than he needs to hang the Director and his cronies out to dry."

"You need something new to keep you busy. Because if you continue being bored, you're probably going to want to leave DC and I'm going to lose one of my top staff."

"Tell me," Skinner ignored most of Nash's comments, "when you offered Alex the job did you expect him to be good at it?"

"Yeah, I did. It wasn't a charity thing so that the Senator could keep you around. What surprises me the most is that the students like him. Respect him."

Skinner smiled. "He gets a real kick when they call him Sir."

"Another thing that surprised me was the way you tamed him. He was pretty wild. I never expected to see the Alex Krycek I knew set down roots."

"Nash. Get to the point."

"I need a Director of Operations. Someone who understands where my staff has been, where they're coming from. Where they can go.

"The place needs expansion again. I'm thinking of taking on a couple more..."

"Ex-operatives," offered Skinner.

"Yeah. Look, my strong point is negotiations. I can sell the client on the product. Follow through on satisfaction studies. Trouble-shoot on location if and when it's needed. But that means that I have to be out of the place a fair amount.

"I need someone who can run the place for me. Deal with the day-to-day demands -- and I'm not hiding the fact that these guys are heavy on demands -- in a responsible way. Someone who won't panic when Krycek and Fergus use each other for 'demonstrations'. Or when O'Brien wants something the size of the Titanic for boarding practice.

"Someone I can work with when I'm here. And who can run the show when I'm out in the field. Someone with organizational skills who understands the working of this kind of set-up.

"The pay's not as good as what you're getting as a senatorial consultant, but it's fair. All I'm asking is that you think about it. Maybe spend a day in the place to get a feel for it."

"Find you an assistant?" Skinner put his untouched coffee down. "Get a decent coffee maker into the place?"

"All that and a tower office as well."

The main building on the grounds was an old mansion that some robber baron had built at the turn of the century. It came with a couple of towers and large rooms, beautiful wood floors and twelve foot high ceilings.

Nash had turned one of the towers into classrooms; the other, into an office -- his -- and a conference room at the top. There were five large windows bringing in the outside light into the rounded room.

"The fireplace works. Bathroom's through there. Includes a shower. Assistant can use the connecting hall as an office. If you want an assistant, you'll have to find one yourself."

Skinner walked over to one of the windows. There was a large open space around the building, an orchard of some kind to the west, a series of other buildings to the east. He saw Alex, with maybe one splotch of colour on his sweat suit, lead three others who were in various rainbow hues through the back yard and into the mansion, talking seriously, being listened to seriously.

Nash was right: he was bored. The only intellectual stimulation he was getting these days was their evening chess games.

"Does that work?" He pointed to the phone on the side table by the conference table. Nash nodded. Skinner dialled.

"Dana, it's Walter. What's the phone number of the PA in your department that the Director forced into retirement last month? Thanks. I'll explain at supper. Tomorrow night? Good."

He looked up at Nash who was grinning. "I'm not saying yes. A lot will depend on my discussion with Alex tonight. But I will consider it."

"Hello. Is this Catherine Bainbridge? This is Walter Skinner. Yes. Mrs. Bainbridge, I was wondering if the chance to work in a zoo would be of interest to you? No, the human kind. No, and it's not for the faint- hearted, believe me. Today. Actually, as soon as possible. I'll give you the address. Oh, and Mrs. Bainbridge, dress casually. Feeding time can be very messy."

He looked at Nash. "She'll be here in an hour. I'll explain the situation to her. While I'm waiting, let's see some of the paperwork."

*******************************************************

"So," Alex stretched, rubbing himself against a sated Walter, "are you going to be the new boss?"

"I don't know." Walter stroked the arching back, kneaded the tight ass muscles of his lover. "How do you feel about the whole thing?"

Alex lay on top of Walter, stroking his foot up and down Walter's leg. "I have the funny feeling that my sleeping with you isn't going to help my budget in the least."

"Probably not," agreed Walter.

"And that in the sense of fair play, you're going to go over backwards to show me no favouritism."

"Maybe not backwards, but far enough so that there's no friction with the others. Wouldn't do for Fergus to think you've got one up on her, her being pregnant and all. All that anxiety wouldn't do the baby much good."

Alex laughed lazily, too filled with good humour to challenge Walter's assessment of Fergus: he'd learn soon enough what she was like.

"If I take it, there are a few things that need to be clear, Alex."

"Like?"

"Like there you're Krycek and I'm Skinner. Like there's no sex in the office, neither yours nor mine. That I will be your department head, and I will cut your demands or ignore them or toss them out if I feel they're unreasonable."

"You're not going back to old Stone Face, are you, Walter? Because I can put up with the rest of it, but not that."

"No. And if you ever feel uncomfortable with the situation, I want your promise to tell me. That's your territory. I'm the interloper. And I promise you I'll leave it to you."

"And do what?"

"Well, just so you know, Nash's wasn't the first offer I've had lately. Just the most interesting one." He licked some of the sweat that had gathered in the hollow by Alex's collar-bone. "So what are we feeding Dana tomorrow night?"

*******************************************************
NIF
*******************************************************