Disclaimer: Definitely not mine. All characters depicted
here belong to Chris Carter and 1013 Productions. No profit
is being made off this story.

Rating: NC-17, m/m sex. ***WARNING - RAPE*** Go home now if
this offends you or you are under the age of consent.

Classification: K/Sk

Summary: Krycek is recaptured by the Consortium and forced
into sexual bondage. Rescue and comfort arrive from an
unexpected source. Spoilers for Paper Clip.

Email: russianrat1@hotmail.com

Archive: Amothea's Angst Archive; anywhere else, just drop
me a quick email

Thanks: to Carol, my beta with a whip, who will not let me
do less than my best; and to B., who caught my errors in
grammar!

STRANGER IN PARADISE
(c)1998 by Russianrat



Part One - Prodigal Son

It took two men to hold their struggling prisoner. A third
stood at the ready, even though the man they escorted was
thin, dirty, and pale from weeks spent on the run. Lank hair
fell in strands across his face, and his eyes, when he
raised them to glare at the one who had ordered him found,
still blazed dark green with hate.

His captor lit another cigarette, smiling slightly.

"Welcome home, Alex."

"Why did you bring me back here, you double-crossing son of
a bitch? Why not just kill me, like you tried with that car
bomb?"

The smoker blew a hazy wreath into the air.

"Ah. That was a mistake."

"Damn right!"

The Smoking Man ignored his prisoner's outburst.

"The Consortium has had second thoughts about
your...usefulness. Although we've seen that you cannot be
fully trusted in certain matters, it would be a shame simply
to destroy you." He gestured with the cigarette. "Clean him
up."

The thugs holding Alex Krycek tightened their grip. Krycek
tried to lash out. He felt the sting of a needle in his
shoulder, and the world disappeared.

When he came to, he couldn't breathe. His arms and legs felt
heavy, useless. He thrashed against the restrictions until
his face was free of the pillow that had been smothering him
and he realized that he was tied, face down, on a bed. He
moved his head experimentally. The hair that had grown long
during his time on the run had been cut away from his neck
and forehead, and Krycek was pretty sure the barbering was
atrocious. Cold air on his back informed him that he was
naked, too.

He stiffened as familiar steps entered the room, accompanied
by the smell of Morleys.

"Very nice," said the Smoking Man. He cocked his head as if
studying Krycek. "It lacks just one thing to make it
perfect."

Another subtle gesture brought one of the thugs into the
room.

"Mr. Krycek will be spending most of his time here from now
on, Kurt. But he may no doubt try to escape. Could you do me
the favor of taking measures to prevent such an attempt?"

Krycek strained his neck to see what was going on. He heard
the cold snick of a switchblade. He hated knives.

"What the fuck are you doing?" Krycek yelled. "Get that
animal away from me!"

The thug, Kurt, moved up beside the bed, his face
expressionless. Suddenly, Krycek felt the blade touch his
leg at the hamstring. Then the sharp bite of steel...

Krycek screamed. He thrashed and strained against the rope
as blood poured from the back of his leg onto the bed.
Krycek twisted harder, trying to bite his attacker, but Kurt
slapped him across the jaw and went back to work. Then the
knife was gone and Krycek lay stunned, his breath coming in
short gasps. He could feel his left leg trying to draw up
from the pain, but he was too securely tied.

"Very good." The smoking bastard's voice was as smooth as
ever. "If you should manage to loosen your bonds, Alex, you
won't get far."

"How long are you going to keep me here?" he choked out,
dreading the answer.

The smoker took a moment to consider.

"Just hope that we don't tire of you soon," he replied.

Krycek could handle pain. He had fewer defenses against his
imagination. Would they torture him? Leave him there to
starve, if he didn't bleed to death first? No, he could feel
the heat and tightness around the wound indicating that it
was already beginning to heal, and the blood on the sheets
beneath him had nearly dried. Kurt apparently knew his job
well. He had cut the muscle cleanly, avoiding any major
arteries.

To take his mind off his situation, Krycek tried to study
the room he was in. He managed to turn his head far enough
to see that this was not a typical bedroom. There was no
closet and no window, just featureless walls that might have
once been white but were now yellowed by smoke. A desk chair
and plain wooden table sat in one corner. Perhaps it had
once been an office. No matter. Now it made a very effective
prison.

He looked closely at the way his wrists were bound. Just
cotton rope, wound twice and knotted well out of reach of
his fingers. He pulled at the bonds as hard as he could, but
they held fast. Tiring quickly of this exercise in futility,
Krycek finally drifted into a restless sleep.

Footsteps woke him sometime later. Another needle bit into
his arm. But whatever drug they used this time only made him
drowsy and weak, too weak to fight when the ropes were
undone and he was lifted from the bed.

At least the drug dulled the pain in his leg.

The rope trailed along the floor as Krycek was taken into a
bathroom down the hall. Through his drugged haze, he
recognized the men who had originally captured him. One of
them sat Krycek on the toilet and made him spread his knees,
then took hold of his penis and aimed it into the bowl.

Krycek's face reddened, but the needs of his bladder finally
won out. He let go, closing his eyes against this further
humiliation. When he was finished, two of the men turned him
around and the third pushed rough fingers between the cheeks
of his ass. Something hard and cold invaded him, and Krycek
realized it was an enema tube.

He tried to put himself somewhere else in his head as the
water filled his rectum. When the cramps hit, he stifled a
cry. Once more, he was set upon the porcelain until he had
done his business.

Head bowed, Krycek let himself be dragged back to the
bedroom. He made no further resistance while the thugs fixed
the ropes and left him alone.

Cigarette smoke wafted into his consciousness some time
later.

"I imagine you're hungry," said the Smoking Man.

Krycek's stomach rumbled on cue. He kept quiet, not wanting
to give any satisfaction to the other.

"You'll be fed. After we've seen you perform."

"Perform?" Krycek's head jerked up, despite his resolve.

"Yes." The old man blew a smoke ring across the bed. "Surely
you've surmised your purpose here by now."

The bonds. The enema. God. Hideous visions swam into
Krycek's imagination. Still, he mustered a touch of sarcasm.

"Oh, yeah? Should be interesting. A bunch of old farts."

"Not us, Alex. He paused, and Krycek could imagine his
malignant smile. "Of course we may on occasion decide to
watch."

"You're one sick bastard," growled Krycek in an attempt to
mask the fear rippling through him.

He heard the smoker approach the bed. Nicotine-stained
fingers gripped his shoulder in the imitation of a caress,
and Krycek shuddered.

"Hear this, Alex," he whispered close to his captive's ear.
"Be glad that I'm content to watch for now. I will have you
when I'm ready, and only then. Because I want my face to be
the last thing you'll ever see."

Cold lips descended briefly onto Krycek's mouth, then the
smoker was gone.

Krycek repressed the urge to vomit, knowing they would let
him lie in it. He tried counting the minutes in his head,
but that only made him more anxious. Every sound from the
hall seemed magnified. Voices came near the room, and he
broke into a sweat. But they faded again, leaving Krycek to
listen to the thud of his own heart.

When the door finally opened, it startled Krycek to realize
he'd dozed off. More footsteps as someone entered. No words,
just the rustling of fabric as clothing was removed and
discarded. Krycek twisted his head to the side, but the
light was too dim to see more than shadows.

Finally, a voice.

"Good. He'll do nicely." The accent was cultured,
upper-class.

"Do you need more light?" The smoker, this time. "After all,
he's quite attractive."

"No. Just close the door."

The Smoking Man left them in near-total blackness. Krycek
kept his eyes shut all the same. A hand descended onto his
thigh. The other hand parted him and spread gel around and
into his ass. The touch was gentle, and Krycek began to
shake. He understood roughness and was used to ignoring
discomfort.

The man took his fingers away, and Krycek heard the sound of
foil ripping. Nice of him to use a condom, he thought
darkly. Something blunt and thick pushed its way between his
cheeks. He tightened involuntarily and was rewarded with a
slap on the buttocks. After that, he forced himself to lay
still beneath the assault, hoping it would be over quickly.
Krycek was no virgin, but it had been awhile, and the
feeling of being stretched was painful.

The stranger atop him was in no hurry. Slim fingers caressed
his thighs, and one hand stole around to pinch a nipple. As
the man leaned forward, Krycek nearly choked on the sweet
scent of his aftershave. He turned his head away.

The sheets chafed Krycek's skin as the rhythmic thrusting
continued. To his shame, his cock began to harden. He tried
to ignore it, but his body acted on its own, ejecting seed
in short, intense bursts. Krycek buried his face in the
pillow, sickened by his own response.

The stranger thrust a few more times, tensed, and came,
grunting softly. He withdrew, and Krycek listened to him
pick up his clothing and leave the room without a word.

A light went on, making Krycek blink. It was Kurt. He
carried a chair over to the bed with one hand, a bowl of
soup with the other. He loosened the ropes and grabbed
Krycek's arm to make him sit up, then bound his wrists
together with another piece of rope.

Kurt dipped a spoon into the soup, and held it to Krycek's
lips.

"Eat."

Krycek winced and glared at him, but took some soup. He
tasted onions and potatoes in a thick, creamy base,
perfectly spiced. His stomach growled, and he ate some more.
Apparently starvation was not on the smoker's agenda.

When Krycek finished his meal, Kurt put the bowl away. He
reached for a bottle of water and tilted it to Krycek's
mouth.

"Not too much. Wouldn't want to have to clean up the bed."

Krycek drank a little too quickly and began to cough.

"Careful." Kurt kept a hand behind Krycek's neck until the
fit had passed.

Dispassionate words. Meant only to be certain that the
smoker's property wouldn't expire before its time.

His job done, Kurt bent to retie the ropes. Krycek saw him
glance at the sticky mess on the sheets. Kurt looked up
again, contempt in his eyes. He jerked the last knot quickly
and left Krycek to his misery.

* * *

Rough hands shook him awake.

"Hey, puta."

In the dim glow from the table lamp, Krycek identified the
sharp features of Luis Cardinal. He hadn't seen the Hispanic
assassin since escaping the car bomb that Cardinal had
helped plant.

"What the fuck do you want, Cardinal?" he hissed.

Cardinal grinned, exposing yellowed teeth.

"Just a taste of what the old man's keeping for his special
clients."

Krycek's stomach lurched at the thought of those grimy
fingers on him. He tugged futilely at the ropes and tried to
keep his calm. He figured Cardinal must have resorted to
bribery to have gotten in this room, and wished fervently
that his hands were free so he could grab the fool by the
throat.

"Sure, Luis. You do that. I'll be looking forward to 'Mr.
Morley's' reaction when he finds out you've tampered with
the merchandise."

"Shut up, cabron! No one's gonna tell him, hear?"

Krycek heard the slide of a zipper. Small, callused hands
prodded him roughly, applying a minimum of lubrication.
Cardinal sprawled across him, his cock jabbing blindly for
entrance.

Derision got the better of Krycek's common sense.

"Come on, Luis. Where is it? I thought you were such a *big*
man!"

His reward was a string of curses in Spanish. 'Idiot!' he
berated himself. Cardinal was crazy, unpredictable. Before
Krycek could come up with some mollifying remark, a knife
was being waved in his face. Hot pain seared his cheekbone
down to the jaw. He screamed and thrashed, trying to throw
the other man off him.

Footsteps, for once welcome, interrupted the scene.

"Cardinal? What--"

Krycek felt cold air on his back as Cardinal was pulled
forcibly off of him. The Hispanic assassin was carted away,
pleading for his life. Cardinal's voice rose in pitch. The
smoker snapped a reply, then a muffled shot from the next
room indicated that Cardinal's pleas had been in vain.

The Smoking Man walked back into the room flanked by two
thugs. He went over to survey the damage to his prisoner.

"This shouldn't have happened," he said angrily.

Krycek just groaned. Strong hands undid his bonds and lifted
him. His leg was healing poorly, and he had to be carried
into the bathroom. He slumped onto the john and glowered
silently at his captors. One of the smoker's men filled the
tub while another man took a washcloth to his injured cheek.
This was followed by the sting of antiseptic, and then
Krycek was eased into clean, hot water.

Hands touched him with businesslike thoroughness, soaping
the dirt and semen away. Krycek flinched when one of the men
pushed the cloth between his legs. His feeble struggles were
ignored. He hardened his expression to hide the seething
anger and despair in his heart.

The smoker entered and walked over to the tub.

He raised Krycek's chin with one hand, studying the gash
that ran down from just beneath his right eye nearly to his
chin. Krycek pulled away sharply, eyes glittering. The
smoker favored him with a nasty smile.

"Cardinal was a fool. But it doesn't matter." He traced the
wound lightly with the tip of his finger. "Some men are
drawn to flawed perfection."

Krycek looked away. He was lifted out of the tub after some
fifteen minutes, dried, and subjected to another enema. Two
of the smoker's thugs held him steady as he limped back to
the hated room. The bedsheets had been changed, and a clean
pillow shoved beneath his hips before the bonds were
fastened again. Krycek stared at the blank wall, wishing
desperately for a window. He recalled that the men who had
captured him had brought him to an upper floor. One step
into space and he would be so much broken flesh on the
sidewalk below.

A tiny voice in Krycek's head told him he could never do it.
He was a survivor. When his father had changed the family
name from Krichenko, he couldn't have picked a more apt
substitute. The rat. A despised gutter rodent whose only
purpose was to live in and consume filth. Hard to control,
harder to kill. Krycek took cold comfort from the image.

He was close to sleep when the door opened again. Curious,
he twisted his head trying to see. Rough fingers grabbed his
hair and a cloth was tied across his eyes. Totally blind,
Krycek struggled uselessly.

"Yeah, that's it, fight me." The voice sounded raw, aroused.

When Krycek stilled, his assailant dealt him a vicious blow
between the shoulders that caused him to rear back in pain.
He bit his lip to keep from screaming. The stranger forced
his cock into tender tissue. With each thrust, his zipper
scraped Krycek's thighs.

Krycek moaned. The rape intensified, hard strokes that left
him unable to breath under the man's weight. Another sharp
lunge and the man finally spent himself. He pulled his
softening cock free, wiped it casually on Krycek's ass, and
zipped up.

Minutes passed before Krycek realized the stranger had left.
The blindfold was still in place, and he began to panic.

"Hey! Get this damn thing off me!"

The Smoking Man flung open the door.

"Quiet, Alex. You're disturbing the others."

"Get it off! Please!"

"Ah." The smoker pulled the cloth away from Krycek's eyes.
"A touch of claustrophobia?"

Krycek blinked in the light. "Please let me go," he begged
suddenly. "I'll do whatever you want!"

"Hmm, I see. You're ready for your freedom." The smoker let
one hand drift to his crotch. "Of course, everything has its
price."

Krycek was about to agree when the Smoking Man reached into
his coat pocket and withdrew a Glock 9mm. He set the gun on
the desk chair and undid the button of his slacks. With a
jolt, Krycek was reminded of exactly what his 'freedom'
entailed.

"Wait!" he cried.

The smoker paused. "Changed your mind already, Alex?"

Krycek swallowed hard and managed to nod.

"A pity. I was so looking forward to this. Well, it will
keep--for now."

The smoker retrieved the Glock, tucked it away, and left
without another word.

Alone again, Krycek sobbed quietly. He very nearly called
the smoker back, prevented only by his own irksome will to
live. Exhaustion finally stopped his tears, and he slept.

* * *

Sleep became his frequent refuge. He started to have
recurring dreams about his former partner at the FBI, Fox
Mulder. At first the dreams were pleasant. Mulder would
appear in the room, smiling. He'd take Krycek in his arms
and just hold him until the pain went away.

The dreams didn't get ugly until after about the twentieth
time Krycek was raped. Suddenly Mulder's expression grew
cold and distant. He swore violently at Krycek, rebuffing
his advances and accusing him of crimes real and imagined.
Finally the dreams stopped altogether.

When Krycek was slapped awake for each new 'client', he
resorted to the fantasy that this was happening to someone
else. He stared vacantly at a far corner of the room while
his body was plundered, lost inside his head. Between times
he catalogued every inch of the walls, the chair, the pillow
he lay on. He became fascinated with the texture of the
ropes that bound him.

Time and Krycek's apathy made his keepers careless. One day
after his bath, his left wrist was not secured as tightly as
usual. Krycek shifted on the bed, and the rope gave more
than it should. He pulled at it lightly, not quite
believing, and it loosened another inch.

Krycek's bath generally preceded a time of rest. He knew he
had awhile before anyone would come for him. Patiently, he
tried the rope again. It gave some more, then stopped.
Krycek put all his concentration into turning and twisting
his arm, but the rope would go no further. His wrist began
to bleed from his efforts. Ignoring the pain, he pulled
harder, until blood ran freely down the side of the bed.

A sudden vision of gnawing off his own hand to free himself
made Krycek bite back hysterical laughter. He began to pace
himself, tugging as often as he could stand it and clamping
the pillowcase between his teeth to stifle his moans. He
began to despair when he felt the rope slip down to his
knuckles.

Krycek squeezed his fingers into a wedge, took a deep
breath, and pulled back as hard as he could. The blood he'd
already drawn made a crude lubricant, and with one final tug
the rope slid off and coiled onto the floor.

Krycek stared at his arm. The wrist was swollen--he thought
it might be broken--but the rope was gone. He flexed his
fingers. Pain shot through his arm and nausea gripped him.
Still, he thought he could move the hand just enough to work
on his other wrist. He shifted as far forward on the bed as
possible to give himself more room.

Each time he heard footsteps outside the door, Krycek
tensed. Now that escape was possible, he discovered how
badly he wanted to live. When the steps faded again, he went
back to his chore. Though each movement of his left hand was
agony, he persisted until at last his right wrist was free
as well. He pushed himself onto his knees with his good hand
and managed to slide back far enough to reach his ankles.

Unbound, Krycek slumped sideways onto the bed. He had to
remind himself to keep moving before the smoker returned. He
grabbed the corner of the chair for balance, heaving himself
partway into a standing position. One step, two, then his
injured leg gave out and he crumpled to the hardwood floor.

He began to crawl. Light seeped beneath the door, just
enough to guide him. He closed the distance gradually, until
his fingers met the jamb. He reached for the knob. It turned
before he was able to grasp the smooth metal.

The Smoking Man gazed down at him and shook his head as if
to reprimand a wayward child.

"Alex. Look what you've done."

Krycek swayed on his knees, beaten. He slumped and closed
his eyes as two of the smoker's thugs grabbed him and
carried him back to the bed. When they began to fasten the
ropes again, he screamed abruptly, thrashing at his captors
until the prick of a needle blunted everything but the need
for sleep.

* * *

The next few days--weeks? months? Krycek had no way of
telling--passed in a dim, nightmarish routine of being
bathed, tied, and fucked. He seldom caught more than a
glimpse of the men's faces. Some used protection, others did
not. Many didn't bother to remove all of their clothing.
Krycek hated the gentle ones most, the men who whispered
endearments as they pretended to make love to him. After
they'd gone, he wept bitter tears into his pillow.

His senses gradually dulled to the point where he hardly
felt the repeated invasion of his body. For all he knew or
cared, there might have been one man or a hundred pounding
into his numb flesh.

He held onto his will to live by a thread. But he no longer
tried to escape.

The episode that could have pushed him over that thin line
came when he was awakened in the night (or maybe the day,
there was no way to tell) by a hand on his shoulder and a
soft voice in his ear.

"Wake up, Krycek."

Krycek opened one bleary eye to stare at the man who bent
over him.

"Kurt," he said flatly.

The big bodyguard smiled sweetly. "I've brought you a
present."

Krycek's stomach did a sudden rollover. "You can't kill me.
He's reserved that for himself."

"I know. I had something else in mind."

He stood to his full 6'4", unzipped, and quickly pushed down
his slacks. The cock that sprang free from its confines must
have measured eight inches in length, and was thick as a
man's wrist. Krycek recoiled from it in horror.

"Y-you can't!" he stammered. "The old man will shoot you,
just like Cardinal."

"The 'old man', as you so kindly put it, Alex, has given
Kurt his permission."

Krycek had been so entranced by the monstrosity between
Kurt's legs that he hadn't heard the Smoking Man enter. His
wrinkled face came into view as he moved around to the side
of the bed. The click of his gold-plated cigarette lighter
was like the sound of another nail in Krycek's coffin.

"Kurt has been one of my most loyal employees, Alex.
Yesterday he came to me with a request. I granted it under
the condition that I be allowed to watch."

Krycek felt sick. Up to now, he had been able to separate
himself from the indignities he had been subjected to, as if
he were merely being examined in a doctor's office. Having
the man he hated most in the world gloating in a corner
while Kurt--

His mind skittered away from the image, and he closed his
eyes.

"Don't."

A quick slap across the mouth. Krycek looked up at Kurt and
began to shake.

"Eyes open," snapped the bodyguard.

In the background, the smoker lit yet another cigarette and
nodded knowingly.

Kurt shoved his dripping prick in Krycek's face.

"Suck it. No teeth."

Fighting fear and revulsion, he took the head of Kurt's cock
between his lips and began to work his tongue around the
crown. But his too gentle treatment didn't satisfy the huge
bodyguard. Kurt pinched Krycek's nostrils together until he
gasped. He took the opportunity to plunge himself into
Krycek's open mouth.

Unable to use his hands to defend himself, Krycek gagged
violently on the invading member. Kurt pulled back, then
thrust in nearly to his balls. Krycek couldn't breathe, and
he began to convulse. Stars burst in his darkening vision.
He thrashed his head in vain and all he could think of was
he didn't want to die like this, with a prick down his
throat.

"Enough," ordered the smoker.

Disappointed, Kurt withdrew. Krycek coughed like a racehorse
on its last legs. His stomach muscles tightened. Without
warning, he retched over the side of the bed.

The Smoking Man t'sked.

"Very naughty, Alex. You'll just have to breathe that for
awhile."

From deep in his misery, Krycek found a last shard of
defiance.

"Fuck you!" The epithet came out in a harsh croak.

The smoker leaned forward so that his cigarette was nearly
in Krycek's face.

"I don't think so," he said, almost gently. He looked up,
past Krycek's shoulder. "Kurt?"

Krycek felt rough hands part the cheeks of his ass, and then
the chill of lube. He squirmed, fighting uselessly.
Suddenly, a battering ram was working its way into him.
Krycek wasn't even aware that he was screaming until the
Smoking Man lodged a wadded up cloth in his mouth to muffle
his cries.

Kurt drove his cock into his victim like a weapon, without
finesse. The pressure against Krycek's chest and stomach
made his bedsores rupture, compounding his agony. In the
corner, the smoker grinned as Kurt shoved himself as deep as
he could with each thrust. At last he yelled and pumped his
come into Krycek's ass.

His tormentor pulled out roughly, and Krycek felt hot
liquid--semen or blood?--run down his thighs. Then the pain
hammered away the last thread of consciousness, and he
spiraled downward into the merciful dark.







Part Two - White Knight

Assistant Director Walter Skinner answered his phone with
ill-concealed impatience. If he didn't get through this
paperwork today, it would be twice as bad tomorrow.

"Yes?!" he snapped into the receiver.

"Mr. Skinner. We need to talk."

Skinner recognized the cultured English accent of one of the
Consortium's upper echelon. Of the shadowy group's members
that Skinner had dealt with, by choice or necessity, over
the past few years, the Englishman was the least
disagreeable.

"So. Talk."

"Not here. Meet me at noon, the usual place."

"Wait just a minute! What's this about? I have work to do--"

"This is extremely important, Mr. Skinner. A life hangs in
the balance."

"Whose life?"

"Noon today."

Skinner started to protest further, but the line was dead.

"Damn!" He slammed the phone down, snatched up his
trenchcoat, and stalked to the door that connected his
office with the waiting room. "Kimberly," he addressed his
secretary, "hold my calls. I'll be out for lunch."

"Yes, sir."

The park that was their designated meeting place was open,
yet it afforded privacy among thick trees that shielded the
two men from directional microphones. The Englishman, whose
gaunt face hid a multitude of secrets, waited for Skinner by
the fountain. Skinner walked past casually, and was joined
by the other a few minutes later.

"All right." Skinner came to an abrupt halt beneath a cherry
tree. "What is this life and death matter?"

The elder Englishman took a moment to respond. Skinner was
about to prod him when he began to speak in a soft monotone.

"I own an estate that I seldom visit. My children and
grandchildren are lucky to see my face once every few
months. This group--these honorable men, whose honor has
somehow gone astray--has become an albatross around my neck.

"I want to spend the rest of my years in peaceful
retirement, Mr. Skinner. There is a way, very dangerous, but
worth the risk. I've been planning it for some time now."

Skinner frowned. "Why do you need me?"

"A complication has developed," the Englishman stated. "I am
sure you are aware that our group has a safe haven, a series
of offices and suites on the top floor of a high-rise
building in New York City. Over the past few months, I have
made certain...arrangements...to ensure that when I leave,
no one will follow."

He turned to walk beneath the trees, and Skinner followed
with growing impatience.

"Get to the point," he growled.

"Not long ago, the Consortium brought a young man into our
midst. This man has become a plaything for the others, in
particular for our nicotine saturated friend. Things have
been, are being, done to him as we speak. Atrocious acts
that cannot be excused, regardless of the man's own less
than savory background. If you help me free this man, I will
give you all the documentation you need to keep you safe
from any personal repercussions, as well as proof of this
prisoner's ultimate innocence."

"Is this man someone I know?" Skinner asked, biting his lip.

"You will be told all when you arrive. Do this one thing for
me, and you will never be bothered by the Consortium again."

"I'll have to think about it."

"By Thursday. No later. Time grows short, Mr. Skinner."

The Englishman turned and strode away. Skinner walked off in
the opposite direction, grumbling under his breath. He
already knew his answer. It irked him that the Englishman
knew it too.

Thursday morning, the phone on Skinner's desk rang at
precisely nine o'clock.

"Skinner."

"Your decision?" queried the caller in his familiar accent.

"I'll meet you. Tell me when and where."

"You will have to take some time away from the office. This
person I mentioned cannot be admitted to a hospital or
otherwise registered with any authority. You have a safe
retreat."

It was not a question.

"Yes," replied Skinner shortly.

"This afternoon at two. At the park. Transport will be
provided. Ah, and Mr. Skinner...come prepared."

The connection was severed abruptly. Skinner hung up and
paged Kimberly.

"How much vacation do I have on the books?"

"Plenty, sir." She paused, and Skinner could hear the
shuffling of paper. "Two months, three days."

"Good. I'll be leaving town. I'll be in touch as soon as I
know my plans."

The unflappable Kimberly began to make calls even before
Skinner had walked out the front door.

He made one stop at his apartment in Crystal City. Into a
suitcase, he shoved clothing, cash, and a gun with extra
ammo. The lure of eliminating the Consortium once and for
all kept him moving, and before he knew it, two o'clock had
arrived. Fresh snow covered the ground, but Skinner waited
stoically on a park bench.

While he waited, Skinner recalled the first time he'd been
approached by the Consortium. He had just been promoted to
Assistant Director, with astonishing swiftness and lack of
red tape. The third day on the job he'd walked into his new
office to find a man in a dark suit calmly occupying the
plush leather chair in the corner. The Smoking Man, as
Skinner came to think of him, had lit another in an endless
chain of Morley cigarettes and begun to explain exactly what
he was doing there and why it would be in Skinner's best
interests not to kick him out.

By the time the smoker had finished his speech, Skinner was
visibly paler. There was no doubt that this man knew things
about him he'd never told anyone, things that could not only
reverse his career but destroy the lives of those around
him. It took little persuasion for Skinner to agree to
assist the smoker in 'a few minor details', as he put it.

A dark sedan pulled up at the curb across from Skinner. The
window was lowered just enough for him to recognize the
Englishman. Skinner got up, walked to the car, and slid into
the back seat. The silent chauffeur whisked them away.

"They had better not be waiting in force up there," said
Skinner as the sedan disgorged the two men near a secret
entrance to the Consortium's headquarters.

"Only two guards. Leave them to me." The Englishman paused
outside the door. "Five minutes, then follow quickly."

He disappeared inside. Skinner timed him, trying not to
think about what he was getting himself into. At four
minutes and fifty-eight seconds, he went in. A staircase was
the only apparent means of access, and he began to climb
quietly, gun at the ready.

A door at the top of the stairway opened. Skinner tensed.
The Englishman appeared and beckoned to him.

The seemingly endless maze of rooms held only silence. The
Englishman led Skinner down a long hallway. As they
approached the door at the far end of the hall, Skinner
heard the hated, corrupt voice of The Smoking Man.

"This will all be over soon," the smoker chuckled.

Skinner swallowed hard. But before he could take action, the
Englishman deliberately kicked the bottom of the door.

"What--?"

The smoker burst through the door, hastily zipping his
pants.

"What do you want? I'm busy here."

"Let him go," demanded the Englishman.

The Smoking Man sneered. "Gladly. You can take charge of the
body when I'm finished."

"Let him go now, or the authorities will be involved."

"Authorities?" The smoker's voice turned shrill. "Very well.
You always were a coward."

From the corner of his eye, Skinner saw the smoker draw a
weapon. Without hesitation, he stepped out of hiding and
aimed. The Smoking Man turned and fired. He missed. Skinner
did not. The smoker crumpled to the floor, leaving the wall
behind him smeared red and gray like some kind of obscene
flag.

"I've been waiting to do that for years," growled Skinner.

"Hurry," the Englishman snapped.

Skinner stepped into the room. His nostrils were assailed by
the harsh smells of urine and vomit. Taking shallow breaths,
he walked closer to the bed, not quite able to believe what
he saw.

A naked man lay spread-eagled across the sheets, bound with
ropes at his wrists and ankles. A pillow had been placed
beneath his hips. Its relative cleanliness suggested this
had been done by the smoker. The man's face was turned away,
and he tossed restlessly in the grip of fever or nightmare.

Skinner came around to the side of the bed. A rag protruded
from the man's mouth, partially hiding his features. Skinner
pulled it free carefully. Then he tipped the man's chin into
the light and froze.

"Krycek!"

"Yes. Help me untie him, please."

Skinner stared. "This scum is who you want me to take care
of? Alex Krycek is nothing but a liar and a murderer!"

"Mr. Skinner." The Englishman's voice cut like a knife. "I
promised you proof of his innocence, and you shall have that
proof. There is no time to argue."

Mechanically, Skinner worked the rope off Krycek's right
wrist. As the two men moved in concert to the foot of the
bed, Skinner got a better look at the prisoner's injuries.
Krycek's left leg bore a terrible scar. His back and
shoulders were bruised so darkly it was hard to find clean
skin on them. Streaks of a whitish substance intermingled
with dried blood covered the insides of his thighs. With a
start of horror, Skinner realized he was looking at vast
quantities of semen.

Skinner pulled Krycek upright despite his nausea and cradled
him in strong arms. He wouldn't let himself think about who
he held, only that it was a wounded human being. Memories of
'Nam kicked in and Skinner saw himself back in the jungle,
leading his men through enemy fire. When his best friend had
fallen right in front of him, he ignored caution and slung
the man over his shoulder until his squadron reached safety.
Skinner straightened, prepared to do whatever was necessary
to save a life.

The Englishman disappeared for a moment, then returned with
a white terrycloth robe and tossed it to Skinner.

"Put this on him. You'll have to carry him downstairs."

Skinner draped the robe about the unconscious man and lifted
him from the bed. He followed the Englishman down the hall
without question. Of the guards, there was no sign.

Outside, Skinner looked around for the dark sedan, but the
Englishman beckoned him to another car parked and waiting in
the alley. The two of them bundled Krycek into the back
seat. To Skinner's surprise, the Englishman then got behind
the wheel.

"Where are we going?" Skinner asked as he slid into the back
beside their insensible passenger.

"There's a private helicopter waiting at a site outside DC.
It will take you to a drop-off near your retreat."

Skinner grumbled. "If you could find the place so easily--"

"I have no reason to disturb your privacy, Mr. Skinner."

No more was said on their drive through Washington. As they
neared the Blue Ridge Mountains, Skinner kept an eye on
Krycek. He appeared to be dead to the world. Skinner thought
that was probably a blessing under the circumstances. He
turned his attention back to the passing scenery.

The Englishman took a sharp right off the highway onto a
narrow dirt road. Some two or three miles later, the forest
on either side of the car widened into a clearing. A black
helicopter sat precisely in the center, a single figure
visible within. The Englishman pulled to a stop a few feet
away and stopped the car.

"My pilot will help you," he said to Skinner. "You can trust
him to be discreet."

"What about you?" asked Skinner.

"I'll be fine. Now it is time for us to part ways."

The helicopter pilot was at the car now, opening the back
door and lifting Krycek with the utmost care. Skinner was
about to exit the car when a hand grasped his elbow.

The Englishman thrust a large manila envelope at Skinner.

"Your proof. Do not lose it. And Mr. Skinner--keep watching
the news."

Skinner took the envelope automatically and stepped away
from the car. He watched as the Englishman drove off without
a backward glance.

"Sir? We need to leave now."

Skinner started, realizing the pilot was addressing him. He
ducked beneath the 'copter blades and hoisted himself into
the seat, noting Krycek's still form on the floor behind
them. He'd just buckled himself in when the helicopter left
the ground and circled away from the scene.

* * *

Skinner awoke with a start as the 'copter settled onto the
ground once more. He looked around groggily.

"Your car, sir. Key's beneath the mat." The pilot indicated
a nondescript car half-hidden beneath a canopy of
snow-covered maples. "That's Route 1013-C over there."

The pilot jumped out, leaving the blades whirling. He folded
the seat in order to reach their extra passenger. Skinner
helped the pilot pull Krycek free of the helicopter and
carry him to the car. Together, the pilot and Skinner tucked
their charge into the back seat. Although he groaned and
mumbled, Krycek still did not wake up. The depth of his
stupor worried Skinner, who began to fear that he would
arrive at his cabin with a corpse.

"I'll be going now. Good luck."

The pilot waved and ran back to his 'copter.

Skinner tossed the heavy envelope containing Krycek's
secrets onto the front seat. Then he started the engine and
turned the car towards his retreat.

Some forty-five minutes later, he pulled up behind his
mountain house and parked the car where it would not easily
be seen by chance arrivals. He had hidden a key inside a
birdhouse down a path out back. Taking a chance that his
unwanted passenger would not wake too soon, he found the key
and unlocked the back door.

The house still looked the same: warm and cozy against
winter days, light and airy for the summer. Skinner wondered
if, after this, it would ever feel the same again. He went
upstairs, opening doors on the way so he wouldn't have to
deal with them later. That done, he returned to the car.
Krycek was beginning to come round. He moaned loudly when
Skinner scooped him up, but there was no help for it at the
moment. Skinner carried his burden up the stairs and
deposited him on the floor of the bathroom.

Skinner had originally bought this place with the idea of
making it a safehouse; therefore, it was always stocked with
non-perishable food, extra clothing, and a first-aid kit.
This last was in the hall pantry, and Skinner took it out
with a mind to Krycek's injuries. He laid it on top of the
dresser, and, after a moment's reflection, went downstairs
to retrieve a bottle of Scotch.

Finding the liquor took a bit more time. At last, Skinner
spotted two bottles at the back of a high kitchen cabinet.
He tucked one under his arm, grabbed a glass, and had just
turned around when screams echoed through the house.

He bounded up the stairs. Krycek had rolled onto his back.
His eyes were wide and unseeing, and his fingers scrabbled
on the tile reflexively. Skinner set the bottle down and
grabbed his shoulders.

"Easy! No one's going to hurt you."

He was again reminded of Vietnam as he attempted to soothe
the injured man. His experience at makeshift first aid
helped him remain calm and aloof from his personal feelings.
Although Krycek's eyes stayed open, he seemed unaware of his
surroundings. Skinner took the Scotch and poured some into
the glass. He slid one hand behind Krycek's neck and forced
the liquor between his lips.

Krycek gasped and sputtered, but managed to swallow a
portion of the alcohol. His eyelids drooped again as if
weighted down by his impossibly thick lashes. Skinner tilted
the glass one more time, and Krycek swallowed automatically.
Then his head lolled sideways, his breathing evened, and the
AD eased him back onto the floor.

Skinner caught a whiff of Krycek's rank smell, and realized
he would have to give his charge a sponge bath. He didn't
exactly relish the idea. But if he were going to put the man
in *his* bed, he wanted Krycek to be reasonably clean.

He dipped a washcloth in warm water and pulled Krycek's robe
aside, wetting the material and tugging it carefully in
places where blood had made it stick to the younger man's
body. Skinner was shocked all over again at Krycek's
condition. Krycek had lost weight during his ordeal, and his
ribs were like sharp sticks beneath a thin cover of flesh.
The scar on his cheek looked red and puffy in the glare of
the fluorescent light.

Gently, Skinner finished removing the robe. He turned Krycek
onto his side and took the wet cloth to his back. When the
gore had been cleaned away as much as possible, Skinner slid
his arms beneath Krycek and carried him to the bed, tucking
the covers around his chest. He feared the man needed
medical attention, but this was the best he could do for
now. Sighing, Skinner sat back in his chair and waited for
Krycek to wake up.

Belatedly, Skinner recalled the folder sitting on the floor
by his feet. The Englishman's 'proof'. Well, it wouldn't
hurt to look at it, and it would help pass the time. He
picked up the envelope, opened one end, and shook its
contents onto his lap. Out fell several documents, pictures,
and a videotape.

Skinner glanced at the photos. They were mostly of a younger
Alex Krycek, and many appeared to have been snapped on the
grounds of Quantico. Skinner wondered who had taken the
pictures and how they had gained access to the facility. He
sensed the tobacco tainted hands of his enemy--his dead
enemy, now--behind this. He shivered. Those pictures could
just have easily been of himself. Finally he set the photos
aside, picked up the sheaf of papers, and began to read.

The first rays of the sun caught Skinner by surprise. He
reread the last paragraphs of the document in his hand,
still trying to process all he'd learned in such a short
time. The words rang of truth. They spoke of a time when
Krycek truly was innocent and naive, easily manipulated by
promises of advancement. Skinner had followed Krycek's
descent into corruption and his struggles to retain some
kernel of integrity even as he followed the smoker's orders.

Yet there was little mention of the most damning of Krycek's
crimes, the murder of Fox Mulder's father.

Skinner frowned. It was a lot to swallow in one sitting. He
decided to reserve judgment until after he'd had a chance to
talk to Krycek.

A sound from the bed brought Skinner's attention back to the
present. Krycek was awake. He blinked several times as if
trying to focus.

"S-Skinner?" Confusion and nervousness passed rapidly over
his face.

"Yeah." Skinner spoke calmly. He wouldn't gain anything by
frightening the man. "Take it easy, you're not under
arrest."

"...where am I?"

"My mountain house. You've been--injured."

Krycek closed his eyes and swallowed. "I've been raped, you
mean."

Skinner shifted in his chair, embarrassed. "Well, you're
safe here. Are you hungry?"

Krycek shook his head. "Water."

"Okay."

Skinner got up, glad to be away from Krycek for awhile. He
still felt uneasy around the man and the dead look of his
face. He went downstairs for a clean glass. When he
returned, his guest was struggling to raise himself on one
elbow. Skinner automatically put an arm around Krycek and
helped him sit up so he could drink. He took the glass and
emptied it in a matter of seconds, then held it out for
more.

"You'll make yourself sick," muttered Skinner in refusal.

Krycek sank back against the pillows, apparently too weak to
argue. He looked up at Skinner as if just now seeing him for
the first time.

"This is gonna sound weird, but--what month is it?"

"December," answered Skinner shortly.

Krycek nodded. "They took me in September."

He fell silent again. Skinner knew any reply he could make
would sound trite. He could only imagine what Krycek had
been through. Nothing he had seen in 'Nam exactly compared.

Krycek made a sound of distress. Skinner saw that he had
pushed the sheet back from his chest. The ugly sores that
covered him stood out in stark relief against his pale skin.
Even the lightest touch of fabric seemed to be causing him
pain.

Skinner got up to retrieve the first-aid kit from the
dresser where he'd left it earlier. He opened it and took
out a tube of antibiotic ointment then went into the
bathroom. He washed his hands carefully and came back with a
bottle of hydrogen peroxide and some cotton balls. Pulling
the chair close to the bed, Skinner sat and began to dab the
sores.

Krycek hissed as the peroxide bubbled. Skinner continued to
work his way down Krycek's stomach and thighs, cleaning each
sore as well as he could. Then he put the bottle away and
used his fingers to apply ointment to the wounds. Krycek
bore it all stoically. Skinner saw his eyelids flutter, and
by the time he'd finished, Krycek had dozed off again.

Skinner sighed. He covered Krycek with the sheet and went to
wash his hands again before heading down to get some
breakfast. He didn't want to leave Krycek alone for long, so
he settled for toast and bacon, plus an orange that didn't
look too badly wrinkled. Fortunately, he had restocked just
a few weeks ago, and the utility bills were paid in advance.
He took a few more minutes to fix a cup of instant coffee,
then put the food on a tray and went back upstairs.

Krycek still slept. Skinner checked him briefly, decided it
was normal sleep from his even breathing, and settled back
in the chair to eat his meal. Finished, he yawned and
realized he'd not had a chance to rest himself. He ran some
water over his plate and cup in the bathroom sink, too
fatigued to make another trip to the kitchen.

One last peek at Krycek and Skinner stumbled across the hall
to the other bedroom, leaving the door open behind him. He
pulled off his shoes, lay down in his clothes and was
instantly asleep.

Repeated noises from across the hall finally woke Skinner.
He grumbled, momentarily disoriented. His digital wristwatch
read four o'clock. He leaned over to part the curtains, saw
sun over the trees, and realized it was afternoon.

"Skinner." The voice was faint but insistent.

Krycek. Damn. The AD cursed as he pushed himself out of bed.
Reluctantly, he walked across the hall and looked in.

"What?" He knew he sounded irritated, but couldn't help it.

"I need to go to the bathroom," Krycek whispered. His green
eyes were huge in his thin face. He looked as if he thought
someone might hit him.

Skinner sighed. He moved to the bed and slipped an arm
around the young man, lifting him to his feet. He noted how
Krycek held his left leg at an awkward angle, and felt a
stab of guilt at his own impatience.

With Skinner's support, Krycek limped to the bathroom and
sat down docilely on the toilet. He shivered. Skinner
grabbed a clean robe from a hook on the bathroom door and
thrust it at him. When Krycek made no move to take the robe,
Skinner laid it at his feet.

Krycek looked up at him dully.

"Why did you bring me here?"

"I just wanted to help."

"Uh-huh." Disbelief was evident on Krycek's face. "Did it
ever occur to you to ask if I wanted to be rescued?"

Skinner's head snapped up. "What do you mean?"

"You should have left well enough alone. He would have
killed me. I'd be free."

"Look," growled Skinner. He was becoming annoyed by Krycek's
cynicism. "I had a call from someone in your organization
about what was going on. So obviously he cared about your
well-being, even if you don't."

"Who?" Krycek frowned.

"The elder man with the English accent."

Krycek nodded and turned his face away. "I could use some
privacy."

Skinner cleared his throat. "I'll be right outside."

He left Krycek sitting naked on the john and closed the door
behind him. Several minutes passed. Skinner thought Krycek
was taking a long time in there. He went to the door and
heard the sound of running water. He tried the knob. Locked.

"Krycek?"

No answer. Alarmed, Skinner took a step back and tackled the
door with his shoulder. It smashed against the wall and
Skinner stumbled in.

Krycek knelt by the tub. His left arm was beneath the
faucet, and he continued to slice at it methodically while
the water ran red. Skinner swore. He knocked the razor away,
grabbed Krycek by the shoulders, and pushed him down to the
bathroom floor.

Skinner kept one foot on Krycek's chest while he retrieved
antiseptic and bandages from the medicine cabinet.

"Don't. You. Ever. Try that again in my house," he snarled.

Krycek laughed weakly. "I would have been done by now, but
all I could find was a safety razor."

"Damn it!" Skinner dabbed mercurochrome onto a cotton ball,
then slapped it over Krycek's arm. The other man just stared
at him without speaking. "No way am I going to let you kill
yourself, if I have to tie you--"

Dismayed by his own choice of words, Skinner shut up too
late.

"You want a piece of me, too?" spat Krycek. "Is that the
deal? How much did you have to pay the smoker to have me all
to yourself, Skinner?"

The AD took a deep breath as he continued to dress Krycek's
arm.

"Listen to me. You are not my prisoner. But you're not
leaving, either, until I'm sure you won't do anything
stupid. Got that?"

"Yes, Sir," Krycek replied sullenly.

Skinner pulled him to his feet, none too gently. "Back to
bed."

"No!" Krycek struggled against him.

Skinner sighed. "Sleep in the chair, then. It doesn't matter
to me."

Krycek frowned, obviously weighing comfort over fear. He
pulled free of Skinner's arm and took a tentative step
towards the bed before his injured leg gave out and he
sprawled gracelessly on the floor.

Skinner bent to help.

"Don't!" Krycek lashed out.

He managed to push himself up, and by grabbing a corner of
the bed, to get back on his feet. The effort made him sweat,
but somehow he flopped onto the covers on his own. He lay
there shaking and wheezing until Skinner became alarmed and
pressed a hand to Krycek's forehead.

"Damn. You're burning up."

"Probably some kind of infection," Krycek gasped. "Who knows
what I've caught, huh?"

Skinner grimaced at the implication. The first-aid kit lay
near his feet, and he pulled it open. A bottle of Keflex
still sat in its compartment. He shook out a couple of
capsules and went for a glass of water.

"Here," he said, returning to Krycek's side. "Take these.
It's the best I can offer."

Krycek swallowed the pills with a grimace. Skinner eased his
houseguest back against the pillows and tried to make him
comfortable.

"You'll be sorry when they come for me," Krycek muttered.

"No one's coming for you. Your Morley-smoking boss is dead."

That made Krycek turn his head abruptly.

"How do you know?"

"Because I shot him. And I don't think anyone could survive
having their brains blown out."

Krycek's eyes widened at Skinner's blunt statement. "Well.
Guess I should thank you, after all."

"Try to get some rest. I'll be here if you need me."

Krycek didn't appear to have heard. He had slipped into some
sort of fugue state between waking and sleeping. Skinner
shook his head in exasperation. He didn't like having this
man in his house, regardless of the documents that protested
his innocence.

Skinner reminded himself that he had only an inkling of what
Krycek had experienced during the past three months. He knew
the younger man had been raped, and likely beaten.

On the other hand, he flashed back to the day he'd been
ambushed in the hospital stairwell. The Smoking Man had
plainly issued an order to retrieve the digital tape in
Skinner's possession, the tape that held so many secrets. It
had taken two men to hold him, and only then had Krycek
appeared and taken a swing at him. Krycek had continued to
punch Skinner until he lost consciousness.

Whatever the case, Skinner still felt an obligation to the
Englishman. That thought reminded him of what the old man
had said: "Watch the news." There was a television in the
bedroom, and he found the remote and switched it on, turning
down the volume.

Skinner caught the evening news, but there was nothing of
interest to him. He sighed and checked on his charge. Krycek
was mumbling in his half-sleep. It worried and frustrated
Skinner that he couldn't call Scully for some medical
advice, but all he dared do was ride Krycek's illness out.

He left the bedroom long enough to fix himself some dinner,
then brought it upstairs. Krycek hadn't budged. Skinner
dampened a cloth and wiped Krycek's forehead, then he sat
back down to eat.

Evening became night, and still Krycek didn't wake. Rather
than chance missing any shifts in his condition, Skinner
retrieved a blanket for himself and stretched out on the
bedroom floor. Fatigue caught up with him, and he was soon
fast asleep.

Skinner woke once in the small hours of the night. He got up
to use the bathroom, then examined his guest. Krycek had
thrown the sheet off, and was dozing fitfully. Skinner
rearranged the covers and pulled the chair next to the bed.
He sat and watched Krycek sleep for awhile. Krycek looked
very young and defenseless. Without thinking, Skinner
reached out and touched his face lightly, running his
fingertips over the smooth cheeks and caressing the nasty
scar as if he might make it vanish.

Krycek murmured softly. Skinner pulled his hand back and
shook his head, bewildered by the mixture of anger and
tenderness he felt for the other man. He lay back down the
floor and waited for sleep.

Skinner woke mid-morning and glanced over at the bed. Krycek
lay in nearly the same position, his hair slick with sweat.
The AD wet a fresh cloth and sponged Krycek's face. If
Krycek didn't wake soon, Skinner knew he would have to risk
calling a doctor. The idea made him nervous. Any contact
with the outside could expose them both to the Consortium.

He sat down and watched the news again. Still nothing beyond
the usual tragedies and scandals. He was about to turn the
TV off when the folder with its photos and documents
scattered about caught his eye. Nearby lay the videotape,
forgotten in the midst of nursing duties.

He picked it up and examined it. There was nothing to be
gleaned from the blank cover, nor from the tape itself,
which had no label. He shrugged, got up, and slipped the
cassette into his VCR.

After a moment of static, an image appeared on the screen.
Though it was dark, Skinner recognized the interior of a
car. A man was in the passenger seat, alone. The camera
seemed to have been placed somewhere near the roof of the
vehicle, in the back seat. For long minutes, nothing
happened. Suddenly, another man ran over, threw open the
driver's door, and got in.

The man started the car and drove off. When the two men had
traveled several blocks, the driver lit up a cigarette,
confirming Skinner's suspicions of his identity.

"Can't you do anything right?" said the Smoking Man.

Krycek--Skinner recognized the tilted nose immediately in
profile--turned to the smoker.

"I--I couldn't. I just couldn't!"

"You put the whole operation in jeopardy. If William Mulder
survives..." The smoker tossed his butt out the window and
lit another without pause. "You let your feelings get in the
way of the job. This is unacceptable behavior, Alex."

Krycek shrank away. He obviously feared his boss's wrath,
but, at the same time, he seemed to be making an effort to
hold himself still.

"I couldn't. That was my partner's father you shot!"

"Your *former* partner. You betrayed him."

The smoker's voice was cold. Krycek hesitated, then the
emotions spilled over despite his fear.

"I never wanted to betray him! There was no reason for you
to involve me in Scully's abduction! And now this?" His
voice broke. "Damn you! I want out, and I want out now!"

The Smoking Man blew a plume in Krycek's direction, making
the young man cough.

"You signed on for the duration, Alex. You knew the rules."

The car braked suddenly. Skinner watched the smoker reach
across the seat and grab Krycek by the back of the neck. The
Smoking Man brought his lips down hard on Krycek's mouth in
a parody of affection. Krycek made a sound of disgust and
moved away as quickly as possible.

"We'll discuss this later," said the smoker icily. He
started the car again, and drove away.

The image faded to black. Skinner got up slowly and popped
out the tape. What he had witnessed erased his last
reservations as to Krycek's innocence. He wondered who had
planted the camera, and to what intent. The Englishman
seemed to have had Krycek's welfare in mind for some time.
Perhaps he had singled him out for protection, having seen
something in Krycek worth saving.

A strangled gasp made Skinner turn around. Krycek's eyes
were open. He stared past the AD, tears running in silent
tracks down his face.

"Where--? How--? Who gave you that tape?" Krycek blurted.

"The Englishman," Skinner replied, moving over to sit on the
side of the bed. "Along with a number of important
documents."

Krycek was having trouble catching his breath. Skinner tried
to reach out to him, but he flinched away.

"I couldn't bear the thought of anyone hurting him," said
Krycek in a hoarse whisper.

"Who?" asked Skinner.

"Mulder." Krycek finally focused on Skinner, his emerald
eyes awash with pain. "Now he hates me. You should have let
me die, Skinner. Dammit, you should have let me die!"

He began to flail weakly at the larger man. Skinner grabbed
his arms and held him easily.

"Stop it, Krycek. Alex. It's over. We have proof now. It's
over."

Krycek stared at Skinner in disbelief.

"It's never going to be over. Not as long as I live." His
expression was flat, unreadable.

He wrestled out of the AD's grasp awkwardly. He managed to
swing his legs over the side of the bed, then just sat
there, shaking.

"What is it?" said Skinner.

"I can't walk," replied Krycek timorously.

"What do you need?"

"The john. And a shower."

Skinner frowned. "You're not strong enough. I'll fill the
tub."

"No! I don't want a bath!" Krycek refused to meet Skinner's
eyes.

"I'm not going to stand there and catch you if you fall."

"You could get me a chair." When Skinner shot him a look of
annoyance, Krycek added, "Please?"

The AD sighed wearily. "I'll see what I can find."

Skinner went downstairs, shaking his head. He returned
shortly with a lawn chair that had been stored in a back
room of the house. When he walked back in the bedroom,
Krycek was nowhere in sight. Skinner cursed. He'd barely
been gone fifteen minutes, and didn't think Krycek had the
strength for another suicide attempt, but he tossed the
chair aside and flung open the bathroom door.

Krycek sat on the john, face in hands, keening softly. He
raised his head at Skinner's entrance, an expression of
anguish distorting his handsome features.

"I can't go," he complained.

Skinner frowned.

"They gave me enemas every day and fucked me so often that
now I can't even take a crap!"

Skinner let out his breath. "It's okay, Alex. I've got a
laxative here somewhere." He started to rummage through the
medicine cabinet. "How did you get in here, anyhow?"

"On hands and knees, what do you think? I couldn't wait all
day."

Skinner counted to ten. "I was coming right back."

"I don't want your damn help! That's all they did, carried
me back and forth to the toilet and the bath. I hate this!
Damn you, Skinner! Damn you to hell!"

Krycek hurled invectives until Skinner walked over to him,
raised his hand and slapped him hard across the face.

"Stop it! You are here to get well, and so help me God,
you're going to do just that! Once you've left here, you can
do anything you damn well please, including killing
yourself. I can't stop you. But I never saw you as a whiner,
Krycek. Get over it!"

Krycek stared back at Skinner open-mouthed. His face twisted
and his shoulders hitched. Only when the tears spilled over
did Skinner realize he was crying.

"Come on," he said brusquely, unconsciously falling into the
role he'd played so often in 'Nam. "You'll feel better once
you're clean."

Skinner went back to get the lawn chair. He unfolded it and
placed it in the tub, on top of a rubber mat to keep it from
slipping. The fight seemed to have drained out of Krycek. He
accepted Skinner's hand on his arm and sat in the chair with
his head down.

Skinner adjusted the water temperature and showed Krycek
which knob to pull for the spray.

"Here." He handed Krycek a bottle of shampoo. "Soap's in the
dish. Call me when you're done."

Krycek just nodded. Skinner left him alone then, but kept
watch outside the door. He listened to the sound of the
water, and when it stopped, he went back in with a clean
towel. Krycek took it from him and dried himself as best he
could.

Skinner put an arm around Krycek's shoulder. He tensed for a
struggle, but the younger man let Skinner help him from the
tub without argument. Together they shuffled back towards
the bed. Krycek sat down and pulled his legs up, then lay
quietly while Skinner checked his forehead. It was cool. He
started to pull the sheet over Krycek's legs, then paused.

"You want something to wear?"

Krycek looked down at his bedsores and shook his head. "Just
the sheet," he mumbled.

Skinner covered him carefully.

"You need to eat if you can."

"Okay," was the only response.

Skinner went downstairs, returning shortly with a tray.

"Here. Oatmeal, milk, and a banana. That's all you get until
I'm sure your stomach can handle more."

He sat on the bed again and watched Krycek pick up the
spoon. The oatmeal disappeared gradually, and the banana
went next.

"That was good," Krycek admitted, licking the spoon clean.

"Enough for now." Skinner set the tray aside.

Wide green eyes met cool brown. "Are you going to send me
away? Once I'm better?" He sounded indifferent as to the
answer.

Skinner shook his head. "Of course not. Though I'm glad to
hear you say you want to get better."

Krycek looked away. "I guess."

"You may be innocent, but you're still exasperating."

"Yeah. No doubt."

"Just try to rest." Skinner tossed the remote control onto
the bed. "I'll be across the hall."

No answer. Skinner left the bedroom door open. He heard the
TV being switched on and off. He tried to read, but the
silence bothered him, and after a few minutes he went back
to the other room. Krycek lay on his side, mouth open,
snoring softly. Relieved, Skinner left again quietly.

It was getting late. Skinner turned his light off, hoping to
relax. But thoughts of the damaged man in his care refused
to go away. Sighing, Skinner got up one more time and
crossed the hall. Krycek hadn't moved. Skinner heard deep
breathing, and thought it might finally be safe to leave him
alone for the night. He took off his wrinkled clothes, found
a pair of pajamas, and sank heavily into bed and to sleep.

High-pitched screams woke him near midnight. Skinner jumped
out of bed and stumbled into the next room. He turned on the
table lamp and saw Krycek huddled in a ball in the middle of
the bed, rocking back and forth, his eyes squeezed shut.

"Alex. Wake up."

Krycek curled himself tighter.

"Nooo," he moaned. "Get away!"

Skinner put both hands on Krycek's arms, trying to pull him
upright on the bed. Krycek yelled and beat at the AD with
his fists, but Skinner refused to let go.

"Come on, snap out of it. It's just a bad dream. I won't let
anything hurt you."

Some of the tension left Krycek's body. "You won't?" he said
in a very small voice.

"Of course not." Skinner was not given to deep psychological
insights, but this one hit him like a blow. "I'm not like
them. I don't make promises then go back on them later. If I
tell you you're safe with me, I mean it."

Krycek shuddered beneath Skinner's hands. "God. I don't
remember the last time I felt safe."

"Why don't I get us both a drink?"

Krycek nodded. Skinner left, came back with two glasses of
Scotch and a plate of toast. At Krycek's quizzical look he
said, "You don't need liquor on an empty stomach."

The younger man shrugged, nibbled some toast, then took a
healthy swig of Scotch. He coughed a little, but some of the
color returned to his face. Skinner emptied his glass and
started to rise from the chair.

"Skinner?"

The other man turned back and raised an eyebrow.

"Don't go. Please."

Surprised, Skinner sat back down. "What is it?"

Krycek stared at his hands. "I just don't want to be alone."

Skinner nodded and turned to get a blanket.

"Thanks," said Krycek. Then, so quietly Skinner barely
heard, "For everything."

* * *

Skinner couldn't figure out why his neck was sore until he
remembered where he was sleeping. He sat up and stretched to
get the kinks out.

"Hi."

Startled, Skinner glanced up at the bed. Krycek sat, arms
around his knees, looking more alert than Skinner had yet
seen him.

"Hi yourself. What time is it?"

"Past eight. And, um, I'm kind of hungry."

"Be right back."

Skinner left Krycek gazing out the window. He grabbed a robe
from the other bedroom and went on down to the kitchen. He
scrambled some eggs, fixed more toast, and poured them each
a glass of cranberry juice. Then he put everything on a tray
and took it upstairs.

Krycek had managed to swing his legs over the side of the
bed, and was looking around the room curiously. Skinner set
the tray on top of the dresser.

"Why don't you sit in the chair?" Skinner shrugged out of
his robe and handed it to Krycek. "You might want to wear
something. It's chilly this morning."

He let Krycek put the robe on himself, then offered an arm
for support. Krycek hesitated. At last he put a hand on
Skinner's arm and let the AD help him up. Skinner could feel
Krycek shiver beneath his touch. The younger man limped
badly, and Skinner felt a wave of sympathy for him. He
remembered being an invalid himself and hating every second
of it.

With Krycek settled in the chair, the tray on his lap,
Skinner sat down on the bed. He watched Krycek as he picked
carefully at the eggs and ate a piece of toast. He finished
the last of the juice before pushing the rest of his meal
aside.

"Sorry. Guess I'm not as hungry as I thought."

Skinner took the tray and placed it back on the dresser
before sitting down once more.

"Want to talk about it?" said Skinner.

Krycek looked up sharply. "What?"

"Your nightmare."

"Not really." Krycek turned his head away.

"It helped me when I came back from 'Nam. To talk."

Krycek shrugged and kept silent. Skinner didn't press the
point.

"Why don't we go downstairs?" he said. "You should get some
exercise."

"Downstairs?" Krycek looked suddenly stricken. "I--I don't
know."

"Well, I have some things to do. I'll check on you in about
an hour."

Skinner used the hall bathroom to shave and wash up, then he
dressed in jeans and a sweater and went downstairs. After
looking over the shelves, he found a book he had only read
once. The small fib he'd told Krycek was an excuse to give
them both time to breathe. Skinner sank onto the couch and
opened his novel.

When he checked his watch again, he was startled to see that
more than an hour had passed. He got up quickly and headed
for the stairs. The sounds of the TV reassured him. Then he
walked into the bedroom and glimpsed Krycek's stunned
expression.

"What's wrong?" asked Skinner, his heart pounding.

Krycek pointed at the set, speechless. The news anchor stood
in front of a burning building. She was saying something
about "this awful tragedy" and Skinner finally tuned into
the words.

"...the fire started sometime this morning. At least fifteen
dead have been counted so far, all of them found on the top
floor. No names have been released at this time. Several
undamaged diskettes and papers were recovered from a wall
safe, and the police will say only that the dead appeared to
have been members of some kind of organized group or
international syndicate. Arson is suspected..."

"Is it true?" asked Krycek in a hushed tone. He sounded as
if he expected the anchor to change her mind.

"Damn. He was right," said Skinner. "I guess he had to wait
'til he knew they were all there."

Krycek turned to stare at the AD. "Who?"

"The Englishman."

"You think he had something to do with this?"

"Probably. I wonder what's on those diskettes they
recovered," mused Skinner.

"More evidence, I suppose. You know what this means?"
Krycek's voice dropped to a whisper. "I'm finally free."

Without warning, the young man dissolved into tears. Skinner
moved to his side, alarmed.

"It's okay. I'm all right." Krycek wiped his face on the
sleeve of his robe. He met Skinner's eyes timidly. "Could
you help me to the bathroom?"

It was the first time he'd asked for help so openly. The
gesture gave Skinner such a feeling of warmth that he
wondered at its intensity. He put an arm around Krycek
gently, taking care not to rub against his sores. He waited
patiently at the door until Krycek emerged.

"I think I'd better get back in bed." Krycek looked weary
and wrung out.

After Skinner had eased him beneath the covers, Krycek
gestured towards the window.

"Could you open the curtains? Some light would be nice."

"Sure." Skinner tied the drapes back, revealing a mild
winter day. "You want some more ointment for those sores?"

Krycek nodded. Skinner got the tube and sat beside him on
the bed. He squeezed an inch of ointment onto his fingers
and began to rub Krycek's chest with it. Skinner could feel
the other man tense at his touch, but after a few minutes
Krycek relaxed again.

"Nice," he sighed.

Skinner concentrated on his task, his big hands gentle on
Krycek's abused skin. When he reached Krycek's waist, he
paused.

"It's okay." Krycek breathed out softly. "Please."

Skinner parted the robe and worked his way down Krycek's
right thigh, taking care not to touch him too intimately. He
did the same with the left leg, rubbing the ointment until
it was completely absorbed. Finally, Skinner sat back and
pushed the nosepiece of his glasses into place.

"Skinner?"

"What?"

"I have to know something. When you found me, had the
smoker--do you know if he--"

Skinner remembered the scene at the apartment and sensed
what Krycek was trying to say. He paused and cleared his
throat.

"I don't think so. The Englishman interrupted him."

Krycek closed his eyes. "Thank God."

Skinner seldom acted on impulse. But the vulnerability that
was so obvious in Krycek prompted him to reach for the young
man's arm and squeeze it lightly. Krycek's eyes snapped
open. He swallowed, and Skinner could see the effort it took
him not to pull away.

Deeply saddened by the pain in Krycek's eyes, Skinner eased
off the bed.

"Get some rest," he said gruffly, and left the room.

Part Three - Paradise Found

Alex woke early from a deep sleep. It was dark out, and the
house was very quiet. He felt the scratchiness of a wool
blanket about his neck, and realized that Skinner must have
put it over him while he slept. He rolled onto his back,
savoring the unfamiliar feeling of being comfortable, warm,
and safe.

His bladder finally drove him out of bed. He managed to get
to the bathroom by hopping on one foot and clinging to
various objects in the room as he went. Alex thought he'd
been quiet, but he was met by Skinner on the way back to
bed.

"Why didn't you call for me?" Skinner growled.

Krycek sat down heavily. "I hate feeling like a damn
cripple, okay?"

Skinner sighed. He removed his glasses a moment to rub the
bridge of his nose before pulling the chair closer to the
bed.

"I'll sleep here from now on."

"No!" Krycek exploded. "I won't be coddled, damn it! I'll
handle this my way!"

Skinner rode out his tirade. "Are you done?"

Alex just glared.

"Everyone needs help once in awhile," Skinner went on.

Krycek looked away. "Why bother?" he said bitterly. "There's
nothing left for me to go back to."

"Complaining doesn't suit you, Krycek."

Alex snorted derisively. "Oh, it's back to 'Krycek' now.
What happened to my first name?"

"...'Alex' isn't such an asshole."

Krycek lunged across the bed at Skinner, murder in his eyes.
The larger man grabbed his arms and held him easily while he
writhed and spat.

"Stop it!. You're not weak. You wouldn't be here if you
were."

Alex stared up at Skinner. The power in the hands that
gripped him was melting his anger into something else.
Skinner was clad only in loosely fitting pajama bottoms, and
his bare chest radiated heat. Alex shifted on the bed until
Skinner loosened his hold, then he raised a hand and touched
the AD's face.

Something darkened Skinner's eyes briefly. He frowned, and
Alex could almost read his thoughts.

"You don't have to--" Skinner began.

Alex placed two fingers on the older man's mouth, cutting
off his words. He couldn't begin to explain his feelings to
Skinner, much less to himself, so he tried to show them with
his hands. Alex did recognize that Skinner was the first man
in a long while who didn't make him feel dirty.

He cupped Skinner's face between his palms, enjoying the
scratchiness of his early morning beard. Skinner sank down
next to him on the bed. This close, Skinner's size might
have intimidated Alex were it not for the warmth of his
eyes.

Desire finally overcame fear, and Alex slid a hand around
Skinner's neck to draw the older man's mouth to his. Skinner
groaned and returned Alex's kiss passionately, darting his
tongue over the younger man's full lips. Alex gave himself
up to the kiss, demanding more of this most intimate act
that was like water in the desert to his starved soul.

Alex felt Skinner's hands begin to roam his body. At first
he arched into the touch. Then Skinner's fingers slid up
Alex's thigh beneath the robe and he froze as the too-recent
past came roaring back.

"No! Don't touch me!" He pushed frantically at a startled
Skinner.

Alex cowered against the headboard. The moisture leached
from his mouth and his heart pounded as Skinner's broad
shoulders became Kurt's menacing bulk leaning over him.

"Alex. I'm sorry." Skinner's voice was soft. "Don't be
frightened."

The words finally penetrated and Alex raised his head to
look in Skinner's eyes. He had never seen them so full of
compassion. As reality crept back into focus, Alex suddenly
felt shamed at the way he had treated Skinner's hospitality
over the last few days. It was still hard for him to believe
that Skinner could care for him without expecting anything
in return.

"I--I'm okay." He choked a little on the words.

Alex watched silently as Skinner went out of the room and
came back with a blanket and a pillow. The AD lay down on
the floor a few feet from the bed.

"I'll see you in the morning." Skinner paused, then added:
"Alex."

* * *

Bright sunshine woke Alex later that morning. He yawned and
sat up, realizing from the lack of pain that his sores were
beginning to heal. He glanced down at the floor. Skinner was
gone.

"Skinner?" Alex called out.

"Right here." The AD emerged from the bathroom dressed in
pajamas.

Alex's heart gradually slowed to its normal rhythm. "My
turn," he said lightly, shrugging into his robe.

Skinner wisely allowed Alex to make his own way to the
bathroom. Alone, Alex sighed. He knew the older man was just
trying to help, but he had always hated this feeling of
dependence. His moods swung wildly from fear to anger to
sorrow without warning. None of it was Skinner's fault. The
man had been extraordinarily kind, especially considering
his own history with Krycek.

Thinking about it as he brushed his teeth, Alex realized
that it was Skinner's kindness that unnerved him. He kept
waiting for the other shoe to drop and was continually
surprised when it never did.

Alex re-emerged much refreshed.

"Could I have some coffee?"

As Skinner turned towards the door, Alex added, "I'd like to
see the kitchen."

Skinner offered his arm as gravely as a diplomat. Alex
hesitated a moment before he took it, but if Skinner
noticed, nothing was said. With his other hand on the
railing, Alex negotiated the stairs carefully, sighing with
relief and satisfaction at the bottom.

"Let's sit at the table," said Skinner.

Alex slid into one of the high-backed chairs and took a
moment to catch his breath while Skinner fixed a fresh pot
of coffee. When it was ready, he joined Alex at the table,
and they sat and drank in comfortable silence.

As Alex started on his second cup, he took a moment to look
at his surroundings. He saw not only the kitchen's
order--not surprising, since Skinner was an ex-marine--but
also touches of beauty. A print of Van Gogh's "Sunflowers"
graced one wall. A couple of plates glazed in bright summer
colors of orange and yellow hung by metal hooks on another.
In the middle of the table, Skinner had placed pine cones
with a sprig of fresh balsam.

"I never took you for the domestic sort, Skinner."

The AD got another cup for himself before speaking.

"Walter," he said as he sat down again.

"Hmm?"

"My name. If you're going to be my guest, you may as well
call me by my first name."

"Oh. Walter." Alex tried it. "Sounds funny."

Skinner raised one dark eyebrow above his wire-rimmed
glasses. "You think my name is funny?"

Krycek snickered. "Hilarious."

"Hmph."

Alex could tell the older man wasn't really angry. He hid a
smile behind his coffee cup, and glimpsed a matching smile
from Skinner. A sudden warmth suffused him. He wondered if
this was what peace felt like.

Skinner had gotten up again, and was looking through the
refrigerator.

"You like pancakes?" he asked over his shoulder.

"Sure," Alex responded.

As he sat and waited for breakfast, Alex turned inward
again. There were things he wanted to say, had to say, but
his mind kept wandering away from the task. He barely
noticed when Skinner put a plate heaped with blueberry
pancakes in front of him.

"Alex?"

"Huh?" Alex started. "Sorry. Just thinking."

Skinner took a moment to pour syrup for them both.

"Want to talk about it?"

Alex remained silent for several minutes. He wanted so badly
to trust this man. Even when Skinner told him about killing
the smoker, Alex hadn't quite believed him. He knew Skinner
had been involved with the Consortium, if only indirectly.
But Skinner also had possession of those documents and the
tape that exonerated him.

Skinner took another sip of coffee, obviously waiting for
Krycek to speak. Alex hesitated a second longer, then opened
his mouth, not even sure what would come out until he
started.

"...the smoker knew I was gay, long before he recruited me.
To him it was just one more weapon he could hold over my
head. That's funny, in a way, because the old bastard wanted
me himself." Alex closed his eyes for a moment. "He taunted
me constantly, hinting at what he'd like to do to me. I
think he saw me as some kind of conquest. If I came to him
on my own, it would be proof of his power."

He paused for breath, then plunged ahead, determined to get
his story told.

"To make things worse--at least for me--my parents were born
in Russia. Exemplary KGB members both. At least on the
surface. They defected and fled to the States just in time
to have me. Growing up, I remember them talking in whispers
about it when they thought I was asleep. It was a dirty
little secret, and I didn't really understand what it meant
until the smoker came along. He used that, too. He knew I'd
do anything to keep my parents out of trouble." Krycek
grimaced. "Not very pretty so far, is it?"

Skinner cleared his throat and waited for Krycek to
continue.

"The smoker groomed me to infiltrate the X-Files. He didn't
give me exact orders at first, just told me to watch and
listen. Then when Scully was safely out of the way, they
teamed me with Mulder."

Alex stared into his empty cup.

"That was their big mistake," he said softly. "I fell hard.
I thought Mulder was the sexiest man I'd ever met. Never
mind that he treated me like shit at first, or that he had
no idea how much I worshipped him." Alex shrugged. "He
thought I was an annoyance at best. Later..."

The scrape of a cup across the table made Alex glance at
Skinner's face. The older man's lips were tight in a way
that made Alex fidget. When Skinner kept his silence, Krycek
sighed, gathering strength.

"I did everything in my power to keep Mulder safe, though he
didn't know it. When it got to be too much for me, I tried
to get out. You saw the results.

"It's over, of course. Any chance I might have had with
Mulder died long ago." He shrugged. "Maybe it wouldn't have
been a good idea anyway. He'd never do anything that might
separate him from Scully."

Alex saw Skinner's hand relax on the cup, and it finally
dawned on him that the older man might actually be jealous.
A bubble of pleasure warmed him as he went on with his
story, filling in the blanks for Skinner with names, dates,
and places matter-of-factly once he'd covered the more
personal part of his narrative.

It was well past noon by the time he'd finished. He glanced
at the older man's serious expression nervously, hoping he'd
put his trust in the right place.

Skinner shifted in his chair and leaned forward on his
elbows. "You only left out one thing."

"What?"

"That day in the stairwell."

Alex flushed. "I was angry," he said finally. "At the whole
situation, the way I'd been led into it. Mostly at myself."

He kept his eyes down and turned the cup between his
fingers, not sure what to expect from the other man. But
Skinner merely nodded.

"You've let your breakfast get cold."

Startled, Alex looked at the plate full of soggy pancakes.

"Want some more?"

"Please."

Skinner fixed a fresh batch and carried them to the table.
Alex dug in, managing to eat halfway through the stack
before laying down his fork. His head drooped tiredly as
Skinner took the plate away.

"Want to stretch out on the couch?"

"I'd better not." Alex smiled tentatively. "Unless you think
you can carry me upstairs later."

The deep rumbling in Skinner's chest might have been a
chuckle. "Come on," he said, offering his arm again.

Upstairs, Alex sank into bed with a deep sigh. "This scenery
is getting boring," he muttered, looking around the room.

"Good," Skinner replied. "Maybe tomorrow you'll want to see
the living room."

"Sounds good...Walter."

A smile ghosted across Skinner's face at Alex's use of his
first name. "Seriously, you need to start using that leg
more."

"Sure. Tomorrow."

* * *

Alex woke in darkness, the taste of copper in his mouth. He
touched his lip with shaking fingers and realized he had
bitten it during the night. He rolled onto his side, feeling
the sheets beneath him damp with sweat and terror.

He turned the light on quickly. The nightmare images faded,
but the fear lingered. He pulled the robe around him, heaved
himself out of bed, and began to limp towards the door.

Walter lay in his bed, snoring peacefully. Alex sighed. He
had insisted that the older man needn't spend another night
on the floor. He wished now he hadn't been so adamant.

He paused by the side of the bed, gazing down at the strong,
solid form of the man who had taken him in. Before he could
change his mind, Alex slid onto the covers beside him,
facing away. Skinner didn't move, and his warmth against
Alex's back finally lulled him to sleep.

He woke covered with a blanket, alone in the bed.
Disoriented, Alex sat up and saw Walter standing by the
window, still dressed in pajamas, looking back at him.

"Ready for breakfast?"

"Umm." Alex rubbed the sand from his eyes. "Shower first."

Alex limped his way across the room without help. Skinner
stood back, seemingly paying no attention, but he followed
Alex to the bathroom door. Alex settled on the rim of the
tub and started to shrug off the robe, then glanced up
pointedly until Skinner closed the door.

While Alex showered, he could hear Walter moving about in
the room. He turned off the water. Almost immediately,
Walter knocked on the door and thrust a clean set of sweats
inside.

"Thought you might be tired of the robe," he said through
the door.

Alex slipped into the pants. They were obviously too small
for Walter, but still hung loosely on Alex's emaciated
frame. He shrugged into the sweatshirt. The clothing felt
strange yet comforting after so many months of enforced
nakedness. He smiled when he came out and saw that the bed
had been freshly made.

Walter waited patiently by the bedroom door. Alex took his
arm and they made their way down the stairs. When Alex
headed for the kitchen table, Walter steered him gently
away.

"Breakfast in the living room this morning," he said.

Alex sat on the couch while Walter puttered in the kitchen.
The house was beautifully furnished, with lots of wood and
leather and handmade throw rugs. Typically masculine, but
offset with those startling touches of color that Alex had
noted earlier. He was beginning to think there was more to
the gruff Assistant Director than showed on the surface. If
anyone had told Alex a year ago that Skinner had a soft
side, he would have laughed in their face.

The window overlooked a view of snow-covered pine that could
have come straight from Currier and Ives. Alex gazed at the
scene and let his mind drift. Everything around him spoke of
comfort. He wished this feeling could last forever.

Walter came in bearing a tray of bran cereal and sliced
apples. He poured milk into the bowl while Alex sipped
contentedly at a mug of hot coffee. Alex leaned over the
bowl with his spoon and got a strand of hair in his mouth.

"Ugh." He pushed the ragged locks back over his ears.

"I used to cut hair for my unit," offered Skinner.

Alex shot him an amused glance. "What *didn't* you learn in
the Marines?"

"Finish your breakfast," said Walter on his way out of the
room.

He came back with a pair of scissors and a comb. Alex had
already put away the cereal and the apples.

"We'd better do this in the kitchen," said Walter.

Alex nodded. He pushed himself off the couch and started
across the living room. Halfway to the kitchen door, he
stumbled and fell to one knee. Walter moved to his side.
Alex looked up at him for a long moment, then he reached for
Walter's hand and let the other man pull him back to his
feet.

He sank onto the wooden chair with a sigh. Walter positioned
a dish towel around his shoulders and went to work.
Three-quarters of an hour later, most of Alex's hair lay on
the floor. Walter got a mirror and held it up for him. The
older man had done a respectable job, cutting the back short
but leaving just enough on top to wave slightly over Alex's
forehead.

"Nice. If you decide to retire from the Bureau, you can take
a job as a barber."

Alex heard that rumbling chuckle again as Walter shook out
the towel and brushed loose hair from his neck, and knew he
wanted to be the cause of that sound as often as possible.
He started to get up and was stopped by a light touch to his
arm.

"Let me see that leg."

Alex subsided in the chair. Walter got to his knees and
pushed the sweatpants back, then started to run his hands
gently over the scarred tissue on the back of Alex's left
leg. He rose to his feet again, frowning thoughtfully.

"You need real physical therapy. But I can massage it, if
you want."

"Sure." Alex dipped his head towards his chest to hide the
sudden flush on his face.

He grasped Walter's elbow and levered himself from the
chair. As they made their way back upstairs, Alex caught
himself wondering just when he had stopped fearing Walter's
touch. It had been obvious at first that Walter resented
having to care for him. But somewhere along the line that
changed, perhaps about the time Alex quit resenting being
cared for. Alex knew he owed the older man his life. Only
lately, under Walter's patient concern, had he decided that
life might be worth something after all.

Something else occurred to Alex as they passed by the
bedroom Walter had been using into the more nicely furnished
room across the hall.

"Walter. I'm sleeping in your room, aren't I?"

Skinner shrugged. "It's larger and has the attached bath."

"Thanks," murmured Alex. He hobbled over to the bed and sat
down. "Are you sure you aren't being missed at the Bureau?"

"I'm on vacation. All arranged."

Warmth suffused Alex as he watched Walter get a towel and
some hand lotion from the bathroom. The older man had taken
such a chance for him, and Alex still didn't feel as if he
deserved it. That would change, he vowed silently. Walter
Skinner had offered him a clean slate, and he was suddenly
determined not to mess things up again.

Walter was spreading the towel across the bed.

"You might want to lie on your side. Whatever's
comfortable."

Alex nodded. He hitched the pants up above his knee and lay
down on his right side to keep from irritating his remaining
bedsores. Walter sat on the bed next to him and poured a
dollop of lotion into his palm, rubbing his hands together
to warm it. He applied his fingertips to the withered
hamstring muscles of Alex's left leg, massaging the area in
small circles. Alex soon felt himself drifting peacefully,
and he yawned.

Walter leaned over the bed, his eyes warm behind his
glasses.

"You are getting verrry sleepy..." he intoned.

Alex giggled. Then he yawned again, as if to prove Skinner's
words.

"Rest awhile. I'll be in the next room."

*If you need me* went unspoken, but Alex heard it all the
same. Somehow the thought was not unpleasant. He burrowed
into the pillows, and sleep washed over him like a calming
wave.

* * *

He woke, gasping, from another nightmare. The soft light of
dawn brought his surroundings into focus and reassured Alex
that he was in Walter's house, not the apartment where he
had been a prisoner. He lay still while the sweat dried and
his breathing slowed, listening for any sounds from the next
room. All was quiet. Alex sat up, relieved that he had not
disturbed Walter's sleep.

He tightened the sweats around his waist and limped to the
bathroom. His body's needs answered, Alex decided to try the
stairs on his own. He gripped the handrail for support and
started down, pausing at every third step to catch his
breath. By the time he reached the bottom, he was shaking
from the effort. He sat down hard on the last step and
grinned broadly at his accomplishment.

Alex was relaxing at the kitchen table he heard heavy
footsteps and cursing from the second floor.

"Alex!"

"Down here!" answered Alex.

Walter hurried down the stairs. He stopped short in front of
Alex, his expression a comical blend of anger and worry.

"You're all right?" he snarled.

Alex raised an eyebrow. "I'm fine. I just wanted to do
something on my own."

Walter sat down in the chair opposite Alex with a sigh.

"The bed was empty. I thought something had happened to
you."

"No."

Walter had put on jeans and a white shirt, open at the neck.
Alex caught himself staring at the little curls of hair on
the other man's chest. He blushed and shifted in the chair
self-consciously.

"I was going to save this for later," Walter was saying as
he got up again and moved into the living room. He returned
bearing a walking stick. "But since you're so mobile, you
might like it now."

The stick was cherrywood, and the curved head fit snugly in
Alex's palm. The grain was smooth from use.

"It was mine, for awhile. After Vietnam."

"Walter, I--thank you. It's beautiful."

The older man huffed something that might have been "you're
welcome" and turned to fix breakfast. He rolled his sleeves
back, and Alex admired the play of muscle in his forearms.
Alex tried to compose himself as Walter finished scrambling
the eggs and brought two plates over to the table.

"You know," Alex began idly, over coffee, "I need to think
about the future."

Walter nodded. "I agree."

"I don't want to overstay my welcome."

"There's no limit on your welcome, Alex." Walter got up for
more coffee, and missed the younger man's blush.

"I'm not exactly sure what to put on my resume," Alex
muttered.

"What can you do?" asked Walter prosaically as he sat back
down.

"I know computers. I can pick a lock and handle a gun. I can
also dismantle an alarm system in record time," said Alex
with a wry expression.

"Security work. I have some contacts in the business."

"You're serious. You mean my criminal background would
actually get me a legitimate job?"

Walter's smile was gently sardonic. "I won't even tell you
how many former offenders are keeping the world safe for us
law-abiding citizens."

Alex chuckled. "I guess I could try it."

The wall phone rang, startling them both. After three rings,
Walter got up to answer it.

"Yes?"

Alex listened and watched from the corner of his eye.

"Yes. He's fine. Of course I'm taking care of him."

The astonishment must have shown on Alex's face, because
Walter turned to look him straight in the eye and smiled.

"I appreciate that." Walter nodded, but his attention was on
the phone rather than on Alex. "Thank you for calling."

He hung up, still smiling. Alex just stared.

"Who--?"

"The last member of the Consortium, I believe." Alex's
startled look prompted Walter to explain. "He was calling
from England. Still looking out for your welfare."

Alex accepted this with some trepidation. Though he had no
reason to doubt Walter, he wished suddenly that he could
have seen the bodies for himself.

"So what's on the agenda for today?" he asked, composing
himself.

"I need to get in touch with the office," replied Walter.

"What about me?"

"Rest. Get well."

"But--"

Walter fixed him with a stern look. "Ask me again in a week.
Then we'll see."

"All right," Alex sighed. He used the walking stick to push
himself out of the chair and took a few experimental steps.
He looked up at Walter. "I saw books in your living room."

"Help yourself."

Alex turned carefully and made his way to the next room with
the aid of the stick. He could almost feel Walter's eyes on
him, and knew if he turned that the older man's face would
be creased with concern. Alex smiled to himself as he leaned
against the bookshelf. He found a mystery novel and plopped
down on the couch to read.

He must have dozed off, because the next thing he knew
Walter was leaning over him and shaking his arm gently.

"Unhh. What time is it?"

"After two."

Alex shook his head. "Some guest I am. I keep falling
asleep."

"Then you must need it. Want some lunch?"

Alex allowed Walter to guide him back to the table. He kept
yawning over his plate, until Walter ordered him to go to
back to bed.

"I'll bring the rest up to you," he said.

Alex didn't protest. He headed slowly upstairs, his progress
made easier by the walking stick. He slipped under the
covers, still in his sweats. The luxury of having any kind
of clothing after so long without it made Alex reluctant to
disrobe at all.

A few minutes later, Walter entered carrying a tray. A small
dish of ice cream was set beside the remainder of Alex's
food.

"Dinner in bed," murmured Alex. "How romantic."

Alex realized what he'd said about the same time it
registered with Walter.

"I didn't mean--"

"No, it's okay--"

They tripped over each other's sentences. Alex laughed a
little, self-consciously.

"That's wrong," he stated quietly. "I *did* mean. That is,
if you..."

"I know," Walter responded. His voice took on a low, almost
purring quality. "And it's still okay."

They just looked at each other for a couple of minutes,
neither man sure of what else to say.

"Eat that," Walter declared firmly. "I've already nuked it
once."

Alex lowered his eyes and dug into his food, basking in the
palpable warmth of Walter's care. He finished the ice cream
and yawned again.

"Sorry my company is so boring." Walter shook his head
amiably, and Alex giggled. "I'll take this down."

He disappeared with the tray.

Alex lay back against the pillows. Though it was early, the
need for sleep dragged at him. But every time he closed his
eyes, the nightmare images threatened to return. He tossed
restlessly, unable to relax.

It was an hour by the clock on the dresser when Walter
returned. He saw Alex still awake, and frowned.

"Can't sleep?"

"Afraid to," admitted Alex. "Bad dreams."

Walter came over and sat in the chair. "I might have a
sleeping pill."

Alex shook his head. "Just stay with me awhile."

Walter's presence lulled Alex, and he finally felt the
tension leave his muscles. Just as he was drifting off, he
heard Walter get up. He opened his eyes immediately.

"Don't go," Alex whispered.

"I'll be right back," said Walter. He left momentarily and
returned wearing his blue cotton pajamas. "In case I fall
asleep in the chair."

Alex swallowed. He extended his hand and grasped Walter's
fingers. "Sleep here. Next to me."

"Are you sure?" Walter queried gently.

"Please," Alex entreated. "I want to know you're there."

Walter pulled the covers back and slid in next to Alex,
taking care not to touch him. It was Alex who leaned over
and kissed Walter chastely on the lips.

"Thank you."

"Go to sleep, Alex. No nightmares."

"Okay," Alex mumbled, already drifting towards his peaceful
haven.

* * *

Alex woke in warm darkness, rested and calm. He rolled onto
his left side and came up against Walter's broad back. Alex
put a hand on Walter's shoulder, stroking the muscle
lightly. How things had changed between them, he thought.
Alex was still fractured and he knew it, but Walter's
acceptance and solicitude were gradually knitting some of
the pieces together.

The older man responded to his touch and raised his head off
the pillow.

"You okay?"

"Yes."

Alex nestled closer as Walter shifted to face him. He looked
up in the dim light of the bedroom and saw Walter's eyes
only inches from his own.

"Walter..." The name escaped Alex's lips in a breathy
whisper.

Walter lifted his hand and ran a broad thumb across the
fading scar on Alex's cheek. He placed his mouth on it
gently, as if to kiss away the pain. Alex reached up and
guided Walter's mouth to his, probing a little with his
tongue. The kiss deepened, eliciting a groan from the older
man.

Alex pulled back momentarily, but only so that he could undo
the top button of Walter's pajamas. He placed his hand on
the expanse of the other man's chest, running curious
fingers through the hair that had so fascinated him earlier.

"God," Walter moaned. "Alex--"

"Shhh. Let me touch."

Emboldened by the lead allowed him, Alex undid another
button. He traced a path down Walter's hard stomach,
marveling at the restrained power beneath his hand. Alex
sensed the effort it was taking Walter to lay still by the
small tremors of his body.

Alex moved his hand further down. His palm grazed Walter's
erection through the cotton. A touch of fear made him pause
until Walter's hand on his arm brought him back.

"Are you sure?" Walter repeated with emphasis on the last
word.

Alex looked back at him and smiled.

"Yes. Please."

Alex parted the material until Walter's cock was freed, and
wrapped his hand around it. Walter kissed him again, pushing
without force into Alex's hand. Alex rubbed his thumb across
the head. He tickled the bundle of nerves just beneath and
Walter gasped. Alex raked the shaft faster, feeling the
pulse in the large vein that ran its length.

Walter cried out, tensing as he ejaculated over Alex's hand
and arm. Alex stroked the last drops out, then put his head
on Walter's chest.

Silently, Walter kissed him once more. He began to work his
way down in the bed until his face was level with Alex's
groin. Alex tightened, unsure and not at all hard. Walter
seemed to sense his nervousness. He took Alex's cock and
placed it in his mouth, running his tongue over it and
sucking very gently without pressuring any response. Slowly
Alex relaxed and began to enjoy Walter's touch.

He felt himself harden just a little. Walter continued his
easy manipulations, varying the speed and pressure of his
mouth. Alex moaned. Although still only semi-erect, he could
feel his balls tighten as a rush of pleasure surprised him.
He gripped Walter's shoulders, and suddenly he was coming, a
brief convulsion that exhausted him all the same.

Walter inched back up in the bed and pulled the young man
into his arms.

"You okay?"

"Mmmm. Yeah," replied Alex lazily. "I think I heard bells."

Walter raised himself to check the clock. "Those are real
bells, Alex. It's midnight."

"So?"

"Guess what day this is."

Alex yawned. "I haven't kept track."

"It's December twenty-fifth. Christmas Day."

"Christmas?" Alex's smile could have lit the room. "And the
spirits have done it all in one night."

"Lots of nights," Walter replied solemnly. "I want there to
be many, many more."

"Uh-huh," Alex murmured dreamily. He struggled to keep his
eyes open. "Walter?"

"Hmmm?"

"Thank you."

Walter gathered Alex closer. He bent to kiss his lover's
forehead, and saw that he was already fast asleep.

"My pleasure," he whispered.

Then he, too, dozed off to the sound of distant chimes
ringing in new hope for the earth.

The End