Alex Krycek was crying in his sleep. He lay curled on his side, sobbing, his hands twisting fitfully against the coverlet. In his dream he was back in the silo, back in the dark. He opened his mouth to scream and the darkness poured in, choking him. He was *breathing* the darkness, sweating it. The darkness was filling him, suffocating him from the inside out. An eternity had passed before Spender had finally come to let him out. He had listened appreciatively as Alex cried and begged, satisfied that the lesson was well learned. But in his dreams, Alex was entombed in that awful place again and again. In his dreams, his world was the size of the cold unlit circle he stumbled endlessly around, falling to his scraped and bloody knees, shivering. Crying for the light.
Alex awoke with the damp sheets tangled around him and the tear-tracks drying on his face. He sat up and looked around the tiny, barren apartment. No one there. Not that he expected anything else. He drew his knees up to his chest, wrapped his good arm around them and began to rock back and forth slightly. He breathed deeply through his nose, waiting for the urge to vomit to pass. A wave of self-pity washed over him and for once, he allowed it. What would it be like to have someone there to chase the horror away?
He tried to remember his mother. Surely she must have held him, when he was a tiny child? There was nothing but a blank place where the memories should be. Alex closed his eyes, tried to imagine what it would be like to be held. It was like trying to imagine what it would be like to fly. He could only picture a vague sort of happiness, and he felt even less human than he usually did. He had no idea what it was like for another human being to take him in their arms and hold him there in the warmth. The concept of comfort was alien to him. He simply had no frame of reference.
Alex ran a shaking hand through his sweat-soaked hair and got up from the bed, disgusted with himself for wallowing like this, like some fucking little kid. Dizziness overtook him as he walked toward the bathroom, making the edges of his vision shimmer and blur. He leaned against the wall for support, waiting for the lightheadedness to pass. He was on the third day of a self-imposed liquid diet. His last client had tied him down and whipped him savagely with an extension cord, brand-new and stiff. The thought of sitting down on a toilet seat made him feel sick. He had spent the following two days without leaving his apartment, lying on his stomach, naked from the waist down, moving only to drink a little instant soup and swallow painkillers. Only the previous night had he been able to bear the slight weight of thin cotton boxers against his tortured flesh.
The dizzy spell passed and Alex made his way unsteadily into the bathroom. He turned the shower on, keeping the water pressure light. He stepped under the lukewarm spray, shivering a little. He was gingerly drying himself when his cell phone rang. He deliberately let it ring twice more before he answered it, knowing how the son of a bitch hated to be kept waiting.
"Next time answer more quickly," Spender snapped. His tone changed to one of mock concern. "Well, Alex, how are we feeling?"
Alex gripped the phone so tightly he felt it might shatter in his hand.
"*We* got our ass whipped by some fucking freak until it bled. That's how *we* are." Alex hissed. There was silence on the other end of the line for a moment, broken by the flare of a match. Spender's voice was cold and flat.
"Meeting, Alex. One hour. We'll discuss your attitude then."
He hung up. Alex walked back into the bathroom and opened the medicine cabinet. He stood there for a long while, looking at the small box of single-edged razor blades, the small box emblazoned with the word "PAL". Alex smiled a little at the surely unintentional irony of that name. Pal, indeed. A pal you can always depend on. He turned the box over in his hands for a few moments, then tossed it back into the medicine cabinet and shut the door. Not today.
Alex stirred another packet of the dehydrated chicken soup into a mug of steaming water and drank it. He dressed quickly in the dark clothes that had been chosen and purchased by his employer, dark, tight-fitting clothes that appeared unnervingly in his closet when Spender decided the old ones needed replacing. He shrugged into his leather jacket, careful of his prosthetic, then took the stairs down to the lobby of his nondescript apartment building. He stepped out onto the sidewalk, hesitating for a moment before heading in the direction of Spender's office. It was a fairly long walk, but he preferred it over taking a cab or having Jason, Spender's odious driver, pick him up. The walk gave him a chance to feel the sun on his face, to lose himself in the crowd of other people, normal people, and feel, for a little while, at least, that he was a part of their world. Even if he never really could be.
Walter Skinner stepped out of the bookshop, feeling in the pocket of his jacket for his car keys. He had made his usual Saturday afternoon stops at the dry cleaners, the post office, the supermarket. By then it had only been half past noon. He had driven to the hardware store. A new screwdriver and brass switchplates for the condo. To the auto supply store. Brake fluid. A quart of oil. A long and involved conversation with the man behind the counter about the pros and cons of fuel additives. To the stationery shop. Paper for the laser printer. Pens and post-its. Perpetual motion. Because to slow down meant to remember. To stop meant to think. Trying to find some comfort in the manic performance of these ordinary errands, to try to forget for a little while, at least, that he was a man living under a death sentence.
He had been about to make the reluctant drive back home to the empty condo, order a pizza, get to work replacing those switchplates. Then he remembered Sammy's book. Sammy Kellerman. Skinner remembered a skinny kid, bucktoothed and gangly, quick with a joke, his battered Nikon never far away. Long nights on patrol, Sammy's high, skittering laugh as he told another raunchy joke from a seemingly inexhaustible supply. Sammy's face, white and pinched, as the medics loaded him in to the helicopter. Skinner had lost touch with Sammy over the years, the last he'd heard of him was a postcard about ten years ago. Sammy was married, teaching photography at UC Berkeley. Skinner had heard recently that Sammy Kellerman had published a book of photographs taken during his tour of duty in Vietnam. It was apparently a limited run, from a small publishing house, and proved difficult to find. Skinner's call to the little corner shop near Dupont Circle had borne fruit, and he had asked the shop's owner to hold a copy for him.
The next week had been hectic. Between budget meetings, constant memos from the Director and Mulder's inability to account for two rental cars and a backhoe, Sammy Kellerman's book had completely slipped Skinner's mind. Until he stood in the parking lot of the stationery store, depositing the slippery plastic bag that held his paper, post its and pens in the back seat of his car. Until he contemplated the evening ahead. The quietness. The empty hours. The time to think. To wonder when it was going to happen. He got into the car and headed in the direction of Dupont Circle, making a quick call on his cell phone to the bookshop. The shop's owner, a garrulous, elderly man, assured him the book was still being held for him, to inquire at the counter.
Skinner stood on the sidewalk outside the bookshop, Sammy's book tucked under his arm, fishing for his keys. He looked up.
"Son of a bitch!" Skinner snarled.
There, across the street, descending the steps of a brownstone apartment building, was Alex Krycek. Skinner quickly ducked back into the shadow provided by the shop's brightly striped awning. His eyes narrowed as he watched the little bastard look around warily, then zip up his jacket and disappear into the crowd of Saturday shoppers. Skinner's jaw was clenched so tightly it ached. He wanted to dash across the street, catch up to the cocky little shit and beat him senseless. Hold him down and pound that infuriating insouciant smirking face into a bloody pulp.
Skinner realized with a start that he had actually taken several steps toward the street. With difficulty, he forced himself to retreat back into the shadows. Krycek might have the Palm Pilot on him, might use it. He glanced across the street at the apartment building. So, the rat does have a home, he mused. Of course, Krycek could have been visiting someone, but somehow Skinner didn't picture him having a lot of friends to chat with on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Skinner could wait. He would come back, observe, be patient. The opportunity would present itself. When it did, he thought he knew a certain doublecrossing little rat who was going to be very sorry indeed.
Alex's stomach knotted uncomfortably as he approached the office door. He hated these "meetings", as his employer insisted on calling them. He knocked and Spender's driver answered, ushering Alex in with a smirk. Alex brushed past him, feeling the man's lustful eyes on him. Alex entered Spender's inner office, unconsciously making a face as the cigarette smoke assailed him. His employer shook another cigarette out of the pack and jabbed a yellowed finger toward the carpet. Alex shot him a look of pure hatred before kneeling down stiffly, gritting his teeth a little at the pain in his backside and thighs.
"Alex," came the oily voice from behind the desk. "You have a date tonight. Jason will take you."
Alex looked up apprehensively. Please don't let it be one of the bad ones. I still hurt so much. Please just let him fuck me and let me leave.
"Yes, sir," he said tonelessly. Fuck you, sir. Please God just let me live long enough to kill you, sir.
Spender stood up, exhaling a plume of smoke. He gestured to Alex to stand. Alex climbed awkwardly to his feet and stood, waiting. Spender tapped his ash into the tray.
"Strip. Let's see what you've been whining about."
Alex felt the blood rush to his face. His fist clenched as the rage boiled up inside him. He knew it was useless to fight. He knew it would only end the way it always did, with Alex hurting. With Alex sorry. With Alex wishing he were anywhere else on earth.
Digging his own grave, one word at a time. Hollow words, useless words, but it was his only way of trying to hold on to the Alex Krycek he once was and could barely remember. When he was something other than Spender's whore. Spender considered him coolly over the glowing tip of his cigarette.
"Do it, Alex. *Now*. Or I'll have Jason help you."
Alex slowly moved to obey, not wanting Jason anywhere near him. He placed his boots under one of the wing chairs that faced Spender's desk, his clothes and the prosthetic arm on the seat. He stood, naked, wishing he could cover his genitals, knowing better than to try it. The last time he had pissed blood for a week. He kept his eyes lowered. Spender took a drag on his cigarette, blowing the smoke in Alex's face.
"You know what to do," he said.
Alex turned, his face blank, trying to control the fear. He reluctantly bent over Spender's desk, automatically spreading his legs as he did. His one hand gripped the side of the desk. He was almost unaware of his ingrained response to the command. Time and consequences had taught him well. He closed his eyes as Spender trailed a cool, dry hand across his bruised ass. Whenever his employer forced him to endure this humiliation , Alex would focus on a small brass horse that stood on a nearby bookshelf. The horse was rearing, kicking, frozen in motion on its burnished wood base. Alex looked at the brass horse and tried to distance himself from this place, this self. This ravaged thing that he had become.
Spender ran his hand over the dark welts, roughly fingered the purple bruises that marked the pale flesh. He slapped Alex's ass hard, making him gasp. The pain was devastating. His knees threatened to buckle and he clung to the side of the desk with his one hand, trying not to collapse. Spender smiled as he surveyed the damage.
"All in a day's work, wouldn't you say, Alex?" Alex winced. He knew he would suffer for what he was about to do, but he had to. Resist. For the tiny part of himself that was all he had left.
"Let me up, you sick bastard!"
Alex attempted to stand but was shoved back down with a hand coiled painfully around the back of his neck. Spender hit him again. Alex's eyes filled with tears and he fought them back. Crying was not an option. Spender leaned close, the fabric of his suit jacket brushing Alex's bare back.
"Alex?" That voice. Smooth as Cutty Sark. It never failed to make Alex break out in a cold sweat.
Alex tightened his grip on the side of the desk until his fingers ached. He stared at the horse. The brass glowed warmly. So pretty in the light. The horse's eyes were wild and rolling in its head, its mane streaming out behind it as it bucked and kicked and fought.
"Your last...client had a complaint."
Alex's mouth went dry. He began to tremble, his legs shaking with the effort of remaining in position. Spender suddenly grabbed Alex's wrist and twisted his arm up behind his back. With his other hand, he grabbed a handful of Alex's hair and yanked his head back savagely.
"You worthless little slut," Spender growled, "how dare you disobey a client?"
"That fucking sadist was torturing me!" Alex cried. Spender wrenched Alex's arm up higher behind his back. Alex screamed as a bolt of pain shot from his elbow to his wrist. His fingers went numb.
"He paid good money to hurt you, you little whore!" Spender spat. "You're nothing but a pathetic little piece of ass, Alex. You ought to be grateful I don't make you sell it on the street."
Alex shut his eyes, tried to shut out that awful voice, those awful words. But he couldn't, he never could. Another sharp yank forced his head further back. Spender leaned closer, his breath hot against Alex's ear.
"God help you, Alex, when your looks are gone," he whispered. "Do you know what I'm going to do with you when that day comes?" Alex whimpered. "I'm going to put a bullet right behind that pretty little ear of yours."
His tongue flickered across Alex's ear. Alex moaned and tried to pull away, but the fist clenched in his hair kept him in place. Spender kept up the pressure on his arm, increasing it fractionally until Alex thought he would go mad from it. --Oh God, my arm!-- He began to panic, thrashing weakly in Spender's grip, but the lack of food coupled with his ordeal at the hands of his last client had left him weak. The stump of his left arm thumped dully against the desk as he fought to escape. Spender easily held him down.
"How many times do we have to play this little scene out, Alex? Why do you insist on pushing me when you know I'll make you suffer for it?"
Alex struggled grimly to free himself, only to be forced back against the desk. The wood surface was chilly against his skin. Spender watched detachedly as he fought.
"What do I have to do to make you remember your place?" he demanded. He yanked Alex's arm still higher. He could feel the muscles straining. He could feel Alex's panic rising and he relished it. "Do I have to break your arm?"
For a moment Alex went deathly still, then his terror overtook him completely. He was breathing in great, gasping sobs, shuddering from the pain and fear. Spender tightened his grip on Alex's wrist, feeling the small, delicate bones shift and slide.
"Is that what I have to do, Alex? Break your arm? I will if that's what it takes. What do you think life will be like then, Alex? What will it be like for you with one arm gone and the other broken?"
Alex screamed again. Unbelievable that you could hurt this badly and not die from it. He broke then, splintered, shuddering and hurting and wailing in the face of that unbearable vision.
"Oh God please don't break it, please don't, sir, don't break it, please, please..." he begged, his voice cracking. Spender smiled.
"Are you going to be good, Alex?"
"Yes! Please, sir, *please*---"
Alex heard himself groveling and he didn't care. It didn't matter, nothing mattered. Nothing except escaping this room with his only arm intact. Spender eased the pressure on Alex's arm slightly and let go of his hair. Alex rested his head against the desk, panting and disoriented from the pain. His heart felt as if it would explode in his chest. Spender leaned close again.
"I'm only going to tell you this one more time, Alex. You are my property. You will go where I tell you, when I tell you. Once you are there, you will do whatever you are told to do, however you are told to do it. Your opinion is not a necessary part of the equation. Is that clear?"
"Yes, sir." Alex whispered.
The agony in his arm had eased slightly, but he was acutely aware of its vulnerable position. He struggled to concentrate on what Spender was saying. He knew a wrong answer now would cost him dearly. Spender gave Alex's arm another sharp tug and savored the groan that followed.
"Who owns you, Alex?" Spender's voice sounded tinny and far away. Alex swallowed and croaked out an answer.
"You do, sir." Alex's voice was a weak, defeated whisper. Spender petted his damp hair.
"Very good, Alex."
Without warning, he dealt another hard slap to Alex's ass, aiming for the worst of the welts. Alex shrieked and Spender pulled his arm up higher again. His voice became low and dangerous.
"Who decides where you sleep? What you wear? Who you fuck? Who decides if you get to live to see the light of the next day?"
"You sir, you do," Alex sobbed.
Spender stroked his hand down Alex's back, feeling him shiver under his touch. So frightened. So submissive. Sweet shattered pretty thing. He looked down at Alex, at the sweat drying on his white skin, so pale against the polished oak. His hand clutching, trembling. He ran his fingers through Alex's dark hair. Alex whimpered again. Spender licked his lips. No matter how many times he crushed this beautiful creature, it never failed to make him rock hard. Almost as hard as the first time. Almost as hard as it made him to think of Alex being used, again and again, forced to spread his legs and offer that sweet little ass up to whomever Spender allowed the privilege. He trailed his fingers along Alex's shoulderblades almost tenderly.
"And what are you? Tell me, Alex. Tell me what you are," he said quietly.
Alex lay still under Spender's hands. Please don't make me say it. Please. But he would say it. He always did. Hurting and tired and all the fight gone out of him, he spoke in a broken, exhausted monotone.
"I'm a slut, sir. A whore." Amazingly, after all these years, the words still had the power to hurt. Spender let him go.
Alex stood slowly, holding his throbbing arm close to his body, wishing he could massage it.
Spender picked up the pack of Morleys and lit another one. Alex clumsily buckled the straps of his prosthesis. His fingers were still partially numb and it took him longer than usual. Spender stared at him as if he were a particularly interesting experiment, making no move to help him. Alex was secretly grateful. If Spender touched him now, he thought he might start to scream again and never stop. He got his clothes on, a task that was difficult enough without his one good arm stiff and sore. Once he was dressed, Spender eyed him coldly.
"Are you going to learn to watch your tone, Alex? To adopt a more...respectful manner?" Alex bit his lip.
"Yes, sir," he said, his voice barely audible. He stared at the floor.
"Good. These petty rebellions of yours are tiresome and pointless." Spender resumed his place behind the desk.
"Jason will drive you to your date now. The client has you until seven o'clock tomorrow morning." Alex's stomach heaved. "Make sure you aren't late with your report." Alex turned to go. Spender called after him. "And, Alex?" Alex turned. "If your client has even the smallest complaint, I promise you, a broken arm will be the least of your problems." Alex nodded and left. In the hallway, Jason was waiting. He sneered.
"Awww, did the pretty boy get taught a little lesson? Want me to kiss it and make it better?"
Alex looked at him with disgust and turned away. Suddenly he was shoved against the wall, Jason's massive bulk pressing up behind him, his reeking breath on the back of Alex's neck.
"Awfully uppity for a rent boy," he growled in Alex's ear.
"Get the fuck off me!" Alex yelled.
He tried to jab his elbow back into Jason's solar plexus but the larger man effortlessly held him still. Jason's meaty hand trailed along Alex's back, then down to his ass. He squeezed him hard through the denim. Alex bit back a cry of pain. Jason leaned closer, pinning Alex between his body and the wall, and whispered in his ear.
"I can't wait to fuck you, pretty boy. I'm going to make you scream like the little bitch you are." He bit the back of Alex's neck just hard enough to hurt.
"Mr. Spender likes me. He thinks I've got potential. He said I can count on a generous Christmas bonus this year." Jason licked his lips lasciviously. "Guess what I'm going to ask for?"
Alex was motionless against the wall, his eyes closed. He knew Jason wouldn't dare take it any further unless the old man gave him permission. The thought made him shudder. Jason let him go, and he turned around, his eyes drawn to the tender hollow at the base of Jason's throat. One hard punch there, and the sorry piece of shit wouldn't be able to so much as whisper for a couple of weeks. Maybe forever. Alex smiled at the thought, his hand curling into a fist. Jason saw the glitter in Alex's eyes and took a step back before he even realized what he was doing. He narrowed his eyes.
"Come on, whore. You've got a date to keep." He pushed Alex in the direction of the stairs leading to the parking deck.
Alex climbed into the back seat of Spender's sedan. Jason started the engine and pulled out into traffic. Alex could feel Jason's eyes on him in the rear view mirror. He looked up and Jason shot him a seething look.
"Wouldn't want to be in your shoes if you fuck up again, slut." On the ride to the client's hotel, Alex stared out the window, seeing nothing, waiting for what would happen to him next.
Skinner drove back to Crystal City, Sammy's book forgotten on the seat beside him. He stared resolutely ahead, changing lanes, signaling, turning mechanically. It had been exactly thirty-eight days since Krycek had last contacted him. Skinner knew this because he had spent every one of those thirty-eight days wondering if it would be his last. Wondering if this would be the day he would die. Again. He had died, that night in the hospital, but had been brought back, only to become Krycek's unwilling lackey.
Krycek had an unsettling habit of appearing in the back seat of Skinner's car. In the parking garage at the condo. That husky voice on the other end of the phone, calling him in the middle of the night, reminding him just how close death was. Then, nothing. Krycek had simply stopped calling, stopped showing up. There had been no contact at all in over a month, leaving Skinner to wonder if the little bastard had gotten himself killed. What then? If Krycek was dead, who was controlling the tiny deadly machines that could end his life with the touch of a button?
But Krycek wasn't dead at all. He was alive and well and in Washington, strolling the city sidewalks as if he hadn't a care in the world. While Skinner slept little, ate less and wondered which would get him first, the nanocytes or the heart attack. His hands tightened on the steering wheel as he pictured himself wrapping those hands around Krycek's throat. Krycek's long white throat. The way he had looked, standing in the sunlight, his hand shoved in the pocket of his black leather jacket, the slight breeze ruffling that dark hair. Those tight jeans molded to his ass, leaving nothing to the imagination as he turned and melted into the crowd. Skinner swore. What the hell was he doing? His life was literally in Alex Krycek's pocket, and here he was, thinking about him like this. Like he was an attractive, eminently fuckable young man and not a traitorous, backstabbing rat bastard.
Jesus. It was so easy when he was out of your sight, to forget the beauty shrouding that black soul. To see him as he should be. To mar the skin, warp those long, delicate bones, to blacken the teeth, to blight him as he had blighted the lives of all he touched. Skinner laughed ruefully. God loves irony. The killer with the naughty choirboy face. The angelic, pretty triple-crossing spy. He parked in the underground garage of the condo and got out, pausing to open the trunk and unload the day's purchases. He headed for the elevator, already mentally plotting his plan of attack.
Jason pulled Alex along the hotel hallway by his jacket, jerking him hard enough to make him stumble.
"Maybe I'll get to stay and watch, pretty boy. What do you think about that?" he jeered.
Alex didn't bother to reply. He stood silently behind Jason, looking down at nothing. Jason knocked on the client's door. The man who opened it appeared to be in his fifties, with blue eyes that were unsettlingly icy in his deeply tanned face. He did not acknowledge Jason. He reached past him, grabbed Alex's right arm and yanked him into the suite before slamming the door in Jason's face.
The man grasped Alex's jaw in a firm grip and stared at him intently. The hard fingers dug into his flesh and Alex fought the urge to pull away. He stood unmoving, his back against the door, forcing himself to remain still as the man studied him. The strong fingers tilted his chin up, those flinty eyes taking in every detail. Alex looked up at the ceiling, expressionless, waiting. Without a word, the man released his jaw and divested him of his jacket, his hand briefly brushing the smooth plastic of the prosthetic arm. He tossed Alex's jacket over a nearby chair and appraised him with a practiced eye, taking in the long legs, the slim hips, the long elegant curve of the throat, so appealingly exposed.
His scrutiny finally complete, the man smiled. The price had been high, but the boy was everything Spender had promised. He had been skeptical when Spender had assured him that an amputee - a very beautiful green-eyed amputee- could be procured on such short notice. Supply and demand. This was a man who appreciated, truly appreciated, the power that having money could bring. The man turned and walked toward the wet bar, leaving Alex in his position by the door. Alex cleared his throat nervously. He spoke tentatively, not looking at the man.
"How do you want me, sir?" he asked softly.
He cringed inwardly as he said the words. Spender made him say it. *Every* time. He would check. The man glanced at Alex as he poured himself a drink.
"Sit down there for now."
He gestured toward the sofa. Alex walked over to it and sat down. The man put a second glass down on the bar and filled it with scotch. Alex didn't want a drink right now, but he kept his mouth shut. It didn't matter what he wanted. He shut his eyes, steeling himself for the ordeal ahead. He hated this so much. Spender used to whore him out only occasionally, to punish him for fucking up an assignment or when there was no other dirty work for him to do. The frequency of the "dates" gradually increased. Eventually, Alex the assassin found himself relegated to the role of Alex the whore.
He had no idea how much his employer charged these men to possess him, to use his body for an hour or a day or a week. He knew it had nothing to do with money, the old man had more money stashed away in offshore accounts than he would ever live to spend. It had everything to do with Alex on his knees, Alex on his back. Alex on his stomach, spread and waiting, helpless to refuse. The slow and insidious erosion of a soul, one night at a time.
He looked up cautiously at the man who owned him for the next twelve hours. His temporary master wore charcoal colored slacks and a black knit shirt, his salt-and-pepper hair neatly and expensively styled. Alex fidgeted nervously as the man sipped his drink. He had been here at least fifteen minutes and the man had barely spoken to him. The man's silent appraisal had badly unnerved him. Usually the clients were too full of the feeling of power that came with having this beautiful creature under their control to waste any time. Usually they began barking orders at him the second the door closed behind him, sometimes firing so many directives at him so quickly that he had to scramble to comply. He certainly didn't remember the last time he had still been fully dressed after fifteen minutes of the client's time had elapsed. Perhaps that was what felt so wrong.
His shoulders tensed as he awaited his instructions. He had always derived some tiny measure of comfort, if it could be called comfort, from the sheer predictability of these men. Surely they would have been dismayed to know how truly pedestrian their deepest fantasies really were. They would have been disappointed to know how sickeningly familiar their darkest most unspeakable desires were to him. Alex had a sinking feeling that this man was going to be different. He kept his eyes cast downward submissively, trying not to look scared. He wasn't supposed to look scared unless the client specifically requested it.
Finally, the man crossed the spacious living room and sat down beside him. He handed the glass of scotch to Alex.
"Drink it," he said.
Alex looked at the scotch. He really didn't want it. Alex closed his eyes briefly and then obediently raised the glass. He drank half of the scotch, his nearly empty stomach protesting a little. The man beside him nudged his arm.
"All of it."
Alex finished his drink and the man took the glass out of his hand. He returned to the bar and opened a cabinet under it, removing a black doctor's bag. Alex's overworked nerves were suddenly on full alert. The man walked past Alex toward the bathroom, carrying the bag.
"Stay there," he ordered. He disappeared into the bathroom.
Alex listened to the sound of running water coming from behind the closed bathroom door, getting more jittery by the second. He did not like the look of that black bag one bit. He wondered just how pissed off Spender was this time. Had he decided to rent Alex out to some kind of Dr. Mengele and let him find out just how bad it could get? He remembered his words in Spender's office, how he had pushed the old man even though he knew he would pay for it. He bit his lip, regretting his false bravado, his trembling defiance. When the hell was he going to learn to keep his mouth shut? The sound of running water stopped and the bathroom door opened. The man returned to the living room, a syringe in his hand.
Alex was up off of the sofa and heading for the door before he knew what he was doing. He reached the door and scrabbled for the knob, his jacket forgotten on the chair, intent on putting as much distance between himself and that glittering needle as possible. He managed to get the door open a fraction before a large hand shot over his shoulder and slammed it shut again. The man grabbed Alex roughly and shoved him back toward the sofa.
"Where the fuck do you think you're going?" he growled.
Alex tried to use his agility and smaller size to his advantage, ducking around the man and attempting to run for the door again. The man caught him by the scruff of the neck, picked him bodily up off the floor and threw him back onto the sofa. He pinned Alex down before he could get up again. Alex was in a full-scale panic, stoked by adrenaline, Spender's warning all but forgotten as he struggled.
The man grasped Alex's wrist and pinned it against the arm of the sofa. Alex attempted to swing his prosthetic left arm up, intending to crack the man's skull with it, but the man batted it away with a curse. He yanked Alex's T-shirt out of his jeans and efficiently stripped it off, releasing Alex's right wrist only long enough to get his arm out of its sleeve. Holding Alex's thrashing body down, he swiftly unbuckled the straps before removing the prosthesis and tossing it across the room. The abrupt, impersonal removal of his arm pushed Alex over the edge. He began screaming as he kicked and clawed, trying to dislodge the implacable weight holding him down. The man slapped him hard across the face.
"Enough!" he roared.
He shook Alex sharply. Alex saw the furious red face above him, the flashing eyes promising that there would be hell to pay. The man held Alex's wrist, still sensitive from Spender's earlier mistreatment, firmly pressed against the arm of the sofa. Gradually, the pain in Alex's wrist brought him back to himself and he stilled as the events of that afternoon came back to him in sharp focus.
"Oh, God..." he groaned aloud.
His breathing was still ragged, his oxygen-starved body trying to recover from his panicked attempt at escape. Alex trembled as he realized what he had just done. Oh, shit. Spender. The old man would kill him for this, no doubt about it. Just two hours earlier, he had nearly broken Alex's arm just for *arguing* with a client. At least that's what Spender had called it. Alex had borne the agony as long as he could as the man whipped him with the thick extension cord. But when the man began hitting him with the plug end, Alex had begun to plead and beg. The man complained to Spender and Spender had nearly torn his fucking arm off. Jesus, Alex thought. What the hell is he going to do to me for this?
He looked up fearfully at the man holding him down. The man stared down at him, no discernable expression on his face. He could feel the boy's pulse racing as he held his wrist, could feel his triphammer heartbeat through his chest. Alex tried to lie still, tried to regulate his breathing. He was too frightened to speak. The man watched as Alex slowly regained control.
"Are you quite finished?"
The man's voice was brusque and irritated. Alex nodded.
"I'm going to let go of your wrist now. You will leave it where it is. Understand?" Alex nodded again. The man released his wrist but made no move to get off of Alex. Alex obediently kept his arm bent over his head. He flexed his wrist cautiously, wincing at the pain. The man waited to make sure that Alex was not going to try to fight again. Alex lay motionless under him, his eyes closed in surrender. The man spoke again.
"Look at me." Alex opened his eyes.
"Are we going to have any more of this bullshit?"
Alex shook his head. The man snorted impatiently and got off of Alex. He stood next to the sofa, his arms folded. Alex didn't dare move. The man pointed his finger at him.
Alex slowly hauled himself up into a sitting position, mindful of his now swollen wrist. He hugged the corner of the sofa, drawing himself up as small as possible. Satisfied, the man continued.
"You will not move from that spot unless I give you permission. Is that clear?" Alex nodded.
"We are going to have a little talk, you and I. I have paid a great deal of money for the *pleasure* of your company," he paused and cast Alex a stony glare, "and I believe in getting my money's worth. You have wasted enough of my time."
Alex looked down, his shoulders slumped. The fight had worn him out, and the effects of the scotch he had been forced to drink were beginning to hit him. He felt altogether unwell. The man had left the syringe on top of the bar when Alex tried to flee. He picked it up between his thumb and forefinger, holding it up so that Alex could see it. Alex's eyes widened and he began to shake.
With difficulty, he remained in his place on the sofa, his eyes never leaving the syringe. Alex's sense of dread was overwhelming, but as much as he feared what this man might do to him, he feared Spender more. Besides, his weary mind reasoned, he was trapped in here with this maniac. He had tried to escape and had failed. The man was going to do whatever he wanted to do to him and there was nothing he could do to stop it. He stared at the frightening syringe. Jesus. No one had ever done *this* to him before. Was he going to poison him?
He tried to think clearly. If Spender decided it was time for Alex to die, he almost certainly wouldn't do it like this. He would insist on doing it himself. Though he was still deeply afraid, Alex relaxed slightly. Whatever the clear stuff in the syringe was, it probably wouldn't kill him. He allowed himself a moment of rueful contemplation. Another fun-filled day in the life of Alex Krycek, where success is measured one stumbling, bleeding day at a time. Somehow, he still hadn't reached the point where the thought of another day spent broken and degraded and hurting was worse than the thought of dying. Somehow that fathomless unknowable darkness was still more frightening than a lifetime spent in servitude to Spender. This man was going to hurt him, he knew. How much remained to be seen. And there was the little matter of Alex's abortive escape attempt. If Spender found out...Alex's stomach heaved again.
As if reading Alex's thoughts, the man picked up a cell phone from the top of the bar, snapped it open and began to dial.
"I'm calling your employer and telling him to send that goon back over here to pick you up. I'm sure once I tell him what just happened here he will be only too happy to give me a full refund." He shot Alex a disgusted look.
"Imagine, him telling me how well-trained you are. Well-trained! Disobedient and willful is more like it!" Alex was perilously close to breaking down. A tear spilled down his cheek and he wiped it away quickly with the back of his hand.
"Sir? Please...please don't call him, sir. Please give me another chance." The man glanced at him dismissively.
"After that little wrestling match you instigated? Why should I?" Alex looked at him pleadingly.
"Please, sir, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I just got...scared."
He looked at the syringe. The man snapped the cell phone shut and put it back down on the bar, placing the syringe next to it. He walked back over to the sofa and sat down next to Alex. His expression was inscrutable.
"You were saying?" he prompted.
Alex blinked, trying to keep the tears back. The threat of Spender's wrath had reduced him to a pathetic, quivering mess. His cheeks burned with the shame and humiliation of having to beg for the privilege to stay and be hurt.
"I'm sorry I disobeyed you. I'm sorry I tried to leave. Please, sir, I'll do anything," Alex begged, his voice shaking, "anything you say. Whatever you tell me. Just please d-don't call him. Please don't call him, sir." The man considered this for a moment, fixing Alex with a steely glare.
"All right," he said severely, "this is what's going to happen. Look at me." Alex obeyed. The man took Alex's chin in his hand, none too gently, and continued. "You are bought and paid for, here for my pleasure. You have wasted," he glanced at his watch, "seventeen minutes of my time. My patience is at an end. If you stay, you will do as I tell you and you will do it immediately. Do I make myself clear?" Alex's lower lip trembled. Another tear made its way down his bruised cheek.
"Good. And if you even look like you're *thinking* of giving me any more trouble, I will call Mr. Spender and tell him exactly what I think of him and of you. Is *that* clear?" Alex nodded quickly.
"Yes, sir." The man stood and went to retrieve the syringe.
"You want to know what's in this." Alex nodded, his eyes huge. The man smiled, without humor. "All in good time." Alex was very pale, his eyes fixed on the syringe.
"There are no permanent effects, so you can stop looking so terrified."
Alex wasn't sure he could. He was absolutely terrified. Wasn't it enough to humiliate him? To fuck him? To remind him again and again that he was a whore, sold by the hour? Did the fucker have to drug him, too? Jesus, even his veins weren't safe. The man turned toward the short hallway that led to the suite's other rooms. "Bedroom. Now." he said, not bothering to look back as Alex reluctantly followed.
"Lie on the bed, on your back," the man directed. "No, leave your jeans on."
He wanted to strip the boy himself after he had been given the injection. He smiled in anticipation. He'd done this before, but never with such a beautiful subject. He watched as Alex, graceful even in his fear, lay down on the bed. His pale skin seemed almost translucent against the dark blue coverlet. The man sat down on the edge of the bed. Alex's one hand picked fitfully at the leg of his jeans.
Alex started guiltily, then placed his hand down by his side. The man noticed that it was shaking. He leaned forward, making sure he had Alex's full attention. He held up the syringe and watched as Alex's eyes were drawn to it and held there with horrified fascination. He snapped his fingers in front of Alex's face, making him flinch.
"I want you to pay close attention to what I am telling you." He waited for Alex's nod before continuing.
"The drug in this syringe is called Ketamine. I will administer it by intramuscular injection. As the drug takes effect, you will lose all bodily control." He paused, eyeing Alex intently. "Do you need to use the bathroom? I need to know."
Alex, still trying to process this last awful piece of information, shook his head numbly. "Are you sure?" the man pressed. "If you need to go, tell me now. I will be extremely displeased if you urinate or defecate while you're under." Alex's mouth felt like it was full of cotton.
"I-I'm sure, sir." he croaked.
The man nodded and continued, his voice cool and dispassionate. "I'm giving you a dose sufficient to render you unconscious for four or five hours. When the drug begins to wear off, you will be awake but paralyzed. The paralysis will last thirty minutes to an hour. You may hallucinate. These are referred to as emergence reactions. You will be in no immediate danger."
Alex couldn't believe this was happening to him. He didn't think he had ever been this scared. Every fiber of his being was screaming at him to leap up from the bed and run for his life, but he knew he had to stay. To submit. If he tried to get away again, this would be a walk in the park compared to what Spender would do to him. Alex swallowed, his throat working. He wanted very badly to ask a question, but he knew he must tread very carefully. He was terrified that the man would call Spender after all.
"Sir?" he ventured. The man, who had been tapping the side of the syringe, holding it up to the light, turned to him.
"Yes?" Alex felt the man must surely be able to hear his heart pounding.
"May I please ask a question?" The man nodded as he depressed the plunger slightly, shooting a small amount of the drug toward the carpet.
"Sir...may I ask why?" He nodded toward the syringe. "If you want me to be still, sir, I can do that. I wouldn't move. I've done that before." The man stared at him for a long time. Alex barely breathed. Finally the man answered.
"Why is my business, young man. Suffice to say, I require no active participation from you." Alex bit his lip. His voice trembling, he threw caution to the wind. He had to know.
"Please, sir, may I ask one more question?"
The man sighed as he rummaged through the nightstand drawer. He pulled out a foil packet and ripped it open. Alex could smell the rubbing alcohol and felt a tightening in his gut.
"What is it?" the man snapped.
"Sir? What will you do to me? When I'm asleep?" Alex's voice was small and frightened. The man glanced at him with disdain.
"Nothing that hasn't been done to you before. Unbutton your jeans and slide them down over your hips."
His tone brooked no further discussion. Alex complied, trying to pretend this was happening to someone else. He slid his jeans and boxers together down to the tops of his thighs, feeling the man's eyes on him.
"Roll over." The voice was cool and clinical. Alex hesitated. The man eyed him levelly. "Don't make me regret not making that call."
Alex hastily maneuvered himself over onto his stomach, his hand clutching the pillow. He felt the man move his jeans a little farther down, then felt the cold swab of the alcohol on his skin. He buried his face in the pillow, tears threatening to dampen the cool cotton. He gasped as the needle bit into him, feeling the sting as the drug was forced in. He lay like that for some time. His skin began to feel curiously warm, his limbs too heavy to move. Alex was dimly aware of hands turning him over. He tried feebly to move and couldn't. He felt the man pulling off his boots, socks and jeans. The hands lingered over his boxers before removing them as well. Alex knew he should try to get away from the hands, but the fear that had consumed him so completely before now seemed distant and unclear. As if this were happening to someone else.
The man savored the scene in front of him. He had removed his own clothing, and his erection stood stiffly out in front of him. He grasped his cock and stroked it as he stared at the boy, so naked and helpless. The boy was trying to blink and look around the room, but those pretty green eyes were confused and unfocused. This was going to be so much fun. The man knelt on the end of the bed, then lay beside Alex. He stroked those long creamy white thighs, ran his hand across the sparsely haired chest. He gently pressed his thumb against those pink lips, slightly parted. He listened to the boy's faint breathing. The drug would depress his respiration slightly, but it was no major cause for concern. He smoothed the dark hair back from the boy's face, traced the delicate cheekbones with his finger.
The man was glad he had told his wife the medical conference would require him to be away two days longer than he had initially expected. He flicked his tongue gently across Alex's lips. Such a mouth this one had. Lush and inviting, it would be like sliding into velvet. One very beneficial aspect of Ketamine, he had discovered, was that while it rendered the subject deeply unconscious, the cough and gag reflexes remained unaffected. He could use the boy as he pleased, and it was very unlikely that he would aspirate anything.
He sighed. Of course it would be so much simpler to administer the drug orally, slip it into a drink. The boy never would have known what hit him. But it was the knowing, the look in his eyes as he watched the needle coming closer, knowing what was going to happen, the look of surrender as he rolled over, waiting, accepting the sting, the tumble into blackness. So sweet. He kissed those lips, feeling them give softly under his, glad the boy wouldn't move now and spoil everything. The boy's eyes were closed now, his faint breaths almost too soft to hear. The man caressed his prize, circled one pale pink nipple with his tongue.
Skinner sat in his armchair, Sammy's book unopened on the coffee table. The new screwdriver and switchplates lay abandoned on the kitchen counter, still in their packages. The pizza he had ordered upon returning home was still in the box, cold and uneaten. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes, feeling the mother of all headaches coming on. Alex Krycek. Son of a bitch. Free to walk the streets, no doubt wreaking havoc wherever he went, while Skinner jerked and danced on the end of his invisible tether. Dying a little death every time he had a stomachache, every time he felt a little feverish, wondering if the unspeakable crushing agony was about to descend on him again. Wondering if it was again his time to die, this time for good. He remembered that night in the hospital, looking up as the sheet was pulled back from his face. Seeing Krycek through the window in his ridiculous disguise, those unmistakable eyes burning into him. Holding Walter Skinner's next breath clutched in one black gloved hand.
Skinner's hands clenched into fists. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes, imagining what he would do to Alex Krycek when he got the chance. Fantasies of revenge, raw and roughly taken, filled his mind. The little rat bastard crawling and cowed. Krycek on his knees, handing over the Palm Pilot with trembling hands. Krycek pleading. Krycek sobbing. Krycek bleeding, his wise-ass punk routine in tatters. Those long-lashed cat's eyes looking up at him, big and scared, shining with the aching and complete understanding of what it meant, what it truly meant, to be in the control of another. A lesson in loss, painfully and exactingly taught. The Education of Alex Krycek. Skinner smiled tightly. It was an education Skinner intended to undertake with scrupulous attention to detail.
Alex Krycek was dying. The way he had always known he would, the bullets he never saw coming finding the soft, vulnerable parts of him, winding their unerring way through the defenseless flesh. The pain was piercing, bright, undeniable. He pressed his pale trembling hand against the dark ruined place at the center of him, the hot sticky rush of his blood pouring over the fragile dam of his fingers, the sound of his own heartbeat faint and far away. Fading. He was alone and so cold, the ground hard under his back, the red lake thickening around him. The darkness pressed close, wanting him, and he whimpered, trying to shrink away from that terrifying blind embrace. The darkness took him then, broken body lying white and gushing red, owning him. Alex tried to scream, his eyes and ears and mouth full, choking on the dark, his last breath lost in that relentless unknowable blackness.
Silence, stretching forever. Alex couldn't move. He lay sprawled in the unending void, his arm and legs numb and useless. There was something familiar about this cold, empty place. A place remarkable not for what was there but for what was not there. Sound. Warmth. Light. He began to panic. He was dead and in Hell. Hell was the silo. Buried alive again, eight stories down. He knew he deserved it but oh God, it hurt, the gasping clawing terror at the aloneness, the howling soul shattering grief for the loss of the light. The taste of his fear was bright and metallic in his mouth as he fought with all his strength to move, to run, to escape. His traitorous body refused him. He could only lie frozen, subsumed by the rapacious darkness that would not be denied.
A voice. Someone was here with him. Who? What had they done to deserve banishment to this monstrous hollow place? Alex surfaced slowly, following the voice instinctively. The voice would lead to the light. He gradually became aware of his own pounding heartbeat, his rasping, ragged breathing. He opened his eyes, tried to focus, to find the voice. He could see shapes now, shadows. The voice was speaking to him. He tried to understand what it was saying.
Alex recognized the voice, recognized the words. The man. The man who had hurt him, who had done this to him. The man was sitting on the edge of the bed, watching Alex with no expression in his pale eyes. Alex tried to move his head, but his muscles would not obey, his own voice, shrill and terrified, screamed in his head---oh god I can't move can't move can't--! He tried to speak, to plead, but could only moan softly.
Alex could hear the blood rushing in his ears, his chest rose and fell as he sucked in air, his terror bringing him close to hyperventilation. A sob escaped his swollen lips. Alex fought to control his panic. The hotel. He was in the hotel with the client. He wasn't shot. He wasn't dead. He wasn't back in the silo. The man was frowning, saying something to him. Alex tried to listen, to understand the words. His frightened eyes fought to focus on the man who now stood beside the bed, staring at him without pity.
"Stop it now. Take a deep breath," the man ordered.
Shakily, Alex obeyed. He would do whatever the voice demanded if only it would free him from this nightmare, from the prison of his own body. He took another deep breath, and then another. Slowly his heart rate and pulse began to approach a more normal rhythm. Alex's eyes darted around the room, still trying to reassure himself that *this* was not the hallucination, that he was really still alive. The man spoke again. His voice had all the emotion of someone reading a grocery list.
"You are experiencing the emergence reactions I told you about. You are in no danger."
Alex's boxers had been put back on him. The man placed the rest of Alex's clothes, neatly folded, on the foot of the bed.
"Mr. Spender's driver is coming to collect you. The paralysis should wear off by the time he arrives."
The man turned and left Alex alone in the room. Alex lay in the dim light of the bedside lamp, staring at the ceiling. He felt utterly empty. He thought he had been used in every way one human being could use another, but nothing in his short, harsh life had prepared him for this. None of the cruel lessons he had been forced to learn so early had prepared him for this stainless, meticulous subjugation, this taking, this agonizing demolition from the inside out.
When the tingling in his arm and legs began, Alex sobbed with relief. Despite the man's clinical assurances, he had been terrified that the paralysis wouldn't be temporary. He could not bear to imagine what would happen to him then, what Spender would do with his helpless, stricken whore. Alex slowly flexed his fingers, his toes, tentatively moved his legs. His muscles were slow to respond, sluggish. He wanted desperately to sit up, but fell back groaning in the attempt. Moving his head brought on a sickening onslaught of nausea. He closed his eyes and drifted, jerking awake with a start every few minutes, fitfully moving his arm and legs to make sure he still could.
Skinner moved stealthily down the dimly lit hallway of Krycek's apartment building, treading as quietly as was possible for a big man on a hardwood floor. Finding the rat's apartment had been surprisingly easy. Keeping one eye on the door in case the rat himself decided to make an ill-timed appearance, Skinner had staked out the lobby of the brownstone. He didn't have long to wait before spotting a likely mark. A petite older woman, perhaps approaching sixty, entered the lobby walking a Yorkshire terrier on a leash. Skinner watched as she used a key to retrieve mail from one of the mailboxes which lined the far wall.
Armed with a sincere smile and a closely cropped photograph scavenged from Krycek's old FBI personnel file, Skinner approached. The conversation went exactly as he had planned. He charmed. He schmoozed. He patted the Yorkie's head. He even flirted a little, smiling as the woman sneaked a hand up to smooth her tightly curled hair. He had her right where he wanted her.
Skinner painted a touching picture for Krycek's unsuspecting neighbor. The concerned uncle from out of town. The beloved young nephew, alone in the big city, who wasn't keeping in touch as he should. Skinner smiled warmly, chatting on, surprising himself with his gift of invention. He spun convincing tales of family picnics, soccer games, holidays. A dearly departed brother and a promise to look after the brother's only son, a sweet-natured young man who loved his uncle, even if he was a little forgetful when it came to phone calls and letters home.
She bit and bit hard. Skinner thanked her effusively as she pointed the way up the stairs. Apartment 12. Where the nice young man in the photograph lived. The nice young man who always helped her carry in her groceries. Skinner had nearly choked on that one. Nice. Yeah, right. Nice like a rabid dog. He could just picture Krycek wrapping this woman around his little finger, using those big green eyes to their full effect, carrying in her shopping bags, listening to her natter on about this and that. Making sure that she and his other neighbors would never suspect that the polite, helpful young man in Apartment 12 was in reality a ruthless, murdering spy.
Skinner stood outside Apartment 12, close to the wall, his weapon drawn and hidden in the folds of his trenchcoat. He had indeed found Krycek's apartment with surprising ease. Getting in was another matter. Cautiously, he leaned closer to the door, listening intently. Silence. No creaking floors. No rattling dishes. No television. He took a deep breath and then knocked briskly on the door, stepping quickly back to his place away from the door in case there was a gun on the other side of it. Silence. Skinner knocked again, not about to take chances. The rat hadn't lived this long because he wasn't careful.
Skinner forced himself to wait ten long, sweating minutes before moving. In that time, he had heard absolutely no sound coming from Apartment 12. His decision made, he put his plan into action. It was a plan that left no room for error. If Krycek was in there, if he got the drop on him, Walter Skinner had no doubt he would end up on a slab. Just as he would when Krycek decided to activate the nanocytes and turn Skinner's blood into the circulatory equivalent of battery acid. Skinner was a man with nothing to lose. It was, he thought grimly, time to do or die.
He knelt down beside the door, keeping a wary eye out for anyone approaching. He was a little rusty with the lock pick, but managed it well enough. Not bad for a desk jockey, he thought as he heard the tiny click. Skinner stood, pocketing the lock pick. He straightened his back, took a deep breath, and gingerly turned the doorknob. He held his breath as he cracked the door open. Nothing. His heart was pounding, his body thrummed with nervous tension. There was no guarantee that Krycek wasn't on the other side of that door, aware all this time of Skinner's actions, just waiting for Skinner to step inside so he could put a bullet in his head.
Skinner waited, sweat beading on his upper lip, listening for any telltale sound that would alert him to the presence of someone inside. He pushed the door a little further open, peering inside, seeing nothing except a wedge of burnished wood floor, a section of plain white wall. It occurred to him that perhaps Krycek would have the place booby-trapped. Skinner hoped Krycek was secure enough in his lair as to think such cloak-and-dagger trappings to be unnecessary. Skinner made his decision. He had come this far.
Alex was grabbed roughly and pulled up into a sitting position. The bundle of his clothing hit him in the chest and fell into his lap. Jason loomed over him, glaring impatiently.
"Come on, whore. I don't have all day."
Alex peered up at the large shape gesturing at him, then looked down at the jeans and shirt in his lap. He picked the shirt up and stared at it stupidly. Oh. The shape wanted him to put his clothes on. Alex tried to make his hand do what his brain told it, but somehow the signal seemed to get lost on the way. He rubbed his eyes. God, he felt like shit. A Ketamine hangover was not something he ever wanted to experience again. He made a clumsy attempt to get his hand into the shirtsleeve and only succeeded in dropping the shirt on the floor. Jason snatched it up, grumbling.
"Jesus Christ," he growled, "you're as dumb as you look."
He knelt down beside the bed, complaining the entire time, and got Alex's shirt, socks and jeans on him. Alex cooperated as best he could through his fog. He didn't like Jason touching him, but he knew Jason was going to take him away from here, away from the man with the frightening needle. Alex squeaked a little at Jason's indelicate handling of the prosthetic against his bruised stump, earning himself a cuff on the ear. Jason shoved Alex's boots on his feet and tossed his leather jacket at him.
"You carry it or it stays."
Alex tried to keep a grip on the jacket as Jason yanked him up off the bed and toward the door. He tried to walk in a straight line, but his coordination was impaired and he walked into the wall. Jason cursed him for an ignorant slut and half-dragged, half-carried him through the suite's living room. Alex looked around fearfully. The client was nowhere in sight.
Jason shoved Alex out into the hallway. Alex slumped against the wall, blinking, trying to clear his head. Jason smiled maliciously and grabbed his arm again. Alex had to stumble along quickly to keep it from being yanked out of the socket. He kept his eyes fixed on Jason's broad back, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other and not falling. Suddenly he realized that Jason was pulling him toward the elevator. He made a mewling sound in his throat and tried to free himself from Jason's grip. Jason just gave Alex's sore arm another hard yank and Alex yelped. He dug his heels into the carpet, shaking his head.
"No...no...no..." he moaned, groggy and confused. They never took the elevator. The one time Jason had forced the issue, Alex had thrown up on Jason's shoes. After that, they had taken the stairs. Jason jerked Alex nearly off his feet and threw him in the direction of the elevator doors. He jabbed the button with a fat finger. The elevator doors opened and he shoved Alex inside, ignoring his protests. Panicked, Alex dove for the doors as they began to slide shut. Jason gripped the back of Alex's neck painfully and slammed him up against the wall of the elevator, pinning him there.
Alex struggled but was no match for Jason's brute strength, especially with the dregs of the Ketamine still in his system. He closed his eyes, trying not to think of the enclosed space he was trapped in, taking deep breaths, trying to fight off the panic attack. The stainless steel interior of the elevator was cool against his bruised cheek. His heart was pounding and he felt the nausea making a strong comeback. He whimpered softly. Jason leaned close.
"I'm through coddling you, slut. Stop your whining or I'll give you something to whine about. And you puke and I'll beat the shit out of you."
Alex tried to be quiet, squirming a little at the discomfort of Jason's hand clamped around the back of his neck. Jason took advantage of Alex's impaired condition, letting his free hand roam over Alex's body. He pawed his way under Alex's shirt, found a nipple and pinched hard. Alex gasped. He felt Jason's hand slide up between his legs, cupping his balls through his jeans. He went very still. Jason's voice was smug.
"That's right, pretty boy. You'd better be good. Unless you want to go back up to the top floor and start over."
Alex trembled. He tried not to think about Jason's hands on him. In a few seconds the doors would open again and he would be out of this tiny space. That was all that mattered to him at that moment. Jason wouldn't dare rape him, but he did have Spender's leave to punish him. Alex knew Jason's threat to take the elevator back up was very real. He sagged with relief when the doors finally opened again and he was hauled off toward the parking garage.
Skinner stepped inside and closed the door behind him, taking care to lock it again. He glanced around, quickly taking stock of the apartment. Skinner felt mild surprise at the ordinariness of this small, tidy place. There was nothing at all remarkable about it. The walls were white and unadorned, the floors bare of rugs. What sparse furniture there was, was plain and practical. There were no framed photographs, seemingly no personal effects of any kind, save a few books on a low shelf in the living room. Skinner could not reconcile this spartan, utilitarian space with the dangerous, unpredictable man who had become his personal demon.
He noticed a small closet near the kitchen. His gun drawn, he walked over to it and quickly opened the door. Nothing there but a pair of old boots in the corner and a black raincoat on a wire hanger. Skinner stepped into the miniscule kitchen and found it also empty, likewise the bedroom and bathroom. After investigating the bedroom closet, finally satisfied that he was indeed alone, Skinner began a quiet and methodical search of Krycek's apartment.
Half an hour later, he stood in the living room again, his hands in his pockets, thoroughly frustrated. He hadn't found the Palm Pilot. Skinner swore quietly. Rat bastard must have it with him. Skinner had hoped to have it in his possession before he confronted Krycek. If Krycek was able to hit the button before Skinner could stop him, could force him to unlock its secrets...Skinner didn't want to think about it.
Alex lay on his side on the back seat of the sedan, hugging himself with his one arm, noticing now the soreness, the burning in his rectum, the familiar taste in the back of his throat. He was glad he couldn't remember what the man had done to him after the shot. He curled around himself, the motion of the car lulling him to sleep.
Skinner stood in the living room of Krycek's apartment, tense and alert. Footsteps echoed in the hallway outside. Skinner's eyes darted around the small room. Quickly, he moved over to the closet by the kitchen door and stepped inside. He left the closet door open a fraction, not latching it, so that he could see into the living room. He just had to hope the rat wouldn't notice it before Skinner had the chance to pounce. There was the sound of a key turning in the lock and the apartment door opened. Skinner peered through the small opening between the closet door and the jamb. His mouth dropped open and he stifled a curse.
Spender cast a disdainful eye around the place, took off his coat and dropped it across the arm of the little sofa that faced the apartment door. He sat down, directly in Skinner's line of sight. Skinner hardly dared to breathe. Something was very wrong. Spender got comfortable, crossing his legs and lighting a cigarette. It didn't look like he was going anywhere anytime soon. Shit, Skinner thought. Shit! What the hell is he doing here? He didn't want to think about what would happen if he were discovered.
Skinner was glad the closet was practically empty, it decreased the chance that he would jostle up against something and make his presence known. Still, the closet had definitely not been designed for a tall man to conceal himself in. Skinner was hunched over, the rod for the hangers across the back of his neck. Sweat was beginning to trickle down his back. His muscles were beginning to cramp. He shifted his position as best he could, keeping his eye to the crack in the door.
He became very aware of the passage of time. God, what if he was stuck in here for hours? His bladder was beginning to make *its* presence known, all right, and he began to regret having that tall glass of orange juice before leaving the condo. He was glad Mulder couldn't see him now. This was exactly the kind of situation that would have earned his subordinate a long and expert reaming from the AD. Skinner watched stealthily as Spender tapped his ash on the floor, smoke drifting around his head. He gazed at the closed apartment door and calmly smoked his cigarette.
Skinner heard the approaching footsteps at the same time Spender did. The door opened and the biggest man Skinner had ever seen lumbered in. He looked not so much dressed in his ill-fitting suit as upholstered in it. He had one big paw on the shoulder of Alex Krycek, propelling him into the room. Skinner couldn't imagine anyone being glad to see Cancerman, but Krycek's reaction was extreme. Krycek saw Spender and his face immediately lost all color. He took two hesitant steps forward, his head bowed, and sank to his knees. Skinner's jaw dropped in surprise. Krycek seemed to be shaking. The big goon closed the apartment door and stood silently next to it, watching Krycek with an unhealthy gleam in his eye. Skinner didn't know what the man was thinking but he was prepared to guess that they weren't deep thoughts. Spender stood, dropped his cigarette on the floor and stepped on it.
"I've been very busy this morning, Alex. Would you like to know what I've been doing?"
Krycek stared at the floor. Spender continued.
"I've been checking up on you, Alex, and I don't like what I'm finding out. I would have thought our little chat in my office yesterday would have had more of an impact."
Alex didn't dare look up. He shivered and huddled into his jacket. The man had called Spender and told him what Alex had done. He would be punished after all. He bit his lip and waited. The shock of Spender's unexpected appearance in his apartment had dispelled the last of the Ketamine's aftereffects. He almost wished it hadn't. He wished his mind, at least, could be somewhere else while his body bore the brunt of Spender's anger.
Spender walked over to where Krycek knelt. He stared at Krycek for a moment, his eyes narrowed. His voice was hard and cold.
"Did you think I wouldn't find out?" Krycek flinched.
"I---" he began. The backhand caught him across the cheekbone, knocking him down off of his knees. He lay on his side, dazed. Spender dealt him a vicious kick to the midsection that made even Skinner wince.
"Kneel up!" Spender shouted.
Krycek slowly got back into position, a trickle of blood running from the corner of his mouth. Skinner watched, astonished. He was seeing the rat get what he deserved, even if he hadn't been given the honor of administering the justice himself. So why was the feeling of triumph such a hollow one? Skinner felt cheated. Instead of feeling warm satisfaction at Krycek's suffering, he felt vaguely disturbed by it. Krycek looked terrible. Skinner wondered when he had last eaten. He looked pale and sickly, and now that Skinner was seeing him up close, a good deal thinner than Skinner remembered. He looked almost frail, a word Skinner had certainly never thought to apply to Alex Krycek. Spender slapped Krycek again. Krycek seemed to fold in on himself, hunched over on his knees, his face a tight mask of pain.
Spender glared at Krycek with disgust and then walked back over to the sofa. He picked his coat up and reached into the pocket, removing something. He walked back over to Krycek and grabbed him by the hair, forcing him to look up. He showed the object in his hand to Krycek. It was the Palm Pilot. Skinner stopped breathing. Time seemed to slow, to shudder to a stop. His felt as if his knees would buckle. Was this it? Was he living the last few minutes of his life? Would Spender flip open that sleek, deadly machine and end him right here and now? He mentally calculated the distance between himself and Spender, wondering if he could reach Spender in time to save himself.
Alex saw what Spender held in his hand and his eyes widened in terror. His mouth worked but no sound came out.
"Why is Walter Skinner still alive?" Spender screamed.
He kicked Krycek in the stomach. In the closet, Skinner's breath caught in his throat. His heart pounded. He strained to see and hear everything, his aching back and cramped position forgotten as he stared in disbelief at the scene unfolding in front of him. Spender kicked Krycek again, then leaned down close, shoving the Palm Pilot in his agonized face.
"I had it checked out, Alex. It's been disabled. Useless!" Spender's voice grew louder. "You little whore, did you think you would get away with this? That you would make a fool of me? You dare to deceive me?"
Spender turned and hurled the Palm Pilot across the room, where it exploded against the wall. The floor was littered with the pieces of the ominous black machine. Krycek cringed, curling into a ball as Spender kicked him again. He screamed as the toe of Spender's shoe connected with the small of his back hard enough to lift him off the floor.
Alex lay panting, hurting, trying to make himself as small as possible, agony blossoming in the pit of his stomach as Spender dealt him another vicious kick. This was it. The end. In a moment, Spender would take out his gun and kill him. Alex hoped it would be quick. He hoped Spender wouldn't let Jason have him first. He felt curiously unafraid now. He was so tired. So that part of the hallucination had been right. It would be a bullet. Alex thought about the silo and shivered. Maybe he would be lucky and there wouldn't be a Hell after all. Maybe just nothing. No more fear. No more pain. He wished Spender would get it over with. Spender had worked himself into a frenzy. He snatched Alex up by the hair and threw him across the room. Alex hit the wall hard and slid down, dazed. Spender screamed at him again.
"The other two! Where are they?"
Alex tried to get to his feet and collapsed, moaning. Spender kicked him in the face, grimacing with distaste at the blood that spattered his shoe. Alex groaned loudly. Spender grabbed him by the collar of his jacket and dragged him back up on his knees. Alex knelt there, swaying, his hair disheveled, blood dripping from his chin. That odd serenity flowed over him again. It was all right. It was really all right. Soon he would finally be at peace. No one would ever touch him again. He looked up at Spender, who was breathing heavily, his face red, beside himself with fury.
"In the Potomac," Krycek said softly. "The pieces, anyway."
It was true. After Alex had managed to gain possession of the other two Palm Pilots, he had smashed them with a hammer. That night he had stopped on the bridge and dropped the pieces into the river, shining like black glass in the moonlight. Skinner thought he saw Krycek smile then. A faint, almost peaceful smile. Spender was apoplectic. Skinner didn't think he had ever seen anyone that angry. The man looked like he was about to have a stroke. Spender slapped Alex again, putting all of his weight behind the swing. Alex reeled, but managed somehow to stay upright. Skinner wondered how in hell the man was still conscious. Spender advanced on Krycek again.
"I told you I wanted him dead, you fucking little slut! And you dare to defy me? To destroy my property?"
Spender grabbed Krycek by the hair again and forced him to look up.
"I'm going to make you suffer, Alex. I'm going to make you regret the day you ever contemplated double-crossing me." He pulled Krycek's hair harder, snapping his head back.
"Why, Alex? Why do you care whether Walter Skinner lives or dies? Why is it worth your suffering to save his miserable life?"
Skinner held his breath. Krycek looked like a man about to be executed, kneeling, his throat exposed, drops of blood on his white shirt. He looked into Spender's eyes, calmly meeting his gaze. He spoke softly. Skinner had to strain to hear, but what he heard was unmistakable.
"He didn't deserve it."
Spender slammed his fist into Krycek's face, only his grip on the man's hair keeping him upright. Krycek shakily wiped the blood from his face with his one hand. He looked up at Spender again, his green eyes unblinking, unafraid.
"Go ahead. Finish it. Go ahead and kill me. It'll be the first kindness you've ever shown me."
He said it without a trace of irony. Spender smiled without any warmth whatsoever. He leaned down and spoke directly into Krycek's upturned face.
"Kill you?" He laughed. "Kill you, Alex?"
He let go of Krycek's hair and turned away, withdrawing a handkerchief from his pocket and wiping his hands on it. "You underestimate me." He glanced toward the door.
"Jason?" The large man nodded at Spender and opened the apartment door.
The shriek sounded torn from Krycek's throat. His eyes were huge and terrified, fixed on the man who stood in the doorway. Krycek began backing away from the man, on his hand and knees, shaking his head and moaning.
The man paid no attention to Krycek. He stepped inside the apartment, his dark eyes flicking over the room with an imperious air. He nodded toward Spender.
"Charles," he said amiably.
So that's your name, you son of a bitch, Skinner thought. Spender smiled and flipped open his cigarette lighter.
"Nikolai. So good of you to come on such short notice."
"Not a moment too soon, it would appear," the man replied.
His voice was cultured, with a strong Russian accent. The man glanced toward Krycek, who was still backing away toward the far corner of the room. Krycek looked as though he were going to faint. He was chalk white, his breathing had become irregular and shallow. He had begun to shake violently. Skinner watched Krycek from his hiding place. Why was Krycek so obviously terrified of this man? He looked more than terrified, Skinner thought. He looked as though he were having a breakdown.
Krycek reached the corner and curled into a fetal position, his body racked with tremors. He curled his arm around his knees and rocked back and forth, keening softly. Skinner took a closer look at the man. He was tall and broad, his impeccably tailored black suit making him resemble a well- heeled funeral director. He appeared to be in his sixties, his silver hair swept back over his forehead. He was meticulously groomed, with sharp features and a prominent nose. He looked at Krycek.
Krycek did not respond. He rocked harder, his head tucked down. He was sobbing now, loud, gasping sobs that echoed in the small room. The man frowned.
"Alexei. Stop that noise this instant."
He sounded as though he were scolding a recalcitrant child. Krycek shrank down smaller in his corner, shaking his head, crying harder.
"Alexei! Come here," the man ordered, his voice snapping like a bullwhip.
Krycek lifted his head slightly, one frightened green eye peering over his arm. He shook his head again.
"Please," he whispered. He looked at Spender beseechingly.
Spender eyed him coldly. Krycek unfolded his body from the corner and crawled awkwardly over to Spender, glancing fearfully at Nikolai. Nikolai watched him, a faint smile curving his thin lips. Krycek knelt in front of Spender, his haunted eyes looking up pleadingly. He leaned down, trembling, and kissed Spender's shoe. Spender looked down with disgust at the tears dripping down onto the leather. Krycek's voice was shaking with terror.
"Please, sir, please. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, sir. Please don't do this."
Spender ignored him, arching an eyebrow at Nikolai. Nikolai looked at Krycek calmly.
Krycek shook his head, mewling, beginning to back away again. His eyes resembled those of a wounded animal. Krycek tried to plead again but he was crying too hard to speak. Nikolai fixed him with a steely glare.
"ALEXEI!" he thundered.
Krycek jumped and cried out. Slowly, awkwardly, he got to his feet, his hand clutching his side where Spender had landed a particularly sharp kick. He looked around the room, looking very small and afraid. He looked at Nikolai, then back at Spender. He shook his head again, making small animal noises of fear in his throat. Nikolai turned to Spender.
"You should have called sooner, my friend." He looked back at Krycek.
He pointed a long finger toward the floor by his feet. Krycek, shaking, finally obeyed. He walked slowly, jerkily toward the man who so terrified him, his body language screaming with every reluctant step that he did *not* want to do this. He reached the designated place beside Nikolai, shrinking as far away from the man as possible, and collapsed on his knees. He cringed, whimpering, as Nikolai reached down and stroked his hair.
"Now, Alexei. What is this? Have you forgotten all of your lessons?"
He grasped Krycek's chin in his hand and tilted the tear-stained face up.
"I am terribly, *terribly* disappointed in you, little one," he said sadly. "You were my proudest accomplishment, Alexei. Can you imagine my embarrassment when Mr. Spender called? To hear how troublesome my little Alexei has become?"
Krycek cringed as Nikolai caressed his face. "When Mr. Spender asked if I might be willing to suspend my retirement and return here to help, I was only too glad to agree." Nikolai's voice became stern.
"I take a great deal of pride in my work, Alexei. I will not tolerate this appalling behavior from you. I have a reputation at stake." He spoke to Spender.
"I do apologize, Charles, for Alexei's forgetting himself this way. I assure you, he will be thoroughly retrained before he is returned to you."
Hearing this, Krycek wailed. He was rocking back and forth again, wide eyes focused on nothing, shivering like a puppy in a thunderstorm. Spender smiled a cool, satisfied smile.
"Thank you, Nikolai. I appreciate your coming all this way to take care of this little," he glanced pointedly at Krycek, "problem. Jason?"
The big man came forward. Spender gestured toward the stricken Krycek. Jason took Krycek by the arm and pulled him to his feet. Krycek panicked. He began screaming and struggling, surprising Jason, who nearly lost his grip on the terrified man. Krycek lost all control, hysteria overtaking him completely.
"PLEASE!" he screamed. "Please, sir, don't let him take me! Don't let him, sir, please!"
Krycek was sobbing so loudly that Skinner thought surely everyone in the building must be able to hear him.
"Please! I'm sorry, sir! I'm sorry!" he cried. "I'll do anything, sir, please! Please don't let him take me!"
He fought with all of his strength to get away, but Jason held him fast, pinioning Krycek's right arm behind his back. Spender took a drag on his cigarette and looked at Krycek pitilessly.
"We've discussed your behavior, Alex. My patience is at an end. Now you will learn again what it is to be obedient." He gathered up his coat and walked to the door.
"Jason, please give Mr. Andreiev any assistance he may require. I will be waiting in the car."
"Yes, sir, Mr. Spender," Jason said.
Nikolai smiled at Spender.
"Not to worry, Charles. A few weeks and you will have your old Alexei back. He only needs reminding of his place and to whom he belongs."
"Thank you, Nikolai. I knew I could count on you."
Spender ground out his cigarette under his shoe and opened the door. Krycek strained, trying to loosen Jason's grip on his arm.
"Please, sir! I'll be good! Please!" Krycek cried, twisting in Jason's grasp.
Spender walked out without looking back, closing the door on Alex's entreaties. Krycek watched the door shut behind his employer and sobbed, his last hope gone. Nikolai walked over to the sofa and sat down. He held his arms out toward Krycek.
"Bring him to me."
Krycek writhed, putting the last of his strength into the effort to escape. Jason wrapped a thick arm around his waist and dragged him over to the sofa, Krycek's feet barely scraping the floor. Jason forced Krycek down onto the sofa. Nikolai reached into the inside pocket of his suit jacket and withdrew several black leather straps.
"No!" Krycek sobbed. "Please---"
Nikolai took Alex's chin in his hand, his fingers gripping tightly enough to leave bruises. His voice was low and cold.
"Stop now, little one."
There could be no mistaking the undercurrent of menace in that deceptively cool, quiet tone. Krycek went very still, trembling and whimpering.
"Hold him, please, Jason."
Jason held Krycek as Nikolai quickly and efficiently bound his ankles tightly together. He then tied Alex's right wrist to the wrist of the prosthetic, binding them in front of him. Krycek was crying steadily, his chest hitching as he sobbed. When Alex was securely bound, Nikolai rose.
"Is there anything else I can do, sir?" asked Jason solicitously, his eyes on Krycek.
The little whore looked so hot, tied and helpless like that. When the slut was brought back, Jason fully intended to have a little talk with Mr. Spender. He smiled. Maybe Christmas would come early this year. Nikolai handed Jason a hundred dollar bill and walked him to the door.
"No thank you, Jason. I think we'll be quite all right."
Jason took the money and left with one last lustful look at Krycek, who sat, his dark head bowed, weeping softly. Nikolai returned to Krycek's side. He sat down and put one arm around Krycek's narrow shoulders, pulling him close.
"Now, Alexei. That is enough."
Nikolai reached into his jacket pocket again, this time retrieving a length of black cloth. Krycek stiffened and tried to pull away, but Nikolai's grip was unyielding.
"No," Alex begged, beginning to cry harder. "no, *please*..."
Nikolai stroked Alex's hair. He spoke in a soothing tone that belied his chilling words.
"We've been apart too long, little one. You really have become quite unmanageable." He cupped Alex's face between his long, tapering hands.
"You have behaved very badly, Alexei. You must be punished. You know that, don't you?" Alex closed his eyes, tears sliding out from under the thick lashes.
"Please don't," he whispered, "please." Nikolai wiped Alex's tears away with his thumbs, then picked up the cloth.
"Hush now, little one. You know it must be done."
Nikolai tied the black cloth tightly across Alex's eyes. Alex shuddered and whimpered, tiny sounds of fright making their way past his pale lips. Nikolai pulled the trembling boy into a tight embrace, forcing Alex to rest his head on Nikolai's chest. Alex lay like a doll in his arms, shaking and crying softly. He was lost again in the dark, bereft and alone. The memories circled, pressing close, and Alex felt himself begin to fade away, eclipsed, ravaged. Shuddering, he whispered one last intelligible word.
Nikolai cradled Alex, running his hand through Alex's damp hair. Alex began to mumble incoherently, the words too soft to hear, interspersed with increasingly shallow, hitching breaths. Stroking Alex's hair, Nikolai spoke softly, as if to a child.
"There, now, little one. My plane is being readied for our journey back to my dacha. You remember it, don't you, Alexei?"
No response. Nikolai didn't appear to notice. He continued, one hand toying with Alex's dark hair.
"You must be corrected, Alexei. You must be reminded to whom you belong. Things will be easier for you then, little one. You'll see."
Alex whimpered faintly. Nikolai pressed Alex's face against his chest, one long, tapering hand absently stroking his hair as one would a pet cat. Alex's eyes were closed. The memories were coming back and he had no defenses left. That hand stroking his hair, the familiar scent of the expensive cologne Nikolai wore, the same as all those years ago. Alex shivered. Nikolai pulled him closer.
"Shhh, little one, try to rest. We have so much work ahead of us."
Alex whimpered again, his mind powerless against the assault of that scent, those hands, that voice. He was fourteen again, hurting and afraid and alone, defenseless against the dark.
Skinner leaned heavily against the wall of the closet. He felt as though he had been mugged. He was in a state of shock, his mind still grappling with the fact that he had just seen Alex Krycek--- *Alex Krycek*---traitor, thief, cold-blooded killer---crouched in the corner sobbing like a terrified child. Krycek had protected him? Krycek had risked death, endured torture, for him? In God's name, why? Skinner watched Nikolai holding Krycek, murmuring in his ear, stroking his hair. Krycek was crying, whispering brokenly. Skinner tried to make sense of it all. In the last hour, everything he thought he knew, everything he believed had been turned upside down. He leaned close to the crack in the door, watching as Nikolai gently sat Krycek up.
Nikolai traced Alex's delicate cheekbone with one long finger.
"Alexei," he breathed, "still so beautiful, little one."
Alex moaned, his trembling growing more pronounced. Nikolai unbuttoned Alex's shirt and pulled it down over his shoulders, exposing his chest. He kissed Alex, feeling the boy's trembling lips part under his. He kissed and licked the tender place where his neck and shoulder met, then bit hard enough to draw blood. Alex cried out, trying weakly to pull away, a thin rivulet of blood threading its way along his collarbone. Nikolai held him close, long fingers stroking, touching, remembering.
He pulled Alex up on his feet and unbuttoned his jeans. Alex sobbed quietly as Nikolai pulled his jeans and boxers down to his knees, pausing to trail his finger down one pale thigh. Nikolai turned Alex around and pressed him back down onto the sofa. Alex was forced onto his stomach, his bound hand trapped painfully under him. Nikolai admired Alex's pale smooth skin, the sweet inviting curve of his buttocks as he lay, panting and afraid, ripe for the taking. Nikolai lay his jacket and tie over the arm of the sofa and began to unbutton his shirt.
"I have missed you, moy lyubov," he breathed, his voice trembling with lust.
"My beautiful boy. So many years, Alexei, and you are even more breathtaking than you were the first day I saw you." He moved toward Alex.
"I will be your teacher again, Alexei. I will punish and correct you, little one, and you will once again be my perfect obedient boy." Alex lay still, the fabric of the cushion rough against his cheek, tears soaking the blindfold. Nikolai unbuckled his belt and reached for his zipper, his erection straining against the fine material of his suit.
Skinner moved soundlessly. He couldn't stop to think. He raised his gun and brought the butt end down in a short, efficient arc, dropping the Russian where he stood. Krycek lay motionless on the sofa, seemingly unaware of what had just happened. Skinner looked around the room, then went to the bedroom and stripped the coverlet from the bed. He returned to the living room, quickly tugging Krycek's jeans and boxers back up before wrapping him in the coverlet. There was no time now to untie him.
Skinner hoisted Krycek over his shoulder, surprised for a moment at how light he was, and opened the apartment door. There was no one in the hallway. Skinner had parked in the alley behind the building, close to the building's back door. Skinner carried his burden down the stairs, the only sound from Krycek a faint moaning. He managed to get him to the car without attracting any undue attention, a fact for which he was supremely grateful. He lay Krycek on the back seat, still wrapped in the coverlet, and drove toward Crystal City as swiftly as he dared.
Skinner carried Krycek into the condominium, pausing only to close the door behind him. He shifted the slight weight on his shoulder, trying not to put too much pressure on Krycek's ribs, remembering his screams as Spender's ferocious kicks had found their mark. The last thing Skinner needed was for Krycek to end up with a punctured lung or worse. He carried Krycek into the guest bedroom and put him down on the bed. Krycek lay still, his lips slightly parted, his skin waxy and pale. Except for the occasional tremor, he had not moved at all since Skinner had taken him from the apartment. Skinner reached for the blindfold and then stopped as his fingertips brushed the black material. What if Krycek awoke and panicked, became hysterical? How would he react when he realized where he was?
Skinner thought uncomfortably of the last time Krycek had been here, remembered Krycek's stunned bellow of pain as Skinner slammed his fist into his stomach. He remembered the look of helplessness and fear on Krycek's face that cold November night as Skinner clipped the handcuff to the balcony railing and left him there. The resignation in those sea green eyes as Skinner walked back into the living room, back into the warmth, sliding the door shut behind him without a backward glance. That long night, tossing and turning in his bed, haunted by those eyes, wondering what it would be like to slide that door open again, plunder those pretty pink lips with his tongue, make that long supple spine arch, make the assassin sigh and shudder and moan. Skinner had taken a not quite cold but far from hot shower, stroking himself to a joyless orgasm, seeing Krycek's hurt, scared face, those sad, unforgettable eyes.
Skinner reached for the blindfold again, steeling himself for whatever happened next. Judging by what he had seen in the apartment, leaving the blindfold on was definitely not an option. He untied the cloth and tossed it aside. Krycek didn't move. He looked exhausted, his closed eyes ringed faintly with dark circles. Skinner moved to untie Krycek's ankles, hissing as he saw the deep red marks the leather straps left in the tender flesh. He began removing the bindings from Krycek's wrists and discovered the prosthetic, uttering a startled exclamation as his fingers closed around the chill plastic. Skinner carefully peeled off Krycek's bloodstained shirt, dropping it on the floor. He unbuckled the straps of the prosthesis and removed it, wincing at the thick scars circling the stump. He glanced up at Krycek's face, feeling amazement and a grudging respect. How in hell had the man survived that?
Skinner stripped off the rest of Krycek's clothing, leaving the boxers. He ran his hand over Krycek's ribs, the prominent ridges telling a tale of too many meals missed. Skinner pressed gently. He didn't think any of the ribs were broken, but spectacular bruises were already beginning to form. Krycek was definitely going to wake up hurting. Skinner went to the bathroom and returned with a wet washcloth. Krycek twitched a little and moaned as Skinner washed the dried blood from his face and chest.
Carefully, Skinner rolled Krycek over onto his stomach, checking for further injuries. Skinner winced again as he saw Krycek's bare, scarred back. Old welts and new ones threaded amongst the bruises and scars. Skinner reached for the waistband of Krycek's boxers, remembering the fleeting glimpse of welts as he had quickly covered Krycek up before fleeing with him. He tugged Krycek's boxers down.
Skinner stood frozen, his expression one of shock and horror. There, in the small of Krycek's back, were six small, perfectly round scars. Cigarette burns. In the shape of a circle. Someone, Skinner had no problem guessing who, had slowly and deliberately pressed a burning cigarette into that soft, vulnerable hollow, holding it there. Blazing, hellish anguish, repeated six times over. He swallowed, feeling the bile rising in his throat. He gently rolled Krycek back over and lifted him up. Krycek's head fell back, exposing his white throat, making him look even younger and more vulnerable.
Skinner looked down at him for a moment, dazed with secrets so unexpectedly revealed, reeling from this glimpse into Krycek's life of misery and fear. Skinner got Krycek into bed and covered him up, leaving Krycek's own coverlet on top, telling himself it was just to keep him warm, to ward off shock. Definitely not because he wanted Krycek to have something of his own, something familiar to comfort him when he awoke.
Skinner sat down heavily in the chair near the bed and cradled his head in his hands, unsurprised to find that they were shaking slightly. What the hell had happened? He watched as Krycek murmured softly, his face taking on a faintly worried expression. He whimpered and then settled again. Skinner's jaw was tense as he remembered Krycek's screams, Krycek's blood stark against his skin. Krycek crying and begging as the men who controlled him did as they pleased with him.
Skinner's gut tightened as he thought of the desire for revenge that had fueled him these last few months. He had wanted to make Krycek scream, make him cry and beg, make him plead for mercy. Skinner looked at the unconscious man in his bed, the monster so suddenly revealed as being all too human. Skinner tried to feel that rage again, to touch that bottomless well of anger for Alex Krycek, that thirst for vengeance. The fury that had fueled him for so long now seemed faint and insubstantial.
His enemy lay helpless in his bed. The man who had betrayed him, betrayed the FBI. The man responsible for Scully's sister. Mulder's father. The nanocytes. Skinner sat in the chair, willing himself to stop shaking, as Krycek's terrified screams echoed again in his mind. He looked at the face of the man he had spent so much time hating. Alex Krycek. The diabolical, dangerous killer. The calculating, clever spy. Krycek was beautiful in repose, his pale pink lips parted slightly, dark hair falling across his forehead, appearing nearly black against his alabaster skin. He didn't look like a killer. He just looked like a little boy in a big bed.
Skinner rose and walked to the door. He needed a drink. He paused for a moment in the doorway, a strange expression crossing his face, looking at the end result of a day in the life of a man who did not make impetuous decisions. Skinner shook his head, glad once again that Mulder couldn't see this. Skinner prided himself on being rational and practical, yet he had left his home that morning with fantasies of revenge, of rough justice. He had thrown his hated enemy over his shoulder like a damsel in distress and spirited him away from the man who was abusing him, and what now? Just what in hell was he going to do with Krycek? Skinner watched as Krycek's head moved fitfully against the pillow. He groaned and then grew quiet again. Skinner hesitated a moment, wondering if he should leave Krycek alone. He went downstairs, leaving the bedroom door open so that he would hear if Krycek awoke.
Alex clawed his way out of the dark for a moment. His eyes opened slightly as the man in the doorway turned and left the room. Alex saw his face as he turned, and fear gripped him. Skinner. Alex tried to think but his thoughts were murky and sluggish. Spender had given him to Skinner. Alex's mouth was very dry and he wished for some water. He whimpered. He knew how hard Skinner could hit. He tried to stay very quiet. Maybe if he was quiet Skinner wouldn't put him out on the balcony. A tear slid down Alex's cheek. He wondered if Skinner would kill him. He was so tired. His ribs and back hurt. Another tear spilled onto the pillow and Alex was sucked back under again.
Skinner rummaged in the kitchen cabinet for the bottle of Glenfiddich he kept for company. He himself drank only on occasion. This was, he thought to himself, one hell of an occasion. He dropped ice cubes into the glass and splashed the scotch over them. He drank it in one swallow and poured another. He leaned against the counter, trying to come to terms with what had happened. The nanocytes. If what he had heard in Krycek's apartment was true, the nightmare was over. Skinner blinked, his eyes suddenly full of hot tears. The hope was overwhelming, devastating. Could it really be over? Could his life really be his again? Were the deadly dark machines that haunted his dreams really powerless now?
Skinner shook his head numbly. Krycek had done this. Krycek had been beaten and terrorized and nearly raped because he had done this. Skinner glanced toward the stairway. Why? He felt the anger welling up within him. Why? Why would Krycek risk his life to save me? He resented him at that moment, resented the beaten man who lay in his bed. Did he do it so that I would owe him my life? So that I would be beholden to him, obligated to repay the favor? Skinner put the bottle away before he was tempted into a third drink. He would get Krycek awake and talking. Once he was well enough, he would be on his way. Debt paid in full.
Unbidden, his mind replayed the image of Krycek huddled in the corner, pleading through his tears as the Russian man called him to heel like a dog. Krycek curling into a ball as Spender's shoe thudded into him. Krycek on his stomach, his jeans and boxers around his knees, blind and helpless. Skinner put his glass in the sink, a little harder than necessary. A few hours ago, he had hated Alex Krycek more than anyone he had ever known. Now, he didn't know how he felt. He thought of those six perfectly round scars burned into the soft skin at the base of Krycek's spine. He saw Krycek, beaten, kicked, struggling to stay on his knees, blood dripping onto his white shirt. Saw Krycek asking for the kindness of murder. Spender's bloodless smile around his cigarette, smoke curling from his lips as he coolly promised suffering unforetold. No one, not even Alex Krycek, deserved to go back to that.
Skinner was starting back up the stairs when he heard a knock at the door. He crossed the living room to the door and looked through the peephole, his gut already telling him who it would be. Spender stood in the hallway, smiling coldly, the big man standing silently behind him. Skinner opened the door. Spender raised his eyebrows and spoke with that grating false cordiality that made Skinner want to hit him.
"Mr. Skinner? I do believe you have something of mine." Skinner glared past Spender at Jason.
"The gorilla stays in the hallway."
Spender smiled again, turning to Jason.
"Jason? Please wait here. I'm sure Mr. Skinner and I can discuss this small matter like gentlemen."
The big man's lip curled. He nodded at Spender and stepped a few paces away, his hands in his pockets. He cursed under his breath as Skinner stepped aside and allowed Spender to enter. He hoped he would get the chance to teach that bald bastard some manners.
Skinner closed the door and stood just beside it, his arms folded. He did not want this man in his home and he was not about to allow him to think otherwise. Spender dragged on his cigarette and exhaled a cloud of smoke, ignoring the look of disgust on Skinner's face.
"That was fast," Skinner said sarcastically.
"I'm a resourceful man, Mr. Skinner," Spender replied. "My colleague has a rather nasty headache. Your handiwork, I presume?" Skinner met his eye coolly.
"You tell me."
Spender laughed humorlessly.
"All right, Mr. Skinner, all right," he held up his hands in mock surrender. "You were observed as you left Mr. Krycek's apartment building. With my property. If you will be so kind as to return what is mine, I will be on my way."
Skinner appeared to consider this. He kept his gaze coolly fixed on Spender as he readied himself. He was going to have to bluff this out, and he was going against the master of the game.
"I want him."
Spender chuckled drily.
"Most people want the things they steal. May I ask why you want Mr. Krycek?"
"Revenge," Skinner growled. "I owe that little rat bastard. I want to make him regret every second of every minute of every day he's lived since he betrayed me. And then there's the little matter of the nanocytes."
Skinner managed to keep his voice even. Standing in his own home, faced with the man who had engineered his death, was requiring all of his strength not to throttle Spender. Spender calmly smoked his cigarette.
"Go on," he encouraged.
Skinner envisioned taking revenge on the man truly responsible for his suffering and when he spoke, knew that the requisite cold gleam was present in his eyes, knew that his smile was feral and dangerous.
"I've decided I need a hobby. Making Alex Krycek's life a living hell sounds like something I'd be good at." Spender raised an eyebrow.
"So you decided to make off with my property? Not very polite, Mr. Skinner."
Spender's eyes were flat and unreadable. Skinner knew he was on dangerous ground. He chose his words carefully, hiding his disgust at what he heard himself saying.
"When I found out where the rat was living, I wanted revenge," he said, trying to sound a little sheepish. "I didn't stop to think. I apologize for the inconvenience my hasty actions have caused you and your colleague," he paused. "But I want Alex Krycek. What's it going to take?" Spender's smile made Skinner feel suddenly chilly.
"Hmm, a very interesting situation, indeed," he said thoughtfully. "Mr. Krycek can be very troublesome. I have invested tremendous amounts of time and money on his training and still he remains stubborn and disobedient." He sighed, sounding truly put-upon. "My patience has been sorely tested. I had been thinking of disposing of him." Skinner held himself in check. To sound too eager now would be a mistake.
"Let me take him off your hands," he said. "I have a number of scores to settle with him. He'll beg for death before I'm through. Besides," he added, giving Spender a sympathetic look, "he's not getting any younger. What is he? Almost thirty? And with only one arm. He's not much good to you anymore, hardly worth his keep, I'm sure." Skinner smiled again, a shameless we-are-men-of-the- world-aren't-we grin. Spender fell for it.
"I'm sure you would make his remaining time on earth exquisitely painful," he said, taking another slow drag on his cigarette. "I must admit the irony appeals to me. I rather like the idea of that little whore being consigned to live out his days under the control of the man who hates him more than anyone in the world." He smoked thoughtfully. Skinner kept his expression carefully neutral. At length, Spender gestured magnanimously.
"All right, Mr. Skinner. You have a deal. There is, of course, the matter of payment."
Skinner's stomach did a flip-flop. Here it comes, he thought. He wondered what Spender would want. The X-Files closed down again? Mulder assigned to some remote outpost? He swallowed, wondering if he had gone too far. Spender continued.
"I'm sure you'll find my price reasonable. Shall we say, five thousand dollars?" Caught off-guard, Skinner gaped at Spender.
"You've got to be kidding," he said. "Do you realize what you're saying?" Spender caught Skinner's look of amazement and sniffed impatiently.
"Alex Krycek is mine, to beat, to kill or to sell. I am giving you a special price, as a *friend*." Coming from Spender's mouth, the word was grotesque. "I am only recouping my original investment, Mr. Skinner, I am hardly making a profit." Skinner stared at him silently.
"Ah, I see I've offended your delicate sensibilities. If it makes it easier for you, Mr. Skinner, you may consider it compensation for my inconvenience, as well as for the considerable cost involved in his care and training."
He smiled, enjoying Skinner's obvious discomfort. Spender continued drily, as though this were an ordinary business transaction. For him, Skinner thought with contempt, it undoubtedly was.
"No reason for you to feel your irreproachable integrity has been impugned."
Spender's tone was gently mocking. Skinner glared at him. The seconds ticked by, Spender studying him as at cat would a mouse. What the hell am I doing? Skinner thought. He swallowed. He would have to go along with it. What was the alternative? To carry Krycek's limp, battered body downstairs and hand him over to this monster? Skinner hid his revulsion and extended his hand to Spender. Compensation. That was how he would have to think of it.
"Agreed." Spender's hand was dry and cold. Skinner wanted nothing more at that moment than to thrust his hand under the kitchen tap and scrub the flesh raw. With much effort, he kept his mask intact. Spender glanced around the room.
"Where is dear Alex?" he asked casually.
Skinner braced himself. It was time for the coup de grace. He smiled again, trying for sadistic malice, the answering gleam in Spender's eyes telling him he was successful.
"He's upstairs in the closet. He didn't like that too much, I'm afraid. I had to gag him so the neighbors wouldn't hear him yelling. I don't think he likes his collar and chains, either. He's quite a bad little dog, but I intend to beat the disobedience right out of him. I'd like for you to see him, but he's in deep bondage and I don't want to interfere with his training."
Skinner held his breath. He had lain his cards on the table. If Spender called his bluff, his story was blown. It was a foolish chance to take, perhaps, but he had to be sure. He had to know that Spender believed him. Spender glanced toward the stairs, then at his watch.
"Thank you just the same, Mr. Skinner. The sooner I wash my hands of that worthless slut, the better. I have other business to attend to this afternoon." Skinner escorted him to the door, hiding his relief. Skinner opened the door and Spender turned.
"You will receive instructions regarding payment. You will make a deposit into one of my foreign accounts. Quite untraceable, I assure you." Skinner nodded.
"Just curious," he said, nonchalantly, pasting an expression of casualness on his face. "How long have you had him?" Spender reached into his pocket for his pack of Morleys and shook out another cigarette.
"He was fourteen when I obtained him. Beautiful boy, so much potential." He sighed again. "Despite my best efforts, he's only useful as a whore, and most of the time he can't even do that right." He shook his head as he left. "Do yourself and the world a favor, Mr. Skinner. Have your revenge and then put a bullet in him. Let me know if you require assistance with the disposal of the body." Spender walked down the hall, followed by Jason, who shot Skinner one last, seething look over his shoulder.
Skinner shut the door and then leaned against it, his eyes closed. His stomach was roiling. The smug bastard who had tried his level best to kill him had just violated his home, then walked out unscathed. Skinner itched to take the man apart with his bare hands, but he knew it would never happen. Spender was literally untouchable. Skinner walked into the kitchen and took down the bottle of antacid. He chewed one of the chalky, fruit-flavored tablets and then another, for good measure.
He put a hand on the back of his neck, rubbing the taut muscles. He, Walter Sergei Skinner, had just arranged to *buy* another human being. He had agreed to purchase Krycek from Spender as though he were an animal. Skinner shook his head. No. He couldn't allow himself to think in those terms, to think like Spender. He wasn't purchasing Krycek. He was purchasing Krycek's freedom. A fool's argument, he knew. It was a subtle difference. Subtle, Walt? He chided himself. Try practically nonexistent. He just had to hope it would be enough to help him sleep at night.
Skinner shook his head. He suddenly had a vivid picture of Krycek's life and it was not a picture he wanted to see. It would have been so much easier to be able to keep hating him, to keep seeing him as the victimizer. It was all too obvious now who the victim was. Fourteen. Skinner closed his eyes again, remembering himself at fourteen. A tall, gangly boy who could outrun almost anyone, his father proudly clapping him on the back after he placed first in the all-county track meet. His first school dance, the school gymnasium decorated with balloons and crepe paper. Stealing a kiss from Sarah Swanson by the punch bowl, telling her jokes so he could see the way her little freckled nose crinkled up when she laughed.
Skinner stood, his hands in his pockets, thinking about Krycek. Had Krycek ever gotten to experience any of those things? Had he ever had the chance to experience anything at all except misery and fear? He wondered about Krycek's parents. Where were they? Had they sold their son to Spender? Skinner remembered Spender's cold, casual words. Original investment. Spender had purchased a fourteen-year old Alex Krycek for five thousand dollars.
Skinner frowned. No matter what else happened, he would have to make sure Krycek never found out about the five thousand dollars. Skinner was disgusted enough with the situation. He couldn't bear to see that disgust in the eyes of another, even Krycek. Skinner had more than enough in his retirement fund to supply Spender's blood money. He would pay the man and then try to forget it ever happened.
Skinner heard a stifled cry from upstairs. He quickly climbed the stairs to the bedroom. Krycek was struggling to sit up, his one hand clutching his side, his face contorted with pain. He froze when he saw Skinner, his green eyes huge and frightened. Seeing Krycek's fear, Skinner spoke quietly and soothingly.
"Don't move around too much, be careful of your ribs."
He took a step toward the bed, intending to help Krycek position himself more comfortably. Krycek whimpered and shrank back against the headboard. Skinner backed off, keeping his hands at his sides, trying to appear as unthreatening as possible. He could imagine what Krycek was thinking, having been the recipient of Skinner's hospitality in the not-too-distant past. Skinner cautiously pulled the chair a little further from the bed and sat down. Krycek watched his every move, trembling, his breathing shallow. Skinner spoke again, softly and deliberately.
"Take it easy, Krycek, I'm not going to hurt you."
Krycek swallowed nervously and bit his lip, those terrified eyes full of pain and distrust.
"Do you want me to help you sit up?" Krycek didn't answer. Skinner tried again.
"Look, you can't stay in that position," he nodded toward Krycek, who was propped up awkwardly on one side. "You're putting too much strain on your ribs." Skinner stood up very slowly and went to the closet, retrieving an extra pillow from the top shelf. He turned back to Krycek.
"I'm just going to make you more comfortable, okay?"
He took a careful step toward the bed. Krycek's trembling increased. It was obvious that it was requiring a monumental effort on his part to remain still. Skinner advanced slowly, the pillow held in front of him like a shield. He reached the side of the bed and stopped.
"Are you ready?"
Krycek shivered and closed his eyes, waiting for the hurt. Now Skinner would hit him, pull him from this warm bed and drag him out into the cold. He was pretending to be nice so he could make his revenge all the more sweet. Skinner reached down and placed his hand under Krycek's arm, then carefully pulled him up, placing the pillow behind his back. Krycek watched him closely as he returned to the chair.
"See? That wasn't so bad, was it?" Skinner said.
Krycek hesitated, then gave a small shake of his dark head. Skinner was worried. Krycek was far too pale, a thin sheen of sweat shone on his forehead and upper lip. Skinner leaned forward slightly, trying not to spook the frightened man.
"Are you in a lot of pain?" Krycek nodded slowly.
"Where do you hurt?"
For a moment it seemed Krycek would not answer, but then he did, staring at his lap, his voice so low Skinner had to lean closer to hear.
"All over, sir," he said softly. "My ribs and my back."
Skinner breathed a small sigh of relief. At least Krycek was talking.
"I've got some painkillers in the medicine cabinet. I'll bring you one. It'll help with the discomfort." Krycek's reaction was extreme. He whimpered again and began to shake.
"NO! Please, sir, no drugs," he begged, his voice breaking. "Please, please don't, sir."
Skinner was surprised at Krycek's reaction. If he had taken a beating like that, he would have been begging for a Percocet. He also found Krycek's use of the word "sir" a little strange, but he let it go for the moment. Right now he needed to calm the man down.
"Okay, okay Krycek," he said soothingly. "No drugs. But you need something. You're in pain and I'm afraid it's probably going to get worse before it gets better. How about something a little less strong, strictly over-the counter? Will you take a couple of Tylenol?"
Alex looked at him for a long time before nodding. Skinner left the room. Alex could hear him opening the medicine cabinet and rummaging through it. Alex stared at the empty bedroom doorway. He was confused. He had been awake a few minutes now, and Skinner hadn't hurt him yet. He was in a soft warm bed, under his own coverlet. How had that gotten here? He tried to remember. He remembered Spender, and Nikolai. His stomach tightened and he trembled. Spender had given him to Skinner, after all. But why was Skinner being so nice? Alex swallowed again, his pale lips a tight line. Revenge. That had to be it. He was being solicitous now but then he would pull the rug out from under Alex and hurt him badly. Alex blinked back tears.
Skinner returned with the pills and a glass of water. Wary of Krycek's skittishness, he moved slowly, avoiding any sudden moves. He walked to the side of the bed and held the pills out to Krycek in the palm of his hand.
"See? It says 'Tylenol'. That's all they are. Might take the edge off the pain, at least."
Skinner knew that was far from likely, but Krycek's terrified reaction to the suggestion of painkillers made him reluctant to press the subject any further. Krycek shyly reached for the pills, his fingers brushing Skinner's hand. He studied the pills for a moment and then put them in his mouth. He took the glass of water, spilling a little as he maneuvered it to his mouth with a shaking hand. Skinner helped him hold the glass steady while he drank. Skinner put the glass on the nightstand, beside Krycek's prosthetic. He had left it where Krycek could see it when he awoke, and had noted with satisfaction that Krycek had looked at it several times, as if he wanted to reassure himself that it was close by. Skinner stood by the bed silently, trying to think of what to say next. Krycek stared down at the coverlet, his expression blank, his fingers toying with a loose thread. Skinner cleared his throat.
"I'd like to talk to you. Are you up to it?"
Krycek looked up in surprise, then gave a slight nod. When was Skinner going to stop toying with him? He was here, he was helpless, he was hurting. Go on and finish it, he thought. Skinner moved slowly back to the chair and sat down. Skinner looked at Krycek for a few moments, then began.
"I know what you did, Krycek. The nanocytes. I know you were ordered to kill me and you didn't." Krycek looked up sharply, his eyes wide.
"I was there, in your apartment. I heard everything."
Skinner took a deep breath and continued. He needed to say this, needed Krycek to hear it.
"I went there for revenge," he paused as Krycek's body stiffened, "I wanted to hurt you."
"I wanted to hurt you so badly that you would at least be able to imagine what I was going through. I wanted to beat you until you told me how to free myself from those goddamned machines."
Skinner fought to keep his voice low and even. Krycek was even paler, if that were possible, and he had begun to tremble again. His hand was clutching the coverlet, his head bent as he listened silently.
"But Spender showed up, and I hid. I heard the truth, Krycek, all of it. I saw what they did to you. I didn't have time to think, I just got you and me both the hell out of there."
Krycek looked up. His face had that frightened, hunted look again.
"Spender? Oh God, what time is it? How long have I been here?"
Krycek roughly pushed back the coverlet and tried to get up. Skinner jumped up from the chair and rushed to the bed, grabbing Krycek's shoulders.
"Hey! What the hell do you think you're doing?"
Krycek struggled, the pain of his sudden movements making him gasp.
"You don't understand," he said, frantically trying to free himself from Skinner's grasp. "I have to get back, he'll be angry, he'll hurt me---"
Skinner held Krycek tightly, immobilizing him. He looked into Krycek's panicked eyes.
"Krycek. Stop it. Krycek!" he said, using his military voice. Krycek stilled, shaking and panting with fright.
"Are you listening to me, Krycek?" Krycek swallowed and nodded.
Skinner let go, not relaxing until Krycek settled back a little against the pillows.
"Calm down. It's over, Krycek. You don't ever have to go back to him again."
Alex's mouth opened soundlessly. His eyes were uncomprehending, disbelieving.
It couldn't be true. There was no way to get away from Spender. Why was Skinner saying this? Was he setting him up for punishment, keeping him from Spender until Spender thought he'd run away? Alex shivered at the thought. Skinner saw the doubt in Krycek's eyes.
"It's true, Krycek. He won't ever bother you again," Skinner said. Krycek shook his head, as though it would clear away the confusion.
"I met with him. Here, downstairs. He just left a little while ago."
Alex gaped at Skinner incredulously.
"He was *here*?" Skinner nodded.
Alex looked at Skinner's face, his eyes searching for the sadistic smile, the malicious flicker in the eyes that would reveal this to be another cruelty. He didn't find it. He looked down at his shaking hand, clutching the coverlet.
"It's really true, sir?" he whispered.
"Yes," Skinner said simply.
Krycek's face was a map of conflicting emotions. He trembled, blinking back tears as he tried to come to grips with the enormity of what he had just been told. Skinner sat silently, waiting for Krycek to regain his composure. He had to admit, it felt good, even slightly heroic, giving Krycek his freedom. He felt better already, that suffocating feeling of obligation loosening slightly. He would help Krycek get back on his feet, give him a little money to get himself started somewhere, and then they would be even. A life for a life. Skinner smiled. He just hoped the old man would keep his end of the agreement. He hoped his performance had been convincing enough. Krycek looked up, his expression strange. Even though he sat only a few inches away, Skinner had to lean forward to hear him.
"Am I yours now?"
Spoken in a near-whisper. Skinner looked at Krycek in amazement. Krycek's eyes were grave. Skinner saw something else in those eyes, something he was not prepared for. Trust. Hope.
It came out sharply, more sharply than Skinner had intended. Krycek's eyes filled with tears. He was confused. Hadn't Skinner just told him he wasn't Spender's anymore? Hadn't Skinner brought him here and put him into bed? Alex's lower lip trembled.
"Don't you want me, sir?" he asked sorrowfully, a tear sliding down his cheek. "I'll be good, you won't have to hurt me. Please, sir," he gulped. "please don't send me away."
Alex was terrified. Why had Skinner saved him, if he didn't want him? Who would he be given to? Would he be given back to Nikolai? Krycek trembled again. He knew only that Skinner had not yet hurt him. He was in a warm bed. Skinner had seemed concerned about his pain, given him pills. He couldn't remember the last time he had been in the same room with another man for this length of time and had not been hurt. Would Skinner send him away? Alex sniffled. He had nowhere to go.
Skinner watched in growing alarm as Alex became more and more distressed. Damn, he thought, this wasn't the way it was supposed to go at all. He had tried to give Krycek his freedom and had only succeeded in making the boy think *he* was his new master!
Krycek was trying to get up again, tears running unchecked down his pale cheeks. Skinner grasped his shoulders again, holding him still. Krycek turned to him, his eyes frightened and confused.
"Who do I belong to? Please, sir, please tell me, who do I belong to?" His voice broke, and he began sobbing in earnest.
"Please tell me, Skinner. Please tell me who owns me. If I don't do what they want, they'll hurt me. Please, sir, please tell me what I'm supposed to do."
He looked at Skinner pleadingly. Krycek's breathing had become erratic again. He was on the verge of full-blown hysteria. All that moving around wasn't doing his ribs any good, either. Skinner spoke quickly.
"Okay, okay, Krycek," he said.
He gently grasped Krycek's chin and forced him to look into his eyes, hoping to calm him as quickly as possible.
"Listen to me. I'm-you're mine, okay?" Skinner couldn't quite believe he was saying this. "You belong to me now. I'm not going to hurt you and I'm not going to send you away. You're safe here."
Skinner winced as he unintentionally echoed his own past words, words he had growled out in anger before hitting Krycek as hard as he could and chaining him on the balcony like an animal. If Krycek noticed Skinner's discomfort, he did not show it. Instead, he looked back up at Skinner, his eyes brimming with tears.
"You mean it?" he said tentatively. "You won't send me back?"
Skinner hesitated almost imperceptibly. He wasn't sure where this was going. Krycek was obviously shellshocked and helpless, apparently having suffered some sort of breakdown. He had suffered horrific abuse and was going to need careful handling to gain any semblance of normalcy. Krycek looked at him, pleading with his eyes. Skinner nodded.
Krycek sagged with relief, sinking back into the pillows, his eyes closed. His wet eyelashes fluttered slightly. Skinner watched him, silently reproving himself. Well, you brought him here, Walt. He's your responsibility. What did you think was going to happen? The man has been a virtual slave since the age of fourteen. He's been beaten, burned and very likely raped. Did you really think he was just going to thank you, dust himself off and sail out the door to begin a new life? Skinner made a mental note to make sure this was his last impetuous decision. Ever. Krycek interrupted his reverie with a tug on his sleeve. Skinner looked at Krycek. Krycek's eyes were big and serious.
"How do you want me, sir?" he said softly, almost sadly.
Skinner sat puzzled for a moment. He realized what Krycek was asking and a sharp pang of sympathy pierced his heart. How many times must he have said that, in that same soft, sad voice? Skinner frowned slightly, pressing Krycek firmly but gently back against the pillows. He pulled the coverlet back up, tucking it in around him.
"Just like that, flat on your back, covers up to your chin," he said firmly.
Krycek looked up, confused. Skinner looked down at Krycek with just the barest hint of a smile.
He left the room, making sure to leave the bedside light on. Alex lay staring up at the ceiling, surprised at Skinner's reaction. He had expected to be used, hadn't expected to be tucked into bed with such gentleness, with nothing expected of him. Alex sighed and let himself relax a little, though his mind wouldn't let him rest. Was Spender really gone from his life? Alex couldn't even begin to comprehend it. Could he stay here with Skinner and not be hurt? Alex knew this couldn't last. At least when the hurt started again, he would have a memory of being cared for. Alex yawned, wincing as his ribs protested. In a few moments, he was fast asleep.
Krycek slept on and off throughout the night. Skinner dozed in the chair by the bed, a blanket over his legs, waking frequently to check on Krycek. Krycek's bruising was severe. He was black and blue over most of his torso and lower back, with some patches of yellow. His tortured muscles were beginning to seize up, and Krycek moaned in pain even as he slept. Skinner woke him every few hours to give him more Tylenol, Krycek peering blearily at the pills before he would swallow them. Skinner had been sorely tempted to slip Krycek a Percocet, but held himself back. He didn't want to erode any fragile trust that might have built between them in the short time Krycek had been there.
Skinner awoke as Krycek gasped in pain. He had tried to sit up on his own. Skinner rubbed his eyes and got up from the chair.
"Krycek? What are you doing?" Krycek looked at him fearfully.
"I have to go to the bathroom, sir," he said timidly. Skinner looked at him doubtfully.
"I don't know," he said. "You're in a lot of pain. I can bring you a bottle." Krycek considered this, his face reddening.
"Please sir," he said softly. "I'd like to try to walk."
Skinner held out his hand to help Krycek up. Krycek flinched back. Skinner exhaled, trying to remain patient. He sat down on the edge of the bed next to Krycek.
"You know, Krycek," he said, not unkindly. "If I'm going to be taking care of you, you're going to have to work on not being afraid of me."
Krycek looked down, nodded.
"I'm sorry, sir," he whispered.
"Don't apologize," Skinner said firmly, but smiling as he did so.
"Tell me, have I hurt you? Have I done anything to harm you since you've been here?" Krycek shook his head.
"Then just try, Krycek, that's all I ask. I know it'll take time before you trust me. Just try to get used to me, that's all."
Krycek looked up again, as if he wanted to say something. Skinner waited, but Krycek only glanced down again, then nodded. Skinner gently eased Krycek up off the bed. Krycek moved slowly down the hall, in obvious agony, shuffling like an old man. Skinner waited outside the bathroom door until he heard the toilet flush, then helped Krycek back to bed. Krycek fell back against the pillows, exhausted, falling back to sleep almost immediately. Skinner sat back in the chair, pulling the blanket around him. He was definitely going to have to deal with this "sir" issue.
At precisely eight the next morning, Skinner called his personal assistant, Kimberly, and advised her that he would be taking his accumulated vacation time immediately.
"All...all nine weeks, sir?"
"Yes, Kimberly. I have a...personal matter to attend to. AD Kersh will be handling any matters that arise in my absence."
Skinner had called him ten minutes before, and he hadn't sounded happy. Too bad, Skinner thought. He went upstairs to check on his guest. Krycek was sleeping, curled in a ball, a shock of dark hair peeking out from under the covers. Skinner went back downstairs and read the newspaper, working his way through most of a pot of coffee as he did, listening all the while for any sounds from the guest room. It was half past nine when he went to check on Krycek again. He found him sitting propped up against the pillows, his head turned toward the window, the sun playing across his face.
"How are you feeling?" Krycek opened his eyes, squinting a little.
"Sore," he admitted. Skinner looked at him carefully.
"When was the last time you ate something, Krycek?" Krycek looked down quickly, not meeting Skinner's eyes.
"I...I don't remember, sir."
He really didn't. He had lived on instant soup for a few days, but before that, he wasn't sure. He couldn't remember the last time he had had an appetite. Skinner left the room, returning a few minutes later carrying a tray with a bowl of cereal and milk and a glass of orange juice. He placed the tray on Krycek's lap and sat down beside the bed.
"Mind if I keep you company?" he asked.
Krycek shook his head, toying unenthusiastically with the spoon in the cereal. Skinner had decided to try to spend as much time in the room as possible when Krycek was awake. Maybe then Krycek would start to get used to him.
"Come on now. Stop playing with it and eat it," he admonished gently.
Krycek looked up with a strange expression, and then took a mouthful of cereal. He managed to eat about two-thirds of the cereal and drank all of the juice. Not bad for a start, Skinner thought. Krycek closed his eyes as Skinner took the tray, the effort of eating the small meal having worn him out. He drowsed as Skinner went downstairs and cleaned up the breakfast dishes, waking when Skinner returned carrying a small television set. He put it on the chest of drawers that sat against the opposite wall and plugged it in.
"I thought you might like this, to help pass the time."
"Thank you, sir," Krycek murmured. "Maybe later." Skinner sat down in the chair.
"Krycek? I think we need to set a few ground rules." Krycek nodded, his posture straightening perceptibly. He understood rules.
"Yes, sir." Skinner smiled, trying to put the younger man at ease.
"First, you don't have to call me sir. In fact, I'd prefer it if you didn't. This bald head of mine makes me feel old enough."
He smiled again, watching carefully for Krycek's reaction. Krycek looked down for a long while, then looked up.
"Okay," he said softly, not smiling at Skinner's joke. "I...I always...I mean, I might forget sometimes."
His eyes told Skinner everything he needed to know. If Krycek had ever forgotten his manners once, it was a safe bet there hadn't been a second time. Skinner knew he was seeing the direct result of years of programming through terror and abuse.
"It's all right, Krycek. I won't get angry if you call me sir. I know you're used to saying it and it may take time for you to relax enough so that you don't feel like you have to. Just try, that's all. I know," he said brightly. "Why don't you just call me Skinner?"
Krycek looked down, smiling slightly, and nodded. Skinner continued.
"Secondly, I am not going to hurt you. Not today, not tomorrow, not next week. Do you understand?"
Krycek hesitated, then nodded again. Skinner pressed further.
"I want you to say it." Krycek cleared his throat nervously and looked at Skinner. "Go on," Skinner encouraged. "I want to hear you say that you understand that."
"I understand...that you won't hurt me," Krycek said, a little unsteadily. Skinner was pleased.
"Do you believe that, Krycek?" Krycek stared at the coverlet for a long while, then spoke in a whisper.
Skinner knew better than to believe him. The tense shoulders, the bowed head, the nervous fingers plucking at the coverlet, all told him that Krycek was far from certain about anything at this point. Skinner decided to let it go, for now. There was no use in trying to talk the boy into trusting him. He would have to let him see for himself, day by day, that he was safe.
"Very good." Skinner stood. "The third and last rule is," he pointed at Krycek with mock sternness. "You get better. You eat and you rest and take your Tylenol and get better. Understood?"
Krycek nodded, his eyes suddenly and suspiciously bright. He ducked his head. Skinner took a deep breath. He wanted to proceed cautiously, get the boy used to his presence. Rushing things would only panic Krycek.
"Is it all right if I sit on the edge of the bed?"
Krycek tensed and for a moment Skinner was sure he was going to say no. After a long while, thought, Krycek nodded almost imperceptibly. Skinner sat on the edge of the bed, gingerly, so as not to jar Krycek. Krycek watched him warily. Skinner made sure not to get too close. He spoke softly.
"It was hard, with Spender."
It wasn't a question. Krycek nodded again, a lump in his throat. Skinner was afraid of upsetting Krycek, but he wanted to get him talking, and there were things Skinner wanted to know.
"Those burns on your back, Krycek..."
Krycek caught his breath and looked down, his face scarlet. Skinner cautiously put a hand on Krycek's arm. Krycek jumped a little but did not pull away. Emboldened, Skinner put a finger under Krycek's chin and tilted his face upward.
"Don't be ashamed, Krycek. It's not your fault. Do you want to tell me about it?" Krycek bit his lip, then spoke quietly.
"It was for Bill Mulder."
Krycek looked up at Skinner's face, watching intently for any sign of judgment. He saw none. Skinner waited for him to continue.
"I was supposed to kill him. I went there but I couldn't. I just...couldn't. Spender didn't trust me. He had Jason follow me. I hid in the bathroom but I couldn't do it. I couldn't," he paused, his voice choked, "I couldn't take his father away. Bill Mulder came into the bathroom and Jason shot him through the window, then he dragged me back to Spender. Spender did that to me. He made a circle, he said so I wouldn't ever forget that I was nothing, zero."
Krycek laughed softly.
"And I never have." Skinner tilted Krycek's face up again, noting the tears in his eyes.
"I don't want to hear you say that again," he growled.
Krycek's eyes widened. Skinner's tone softened.
"You are *not* nothing. Spender is a cruel, sadistic old man who victimized and abused you. I know it's going to be hard for you to try and unlearn all the horrible things you've been taught, but," he paused, his own words surprising him, "I'll help you."
Krycek blinked, his mouth falling slightly open. He flushed and looked down so that Skinner wouldn't see his eyes filling again. Skinner stood again, smoothing out the creases in his trousers.
"How about a nap until lunch?" Krycek nodded.
"Yes, s---I mean, yes," he said, catching himself.
He tried to keep himself from flinching, the response was so ingrained in him. He looked up at Skinner, and saw only a proud smile.
"Very good. Let me know if you need anything."
Skinner went downstairs and busied himself, tidying up and making a few phone calls. Except for one trip to the bathroom, Krycek slept until noon. Skinner helped him sit up so he could eat, then brought in the tray.
"Think you can handle chicken noodle soup and a sandwich?"
Krycek nodded, although he wasn't at all sure about the soup. Skinner had brought his lunch up, too.
"I thought we'd eat together," he said. Krycek hesitated, then nodded.
They ate in companionable silence. Skinner polished off his sandwich and started on his mug of soup in the time it took Krycek to eat a few bites of his sandwich and three spoonfuls of soup. Skinner frowned. The boy was too thin and his appetite did not seem to be improving. Skinner took the tray and handed Krycek the remote control for the television.
"Why don't you watch a little TV while I clean up? I think you should try to stay awake for a while."
Krycek flipped around, finding little of interest, finally settling back to watch a documentary on sharks. Skinner went downstairs and put the dishes into the dishwasher, thinking all the while. Krycek needed some meat on his bones, and he wasn't eating enough at meals to do it. A memory surfaced. Skinner had gone into the cafeteria in the Hoover building for a late lunch and encountered the new agent raiding the snack machine. Skinner had thought he looked awkward in his unfashionable suit, as though he were wearing his father's clothes. He had made pleasant conversation with Agent Krycek as the fresh-faced rookie produced a handful of change and purchased several chocolate bars.
"Just stocking up," he had said, looking a little embarrassed.
Skinner remembered seeing Krycek at his desk, poring over a stack of files, absently nibbling on a Hershey bar. Even Mulder had commented on the man's propensity for consuming chocolate, seeing no parity whatsoever between that and his own sunflower seed habit. Four years later, Skinner stood in his kitchen, grinning. He went into the pantry and rummaged around on the shelf, exclaiming triumphantly when he found what he was looking for.
Sharon had loved gadgets of all kinds. When they were still married, Skinner had never known what new gizmo she was going to come home with next. There was the electric rice steamer, the dehydrator, the juicer, the milkshake machine. Skinner held it in his hands. The only gadget she had ever bought that had had his enthusiastic approval.
When Sharon moved out of their home in Alexandria, Skinner had surreptitiously squirreled the milkshake machine away so that she wouldn't take it with her. He had made prodigious use of it until his doctor put a stop to his one-a-day milkshake habit. He had sadly packed it on the top shelf of the pantry, behind the olive oil and canned soup. It was made of gleaming chrome, just like the old-fashioned ones in the ice cream parlor back when he was a kid. He took it into the kitchen and wiped the dust off with a dishcloth, then washed and rinsed the metal cup.
He opened the freezer and took out the premium chocolate ice cream he had bought on impulse a few days before, intending to indulge his occasional sweet tooth. His doctor hadn't forbidden him the occasional bowl of ice cream, now had he? It was a weak rationalization, Skinner knew, but one he was glad to have made. He dropped two scoops of the ice cream into the cup, followed by a generous amount of milk, chocolate syrup and three heaping spoonfuls of protein powder. He went to work, blending the milkshake to perfection, not too thin, not too thick. He poured it into a tall glass, impulsively adding a dollop of the real whipped cream he kept for hot chocolate and the apple pies that Mrs. Napoli down the hall brought him, always remembering her bachelor neighbor when she baked.
Skinner started toward the stairs and paused, returning to the kitchen. He opened the cabinet door and felt for the small bottle of chocolate sprinkles. Good, it was still there. He shook a liberal amount decoratively over the top of the whipped cream, pleased with his creation. Skinner smiled as he headed for the stairs. He was fond of Mrs. Napoli. She was a widow and liked to bring him pies and cakes, no doubt thinking that he never got a decent meal. He hadn't had the heart to tell her that he made a pretty mean apple pie himself.
Krycek turned off the television when Skinner came in. Skinner stood next to the bed.
"Don't turn it off because of me." Krycek shrugged.
"It was nearly over anyway."
Krycek looked at the milkshake, then dropped his gaze, his expression neutral. Skinner thought he understood. Krycek didn't want to assume anything. Skinner stepped closer to the bed.
"I made this for you. I thought you might like it."
Krycek's eyes widened. He looked up at Skinner, taking the glass as though it were a chalice. He stared down at the whipped cream floating in its pool of chocolate.
"You made this for me?" Skinner nodded.
"There's plenty more where that came from. I'm going to fatten you right up, boy."
Krycek took a small sip, then another. Another sip, then a smile. A real one. Skinner felt his heart swell. The smile disappeared all too quickly, as Krycek seemed to withdraw into himself again. Krycek got a tiny dot of whipped cream on the end of his nose, and Skinner caught himself wondering what it would be like to kiss it off. Slowly, Krycek drained the glass. He handed it to Skinner.
"Thank you, Skinner," he said quietly. "That was good. I'm really tired. I'd like to sleep for a while."
"All right, but just for a little while. If you sleep too much now, you'll never get to sleep tonight. I know it's hard, but we need to get you on a schedule."
Skinner paused at the door. "I want you to get a bath in after dinner, all right?"
Krycek nodded and closed his eyes, already half-asleep. Skinner stood there for a long moment, watching as Krycek drifted off to sleep. Skinner took the glass downstairs and put it in the dishwasher, then cleaned up the milkshake machine. He mentally congratulated himself. Who would have thought that a chocolate milkshake could make an abused former assassin smile like a child? The smile had been fleeting, but it had been there, and Skinner was grateful that he hadn't missed it. He knew it would take more than chocolate milkshakes to get Krycek well, mentally and physically. But, he thought, it's a start.
Skinner sat down on the living room sofa, shifting around a little. Sleeping sitting up in the chair the night before had done nothing at all for his back. He found a comfortable position and sank back into the cushions with a sigh, looking forward to relaxing until it was time to check on Krycek again. He turned the television on to the sports channel, keeping the sound low so he would be able to hear any noise from upstairs. He smiled and sipped from a bottle of his favorite beer, pleased that he was in time for the start of the Capitals game. The puck had just dropped when he was startled by a loud pounding at the front door. Skinner crossed to the door and looked through the peephole. He leaned against the wall for a moment, cursing softly. He squared his shoulders and opened the door.
Mulder rushed past him, rumpled and agitated. He looked around the living room, his eyes wild.
"Where is he? Where is that son of a bitch?" He was breathing hard, his fists clenched.
"Are you all right, sir?"
Skinner closed the door and positioned himself between Mulder and the staircase. He folded his arms. His jaw was clenched.
"That's enough, Agent Mulder," he growled.
Mulder began to pace around the living room, his eyes darting about as though he expected to find Krycek lurking under the sofa or behind the drapes.
"I'm going to kill that fucking little rat!" he yelled. "Where is he?"
"Lower your voice, Agent Mulder," Skinner snapped.
Mulder faltered and stopped in his tracks, suddenly realizing he was the unfortunate subject of Skinner's most furious AD glare.
"AGENT MULDER!" Skinner shouted.
Mulder's eyes widened and he dropped down onto the sofa, his mouth slightly open. Skinner didn't move from his position by the stairs. He fixed the errant agent with look that he knew well. Mulder began to realize that he was in deep trouble.
"Agent Mulder, would you like to explain just what in the hell you think you're doing, bursting in here like this?" Mulder flushed and looked down sheepishly.
"Sir, I-I was worried. Kimberly said you were taking nine weeks vacation all at once, and then I heard that Alex Krycek..." he trailed off. Skinner's eyes were flashing fire.
"Go on, Agent. What about Alex Krycek?"
Skinner's voice was calm. Mulder swallowed nervously. Skinner's calm voice together with that clenched jaw and red face meant one thing: storm warning.
"Well, sir, I...uh," he stammered. "I was told...isn't he *here*?" Skinner stared at Mulder.
"And if he is?" he said evenly. Mulder's face reddened and he jumped up from the sofa.
"Sir, we're talking about Alex Krycek! He killed my father! He killed Scully's sister! He betrayed us all! He's nothing but a lying, murdering, traitorous scumbag and I'm not leaving until I get a chance to even the score with him! Where is he? Where is that fucking coward?"
Mulder was shaking with rage. He took a step toward the staircase. Skinner stepped in front of him.
"Sit down, Mulder."
Mulder tried to duck past him. Skinner moved in front of Mulder, his face like a thundercloud. Mulder shivered as the AD's eyes bored into him. Skinner's voice was shaking with the effort of holding his temper in check.
"Agent Mulder. Sit. Down. Now."
Mulder quailed, returning to the sofa and sitting down obediently. Skinner stared at the agent for a long moment. Mulder began to fidget uncomfortably. He was flabbergasted at the turn of events. What's going on here? He thought. Alex Krycek is here in Skinner's home instead of in jail where he belongs and Skinner's yelling at *me*? Skinner finally spoke, in a tone with which Mulder was unhappily familiar.
"Now, why don't you tell me exactly what you heard regarding myself and Alex Krycek." Mulder gulped.
"Well, sir, I received an anonymous phone call. The caller said that they could tell me where to find Krycek. Then they gave me this...your address," Mulder said hesitantly. Skinner's gaze was withering.
"So you rush over here without so much as a phone call? You barge into my home and behave like a madman? Because of an *anonymous* tip?"
Skinner snorted. Anonymous, indeed. He wondered how long it had taken Spender to teach the missing link how to use a phone. Mulder rushed to his own defense.
"But, sir," he said, his voice sounding dangerously close to a whine. "We're talking about Alex Krycek! I thought you might be in danger!"
Skinner stared him down again. Mulder's shoulders sagged. Skinner spoke quietly.
"I know what we're talking about, Agent Mulder. We're talking about your blatant disregard for my privacy. We're talking about you going off half-cocked as usual and assuming that you have all the facts when you clearly do not." Skinner paused. "And yes, we're talking about Alex Krycek. I am only going to say this once, Agent Mulder, so make sure you pay attention. Alex Krycek is a guest in my home. Period. I am not going to apologize and I am not going to explain."
Mulder gaped at Skinner, astonished.
"A guest?" He said incredulously. "Krycek? But he's-"
"I know what you think, Agent Mulder, and up until a day ago I thought the same thing. You don't have all the facts. I don't either, but I'm starting to understand a few things. Krycek didn't kill your father and I don't believe he killed Scully's sister."
Mulder opened his mouth to protest, but Skinner cut him off, his voice rising.
"Don't, Agent Mulder! I've heard all I'm willing to hear from you on the subject. Alex Krycek has lived a life that you couldn't imagine in your worst nightmares. And before you accuse me of being swayed by his wide-eyed charms, let me assure you I have witnessed it firsthand. The man lying upstairs in that bed is so badly beaten that he can barely move. He's been systematically tortured and abused. He's so traumatized that he can barely hold a conversation. You know what Spender did to him, Mulder? He burned him with a cigarette. Not just once, but over and over. I've seen the scars, Mulder. He ground a lit cigarette into Krycek's back again and again."
Skinner took a deep breath.
"That was his punishment for *not* killing your father."
Skinner's pulse was racing. He was surprised at just how angry Mulder's outburst had made him. Mulder was staring at Skinner, his mouth open, dumbfounded. Skinner pinned him to the sofa with his glare.
"I have one more thing to say, Agent Mulder, and you'll want to listen. Alex Krycek is off limits. You will not attempt to contact him. You will not attempt to have him arrested, detained or otherwise inconvenienced. You will not come here again without speaking to me beforehand and making the appropriate arrangements. And if you ever try to harm him, you'll have to come through me to do it. Is that clear?"
Mulder continued to gape, his face white with shock.
"I said, is that clear?" Skinner barked.
Mulder jerked and stood up quickly, his face ashen.
"Y-yes, sir," he said quickly, his eyes round with disbelief.
Talk about an X-File, he thought. Have I stumbled into some bizarre parallel universe where up is down and down is up and Skinner is playing The Great Protector to poor helpless Krycek? He shook his head numbly. When did everything stop making sense? Skinner opened the door.
"I think it's time for you to leave, Agent," he said. "I'll give AD Kersh a call. We've got quite a backlog of surveillance tapes that need transcribing and I'm sure he'll agree you're just the man for the job."
Mulder paled and quickly made his exit, mumbling an apology. Skinner closed the door. He turned off the television, suddenly uninterested in the game. He poured the remains of his tepid beer down the sink before walking down the hall to his office to make that phone call.
Skinner hung up the phone and glanced at his watch. He climbed the stairs and went to the bedroom, moving as quietly as possible so as not to awaken Krycek. He stopped in the doorway, surprised to find that Krycek was not asleep.
Krycek was sitting up in bed, his eyes rimmed with red. He had been crying. He stared at Skinner with an expression of disbelief, his face seeming all the more ashen in contrast to the dark hair falling across his brow. He looked down, struggling to speak, twisting the coverlet around his long, delicate fingers.
"I heard you," he said, his voice hoarse.
Skinner walked over to the chair and sat down heavily. He looked at Krycek, his face etched with concern. Krycek looked up again, his eyes shining with unshed tears.
"I heard you," he said again, "you and Mulder. I heard everything." His voice dropped to a whisper.
"You...you took my side. You protected me."
He shook his head in wonder, still barely able to believe it. He had been jolted awake by the sounds of shouting from downstairs. Two voices. When he had recognized the second voice, he had begun panting with fear, looking frantically around the room for a place to hide. Mulder was here. Mulder was screaming his name, baying for blood. He had huddled under the covers in a miserable ball, waiting for the sound of rapidly ascending footsteps, waiting for the angry snarl, for the punch in the gut. Waiting for the pain. But it hadn't come. Cautiously, he had emerged from his cocoon and cocked his head, listening to the voices. Listening to the words. Skinner's furious growl carried up the stairwell, accompanied by Mulder's plaintive whine.
Krycek stared at Skinner now, as though he were seeing him for the first time. He spoke softly, as if saying the words out loud would bring this fragile hope crashing down around him.
"You defended me," he said. "Against him. It was *Mulder*," he whispered, his voice tinged with awe. Skinner nodded.
"Yes," he said simply.
Krycek continued to stare at him with that expression of wonderment in his eyes, his mouth slightly open, utterly amazed. Those fathomless green eyes searched Skinner's face, as if Krycek were trying to memorize each line and contour, each shadow and plane. Abruptly, Krycek realized that he was staring and looked away, blushing.
"Thank you," he said quietly.
Skinner leaned forward slightly, smiling.
"It's all right, Krycek. It's all taken care of," he said gently. "Did you get much sleep?"
Krycek stretched a little, his sore back and ribs pulling him up short.
"A little," he answered, then added, hesitantly, "the yelling woke me up." Skinner stood, his hands in his pockets.
"I'm sorry you had to hear that, Krycek. Mulder won't be troubling you and that's a promise." He grinned at Krycek.
Krycek nodded, his eyes fixed on Skinner's.
"Right," he said softly.
"Do you need the bathroom?" Skinner asked.
Krycek shook his head shyly.
"All right," Skinner said, "if you need it, all you have to do is call me. I'd better start thinking about dinner."
Skinner turned to leave, stopping when he heard Krycek's soft voice calling after him.
"Skinner? Would you stay?" He looked down at his lap.
"Would you sit with me for a little while?"
Skinner nodded and sat down in the chair again, secretly pleased. It was the first time Krycek had asked for anything, had seemed willing to have Skinner there. It was definitely progress. For a while, neither man spoke. Skinner sat quietly, content to watch the beginning of the sunset through the bedroom window, the copper-gold light illuminating his face, softening his features. Krycek leaned back against the pillows, the gnawing fear that was a constant undertone in his life retreating slightly, loosening its grip for a little while. He closed his eyes, basking in Skinner's quiet strength.
They spent an hour like that, speaking little, watching the shadows slowly melting together as darkness approached. Just before the room became more darkness than light, Skinner reached over and turned on the bedside lamp. He patted Krycek's shoulder gently and went downstairs. Krycek lay in the small pool of warmth provided by the lamp, slowly beginning to accept his place in the light.
Skinner stood in the kitchen, filling two plates with poached chicken and steamed rice. Not his favorite meal, but one that he hoped would be easy on Krycek's stomach. He had looked longingly at the steak as he had pulled the package of chicken from the freezer, but had decided to eat the same dinner as Krycek. No need to make the boy feel like an invalid. He picked up the plates, balancing the cutlery carefully, then stopped. Cutlery. Brilliant, Walt.
He placed the plates back on the counter, chiding himself. That had been a close call. He began cutting up the chicken on Krycek's plate, thankful that he had realized his mistake before taking the plate upstairs. There was no way Krycek could cut up the chicken himself, even if he was wearing the prosthetic. It would have been an agony of embarrassment for him and Skinner was glad to have avoided that. He thought he was finally getting through to Krycek, and a careless mistake like this could have been a major setback. He finished cutting up Krycek's chicken and then started on his own, efficiently cutting it into neat cubes. He mixed the chicken in with the rice, then took the tray upstairs.
Alex had been dozing, smiling a little at the unfamiliar, homey sounds drifting up from the kitchen. Skinner had been humming as he cooked, his rich baritone mingling with the sounds of dishes clanking and water running. Alex's eyes filled as he listened, so unaccustomed to someone cooking for him, caring for him. To someone else being there. The smell of cooking chicken wafted up to him and his stomach growled. He knew he was physically hungry, but his appetite remained absent. He sighed. Maybe he could eat a little. Skinner seemed to want him to and he didn't want to make Skinner angry at him. Deep inside, he knew the caring and kindness wouldn't last. Sooner or later, he would end up alone and hurting again, but if he was good, maybe it would last a little longer. Alex heard Skinner coming up the stairs and began to sit up, hissing as his sore ribs protested.
"Anyone order room service?"
Skinner joked as he entered the room. He saw Alex's pained expression and sat the tray down on the nightstand.
"Hang on a minute, Krycek, let me help you."
He gently helped Alex sit up, then had him lean forward. He plumped the pillows and put them back behind Alex.
"Are you all right?" he asked. Alex nodded shyly.
He looked at the tray as Skinner put it his lap.
"This smells good." Skinner sat down in the chair, balancing his own plate on his lap.
"Well, it's nothing fancy. I think we'd better stick to bland food until your stomach gets accustomed to regular meals." Alex nodded.
"But what about you?" he asked, glancing at the plain chicken and rice on Skinner's plate. "Do you like this?" Skinner laughed.
"This is just fine, Krycek. Believe me, my doctor would approve."
There was no need to tell Krycek how he had been lovingly eyeing the Black Angus in the freezer downstairs. The steaks would still be there when the boy was better. Alex smiled a little and ate a few bites of chicken. Skinner ate his dinner, glad for the liberal dose of salt he had given his meal before coming upstairs. He watched Krycek pick at his food, eating a few forkfuls of chicken and rice without enthusiasm.
"Is it that bad?" he asked, not unkindly. Alex looked up, embarrassed.
"No," he said hastily. "It's just...I'm not really that hungry."
He nervously toyed with his fork, looking carefully at Skinner from under his lashes. Was Skinner angry at him? Alex trembled involuntarily. Was he going to be punished? Skinner watched him with concern. He thought he knew what Krycek was thinking.
"It's okay, Krycek," he said. "Just try. I know you don't have much of an appetite right now, but you've got to get your strength back." He looked at Alex's plate.
"Do you think you can eat at least half of that?"
Alex looked down at his plate. He was a long way from half. Skinner placed his own empty plate on the nightstand and took a sip of iced tea. Alex hadn't touched his own glass of milk. Alex looked up.
"I guess so," he said hesitantly. Skinner smiled.
"I'll tell you what. If you eat at least half of that, and drink all of the milk, I'll make you another milkshake before bed."
Alex blushed and smiled, feeling like a little kid being promised dessert for finishing his dinner. He glanced up at Skinner, but there was no mockery in those brown eyes, only kindness. Alex's eyes filled again and he looked back down at his plate so that Skinner wouldn't see.
"I'd like that," he whispered. Skinner stood.
"I'm just going to take my dishes downstairs. And you," he pointed at Krycek in mock severity. "You get to work. I want half of that milk gone and I want to see a dent in that chicken and rice by the time I get back. I warn you, my milkshakes have addictive qualities, so you'd better get used to eating your meals, young man."
Alex nodded. He swallowed a forkful of rice past the lump in his throat as his plate shimmered in front of him, hot tears threatening to spill onto his cheeks. He took a sip of milk and closed his eyes, willing the tears away, so grateful for the small kindnesses.
Skinner lingered downstairs, flipping idly through a magazine, giving Krycek time to eat. He returned to the bedroom to find Krycek had done better than he expected, finishing his milk and almost two- thirds of the chicken and rice. Skinner was very pleased. He had been planning to make Krycek another milkshake before bed anyway, but if it proved to be a useful incentive to get him to eat, so much the better. Alex put his fork down and wiped his mouth, carefully folding the napkin and resting it on the tray.
"Did I eat enough?" he asked.
Skinner took the tray, patting Krycek's shoulder as he did. Krycek looked surprised but didn't flinch away. Skinner was secretly pleased. He sensed that Krycek was still afraid of him and regarded each minor victory as a milestone.
"You certainly did," he said. "Later, I am going to make you a spectacular milkshake and enjoy watching you drink every drop." He smiled as he carried the tray to the door.
"After all, every artist likes to see his work appreciated."
He thought he heard a soft snort as he descended the stairs.
Skinner finished cleaning up after dinner and then went upstairs to the hall bathroom. He began running a bath for Krycek and placed clean towels on the vanity. He walked into the bedroom.
"Ready for your bath?" Alex pushed back the covers, looking down sheepishly.
"I don't remember the last time I had one," he admitted. "I must smell pretty bad."
Skinner slowly moved to Alex's side and helped him swing his legs over the side of the bed.
He wrapped one arm around Alex's waist and took his hand, gently lifting up until he was standing.
"You'll feel a lot better once you're clean."
Alex had gotten paler and his breathing was labored. He was obviously in pain. Skinner stood next to him, supporting him with his arm around his waist.
"It's okay, Krycek. Whenever you're ready."
After a moment, Alex nodded and they made their way slowly to the bathroom. Skinner sat Alex down gently on the closed toilet seat, then dipped his hand into the bathwater. He adjusted the taps, adding a little more cold water to the mix. Alex watched silently, his solemn green eyes taking in everything. Finally, Skinner turned off the water and turned to Alex.
"All right," he said. "Let's get you undressed."
Alex suddenly reddened and began to fidget nervously. He looked down at the tile floor, unable to meet Skinner's gaze.
"M-May I please have a shower instead?" he asked.
Skinner understood. He sat on the edge of the bathtub and spoke quietly.
"I'm afraid the shower is going to have to wait until you're stronger. We don't want to take a chance on you falling." He stood up.
"Besides," he said kindly, "a good long soak is going to do wonders for those sore muscles."
Alex hesitated, then nodded slowly. Skinner smiled and extended his hand, waiting for Alex to take it. Alex apprehensively took Skinner's hand and allowed himself to be hoisted up. He hooked a finger into the waistband of his boxers and stopped, flushing furiously.
"Come on, Krycek," Skinner said gently. "Believe me, I saw everything there is to see when I was in the military. There are no surprises left."
He smiled and reached slowly for Alex's boxers, keeping one hand on Alex's arm to keep him from losing his balance. He tugged Alex's boxers down and helped him step out of them. He put them on top of the laundry hamper and looked at Alex.
Alex stood, trembling, flushing furiously, half-turned away from Skinner. He knew Skinner had seen the stump of his arm, obviously. He hadn't worn the prosthetic since he'd been here. He shivered a little, hating the feeling of being exposed like this. Being naked like this, in front of Skinner, was almost more than he could bear. Being naked meant being hurt, being used. Alex closed his eyes against the tears and forced himself to turn towards Skinner. He belonged to Skinner now, and Skinner had the right to see him like this, to do with him as he pleased.
Beautiful, Skinner thought, seeing Krycek's naked body, so pale and so slender. He was too thin, but his finely honed musculature had not deserted him. He curved gracefully, all smooth flowing lines, ending abruptly at the termination of his left arm. Skinner had grown used to the sight of the stump and to the occasional scar that marred Krycek's otherwise enviably smooth skin. Somehow they seemed to conspire to make Krycek seem more real, more there, flawed but still possessed of an almost ethereal beauty.
Krycek's eyes were tightly shut, his dark lashes fluttering gently against his cheek. Skinner's eyes took in the long pale throat, the sparsely haired chest, the dusky pink nipples. The flat stomach, the fine trail of dark hair that led down to the neat dark bush and the thick, uncircumcised cock. Skinner coughed a little and shifted position so that Krycek would not see that Skinner's own cock had taken more than a passing interest in the proceedings.
"Come on, Krycek, let's get you in the tub." He gently grasped Alex's arm as he stepped in.
"It's not too hot, is it?" Skinner asked, concerned.
Alex shook his head and began to sit down, losing his balance and nearly falling. Skinner caught him and gently lowered him down into the water. A flash of pain crossed Alex's face and he gave a bitter laugh.
"What is it?" Skinner asked. Alex stared down at the bathwater.
"Just look at me," he said harshly. "I was a highly trained operative, a skilled assassin, and now just look at me," he indicated his scarred, naked body.
"I hate being like this," he whispered. "Pathetic."
Skinner sat on the closed toilet seat.
"Krycek," he said. "You're not superhuman. No one could go through what you've gone through and not suffer for it. You've been abused and beaten and you need time to heal. Why don't you give yourself a break? I think you could use one."
Alex looked up, watching Skinner intently. Skinner looked back, his expression one of concern. Alex smiled, the ever-present tension seeming to ease a little. Skinner rose and went to the medicine cabinet over the sink, retrieving a small glass bottle. He uncapped it and poured a little of the oil into the bathwater. The scent of eucalyptus filled the room. Alex watched, his eyes wide. He swished his hand around in the water a little, a smile curving his lips. He murmured a thank you as Skinner returned the bottle to the medicine cabinet. Skinner handed Alex a dark blue washcloth.
"There's soap in the dish. I'll be just down the hall." He paused as Alex's eyes followed him to the door.
"Please don't go," Alex said quietly. "I mean, unless you want to." Skinner turned.
"You sure you don't mind?" Krycek gave that shy smile again. Skinner was beginning to like that smile, to look forward to it.
"No," Krycek said. "I'd like the company, if it's all right."
Skinner nodded and sat down again, watching as Krycek rubbed the wet washcloth against the soap in the dish. He wanted to help, but it felt right to let him do it on his own. If Krycek wanted help, he'd ask. Alex began washing his chest, making small circles. Skinner thought for a moment, then spoke.
"Why was Spender so cruel to you? Why train you and then..." he paused uncomfortably, "break you like that?"
Alex paused momentarily in his bathing. His stomach knotted. He didn't want to talk about Spender, about the awful things that he had been forced to do. Talking about the past might make Skinner angry. He bit his lip, reminding himself that Skinner owned him now, that Skinner had the right to know. He swallowed nervously.
"It was always bad," he said softly. "I always knew if I fucked up, I was going to get it. But after Bill Mulder...it just got worse and worse."
"Did you ever try to run away from him?" Skinner asked.
"Once," Alex said, his expression faraway. "I ended up in the silo, buried alive. He left me there, alone, no food, no water...I was sure I was going to die, crawling on the floor of my own tomb." He laughed ruefully.
"That was the last time I ever tried it."
There was silence in the room for a moment. Skinner cleared his throat and asked softly,
"Did you kill Melissa Scully?"
Alex's hand tightened on the washcloth. He looked up at Skinner, his green eyes clear and serious.
"No," he said quietly. "It was Luis Cardinale. Spender didn't trust me, so he sent Cardinale everywhere with me, to watch me and report to him. I was so scared, Skinner. I knew what Spender would do to me if I disobeyed him, but I didn't want to be there, I didn't want Scully to be hurt," Alex said, his voice shaking.
"Please believe me, I didn't want that. I tried to stop it, but it happened so fast. He shot Scully's sister before I could stop him."
Skinner considered him silently. Alex looked down, wondering if this was it. Skinner was remembering, seeing him for what he was, and this small period of kindness and safety would be over. After a moment, he looked up into Skinner's solemn brown eyes.
"I believe you," Skinner said simply.
Alex's mouth dropped open slightly. He felt his heart resume its normal rhythm. He believes me, he thought incredulously. He believes a rat bastard like me. He blinked back tears, unable to find the words to express his gratitude. Skinner leaned forward, his expression intense.
"There's something I've got to ask you, Krycek," he said.
Alex stiffened and nodded, waiting tensely.
"It's been on my mind ever since that day in your apartment. Spender was interrogating you. He asked you why I was still alive, why you hadn't killed me." Skinner paused.
"You said it was because I didn't deserve it." Alex nodded, then spoke softly.
"You were nice to me," he said. Skinner gaped.
"I was *nice* to you?" Alex nodded again.
"Back when I started at the FBI," he paused, looking up cautiously, afraid that the mention of the Bureau would remind Skinner of his betrayal. Skinner merely smiled and nodded, waiting for him to continue. Alex cleared his throat and began again.
"When I started at the Bureau, when I was assigned to your section. You asked me how I liked it so far, and you said my reports were good, that you were impressed with my work." Alex smiled at the memory.
"You didn't deserve it," he said, his voice a whisper. "You're a good man and I didn't want to do it."
Skinner stared at Alex, amazed. He barely remembered the conversation he had had with the green new agent, it had probably been a quick chat in the hallway as he rushed to make yet another budgetary meeting on time. But it was obvious that it had been very important to Krycek. Skinner released a long slow breath. To think that a hurried, quickly forgotten platitude muttered to a subordinate would end up saving his life. He looked at Alex, shaking his head in disbelief.
"But...what about the balcony? The night Mulder brought you here?"
Alex soaped up the washcloth again and absently scrubbed one knee.
"I deserved it," he said, biting his lip. "For the stairwell."
He tensed as he said the word, sure that Skinner would descend on him now in a vengeful rage. Skinner tensed also, albeit only for a moment. He remembered the stairwell, remembered the piano wire around his neck, remembered being held as Krycek punched him again and again. That last gratuitous blow to the jaw. He exhaled slowly, and forced himself to relax. Krycek had stopped bathing and was watching him, his eyes wide.
"I didn't want to, Skinner," he said, his voice trembling. "Cardinale was there. I knew they'd kill you to get the tape if they had to. I had to make it look good, I had to make it look like I wanted to do it." He looked down.
"I'm so sorry," he said miserably. "I'm so sorry for everything."
Skinner looked at the pale young man hunched over in the bathtub, already flinching, waiting for the first blow.
"Krycek," he said softly. Alex raised his head, his eyes bright with tears.
"I have things to apologize for, too. The night that you were here, I slugged you in the gut and left you out on the balcony all night in the cold. I shouldn't have done that." Alex started to protest but was waved silent.
"Two wrongs don't make a right, and what I did was wrong. So, I'll tell you what," he said, looking Alex in the eye. "Why don't we make a deal? You forgive me and I'll forgive you. We'll let bygones be bygones. Deal?"
Alex stared, stupefied.
"B-But I have so much more to be forgiv---" Skinner held up his hand.
"No. We're not going to get out the scales of justice and weigh wrongdoing against wrongdoing. Maybe you do have more to be forgiven for, but I also know that Spender forced you into most if not all of it. I know you've been tortured and abused until you didn't dare even think of going against him. So, what do you say? A clean slate?"
Alex's eyes were huge. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. Skinner was giving him a gift so incredible he couldn't even bear to believe it was real. He shook his head, dumbfounded.
"Just say 'yes'," Skinner said gently. Alex swallowed.
"Yes," he whispered, a tear escaping and rolling down his cheek. Skinner noticed that Alex was shivering.
"Is it all right if I help you finish up? Then we can get you out of here and back into bed."
Alex nodded. Skinner took the washcloth and washed the younger man's back and arm, then helped him stand. He wrapped him quickly in a bath sheet and then helped him dry off, allowing Alex to do most of the work himself, hovering nearby in case he lost his balance again. After Alex was dry, Skinner helped him back to the bedroom. He sat Alex down in the chair while he efficiently stripped the bed and made it up again with clean sheets. He turned back the covers and looked at Alex thoughtfully.
"We're going to have to get you some clothes," he said thoughtfully.
He sat Alex on the edge of the bed and went to his bedroom, returning with a pair of boxers and a T- shirt. The boxers were an old pair, too small for him, but they all but swallowed Alex. The same with the T-shirt. Standing up, it reached nearly to his knees. Alex saw himself in the mirror and laughed.
"I should pose for the 'after' picture for one of those weight loss programs," he joked.
Skinner helped him back into bed and pulled the covers up to his waist.
"Don't forget, you've got a milkshake coming. You'll be the 'before' picture by the time I'm through with you." He paused at the door.
"Do you need anything?" Alex smiled sleepily.
"No, thanks," he said. "I'm okay."
"All right," Skinner replied. "I'll be up in a little while with your milkshake."
Alex lay back against the pillows, replaying the conversation in the bathroom. Skinner had believed him. Skinner said he forgave him. Alex began to cry softly, so Skinner wouldn't hear. The hope he had held at bay for so long was too strong now to resist. He let it take him, sobbing helplessly. Please, please let this be real, he thought. Please don't let it be taken away. He closed his eyes, surrendering, the tears flowing through the thick lashes. I am his, he thought. He said so. I belong to him and he can do with me as he pleases. If he is just toying with me for revenge, I'll be grateful when he kills me. He looked toward the empty bedroom doorway, sniffling. Skinner's deep hum carried up the stairs, followed by the whir of the milkshake machine. Alex stared at the ceiling, listening, his heart full of desperate hope.
Skinner put the can of protein powder back in the cupboard. He had added an extra spoonful this time, to make up for the food Krycek wasn't eating. He put the finishing touches on the milkshake, heaping the whipped cream on generously before covering it with a fine dusting of Dutch cocoa. He made a mental note to pick up a jar of maraschino cherries at his earliest opportunity. Anything worth doing is worth doing right, he thought, smiling as he neared the top of the stairs. He paused in the doorway, noticing Alex's red eyes. He had been crying again.
"Is anything wrong?" he asked, crossing the room to the bed. Alex smiled a little and shook his head.
"No, I was just thinking, that's all. I'm okay." Skinner was concerned, but decided not to press.
"Well, if this doesn't cheer you up, nothing will," he said, handing the glass to Alex. He watched Alex's eyes as he took the first sip and closed them reverently.
"Ohhh," he sighed. "This is so good." He sipped some more and sighed with contentment. "Thank you."
"I can tell you're a connoisseur," Skinner said with exaggerated pride. "You recognize true craftsmanship when you taste it."
He sat down in the chair, watching approvingly as Alex sipped the milkshake. When the glass was empty, he took it and handed Alex a napkin, repressing the urge to wipe the whipped cream from his lips. Alex wiped his mouth and handed the napkin back. He yawned, his eyelids already at half- mast. Skinner took the glass downstairs and cleaned up before returning upstairs to get Alex ready for bed. He helped him to the bathroom, making sure he was steady before stepping discreetly outside the door. Alex finished and Skinner came back in, helping him back to bed. He got Alex comfortable and then left the room, returning with his pillow and blanket. Alex sat up a little, watching him.
"Skinner?" he said. "Why don't you sleep in your bed? You've got to be stiff from sleeping in the chair every night. I'll be okay."
Skinner hesitated. He hadn't left Krycek to sleep alone since he'd been there, but his back was definitely not appreciative of the nights spent in the chair.
"Are you sure you'll be all right?" Alex nodded.
"Go ahead," he said, swallowing hard. "Please, you'll be more comfortable."
Part of him wanted Skinner to sleep in the chair. He felt safer with Skinner there. But the man had been so kind to him, asking nothing for himself, had taken care of him even after all he'd done. The least he could do was try to make sure the man got a comfortable night's sleep in his own bed.
"All right," Skinner said at last. "But promise me, if you need me, you'll call me."
"I promise," Alex said. Skinner gathered his pillow and blanket, pausing at the door.
"I'll leave my door open. I'm right down the hall. Good night, Krycek."
"Good night, Skinner."
Alex lay back, already regretting his decision. The room seemed empty without Skinner's big frame slouched in the chair, his soft snores reverberating in the not-quite-dark. Tears came to Alex's eyes as he thought of Skinner's selflessness. He even left the lamp on, all night, he thought. For me. He smiled as he drifted off to sleep, thinking of Skinner comfortable in his own bed, feeling good to have been able to give back a little something.
Skinner lay in his own bed, groaning with pleasure as his aching back pressed against the mattress. It did feel good to be sleeping in his own bed again, although he remained alert for any sound of distress from Krycek. He went to sleep in stages, listening for Krycek's husky voice, listening to see if he was needed.
The next week passed quickly. There had been a brief, worried phone call from Scully and an apologetic e-mail from Mulder. Skinner kept himself occupied, taking care of Krycek and attending to the usual household chores. He kept Krycek on a regular schedule, realizing his need for structure. To be suddenly without it would have left him frightened and confused, and he responded well to the regimen. Skinner hadn't realized just how well until the day that he was fifteen minutes late with lunch and found Krycek sitting up in bed, nervous and agitated, wondering where Skinner had been. He had comforted Krycek, spurring him on to eat his meal with the promise of a milkshake.
The milkshakes, too, became routine. One between lunch and dinner and one between dinner and bedtime. The milkshakes themselves remained the same, plenty of protein powder and chocolate syrup, but Skinner varied the toppings, liking to surprise Krycek with a different one each time. Crushed Oreo cookies, shaved chocolate, even ground pistachios. Krycek was always appreciative, always whispered his thanks before taking the first sip. Both men began to look forward to the time of day when Skinner would hand Krycek his milkshake and then sit down in the chair by the bed. Sometimes they talked quietly, sometimes they just shared the silence, each enjoying the other's company.
Gradually, Skinner began getting Alex up and out of bed more and more. At first, he would get him to walk up and down the hallway outside his bedroom, then sit for a while in the chair before going back to bed. The bruises were beginning to fade and Alex was able to move about with less discomfort. He was able to walk to the bathroom unassisted and, much to his relief, able to take a shower by himself, although Skinner found things to do near the bathroom in case Krycek needed him. That Thursday afternoon, Skinner came into the bedroom. Alex had been lying atop the covers, watching television. He turned it off and looked at Skinner questioningly.
"How about coming downstairs?" Skinner asked. "You must be tired of these four walls by now."
Alex hesitated. He wasn't sure about this.
"Come on, Krycek. A change of scenery will do you good."
Alex allowed himself to be helped out of bed, although he could manage better on his own now than before. Skinner handed Alex the robe his mother in law had given him for Christmas the last year he and Sharon were married. He had never cared for it, but it seemed to suit Krycek, although it was far too big. He cinched the belt around Alex's waist and led him to the stairway.
"Lean on me, now," he admonished as Alex started down. "Not too fast."
He helped Alex to the bottom of the stairs. Alex stood looking around, taking everything in. His gaze reached the spot by the front door where Skinner had punched him before dragging him out to the balcony. His eyes seemed drawn to the balcony door against his will. He stared through the glass at the railing outside, seventeen floors above the city, where he had spent a cold and miserable night, chained and helpless. He swallowed and looked away. Skinner went to the balcony door and pulled the drapes. He looked at Alex with understanding.
Alex nodded timidly, the memory of that night still vivid in his mind. Skinner took him around the condominium, showing him his office, and the kitchen, studiously avoiding the balcony. Alex was impressed with Skinner's home, and touched at the way Skinner carefully showed him where all of the telephones were, and the first aid kit, and the fire extinguisher. Like he was going to be here for a while. Skinner led Alex over to the sofa and picked up the television remote control.
"You like hockey?" Alex smiled.
"Are the Canucks playing?" Now it was Skinner's turn to smile.
"As a matter of fact, they are. You support Vancouver?" Alex nodded. Skinner went to the kitchen and returned with a beer for himself and a Coke for Alex. Alex took the Coke, making a face.
"No alcohol for you yet," Skinner said gently. "I promise you can have one as soon as Dr. Skinner gives you a clean bill of health."
Alex laughed a little, sipping his Coke. Skinner listened, absorbing the sound. He had never heard Krycek laugh before and he caught himself wondering what he might not do to hear that sound again. They watched the game, each rooting enthusiastically for his team, Skinner having taken up the cause of the Maple Leafs. He looked at Krycek. Krycek was leaning forward, cheering as the Canucks scored, looking incredibly beautiful with his dark hair falling forward into his eyes.
Skinner felt an almost irresistible urge to pull him close, kiss along that sweet curve where his neck and shoulder met, nibble along his jaw until he sighed with pleasure. Skinner got up abruptly, going to the kitchen for another beer. No, he thought to himself, smiling encouragingly as Krycek turned around inquisitively. He's traumatized and a long way from being well. I can't take advantage of him. Skinner sighed and returned to the living room as Krycek cheered another Vancouver goal. He turned to Skinner, smiling like a boy, his cheeks flushed, his eyes bright.
"Thanks so much for this, Skinner," he said. "I don't remember the last time I saw a hockey game. I used to love it, before-" he broke off, that faraway look in his eyes again.
He bit his lip and looked away. Skinner thought he was probably remembering something from his childhood, before Spender got him. He had wanted to ask Krycek about his parents, but had avoided the subject, afraid it was too sensitive a topic to explore just yet. Krycek had made good progress, but Skinner remained worried. He was still very vulnerable. He experienced mood swings, sometimes smiling, seemingly a little more at ease, and sometimes withdrawing into himself. Skinner had heard him crying in his sleep on at least one occasion and agonized over whether or not to wake him, lingering at the door until the soft, hiccuping sobs diminished. Often, Skinner would go upstairs to find Krycek's eyes red and swollen, but Krycek rarely responded to Skinner's gentle questioning. Skinner always backed off, never pushing too hard, hoping that eventually Krycek would be able to talk about it.
By the weekend, Alex was off bed rest, coming downstairs on his own, carefully minding Skinner's orders to hold tightly onto the rail and take it slow. Skinner, as usual, was up early, brewing coffee and cooking breakfast. Alex sat down at the counter and Skinner placed a plate of bacon and eggs in front of him. Alex nibbled a piece of bacon, glad to be gradually getting off of the bland diet Skinner had had him on. They ate breakfast quietly, each letting the other finish waking up. Skinner parked Alex on the couch while he did a little light housecleaning, adamantly refusing Alex's request to be allowed to help. Alex looked down, crestfallen. He felt so useless. Skinner saw his look of disappointment and relented.
"You're still healing, Krycek, so you need to take it easy. I'll tell you what, though," he said, reaching over the kitchen counter to the stack of bills he had been meaning to get to.
"Here," he said, handing the bills to Alex along with his checkbook, a book of stamps and a pen.
"Do you mind helping me with this?" Alex shook his head, his eyes wide. Skinner nodded approvingly.
"Good. Just write out a check for each of those bills, and I'll sign them when you're done. You can also stamp the envelopes. All right?"
Alex nodded as Skinner went into the kitchen to clean up after breakfast. Alex looked down at the leather-bound checkbook in wonder. He trusts me that much? He thought in amazement. He smiled and set to work, writing out the checks in a careful, neat script, making sure to note the account number on the memo line of each check. He made three neat piles on the coffee table. One pile of checks waiting to be signed, one pile of envelopes, and one pile of payment slips. He began putting the stamps on the envelopes, finishing just as Skinner came back into the living room.
Alex looked up from the last envelope.
"Yes," he said. Skinner surveyed the organized piles on the coffee table.
"Thank you, Krycek," he said admiringly. "You've done a great job and I definitely needed the help. You've saved me from one chore I really hate."
Alex beamed as he handed him the pile of checks and the pen.
"If you'll sign them now, I'll stuff the envelopes."
"All right," Skinner said, signing each check with a flourish.
"There you go." Alex looked at the pile of checks.
"Do you want to check my work?" he asked timidly. "Make sure I got the amounts right?"
"No, Krycek," he replied. "I'm sure they're fine."
He walked into the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee, smiling to himself, feeling Krycek's startled eyes on him. Alex stared after him in amazement for a moment, then started matching up the checks, envelopes and payment slips, blinking hard to see through the sudden tears in his eyes. Trust, he thought again. He trusts me.
That night, they dined on casserole, Alex determinedly plowing through his required half plate. Skinner watched approvingly, glad for the slight improvement he had seen in the boy's appetite. After dinner, Skinner took inventory in the kitchen, looking in the cabinets and in the refrigerator. They were getting low on supplies. He would have to go shopping soon. He glanced at Krycek, who was sitting on the sofa, one leg jiggling up and down absently, watching an old science fiction movie.
Skinner realized with a start that he hadn't left the condo in nearly a week. He laughed to himself. Normally, he would have been half out of his mind with cabin fever by the end of the second day, but he had been so absorbed in Krycek's care that he had scarcely noticed. He wondered if Krycek was strong enough now to be left alone for a couple of hours. He decided to broach the subject with Krycek tomorrow. He was not about to leave Krycek alone unless he agreed to it and wasn't afraid. If need be, he could ask Mrs. Napoli to pick up a few things for him at the corner store.
"Do you want your milkshake in here or do you want to go up to bed first?" Skinner asked.
Alex thought for a moment, and then said shyly,
"I'd like to have it down here." He looked at Skinner. "Could I watch while you make it?"
"Sure," Skinner replied, opening the freezer.
Alex settled in at the counter, his feet, clad in Skinner's too-large socks, hooked around the rungs of the barstool. He watched intently as Skinner scooped the ice cream, dropping it into the metal cup, followed by the chocolate syrup and milk. He peered at the label on the can of protein powder.
"What's this?" he asked curiously. Skinner measured three heaping spoonfuls of the powder into the cup.
"It's protein," he said, putting the lid back on the can. "My secret ingredient. Guaranteed to help you get your strength back. Even," he paused, giving Krycek a mock-stern look, "when you're not eating enough."
Alex smiled and looked down, his breath hitching in his chest. No one had ever been so good to him. Skinner turned off the machine and poured the milkshake into the tall glass. Alex practically licked his lips in anticipation as Skinner spooned on the whipped cream and topped it with few chocolate chips. He slid the glass over to Alex, who stared at it for a moment with that now familiar look of delight and disbelief. Disbelief that such a thing had been created just for him.
"Thank you, Skinner," he whispered.
Alex pulled the glass closer to him and leaned down, his eyes closed, sighing with happiness. Skinner watched, transfixed, as the tip of Krycek's pink tongue delved into the whipped cream and disappeared back into his mouth. He repeated this process twice more, and Skinner leaned against the counter, groaning inwardly. Lord, give me strength, he thought helplessly, his knees threatening to buckle at the sight of the dollop of whipped cream on the end of that delicate pink tongue. Krycek looked up and smiled, unaware of Skinner's agony. He picked up the glass and began to drink through the straw, to Skinner's only slight relief.
After Krycek had finished his milkshake and Skinner had cleaned up the kitchen, they retired upstairs to bed. Skinner made sure Krycek was settled in for the night before going to his own bedroom. He placed his glasses on the nightstand and switched off the bedside lamp, sighing a little as he lay his head on the pillow. He remembered Krycek's fascination as he made the milkshake, and the look of almost transcendent happiness on his face as he took the first sip. The way he looked intently at Skinner sometimes, as though he were trying to commit him to memory, as if it might be the last time he ever saw him. His heart went out to Krycek. He had lost so much in his life, it was no wonder he found it hard to count on anything. Skinner fell asleep gradually, as he had grown accustomed to doing, listening for any sound from Krycek's room.
Skinner woke in the night and got up to go to the bathroom, pausing at the door to Krycek's room to check on him. Krycek was curled up in the middle of the bed, his lips slightly parted, sleeping soundly. Skinner watched him for a moment as he sighed in his sleep, pale and beautiful in the lamplight. Skinner looked around the room, Krycek's room. When had he stopped thinking of it as the guest room and started thinking of it as Krycek's room? He smiled a little. He would have to see about getting Krycek's things from his apartment. Hopefully they would still be there. Maybe having his things would make him feel more at home. Skinner quietly walked down the hall to the bathroom and then went back to bed. Soon, he was asleep again.
Skinner awoke, disoriented, his heart pounding. Someone was hurt, someone was screaming. He switched on the bedside lamp and fumbled for his glasses as another terrified shriek pierced the air. Krycek! Skinner bolted from the bed and tore down the hall into Krycek's room. Krycek was lying on his back, tangled in the bedsheets, his limbs flailing. He was screaming and sobbing at the same time.
"NO!" he screamed, "Please! Please don't! Don't leave me here!"
Cautiously, Skinner approached the bed, trying to decide on the best way to awaken Krycek. Krycek suddenly sat up, his eyes wide and unseeing. His face was chalk white, his sweat-soaked hair plastered to his skin. He began backing up toward the headboard, staring at something only he could see. The look on his face was one of stark terror.
"Please! Please let me out!" he sobbed. "Please! Please don't leave me here! Not in the dark! Not in the dark!"
He screamed again, a terrified wail that made the hair on the back of Skinner's neck stand up. Slowly, he reached out toward Krycek.
"Easy...easy, Krycek...it's me," he said gently. "It's me, Skinner. Can you hear me, Krycek?"
Krycek was huddled against the headboard, shaking violently. He seemed to look through Skinner, his green eyes almost black. He rocked back and forth, crying, his one arm locked around his knees. His breath came in ragged gasping sobs. Skinner put one knee on the bed, leaning close to Krycek.
"Easy, Krycek," he said again. "Krycek? Come on, it's all right. Wake up now."
He reached for Krycek's shoulder, his fingertips barely grazing it before Krycek let out an animal shriek and twisted around, his one hand pounding, clawing at the wallpaper. Skinner stared openmouthed for a moment, aghast at what he was seeing. He had considerable experience with nightmares. This was no nightmare. This was a night terror. Krycek was sobbing and screaming, pounding at the wall, begging to be let out.
Skinner winced as he stump of Krycek's left arm slammed against the wall. He moved quickly, grabbing Krycek by one shoulder and pulling him down. He covered Krycek with his weight, pinning the struggling man beneath him. Krycek screamed louder, his eyes wide with horror, as he frantically bucked and fought. Skinner held him down, trying to get Krycek to hear him, trying to cut through the terror that was gripping him.
"Krycek! Krycek!" he shouted. "Krycek! Wake up, you're having a nightmare!"
Skinner kept this up for several minutes, until gradually Krycek's struggles began to weaken. Skinner gathered Krycek into his arms and held him tightly. Krycek lay against Skinner's chest, sobbing and panting, his eyes closed. He whimpered and tried to pull away. Skinner held him close, smoothing the dark hair away from Krycek's face.
"Krycek? Come on, Krycek, wake up," he said firmly. "Come on, come on, Krycek. Come back to me."
Krycek shuddered and gasped. Finally, through the sobs, Skinner heard a muffled gasp.
"That's right, boy, that's right," Skinner said, rocking him gently. Krycek lay exhausted in Skinner's arms, shaking, the memory of the awful dream still close. He tried to pull away again, murmuring an apology, afraid Skinner would be angry at being awakened. He was surprised to find himself pulled closer, nestled more deeply in Skinner's strong arms.
"It's all right, you're safe now, it's all right," Skinner said, one hand rubbing circles between Krycek's shoulderblades.
Krycek tensed, then lay his head awkwardly on Skinner's chest. Skinner looked down at Krycek. It felt like he was holding a bundle of wires. Christ, he thought, you'd think he'd never been held before. A sudden pain lanced through him and he looked down at Krycek again, his own eyes filling with unexpected tears. God in heaven, he thought. He really hasn't ever been held before. Alex was crying quietly, exhausted sobs muffled against Skinner's chest.
"That's right, let it out, Krycek. I've got you. Let it out," Skinner whispered.
Alex began to cry harder, his slight body racked with sobs. Skinner held him tightly, tears pricking at his eyelids. He rested his cheek against Krycek's damp head and rocked him as he cried. Alex felt Skinner's hand rubbing his back, felt the warm weight of Skinner's head against his, and let go. He lay in Skinner's arms, crying harder than he ever had in his life. He had had another nightmare. But this time he wasn't alone, he wasn't curled up in a ball in his cold bed in his empty apartment. Skinner was here, holding him. Holding him. He sobbed for several minutes as Skinner held him and rocked him, whispering a litany of reassurances.
"Shhh, Alex," he whispered. "Shhh, Alex, it's all right. Relax, just relax."
Skinner raised his head for a moment, realizing what he had said. It had slipped out unintentionally, but it felt natural, it felt right.
"Alex, it's all right, I've got you. I'll keep you safe. Shhh, it's all right..."
Alex burrowed deeper into Skinner's chest and breathed deep, taking comfort from the clean, manly smell of him. Slowly, he relaxed into Skinner's embrace, his sobs diminished, and he began to calm. Skinner continued to rub his back and smooth back his hair.
"That's it, Alex," he said softly. "That's it, take deep breaths."
Alex obeyed, finally sitting up, Skinner holding his shoulders gently and looking deeply into his eyes.
"Okay now?" Krycek wiped away tears and looked down.
"Y-You called me Alex," he said in a small voice.
Skinner smiled and reached for the box of tissues on the nightstand. He cleaned Alex up, drying his eyes and wiping his nose.
"Is that all right? May I call you Alex?" he asked.
Alex looked up, the answer shining in his eyes. Skinner pulled Alex close again, surprising him for a moment. Alex went willingly into that warm embrace, this time resting his head against Skinner's chest with a small sigh. Skinner wrapped Alex in his arms, thinking to himself how well they fit together like this, Alex's smaller frame nestled against his larger one.
"Do you want to talk about it?" he asked gently.
Alex shook his head. Skinner rocked him gently for a few minutes and then said, "Do you think you can go back to sleep?"
Alex hesitated and then nodded, even as his face crumpled and he began to cry again.
"I-I'm scared," he whispered. "The dreams always come back."
Skinner dropped a light kiss on the top of Alex's head, unable to stop himself and not giving a damn.
"I'll stay with you, Alex," he said. "Go on, lie down, there you go," he soothed as he pulled the covers over Alex.
He took off his glasses and left them on the nightstand, sliding into bed beside Alex. He spooned Alex up against him, one strong arm around his waist. Alex tensed involuntarily, then relaxed as Skinner's reassuring voice eased his tension.
"It's all right, Alex. We're just going to go back to sleep, no bad dreams this time."
Alex melted into Skinner's embrace and soon was snoring softly. Skinner watched him sleep for a little while, listening to his soft breaths, feeling the warmth of him against his chest. He lay his head down on the pillow, the quiet rhythm of Alex's breathing lulling him to sleep.
Skinner awoke the next morning with Alex curled against him, sleeping soundly, his dark head nestled against Skinner's chest. Skinner looked down at him, raising his hand to stroke Alex's hair. Alex sighed and murmured in his sleep, his one hand clutching Skinner's T-shirt. Skinner looked at the ceiling, a faint smile on his face. He was in love with Alex Krycek. He looked down again at the sweetly sleeping face of his former enemy and laughed quietly to himself. God loves irony.
Skinner's eyes filled with tears as he lay listening to Alex's quiet breaths, feeling the warmth of Alex's body pressed against his. Alex needed him. A lump rose in his throat. Christ, when was the last he had felt needed? With Sharon? He dropped his hand to Alex's shoulder, resting it there, holding him close. Alex stirred and Skinner found himself looking into two sleepy green eyes. Alex looked up at Skinner, surprised for a moment, then remembering the events of the previous night. He tensed, wondering if Skinner would push him away now. Skinner saw the fear and wariness in Alex's eyes, felt him tense.
"Come here, you," he growled, pulling Alex into a bear hug.
Alex laughed, a healthy, unaffected, utterly delightful sound, and Skinner savored it. Alex snuggled close, Skinner's arms wrapped tightly around him, and sighed. He wished he could stay there forever, held in those strong arms. Tears stung his eyes and he closed them, resting his head on Skinner's chest, that strong heartbeat soothing him. He had never thought he would ever be free of Spender. He had never thought anyone would ever hold him like this. Skinner's hand traveled over Alex's back, rubbing gently through the thin cotton of his T-shirt.
"Skinner?" Alex said softly.
"Yes, Alex?" Skinner replied, kissing the top of Alex's head.
Alex sighed and wriggled a little, nuzzling his face against Skinner's neck.
"I'm glad you own me, now," he whispered.
Skinner closed his eyes, Alex's soft words paining him. He had nearly forgotten his hastily spoken promise to Alex. He had told Alex that Alex belonged to him, that he was his. I only said it to calm him down, he thought, worried. What am I going to do? Will Alex be able to adjust to being loved instead of being owned? His stomach turned as he remembered the payment Spender had forced him to make. A token sum for a token boy. In Spender's eyes, Alex was just a commodity, a piece of property. Skinner vowed again never to let Alex find out about the money. He loved Alex. He never needed to know what Skinner had done to gain his freedom.
Skinner smiled at Alex's slight weight pressing against him. Falling in love definitely hadn't been in the game plan. He had planned to get Kry---Alex back on his feet and send him on his way, but now, all that had changed. Skinner felt a pang of guilt as Alex lifted his head and gazed up at him trustingly. He was in love with Alex, there was no doubt about it. But what did Alex want? Was Alex in any condition to exercise free will? Was he able to make his own decision, without fear, without coercion? Skinner bit his lip. He wanted Alex Krycek in his arms, in his bed, in his heart. Would he be taking advantage? Would Alex understand that he had the right to say no?
Stroking lightly down Alex's neck and back, Skinner made his decision. He would love Alex, give him the home he had never had, give him the guidance and structure he needed. When the day came that Alex was ready, he would give him the choice to leave or to stay. Skinner looked determinedly down at Alex as he drowsed, a blissful expression on his face. Alex had spent half his life in Spender's grasp. Could he even function on his own, now, after all he'd been through? His life, horrific as it had been, had had a certain structure. Skinner knew that to have that structure suddenly stripped away could send Alex into a tailspin. He kissed Alex's head again, inhaling the clean sweet smell of his hair. He would give Alex the limits, the boundaries he needed. But, he thought grimly, I'll be damned if I'll let him spend even one more day thinking he's owned like an animal. After breakfast, Skinner thought. A long talk is definitely in order.
Skinner was standing at the kitchen island, stirring batter for pancakes when Alex came downstairs, dressed in a pair of Skinner's old sweats and a T-shirt. The borrowed clothes hung on him like curtains.
"Looks like you need a few more milkshakes, boy," Skinner growled affectionately.
Alex laughed, coming into the kitchen and peering into the mixing bowl.
"Or blueberry pancakes," he said, smiling.
"Well," Skinner said with a grin, "sounds like someone is getting his appetite back."
He turned to the stove and began ladling the batter onto the hot griddle. "I certainly hope so. My pancakes are almost as good as my milkshakes."
Alex leaned against the kitchen counter, fidgeting a little as he watched Skinner expertly turning the pancakes.
"Yes, Alex?" Skinner replied, arranging sausage links on the other end of the griddle.
"I want to help."
Skinner turned and looked at Alex. Alex stood, looking at him from under his lashes, his hand nervously fingering the hem of his T-shirt. Skinner smiled reassuringly. He knew it was difficult for Alex to express his feelings, to ask for anything. Years under Spender's control had taught the young man that his feelings, his wants, were not important. That he was not important. Skinner sighed and wondered how long it would take for Alex to lose that worried, tense expression. How long it would take for Skinner to make him understand that he mattered. That asking to help with breakfast wasn't going to earn him a beating.
"I don't think setting the table for breakfast would be too much of an exertion," he said. "But no reaching or stretching. I'll get the plates and glasses down and then you can set the table."
Alex nodded happily. Skinner placed the plates and juice glasses on the countertop while Alex explored the rest of the kitchen, as curious as a cat. He quickly found the silverware and napkins and set about his assigned task. Skinner watched, amused at the seriousness with which Alex went about his work, carefully aligning the silverware and glasses, and fanning out the napkins just so. When he was finished, he stood back, surveying his work, reaching out to brush a nonexistent wrinkle from the tablecloth. He looked at Skinner expectantly.
Skinner smiled, his heart full of love for this beautiful, battered ex-assassin who had somehow stolen his heart.
"It's perfect, Alex," Skinner said. Alex beamed.
"Thank you," he said. "What can I do now?"
Skinner chuckled at Alex's eagerness, piling a platter with pancakes and sausage.
"Go ahead and have a seat," he said, grabbing the bottle of maple syrup on his way into the breakfast nook. "It's time to eat."
Alex sat down at the table, still glowing after Skinner's compliment. It felt so good to be told he had done something well, even if it was something as ordinary as setting a table. Abruptly, the smile faded from his face. Jesus, you're pathetic, Alex, he thought. All you did was put some plates on a table and manage not to fuck it up and you're acting like you just won the Nobel Prize.
He absently toyed with his empty juice glass as he thought about the old Alex, the man he used to be. The old Alex would have sneered at the new Alex, the Alex who woke up screaming, woke up crying, was afraid of his own shadow. Then the old Alex would have taken great pleasure in kicking the new Alex's ass, a three-minute job, tops. He closed his eyes, seeing the face he had spent years trying to forget. Nikolai's face. Alex had spent years hiding behind a dark and dangerous facade, hiding the broken and frightened boy with tough talk and black leather. Seeing Nikolai again had stripped him of his thin disguise, left him naked, exposed as the helpless, beaten thing that he was.
Alex blinked back tears, watching Skinner as he got up and walked back into the kitchen to retrieve the butter. He wore jeans and a crisp white T-shirt that hugged his broad shoulders, the fabric rippling slightly as he moved. He really was attractive, Alex thought, incredibly sexy, in a way that made you look twice. Alex looked down at his plate, a faint, bitter smile on his face, wondering how much time he had left here. His heart ached as he thought about leaving this place which for one night had been his prison, and which now seemed like the warmest, safest place he could imagine.
He knew it was only a matter of time, that soon those kind brown eyes would look at him with disgust, with the realization that Alex wasn't good enough, could never be. What then? Would Skinner send him back to Spender? To Nikolai? Alex shivered, willing a look of casual contentment onto his face as Skinner returned to the table. Skinner placed the butter on the table between them and picked up his fork, spearing a plump sausage link from the platter with gusto.
"I'm starved," he said, "let's dig in."
They enjoyed a leisurely, quiet breakfast, Alex nearly cleaning his plate, much to Skinner's delight. After they had eaten, Alex cleared the table while Skinner loaded the dishwasher and washed and dried the big griddle that had been his grandmother's. Alex was wiping down the kitchen counter with meticulous, even strokes, frowning a little as he did, making sure not to miss a spot. Skinner watched him, a little sadly, Alex's look of grim concentration making him want to grab the sponge from his hand and fling it across the room. He wanted to hold Alex, to kiss all the worry and fear away. Skinner held himself back.
It seemed so important to Alex to help, to feel useful, instead of having everything done for him. Having spent time recuperating after Vietnam, Skinner understood the feeling of helplessness. After two weeks in bed, he had ceased to feel like a person, more like a piece of meat to be poked and prodded and fed pills. Some of the nurses didn't even bother to make conversation as they bathed the embarrassed young ex-Marine with cool, impersonal efficiency.
Skinner knew how much completing the smallest task mattered to Alex, how important it was to him to do it right. But, Skinner thought, as Alex began cleaning the same section of countertop for the second time, he would do anything to see that hesitant, fearful look gone from Alex's face for good. Skinner sighed. It was going to be hard work, convincing this unloved, unwanted man that he was finally loved, finally wanted. That he was home. But then, Walter Skinner had never been afraid of hard work.
Skinner had been about to steer Alex into the living room for a talk when a knock at the door startled them both. Alex started and turned toward the door, immediately tense and alert. Skinner put a reassuring arm around Alex's shoulders and felt him trembling slightly. Alex looked up at Skinner questioningly, his green eyes wary. Skinner realized grimly that getting Alex used to him was only half the battle. He would then have to get Alex used to the rest of the world. Skinner rubbed Alex's back as he guided him over to the sofa. Alex sat down, his eyes fastened on the door, his jaw tense.
"It's all right, Alex," he said. "I'm expecting someone."
Alex watched apprehensively, biting his lip as Skinner went to the door. A tall young man with a dark, neatly trimmed beard stood in the doorway. He wore a T-shirt with "Pete's Moving" emblazoned across the chest. He grinned and shook Skinner's hand.
"Hi," he said, "I'm Peter Napoli. My Aunt Jeannie sent me over to," he fished a crumpled piece of paper out of his pocket and looked at it, "111 Morgan Street, apartment 12, to pick up some stuff."
He reached into his other pocket and handed Skinner a key.
"Here's your key. Where do you want the stuff?" Skinner pocketed the key and stood to one side.
"Right here by the door will be fine. I really appreciate your doing this, Peter," Skinner said. "I hope it didn't take you away from anything."
"Oh, no," Peter said as he carried in a large box and placed it beside the door. "There's really not much. I didn't even need the truck, it all fit in my car."
"Can I offer you a cup of coffee?" Skinner asked as Peter brought in the last box and put it down beside the others.
"Oh, no thanks," he said, wiping his hands on his jeans. "I've got to get down to the soccer field. My kid's got a game this afternoon." Skinner went to the sofa and placed a hand on Alex's shoulder.
"Peter, this is Alex Krycek. Alex, this is Peter Napoli. His aunt lives down the hall. You'll meet her. She's a great lady." Skinner smiled broadly.
"It's a wonder I don't weigh three hundred pounds the way she keeps me stuffed with those delicious cakes and pies of hers."
Peter laughed and nodded.
"You and me both," he said with a grin. "She's never happier than when she's got someone to feed."
Alex looked up at Skinner. Skinner nodded and smiled. Slowly, Alex got up and walked over to Peter, trying to will the fear away. He hadn't expected to have to deal with a stranger today, no matter how gregarious. It reminded him too much of his life with Spender, of strange men, strange, leering faces, a knock at the door and then being laid bare, stripped of everything, degraded and used and hurt. Stop it! Alex scolded himself. God, you're a basket case, he thought disgustedly. This man is not going to hurt you. He's Skinner's neighbor's nephew. Skinner trusts him.
Peter put out his hand and waited patiently, smiling at Alex. His Aunt Jeannie had told him that Mr. Skinner had a houseguest, and that it was his things that Peter had been sent for. Aunt Jeannie had also mentioned that this houseguest had not been well.
"Hi, Alex," Peter said.
Alex looked at Peter, then back at Skinner. Skinner nodded, gesturing toward Peter, whose hand was still out.
"Hi," Alex said shyly, and shook Peter's hand. "Thank you, sir."
He quickly retreated to the sofa, curling up with a pillow in his lap, his one arm wrapped around it. His heart thundered in his chest and he flushed bright red, humiliated and embarrassed at his weakness.
"You're welcome," Peter said, turning to go. "Well, I'd better get going. Aunt Jeannie said to tell you you're invited to dinner whenever you want to come."
Skinner followed Peter into the hallway.
"Thanks again, Peter, I can't tell you what a help this is. I would have gone to get Alex's things myself, but he's been ill and I didn't want to leave him alone." Peter smiled and pushed the button for the elevator.
"No problem. Hey," he said amiably. "Aunt Jeannie talks about you all the time. The way you check on her, help her with repairs. I can't thank you enough. I live all the way across town and it makes me feel good to know you're right here when she needs you. It's the least I could do."
He pulled out his wallet and gave Skinner his card. "Anytime you need any moving done, just give me a call."
The elevator doors opened and Peter got on, waving as the doors closed.
Skinner waved good bye and walked back into the living room, closing the door behind him. Alex was still on the sofa, clutching the pillow. As the door closed, he seemed to relax visibly. Skinner walked over to the sofa and sat down beside him. He spoke gently.
"Are you all right, Alex?" Alex swallowed and nodded.
"I'm sorry. I hope I didn't embarrass you in front of Mr. Napoli," he said. "I-I guess I'm just not used to...strangers."
Skinner smiled and put a hand on Alex's arm.
"You could never embarrass me, Alex," he said kindly. "It's all right. You've been through a lot and you're still adjusting. Just give it time."
Alex smiled a little, the warmth and weight of Skinner's hand on his arm feeling substantial and real.
"Alex? I want to talk to you about something." Skinner said, and immediately felt Alex tense.
Alex looked at Skinner apprehensively.
"W-What about?" he asked softly.
He swallowed again, his mouth suddenly dry. Was Skinner tired of him? Was he going to send him out, make him whore like Spender had? Had the last wonderful week been only a dream? He closed his eyes. It was what he had been expecting, after all. At least he would still have the memory of being held. He opened his eyes to see Skinner looking at him with concern.
"Alex, it's all right. I just want to talk, that's all. Come here," he said, gently pulling Alex toward him.
Alex was tense but unresisting as Skinner drew him close, one strong arm encircling his shoulders.
"Comfortable?" Skinner asked. Alex nodded.
"Good," Skinner said gently. "What I want to talk about, Alex, is us."
Alex stiffened again, and Skinner rubbed his back soothingly.
"It's okay, Alex," he said. "What I have to say to you is very important, for both of us. Will you promise just to listen, to hear me out?"
Alex nodded again, his fingers picking nervously at the knee of his sweatpants.
"I promise," he whispered.
Skinner continued to gently rub Alex's back, making circles against the thin cotton, soothing him. He felt the tension ease a little, felt Alex relax a little.
"Do you like it here, Alex?" Alex looked up at Skinner.
"Yes," he said. "I love it here. I feel safe here." He paused, a lump forming in his throat.
"I never had anything like this before."
Skinner took a deep breath before speaking again.
"Alex, when I said that you belonged to me...I...I said it because you were upset. I didn't mean it the way you think."
Alex suddenly sat up, freeing himself from Skinner's arms, his eyes brimming with tears.
"You said I belonged to you! You said I was yours!"
He began to back away from Skinner, his lip trembling as the tears began to trail down his cheeks.
"Please, Skinner, please don't send me away."
He broke down, pleading through his tears.
"Please, whatever I did, I'm sorry, please let me stay. Please don't send me back."
Skinner's own eyes filled with tears as Alex huddled, shaking, in the far corner of the sofa. Slowly, carefully, he moved toward Alex. He took Alex's hand and gently pulled him close again, wrapping his arms around him, letting him cry.
"It's all right, Alex," he said. "It's all right."
He waited until Alex quieted, then looked down into the tear-streaked face, wiping away the tears with his hands.
"You promised to listen, remember?"
Alex looked down and nodded. Skinner sat beside him, his arm around Alex's shoulders.
"Alex, do you think it's right for one person to own another person? For one person to have the right to abuse another person, to ignore their feelings? To hurt them?"
Alex looked down, fidgeting nervously with the pillow that had again found its way into his lap.
"No," he said softly. Skinner smiled and continued.
"Alex, I know that you were with Spender for a very long time, and that he was cruel to you. He treated you like a piece of property. I don't want to be like him."
Alex looked up, his eyes shining.
"I want you to live here, with me, Alex. I want this to be our home. I want you to be my lover, my friend, my soulmate. I do want you to belong to me, but I want to belong to you, too. Do you understand? Not owning. Belonging. To each other."
Alex nodded, fresh tears threatening to spill over his lashes. Skinner leaned down and kissed an errant tear away before it could wend its way down his cheek.
"I love you, Alex Krycek," he whispered into that perfect elfin ear. "I love you and I want you here with me always. I want to take care of you the way you need to be taken care of. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I want you to be here, with me, not because you think you have to. Because you want to." He paused.
"Alex, look at me." Alex obeyed.
Skinner looked into his eyes and spoke softly the words he felt it most important for Alex to hear.
"If you don't want to be here, Alex, you have the right to say so. I know that what you want hasn't mattered very much up until now, but it matters to me. You matter to me."
Alex looked up, startled, then threw his arm around Skinner's neck, hugging him tightly.
"I want to stay, Skinner," he whispered against Skinner's neck.
"Please, I want to stay with you. I don't ever want to leave."
Skinner held him tightly, overwhelmed with emotion. He began to speak, then hesitated. He took a deep breath. He had to be sure. He gently pushed Alex away, so that he could look into his eyes.
"Alex, I need to know. Are you sure about this? Are you saying that you want to stay with me because you're afraid of making me angry? Do you think you'll be hurt if you say that you want to leave?"
Alex shook his head vigorously.
"No, Skinner," he said, his eyes huge and serious. "I know you won't hurt me." He hesitated.
"I...I was scared at first, but now..." he smiled, the wary, watchful look gone from his eyes. "I know you won't hurt me. I do want to stay, because you want me to. Because I want to." His lip trembled.
"No one ever treated me like you do. Like it matters what happens to me. Like I'm important." He put his arm around Skinner's neck again.
"I want to stay," he said softly. "I love you."
Skinner laughed and held him close.
"My little rat," he whispered. Alex looked up, surprised for a moment, and then laughed, too.
"I'm yours," he agreed. "Your rat. And you're mine. My...bear."
Skinner laughed again, a delighted roar.
Alex smiled and rested his head against Skinner's chest.
"You're always giving me bear hugs," he explained.
Skinner couldn't resist giving Alex a kiss on the nose.
"All right," he growled. "The rat and the bear. If nothing else, we can move to England and open a pub."
He smiled and stood up, going over to the three large cardboard boxes beside the door.
"I hope you don't mind," he said, gesturing toward the boxes. "The key was in the pocket of your jeans."
Alex stood and went over to the boxes, opening the flaps of the nearest one.
"Oh no," he said, smiling a little. "I don't have much, but I thought it was gone forever. I know I couldn't..." he trailed off, his eyes suddenly clouded with pain. "I know I could never go back there."
He reached into the box and exclaimed with delight, pulling out his battered leather jacket. He hugged it close to him, a genuine grin spreading over his face.
"Thank you, Skinner, thank you!" He slipped it on with a sigh.
"I thought I'd never see it again!"
Skinner watched, a grin lighting up his own face. Alex looked adorable, smiling and talking more at one stretch than he had the entire time he'd been there. He sorted through the boxes, seeming to let his guard down completely for the first time as he lovingly handled his small, well-worn collection of books. Skinner couldn't help but notice that he looked sexy as hell in that black leather, too. A smile played about his lips as he watched Alex, looking so much like the cocky, confident Alex Krycek Skinner remembered, like the man he used to be. And will be again, Skinner thought, with love and perseverance.
"I'll get a bookshelf for those," Skinner said as Alex repacked the box.
"We'll find places for all of your things, the old and the new."
Skinner looked into one of the boxes, which was filled with clothes, reaching in and pulling out the neatly folded stacks of T-shirts and boxers, all of which were dark blue or black. He put them on the sofa, followed by the few pair of black jeans and sweaters. Alex looked at the clothes miserably.
"*He* bought those," he said softly. Skinner put a hand on Alex's shoulder.
"I understand how you must feel, Alex. We need to go shopping and get you some new clothes. You'll pick them out yourself."
Alex bit his lip and nodded. After nearly fifteen years of being dressed like a doll by Spender, the thought of being allowed to choose his own clothes was a revelation. But the thought of going out was terrifying. There were so many people that had hurt him, that had enjoyed being cruel to him. The only safe place was here, in Skinner's home, in Skinner's arms.
"W-When?" he asked. Skinner smiled.
"Not for a little while, yet," he said. "Will you be all right with these until then?" Alex nodded.
Skinner moved to pick up one of the boxes.
"I'll just move these into my office for the time being. I'll just be a minute."
He hefted the box and began to carry it toward his office. Alex reached for one of the remaining boxes.
"I'll help," he said. Skinner stopped and looked back at Alex.
"No, Alex," he said with concern. "It's too heavy. Your back and ribs are still healing."
Alex stooped over and got his arm around the box, attempting to lift it.
"It's not that---" he broke off, gasping, the color draining from his face as pain raced up his side.
Skinner quickly put the box he had been carrying down and crossed the room in three swift strides as Alex slowly straightened up, his face white. He put his hand on Alex's shoulder and looked into his eyes, his expression worried.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
"I think so," Alex said, rubbing his side gingerly. "It was just a twinge." Skinner looked at Alex seriously.
"Good," he said. He grasped Alex's arm and turned him around, swatting him firmly on his backside. Alex gave a surprised squawk and put his hand back to rub his suddenly stinging backside.
"Ow!" he yelped, staring at Skinner in shock.
He rubbed the seat of his sweatpants, his eyes wide with shock. Skinner immediately wrapped Alex in his arms, holding him tightly. Alex resisted fiercely, trying to back away, then sagged, burying his face in Skinner's chest. Skinner stroked Alex's hair, murmuring softly.
"Shhh, it's all right, Alex." Alex clung to him, his hand clutching Skinner's shirt.
"I'm sorry," he said, his voice choked with tears, "I'm sorry, please don't be mad at me."
Skinner held Alex tightly, rubbing his back through the soft fabric of his T-shirt. He tilted Alex's face up to his.
"I'm not mad at you, Alex," he said softly. "It's over now. You did something foolish, endangered yourself, and I swatted you for it. It's over and forgotten. Okay?"
Alex nodded, biting his lip.
"I'm not helpless," he whispered.
Skinner held Alex close, massaging the back of his neck, Alex's face pressed against his shoulder.
"I know," Skinner said. "I know you're not helpless. But you were badly beaten, Alex, and even though you're up and around now, you're still not completely healed. You have to be careful not to overexert yourself. Understood?" He smiled at Alex, to reassure him that he wasn't angry.
Skinner brushed away a tear from Alex's cheek and put a finger under his chin, gently bringing his face up again.
"Alex," he said gently, "Nothing matters more than your health and well-being. I had a good reason for telling you not to pick up that box and you should have listened. You're important to me, Alex," Skinner said, looking deeply into Alex's eyes, "I love you. I'll never do anything to hurt you, and I won't let you do anything to hurt yourself. Promise to trust me next time?" Alex nodded again.
"I promise," he said. Skinner smiled and kissed Alex's hair.
"Good," he said, smiling brightly. "The important thing is that you're all right." He leaned down and whispered,
"I love you, Alex."
Alex sighed and cuddled against Skinner's chest.
"I love you, too, Skinner." Skinner looked down at him and chuckled.
"Alex?" Alex raised his head, his eyes bright.
"Do you think you could call me Walter?"
Skinner's tone was lighthearted, but his expression watchful, almost tense, realizing at that moment just how much Alex's answer meant to him. Alex looked up, smiling, his eyes clear, bottomless green. He hooked his arm around Skinner's waist, holding tight.
"I love you, Walter," he whispered.
Alex perched at the kitchen counter, his chin resting on his hand, watching as Skinner made lunch. Alex's pleas to help had been quickly and firmly refused, and he had found himself consigned to the barstool. His ribs did still ache a little, he admitted to himself. Trying to lift the box had aggravated them and it hadn't done a thing for his backside, either. He shifted a little on the barstool, the spot where Walter had swatted him still warm although it no longer stung.
Alex sat, deep in thought, as Skinner stirred the soup and rummaged in the refrigerator for the cheese, his T-shirt stretching over his well-muscled back. Walter had hit him. No. Walter had swatted his butt, as though he were a naughty child, and then had folded Alex in his arms and held him, told him he loved him. Alex remembered the look of concern on Walter's face when he heard Alex gasp, remembered Walter rushing over, worried that he was hurt. Alex felt himself tearing up and blinked the tears away, not wanting Walter to see and misunderstand. Walter loved him. He had said so, demonstrated it by his actions, by his gentle and constant care, his soft, whispered words.
Alex swallowed past the lump in his throat. Walter. There was a time, when he was green young Agent Krycek, that he had glimpsed the imposing, gruff AD in the hallway for the first time and never dared to imagine that the man had a first name, let alone that he would ever be allowed to breathe it. That he would ever sit in his kitchen, still warm from his embrace, and say it out loud and see him turn and smile, see the love in his eyes.
"Yes?" Alex looked up. Skinner was standing at the stove, buttering a slice of bread.
"Huh?" Alex blinked in surprise.
"You said my name," Skinner said, grinning.
"I did?" asked Alex, blushing. "I-I guess I'm still getting used to it." He answered Skinner's grin with one of his own. "I like it."
He looked at Skinner, unconsciously running the tip of his own finger along his bottom lip. "Walter," he said huskily. Skinner crossed the kitchen, his eyes locked onto Alex's, seeming almost to look into the very center of him. He took Alex's hand and kissed the fingers lightly, one at a time, then placed his hand lovingly along Alex's cheek.
"Alex," he whispered, smiling. Alex's heart felt as though it would burst, and he did not fight the tears this time. He had never known such love, such gentleness, each tiny kindness a treasure undreamt of, each touch almost unbearably beautiful. He smiled at Skinner, speaking with his eyes, and turned his head to kiss Skinner's palm. Skinner squeezed Alex's hand and returned to the stove, smiling over his shoulder.
"I hope you're hungry," he said. "My grilled cheese sandwiches are---"
"Almost as famous as your milkshakes and pancakes?" Alex asked, his eyes wide and innocent over his smirk. Skinner gave Alex a mock stern look.
"This is good for more than just cooking, young man," he said, brandishing his spatula. Alex grinned.
"Gotta catch me first," he said, laughing. Skinner smiled, placing Alex's plate in front of him with a flourish.
"Welcome to Walt's Lunch Counter," he joked. "One bowl of vegetable soup and one grilled cheese sandwich. That'll be $3.75."
Alex's smile made the older man's heart rate increase. Skinner felt himself growing warm, felt his knees weaken a little.
"Run me a tab?" Skinner gazed at Alex adoringly, loving the way those green eyes welcomed him, no longer afraid, no longer wary. He covered Alex's hand with his.
"For the rest of your life," he said softly, and was favored with a dazzling smile, Alex's hand turning under his, clasping it, interlocking their fingers. Alex blushed and looked down, almost shyly, but his smile remained. Skinner put his own plate down on the counter next to Alex's, and sat down beside him. He placed a glass of milk in front of Alex, taking a sip from his own glass of iced tea. Alex cast a longing look at Skinner's glass before taking a sip from his own. He didn't like plain milk very much, but he knew that he was underweight and needed to get his strength back. Somehow, knowing that Skinner knew that, too, that Walter cared, made the milk taste better than any he had ever had.
Alex nibbled the last of his sandwich as Skinner emerged from the pantry, a pen and paper in his hand. Skinner glanced approvingly at Alex's empty soup bowl and nearly empty plate. Good, he thought, he's definitely getting his appetite back. He looked worriedly down at the grocery list. It was already a page long and he hadn't even gotten to meats and fresh fruits and vegetables. This trip to the supermarket was going to take at least a couple of hours, and he still wasn't sure about leaving Alex alone. He sighed. They were out of nearly everything, and there was no question of Alex going with him. He hadn't asked and Alex had seemed relieved, not ready yet to leave the safety of the condo and deal with the outside world.
Skinner thought to himself, tapping the pen thoughtfully against the paper. He wanted Alex to be a little stronger physically before going out for the first time, and mentally...He glanced at Alex, who had hopped down from the barstool and gone to put his dishes in the sink. Mentally, it wasn't going to be easy. He would have to introduce the outside world slowly, in stages. The giant supermarket with its garish colors, noise and throngs of people was definitely not the way to start. He wondered if Alex would have forced himself to go had he asked, for fear of disappointing him. Skinner watched as Alex wandered into the living room and sat down on the sofa, turning on the television.
Skinner looked at Alex worriedly. He would have to begin slowly, but he would have to begin soon, before Alex's retreat from the world became irreversible. He made a mental note to telephone Mrs. Napoli that evening and accept her invitation for dinner, maybe for the upcoming weekend. He wanted Alex to meet Mrs. Napoli and it would be a good way to introduce the idea of leaving the condo. He smiled. It would also introduce Alex to Mrs. Napoli's lasagna. He picked up the paper and pen and joined Alex on the sofa.
"Hmm?" Alex murmured, surfing through the channels with lightning speed, finally giving up hope of finding anything watchable. He put the remote control on the coffee table and smiled at Skinner. "What's up?"
"Tell me some of your favorite foods," Skinner said, poised to write. "What do you like to eat?" Alex looked surprised for a moment, then looked away.
"It doesn't matter," he mumbled. Spender had trained the wanting and needing out of him early on. What did he like? When was the last time he could remember wanting anything and having it matter? He saw the look of concern on Skinner's face. He knew Walter cared, wanted him to be happy, and he wondered if he would ever be able to be free of Spender's influence, able to forget the hard lessons he had learned at his hand.
"It doesn't matter," he repeated shyly. "Anything." Skinner frowned.
"It matters, Alex." Gently and quietly, he questioned Alex, recalling the meals they had had in their short time together. Gradually, a picture emerged of a young man who liked chicken and steak, hated fish. Liked soups, except split pea. He liked salads and pasta. Liked bacon and eggs, wouldn't touch oatmeal. Skinner filled another half page with his neat, precise handwriting. He smiled, jotting down another item. He didn't have to ask about the chocolate. Slowly, with Skinner's encouragement, Alex began to enjoy helping to make out the grocery list, even mentioning a couple of items Skinner had overlooked. Alex smiled as he remembered long-forgotten likes and dislikes, preferences that, with no one there to care about them, he had long since locked away. He felt as though he were rediscovering himself as he made his quiet, simple requests, loving the careful way Skinner noted each one. Skinner put down the pen, put his hand on Alex's arm.
"Are you sure you'll be all right tomorrow? It's only for a couple of hours." Alex smiled. It was his turn to reassure Skinner.
"Don't worry, Walter, I'll be all right," he said. "I'll read a book or watch TV. I'll be fine. Besides," he added, "it'll do you good to get out for a while instead of being cooped up with me all the time."
He laughed as Skinner swept him up into a hug, tickling him gently.
"I can't think of anyone I'd rather be cooped up with," he said, holding Alex tightly.
"Come on," he said, standing up. "We've still got toiletries to do."
Alex gave a mock groan and followed Skinner into the bathroom, secretly happy to be doing something of use.
That night, Skinner awoke suddenly, on the verge of an explosive orgasm. He blinked and looked around, thinking at first that this was one incredible wet dream, then realizing that Alex was not beside him. Alex was under the covers, his long fingers delicately manipulating Skinner's swollen balls, his warm wet mouth sliding up and down Skinner's cock, his tongue expertly dancing under the crown, flicking over the head. Skinner's hips bucked and he clutched the side of the mattress, gasping.
God, he was so close. Alex redoubled his efforts, driving Skinner half-mad with pleasure. Groaning, Skinner threw back the covers and sat up, gently pushing Alex away. Skinner sat panting, his throbbing cock hard against his belly, as Alex knelt beside him, naked, his own erection beginning to subside. Skinner hunched over, trying to get his breathing under control, as Alex stared at him, his eyes filling with tears. He started to reach for Skinner, then stopped. Skinner looked at Alex's face and wanted to weep for the hurt he saw there. A tear rolled down Alex's cheek and he made another attempt to reach out, only to withdraw again. He looked at Skinner with misery in his eyes.
"Don't you want me?" he asked softly, his voice trembling.
Skinner reached over and pulled him close, lying back so that Alex was draped partially over him. Alex rested his head on Skinner's chest, his shoulders shaking under the gentle weight of Skinner's arm. Skinner could feel the wetness of Alex's tears against his bare skin, could hear the sobs Alex was trying so hard to suppress. Skinner stroked Alex's hair soothingly.
"Alex," he whispered. Alex lay motionless in his arms, his breath hitching slightly.
"Wasn't it good?" Alex choked. "Didn't you like it? Why don't you want me?"
Skinner lay against the pillow and groaned. His cock still felt hard enough to shatter glass. He gently raised Alex's head, wiped away the tears. Alex's lip trembled and he looked away. Skinner gently drew his face back toward him and looked deeply into those sad eyes.
"Alex," he said, his chuckle surprising them both. "That was incredible. Do you have any idea how hard it was to make myself stop you?"
Alex sat up, confused.
"Then why did you?" he asked. His brow furrowed. "I wanted to please you. I thought you'd like it."
Skinner reached behind him and fluffed the pillows, stacking them against the headboard. He put his arm around Alex, bringing him close again and settling them both back comfortably against the pillows. He kissed the top of Alex's head and spoke softly, choosing his words carefully. What he was about to say was important and he wanted to be sure to get it right.
"Alex," he began. "I want to do this right. I want our first time to be special. Not," he added, ruffling Alex's hair affectionately, "that what you were doing wasn't special, but..." he trailed off.
He didn't want to hurt Alex. What Alex had been doing had been pretty damned special indeed, if Skinner's rock-hard erection was to be believed. But it had been too much like...being serviced. He wondered about Alex's time with Spender, the man who had stood in Skinner's living room, smoke curling from his lips as he called Alex a "slut" and a "whore". The choice of words had seemed strange at the time, but Skinner remembered the sick gleam in the old man's eye and understood.
Skinner looked down at Alex, curled tightly against his side, and his heart ached as he remembered Alex's solemn eyes, that soft, sad voice asking "How do you want me, sir?" Expecting to be used again, degraded and debased and tossed aside. Skinner thought bitterly of Spender, wishing vainly for revenge, revenge for this shattered man, this unloved boy who had been used and hurt and sold.
Skinner gently stroked Alex's back and shoulder, feeling him relax slightly under his touch. He knew he might never know the full extent of Alex's suffering under Spender's hand, and he knew now was not the right time to bring it up. Alex was very vulnerable right now. One day, Skinner hoped, when Alex was stronger, he might be able to tell Skinner about what had happened to him, and Skinner would help him heal.
He massaged Alex's shoulders gently, feeling the smooth skin under his hands. Alex had said he loved him, and Skinner had no reason to disbelieve him. But, Skinner thought, has Alex really had the chance to think? Is he capable of understanding, really understanding, that he has a choice? Does he think he loves me because he views me as his savior? Or, Skinner thought with dread, his master? Tears filled Skinner's eyes as he looked at Alex, his heart full of such fierce love. I'll never take advantage of you, Alex, he promised silently. I'm going to do this right. I'm going to be everything you want me to be, everything you need me to be, and one day you'll realize how much I truly love you and how much I want you to love me, for the right reasons. Skinner squeezed Alex's shoulder gently.
"Alex, look at me."
Raising up on his elbow, Alex obeyed, looking up at Skinner, remnants of his tears sparkling in his black lashes. Skinner leaned down, holding his breath, his heart pounding, and kissed that rosebud mouth, feeling Alex's soft pink lips parting under his as he explored that moist velvet mouth with his tongue. Alex sighed, his breathing becoming more rapid, his hand clutching Skinner's thigh as Skinner's tongue flicked gently against his, as Skinner gently sucked and nipped at his bottom lip. When Skinner released him, Alex lay stunned, flushed, and thoroughly kissed. He looked at Skinner and closed his eyes, his fingertips delicately brushing his lips as if he were trying to rub the kiss in, to savor it forever. Skinner waited for him to open his eyes again and then spoke softly, his hand closing over Alex's.
"I want to do this right," he said softly. "I...you've been through so much, Alex. I want us to take every step together. I want us to discover each other, learn everything there is to know about each other. I want us to fall asleep every night in each other's arms, and wake up every day that way. And when it happens, Alex, it'll be perfect. For both of us."
Alex considered this silently for a moment. That kiss had been...incredible. But why had Skinner really pushed him away? He looked away. He had thought Skinner would be pleased with him.
"Alex?" Skinner asked softly.
Alex swallowed and looked up, smiling bravely.
"Do you understand what I'm saying? I'm not rejecting you, baby, far from it. I just want it to be right, I just want it to be special. For you and for me."
Alex nodded unsurely. He wanted so desperately to believe, but doubt was beginning to creep into his heart.
"Will it be soon?" he asked.
Skinner leaned down and nipped gently at Alex's ear.
"If I have anything to say about it," he growled, cuddling Alex close.
He lay back against the pillows, his arms wrapped around Alex. Alex lay with his back against Skinner's chest, looking up at the ceiling.
"I think we should have a talk, Alex," Skinner said. "About relationships." Alex shifted uncomfortably.
Skinner's hand rubbed circles against Alex's stomach, played gently with the light hair there.
"Monogamy is very important in a relationship, Alex. It's very important to me. Do you understand?" Alex swallowed again.
"Y-yes," he whispered.
Skinner held him more tightly and kissed him softly on the neck.
"You will be the only one to touch me, Alex. I make that promise to you now. No one will ever touch me again but you."
Alex turned his head to look up at Skinner, his expression serious. Skinner continued.
"Would you like that, Alex?" Alex nodded.
"Yes," he whispered, his hand resting on Skinner's arm. Skinner kissed Alex's neck, close to the jaw, lingering for a moment in that soft, sweet hollow.
"And I want to be the only one to touch you. Will you promise me? Only me. No one else."
Alex nodded again. He had become very still. Skinner rested his cheek against the top of Alex's head.
"Say it," he whispered. "Please." Alex looked down.
"I promise, Walter," he said softly. "No one touches me but you." And in the back of his mind, Spender's voice whispered, "Whore."
Skinner hugged him tightly, unaware of Alex's growing apprehension.
"I love you, Alex," he said, tugging the pillows back down and lying back, pulling the covers back up over them both.
Skinner sighed as he rested his head against the pillow, Alex pressed tightly against him.
"My Alex," he murmured, drifting off to sleep. "I love you."
Alex sighed, the words he had longed his entire life to hear now wounding him to the very heart. He clung to Skinner, feeling the tears pricking his eyelids. God, Alex, he thought bitterly, you're such a fucking fool. Did you really think this would last? Did you really think you were good enough for him? Walter wanted the first time to be special. How special would their first time seem when he found out how many had been there before him? Alex lay very still, listening to Skinner's even breathing, feeling him relax into deep sleep. Alex raised his head to look at him, his handsome face in repose, lit faintly by the bedside lamp. He even keeps the light on, all night, Alex thought, for me. He let his fingers brush reverently over Skinner's face, careful not to disturb him.
Alex sagged, burying his face in the crook of his arm as the doubts assailed him, his heart aching as he envisioned what was to come. Walter had brought him to his bed, held him close, kissed him, told him he wanted to be the only one to touch him. My Alex, he had said. What would he say when he found out that His Alex had been passed around like a party favor for the last fourteen years? That he had been fucked by every sleazy business associate, every dignitary, every "client" of Spender's in the fifty states and several foreign countries?
Skinner stirred briefly in his sleep and then settled, snoring softly. Alex lay listening to that comforting sound, wondering how many more nights he would get to lie there like this, listening to him, how long it would be before Walter found out what he was and where he'd been. He felt sick as he remembered the photographs he'd been forced to pose for, the videotapes that even now circulated amongst Washington's elite.
How long before someone, Spender, for instance, made sure that evidence of Alex's degradation fell into Walter's hands? Walter wanted him to go out, eventually. To go places together. How long before they ran into a former "client"? How long before an eager mouth pressed close to Walter's ear, spilling Alex's shame, his secrets, telling stories of Alex moaning, thrashing, his legs spread, his mouth open...
"No. No, please..." Alex whispered, the hot tears beginning to fall.
He breathed in Walter's scent, huddled close to him, shaking. Was that why Walter had pushed him away? Did something in him sense what Alex was? Alex curled up in a ball, his bedtime milkshake sitting heavily in his stomach. Walter wanted to be the only one but it was too late, too late. Alex might be able to hide the truth for a while, but sooner or later Walter would find out what he had done. Alex moaned softly, aching with the pain of knowing that he could never be good enough for Walter. Walter would learn the truth and look at him again with disgust and hatred in his eyes and throw him back into the gutter where he belonged.
Alex sniffled, curling tighter. Walter deserved so much more than a used-up whore who couldn't even sleep through the night without waking up screaming. He deserved to share his life with someone who was clean and decent, like him. Not someone like Alex, dragging along his wretched past, his nightmares, his sad, scarred body that had been used by so many.
Alex trembled, remembering the hands that had held him down, the harsh voices, the coldness the revulsion in their eyes as they rammed into his ass, his mouth. Spender's little whore, only good for beating or fucking. So many men, faceless, unnumbered, filling him and then leaving him empty, broken, huddled in his tiny shower, the hot water turning his skin scarlet. Trying to wash away the shame along with the blood and semen and piss. Alex shivered, his agony almost physical. He knew he could scrub himself raw every night for the rest of his life and he would never be clean enough for Walter, never be worthy of the heaven of his bed, of his heart. Skinner slept, blissfully unaware that beside him, Alex was employing one of his lesser known talents: the art of crying in absolute silence.
Skinner sipped his coffee, watching Alex over the rim of his cup, his handsome features creased with concern. Alex had been quiet and withdrawn all morning, speaking only when spoken to, and then only a few nearly whispered words. He had barely touched his breakfast, pushing the scrambled eggs around on his plate and tearing the toast into tiny pieces, finally losing interest even in that. He sat now, shoulders slightly hunched, staring down at his plate. Skinner frowned.
Only the day before he had been congratulating himself on Alex's progress, pleased with the improvement in his appetite and the increased frequency of those dazzling smiles. Alex had accepted the swat and the reasoning behind it without resistance and had seemingly forgotten the incident. They had fallen asleep in the same bed for the first time, Alex feeling so right, so perfect, nestled in the crook of Skinner's arm.
Skinner was puzzled. He and Alex had had such a good talk in bed the night before and he had fallen asleep secure in the knowledge that he and Alex were starting their relationship out right. True, Alex had been upset at first when Skinner had prevented him from completing the most incredible blowjob he had ever experienced. Skinner groaned inwardly at the memory. Never let it be said that Walter Skinner was not one tough Marine.
Skinner had held him and given him plenty of love and reassurance, explaining why he felt it was important that the first time be special, the two of them discovering one another, as equals. Skinner himself had fallen asleep smiling, a small sigh of absolute happiness escaping his lips as he drifted off to sleep with his lover beside him. His lover. The words made him grin in the dark like a teenager, a big, goofy I'm-in-love grin that would have been instantly recognizable to anyone who had ever experienced the blissful high of a new romance.
Skinner had awakened that morning and reached over to gather Alex in his arms and kiss him awake, only to find Alex's side of the bed cold and empty. He had gone downstairs in his boxers and T-shirt to find Alex sitting in the breakfast nook, staring out the window, an untouched cup of tea in front of him. Alex had turned to look at Skinner, that watchful, hesitant look back in his eyes. Skinner had hugged him and kissed him, worried that Alex was in the throes of another mood swing.
Alex had continued to sit quietly as Skinner prepared breakfast, his huge eyes following Skinner's every move, his responses to Skinner's cheerful morning conversation limited to a few mumbled words. Skinner poured the orange juice into their glasses, casting a few concerned looks Alex's way. He had to admit to a little disappointment at Alex's sudden reticence, but immediately chastised himself. Come on, Walt, he's been through hell. He's going to be like this for a while. He just needs time to heal and to adjust to everything that's happened.
Skinner finished his coffee and looked over at his silent lover.
Alex looked up, unconsciously biting his lip.
"You barely ate a bite," Skinner said with concern. "Is there something wrong with the eggs?"
Alex stared down at his cold eggs for a moment.
"No," he said quietly, fidgeting a little. "I guess I'm just not hungry."
Skinner stood and walked over to Alex, leaning down and putting his arms around the smaller man.
"It's okay, Alex," he said, kissing Alex on the cheek. "I won't nag you, but you know how important it is for you to eat. Promise to have a snack while I'm gone?"
Alex nodded. Skinner moved to begin clearing the table but Alex stood and began placing the cutlery on the soiled plates.
"Please, let me," he said softly, his eyes briefly meeting Skinner's before traveling quickly back down again.
"It's not much, it won't be a lot of work. You go ahead and shower." Skinner smiled and ruffled Alex's hair.
"All right," he said, "but..."
"I know," Alex said, "no stretching and no lifting."
He smiled briefly, turning on the tap and beginning to scrape his uneaten eggs into the disposal. Skinner poured himself another cup of coffee to take upstairs, watching Alex as he methodically cleared away the breakfast dishes and put the frying pan in to soak. Well, he had seen a smile, at least, but it had been all too fleeting. Skinner frowned again.
"Alex? Is anything wrong?"
Alex shook his head, biting his lip again, focusing intently on tamping the last of the eggs into the disposal with a wooden spoon. Skinner stirred his coffee, noting the shadows under those beautiful eyes, the tight line of his lips.
"Alex," he began again, waiting for those sad green eyes to meet his. "Please tell me if anything's troubling you."
Was it the trip to the supermarket? Was Alex anxious about being alone but unwilling or unable to say so? Skinner decided to broach the subject.
"Is it this morning? Being alone while I'm out? I can ask Mrs. Napoli to pick up a few things, maybe have some things delivered..."
Alex shook his head again and forced a smile, trying to reassure Skinner.
"No," he said, "I guess...I guess I just didn't sleep well last night. Please go, Walter," he said, attempting a light tone. "We're out of everything and it'll do you good to get out. I'll be okay, really, I'll just take a nap or something."
Skinner hesitated, sure that there was more going on with Alex than just lack of sleep, but not wanting to press too hard. Alex had experienced a great deal of trauma and had a new relationship to deal with as well. Events had progressed at a dizzying speed for both men and maybe this was just Alex's way of dealing with it. Alex put the juice glasses into the dishwasher and began to wipe down the counter. Skinner placed his hand over Alex's.
"All right, love," he said softly. "I'm going to have a quick shower and then go to the supermarket. And when I get back, I'm going to make you a milkshake with extra chocolate syrup and all the trimmings. How does that sound?"
"Good," Alex murmured, managing another faint smile. Skinner squeezed his hand and headed up the stairs to the shower, intending to get to the supermarket and back as quickly as possible and then see if he couldn't raise Alex's spirits a little. A milkshake followed by a good long cuddle on the sofa might do the trick. He showered and shaved efficiently and dressed in freshly pressed jeans and a crisp white T-shirt under a chestnut brown v-neck sweater. He returned downstairs and paused in the kitchen, tucking the neatly folded shopping list into the pocket of his jeans. Alex watched with a heavy heart as Skinner shrugged into his jacket, dropping his car keys into the pocket.
Skinner approached, his arms wide, and Alex obediently stepped forward for a hug, fighting to keep his carefully neutral expression in place. Skinner hugged Alex, kissing him lovingly, smiling as he looked into Alex's eyes. Skinner found himself again vaguely worried. That lost, haunted look that he had hoped was gone forever was back, although Alex seemed to be doing his best to hide it.
Skinner gently caressed Alex's face with his fingertips, tracing the elegant line of his cheekbone. The last of the bruises Spender had inflicted had faded, but how long would it be before the bruises on Alex's soul would fade? How long before the deepest, unseen wounds healed? Skinner sighed and held Alex close again, feeling the younger man suddenly cling to him tightly, and wished for the thousandth time that he could take Spender apart slowly, with his bare hands. Skinner gave Alex a reassuring squeeze and looked into his eyes again.
"Are you sure you're all right?" he asked for the second time that morning.
Alex nodded, his eyes remaining solemn as his lips curved into a pale imitation of a smile.
"I'll be okay," he said quietly. "Don't worry, please, Walter."
He opened his mouth, wanting to say more, much more, but closed it again and looked down. He clenched his hand at his side, fighting the urge to go down on his knees and confess everything, to tell Walter the truth about what he was, what Spender had turned him into, about the many men who had come before. To beg Walter to let him stay. Alex closed his eyes against the pain, cursing himself for being a coward.
He trembled, wanting to throw himself at Walter and beg, plead, promise anything if only this didn't have to end, if only those chocolate brown eyes would still look at him with love once he knew the extent of Alex's sins. Weak, Alex, he thought. Pathetic. A stupid slut, just like Spender always said. Skinner will find out sooner or later. Tell him. Get it over with. He deserves someone good, someone clean, like him, and you know it. He knows it, and he'll hate you for not telling him before he had to hear it from someone else.
Alex looked up quickly and then back down again, his chest aching, wishing vainly for a second chance, as he had countless times before. To be worthy of this man, this man who now stood before him with such tenderness in his eyes, this man who caressed him, held him with such reverence, touched him with such gentleness, as though he were good and pure and whole. This man, this good man, who never dreamed that the flesh he so lovingly kissed was unclean, that the secret places of this sad, scarred body were known to so many. Alex quickly blinked back tears. Walter had forgiven him so much. Was there a chance, even a small chance, that Alex could be forgiven this too? Alex swallowed hard, fearing the answer. Perhaps Walter would try, at first. But would he be able to truly forget? Forget that he held a whore in his arms? Forget that the skin that lay against his was all too familiar territory to countless men? Alex looked back up at Skinner.
"I'm fine," he said, a little too brightly. "Go to the supermarket."
Alex's smile hid the agony blossoming within. He was just postponing the inevitable. Again he fought the urge to tell Skinner everything, again he faltered. I love you, Walter, he thought. I just want you to love me a little longer.
"I'm fine, Walter," he said again. "Go and try to enjoy it, you need an afternoon out."
Skinner placed a hand on Alex's shoulder, a slight frown still visible on his face. Alex was obviously not telling him something. Skinner smiled encouragingly at him. Maybe after the milkshake and the cuddling, he would be able to get Alex to open up a little. Skinner gave Alex another small kiss.
"All right, rat," he said with a smile. "I'll be back as soon as I can. Keep the door locked and don't open it for anyone. I have my key and I'll let myself back in. Okay?"
Alex nodded. Skinner went to the door and opened it.
"Go ahead and take that nap, the rest will do you good. And don't forget that snack you promised to have. There's apples and yogurt in the refrigerator."
"Yes, Walter," Alex whispered, his eyes moist.
He savored the moment, tucking it away carefully, clutching it to him. When would anyone ever care for him like this again? Skinner closed the door behind him and in a moment, Alex heard the sound of the elevator doors closing. He sagged, finally releasing the flood of emotions he had been struggling to contain all morning. He sobbed quietly, hugging himself as best he could with his one arm. The scent of Walter's cologne still hung in the air and Alex breathed it in, squeezing his eyes shut, rocking slightly back and forth. He looked around the living room, alone here for the first time. Here in Walter's home.
The strain of keeping himself together in front of Skinner had exhausted him and he began to tremble a little as he walked slowly into the living room, weeping, tears dripping onto his dark blue T-shirt. Two hours, Walter would be gone for at least two hours. He was suddenly seized with longing, hyper-aware of missing Walter, wanting him there, even though the man had only left moments ago. Alex then switched with dizzying speed to dreading Walter's return.
Walter would be back in two hours. It hurt so much to see him, to hear his voice, feel his touch, knowing that these treasures were not his to keep, knowing that he would likely be relegated to being Walter's whore as he was Spender's, or worse, cast out altogether. Alex drew a ragged breath, gazing around the room at Walter's books neatly lining the shelves, Walter's morning paper neatly folded, aligned with the corner of the coffee table, Walter's umbrella standing neatly in its brass stand in the corner. Neat, orderly. Like Walter. Like Walter's life. Walter's neat and ordered life, just waiting to be destroyed by Alex's shameful past.
Alex sat down on the sofa, hunching over miserably, tears sliding down his cheeks. A large book lay in the center of the coffee table, its cover a black and white photograph of a narrow dirt road bordered on either side by dense jungle. White letters across the center of the photograph spelled out the book's title: "Tour of Duty: Photographs from the Vietnam War". Alex slid the book across the coffee table and flipped it open. He knew Walter had been in Vietnam. He knew a lot about Walter's life from the thick dossier he had been given on the AD prior to infiltrating his section. But the dry, impersonal tone of the dossier hadn't really given the young double-agent a real sense of the man, of what he had been through, of what he stood for.
He sighed, fresh tears pricking his eyelids. He had only just begun to get to know Walter, the man he truly was, and now he was going to lose him. Alex silently turned the pages, the glossy stock under his fingertips contrasting with the roughness of the images it contained. The burnt-out shell of a hut, its occupants killed or fled. A small boy sitting, vacant-eyed, on a pile of rocks by a road, clutching a skinny white cat to his narrow chest. Planes flying low over the dark trees, trails of white fire falling away beneath them. Napalm. Mud. Alex studied the stark images, trying to imagine what it had been like for Walter. He came to the last photograph in the book and caught his breath as he suddenly found himself looking into familiar eyes. Walter's eyes.
The photograph was of a group of five men sitting on a felled tree by the side of a dirt road. They squinted into the camera, gazing out from 1969 with eyes too old for their boyish faces, their rifles slung across their backs or leaning against the tree, close at hand. At the end of the fallen tree sat a young Walter Skinner, a skinny teenager, his bony wrists dangling between his knees. A hank of dark hair peeked out from under his helmet. His sweatstained shirt was open at the neck, his dogtags glinting against his hairless chest. Alex stared at the photograph, his fingertip tracing the familiar angle of the jaw.
Nineteen. Walter had been nineteen when that picture was taken, in a hellish place thousands of miles from home, a moment captured in the life of a boy forced too soon to become a man. Alex gazed into those dark eyes. They met the camera levelly, hiding nothing, speaking of things no one should see. Alex closed the book and put it back on the table, his hand sliding across the cover almost reverently. Walter was a soldier. Walter was a hero. Alex bit his lip, bright pain blossoming in his heart. And what about you, Alex? What are you? Where were you at nineteen? That taunting voice in his head, never letting him forget. He closed his eyes and moaned softly.
Nikolai had kept him in Russia most of that year, refining his training. That cultured voice rising over the swish of the cane, demanding obedience, punishing imperfection. Alex shuddered as he remembered the endless days spent blindfolded in the small windowless room, willing his hands not to shake as he assembled and disassembled the various weapons. The dry, spicy scent of Nikolai's cologne as he stood behind the chair, leaning close, the terror of his nearness almost unbearable. Trying not to flinch as the cane split the air and blazed a white-hot trail of agony across his shoulders. Thin trickles of blood beginning to thread their way down his back. That cold voice in his ear, relentless, implacable.
Again, Alexei. Faster this time. And stop biting your lip. Yes, Teacher. I have warned you before, little one. Yes, Teacher. Please, I'm sorry. Nikolai's voice growing harsh as he gripped Alex's jaw, fingers digging painfully into the flesh. A hiss of irritation as Nikolai's dark eyes scrutinized Alex mercilessly. You have made marks that will take a day to fade, Alexei. Alex could feel his tormentor leaning closer and instinctively tried to pull away. The slap made his ears ring. Your body is not your own. Do you understand, Alexei? It does not belong to you. It is ours to do with as we please. The hard fingers released Alex's jaw. You will be punished after your lessons, Alexei. Yes, Teacher.
Choking back bile, trying not to vomit. Pale, sweat-slicked hands gripping the gunmetal tightly, trying not to slip. Trying to make the pieces fit.
Long hours spent in the tiny cinderblock room, huddled shivering on the concrete floor, his sobs swallowed by the crushing darkness. Alex hugged his knees and rocked back and forth, trying to calm his fear as he awaited his punishment. First the dark and then the pain. The sound of a key turning in the lock, the heavy iron door swinging open with a groan, letting in only the barest amount of light. Alex's trainer had identified the boy's intense fear of the dark early on, and had used it to great advantage. The sound of his teacher's footsteps approaching filled Alex with uncontrollable fear. Trembling and blind, whimpering as unseen hands pulled him to his feet and arranged him against the wall, the rough surface scratching his chest and stomach. Tugging uselessly at the sturdy leather cuffs that encircled his wrists, holding him in place. Nikolai's voice, solemn and implacable. You must learn, Alexei. The unforgettable sound of leather against flesh. Agony, consuming and complete.
Tasting blood in the back of his throat as he gasped the familiar catechism in a voice ravaged from screaming. I'm sorry, Teacher, please, please, I'm sorry, I'll be good, please...Released at last, returned to his rooms on tottering legs, stunned by this most recent scourging. Nikolai's voice directing him back to his training. Not a minute must be wasted, little one. We have much work to do, and look at how much time your misbehavior has already cost us! Bad boy! Alex flinching, scurrying to obey, gritting his teeth against the pain that seemed to consume every cell in his body. Training. His purpose in life. The purpose for which he was allowed to live. Nothing must interfere with training.
Alex sat once again in the hard wooden chair, forcing himself to remain ramrod straight, fighting the almost overwhelming urge to pull away as Nikolai once again tied the blindfold across his swollen eyes. Trying not to cry, trying not to let the moan tear itself from his throat as the darkness closed in. White hands reaching, feeling blindly for the partially assembled rifle, the coldness of the oiled metal a peculiar comfort. Nikolai trained Alex every day that year, readying him for the Consortium, for Spender. Honing the tool for its many possible uses. Hour after hour of drills. Hand to hand combat. Explosives. Surveillance. Special Skills.
Alex caught his breath, squeezing his eyes shut tightly against the memory. Special Skills was always at night. Alex never knew which night, his only warning the sound of the black sedan approaching the dacha. No cars ever came down the long, tree-lined drive, except on those dreaded nights. Kneeling by the window in his little room, careful to stay back out of sight, Alex trembled as he listened to the sounds cutting sharply through the frigid air of a Russian winter night.
The sound of the car door shutting, the crunch of the driver's feet on the gravel drive. The chime as he pressed the discrete button set into the doorknocker. Nikolai's voice, quiet and precise. His footsteps on the stairs. His obsidian eyes as he stood in the doorway of Alex's room, dark, neatly folded clothes over his arm. Alex fighting to control the trembling, head bowed, staring at the rug on which he knelt. The only pretty thing in the room, it gave him a tiny measure of comfort. Nikolai's terse commands were obeyed mechanically as Alex repeated the familiar pattern over and over in his head. Red, green, gold, blue. Red, green, gold, blue. Red, green, gold, blue.
The parties were in grand ballrooms. Ballrooms he caught only a glimpse of as he was led up ornate staircases to the rooms upstairs. Music he heard drifting faintly up from below, briefly increasing in volume as the door to the bedchamber opened and closed, as a new voice whispered in his ear, as different hands touched and claimed and hurt. Pale arms stretched to their limit, straining against the bonds. Dark satin sheets, cool against his face as he pressed it against the bed, trying to block out what was happening.
It was worse when he was untied, when he had to see their faces. When he had to talk to the nameless men who entered the room one by one, passing the corner where Nikolai sat unmoving, observing his student. Nervous, aware of Nikolai's constant presence, Alex sat on the edge of the bed, trying to be everything they wanted. Trying to please his teacher. Terrified of the punishment that would follow if he did not.
His cool exterior belied the panic that always dwelt just below the surface as he spoke softly, answered the questions put to him, offered opinions on the topics he was given. Nikolai had seen to his education with his customary thoroughness. Alex spoke six languages and was well-versed in literature, history and politics. He spoke knowledgeably and volubly on many subjects, all the while reciting the litany in his head, remembering the lessons that really mattered. The ones that had been carved into his flesh, their supreme importance driven home by the sting of the whip, the bite of the cane. Don't slouch. Don't fidget. Don't bite your lip. Arrange yourself pleasingly, let the client see you. Smile. Flirt. Trying to keep the tremor out of his voice as he charmed, flattered and seduced. Keeping his expression carefully neutral as he flirted and aroused, artfully shedding his simple, elegantly cut clothing, the dark silk whispering as it fell away, leaving him naked, exposed.
Kneeling between unfamiliar legs, hands behind his back, head bowed gracefully. Looking up through his lashes as he leaned forward, trying to make his mind blank as rough hands grabbed the back of his head. Closing his eyes as his mouth was brutally plundered, straining to keep his balance, trying not to gag, trying to make pleasing sounds out of what wanted to be cries for help, for salvation. Choking down the last of the bitter semen that flooded his mouth as the client grunted and thrust forward. Pale hands gripping the sheets as Alex was lifted from the floor and thrown across the bed, his legs roughly parted. Closing his eyes and waiting for it to be over as the client impaled him, a little spit the only lubrication he granted to the pretty whore beneath him. Riding the wave of painful thrusts as the voice echoed in his head, constant, implacable, refusing to be silenced. Your body is not your own. Your body is not your own. Your body is not your own.
Alex forced himself back to the present, closing his eyes against the painful memory. He stood and began to pace, losing the struggle to keep control. He would have wrung his hands, had he had two, but had to settle for wrapping his one arm around himself as best he could in an attempt at self- comfort. His bloodshot eyes looked around the room, as if he were trying to memorize everything in it. His teeth worried at his lower lip. Walter said he loved him but he couldn't be held to that. Walter didn't really know him, didn't really know the man he held and kissed and touched.
Alex trembled as he fought against the flood of images from his past. The leering men, too many to count, who had possessed him, who had bought pieces of his life like the real estate, the stocks and bonds, the secrets they bought and sold. The innumerable impersonal hotel rooms, bedrooms, back rooms in too many cities to recall where he had been forced to strip naked and spread himself wide for a stranger's pleasure, trying not to tremble, trying not to cry. Pasting an expression of idiotic blankness on his face so the client wouldn't see the self-loathing, the fear, the misery. So he wouldn't earn another hour in the dark, another beating.
Alex walked to the closed front door and leaned against it, his one hand unconsciously massaging the opposite shoulder, his eyes squeezed shut against the hot tears. I should just leave, he thought desperately. Leave before I'm thrown out, before I have to see the look in his eyes when he sees me for what I am. Alex ran a shaking hand through his dark hair. I should get out before I ruin his life, it would be the kindest thing I could do.
He moved away from the door, swiping roughly at the tears on his cheeks. Of course he wouldn't go. Coward! The harsh voice in his head snapped. Deep inside he knew he couldn't do it, could never be brave enough to do the right thing, to just slip out and disappear, sparing Walter the grief and embarrassment that was sure to come. Selfish! The voice nagged. Alex cringed and moaned again, his shoulders shaking with the increased force of his sobs. He knew he couldn't bear to leave, couldn't bear to leave this, the only safe place he had ever known. Couldn't bear to lose even one second of time with Walter, even if it was the last. Even if his last moment with Walter was filled with anger and hatred, that kind and handsome face contorted with rage. Those warm brown eyes grown cold with disgust.
Alex glanced fearfully back at the door, then moved close to it again, checking the lock. Spender was out there, and Nikolai. His mind raced as he peered fearfully through the peephole at the deserted hallway on the other side of the door. He could leave, could try to disappear. But you belong to Skinner now, the voice hissed. Alex backed away from the door, whimpering.
You're his, the voice continued. Alex knew the voice was right. He was Walter's and it wasn't his place to decide. He would have to stay, miserable and afraid, dreading the moment when Walter would send him away. He couldn't go away on his own. But even if he could... how long before Spender found him? How long before he reclaimed the property, so recently given away, now unwanted? He would then give Alex to Nikolai to be retrained--Alex's stomach lurched sickeningly at the thought--and then...Alex swallowed. He knew what then.
Alex moved across the living room, almost unconsciously drawn to the balcony door. Neither man had mentioned that night on the balcony since Alex had first arrived at the condo. They had both studiously avoided the subject as well as the balcony itself, Skinner thoughtfully keeping the drapes partially closed, in order that Alex not be reminded of their confrontation and the long night that followed. Alex moved closer, almost in a trance, and grasped the door handle. Without knowing why, he slid the door open and stepped outside, trembling a little in the late October morning air, the cold tile floor of the balcony chilling his stockinged feet.
The balcony looked just as it had that night, the night that Walter-Skinner, then-had slugged him viciously in the gut and hauled him out here, throwing him down like a bag of garbage. Alex winced at the memory. It had been no more than he deserved. He looked around, hugging himself more tightly, and took another cautious step toward the railing. The wind picked up and whistled around the building's corner, making an eerie howling noise. Alex stood on the empty balcony, shivering in his T-shirt and sweatpants, staring out at the skyline. He had a passing thought that the last time he had been here, he had had two arms, had been whole.
The city droned on, oblivious to his suffering just as it had been that cold November night when he had huddled here, his manacled hand alternately numb and aching, his muscles beginning to cramp. Alex stood at the railing, his finger tracing and retracing a small scrape on the painted surface, the scrape made by the handcuff he wore as he dangled seventeen stories above the ground. Gritting his teeth against the agony of the metal slicing into his wrist, the small bones cracking and shifting, using all of his remaining strength to vanquish his enemy, to survive. To fight the darkness, the all-consuming void, to win the right to live another day, even if it was on his knees.
Alex turned and sat with his back against the railing, the coldness of the tiles seeping through his sweatpants. He wrapped his arm around his knees, unconsciously echoing his movements of that terrible night. He looked at the balcony door, remembering. Skinner leaving him there, cold and alone, returning to the warmth and the light, sliding the door shut behind him. The way that Skinner had stood there, framed in the doorway, for just a moment, his expression unreadable. How bereft Alex had felt when Skinner had turned off the last light inside, leaving him only darkness and his own faint reflection in the glass balcony door.
Alex wept intermittently, occasionally scrubbing his hand roughly across his cheek, hating himself for his weakness, for the hope that had filled him so completely, the hope for which he was now paying a terrible price. He stood awkwardly, his one hand clutching the railing to pull himself up. He paused once more before going back inside, staring at the balcony door, that cold, disdainful voice in his head sparing him nothing. This is where you belong, Alex, the voice whispered. On the outside looking in. Alex drew in a deep, hitching breath and stepped back inside, sliding the door shut behind him.
Morton's Supermarket was always crowded on a Saturday. Skinner paused as he passed the coffee shop, tempted by the aroma of freshly roasted gourmet coffee. He glanced at his watch and decided not to stop. He wanted to hurry back home to Alex. The coffee shop was just one of the conveniences Morton's offered. The clean, modern supermarket also boasted its own bank, flower shop, pharmacy and dry cleaners. Skinner skillfully navigated through the sea of well-heeled shoppers. He had shopped at Morton's ever since moving to Crystal City, but his previous visits had been hurried, grim affairs as he quickly filled his cart with steak, beer and frozen dinners, the staples of bachelor life.
He smiled appreciatively as he approached the extensive gourmet foods section, already planning a week's worth of sumptuous meals that would have Alex's appetite running at full throttle in no time. He selected a bottle of good red wine and a variety of freshly ground spices.
He chose generously from the attractive array of meats in the butcher's shop. Morton's sold only Black Angus beef, and Skinner deliberated for a moment before choosing the New York strip. He had steak in the freezer at home, but chose two of the best steaks and stacked them in the cart. Alex would need plenty of red meat if he were going to get his strength back. Soon, packages of plump chicken breasts were piled next to the steak and Skinner moved on to the lamb. His mouth watered as he remembered his Aunt Tati's kharcho, the way it smelled as it bubbled away on the stove, the way she would always save aside a few walnuts and dried cherries for her favorite nephew. He smiled. The recipe for Tati's kharcho had always been a closely guarded secret, and he had been surprised and deeply touched when she had sent him the recipe a few months before, tucking it into an ornate Easter card.
Skinner headed for the produce section. If he were going to make kharcho for Alex, he was going to need fresh lemon juice, cilantro and onions. He efficiently selected and bagged the fresh cilantro, already anticipating surprising Alex with the traditional Georgian lamb stew. He chose from the heaping bushel baskets of lemons, oranges and apples, carefully placing them in one corner of the cart to avoid bruising.
He passed by an attractively arranged display of strawberries and paused, unable to resist their sweet scent. He leaned down and inhaled deeply, grinning in spite of himself. The strawberries were out of season, but they were unusually red and juicy. He added a quart of them to the cart, then stopped, picturing one of those plump, juicy strawberries disappearing between Alex's lush lips, white teeth biting deep, droplets of pink juice on those lips, just waiting to be kissed away... Skinner shook himself out of his reverie and looked around quickly to see if anyone had noticed him standing there daydreaming. He quickly picked up a second quart of strawberries and headed for the dairy section, in search of fresh whipping cream.
Skinner finished in the dairy section and moved into the pharmacy. He stopped next to a display rack of condoms and chose a large box. He smiled as he anticipated the night ahead. He had told Alex that he wanted their first time to be special, and he intended to keep his word. He would cook Alex dinner, then they would relax together, perhaps have some wine. Candlelight, strawberries and cream. By the time the last strawberry had been eaten, they would both be naked, and he would show Alex what it was to be loved, truly and passionately.
He glanced at the box of condoms and imagined Alex wearing only the bedsheets, writhing, his lips parted, calling his name. Skinner felt stirrings of interest from below and hunched over a little, glad he had worn his jacket. He grinned and pushed his cart along a little faster, pausing to select a bottle of potent multi-vitamins for Alex. He started to move along, then stopped and tossed another bottle in the cart for himself. He was going to need it.
Morton's flower shop was well-stocked, the gently humming refrigerated cases displaying a stunning variety of roses, irises, lilies and tulips. Lush potted plants, from the smallest pot of ivy to the tallest ficus tree, lined the shop's paneled walls. Skinner's gaze wandered over the violets, lilies and tulips, only to return again and again to the long-stemmed red roses, a heart-shaped sign on the window of the refrigerated case displaying their price. He hesitated. Maybe Alex would like something a little more exotic. Skinner glanced at the stargazer lilies and then back at the roses, undecided. Roses were so overdone, almost...corny, he thought, but yet...he smiled as he thought of Alex.
It seemed hard to imagine that he had once hated Alex Krycek, now that it seemed he lived for those green eyes to see him, counted the moments until he could see that rare and beautiful smile again. That soft, husky voice that made his pulse quicken at the mere sound of it, the way Alex's body seemed sculpted to fit his, how holding Alex felt like he was holding the most precious thing on earth, something half-glimpsed in dreams, almost too beautiful to believe. His smile widened as he opened the door and reached into the case. Damn it, he was in love and if that wasn't a reason to be as corny as he wanted to be, he didn't know what was. He selected a dozen long-stemmed roses, pleased to find no blemishes on the delicate, blood-red petals. The salesgirl gave him a knowing smile as she wrapped the roses.
"These must be for someone pretty special," she commented.
Skinner grinned as he took the roses from her and placed them gently in the child's seat of his cart. The salesgirl giggled as he looked down and gently fingered the heavy floral paper, feeling the blush creeping along his neck.
"Very special," he answered.
Skinner found himself drawn to an area of the store he could not remember visiting previously: the candy section. He smiled to himself as he surveyed the astonishing variety of chocolates and candies, the very air in this part of the store seemingly saturated with sugar. Alex's sweet tooth amused him and, in some strange way, touched him deeply. His smile widened as he saw the small bottles of decorative candies. Soon, the items in his bulging cart were joined by a bottle of white chocolate sprinkles and one of tiny dark chocolate stars. Those would certainly add a little interest to Alex's twice-daily milkshakes.
Skinner bought two bags of Hershey's Kisses, Alex having mentioned them as a particular favorite. He was about to move on when he spied the elaborate endcap display of imported Belgian truffles. He raised an eyebrow at the price but couldn't resist picking up a box. The truffles, dark chocolate with raspberry filling, a tiny white chocolate ribbon tied around each one, nestled in their golden box. He hesitated, looking at the bags of foil-wrapped kisses already in the cart, then shrugged, beaming happily as the truffles found a home beside them. It was too much, but damn it, where Alex was concerned, too much was barely enough.
Skinner's cart fairly groaned under the weight of his purchases as he made his way toward the checkout stand, a gallon of double-fudge ice cream balanced precariously on top of the heaping cart. Skinner checked his list, pleased to see that he hadn't forgotten anything. He rummaged in his wallet for his credit card, looking impatiently at the woman ahead of him who seemed to be taking an eternity to write her check. Skinner glanced at his watch again, wondering helplessly why people didn't ever do that sort of thing ahead of time. He wanted to get home to Alex.
At last, the preceding customer was on her way and the cashier gave Skinner's nearly overflowing cart an apprehensive look. Skinner shrugged and smiled apologetically, enjoying the sight as bag after bag was loaded onto the courtesy clerk's trolley. Skinner's eyes misted over momentarily. How long since he last shopped for two? He held his hands out for the roses.
"I'll carry those myself," he said.
Morton's was one of the last supermarkets on Earth, it seemed, that still employed courtesy clerks to carry shoppers' groceries out to their cars. Skinner had been fortunate to get a good parking space, a near impossibility on a Saturday and the clerk had to push his trolley at a fast clip to keep up with his impatient customer. Despite the roomy trunk of Skinner's sedan, the clerk looked a bit uncertain as he began packing the car. By the time the last bag was loaded in, the trunk as well as the back seat and the passenger seat were loaded to capacity. Skinner thanked the clerk and got into the car. He pulled out into traffic and laughed as he glanced in the rearview mirror. He could see nothing except the brown bags. He drove cautiously but quickly, eager to get home and surprise Alex with the gifts he'd bought.
Alex had made his way upstairs and now lay in Walter's bed. Alex had spent the night in this bed, "our bed", Walter had called it, but Alex still thought of it as Walter's bed. He had to. He knew it wasn't his, not permanently. He lay clutching Walter's pillow, breathing in his scent, wishing he could bottle that clean, familiar scent and carry it with him always. So that no matter what happened, he could smell Walter and remember what it was like to be with him, to feel safe and loved, even if it was only just for a little while. Alex lay on his side with his knees drawn up to his chest, his eyes shut tightly against the memories that he had tried so long to wall away. Memories that now seemed to wash over him in an almighty flood, unstoppable.
He moaned softly and rocked a little, clutching the pillow more tightly as he remembered. Spender. Those cruel implacable eyes, the acrid smoke, the big wooden desk and the brass horse. Nikolai. Darkness and pain. Jason. Hurtful hands probing, handling. The clients. The man with the thick extension cord, his face impassive and cruel. The man who had drugged him, advancing toward him as he lay helpless on the bed, the needle glinting in the light...something in him broke and the memories came even faster now, memories from long ago, things he had forgotten, things he had been forced to forget. A beautiful woman with long dark hair and eyes that sparkled as she laughed. Her voice, low and husky, amused as the tall, dark man helped her with her coat.
"I tell you I don't need it, Viktor," she said, "it's not so cold." She laughed playfully as she buttoned up the coat. "Only a month in Washington and already these American winters are too much for you?"
The tall dark man smiled, his teeth so white and straight.
"It'll be cold enough, Sonia," he admonished, caressing her cheek lovingly. "And you are in a delicate condition. We don't want Alexei's little brother or sister getting cold, do we?"
"A brother," Alex murmured into the pillow, a tear sliding from beneath his lashes. "I hoped for a brother."
A flurry of hugs and kisses, Papa sweeping Alexei into his arms before gathering up the luggage and opening the front door of the townhouse, letting in a blast of icy winter air. Mama, smelling so wonderful, hugging him, her hands in his hair, her green coat matching her eyes.
"Be good for Mrs. Karlinski, Alyosha."
Alexei had gone to the window to watch as they got into the car to leave for the airport. They had never come home. Alex curled around the pillow, remembering, not wanting to remember. The phone ringing in the middle of the night. Mrs. Karlinski in her blue bathrobe, her eyes puffy, sitting on the edge of his bed. Alexei sitting stunned and silent as she told him that his Mama and Papa were gone.
Watching numbly as the movers came and took everything away, all of Mama's things, Papa's things. Alexei's things loaded into a different truck. Mrs. Karlinski's face, so different now, blank, her eyes cold and distant as she led Alexei down the sidewalk toward the black sedan that sat idling at the curb, plumes of exhaust rising in clouds behind it, white in the chill morning air. The back door opening. Alexei craning for one last look at his home as the door closed behind him and the car began to pull away. The man sitting across from him, watching him silently, the tip of his cigarette briefly glowing brighter as he inhaled.
Alex sat up abruptly, flinging the pillow aside. He ran his hand through his hair, shaking his head as if to try to stop the onslaught of painful images from the past. He stood and began to pace manically, biting his lip, his arm crossed protectively over himself. It was bad. The anguish wasn't lessening. He whimpered softly as he paced, trying unsuccessfully to block out the pain. It wasn't often that it got this bad, but when it did, the anguish was nearly unbearable.
There was only one thing that would give him any relief, and he resisted it as long as he could. Something in him knew that it was terribly wrong. He also knew the relief, blessed though it was, would be only temporary. His stomach lurched and he paused in his desperate movements, gulping air, trying to calm himself. Mama, happy, laughing as Papa helped her into her favorite green coat. Papa's hand on Alexei's cheek as he said goodbye to his son, expecting to see him again in two weeks. Not knowing it was the last time they would see each other. Not knowing what cruelty and despair lay in wait for his beloved son.
Alex moved down the hall as if in a dream, his eyes taking on a vague, distracted cast. He went into the hall bathroom and opened the medicine cabinet, feeling behind the bottle of cough syrup. His hand closed around the tiny box and he held it in his palm, staring at it for a moment. Pal. He had found the box as he was unpacking his things from the moving boxes and had hidden it in the back of the medicine cabinet, telling himself he wouldn't need it.
He took out one of the single-edged razor blades and carefully held it between his teeth, using the fingers of his one hand to peel the protective cardboard strip from around the blade itself. He paused and looked at himself in the mirror. His eyes were red and puffy and his hair in disarray. His heart pounded in his chest as he willed himself not to think about what he was about to do.
He had begun doing it when he was about sixteen. The scars left by the razor blade were fine and light, lost amongst the more prominent scars already disfiguring his young body. Alex shuddered to think what Spender would have done to him had he known his young charge was taking such liberties with his property. Alex closed his eyes, feeling the slight weight of the razor blade in the palm of his hand, and remembered the first time. He had just begun his training under Nikolai Andreiev. Hours spent in total darkness, kneeling naked and shivering, unable to lie down lest he be choked by the collar and leash securing him to the wall. Crying softly, afraid his teacher would hear and come to punish him again. Damp stone wall rough against his flesh, trails of agony across his back where the whip had cut in. Finally released, trembling and disoriented, led back to his room.
"Bed, Alexei, now." A disapproving frown from the tall man in the black suit. "You must learn to tolerate pain, little one. We have much work ahead of us."
Alexei had stumbled into his small, dimly lit room, closing the door against the horror that lay on the other side of it. He had paced then as he paced now, trying to outrun the fear and misery that effortlessly kept astride of him. He had knelt then, and pulled up the edge of the rug, glad his secret hadn't been discovered during one of the regular inspections of his room. He had taken the razor blade from one of the servants' rooms a few days before without really knowing why. He had slipped it into his pocket, terrified of being caught, and had hidden it away just in case...in case of what? Alexei didn't know. He just knew it made him feel better to know that it was there. He had taken the razor blade into his tiny bathroom. There wasn't much blood. The two thin scratches on the inside of his left arm looked black in the fluorescent light. He had felt better then, eerily calm, almost serene. For a little while.
Alex placed the razor blade on the edge of the sink and tugged at the waistband of his sweatpants, exposing the pale curve of his hip. His eyes were distant and unfocused. He tried not to concentrate on the reality of what he was doing. He tried to concentrate on the relief it would bring, the strange inexplicable calm, no matter how fleeting. He picked up the razor blade and brought it toward his hip.
Alex's face bore a look of intense concentration as he carefully drew one thin red line across his alabaster flesh, wincing a little at the sting. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, feeling the ache in his chest subside a little, concentrating on the sting, letting the small pain eclipse the larger one. He opened his eyes and touched cold metal to his skin again. One more should do.
Skinner's voice was almost a whisper, his soft tone disguising his shock. Skinner's military training was the only thing preventing him from surrendering to the almost overwhelming urge to rush in, to physically prevent his lover from hurting himself again. Stay calm, Walt, he admonished himself. Contain the situation. Then react. Alex held the razor blade between his finger and thumb, his eyes wide. His mouth opened and closed. Finally, he bit his lip and looked down at the floor. He knew Walter would never understand, never comprehend why Alex had to do this, why this was the only way to get a little respite, a little peace. He gripped the razor blade tightly, his hand trembling. What did it matter? It was over anyway. Walter would be disgusted, of course, repulsed by what he had just seen. He would be cast out.
Alex," Skinner repeated quietly. "Alex, listen to me."
Alex looked up, his expression one of resignation. Skinner winced at the exhaustion and despair he saw in Alex's face. He took a deep breath and looked into Alex's eyes.
"Put the razor blade down." Skinner's voice was even and unstressed, yet the undertone of command was unmistakable. Alex flinched almost imperceptibly.
"Please, Alex," Skinner said quietly. "Do it now."
Alex slowly placed the razor blade on the edge of the sink and moved away from it without being told. He stared at the tile floor, his shoulders hunched, waiting for what would happen next. His face burned with shame. No one had ever known about this, no one was ever supposed to know. To know how bad it could get. What he had to do to make the pain stop.
Skinner moved quickly. Picking up the small wicker trashcan that sat just inside the bathroom door, he held it under the edge of the sink. Tearing a length of toilet paper from the roll, he wadded it into a protective ball and used it to sweep the razor blade into the trashcan, grimacing a little at the faint red smear on its thin blade. Skinner noticed the small box with the remaining razor blades and dropped it into the trashcan, too. He turned to Alex, who was still staring at the floor, his sweatpants still shoved down below his right hip. Skinner's eyes were drawn to the red trail the razor blade had left across Alex's pale skin. His eyes filled with tears. Alex. He had been wasting time in the supermarket, precious minutes ticking by as he pondered whether the porterhouse looked better than the New York strip, what brand of *catsup* to buy, for Christ's sake, and Alex was here, in pain...
Skinner grasped Alex's shoulders firmly and leaned down. Alex's eyes were fastened on the floor.
"Alex. Look at me."
Alex mumbled something and shook his head. Skinner gave him a gentle shake. Alex looked up, his expression one of apprehension. Skinner's eyes sought his and held them.
"In God's name, Alex, why?" Skinner's voice was raw with emotion. "*Why*? Haven't you been hurt enough?"
Alex's eyes widened and he squirmed in Skinner's grasp.
"It's not what you think, Walter," he said quickly. "I wasn't-"
Skinner's grip tightened slightly and Alex stilled, trembling slightly.
"I wasn't going to try to kill myself," he whispered, tears pooling in his green eyes. Skinner spoke quietly but firmly.
"I know exactly what you were doing, Alex." He took Alex's arm and guided him over to the closed toilet seat. He sat Alex down and then bent down, opening the cabinet under the sink and taking out the hydrogen peroxide and cotton balls. Skinner knelt down and examined the cut on Alex's hip. It was about an inch and a half long and shallow, what little bleeding there had been had stopped. Skinner applied the disinfectant. Alex winced a little as the peroxide bubbled, cleansing the wound. Skinner recapped the brown plastic bottle and stood.
"I know what you were doing," he repeated. He gently cupped Alex's jaw, forcing him to look up. "It's called self-mutilation. Intense emotional distress manifested physically."
Alex saw the naked pain on Skinner's face and tried to look away, but Skinner wouldn't allow it.
"Are you hurt anywhere else?" Skinner asked softly. Alex shook his head. Skinner helped him to his feet and pulled his sweatpants up.
"I don't think that needs a bandage," Skinner said. "But we'll need to clean it frequently to make sure it doesn't get infected."
Alex nodded numbly, knowing that shortly it wouldn't matter if the wound became infected or not. He would be out there again, alone. A cut on his hip would be the least of his problems. Skinner led Alex downstairs to the living room. The area just inside the front door was so thickly strewn with grocery bags that Alex couldn't see the carpet. Skinner gestured toward the sofa and Alex's legs carried him over to it. He sat down, his hand in his lap, looking at Skinner resignedly. Skinner glanced at the grocery bags.
"I need to get the perishable things put away," he said. "I want you to stay right there and not move."
Alex nodded mutely. Skinner picked up two of the grocery bags and carried them into the kitchen, pausing as he passed the place where his lover sat, his expression curiously blank, staring at nothing.
Alex looked up slowly. His voice was a whisper.
Skinner put the bags on the kitchen counter and began unpacking them. He spoke quietly but firmly.
"I want you to think about why you were doing what you were doing just now. When I'm done with this, you and I are going to have a long talk."
Alex nodded. Skinner moved efficiently between the kitchen and living room, swiftly unpacking the bags and filling the refrigerator and freezer. He bit his lip as he came to the bag containing the strawberries and cream. Tonight was to have been so special. He had planned a romantic evening, had intended to kiss and caress Alex all night long, to show him all the love he had never been given. His lips thinned into a determined line as he pushed the berries toward the back of the refrigerator. That would have to wait. He had a serious situation to deal with first. The roses lay alone on the top shelf of the refrigerator, Skinner having stowed them immediately upon returning home, relieved at the time that Alex was nowhere in sight and the surprise hadn't been spoiled. Skinner picked up the bag with the chocolates, looked into it, paused, then folded the top of it down and set it aside. Alex barely noticed. He was only waiting for the inevitable.
Skinner put away the last of the perishables and leaned on the counter for a moment, steadying himself. He was not surprised to find his hands were shaking. He looked at Alex. Alex was sitting with his knees drawn up tightly against his chest, his one arm wrapped around them. His eyes were closed. He looked utterly exhausted. Skinner's heart ached. Why, Alex? He thought desperately. Why? What could have happened? I was only gone a couple of hours...Skinner's stomach tightened. I shouldn't have left him. He cursed himself silently. My gut told me something wasn't right and I ignored it. I should have stayed.
Skinner sat down next to Alex, unsure what to do. Alex huddled in his corner of the sofa, unmoving, his face a blank mask. Waiting. Skinner hesitated, then made a decision.
"Come here, Alex," he said softly.
Alex's eyes opened. He looked at Skinner's outstretched hand and stiffened. He shook his head. Skinner saw that he was trembling.
"It's all right," Skinner said gently. "I won't hurt you, I would never hurt you. Come on, Alex. I just want to hold you."
Alex made a small sound deep in his throat and shook his head again. He swallowed and looked down, hoping to hide the pain in his eyes. He wanted nothing more at that moment than to fling himself into Walter's arms and hold on tight, but he refused to let himself. That's over now, Alex, he thought to himself. Don't make it harder than it has to be. If you let yourself feel those arms around you again it'll hurt that much more when he pushes you away. And he will.
Skinner took a deep breath. He wanted to take Alex in his arms and soothe the pain away, hold him until that hunted, frightened look in his eyes was gone for good. His eyes stung. He had left the condo that morning smug and pleased, so convinced of his progress in healing Alex, body and soul. He cursed himself now, inwardly. Damn, you're a cocky bastard sometimes, Walt. Did you really think a few milkshakes and hugs could fix everything? You got him to smile a few times, even laugh, got him to stop flinching every time you came within five feet of him, so that's it? You just pat yourself on the back and congratulate yourself? You work your patented Skinner magic and presto! A horribly abused young man becomes a happy, confident member of society? He shook his head, still reeling from the shock of seeing Alex mutilating himself. He had a long way yet to go with Alex and right now, Alex's body language was screaming Stay Away.
"Alex? Are you afraid of me?" Skinner asked, unable to keep the hurt from his voice.
Alex looked up, surprise evident on his face before he willed that blank look back upon it.
"No," he said quietly.
Skinner was relieved. Cautiously, he inched closer to Alex. Alex watched him sadly. Skinner held his arms out again.
"Then why won't you let me hold you? I'm not angry, Alex, if that's what you're worried about. I'm upset that you were hurting yourself, yes, but I'm not angry. I just want to understand."
Alex's resolve weakened and he leaned forward, desperate for Skinner's touch. Skinner's eyes filled with tears as Alex slowly moved into his embrace. He held Alex tightly and rocked him gently, rubbing his cheek against the soft dark hair. Alex closed his eyes, nestling his cheek against Skinner's shoulder. The tiny relief afforded by the stinging cut on his hip had been short-lived, and the raw emotions were back with a vengeance. He clung to Skinner tightly, knowing it was for the last time, trying to imprint every word, every touch into his memory, knowing that soon it would be all he had left of this time, this place, this man. This love.
Skinner kissed the top of Alex's head and then looked down into agonized green eyes.
"Please, Alex," he begged. "Please tell me why."
Alex shook his head.
"I can't," he whispered.
He tried to pull away but Skinner's strong arms held him in place. He felt a warm hand rubbing circles in the middle of his back, and he sagged. His one hand fisted in Skinner's sweater as he tried to fight back the tears.
"Please, I can't..."
Skinner continued to rub Alex's back, trying to ease the tension he felt there. He felt it ease fractionally.
"Tell me, Alex. Tell me what's hurting you so badly on the inside that you have to hurt yourself on the outside."
Alex's voice, sounding impossibly small and defeated.
"I'm not what you want."
Skinner sat stunned, his hand ceasing its circuit between Alex's shoulderblades. Alex was rigid. This is it, Alex thought. Goodbye.
"Alex, how can you say-"
Alex suddenly broke free of the embrace and leapt up from the sofa, his face contorted with pain.
"I'm a whore!" he shouted, his voice choked. "A worthless slut, that's all I've ever been!"
Walter stared at Alex, his eyes wide and shocked. He stood and stepped toward the anguished man.
Alex backed away.
"No...please," he whispered. "Please don't touch me. I can't bear it. When you know, you'll never want to touch me again."
Walter moved closer, reaching out to Alex.
"Alex, I don't understand. Talk to me, please."
Alex pressed his back against the wall and slowly slid down, resting his head against his knees, hiding his face. He spoke in a muffled monotone, as though he were talking about someone else.
"I was trained to be many things, two things above all others. An expert assassin and a skillful whore. Spender always liked me better as a whore, but he needed me as an assassin. I only got whored out when it was necessary or when I was being punished for screwing up. Until," Alex's voice broke and he paused for a moment, trying to regain his composure. "Until Bill Mulder. Until I took the tape and tried to run. After that-" Alex's control broke and he began to cry, his body shaking with the force of his sobs.
Skinner moved slowly and carefully. He knelt next to Alex, desperately wanting to touch him, to stroke his hair, but he held himself back. Alex's shoulders shook as he cried, and he drew himself even tighter, as though he were trying to disappear.
"Alex, please," Skinner said softly. "Talk to me, tell me. I can't help you unless you tell me what the problem is. How can you think I wouldn't ever want to touch you again?"
Alex gave a strangled laugh and wiped his hand roughly across his reddened eyes. He leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes.
"I'm sorry, Walter," he whispered. "I should have told you. You're going to find out eventually anyway."
Skinner waited. Alex took a deep, ragged breath.
"The first time they called me a whore I didn't even know what one was." He gave another sharp, humorless laugh. "But I learned."
Skinner winced. He reached out, unable to stop himself this time. He cupped the back of Alex's head and gently massaged it.
"Alex, please let me hold you."
Alex hesitated, those hollow, hopeless eyes closing tightly and then opening again, regarding Skinner with a look of utter sorrow. Why not, Alex thought to himself. One for the road. Skinner sat down beside Alex and Alex allowed himself to be held. He lay his head on the older man's shoulder as Skinner's strong arms encircled him. Skinner stroked Alex's hair gently.
"Tell me, Alex. Tell me all of it. Everything."
Alex waited for a moment, wanting to savor the sensation of being held by Walter this last time. Then he began to speak, his voice detached and remote. Squeezing his eyes tightly shut, he told Skinner everything. His years as Spender's property. His training. Broken, naked, crawling, degraded. Countless men in countless places. Alex the whore, legs spread wide, taking whatever he was ordered to take. No part of him left unused. Skinner sat silent and motionless as Alex quietly spoke of the nightmare the last fourteen years of his life had been. Alex's voice was tired and resigned as he spoke of his many "clients". He heard a sharp intake of breath from Skinner as he spoke of the man with the frightening needle and the hallucinations that had resulted from the drug he had been given. Finally, Alex grew silent. He lay still, his head on Skinner's shoulder.
"I'm sorry, Walter," he whispered.
Skinner made no sound. Slowly, Alex raised his head, fearing the look of disgust he knew would be there. He looked up just as the first sob broke the silence. Skinner sat, staring straight ahead, tears coursing down his cheeks. His broad chest hitched as he cried, his sobs rough and deep and terrible. Alex got to his knees and began to back away, stricken.
"I'm so sorry," he repeated hoarsely. "I'm sorry I'm not...what you want. What you deserve." A tear trickled down Alex's cheek. "I never should have-" he bit his lip, unable to find the words.
The devastation on Skinner's face was utter and complete. Alex choked back a sob and began to get to his feet, wanting to spare Skinner the sight of him even as he mourned the loss of contact.
"No!" Skinner shouted, his voice strangled with emotion.
He grabbed Alex and pulled him back down to his knees, wrapping the younger man in his arms. He held him close, burying his face in the curve of Alex's neck. Alex could feel Skinner's tears soaking through the thin material of his T-shirt.
"Alex," Skinner sobbed. "Alex, what they did to you..."
He rocked Alex and cried, cursing Spender, cursing the abuse that his lover had suffered. Alex knelt there, still as a statue in Skinner's arms, his eyes closed, his lashes stark against his pale cheeks. He waited for the anger. Waited for the hurt. Skinner slowly, in stages, got control of himself. He wiped his eyes, then gently tilted Alex's chin upward. Alex looked at Skinner, accepting, waiting.
"Alex," Skinner whispered, his voice trembling. "How could you think that any of this would change things? That I wouldn't want you anymore?"
Alex looked down.
"Because I'm..." Filthy? Used up? Fucked up? He swallowed and looked back up into Skinner's worried brown eyes.
"I'm not...I'm not what you want," he repeated. He shook his head, confused. Didn't Walter see that? "I'm a whore, a slut. You deserve someone good and clean, like...like you," he said softly.
Skinner stood up slowly. Alex knelt there on the floor like a penitent, his eyes closed. Skinner held out his hand, waiting until Alex opened his eyes and saw it.
"Come on," Skinner said quietly.
Silently, Alex took Skinner's hand. Skinner gently pulled Alex up to his feet and took him in his arms, holding him close before leading him back to the sofa and waiting for him to sit down. Skinner sat next to Alex, still holding his hand.
Alex looked at him. Skinner stroked the back of Alex's hand gently as he spoke.
"Do you remember the talk we had when you first came here? The one where we said the past stays in the past? We were going to start over with a clean slate?"
"But...but this is *different*," he said, unable to meet Skinner's eyes.
"How, Alex?" Skinner asked, trying to keep the frustration from his voice.
How could Alex think that he could forgive him for the murders he had been forced to commit but not for being forced to prostitute himself? Alex took a deep breath, his eyes still cast downward.
"Last night in bed," he whispered. "You want to be the only one. But I'm not clean and good like you." A tear ran down his cheek. "You pushed me away, like...like you knew."
A look of pain crossed Skinner's face.
"Oh, God, Alex..."
He pulled Alex close and held him.
"Alex, I had no idea...you can't think...I told you why I stopped you. I want our first time to be mutual, to be special for both of us, not just for me."
Skinner stroked Alex's hair again.
"I have a past, too, you know," he said, kissing the top of Alex's head.
"Not like mine."
"No, Alex, not like yours. I was lucky. I wasn't forced to do the things you've been forced to do."
Alex clung to Skinner, trying to fight back the tears.
"You said you wanted to be the only one."
Skinner grasped Alex's shoulders firmly and looked into his eyes.
"I am the only one, aren't I?"
Alex nodded seriously.
Skinner kissed him gently.
"But what? What else could matter?"
Alex looked down, desperately trying to find the words, to make Walter understand.
"Don't you get it?" he whispered savagely. "I'll cost you everything! You'll lose it all because of me!"
Skinner drew him close again.
"I love you, Alex. Nothing else matters. There is nothing I have that could be taken away that would matter more than you."
Alex tried to pull away but Skinner held him tightly. Alex looked up into Skinner's eyes, his expression one of agony. He gripped a fistful of Skinner's sweater tightly.
"You don't understand!" he cried. "There are pictures! Videotapes! People who know! Don't you see? Please, Walter," he sobbed. "Please, I can't bear to watch your love for me turn to hate when you lose everything you've worked for your whole life because of me. I'm not worth it," he whispered.
Skinner stared at his young lover with eyes full of deep sadness. He ached to make Alex whole again, to say the words that would erase the memory of the years of abuse and degradation. To make him understand that he was worthy of love. He trailed his finger lovingly along Alex's cheekbone.
"Alex, I want you to listen to me," he said firmly.
Alex looked at him, not knowing what to expect. Skinner looked deeply into those wounded green eyes as he spoke.
"First of all, I love you. Period. End of sentence. I am the only one for you *now*, just as you are the only one for me. It doesn't matter what happened before."
Alex looked down. Skinner continued, letting a little bit of Marine creep into his voice. He was going to need it.
"I'll say it again. I love you, Alex Krycek. I want you to understand that.I...love...you. Nothing else enters into it. Is that clear?"
Alex nodded numbly.
"Second. You are not, I repeat, *not* a whore. You are not a slut. You are a beautiful and intelligent young man who suffered years of systematic abuse. You never had a choice. You did what you were told or you suffered terribly. Am I correct?"
Alex wiped away a tear and nodded. Skinner cupped Alex's jaw and raised Alex's face again.
"I don't ever want to hear you use those words to refer to yourself again, Alex," he said sternly. "That's *my* lover you're talking about."
Alex's eyes were wide and bright as he nodded. He buried his face in Skinner's chest, shaking as the emotions washed over him. Relief. Gratitude. Disbelief. Desperate hope that it still wouldn't all be snatched away.
"I should have told you," he mumbled. "I was so scared, I thought you wouldn't want me anymore-"
"Shhh," Skinner soothed, rocking him slightly again. "You don't ever have to worry about that. Nothing could ever stop me wanting you. You're here, with me, where you belong."
"Walter," Alex whispered. "Walter."
They sat like that for quite some time, the only sound they made the occasional whispered declaration of love, the only movement the occasional small kiss, an effort to move closer. Touching. Reassuring. Reclaiming.
Alex's head lay pillowed on Skinner's shoulder. He never wanted to be anywhere but here, nestled in Skinner's arms. He sighed, still worried about Skinner paying a terrible price for loving him, knowing from experience that the past sometimes just wouldn't stay buried. Deep inside, he felt sure that someday this happiness would end, would be lost just as he had lost everyone he ever loved. Alex closed his eyes, savoring the feeling of Walter's arms encircling him. He wanted this so badly, wanted nothing more than to love Walter Skinner with all of his strength.
He thought of his parents, stolen from him so long ago. He had to make sure nothing happened to Walter, that he didn't have to pay with his life the way Mama and Papa had. He trembled a little, felt Walter's arms hold him a little tighter. Alex knew he had to fight, had to do everything in his power to hold on to this unexpected and incredible gift he had been given, to be worthy of Walter's love.
Alex raised his head. Skinner watched him, his expression serious. He was taking a risk, he knew, but he had to make Alex understand that hurting himself was not an option. Skinner took a deep breath and placed his hand on Alex's hip, over the place where the small cut lay hidden under the thick material of his sweatpants.
"We have to deal with this."
Alex froze for a moment, then looked down again, nodding silently. Punishment. He understood that. He looked back up at Skinner.
"Anything," he whispered. Beat me. Hurt me. Just love me, let me stay.
Skinner understood too. He had no doubt that Alex would accept anything he dealt out, without question, without protest. He shook his head. That wasn't what he wanted.
"No, Alex," he said gently. "This isn't about hurting you. I'll never do that. I need you to understand that."
Alex nodded. Skinner continued.
"It's important that you understand something else, Alex. That it's never, *ever* okay for you to hurt yourself. Not ever. When I came home today and I saw you cutting yourself-" he broke off, his eyes filling with tears.
Alex touched Walter's face gently, caressing his cheek and wiping away a tear.
"I'm so sorry, Walter," he said, his own voice breaking. "I'm sorry, I never meant for you to see that. I..." he trailed off.
Skinner regained control, making sure to keep eye contact with Alex as he continued.
"Alex, what you did is very serious. You know that *nothing* matters more than your health and well-being." He paused. "You need to be punished, Alex. Not hurt. Punished. I need to know that there is no doubt in your mind that you must never do that again."
Alex looked down, picking at a nonexistent piece of lint on the leg of his sweatpants.
"Yes, Walter," he said quietly.
"Alex? Look at me," Skinner said firmly.
"I won't punish you unless you agree to it. Enough has been done to you without your consent. And, Alex," he said, as Alex began to nod. "I want you to trust me. I love you and I am trying to do what's right for you. The last thing I want is for you to be frightened or to feel coerced in any way. You have nothing to fear from refusing to be punished. It's a decision we both have to make. Do you understand?"
Alex nodded again. Skinner's voice was thick with emotion.
"I love you. I want to try to help you understand that you matter, that you are valuable, that you're not just a body, some piece of meat to be used or," his voice took on a firmer edge, "to be cut into because you're upset about something."
Alex bit his lip.
"I know you love me, Walter," he whispered. "I know you have to punish me because of what I did to myself. Because...because you love me," he whispered. He looked away, ashamed. "I-I know it's wrong. I didn't want anyone ever to know."
Skinner held him and rubbed his back.
"Tell me, Alex. Tell me why you do it, how it helps you. Tell me how it makes you feel."
Alex hesitated, then looked down. He spoke in a near-whisper.
"I...I just didn't have any other way to..." he paused, unsure how to express his complex feelings in words. "Sometimes, it just gets so bad, it hurts so much...I need a...a release, you know?"
Skinner didn't truly understand. The concept horrified him. The image of that angry red line on Alex's white skin...he tried to understand what Alex was trying to tell him.
"I did it for the first time when I was sixteen. I was terrified Spender would find out. But he didn't notice the scars, with all the others."
Alex went on, not noticing the flash of pain on Skinner's face.
"I didn't do it that much, I swear," he said, needing to convince Walter of this. "Today was the first time in a long time. I just...I just never had a way of making the pain stop, never had anybody to...I can't explain why it helps, even though it's only for a little while. It just seems like if I bleed a little, it makes the pain stop. Makes me stop remembering for a while."
Alex wouldn't meet Skinner's eyes. He cleared his throat.
"You must think I'm sick," he whispered.
"Look at me, Alex," Skinner said. Alex obeyed, reluctantly, his eyes shining with unshed tears.
"I do not think that. You're not sick. You just need another way to express your emotions, to let the pain out."
He kissed Alex softly on the lips.
"You have that now, Alex. You have me. If you're ever upset about anything, no matter what, you can come to me and talk about it and we'll handle it together. You don't need to do that to yourself anymore."
Alex smiled and shyly returned the kiss, then nodded.
"Yes, Walter," he whispered.
Skinner smiled and stroked Alex's sable hair again. His heart ached for the young man in his arms, a young man who for almost half his life had been told, had had it beaten into him, that he existed for others' purposes, that his body was but a thing to be used. Of course he thought nothing of carving his flesh with a razor blade. Of course he though to bleed was to be cleansed. Skinner gazed down lovingly at Alex and gathered his courage. He had to be sure that Alex understood.
Alex looked up. He knew what Skinner was asking.
"I trust you, Walter," he said again.
Skinner considered this.
"Do you agree that you have to be punished?" he asked. Alex nodded.
"Yes, Walter," he answered. He swallowed nervously. "What-how will you punish me?"
Skinner thought for a moment.
"Well," he began, "in my family, the surest way to earn a spanking was to do something reckless, to endanger yourself. It always made me think twice before I did anything foolish again." He looked at Alex seriously.
"I think sometimes the old ways are the best ways. You and I are family now, Alex," he paused and saw the tiny, tentative smile as Alex heard what he said, "and I think under the circumstances that a spanking is entirely appropriate. Do you agree?"
Alex hesitated, but only for a moment. His heart pounded in his chest. He knew Walter wouldn't hurt him, but still, it was a little scary, the prospect of getting spanked. He had been spanked in sexual situations with clients, but never as punishment. Nikolai would never have wasted his time on such a mild form of discipline. He swallowed hard.
Skinner sat on the edge of the sofa, and guided Alex to stand before him.
"Take down your pants and underwear."
Alex squared his shoulders and nodded. He slid his sweatpants and boxers down to his ankles and then, with Skinner's help, awkwardly lay himself down across Skinner's thighs. Alex lay rigidly, his one hand gripping the sofa cushion tightly. Skinner looked down at Alex's bare back and buttocks, at the shiny scars and puckers that were the legacy of years of mistreatment. He saw the six round scars that marred the small of Alex's back, felt Alex's slight trembling as he awaited the first blow, and felt his resolve begin to weaken.
He was about to punish a man who had endured more pain than most people could imagine. He remembered the look on Alex's face as he cut himself. Distant, detached, as though he were dissecting a specimen in a lab. Skinner shook his head. Come on, Walt, he scolded himself. You know the difference between discipline and abuse. You have to be strong. He needs you. Skinner looked past the scars to see the young man who lay across his lap, swallowing nervously, awaiting his punishment.
Alex didn't respond for a moment. He seemed almost afraid to breathe. Skinner rubbed his back gently.
"Alex? Tell me what this punishment is for."
Alex hesitated, then mumbled something Skinner couldn't quite hear. He caught only one word. "Whore". Skinner swiftly pulled Alex up from his position across his lap and slid him down until he was kneeling on the floor in front of him. He looked into Alex's eyes.
"No, Alex," he said firmly. Alex looked away.
"Look at me," Skinner commanded. Alex obeyed.
"Apparently I failed to make myself clear," he said. "You are never, ever to use that word to describe yourself again. You are not a whore, Alex. I want to hear you say it."
Alex stared down at the carpet. Skinner grasped his shoulders and shook him gently to get his attention.
"I'm not a whore," Alex answered softly.
Skinner kissed him on the forehead and then pulled him back across his lap, positioning the bare bottom over his thighs.
"Very good, Alex," Skinner said. "Now, let's try again. Why are you being punished?"
"Because I was bad," Alex answered, as if by rote. His voice sounded distant.
Skinner raised his hand and brought it down sharply, leaving a large pink blotch on the pale skin. The smack resounded in the previously quiet room. Alex gasped and jumped.
"Try again, Alex. You're not bad. That's not what this spanking is for."
Silence. Skinner brought his hand down sharply on the other cheek.
"Why are you being punished, Alex?"
"Because...because I h-hurt myself!" Alex cried. He couldn't believe how much two swats could sting. Skinner rubbed Alex's back gently.
"That's absolutely right, Alex," he said approvingly. "I am spanking you because you hurt yourself. You have to understand that harming yourself is absolutely not acceptable under any circumstances. You're not alone anymore, Alex. If something is upsetting you, talk to me and I'll help. We'll solve the problem together. But you have to trust me enough to come to me."
Alex nodded, close to tears. Walter was right.
"I am going to spank you hard, Alex. What you did was very serious and it must never, ever happen again. Do you understand?"
Alex rested his cheek against the sofa cushion and closed his eyes. He was afraid of the pain of the spanking, but he knew that he was safe. He knew that Walter was punishing him out of love.
"Alex, do you understand what could have happened if you had cut yourself too deeply? What if it had gotten out of control?"
He didn't need to say what was obvious to both of them. With one arm, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to effectively administer first aid.
"Yes," Alex whispered. "I'm sorry, Walter. I won't do it again."
"I'm glad," Skinner answered. "I want you to really think about what this punishment is for. Think how devastated I would be if anything happened to you."
Alex nodded, his hand still gripping the cushion tightly. Skinner raised his hand again.
"I'm not going to use anything but my hand on you, Alex, but I promise you, you're going to feel it for a while."
The sound of Skinner's hand on Alex's bare skin was very loud in the small room. Skinner began to spank in earnest, methodically covering each rapidly reddening buttock with a circuit of sharp swats. Alex began to whimper. He tried to keep still, determined to take the punishment he knew he deserved, but eventually began to wriggle a little under the blazing smacks.
"OW!" he yelped. "Ow, Walter, please!...Please...ow...I won't do it again, I promise!"
Skinner dealt a particularly stinging slap to the top of Alex's right thigh.
"Did I ask you this morning if everything was all right? Did I ask more than once?"
"Y-yes," Alex gulped.
"And what did you say?" Skinner asked, whacking the top of the other thigh.
"Ow! I-I said yes!" Alex yelped. Two more hard spanks to the tops of both thighs.
"And was that the truth?"
Another smack to the sit-spot of the left buttock. Alex kicked a little.
"OW! No! No it wasn't!"
Skinner went to work on the other sit-spot.
"And it's important to always tell the truth, isn't it, Alex?"
"OW! Yes! Yes, Walter!"
Skinner heard Alex's whimpers growing steadily in volume over the loud, crisp smacks and increased the frequency and force of the spanking, sensing that Alex was close to the breaking point. He aimed a particularly stinging volley at the tops of Alex's thighs.
"Are you ever going to harm yourself again, Alex?"
"I won't, Walter! I swear!"
Alex bucked a little as the painful swats came fast and hard. He felt Skinner's other hand spread wide on the small of his back, holding him still. The other hand continued to rise and fall ceaselessly, covering Alex's hot red bottom with carefully placed, overlapping spanks. Alex squeezed his eyes shut as the tears began to flow. He clutched the cushion, trying to be stoic, waiting for the punishment to be over. Skinner stroked Alex's back.
"Let it out, Alex," he said gently. "It's all right, cry it out."
Alex resisted for a moment longer, then the dam burst. He lay his head on his arm and cried loudly as Skinner continued to blister his ass, each stinging smack of his hard hand driving the point home. Skinner didn't stop until Alex's entire bottom was a uniform shade of crimson, Alex lying limp and sobbing across his lap. Gently, Skinner eased him up, taking care to avoid making contact with Alex's smarting bottom, and swept him into a bear hug.
"You did very well, Alex," he whispered. "I'm so proud of you."
Alex nestled his head against Skinner's shoulder, his shoulders shaking as he cried.
"I'm sorry," he choked. "I know it was wrong. I promise it'll never happen again."
"I know," Skinner whispered, running his aching palm along the curve of Alex's back. "I believe you. But," he added sternly, "if you ever do anything like that again, I'll strap you. Do you understand?"
Alex blanched and nodded quickly.
He sniffled and wiped his eyes, shifting uncomfortably.
"That hurt," he said thoughtfully, putting his hand back to rub. Skinner laughed.
"It's supposed to," he said, smiling. "Come on, I've got a couple of things in the kitchen to take your mind off it."
Alex sat at the writing desk, the straight-backed chair that usually stood there having been replaced with a small armchair with a well-padded seat. He looked at the writing pad and pen doubtfully. Skinner placed a double-chocolate milkshake on the desk next to Alex, topped with whipped cream and the white chocolate sprinkles. Alex's eyes widened appreciatively.
"Are you comfortable?" Skinner asked.
Alex nodded. He took a sip of the milkshake and smiled.
"Thank you, Walter."
Skinner put the vase with Alex's roses on the windowsill in front of him and sat down in the wing chair beside the desk. He looked at Alex seriously.
"I don't want you to think of this as a punishment, Alex."
Alex looked back down at the writing pad and pen and frowned. It *felt* like a punishment. He reluctantly picked up the pen. Skinner gave Alex an encouraging smile and opened the newspaper.
"Fifty times, Alex. I'll be right here beside you. If your hand gets tired, take a break. Don't just write the lines," Skinner admonished. "I want you to really concentrate on the words, what they mean."
"Okay," Alex said. He sighed as he regarded the expanse of white paper in front of him. He glanced at Skinner. Skinner looked at him over the top edge of the Sports section. He nodded encouragingly.
"Go ahead, Alex. I told you I don't want you to think of it as a punishment and I meant it. The spanking was your punishment and it's over. This is for you. Trust me?"
Alex nodded and bent to his task. The only sound in the room was the scratch of his pen on the paper and the occasional rustling of newsprint as Skinner turned the page. Alex covered line after line of the ruled paper with his careful script. I am not a whore. I am not a slut. I am not a whore. I am not a slut.
Skinner watched from behind his newspaper. He knew it would take more than this to erase the effects of years of mental and physical abuse, but he hoped that this primitive form of deprogramming would at least get Alex thinking. Alex looked up from his writing to admire his roses, the afternoon sun illuminating the petals as it streamed through the window. Skinner smiled, thinking of the look on Alex's face when he saw the roses, Skinner's worry over the selection evaporating as Alex's expression went from surprise to purest joy. He had shaken his head in a tiny gesture of disbelief, that elusive smile flickering and growing stronger. He gazed down at the flowers almost reverently, whispered one word, so quietly that Skinner could not be altogether sure that he heard it at all.
The gift of the chocolates was met with considerable enthusiasm, Alex popping a truffle in his mouth and groaning with pleasure before moving close to Skinner and offering his mouth up for a kiss. Skinner had eagerly obliged. Alex's tongue had found his, like satin, like rose petals, soft and sharp and delicate, Skinner's mouth suddenly full of the taste of dark, sweet raspberries.
Skinner pretended to read his newspaper, all the while gazing surreptitiously at Alex, watching his pale hand move across the page, the sunlight through the window finding all the red and gold in his dark hair. Alex glanced up and caught Skinner looking, and dropped a wink before turning back to his task. Skinner grinned and got back to the article on budget cuts in Washington, grumbling a little as he read.
They spent the rest of the afternoon like that, Alex carefully writing his lines and Skinner finishing with the newspaper and then starting on the new Tom Clancy. Skinner occasionally stopped Alex, not wanting his one hand to get too fatigued, and not wanting the words to run together in a meaningless blur. Alex finished his milkshake, three of the truffles and a handful of Hershey's Kisses, having somehow managed to convince Skinner that the chemicals in the chocolate would stimulate the release of endorphins and ease the pain in his sore butt.
Alex finished his fifty lines and stood, stretching with feline grace. His relieved smile faded when Skinner gestured to him to sit back down. Skinner appraised the lines Alex had already written and tore the pages off, putting them neatly aside. He wrote something across the top of the blank page.
"Fifty more and then you're done," he said, rubbing Alex's shoulders. Alex twisted around in the chair, his eyes wide and injured.
"But, Walter-" he whined. Skinner pointed to the page.
"I'm going to start dinner. We're having steak. Dr. Skinner thinks you're ready for alcohol again, so you can have a beer with dinner but *only* if you finish all of your lines. Deal?"
"Deal," Alex said sulkily, turning back to his tablet.
He picked up the pen again, muttering under his breath about the injustice of someone telling someone else they had to write fifty lines when what they *really* meant was a hundred lines... Suddenly the white page swam as his eyes filled with tears. He blinked them away as he read the line Skinner had written again. He looked up with a grin, his eyes shining. Skinner smiled back at him from behind the kitchen island. Alex gazed at him for a moment, his expression one of love and understanding, and then turned back to his work. He began to write.
I am loved. Walter loves me. I am loved. Walter loves me.
Author's Notes: PAL brand razor blades are manufactured in Staunton, Virginia.
Ketamine is a dissociative anesthetic, meaning that it separates the mind from the body. It is used in human and veterinary medicine, often as a "restraint" drug for lower primates. Also known as Special K, Ketamine can cause emergence reactions, including vivid hallucinations such as the ones Alex experienced. Some patients have reported hallucinating their own deaths. In human surgery, Ketamine is usually given along with another drug, such as Versed, to induce amnesia concerning the emergence reactions.