Walter Skinner had once been a heavy sleeper. Falling in love with Alex Krycek had changed that. When Alex was away doing Spender's dirty work, Walter never slept well. He opened his eyes, reached for his glasses and squinted at the bedside clock. 3:05am. He pushed back the covers and groped for his robe, not bothering to turn on the light. As he belted his robe, he heard the soft clicking sound again. His heartbeat quickened. You didn't love Alex Krycek and not become intimately familiar with the sound of a lock being picked.
Alex was home.
Walter started down the stairs, his excitement tempered with worry. Alex hadn't picked the lock since...
He remembered those green eyes, so often dark with pain, shining like the new key Walter had pressed into his hand. Remembered the slightly parted lips, the pale throat working as Alex struggled to find the words to say what the small and simple gesture meant to him. Remembered the way his own voice sounded, rough with emotion, as he held Alex and whispered to him, his hands caressing the taut muscles through the black leather. "This is your home now," Walter had said, feeling Alex sigh and move closer, resting his head on Walter's chest. "You don't ever have to break in again. Not here. Never here. Where you belong."
The light was on in the kitchen. Walter moved quickly toward it. Alex frequently returned from one of Spender's jobs battered and bruised, and Walter would be there, waiting, glad Alex now had someone to come home to. Glad he wouldn't be nursing his wounds alone in some dank bolthole, some anonymous motel room. It was easy enough to clean the cuts, bandage the ribs, massage the sore muscles. But it was harder, every time, it seemed, to heal Alex's invisible wounds.
Alex would be tense and edgy for days after an assignment. The fear that Walter had worked so hard to ease was always back, stronger than ever. Alex was well-trained in the art of masking his emotions. It was an essential skill in his line of work. But those eyes, shuttered as they often were, could never hide the fear that always lingered close to the surface. Walter knew that look, knew that fear. That Walter would see him again as he had before, as an assassin, a thief, a traitor. That Walter would leave him. Alex would speak little, barely able to meet Walter's eyes. It would take days for Walter to bring him back, to reassure him, to undo the damage that Spender's hold over him had done. Walter took a deep breath as he reached the kitchen, worried about what he might find. Alex had been gone nearly three weeks this time. He was bound to be hurting, inside and out.
The refrigerator door was open, black boots visible underneath it.
"Alex?" Walter said.
There was a muffled gasp. A dark head popped up over the opened door. A carton of orange juice hit the kitchen floor, its contents quickly spreading over the tiles in a sticky pool.
Walter's next words froze in his throat.
The person standing in his kitchen at three in the morning, rummaging through his refrigerator, was not Alex.
For a split second, they stared at one another across the growing orange puddle. Walter glimpsed a shock of dark hair, a flash of white teeth bared. Suddenly, the intruder reached for something lying on the floor beside him and brought it up, swinging it wildly at Walter's head. Walter raised his arm defensively, grunting as the battered knapsack crashed into his forearm. Damn! Walter thought. What the hell's he got in there, bricks?
The intruder dashed toward the living room, making for the front door. Walter cursed and gave chase, his bare feet whispering over the thick carpet. He felt a grudging admiration at the speed and agility with which his quarry moved, gracefully dodging the furniture as he tried to escape. The intruder was nearly at the door when Walter took him down with a rugby tackle, careful even as he did not to land on him with his full weight. He wanted to contain the situation, not inflict unnecessary damage. The intruder was much smaller than he, and justice was a matter for the authorities. Besides, with the way the world was these days, he'd likely end up on an assault charge and the mystery B & E artist would end up with a fat out-of-court settlement.
The intruder cried out as Walter rolled on top of him, attempting to hold the struggling man down.
"Stop it!" Walter growled, gripping the intruder's shoulders, surprised at how narrow they were. "You're caught, just give it up!"
"Tvoju mat!" The intruder spat, fighting desperately. He bucked and twisted, trying fruitlessly to dislodge Walter, undaunted by the greater bulk pressing down on him.
Walter heard the curse and understood it. So, his uninvited guest was Russian. Alarm bells went off in his mind. If the intruder was Russian, it might have something to do with Alex. Someone looking for Alex. He growled a little in the back of his throat, surprising himself with the animal sound of his anger. If this man had broken in here intent on harming Alex, then assault charges were the least of Walter's worries. Walter swore as a fist glanced off the side of his face, nearly knocking his glasses off.
Walter kept a tight grip on the intruder with one hand, ran the other hand blindly across the surface of the coffee table. His hand closed around the remote control and he hit the button that controlled the lights. The lamps came on, flooding the room in warm light. Walter looked down into the face of his captive.
Walter's eyes widened. The stranger who lay struggling beneath him was little more than a boy. The face that looked up at him, contorted with rage and terror, was that of a young teenager. The boy pummeled Walter with small, rock-hard fists, his voice rising as he cursed and fought.
"Sukin syn! Svoloch!"
Walter grabbed the boy's slender wrists and pinned them to the floor beside his head. He straddled the boy, the carpet rough against his knees, and held him immobile. The boy continued to fight even as his strength ebbed, his struggles growing weaker as he continued to rail at Walter.
The boy seemed to panic as he began to realize the impossibility of escape. His eyes were huge, his breathing ragged and uneven. Walter felt a grudging admiration for this kid who was so reluctant to give up, even against a man more than twice his size. The boy attempted to prize his wrists out of Walter's firm grip, chafing the skin.
"Nyet! Idi na khuy!" The boy yelled, trying unsuccessfully to headbutt Walter. "Pusti! Otpusti!"
Walter tightened his hold on the boy's wrists, feeling the kid's pulse beating triple-time. He leaned down until he was just inches away from the pale, terrified face. The boy's eyes were a bottomless bottle-green, locked on Walter like a rabbit in headlights. His breathing was shallow and frantic, his chest heaving as he took in huge, panicky gulps of air.
Walter waited until he was sure he had the kid's undivided attention. He spoke softly, emphasizing every word with quiet menace.
"Spokoyno," he said, biting off the word. The kid's eyes widened. "A nu stoy!"
The boy's mouth dropped open in an almost comical expression of surprise. He almost seemed to stop breathing. Walter couldn't hide his smile. He remembered the look on Alex's face, how stunned he'd been when he realized that he and Walter had both grown up speaking the same language. That the desperate, hoarse shouts Alex gave as he came, sweat-soaked and glistening, thighs clamped around Walter's waist, were understood and cherished by his lover.
Walter was startled out of his reverie by a bony knee driving upward, aimed directly at his vulnerable balls. He managed to dodge it just in time, rolling slightly to the side without releasing his hold on the boy. The kid just wouldn't quit!
"Spakoynee malchik!" Walter roared, giving the boy a firm shake.
The boy whimpered a little and stilled, green eyes filling with tears of anger and fear. Walter felt him tremble. He looked down and spoke into the upturned face. Fortunately, his AD voice worked just as well in Russian as it did in English.
"Vy govorite po-Angliysky?"
The boy bit his lip, refusing to answer, defiant to the last. Walter shook him again. The boy looked away, then back up at Walter.
Walter stared him down. The kid shivered and swallowed hard.
"Yes," he said softly.
Adrenaline coursed through Walter's veins. He took a deep breath and tried to get control of himself. Being forced to subdue an attacker in his own home, while he was wearing nothing but a bathrobe, tended to get his temper up. To say nothing of the looks the guys at the FBI gym were going to give him when they got a load of his carpet-burned knees. Calm down, Walt, he admonished himself. He's just a kid. A scared kid.
"Who are you?" Walter asked, his eyes searching.
"Let me go."
"Not a chance. What's your name, boy?"
The boy shook his head stubbornly.
Walter shrugged and got to his feet, pulling the boy up by the collar. As soon as his feet found the floor, the kid was poised to run. Walter grabbed him by the arm and spun him around.
"Fine," he said between clenched teeth. "If you won't tell me you can tell the police."
He reached for the phone. "No!" The boy shouted, his eyes wide. "Please don't, mister. Don't call the police."
Walter sought the boy's eyes, held them with his own for a long moment. He had a proven track record of being unable to stand firm against a pair of vulnerable green eyes. Man, was this kid going to be a heartbreaker when he grew up. Walter decided to try one more time.
"What's your name?" He said again.
The boy fidgeted and looked down. Skinner kept his arm in a tight grip. The kid seemed to sag, the fight gone out of him. He looked up, his lower lip beginning to tremble.
"N-Nicholas," he whispered.
"How old are you?"
The kid tilted his chin up in a manner that was oddly familiar.
Walter reached for the phone again.
"Sixteen!" The kid said hastily.
Walter arched an eyebrow, waited.
The boy dropped his gaze. "In two months."
Walter stood, perplexed, the boy's arm limp in his grasp. The kid sniffled and the tears began to flow in earnest. He glared at Skinner with all the fire he had left.
"Who are *you*?" He demanded, his voice trembling. "What are you doing in my brother's house?"
Walter stood, flabbergasted.
"Your *brother's* house?"
Alex's voice was hoarse, slightly more than a whisper. He stood, framed in the doorway, his key dangling forgotten from his good hand. Walter had never seen Alex look so utterly shocked. The careful Consortium schooling that had prepared him so well, had taught him how to hide his reactions so flawlessly, had obviously not prepared him for this. Alex looked as though he had been slugged in the gut. Walter winced. He knew that look all too well. He'd never wanted to see Alex look like that again. Alex took a step forward, glanced briefly at Walter, love and surprise and pain all warring in his eyes.
The boy twisted out of Skinner's grasp and ran to Alex, flinging his arms around him. Alex gasped as though in pain. He wrapped his good arm around the boy and squeezed his eyes shut tightly, burying his face in the boy's dark hair.
Walter stood, the forgotten member of this tableau, shocked at what he was seeing. He was curiously unsurprised that Alex had a brother, that Alex had never mentioned him. Alex never talked about his life in Russia, never spoke of his family. Walter's shock came from seeing them together, just standing there in each other's arms. He couldn't believe he hadn't seen the resemblance before, even in the heat of battle, as it were. They were amazingly alike. The same dark hair, the same green eyes. The kid was even wearing a leather jacket, almost identical to Alex's. The same with the boots. The boy was clinging to Alex like a limpet. Walter's lips quirked in a secret smile. He had seen plenty of cases of big-brother hero worship in his time, but this kid had it bad. Alex opened his eyes, seeming to plead silently for understanding. Walter looked at Alex, letting the love in his heart flow from his eyes. Alex sighed a little and closed his eyes again, rested his cheek on his brother's head.
Walter sat down heavily on the sofa, raising a hand to rub his throbbing cheek. He was going to have one beauty of a bruise there in a few hours. The kid had been terrified, fighting like fury. Walter couldn't deny the twinge in his heart. Alex hadn't told him about Nicholas. That he understood. But Alex had obviously not told Nicholas about Walter, either, and as much as Walter hated to admit it to himself, it stung.
Alex was rocking Nicholas gently, his one hand clutching the boy's jacket. He was murmuring something in Russian, Walter couldn't quite hear what, but the boy sniffled and burrowed deeper into Alex's chest. Walter had seen Alex in agony before, more times than he cared to remember. But never had he seen his lover's face more anguished, caught in the grip of countless emotions.
Finally, Alex grasped the boy's shoulder and stood back, looking him over carefully. His voice was husky and shaking with emotion. Walter's heart pounded. Alex never let himself sound like that.
"Are you all right? Are you hurt?"
The boy poked his lower lip out in a classic pout that would have put Mulder to shame. He turned and looked at Walter, fresh tears springing to those accusing eyes, framed with their thick black lashes.
"Who's that man, Sasha?" He said, his voice cracking. "He scared me! He knocked me down!"
He dissolved into tears again, wrapping himself around Alex. Alex looked at Walter and just for an instant, something flashed in Alex's eyes, something that made Walter's blood run cold. Then it was gone. Alex looked at Walter and gave a slight nod. Walter felt himself breathe again.
Alex pried the boy's arms from around him and looked him in the eye. His voice was firm and flat.
"We'll deal with that in a moment, Nikita. First, I want to hear you tell me how you got in here."
The kid stopped sniffling immediately. He bit his lip and scuffed his boot on the carpet.
"But, Sasha," he whispered, his green eyes swimming with tears. "Aren't you glad to see me? Haven't you missed me?" His chin trembled. Alex looked stricken. From the sofa, Walter crossed his arms and watched, thinking what a loss to the world it was for Disney not to have this kid under contract.
Alex gripped the boy's shoulder. His eyes blazed.
"You know I do, Nikita," he said roughly. "You know it kills me to be away from you."
The boy pouted some more.
"I missed you so much, Sasha-"
"How, Nikita?" Alex's voice was taut.
The boy looked down. He barely spoke above a whisper.
"I...I picked the lock, Sasha."
"Blyaha-muha!" he growled. "Where did you learn that? Who taught you?"
The boy's eyes were huge. He took a step back.
Nicholas jumped. He swallowed and began to talk rapidly.
"It...it was Pyotr, from town. He fixes the cars at school. He knows how to do all kinds of things." The boy paused and looked down, uncomfortably. "I asked him if he'd show me how."
Alex's eyes had gone deadly and flat. His one hand curled into a fist, seemingly without his knowledge. As Walter watched, Alex looked down and carefully forced himself to loosen it. Walter felt a twinge of sympathy for the man who had taught Alex's little brother this criminal skill. Wherever Pyotr was, his days were numbered.
Alex looked bone-weary, his eyes ringed with purplish shadows. The last three weeks had obviously been hard on him. He looked at the boy standing nervously in front of him, pinning him with his clear green gaze. Alex seemed to be making an attempt to keep his voice level and calm, but his tone brooked no argument.
"You are supposed to be in Russia, Nikita, safe at school. Instead I find you here in Washington, in the middle of the night."
Nicholas squirmed, slender fingers twisting nervously behind his back.
"Look at me, little brother."
Nicholas looked up, his eyes bright with tears. His lip trembled.
"Please don't be mad at me, Sasha. You don't understand-"
"Tell me everything, Nikita," Alex said, pointing a finger at his brother. Walter noticed it was shaking slightly. "Start by telling me why you left school, and how. Then tell me how you got here. Tell me how a fifteen year-old boy leaves school and flies halfway around the world and no one-" Alex paused, trying to get himself under control, "NO ONE contacts me to tell me!"
Alex began to pace, his jaw clenched.
"I'm going back to that school with you, Nikita. I'm going to tear the place apart brick by brick if that's what it takes!"
Nicholas ran to Alex's side, grabbing his arm.
"No, Sasha, please! Please don't be mad at Father Rastislav!"
Alex turned, his face red with fury.
"They were supposed to keep you safe! How long have you been gone? A day? Two? Do those idiots even know you're gone?"
"Please, Sasha," Nicholas sobbed. "Please don't be mad at them! It was all my fault, I made sure they wouldn't know! I planned it, I sneaked away, they would have stopped me if they knew!"
Alex stopped. He bent down, cupping the boy's face in his hand. His voice was ragged.
The boy took a deep breath.
"I was careful, Sasha. I told the brothers I was sick, and I went to my room. I had my bag packed and some money put away."
Alex's eyes narrowed.
"Where did the money come from? Someone helped you do this?"
"I saved the allowance you sent me, every bit of it, for months. I saved my Christmas money and birthday money, too. I didn't buy candy or go to the cinema with the other boys or anything."
Alex closed his eyes. He'd been generous with his little brother, too generous, he knew, but it still wouldn't have been enough for a plane ticket from Russia to the United States.
"Where'd you get the rest of the money, Nikita? There's no way you would have had enough."
Nicholas hung his head miserably. He was in so much trouble. There was no point in hiding anything now. As if he ever could hide anything from Sasha.
"I...I borrowed it," he said softly.
Alex knelt down stiffly, looked into his little brother's eyes. He put his hand on the boy's shoulder, his expression deadly serious.
"Who did you borrow it from? Nikita, this is important. Very important. Tell me how you got the money."
The boy chewed his lip and roughly scrubbed away a tear with the back of his hand.
"A friend of Pyotr's," he said, almost too softly to hear. "Valentin. Pyotr told me he could help me. He said his friend could loan me the money to come to America. He took me to meet him at the park near school. He was really nice."
Walter took all of this in, fascinated. He shook his head in silent wonder. If anybody on earth had a kid brother that could pull off a stunt like this, it was Alex. Walter's heart skipped a beat as he listened to Nicholas tell Alex how he'd gotten the money. The boy's innocence was at once heartwrenching and frustrating. The look on Alex's face told Walter what was going through his mind. At best, the boy had borrowed money from a local loan shark. At worst, he owed his debt to the Russian Mafia itself.
Alex kept his grip on the boy's shoulder.
"Tell me the rest, Nikita. Tell me everything that happened."
The boy hesitated, then began to speak again, softly.
"Valentin lent me the money I needed and promised not to tell. I told him I would pay him back. He clapped me on the back and said I was a good kid. He said he'd heard of you, that he knew I was your brother, and if he treated me right, maybe one day you'd do him a favor."
Alex's lips were pressed together in a tight line of fury. Walter had a feeling Valentin could indeed expect a visit from the elder Krycek and that favors would not be involved. Nicholas looked at his big brother and smiled innocently.
"Don't worry, Sasha. It's only twenty-five percent interest. He cut me a special deal 'cause I'm your brother and because Pyotr vouched for me. I'm going to save up my allowance and pay him back."
Alex made a small sound in the back of his throat. He stared at his little brother for a long time. Finally he spoke, his voice rough and sad.
"The rest, Nikita. All of it."
The boy looked like he was about to cry again. He swallowed hard and began to tell the rest of the story.
"I told the brothers I was sick," he said again. "I told them my stomach hurt and I wanted to go to my room and lie down. Once it was dark, I put my pillows under the blankets, to make it look like I was in bed, and I slipped out. I asked one of my friends to tell the brothers I was sleeping if they came around."
"Who is this friend?" Alex asked.
"Will...will he get in trouble?"
Nicholas looked down.
"Stefan. He only did it 'cause I asked him to. He didn't know what I was doing. Honest."
Alex nodded at Nicholas to continue.
"Pyotr waited for me at the end of the drive. He drove me to the airport in Ekaterinburg. I borrowed enough money from Valentin to pay him a few hundred dollars. He even waited with me til the plane came, Sasha."
Alex put his head in his hand. He got up and walked to the chair, moving stiffly. Walter could tell he was hurting. Alex looked at Nicholas.
"Where did you get papers, Nikita?"
The boy avoided his older brother's gaze.
"Papers! A visa!" Alex snapped. "You can't enter the United States without a visa, without your papers in order. You're fifteen years old, you couldn't get them on your own. Where did you get them?"
Nicholas flushed bright red. He shifted nervously from foot to foot.
"Valentin," he said finally. "He...he brought his friend to meet me at the park, when he lent me the money." The boy paused. "I...I forgot to mention that part before."
"You forgot?" Alex asked pointedly.
Nicholas glanced away, then back at his brother.
"No, Sasha," he said softly. "I didn't forget."
Alex held the boy's gaze, unable to hide the hurt in his eyes.
"So you lie to me now?"
"I'm sorry, Sasha," he whispered, shamefaced. "I didn't mean to."
Alex held out his hand.
"Let me see them."
The boy didn't move.
"NOW, Nikita!" Alex roared. Even Walter's spine straightened. He realized with a start that he had never heard Alex shout until that moment.
Nicholas reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a crumpled envelope. He handed it to Alex.
Alex reached into the envelope and examined the contents with a practiced eye. They were good, he had to give the soon-to-be-departed document forger that. But not good enough to fool anyone who was looking closely. He looked at Nicholas incredulously. His face was as white as chalk.
"You...flew into this country with false papers?" He shook his head as though trying to clear it. "Nikita. Do you have any idea how lucky you are not to have been caught?" His voice began to rise. "Do you have any idea what would have happened if you'd been found entering the United States with forged documents?"
Nicholas, bright spots of anger rising on his pale cheeks, yelled back at Alex.
"I didn't get caught, Sasha! I was careful! Valentin's friend Roman said the papers were guaranteed, that there's no way they'd know!"
The look on Alex's face was thermonuclear. Walter pitied the Russians when Alex Krycek next hit town. It was going to make Napoleon's Army look like a tea party.
Alex sank back into the chair. He looked at Nicholas for a long time. Finally he spoke wearily.
"Why?" He said simply.
Nicholas bit his lip and said nothing.
Alex leaned forward.
"Tell me, little brother. Tell me why. Why did you leave school and endanger yourself like this?"
Nicholas looked up sharply, opened his mouth to speak. Alex cut him off.
"Do you have ANY idea what could have happened?" He snapped. "Any idea at all? What if you'd gotten hurt? Or worse? How would I ever have known what happened to you? You leave school in the middle of the night and fly halfway around the world without a word to ANYBODY...what were you thinking?"
Nicholas began to sniffle again. He looked at Alex beseechingly.
"I miss you, Sasha! I want to be with you!"
Alex sucked in his breath, his face white with pain.
The boy began to sob pitifully.
"I miss you! I want to live here with you!"
Alex swallowed, trying to keep his emotions in check. His own eyes shone with tears.
"Nikita," he said gently. "Why didn't you say something? You know how to get in touch with me. I would have come as soon as I could, you know I would have."
Nicholas nodded, tears coursing down his cheeks.
"I know," he said softly. "You always come when you can. But it's not enough, Sasha. You're all I have. And you're so far away. It's not fair. I want to be with you."
"Don't you like school?" Alex asked softly.
Nicholas scuffed his boot on the carpet.
"I guess so," he said. "I like my friends. The brothers are okay and Father Rastislav," he paused, fixing his big eyes on his brother, "but they're not family. They're not you."
Alex kept control with difficulty. It was a moment before he could speak. He looked at Nicholas, obviously bracing himself for what he had to say.
"You have to go back, Nikita."
"There will be no discussion, Nikita. You have to go back. I'm taking you back as soon as I can make the arrangements."
Nicholas sobbed with frustration and anger.
"You don't want me! You don't love me! That's why you want to keep me in Russia, far away from you! You don't want me around!"
Alex flinched as though he had been slapped. He stood and pulled the boy into his embrace. Nicholas resisted for a moment before sagging in Alex's arms. He buried his face in Alex's shirt and bawled.
"You know that's not true," Alex whispered, his voice like a raw and open wound. "You know it's not. I love you, Nikita. With every last breath in my body, I love you. That's why I keep you safe at school. It's not safe for you here. Look at me, bratishka."
The boy snuffled and looked up, his cheeks wet with tears. Alex looked deeply into his eyes.
"My work...is very dangerous, little brother. That's why you must go back to Russia. I can't tell you any more than that. It would," Alex paused, made a choked sound, "it would kill me if anything happened to you. I love you. I have to know you're safe."
"Please, Sasha," the boy said, begging with those incredible eyes, "please don't take me back. Please let me stay. I promise I'll be good, I won't be any trouble-"
Alex released the boy and turned away. Walter could see him working to get his emotions under control. He turned back to his brother.
"You're going back to school and you're going to stay there."
"I won't! I'll run away again! I swear it!"
The boy dropped his gaze. Alex ruffled his hair, ignoring the slight pulling away. The boy was well into a major sulk.
"It's because I love you," Alex said gently. "I know you're angry right now and you think I'm an ogre. I know you want to believe that I don't want to be with you and that's why I'm taking you back to St. Seraphim. But it's because you're all the family I have. It's what's best for you, bratishka. I'll die before I let anything happen to you."
Nicholas glared at the far wall, refusing to acknowledge what Alex had said. Alex looked at Walter.
"Is it all right...?"
Walter stood quickly.
"Of course," he said. "I'll get the guest room ready for him."
Walter discreetly scooped Nikita's rucksack up from where it had fallen. Alex watched as he ascended the stairs and then turned back to his little brother.
"You did a very reckless and foolish thing, Nikita," he said softly, his eyes full of regret. "You could have been hurt. You could have been killed. You've involved yourself with dangerous people, the kind of people I told you to stay away from."
Walter went into the guest bedroom, their voices carrying up the stairs after him, and placed Nikita's rucksack on the bureau. He turned on the light in the en suite bathroom and made sure there was a new toothbrush in the holder and that there were clean towels. He was turning back the bedcovers when he heard an outraged howl from downstairs.
Walter paused and listened. He heard Alex's voice, low and insistent, followed by a wail of misery from Nicholas.
"No, Sasha! You can't! I'm too big now! Please Sasha!"
Walter tried to busy himself, plumping the pillows and turning on the bedside lamp, but couldn't ignore the obvious sounds coming from downstairs. The loud smacks of hand against bare skin carried up the stairwell, accompanied by the boy's heartbreaking cries. Walter shook his head sympathetically. The kid was going to be eating breakfast standing up, that was for sure. Walter remembered the anguished look on Alex's face a few moments before. He knew Alex felt every single swat perhaps more keenly his little brother did. He sat on the edge of the bed, not wanting to go downstairs and intrude on them.
The boy's voice rose above a fresh volley of crisp whacks.
"Sasha, please! I'm sorry! I'm sorry I ran away from school! I swear I'll be good, Sasha, please!"
Alex's voice again, murmuring quietly.
Nicholas began to bawl as the spanking continued.
"Oww, Sasha! I know it was dangerous! I shouldn't have done it! I promise I'll never do it again! Please, Sasha, please!"
Finally there was no sound except for the boy's muffled sobs. Walter cautiously went downstairs, ready to retreat if his presence were unwelcome. Nicholas sat cradled in his brother's lap, his face against Alex's shoulder, crying steadily. Alex looked up as Walter came into the room. Walter saw the wetness on his cheeks. Alex colored and looked down, holding Nicholas tightly, as though he were the most precious thing on earth. He rubbed the boy's back through his shirt, whispering to him.
"I had to do that, Nikita. Love you, you know I love you. Love you so much. Ya liublia tebia, bratishka."
Nicholas whimpered and clung to Alex, snuffling into his T-shirt.
"I'm sorry, Sasha, I'm sorry. I love you. I didn't mean those things I said before. I just w-wanted-" he broke into fresh sobs, unable to speak.
Alex winced in pain and kissed his brother's dark hair.
"I know, little one. I know."
Walter went to the kitchen and came back with a glass of water. He stood beside the chair and waited until Nicholas, with a gentle nudge from Alex, raised his head. Walter held the glass of water out and smiled at the boy. Nicholas looked at him warily for a moment, and then shyly reached for it. He sniffled and took a sip.
"Thank you," he whispered. Walter smiled again, encouraged. Alex gave Walter a longing look and nodded his thanks. He whispered something into the boy's ear. Nicholas fidgeted and buried his face in Alex's shirt again. Alex gave him a gentle shake. Slowly, Nicholas raised his head and looked at Alex beseechingly.
"Do I have to?"
Alex nodded, taking the glass of water from him. Nicholas looked up at Walter, scrubbing away a few remaining tears with the back of his hand. He slowly got off of Alex's lap, gritting his teeth a little. He buttoned up his jeans and looked at Walter, then down at the floor. He bit his lip.
"Go on, Nikita," Alex said softly.
Nicholas looked up at Walter.
"I'm sorry I broke into your house. I'm sorry I cursed at you and hit you and fought with you." His chin trembled. "I didn't know anyone was here. You scared me."
"I think we both scared each other," he said, holding out his hand. "Friends?"
Nicholas looked at him for a moment, as if wondering whether Walter was playing a game with him. Then at last, with a shy smile, he took Walter's hand and shook it.
"Friends," he said softly.
"Come on," Walter said, with a glance at Alex. Alex nodded and closed his eyes, exhausted. "Let's get you something to eat and then upstairs to bed. You must be exhausted after such a long trip."
Walter mopped up the spilled juice while Nicholas wolfed down two ham sandwiches and drank a tall glass of milk, standing at the counter. He'd eschewed the barstool with an embarrassed look. Walter had nodded his understanding. Alex stood in the doorway, watching the two of them with a strange, inscrutable look on his face.
The sky was beginning to lighten by the time they got Nicholas settled in the guest room. He was out almost before his head hit the pillow. Walter passed by and stopped in the doorway, watching him for a moment. The boy looked like an angel in repose, his sooty lashes so dark against his pale skin, his hair falling into his eyes. Walter thought of his lover, downstairs. Was this how Alex had looked too, once? Fifteen years and many broken promises ago? Had he looked this innocent before the world made what it made of him? Walter pulled the door gently shut and went downstairs.
Alex was in the kitchen, sitting at the table with his head in his hand. He had the bottle of vodka from the freezer. He hadn't bothered with a glass. Walter stood behind him, leaned down and wrapped his arms around him.
"I've been waiting three weeks to do that," he murmured into Alex's hair. Alex leaned back into the embrace with a sigh.
"I missed you."
Walter poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down across from him.
"I called Nikita's school and let them know he's all right. Then I made the reservations," Alex said, without looking up. "Our flight leaves Monday afternoon."
Walter nodded, took a sip of his coffee.
"I know it's hard for you," he said quietly.
Alex shuddered and took a swig from the frosted bottle.
"I still can't believe...I never thought he'd ever do anything like this." He shuddered involuntarily and looked at Walter, his expression anguished. "When I think about what could have happened to him..."
Walter placed his hand over Alex's.
"It didn't," he said quietly. "That's what matters. He's safe."
Alex let out a long, hitching breath. His eyes sought Walter's, seeming to find solace there.
"I hated to do that, you know. I had to do it."
"Yes, you did. It was the right thing, Alex. If he were my kid brother, I'd have tanned his butt too."
Alex rubbed his hand over his bloodshot eyes and gave a low, rueful chuckle.
"Six figure tuition and they can't keep one fifteen year-old boy safe in school where he belongs."
He stared at the tabletop, anger darkening his eyes. His hand made a fist again. Walter reached over and gently pried it open, raised it to his lips, kissed Alex's fingers.
"Alex, he's safe."
Alex nodded slowly. He spoke without meeting Walter's eyes.
"It's the best private boys'school in Russia. It costs me a fortune to have him there. But I only want the best for him, nothing but the best for Nikita. I thought he was safe there. Protected."
Alex's fist clenched again.
"There are three dead men in Russia right now. They just don't know it yet. I'll kill them for what they've done."
He took another drink and slammed the bottle down on the table. He spoke in a low, venomous hiss.
"I'll kill them for coming near him. I've tried to shelter him, protect him, give him a good life. Shield him from the ugliness and the crime and all the bad things, and this...Pyotr teaches my brother how to pick a lock? Takes him from school, to meet loan sharks and black-market document dealers? He's fucking dead, Walter. And so are the others when I catch up with them."
Alex's hand shook. He swallowed convulsively.
"He thought they were his friends, Walter. Nice guys. Pals. Jesus, what could have happened..."
Walter got up and knelt beside Alex's chair. He drew Alex into his arms, feeling the tension thrumming in his lover's body.
"It's all right, Alex," Walter said softly. "You take good care of him. He's a good kid, I can tell. He worships you. He just didn't think about the danger. He just wanted to be where you are."
Alex drew in a ragged breath. Walter could feel him trying not to let his emotions get the better of him.
"I have to take him back, Walter. I have to. He can't stay here. It's not safe."
Walter stroked Alex's hair.
"Have you thought about it? There are plenty of good schools-"
"No!" Alex said harshly, pulling away. His eyes had that flat cast they took on when he was trying to stamp out some feeling, keep some pain at bay. Trying to push it away before he could feel it. "I...I can't, Walter. It's selfish. I can't let myself think about him staying, about," he swallowed hard, "about him being here, with me. If Spender ever got a chance to get his claws into him..."
Alex looked into Walter's eyes with naked pain.
"It kills me, Walter. Do you know what that's like? It kills me every single day to be away from him. To know he's thousands and thousands of miles away from me, to know he's growing up at school, without me. To know he misses me like I miss him. To not be able to tell him why. That because of the mistakes I've made and the people I've trusted, I've become a pawn to some of the most dangerous and powerful men in the world. That if he came here, he'd never be safe. That it's my fault we must stay apart."
Alex looked down.
"I have to do it, Walter. I have to take him back and leave him, and it's going to hurt just like it does every time I have to do it. Every time I have to walk away and leave him there, alone. If anything ever happened to him, because of me..." He paused, helpless in his grief. "I'd die. It would kill me. I'm all he has in the world, Walter, and I have a responsibility to make sure that he's never tainted by the ugliness of what I've done, what I have to do."
Alex reached for the bottle again. Walter's warm brown eyes sought his and he smiled a little, then pushed the bottle away.
"I guess this isn't helping," he said with a wan smile.
Walter leaned in for a long, slow kiss.
"I've been wanting to do that for the last three weeks, too," he said. Alex sighed and lay his head on Walter's shoulder.
"Was it bad this time?" Walter asked with concern. Alex moved his head slightly, rubbed his cheek against the fabric of Walter's robe.
"There was some macho posturing, but nobody died. I'm sore and tired. Tired of Spender, tired of it all. I'm going to get out, Walter. Somehow, I'm going to get out."
"I know," Walter whispered, rubbing Alex's back. "I know."
They stayed silent for a moment, their arms around each other, the early morning sun streaming through the window. Alex spoke, sounding unlike himself, more like the boy sleeping upstairs.
"Tell me again, Walter, please," he said softly. "Tell me how it's going to be."
Walter was familiar with the ritual, knew how it soothed Alex, gave them both something to hold onto.
Walter kissed Alex's hair and began to speak, his voice quiet and soothing.
"A big old house by the sea, Alex. White, with shutters, and a big front porch. Wood worn from the sand and the salt air, smooth under our feet. The sound of the waves crashing against the shore, seagulls overhead, the wind in the long grass. You and me. A chocolate Lab."
Alex moved his head a little on Walter's shoulder again.
"He was an Irish Setter last time," he said dreamily.
"Yeah, well, I've been thinking," he said. "Who's telling this story, anyway?"
"You are," Alex murmured.
"Good. All right. You and me and an as yet undetermined breed of dog, in a house by the sea. We'll run on the beach with him, throw sticks for him to bring back, watch him swim in the shallows. He'll curl up in front of the fireplace at night. I'll cook pancakes and sausage for you, you'll cook chicken paprikash for me. We'll argue about who takes the trash out and who let the milk expire and who left the cap off the toothpaste." Walter paused and nipped at Alex's ear, relished the low husky laugh that followed. "We'll stay in bed some days, all day. We'll ravish each other again and again, and you'll come for me, my beautiful Alex, naked and sweaty and that glorious shout of yours ringing off those old walls, and we'll lick each other clean and start all over again."
Alex raised his head, a smirk playing about his lips.
"I don't remember that part of the story before, either."
Walter teased that lush bottom lip, pulling it in for a nibble and suck.
"Like I said, I've been thinking."
He cupped Alex's face gently, looking deep into his eyes, suddenly serious.
"A big old house by the sea, Alex. Far away from here. Where no one can ever touch us again."
Alex closed his eyes, tears sparkling in his lashes. His expression mirrored Walter's. Pain, love, longing. Fear that this beautiful dream would never be theirs to keep.
"I never told him about you," he whispered.
"I know," he said simply.
Alex bit his lip, looked away.
"I wanted to," he said, frowning slightly as he tried to find the right words. "I wanted to tell him about you. I wanted to tell you about him. It just hurt too much...I had to keep those parts of my life separate. He'd have wanted to meet you, would have asked questions. He was already so curious about my life here. I never dreamed he'd-"
"It's all right, Alex," Walter said quietly. "You don't have to explain. I understand. It's been hard for you, I know."
Alex nodded. He looked at Walter with trust in his eyes. He looked down as he spoke.
"I was fifteen when Nikita was born. Mama called him her little "podarok s neba," her gift from heaven. I remember when Mama and Papa brought him home. He was squalling at the top of his lungs and his face was so red." Alex paused and grinned at the memory. "He was so tiny, like a doll. I put out my finger to touch him and he wrapped his hand around it and held on. He stopped crying and just stared up at me with the most serious expression. I loved him fiercely from the minute I saw him. Mama made me promise to always take care of him, always be a good brother and protect him. And I always have, the best I could."
Alex stopped for a moment, blinking back tears.
"Our...our parents were killed in a car accident when Nikita was two. We went to live with our babushka in Moscow." Alex sighed, thinking of his grandmother, her tired smiling face. He hadn't let himself think of Babi in a long time. "She loved us both, but Nikita was her heart. He never slept in a bed the entire first year we lived with her. He slept every night in her arms."
Walter waited for Alex to continue.
"Babi loved us, but she was old and on a pension, and didn't have enough money to support herself, let alone two boys. I was seventeen and almost a man. I knew I had to find a way to make money, to take care of them. I decided to join the Army, figured I could earn enough as a soldier to send home to Babi and Nikita."
Alex traced a pattern on the tabletop with his fingertip as he spoke, his voice rough with the pain of remembering.
"I wasn't old enough, but I knew they wouldn't ask questions. I didn't want to spend money on the bus so I hitched a ride downtown. I was about to go into the recruiting office when a man stopped me. He said his name was Peskow. Vassily Peskow. Would I stop and talk with him for a minute, before I went in? He was well-dressed, well-fed. I could tell he had money. He said he was looking for bright young men, that he might have a job for me. He said he could tell just from talking to me that I was smart and capable, that I shouldn't waste my talents in the Army. He asked if I would come to his hotel and meet a man, the man with the work. I hesitated, and he promised me it would be worth my while if I went with him."
Alex contemplated the bottle of vodka, no longer cold, and continued. Walter listened, his heart breaking for the seventeen year-old Alex, for the boy he had been and the man he was forced to become too soon.
"I went with him to his hotel, one of the fanciest in Moscow. I was embarrassed to be in such a grand place, with the red velvet and the gilt, and me in my threadbare clothes. Peskow laughed and said my eyes were as big as plates. I guess they probably were. I'd never had a reason to be in such a place before. We went up to his suite. There was a man there, waiting."
"It was Spender. I could smell the cigarette smoke even before Peskow opened the door. Spender looked me over, talked to me for a while. He seemed impressed with my English. I told him how my father had taught me before he died. Spender told me I was to come to work for him, that he would pay me well. He said I had to be trained but that he could tell I was a fast learner. He said he would send me to school, pay for university. He asked me if I would come to America with him. I hesitated. I couldn't bear the thought of leaving Nikita and Babi. Spender reached into his pocket and handed me a thick envelope and told me to open it. I did. It was more money than I had ever seen before, more than three months' worth of Babi's pension. I looked at him with my mouth hanging open. He said that was just to 'sweeten the deal'. He said if I was good and obeyed him, learned all that he had to teach me, if I worked hard, then there would be plenty more where that came from."
Alex bit his lip. He had wanted to tell Walter about his past so many times, but the words never seemed to make it past his throat. It was a relief now, to share this with Walter, to find the words tumbling out at last, over the dam he'd built against them.
"He told me to be back at the hotel in a week. We would leave for New York then. I put the money in my pocket and walked home, didn't even hitch a ride. I walked as if I were in a dream. All I could think of was the money in my pocket and the things I could buy them with it."
He looked Walter in the eye.
"Somehow I...I knew Spender was a bad man. I knew the things I would be learning to do would not be things Babi would be proud of. I knew that wasn't what my parents had wanted for me. It wasn't what I wanted to be for Nikita. But Nikita needed milk. Babi had holes in her shoes. She cried when she saw the money. She knew what kind of job paid money like that. I begged her to take it, and all that I would send after. I told her I would do whatever I had to do to take care of her and my brother. A week later, I left. I still remember Nikita crying when I walked out the door, holding his arms out to me. Babi had to hold him so he wouldn't run after me."
Alex made a choked sound and hid his face. Walter gently tilted it up again.
"It's okay, Alex," he said. "You don't have to."
Alex steeled himself, fought back the tears.
"I want to, Walter. Let me."
"Spender sent me to university, had me trained, as he said he would. I learned fast and I worked hard. I was a good soldier, after all. I sent as much money home as I could. I was able to get Babi and Nikita into a good apartment in a better part of town. I made sure they had plenty of food, warm clothes. Nikita had toys, books. Babi had a new television. Everything was for them. I had made a deal with the devil. I knew what I was becoming, but I obeyed Spender in everything. I had to. He was the reason my little brother had meat and milk, a new coat and good shoes. He was the reason Babi could take a taxi instead of standing up on a crowded bus. I sold my soul, I guess you could say. And I'm still trying to figure out a way to get it back."
Alex's throat worked. Walter got up, brought him a cup of coffee. Alex took a sip, thanked Walter with his eyes. He took a deep breath.
"Babi died five years ago. Nikita was ten. She died in her sleep. He...he found her."
Alex stared into his coffee cup.
"I went home to Russia. Nikita wrapped himself around me as soon as he saw me, just like he did the first time we ever saw each other. He was like a little shadow, wouldn't let me go. He wanted me to take him back to America with me. I had to tell him I couldn't, that it was dangerous there. That I had to keep him safe. I had some money saved, stashed in a Swiss bank. I looked for a good school for him, someplace he'd be safe. I found St. Seraphim. It was expensive, it took almost all of my savings to pay that first year's tuition, but I did it. It's tucked away in the mountains, run by an order of Russian Orthodox monks. He's been there ever since. I send him money, e-mail him and call him when I can. When I can get away, I go to see him. He's a good kid. I wish we could be together but we can't. I've kept him away from...from what I am, what I do. I don't want him to-"
Alex sucked in his breath, looked down. He looked up at Walter, years of loss in his eyes.
"I don't want him to be like me."
Walter took Alex's hand, waited until sad green eyes met his. He held Alex's gaze and spoke from his heart, fierce love in his voice.
"You know what I see when I look at you, Alex?"
Alex quickly turned away.
"No, Alex. You're going to listen to me." Walter waited, unwilling to tolerate any argument. Alex finally looked at him again.
"I see a kid who lost his parents before he was old enough to drive. I see a seventeen year-old boy, scared shitless, leaving the only family he has and going halfway around the world to keep the promise he made to take care of his little brother. I see that same kid, now a man, still keeping that promise. Still sacrificing himself to make sure his brother has a better life than he had. Doing things that give him nightmares, make him wake up screaming. Doing whatever he has to do to protect that little boy from people like Spender. I see a beautiful young man who sleeps in my arms. Who trusts me. Who loves me." Walter paused, lifted his hand to caress Alex's cheek. "I think Nicholas could do a lot worse than to be like you."
Alex closed his eyes, turned his face into Walter's hand, kissed his palm.
Walter stood and held out his hand.
"Let's go to bed, Alex."
Alex awoke to the rich aroma of freshly ground coffee. He smiled and sighed a little, congratulating himself for having had the foresight to fall in love with an inveterate coffee snob. He used to tease Walter about his weekly trips to the coffee shop, his gourmet hazelnut roast and his coffee grinder. It didn't take too many mornings like this before the teasing stopped. Walter sat on the edge of the bed, slowly passing the steaming mug under Alex's nose, enjoying the groan of pleasure it aroused from his barely conscious lover.
Alex opened one sleepy green eye.
Walter grinned, ruffled Alex's already sleep-tousled hair.
"Just barely," he said. "It's after eleven."
Alex sat up, wincing a little as he propped himself up on the pillows. He scratched at his ribs, picking at the tape that Walter had insisted on wrapping around them before they had gone to bed.
"Leave it alone, Alex," Walter mock-scolded.
Alex pouted, looking more like his little brother than Walter was willing to tell him. Walter suppressed a grin.
"It itches," Alex grumbled. "I still don't think they needed taping." Walter playfully smacked Alex's hand as he reached for the tape again.
Alex started to say more but was silenced by Walter's mouth covering his. Walter let his tongue tease the pout into a smirk. Then he went to work on coaxing the smirk into a grin. Pleased with his success, he sat back, handing Alex the coffee mug and watching his rapturous expression as he took the first sip. He looked at Alex with concern.
"I hope we didn't get too carried away last night."
Alex grinned wolfishly.
"Let's just say I'm sore in all the right places."
Walter managed to laugh and look stern at the same time. He shook a warning finger at Alex.
"Well, I saw the bruises when you got undressed last night. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if you have a cracked rib. The tape stays on."
Alex rested against the pillows, allowing himself to bask in the feeling of being cared for. The grumbling was just a show and they both knew it. Walter looked at Alex with concern.
"Yessir," he said, around the rim of his mug. He blinked and took a good look at Walter's face, hissing at the sight of the bruise decorating his cheekbone.
"Oh, no. I'm sorry, Walter," Alex said. "He really got you good."
Walter laughed, sneaking a sip from Alex's mug before returning it to him. "Yes, he sure did. He's a Krycek all right. A born fighter."
Alex smiled and then winced apologetically. "But Monday...the office."
Walter shrugged. "It'll just give them something to talk about in the bullpen. Walter's wild weekend. Who knows what farfetched stories they'll come up with to explain it. After all, I'm in love with such a," he paused and took Alex's mouth again, tasting hot and sweet like coffee and cream, "...dangerous..."
"You forgot sexy and well-endowed," Alex murmured as Walter licked along his jawline. Walter laughed and bit Alex's neck gently.
"All that and modest too."
"Come on, rise and shine," Walter said, collecting the nearly empty coffee mug. "Let's eat breakfast before it turns into dinner." Alex pushed back the covers and stood. He looked at Walter with concern.
"How is he?"
Walter paused and smiled, enjoying the sight of Alex, naked except for half a roll of surgical tape, shrugging into his bathrobe.
"Let's just say, if sleeping was an Olympic sport, your kid brother would have the gold medal locked up. He's jetlagged and worn out. I doubt he'll wake up on his own anytime soon, but maybe the smell of bacon and eggs cooking will help bring him to life."
Walter headed downstairs while Alex wandered into the bathroom. He cast a longing look toward the shower, then regarded his well-taped ribs with a frown. He looked down, traced the carefully applied strips with a finger, an odd smile on his face. He reached for a facecloth and turned on the hot water.
The smells of breakfast cooking were already starting to waft tantalizingly upstairs by the time Alex stepped into the hallway, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, one sleeve hanging loose and empty. Alex almost never wore the prosthetic at home, and Nikita was long aware of his brother's injury, if not the true cause of it.
Alex paused in the doorway of the guest room. The sun streamed through the thin curtains, bathing the room in pale light. Nikita lay on his back, his mouth slightly open, his deep and even breathing loud in the quiet room. One leg hung over the side of the bed, a very rumpled white sock barely clinging to his foot. Alex drank in the sight of him, made himself accept it for what it was, for how long it would last. Three days, Alex, he thought. Three days with him here. That's all. Don't wish for more, you know it's not possible. Don't make it harder than it has to be. Don't ever forget that he is what matters most.
Nikita's rucksack lay on the bureau, its contents scattered across the polished wood surface. His clothes lay in a pile on the floor, bracketed by two sneakers that lay where he had kicked them off. A Discman CD player lay on the bedside table, a pile of CDs next to it. Alex chuckled despite himself. The kid had only been in the room for a few hours, and already it looked like a hurricane had blown through. Alex watched Nikita for another few moments, feeling his heart swell almost painfully at the sight of his brother's face, so innocent and trusting as he slept. He carefully stored the memory away, to carry with him when Nikita was gone.
Alex sat on the edge of the bed. He gently shook Nikita's shoulder, reached up to brush the dark brown hair out of his eyes. Nikita yawned and stretched before opening his eyes and regarding Alex sleepily.
"Good morning," Alex said.
"Morning, Sasha. What time is it?"
Alex playfully ruffled Nikita's hair.
"Time for you to get up, sleepyhead. Walter is cooking us a big American breakfast."
Nikita sat up and rubbed his eyes.
"Smells good," he said with a grin.
Alex looked at him seriously.
"How are you feeling, bratishka? Did you sleep enough?"
Nikita put on an injured expression, peeping up at Alex through his long lashes.
"It was hard to sleep with my butt so sore."
Alex laughed and pulled Nikita into a bear hug. He kissed the top of Nikita's head and released him.
"Nice try, pipsqueak. I happen to know that you were out like a light the minute you went to bed. And the spanking you got last night was nothing compared to what I'll do if you ever pull another stunt like this again."
Nikita pouted but couldn't resist returning Alex's grin.
"Okay, okay," he said, pushing back the covers. "Is breakfast ready? I'm starving."
Alex got up and went to the door.
"Walter said about five more minutes. Get dressed and come down so you can eat while it's hot. You can shower after."
"Okay," Nikita answered, rummaging through his rucksack for clean clothes. "Sasha?"
Alex paused in the doorway.
Nikita hesitated, then walked over to Alex and stood before him, a worried look on his face.
"I'm sorry for being so much trouble. Are...are you mad at me?"
Alex cupped Nikita's chin in his hand and looked into his eyes.
"I'm not angry at you, bratishka. You did a very dangerous thing and that upsets me. But if I'm angry at anyone, I'm angry at myself, for not realizing how just unhappy you've been, for not being there for you when you needed me. I'm angry at the men who helped you do this reckless thing. I'm angry at the situation. But not you, little brother. Never you."
Alex pulled Nikita into a hug, relishing the feeling of his brother's wiry arms encircling him. Regretted bitterly at that moment that he could not encircle Nikita, could only wrap his one arm around the boy's thin body and hold on tight.
"Listen to me, Nikita. You did something wrong and I had to punish you. But it's over now. You know now that you must go back to school and stay there, where it's safe, and that you must never do anything like this again. Don't you?"
Nikita looked down, finally nodding reluctantly. Alex couldn't resist ruffling his hair again. Nikita looked back up at Alex, fidgeting nervously.
"When I get back to school...is Father Rastislav going to punish me too?"
Alex regarded the boy seriously.
"What do you think, bratishka?"
Nikita looked down again. His unhappy expression answered Alex's question.
"Yes, I'm afraid you will have to face the consequences at school, too. You and I and Father Rastislav are going to have a very long talk. I think you can expect to be confined to school grounds for quite some time."
The heartbroken look on Nikita's face sent a pang of sympathy through Alex.
"Father Rastislav is going to make me write lines, I just know it. He always makes me write lines. I'll be writing until I'm forty!"
Alex threw back his head and laughed. He kissed the top of Nikita's head soundly.
"I want you safe, bratishka. And if writing lines helps you learn this lesson and never forget it, then I hope he gives you plenty."
"No buts, pipsqueak," Alex admonished from the doorway. "Now hurry and get dressed. Walter went to a lot of trouble for us and he hates it when his cooking gets cold."
"Yes, Sasha," Nikita answered. He slipped into a fresh T-shirt and rummaged through the clothes piled haphazardly on the bureau. "I'll be down in a minute."
Walter set the basket of sweet rolls on the table just as Nikita quietly padded into the kitchen and slid into the chair beside Alex. Walter couldn't hide his smile at the sight of the two of them, both hungrily eyeing the plump pastries, which were covered in slowly melting buttercream icing. He raised a cautionary eyebrow at Alex, whose pert nose had been twitching in anticipation since Walter had slid the tray into the oven. Alex loved sweet things for breakfast, especially Walter's homemade sweet rolls, and he looked like he was considering making a grab for one. Alex caught Walter's warning look, grinned and obediently put his hand in his lap. Walter brought the carafe of freshly-squeezed orange juice to the table and sat down. He smiled at Nikita, who was once again attired almost identically to Alex, in a white T-shirt and jeans. Nikita watched Walter through his lashes as Walter filled his glass with juice.
"Good morning, Nicholas," Walter said, placing the glass in front of the boy. "I sure hope you're hungry."
Nikita's eyes widened appreciatively at the sight of the steaming platter piled high with crisp bacon and fluffy scrambled eggs. There were also pancakes and fresh fruit as well as those tempting sweet rolls.
"Yes, sir," he answered with a shy smile. "It looks delicious. Thank you, Mr. Skinner."
"Hey," Walter said with a grin. "I thought we decided to be friends. Please, call me Walter."
"Thank you, Walter," Nikita said. He looked at Alex and smiled, then looked back at Walter. "Sasha said I should call you Mr. Skinner until you told me different. He said I had to have good manners."
Alex laughed and pulled Nikita close, tickling him and making him giggle.
"That's right," he said with a smile. "Manners are important and you have to respect your elders, just like I do." He aimed a particularly mischievous grin at Walter. "May I have a sweet roll now, Mr. Skinner?"
Walter playfully snatched the basket away.
"I don't know," he said, studying the basket thoughtfully. "I'm so old and feeble, I might have made a mistake while I was making them. Us old folks do that, you know. I don't know if you boys should eat any of these. Maybe I should just throw them out."
"Waaaaaaalter..." Alex mock-whined, pouting adorably. Walter sighed and put the basket back in reach of Alex's eager hand. If the trademark green eyes and the Krycek Pout weren't evidence of genetics in action, he didn't know what was.
Nikita giggled as he and Alex both dove for the basket, vying to see who could grab the biggest rolls with the most icing. They each took two. Nikita bit into one of his with a sigh of pleasure. Alex followed suit, making that little moan in the back of his throat that made Walter squirm a little in his chair. Nikita munched contentedly on the delicacy, oblivious to the way Alex was seductively licking the icing from his fingers and winking at Walter. Walter felt his body temperature rising and took a big gulp of the ice-cold orange juice. He jokingly shook a finger at Alex and helped himself to some of the bacon and eggs.
"All right, you two," he said with a half-hearted attempt at a stern look. "Let's not let the rest of this good food go to waste." He passed the platter to Alex. "You need more than sweet rolls for breakfast."
Alex sighed as he put down his half-eaten sweet roll and picked up the serving spoon, taking a generous helping of eggs. He took several slices of bacon, unable to resist nibbling a crisp piece even before it reached his plate. He closed his eyes rapturously.
"Mmmm, Walter, I don't know how you do it. Everything you cook is heavenly, even just bacon and eggs."
Walter grinned and watched as Alex passed the platter to Nikita, who quickly filled his plate. The bowl of sliced melon and berries made the rounds as well as the plate of pancakes. Walter and Alex each took three of the large, golden brown pancakes and dotted them with butter, while Nikita looked on curiously.
"Latkes?" he asked Alex.
"No," answered Alex, reaching for the small pitcher of warm maple syrup. "They're called pancakes, made from flour. Try them, you'll like them."
Nikita watched as Alex drizzled the syrup over the stack of pancakes before passing the pitcher to Walter. Walter held the plate of pancakes up so that Nikita could take it, but the boy hesitated, looking at Alex's plate doubtfully. Walter caught the boy's eye.
"You've never had pancakes and syrup before?" he asked.
Nikita shook his head. Alex and Walter both sported matching grins.
"Well," Walter said, placing the small pitcher in front of Nikita. "You're in for a treat. This is the real stuff, straight from Vermont, not that mass-produced sugar water they sell in the supermarkets."
Nikita eyed the sticky brown stuff warily. Alex smiled, catching Walter's eye.
"Here," he said, picking up the carafe and pouring a small amount on Nikita's plate. "It's sweet, really good. Just try a little."
Wrinkling up his nose, Nikita took a drop of syrup on the end of his finger and tasted it. Green eyes lit up, he grinned, and soon there was a stack of pancakes on his plate, swimming in the sticky amber syrup.
Once their plates were full, the three set to work, clearing them industriously. Walter passed on the sweet rolls in favor of the bacon, eggs and pancakes. He didn't much care for sweets and only made the sweet rolls because Alex loved them so, for the joy of watching him eat them, seeing his sometimes dark, often haunted lover become, for those few minutes at least, a little boy again. Walter took a bite of melon and watched them, Alex and Nikita. He smiled as he watched them eat, unconsciously leaning close together, occasionally murmuring quietly to one another.
Alex ate with the same intensity he brought to any activity, however mundane. He was extraordinarily ordered, preferring to eat in courses. Walter saw that he had finished his pancakes and bacon, and was now starting on his eggs in earnest. Nikita ate with gusto, spearing a bite of this or that, the food mingling on his plate and on his fork. He took a healthy gulp of orange juice and then a huge forkful of pancakes, dripping with butter and syrup. He ate with the unaffected enthusiasm only a teenaged boy can, and Walter was glad he'd gone to the supermarket not long before their unexpected guest had arrived. He smiled to himself, remembering his own days as a gawky growing teenager, the way his mother had sworn he was carrying the groceries out the back door just as fast as she brought them in the front.
Walter nibbled a piece of bacon, watching as Alex, finished with his eggs, took a few bites of fruit and then put his fork down. Nikita happily started on his second sweet roll, his own small dish of fruit untouched. Alex smiled sort of a wistful half-smile, rested his chin on his hand and just watched Nikita eat, his eyes faraway. Walter watched Alex watching Nikita, and couldn't help but feel moved by Alex's single-minded devotion to his brother. How many times had he gotten to do this? Walter wondered. How many times had Alex gotten to experience the simple pleasure of sharing a meal with his brother?
Walter smiled a little. This was a new experience for him as well. Alex rarely, if ever, spoke about the time he spent in Russia, about his past...and never about his family. Walter had respected Alex's privacy and had never tried to force the issue. He had merely accepted it as one of the many facets of the mysterious and mercurial man he loved. But to see him now, gazing fondly at his little brother, watching with a smile as the boy finished his sweet roll and took another helping of eggs, made Walter's heart swell at Alex's obvious happiness. But it ached too, at the loss already in Alex's eyes, at the knowledge that their time together was fleeting and this would soon be just another memory to hold onto when the boy was back in Russia. He could see it in the tense lines of Alex's shoulders, the way his solemn green eyes measured every moment with Nikita, the way he looked at the boy as though he wished he could freeze this moment in time, keep him there forever.
Walter found himself watching one and then the other, marveling at how alike they were. Nikita was very much like his older brother in many ways. The same sable hair, the same green eyes, the same stubborn lift of the chin. And Walter had already had a taste of the little spitfire's temper. He grinned. So much like Alex. He had often wondered what his lover had been like as a young boy, before he had lost his innocence, his arm, and on many occasions, nearly lost his life. What had Alex been like before he had ever heard of Spender? Walter thought he might have been very like Nikita. His eyes still held their innocence, his smile was ready and trusting. Alex had made sure that his little brother never had to endure the hardships he himself had suffered.
Walter listened as Nikita murmured something to Alex in Russian that made Alex smile and murmur back. Even their voices were alike, the boy's voice a younger, slightly higher version of his brother's. Nikita hadn't lived long or hard enough for his voice to have the same husky timbre as Alex's, and the Russian accent that Alex only displayed in moments of extremity was more pronounced in Nikita, but there was a quality in it that made Walter smile to hear it. He was surprised at how quickly he was becoming fond of the boy, and how his heart grew heavy at the thought of how quickly Monday would come.
At last, Nikita put down his fork with a sigh and wiped his mouth, folding his napkin carefully and putting it beside his plate.
"That was so good, Walter," he said with a smile. "Especially the sweet rolls!"
Walter laughed. "I'm glad you enjoyed it, Nicholas. I'll wrap up the rest of the rolls so you can have some more later."
The look on Nikita's face told Walter that was the right thing to say. Alex beamed and ruffled Nikita's hair.
"Yes, everything was wonderful," he said. "Thank you, Walter." His eyes met Walter's, full of love and gratitude. He glanced down and saw the small bowl of fruit the boy had not eaten. He placed it on Nikita's plate with a flourish.
"Eat your fruit, bratishka."
Nikita looked at Alex pleadingly.
"But I'm full, Sasha," he whined.
Alex tapped his finger on the rim of the bowl sternly.
"Yes, you are," he firmly. "Full of sweet rolls and maple syrup. Come on now," he said, a little more softly. "It's good for you. Eat at least half."
Walter hid a smile as the boy seemed prepared to argue, but then quietly picked up his fork.
"Yes, Sasha," he said quietly, spearing a chunk of melon and nibbling it. Alex watched as Nikita ate the fruit, looking more settled and content than Walter had seen him in a long time.
After Nikita had eaten exactly half the fruit in the bowl, he put down his fork and rubbed his stomach exaggeratedly.
"I'm stuffed!" he exclaimed. "I can't eat another bite!"
"He'll be ready for a snack in an hour," he marveled. "What an appetite!" He grinned and kissed Nikita on top of the head. "My brother, future Olympic athlete," he said happily. Walter watched them, almost unaware that he was grinning too. He was seeing a whole side of his lover that he had never seen before.
They sat for a little while, sipping the last of the orange juice contentedly, unconcerned with the plates and bowls scattered about the table. Nikita drained his glass and looked at Alex, nervously fingering the edge of the tablecloth.
"Hmm?" Alex answered. Nikita was quiet for a moment, then asked the question that had been on his mind all through breakfast.
"When...when do I have to go back?"
Alex looked at him. "Monday afternoon. We have to be at the airport by three o'clock. I'm going Monday morning to get your papers, your *real* papers, in order." Nikita ducked his head, biting his lip guiltily at the mention of the papers. Alex had made his displeasure well known on that point during the spanking. Nikita winced at the memory. He took a small, worried glance at Walter, but saw no judgment, no disdain in those kind brown eyes. Nikita swallowed hard and looked at Alex again.
Alex looked up from his scrutiny of the syrup bottle.
Nikita looked at Alex hopefully.
"You...you said my punishment is over, right?"
"Yes. We talked about what's going to happen when you get back to school. Father Rastislav and I will decide on appropriate consequences for what you did there. But, as far as I'm concerned, you and I have dealt with the matter here and it's closed. Although," he added sternly, "I think you and I need to have a long talk about a few things, including the difference between the truth and a lie, and how criminal skills like picking locks are not something you need to learn."
Nikita bit his lip.
"Yes, Sasha," he whispered. He looked up, his green eyes eager.
"Sasha," he said again. "I know what I did was wrong and I deserved to be punished. But if the punishment is over, and I'm going to be here for three days anyway..."
He swallowed hard again, worried he was treading on dangerous ground. He tried to look appropriately ashamed even as he pressed his brother to indulge him.
"Could we do some things together?" he asked. "Will you take me sightseeing, please, Sasha?"
Walter saw the look in Alex's eyes and knew what the answer would be. Saw him bracing himself for the pain of saying no to Nikita yet again.
Nikita was too excited to notice the tightening around Alex's mouth, the way his eyes reflected the internal struggle between making Nikita happy and keeping Nikita safe.
"I want to see your city, Sasha, the capital of America!" he exclaimed. "I want to see the White House and the Washington Monument and Ford's Theatre!"
Walter's eyes widened in surprise.
"Ford's Theatre?" he asked.
Nikita turned to Walter, his eyes dancing.
"Yes, where President Lincoln was shot, in 1865."
Walter grinned, settling back in his chair a little and regarding the boy with new interest.
"You're interested in the Civil War?" he asked in amazement. Nikita nodded vigorously.
"Yes, we learned about it in school and I wrote a paper on it and I got an A!" he said, smiling proudly. "I learned all about the North and the South and the Fall of Richmond and Lee and Lincoln and everything."
Walter smiled, getting caught up in the conversation and forgetting for the moment that Alex would not be able to allow Nikita to go sightseeing.
"You know," he said, "Richmond is only about an hour and a half from here. You can still see the White House of the Confederacy, and there's a cemetery there where JEB Stuart and Jefferson Davis and many many Confederate soldiers are buried. There's a street there called Monument Avenue, with huge statues of Lee and Jackson and Stuart on their horses."
Nikita's eyes were wide.
"You've been there?" he asked wistfully. "Oh, I wish I could see it too."
Walter caught himself and glanced apologetically at Alex. He had been so pleased to discover that the he and the boy unexpectedly shared this common passion that he had allowed himself to get caught up in the moment. He felt badly for getting the kid's hopes up. He looked at Nikita, at his eager young face, and wished, as he knew Alex did, that things were different, that they could take him out and spend the day being tourists. But he knew Alex was right to be worried. Walter gestured toward his study.
"I have some books about it," he offered. "With lots of pictures. I'll show them to you later, okay?"
Nikita nodded and smiled, a little less shyly than he had that morning, Walter noted. Nikita looked at Alex.
"I know we can't go to Richmond, Sasha, but will you take me out to see Washington?" he pleaded. "I want to see Capitol Hill and the Russian Embassy and the Potomac and a real baseball game, and-"
At last, he saw the look on Alex's face and stopped. His eyes filled with tears.
"Please, Sasha?" he whispered. He looked down at his empty plate, miserably.
Alex leaned forward and placed his hand over Nikita's. Walter could see the pain his words were causing his lover even before he said them.
"Nikita," Alex began gently. "I...it's just not possible. I'm sorry. Please believe me, I want nothing more than to give you your day out, take you to see everything you want to see. I want you to have fun, I want you to see all the things you've read about. But," he faltered and swallowed hard, "I can't. It's not safe here, I've told you. I can't have you running around Washington, not even with me."
Nikita looked up, tears sparkling in his eyelashes. He wasn't pouting yet but it seemed to Walter a distinct possibility.
"But why, Sasha?" he asked, his frustration obvious. "Why? You always tell me it's not safe, not safe to live with you, not safe to do this, not safe to do that, but you never tell me *why*." He toyed with his fork, biting his lip against saying more.
Alex squeezed his brother's hand briefly and let it go. He opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted by the ringing of his cell phone. Nikita scowled as Alex rose and went to the living room. He picked up the cell phone from the mantelpiece and went into Walter's study, closing the door behind him.
Walter was silent, unsure of what to say as Nikita rested his chin on his hand, his pout blossoming at last. He looked up at Walter, his expression morose.
"Why won't he tell me, Walter? He always says it's not safe here. But when I ask why, he only says it's his work."
Walter started to speak and paused, choosing his words with care. He smiled at the boy, who was glumly pushing cold fragments of egg around on his plate.
"It's...it's very complicated, Nicholas," he said quietly. "Alex will have to decide when and how to discuss it with you. But," he added, waiting until Nikita's green eyes rose to meet his, "I can tell you this. Your brother loves you more than anything in the world. He hates to disappoint you, but he wants to keep you safe, so he does what must be done. I'm sorry you can't go sightseeing and I know he is, too."
Nikita watched him solemnly for a moment. He seemed to be thinking hard about something. Suddenly, he spoke.
"Sasha and I talked last night. He told me about you," he said simply. Walter nodded carefully, waiting to hear what the boy would say next. Nikita studied Walter briefly, his expression faintly curious, then continued.
"He said that he loves you very much, and that you love him, and that you make him happy," he said softly. His eyes met Walter's and held them, the force of his gaze in that instant nearly like his brother's. "Do you?" he asked. "Do you love him? More than anything?"
Walter nodded seriously. "Yes," he answered. "I love him more than my life."
Nikita considered this, looking down at the tablecloth before raising his eyes again to Walter's. His eyes were piercing green and suddenly seemed to radiate a seriousness and determination beyond his years.
"And you'll never let anything happen to him? You'll take care of him?" Nikita paused and looked away. He looked at Walter, his eyes those of a little boy again. "Sasha takes care of me always. But he never...never had anyone to take care of him." He blinked back tears, looked down at his hands in his lap.
Walter put a hand on the boy's shoulder. Nikita looked up again, searching, hoping. Walter spoke quietly but with more conviction, more feeling than he could ever remember.
"Nicholas," he began, giving the boy the respect he would give an adult, seeing the recognition of this in the boy's eyes. "I love your brother. With everything I have. He's a brilliant and extraordinary person and I'm lucky, incredibly lucky, to have him in my life. I make this promise to you," he said solemnly, seeing the boy's eyes grow larger. "I will draw my last breath loving him. I will lay down my life to protect him. I promise you that."
Nikita thought for a moment, and then Walter was rewarded with a brilliant smile. The boy almost seemed to sag with relief. He looked at Walter with new trust, new respect.
"Thank you," he said at last. "Sasha works so hard to take care of me. It makes me happy to know he has someone to take care of him. To love him. And you," he paused, looking away. "You are lucky. You get to be with Sasha."
Walter smiled at the boy again and nodded, squeezing his shoulder and then getting up to clear the dishes. He stacked the plates, the boy's soft wistful words ringing in his ears. The longing and pain was evident on his young face. There was no sign of the petulance or jealousy another teenager might have harbored for the lover who got to share his brother's life while he himself was forced to live far away. There was only genuine happiness that his beloved Sasha had someone to love and care for him. Only a few softly spoken words to express the sadness and longing in that young heart, the faraway dream of being able to live together with the only family he had.
Alex came out of the study, flipping his cell phone closed. He slipped it into his pocket and sat down again beside Nikita. He put his arm around the boy and kissed him on the cheek.
"Everything all right out here?" he asked, glancing worriedly at Walter. Walter nodded, giving him a meaningful look. He began rinsing the plates and putting them in the dishwasher, thinking all the while. Alex looked apologetically at Nikita.
"I have to go out for a while."
"No, Sasha!" Nikita pouted. "Don't go. I don't want you to."
Alex sighed and pulled Nikita close, resting his cheek on top of the boy's head.
"I know, I know, bratishka," he said softly. "I don't want to go either, but I have to. It's work."
Nikita opened his mouth to protest but was quickly shushed by Alex.
"Come now, bratishka. Don't be that way. I do have to go out but it's only for a few hours. I'll be back as soon as I can."
He got up and went to the closet in the foyer, returning to the kitchen with his jacket in his hand. He leaned down for a brief hug, Nikita pausing for a moment, so that Alex could see the depth of his unhappiness with the situation, before succumbing and wrapping his arms around Alex's neck. Alex squeezed him back and then straightened. He went over to Walter, looking at him quizzically. Walter nodded and said, "We talked." Alex grinned as Walter held him tightly, ignoring the giggle that Nikita couldn't suppress. He and Walter shared a chaste kiss and then Alex gestured to Nikita, still seated at the table.
"Is it all right?..." he asked. Walter grinned and nodded.
"Of course! We'll have a great time, maybe there's a ball game on."
As Alex turned to go, a thought suddenly struck Walter. He wiped his hands on the dishtowel and called after him.
"Alex? Wait a minute!"
Alex turned, his hand on the doorknob.
Walter walked to the door of the study, gesturing at Alex.
"Can I talk to you alone for a minute?"
Alex followed him into the study, his expression curious. Walter closed the door and sat on the edge of his desk, folding his arms casually.
"I didn't want to say anything in front of him, but I just had an idea. What if you let me take him on a tour of the city in my car?"
Alex sighed, biting his lip.
"I don't know..."
Walter stood and put his arms around Alex.
"Just think about it for a minute," he said gently. "He's pretty disappointed, and sitting around the condo for three days is going to make him stir-crazy. I know you're worried about his safety while he's here and you have a right to be. But if I promise you that under no circumstances will he leave my car at any time, that we'll just drive around DC and see the sights, then would you say yes? Just a car tour?"
Alex still hesitated.
Walter looked at Alex seriously. "Are they watching me?"
Alex swallowed and looked away for a moment. He looked back at Walter.
"No," he said simply. "Not for a long time. I'd know."
Walter smiled, one hand cupping Alex's face gently.
"Then say yes," he said. "Let me take Nicholas out while you're gone. We'll be back in a couple of hours. Then when you get back, I can talk you into us taking him out to dinner."
Walter held up his hands.
"I know, I know," he said. "But I've been thinking. What about that little place we went to that time, out in the middle of nowhere? You know, the place that had that incredible filet mignon you could cut with a fork?"
Alex thought for a moment. He remembered the vine-covered cottage in the middle of a stand of trees, remembered a moonlit Spring night with Walter, red wine and soft music.
"The Spotswood Ordinary," he answered. "A few miles outside of Manassas."
"It's perfect," Walter said excitedly. "Great food, terrific atmosphere. We haven't been there in ages and he'll love the place. What do you think?"
Alex hesitated. He truly wanted to go, to have dinner at a nice place with Walter and Nikita, but he worried about making an impetuous, selfish decision and endangering his little brother.
Walter saw the worry in Alex's eyes, drew him close again. He kissed him slowly, deeply, feeling Alex relax in his arms. Walter gazed lovingly into Alex's eyes.
"It's your decision, Alex," he said softly. "Whatever that decision is, I'll respect it. I just know how much you love him, and that these three days are all the time you have together. I just want you to enjoy it as much as possible."
Alex looked down, thinking hard.
"Well," he said at last, "it is pretty far off the beaten path. I guess, if we just go and come straight back, then it would be all right."
"That's great," he said delightedly. "And Alex, I promise you, I'll take every precaution when I take Nikita out to see the city. He'll be safe with me."
Alex smiled and kissed Walter softly, letting his hand linger on Walter's cheek.
"I know," he whispered.
Nikita looked up as Alex and Walter came back into the kitchen, both grinning happily.
"What's going on?" he asked suspiciously. Alex noted with pride that Nikita had finished clearing and rinsing the dishes without being asked.
Alex nodded at Walter, and they both sat down. Walter looked at Nikita.
"How would you like to go out with me while Alex is working?" he asked. Nikita's eyes widened. He gaped at Alex.
"Can I?" he asked incredulously. Alex's heart leapt to see the joy on Nikita's formerly crestfallen face. He nodded again but held up a finger.
"Yes," he said, "*but* there are some ground rules."
Nikita nodded dutifully. Alex continued.
"First, this is just a driving tour. Walter has generously offered to take you out in his car and show you the city. You are absolutely positively not to leave the car under any circumstances. Is that clear?"
Nikita nodded enthusiastically.
"Yes, Sasha," he exclaimed. "I promise! Thank you, Walter!"
Walter smiled, already planning the route in his head.
"You're welcome, Nicholas," he said warmly. "I'm looking forward to it."
Alex waved his hand to get Nikita's attention again.
"Rule number two," he said firmly, waiting until Nikita's joyful green eyes were obediently fixed on his. "You will treat Walter as you do me when you're with him. You will obey him, and when he says the tour is over and you're coming back here, there will be no arguments. Understood?"
Nikita nodded again. "Yes, Sasha."
Alex smiled, but his eyes were sad.
"I know it's not what you wanted, bratishka," he said softly. "I know you want to see things up close, go inside. I'm...I'm sorry I can't give you that."
Nikita stood and threw his arms around his brother, holding on tight. Alex squeezed his eyes shut and held him, treasuring the soft warm weight of him. Nikita looked at Alex, his eyes full of love.
"It's all right, Sasha," he said, wanting to reassure Alex. "It sounds like fun. We can see way more stuff in the time we have if we drive in the car, instead of walking around." He glanced at Walter, who nodded approvingly. "I just wish you could go, too."
Alex kissed Nikita's hair and stood, his hand on the boy's shoulder.
"I wish I could too, pipsqueak," he said. "But I have to go to a meeting. You have a good time with Walter and remember what I said."
"I will, Sasha, I promise."
"Good boy," Alex said. "Now, go upstairs and take your shower. I'll see you when I get back. And when I do," he added playfully, "Walter and I are taking you to dinner, at a very special place."
Nikita's eyes lit up.
"You are?" he said excitedly. "Where? What is it?"
Alex propelled him toward the stairs, still asking question after question, with a gentle swat on the seat of his jeans.
"A place we went once, and liked very much. A place we think is safe, and that you will like very much too. Now go upstairs and get ready, don't make Walter wait."
"Yes, Sasha!" Nikita shouted as he ran upstairs.
Alex laughed as he shrugged into his jacket. Walter walked him to the front door and kissed him again.
"What does Spender want with you?" he asked quietly. Alex picked up his keys from the hall table and slipped them into his pocket.
"Just a meeting," he said, his eyes promising Walter that it was the truth. "A roomful of boring old men seeing whose cigar is the biggest." He shrugged scornfully. "Strictly stand-around-and-look- threatening stuff. Spender likes to show me off, his tame animal. Makes him feel like a big man," he said, unable to hide his disgust. He looked at Walter, then looked away, not meeting his eyes as he spoke. "They...they all know about the one time I...about the tape and the-" he swallowed hard, "the silo. He likes to show off that he's brought me to heel. Likes me to stand behind his chair and look obedient." Alex gazed up at Walter. "It's nothing, Walter. Just two or three hours and I'll be back."
Walter suddenly pulled Alex to him, holding him close. He buried his face in Alex's hair, feeling Alex's strong heartbeat against his chest.
"I love you," he said roughly. "I want you away from him, from all of it. We have to get you out."
Alex sighed and rested his head on Walter's shoulder, just for a moment, then moved away and opened the front door. He looked back at Walter as he stepped into the hallway, his eyes meeting Walter's, trust, hope, love and sorrow all mingling in the sea-green depths.
"One day," he whispered, and was gone.
Alex closed the door behind him, immediately taking off his jacket, his lip curled in distaste. Spender's foul smoke clung to his clothes, repulsing him. He tossed his jacket on a nearby chair as he strode into the living room, deftly unbuttoning his shirt with his one hand.
Only silence greeted him. Frowning, he checked his watch. Walter and Nikita had to have been gone at least three hours. Trying to ignore his unease, Alex walked into the kitchen. There was enough vodka left in the bottle for a good belt. After Spender, he needed it.
He tipped the bottle up, the cold already making his hand ache, and felt the near-freezing liquid trickle down his throat. He moved to sit down at the table, bringing his nearly empty bottle with him, and saw the slip of paper neatly tucked under the salt shaker. He sat down and picked it up.
We are off to see the city! I hope you don't have to work too hard. See you when we get back!
I love you big brother
Alex smiled, Nikita's eager penciled scrawl splintering before his eyes, his vision suddenly clouded with tears. He clutched the paper to him, remembering the first letters he had ever received from his little brother, so proud of his newfound ability to write. How he had treasured those letters, traced the five year old's awkward printing with a shaking finger, how he had tenderly kissed each folded page before burning it. How he had stood in his tiny kitchen, watching Nikita's childish loving gifts to him blacken and curl in the empty pie tin. Watching the small pieces of a life he could never have turn to ashes. Unable to claim even that from Spender, knowing the danger that awaited his brother should the letters fall into the wrong hands.
Alex smoothed the lined paper out on the tabletop. He wouldn't have to burn this one. This one he could keep, here with Walter, could look at it whenever he wanted. Could hold it in his hand and read his brother's words again and again. Alex swallowed hard, gratitude and pain battling in his heart. He had so much more than he deserved, here with Walter. More than he had ever dreamed of. For the first time since he left Russia, he had a home. In the lonely years before Walter, there were only bars, seedy motel rooms, his small barren apartment. Long nights spent nursing the injuries that were an unavoidable part of his profession, drinking to dull the pain. The raw burn of the vodka never quite able to chase away the smell of smoke, the sound of Spender's oily belittling voice, ordering him to lie, to steal, to kill.
Mornings that began with the hope that one of his mail drops would bring a letter from home. The words were over a week old by the time he read them, but he savored each one, memorized the words, fingered the thin paper until the pencil was smudged. Nikita's letters were laboriously block printed, the pencil dark where he bore down hard, concentrating on "writing good for Sasha". Alex would smile, traveling in his mind to the new apartment in Moscow, with the balcony that faced the sun, where Babi loved to grow her flowers and herbs. Nikita would be sitting at the table by the window, the tip of his tongue between his teeth, the fat pencil clutched in his tiny hand, frowning slightly as he tried to make his letters perfectly, so that his big brother would see how much he had learned. The tutor Alex had insisted on came every afternoon, and the little boy was soon proficient in simple English.
Alex smiled now, tears standing bright in his eyes, remembering the first letter Nikita wrote entirely in English, his excitement shining through in every carefully printed word. So proud to be able to write to his big brother in the language of that far away, exotic place called America, the place where his Sasha lived. The boy's love of drawing blossomed along with his newfound second language, and his letters to Alex were peppered with tiny dogs, people, trees and houses, the margins full of miniature adventures, as though the little boy hated to leave any part of the page blank, wanting to fill it as his heart was filled with love for the older brother he seldom saw.
Even now, so many years later, Alex remembered them by heart, those innocent treasures crafted by his brother's small hands. He closed his eyes, his lips moving, murmuring softly as he repeated the words, comforting himself with them as he had long ago.
I miss you Sasha. Babi says my teacher is going to take me to the zoo and she is going to go too! I hope I get to see a lion. A real one! And a monkey! Can I have a monkey, Sasha? I love you Sasha. When are you coming home?
Alex groaned softly, his heart aching now as it had then. So much hope, so much faith in those few words. The words of a child for whom happy endings still existed. A child who still thought his big brother was a hero. Just as he did now. Alex winced and bit his lip. Alex knew he was no hero. Knew he didn't deserve the adoration that shone from his brother's eyes. He had no desire to take that from him, for him to see what Alex truly was. He had lost enough in his young life. He wanted to be that hero for Nikita, be worthy of that little boy's faith. Alex drained the last of the vodka and buried his head in his hand, Mulder's words coming back to haunt him.
Liar. Thief. Killer.
Babi had written letters home too, often tucked into the same envelope as Nikita's, her spidery handwriting telling him of Nikita's progress in his studies, and the goings on in the neighborhood. She often thanked him for the "gifts", her way of letting him know the latest deposit had posted to her bank account. She chose her words carefully, the paranoia of one who spent the majority of her years under Soviet rule always close to the surface. He had never been able to convince her that the letters wouldn't be read by the secret police, and so had become adept at deciphering her own homemade form of code. Babi's letters were as dear to him as Nikita's. They even smelled of her, of home, of the rain that spattered the lead glass windows of the old building, of the herbs she hung upside down to dry in the kitchen.
Babi never asked when he was coming home. She knew.
Nikita's note lay on the table. Alex picked it up and folded it carefully, making a small neat square. He tucked into his pocket, giving it a tiny absent pat. Nikita had to be protected, nothing else mattered. Protected from the truth and what it could do to him.
Alex glanced at his watch again and swore. He got up and began to pace, trying to outrun the panic that was beginning to swell. They should have been back by now. Where could they be? Finally, after a few moments, he forced himself to stand still, to take a few deep breaths. Calm down, Alex, he admonished himself. He's with Walter. Walter won't let anything happen.Unless... Alex's mouth went dry. His heart began to pound. Unless Spender knew, somehow, had known all along...the false papers at the airport...the Consortium had operatives everywhere...how long would it have taken them to...
Alex squeezed his eyes shut, leaned against the table for support. No. Not the both of them. Please, God, no. He knew he was losing control but was helpless to quell the rising panic. His breathing became ragged as his fear became a palpable thing, an entity there with him, in the sunlit room where he'd squabbled with his little brother over sweet rolls, where Walter had held him, given him that sweetly chaste kiss in deference to Nikita. Nikita. His innocent little brother. Alex's stomach twisted sickeningly as he thought about Nikita in the hands of Spender, of the monsters he employed. He thought of Walter, his love, his hope, imagined Spender's glee as he held all that Alex lived for in the palm of his hand.
Alex was halfway across the living room, his hand in the pocket of his hastily thrown on jacket, gripping the butt of his Glock like a talisman, when he heard the key in the lock.
Nikita burst in, cheeks ruddy from the late autumn chill, and hurled himself into Alex's embrace. Alex buried his face in Nikita's soft, sweet-smelling hair, held on tight with his one arm, hoping the boy couldn't feel the skittish terrified beating of his heart.
Nikita looked up at Alex, oblivious to his older brother's tension, and began talking excitedly.
"Oh, Sasha, Walter took me all over the city and I saw the White House and the Capitol and the Washington Monument and Ford's Theatre and he even knew where the gallows used to be, where they hanged the Lincoln conspirators, and I saw the alley where Booth's horse was and he showed me where the Union soldiers camped before they marched on the South..."
Alex grinned, closed his eyes tightly, tried to stop shaking. Nikita chattered on, and Alex lost himself in his brother's voice, his heartbeat still high and frightened, so convinced had he been that he might never hear that voice again.
"It was great, Sasha! Walter knows everything! He drove me all over the place and he took me for ice cream and we didn't have to get out of the car 'cause the man saw Walter's money and came right over and Walter bought me an American flag and a T-shirt that says Washington and a book about the White House!"
Alex laughed shakily, gave his squirming brother another squeeze.
"That's great, bratishka," he said, the words rasping slightly as they came from a dry throat. "I'm glad you had a good time. Be sure to thank Walter, okay?"
Nikita turned and Walter found himself the recipient of a heartfelt bear hug.
"Thank you, Walter! I had fun!"
Walter grinned and handed Nikita his bag of treasures, congratulating himself on his ability to strip the souvenir vendors on Pennsylvania Avenue of a good portion of their wares while still keeping his promise to Alex. It was amazing how eager the vendors were to provide curb service once they saw the wad of bills in his hand.
"You're welcome, Nicholas, " he said, ruffling the boy's hair. "So did I. Now," he added, giving Alex a worried glance, "why don't you go on upstairs and put your things away, and get ready for dinner? I need to talk to your brother for a minute."
"Okay, Walter," Nikita chirped, bounding up the stairs. "I hope the restaurant has chocolate cake!"
"The biggest piece they have, bratishka," Alex whispered. "The whole cake if you want it..." he trailed off and stared down at the carpet, trembling with relief, with the effort to hold back the tears of gratitude. They were back. They were safe. He took a deep shuddering breath, raised his eyes to Walter's. Found them dark with concern.
"Alex?" Walter said quietly.
He crossed the room quickly. Alex's pallor had not escaped his attention, nor the way he had clutched Nikita to him like a precious thing. Walter had seen the look on Alex's face when the door had swung open. He had been going out, his hand in his pocket. His gun hand. The look in his eyes had been almost feral...overwhelming fear mixed with something else, something dark and desperate. There had been murder in Alex's eyes.
Alex attempted a smile.
"You really gave him something special, Walter," he said, trying to keep his voice steady. "He had a wonderful time. Thank you."
Walter stepped closer, held out his arms to draw Alex close. Alex looked at him with need in his eyes, but still stood motionless. He bit his lip, swallowed hard.
"I...I haven't showered yet. I haven't been back that long. Just let me..."
"Bullshit," Walter growled, pulling Alex close, wrapping him in his strong arms. Felt him trembling, felt the rapid beat of his heart.
"I smell like that bastard," Alex mumbled against Walter's chest. "Like his fucking smoke. I...don't want it to get on you, too."
Walter kissed Alex's hair, his eyelids, settled finally on his mouth, lingered there, kissing away the tension, the fear.
"We'll just have to shower together, then, won't we?"
Alex looked up, Walter's warm smile melting the last of the icy fear that had gripped him.
"I'd like that," he whispered, resting his head on Walter's shoulder.
Walter held him, rubbed circles on his back, warming the cool leather, knowing the motion comforted him.
"You were worried," he said quietly. "More than that. Terrified."
Alex was silent for a long moment.
"I just thought you'd be back earlier, that's all...and when you weren't, I guess I let my imagination run away with me. I've just been so tense, since he's been here, worrying about him..."
Alex paused, his one hand gripping Walter's jacket, flexing, unflexing. He looked down, unable to meet Walter's eyes.
"I...trust you, Walter. I do. Please don't think...I just can't stand the thought of something happening to you, to him. Spender..."
"Shhh," Walter said softly, holding Alex even more closely. "It's all right, Alex. I understand. I know you trust me or you never would have let me take him out in the first place. It's my fault, we did take a little longer than I expected. I should have called, Alex. I'm sorry I worried you."
"It's okay," Alex said, nuzzling his head against Walter's neck. "It's okay. Thank you for what you did for him today, for us both. Thank you for giving him that. And for keeping him safe with you."
"It was my pleasure," Walter said, his smile widening as Alex slowly returned it. "Now, I've built up quite an appetite and I can taste that filet mignon already. What do you say we get going on that shower?"
The master bath was already prepared, as Alex knew it would be. Walter would have made sure of it before he left to take Nikita sightseeing. The shower door stood open, revealing the cobalt blue tiles of the shower stall, the small shelf with its assorted bottles of shower gels and oils, all with flip-top caps, easy to open one-handed. The small brass tray sat on the vanity, the chunky handmade candles waiting to be lit. An old fashioned cut-glass lighter sat beside it. Walter had banished boxes of matches, slowly, over time, replacing them with a growing collection of antique lighters. Alex smiled, wondering if Walter knew he noticed these things, noticed how hard Walter worked to make things easier for him, how he tried never to let Alex see the adjustments, large and small, that he made for Alex's handicap. He watched Walter light the candles through eyes shining with love and gratitude.
Walter knew how much he loved candles. Had seen him that day, cursing, his hair hanging in his face as he bent to pick up the dropped box of matches, tried with his one hand to retrieve the hundreds of wooden matchsticks from the rug, his cheeks burning with frustration and humiliation. He had only wanted to light the damned candles for dinner, found this ordinary task, like so many others since his loss, tauntingly impossible to accomplish. Walter had said nothing, merely busied himself in the kitchen, knowing better than to try and help, not wanting to make Alex feel any more helpless than he already did. But the next day, Alex had awoken to find a new box of handmade candles on the nightstand, with a heavy chrome lighter tucked beneath the ribbon that held the box closed. He had sat on the edge of the bed, hefting one of the waxy blue candles in his hand, before lighting it and settling back against the pillows. The candle smelled like the ocean, like the place he dreamed of living when it was over, when he was free. He had closed his eyes and smiled, savoring the scent of hope.
Alex shrugged out of his jacket and clothes, grimacing at the smell of Spender's stale smoke as he did. Walter took the jacket and hung it on the doorknob in the bedroom. It would need airing out. Alex stuffed his clothes into the laundry hamper with its tight fitting lid. He wouldn't see them again until they were returned to him crisply folded, all traces of Alex's hated vocation washed away.
Alex's bathrobe hung neatly on one of the two hooks on the back of the bathroom door, the CD player sat on the small shelf over the toilet, already loaded with Alex's favorite music. Razor, shaving cream and aftershave were neatly lined up beside the sink. Alex smiled. As always, Walter had thought of everything. He knew how Alex hated his Consortium work, how he always returned feeling filthy, unworthy, inside and out. How he hated Walter to touch him until he had had the chance to shower and wash away the taint of Spender's hold on him. Alex always came home now from the meetings, from the hated jobs, to find the bathroom readied for him. A brief and loving note atop the folded towels if Walter was not there, but as often as possible, Walter himself awaited him, his robe falling open as he moved to take Alex into his arms, a tantalizing glimpse of smooth muscled torso, the beautiful cock in its nest of dark hair. Walter's voice like distant thunder rumbling as he shushed Alex's protests, as he insisted that the damned shower could *wait*, that Alex was good enough and clean enough just as he was, that Walter had waited long enough to touch his lover.
Walter came back into the bathroom and placed a second dark blue bathsheet on top of the one already in the rack. Alex stepped close to him, took his mouth in a deep, gentle kiss. Walter smiled.
"What was that for?"
Alex looked around the room, their small sybaritic paradise.
"This," he said simply. "Everything. You." He wrapped his arm around Walter, rested his cheek against the firm smooth skin. "I love you."
"Love you too," Walter whispered. "Ready for the shower now?"
Alex nodded, then looked down, fingering the tape that bound his ribs.
"Help me with this?"
Walter took the end of the tape and tugged at it gently, keeping the other hand pressed flat against Alex's body, careful to minimize the pulling. He took his time, took infinite care as he got down to the last layer, making sure not to rip out the fine golden hairs scattered across Alex's torso. He dropped the tape into the trash can, then reached into the medicine cabinet and held up the round tin of surgical tape.
"This goes right back on, after," he said, wagging a finger sternly.
"Okay, okay," Alex grumbled good-naturedly as he stepped into the shower.
Walter dimmed the lights, allowing the candles to bathe the room in an ethereal glow, reflected warmly from the brass tray on which they sat. He pressed the button on the CD player, stepped in behind Alex and closed the glass door behind him. The softly playing jazz mingled with the sibilant sounds of the splashing water, while Alex and Walter's sighs and moans of pleasure formed a symphony all their own.
The drive back from Manassas was quiet. Walter drove, casting an occasional glance at Alex, who sat deep in thought, gazing out at the heavy golden moon that seemed to race along beside them. Nikita dozed in the back seat, despite his best efforts to stay awake and not miss one second of the outing. Without his steady stream of excited chatter, broken only by Walter's knowledgeable commentary on the history of the area, the car was enveloped in a comfortable silence.
Alex leaned back against the car seat as Walter merged onto I-66, his hand resting on Alex's thigh. Alex could see Nikita's reflection in the rearview mirror, his face, serene as he slept, illuminated by the streetlights overhead and the headlights of the occasional passing car. He looked so young, so innocent, his ebony lashes fanning his pale cheeks, his lips slightly parted. Like an angel come to earth, Alex thought. He felt the fierce flame of love in his heart for this boy, this child, for whom he had sacrificed everything. It was all worth it. Every drop of blood spilled, every moment of fear and pain and self-loathing. Everything he'd had to do since he left home at seventeen, a scared boy determined to be a man. Everything he'd done to keep his precious baby brother safe, he'd do it all again. Alex swallowed hard and glanced at Walter, remembering that many of those things had been done to the man he now loved. Hard and painful things. The stairwell. Alex's fist driving into Walter's vulnerable solar plexus. The nanocytes. Walter writhing in pain as Alex held the agonized man's life in his hand.
Alex's searching green eyes were met by Walter's calm brown ones. Walter glanced into the rearview mirror, then back at Alex. He smiled and reached for Alex's real hand, gave it a brief squeeze before turning his attention back to the road. Alex looked down, then back out at the moonlit streets, nearly deserted at this hour. He smiled. Amazing how Walter always seemed to know just what he was thinking. How Alex never saw anything in Walter's eyes except love. Understanding. Forgiveness. He looked at Nikita's reflection again as the boy stirred and murmured in his sleep. His brother was smiling, clutching the stationery Alex had bought him in the Ordinary's small, tasteful gift shop. Nikita had explored the shop, his curiosity a fire needing constant fuel, delighted with everything he saw. Alex would have bought him everything in the shop had he wanted it, but all he had asked for was the packet of stationery with a pen and ink sketch of the Spotswood Ordinary at the top of each page.
"To write to you on, Sasha," Nikita had explained with a brilliant smile. "That way every time I write a letter to you and every time you read it, we'll remember this night."
Alex had bent down and kissed his brother's dark hair, squeezed him until he yelped and poked Alex in the ribs.
"Ow, Sasha, I can't breathe! You hug as tight as Walter!"
Laughing, they had walked to the car, the red and yellow leaves fluttering down around them, the smoky scent of the fire still burning in the Ordinary's massive fireplace drifting around them as if from a censer.
Alex smiled at the memory, remembered Nikita's soft "oh!" as they drove up the winding path to the inn. How his big green eyes lit up when he saw the place in all its antebellum splendor. How he had gazed at the meadow, listening raptly as Walter told him of the encampment here, how Confederate soldiers had slept in that very field, how the officers had established a command post in the very building they were about to enter, before the first major clash of the Civil War.
He and Walter had found the Spotswood Ordinary to be just as they remembered it, perhaps even more charming in Autumn than it had been in Spring. The leaves of the trees that hung low over the cottage were fiery even in the moonlight, and the soft whickering of the horses in the nearby meadow drifted to them on the crisp night air. They were seated at a table in an alcove beside the huge stone fireplace. The soft spoken young woman serving as hostess filled their water glasses and then paused to add a few pieces of hard applewood to the roaring fire.
The Spotswood was an inn that encouraged, even invited its guests to linger, and linger they did, for nearly three hours, over a truly exquisite meal. Walter had closed his eyes and sighed with pleasure as the last morsel of filet mignon fairly melted on his tongue. Alex had sworn the salmon en croute was the best on four continents. Nikita had been too curious and excited by the surroundings to pay attention to the food, and peppered the hostess and waiters with questions about the building, the horses, and if it was really true that, before the first Battle of Bull Run, Confederate officers had eaten *their* dinners in this very room. His big green eyes shone as the staff patiently answered his questions, clearly enchanted by this adorable boy so enamored of their city's history. Finally, at Alex's gentle prompting, Nikita picked up his fork and ate a few bites of steak and salad before embarking upon a spirited interrogation of Walter, questioning him closely for several minutes about battle lines and strategy.
Nikita effortlessly charmed the staff, much to Walter and Alex's amusement, and happily devoured a truly enormous piece of chocolate cake, delivered to him with a flourish on a silver plate. Alex watched Nikita, listened to him talk, his eyes alight with happiness, savoring this night, this time together. He caught Walter watching him and smiled, squeezing his hand under the table apologetically. The answering squeeze was firm, Walter's broad thumb caressing the back of Alex's hand. Alex looked into Walter's understanding brown eyes, a smile of love and gratitude illuminating his face. He turned back to Nikita, who was happily licking rich frosting from his fork, fluttering his lashes at the hostess in hopes of more whipped cream.
"I love this place, Sasha," Nikita said, swirling his spoon in the chilled bowl of whipped cream that appeared at his elbow. "I wish we could come back here some day."
Alex swallowed and forced a smile, ruffled Nikita's hair.
"Finish your cake, bratishka," he said softly.
Nikita applied himself to the task at hand with gusto. Alex met Walter's eyes, then looked away. Walter could see Alex working to get himself under control, could see the pain he tried so hard to hide from Nikita. Alex smiled bravely at Walter, determined not to spoil this magical evening. They had a wonderful few hours in this quaint and special place, and he wanted the memory to remain sweet and pure for Nikita. Maybe, if he tried hard enough, for himself, too. He looked at Nikita, whose green eyes sparkled as he laughed at something Walter had said. Alex blinked back tears, busied himself with the check, fishing in his pocket for his credit card. He slipped it into the discreet leather binder and placed it on the edge of the table, where it was promptly whisked away by the omnipresent hostess. Stop it, he admonished himself. Don't let him see how much it hurts, how it tears you up inside to think that in two days he'll be gone again. Let him have this memory of a happy night. Don't you dare take it from him.
Seeing the smile on his sleeping brother's face, Alex knew he'd given Nikita that happy memory. Smiling a little himself, Alex allowed himself to doze, until he was awakened by a gentle hand on his cheek and Walter's soft voice.
Walter and Nikita were eating lunch when Alex walked into the kitchen, laden with several bulging plastic bags. He grinned as he dropped his burden onto the kitchen counter, pleased with his success. The video store hadn't been too crowded for a Sunday afternoon, and he'd managed to find all of the monster movies Nikita had asked for. Nikita jumped up from his chair and tore into the bag, whooping with joy as he rummaged through the videocassettes.
"Oh, boy, Sasha!" he exclaimed. "You got them all!" He turned to Walter, his eyes dancing with delight. "Look, Walter! 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers'! 'Attack of the Giant Leeches', 'The Blob'...even 'Godzilla vs. Mothra'!"
"Sounds like our monster movie marathon is going to be something," he said, taking a bite of his cheeseburger.
"Thank you for renting these for me, Sasha," Nikita said.
"Bought, not rented," Alex said with a smile, giving his brother a hug and a kiss. "They're yours. You can take them back to school with you and I'll see that you have a VCR that plays American tapes."
"Thank you, Sasha, thank you!" Nikita shouted. "My friends will love these!"
"All right, bratishka," Alex murmured gently, collecting the cassettes from Nikita's eager hands and putting them aside. "Finish your lunch before it gets cold."
"Yes, Sasha," Nikita said obediently, sitting down next to Walter. He took a big bite of his cheeseburger and munched it happily.
Alex smiled to himself as he began unpacking the rest of the bags, trying not to think of what tomorrow would bring. He wanted tonight, Nikita's last night with them, to be special. He remembered the serious look on Nikita's face when they had told him they would spend their last night in Washington together any way he wanted. How his nose had crinkled up as he thought hard, wanting to choose just the right thing. Alex had held his breath, hoping that whatever his brother's wish, it would be something he could grant, something that wouldn't endanger his safety. He had made a silent vow to himself that whatever Nikita wanted on their last night together, he would move heaven and earth to get it for him.
He had been surprised and deeply touched when, instead of begging for another trip out to a restaraunt or tourist mecca, his brother had made one simple request.
"I want us to stay in. I want to spend the whole night together, here, the three of us. I want us to eat pizza and watch monster movies."
Tears had formed in Alex's eyes, borne of fierce pride and love. Nikita's request pleased him more than he could say.
"Of course, baby brother," he had whispered. "Anything you want." He had felt Walter's big hand close around his and squeeze it gently.
Walter's eyes had been shining too.
Alex reached into one of the bags and held a gaily colored box aloft to Nikita's happy cheer.
"Popcorn with *extra* butter..."
He continued unpacking the bags, lining the counter with two six-packs of soda, a carton of premium ice cream, chocolate syrup, walnuts and whipped cream. Alex grinned as he fished the small bottle of maraschino cherries out of the slippery plastic bag.
"Let's see...I believe the young Czar requested Coke, chocolate ice cream sundaes and..." he flipped open the top of a flat white box, revealing the pastries inside. "Piroshki, fresh from the Russian bakery. With apples, your favorite."
Nikita beamed. Alex packed the food into the refrigerator. The look on Nikita's face was worth the drive across town to Ananoff's. Alex grinned at the thought of the evening's eclectic menu.
"All right. We'll call for the pizza around six."
"Can we get extra cheese?" Nikita asked, tucking into his second cheeseburger.
"Of course, bratishka," Walter answered before Alex could, making the three of them laugh.
Alex finished putting away the things he had bought and paused, picking up an empty box from the counter beside the stove. He peered at the box, which was adorned with a smiling soybean wearing a chef's hat.
"Oh no, Walter," he said, grimacing theatrically, "don't tell me you've got my brother eating these soyburgers of yours."
Nikita giggled from behind his burger. Walter was a veteran of these conversations with Alex and knew his part well. He took a sip of iced tea and tried to reason with his carnivorous lover.
"Alex, they're good for you. I swear, if I cooked one for you, you'd never know the difference."
"Walter," Alex said, placing his hands on Nikita's shoulders. "Nikita is a growing boy. He needs red meat so he can grow up big and strong like his brother." He said this last with a grin and a hearty growl, reaching down to ruffle Nikita's hair. "How's he going to make it to the Olympics eating this hippie food of yours?"
"But I like them, Sasha," Nikita said, looking up. "Walter makes them really good. And the nutritionist at school says soy is good for our hearts."
Alex's eyebrows headed north and Walter concealed a smile. He had a feeling that the nutritionist at St. Seraphim was going to get a crash course from Prof. Krycek. Alex humphed as he walked back over to the counter. He propped his hip against it and gave the offending box one more disdainful look.
"Soyburgers," he groaned. "What's next, Walter? Turkey bacon?"
Nikita and Walter exchanged a look. Walter managed to look innocent even as he avoided Alex's eye. Nikita held out as long as he could, but one look at Alex's perplexed face was enough to make him dissolve into giggles. Walter was suddenly very interested in his plate.
Alex's eyes grew wide. He attempted to hide his growing smile and affect an air of righteous indignation.
Walter tried not to laugh, holding up his hands placatingly.
Alex turned and lifted the lid from the garbage can. He began to rummage through the trash.
"Alex..." Walter tried again, convulsing with laughter.
"AHA!" Alex shouted. He waved a flattened box at Walter accusingly before reading the cheerful yellow letters printed on it.
"Vital Valley Turkey Bacon," he read. "Walter! How could you?"
Nikita shook with laughter. Walter put his head in his hands.
"Alex, you've been eating it for a year and a half."
"*What*? Well...I...dammit Walter!"
Alex threw the box away and washed his hands, grumbling all the while about those who would feed a man "fake bacon" in his own home. He managed to work in a "what is the world coming to", voice frantic concern for his bone density and was well onto the plight of the American pork industry when Walter finally guided him to the table and put a beer in his hand to shut him up. He brought Alex his lunch from the warming oven, two perfectly grilled cheeseburgers, which Alex sniffed suspiciously.
"100% ground chuck, I swear," Walter said, giving Alex a kiss on the head. "I know better than to try and fool you."
Nikita giggled again.
It was after one in the morning when Alex snapped off the TV and herded a sleepily protesting Nikita upstairs to bed. Walter rounded up the empty pizza boxes, emptied the last of the popcorn into the trash and stacked the videotapes on the counter so they could be packed with Nikita's things. The new carry-on bag Alex had bought to supplement Nikita's beloved rucksack sat empty in a kitchen chair. Walter looked at it sadly, surprised again at how fond he had become of the boy in so short a time. He chuckled ruefully as he turned off the lights in the kitchen, remembering Nikita's unorthodox arrival that Friday night. He remembered Nikita's fierce struggles as they tussled on the living room floor, fury burning bright in those green eyes. Remembered the complete and utter joy he'd felt when he'd coaxed that first hesitant smile from the boy. Remembered the first time he'd seen him throw his head back and laugh, his eyes alight and happy. Walter's own eyes were bright as he climbed the stairs in the semi-darkness.
Nikita was so much like Alex.
Walter awoke around three am. He groaned and wondered if the bottle of antacid was still in the cupboard under the bathroom sink. You should have known better, Walt, he chided himself. You're not sixteen anymore. He should have stopped after the fourth piece of pizza and *definitely* should not have let Nikita talk him into a second chocolate sundae. He started to sit up, careful not to jostle Alex. He needed his rest for the long flight ahead. He turned on the bedside lamp and stared at the empty space in the bed beside him.
Walter stood in the hallway outside the guest room, scarcely breathing. The door to the room stood open, admitting the faint glow from the nightlight in the hall. Nikita lay on his side, clutching his pillow tightly, his deep, measured breaths the only sound in the silent room. Alex sat in the chair by the foot of the bed, motionless, his eyes fixed on his sleeping brother. As the half-moon passed from behind a cloud, pale light streamed through the thin curtains, making a path to Walter's feet. His hair and eyelashes tinted silver, Alex was graceful in his sadness, a dark angel sculpted by moonlight, watching over the boy as he slept. Alex rested his head in his hand, the long lines of his body bowed with grief. Walter felt a lump in his throat as his lover's pain spoke plainly to him in the darkness. He looked at Alex for a moment longer, then stepped back into the shadows, leaving them to share every second of precious time together.
Alex stood, his back to the bedroom door, packing his bag with practiced efficiency. Walter could see from the tense set of his shoulders and his abrupt, economical motions that Alex was on autopilot. The face that turned toward him was smooth, almost devoid of emotion. Only the brightness in his eyes gave him away. Walter stepped closer, not knowing what to say, helpless against this vast and unknowable pain. He placed his hand on Alex's shoulder, feeling the taut muscles flex as Alex hefted the bag.
Alex put the bag down and turned to face Walter. Walter reached out to take Alex in his arms, to offer what comfort he could. He felt Alex relax slightly under his touch, trembling with the effort to hold his emotions in check. Walter kissed Alex gently, silently damning Spender all over again. Wishing he could go back in time and save that seventeen year-old boy from all the years of pain that lay ahead. Wishing he could give Alex and Nikita just one more day together. He brushed a lock of dark hair from Alex's eyes, caressed his cheek lightly.
"Alex, maybe if you just waited another day or two. Surely there are other flights this week. What if- "
"No, Walter!" Alex bit out harshly, pulling away. He swiped roughly at the tears glittering in his eyes, closing them against the sting. He bit his lip, controlling his breathing, fighting to get himself under control.
"I know what you're going to say, Walter. But please don't. I can't wait one more week or one more day. I can't let myself think about that. He has to go back. I *have* to take him back."
Walter felt an ache in his chest at the sight of the naked pain on Alex's face.
"Alex," he tried again, "surely there must be another way. There are schools, private ones, with good security-"
"No," whispered Alex raggedly, almost begging. He stepped slightly further away, his mouth a thin white line.
Walter watched with horrified fascination as Alex, through sheer power of will, seemed to transform himself into the cool, dispassionate Consortium assassin. Walter's heart ached as all emotion fled from those green eyes, leaving them flat and detached. This was only one more hard and brutal thing Alex had to do because of Spender, and he was retreating behind the walls which were his only defense mechanism, his only way of surviving what must be done. Walter wondered if he would be able to tear down those walls this time when Alex returned. Would there be anything left of Alex to drag out into the light?
Alex spoke, not looking Walter in the eye. A tiny, almost unnoticable tremor in his voice was the only sign of the anguish he was fighting desperately to control.
"Please, Walter. I can't. If I think about it I won't be able to do it. I won't be able to let him go. And I have to. I have to protect him. If Spender..." Alex swallowed hard, his hand clenched at his side. "You know what Spender would do. You have to understand. I can't let myself dream of Nikita being here with me."
He stepped away from Walter, his face a blank mask.
"It can never be."
He looked at Walter once more, wanting to bridge the distance between them, to lose himself in those strong arms. He forced the emotion down. He had to be strong now for Nikita.
"I'm sorry, Walter. I...I can't let myself feel right now. I can't."
Walter nodded, despite the pain he felt at these soft, sad words.
"I'll be here when you come back, Alex," he said quietly. "Just like always. I'll be waiting here for you."
Alex nodded, picked up his bag and carried it downstairs.
Walter prepared a light lunch, mindful of the long flight ahead for Alex and Nikita. Alex declined to eat at all and Nikita only picked at the bread, cheese and fruit. Walter finally coaxed him into eating most of a bowl of chicken noodle soup, watching his solemn eyes as he toyed listlessly with his spoon. Walter sat beside him, his own appetite spare, peeling and quartering an apple, his hands glad for something to do. Nikita put down his spoon and looked at Walter guiltily.
"It's not that it's not good, Walter. I guess I'm just not very hungry."
Walter gave him a reassuring smile, touched that the boy would consider his feelings even as his own young face was troubled.
"It's all right, Nicholas. You don't have to eat the soup. But you've got a long journey ahead of you. Try to eat a little fruit, okay?"
Nikita nodded and nibbled at a peach, uncharacteristically quiet. He and Walter finished their lunch in silence, neither one of them up for conversation, yet glad of the other's company.
Alex walked into the kitchen, checking his watch.
"Nikita," he said softly. "It's almost time to leave. Go upstairs and finish packing your things."
"Yes, Sasha," Nikita said, slipping out of his chair and padding quietly upstairs.
"He's a strong kid," Walter said softly. "Like his brother."
The ghost of a smile touched Alex's face.
"Yeah," he said, "I wish he didn't have to be."
Alex swallowed hard and left the room. Walter followed him into the living room, watched as he slid his Glock into the holster at the small of his back, pulling his jacket down over it. Alex's eyes met his and Walter nodded with wordless understanding. There was no question of Alex escorting his brother back to Russia unarmed. Walter knew better than to ask how Alex got his weapons through airport security. Alex allowed himself to come close enough to Walter for a brief touch, then headed for the stairs.
"I've got to get a few more things together. We'll be leaving in a few minutes."
Walter nodded. He went back into the kitchen and quickly cleared the few dishes from lunch. He was wrapping up the bread and cheese, trying to find comfort in the completion of the mundane task, when fury boiled up inside him and he slammed his hand down on the counter.
"Fuck!" he hissed.
Goddamned Spender, that malignant old son of a bitch, who poisoned everything he touched. Walter leaned against the counter, trying to get himself under control. He swiped at his eyes. The least you can do is be strong for him, Walt, he admonished himself. Don't think about how much you're going to miss them until they're gone. Let him lean on you, give him the strength to do this thing. Be here for him when he gets back and try to help him find a way out, for both of them.
Walter sighed and went upstairs, needing something to do in these last empty minutes before they would be gone. He thought to tuck a couple of the blue candles Alex loved into his shaving kit, along with a lighter, to give him some small comfort in the days ahead.
He was passing the guest room when he heard a sob.
The door wasn't latched. Walter gently pushed it open. Nikita sat on the side of the bed, his back to Walter, his rucksack open beside him. His narrow shoulders shook as he cried, quietly, hoping no one would hear.
"Nicholas?" Walter said gently, not wanting to intrude.
Nikita looked up, then hung his head again, weeping softly. Walter sat down next to him on the bed. Tears streamed down the boy's face as he gazed at the framed photograph clutched in his pale hands. He looked up at Walter hesitantly, then held it out, offering it to Walter. Walter took it, handling it gently, tears springing to his own eyes. An impossibly young Alex sat cross-legged on a faded carpet. His clear green eyes, not yet stripped of their innocence, shone with love as he gazed at the tiny dark-haired boy in his arms. The little boy wore a happy grin almost identical to his brother's, beaming up at him in adoration, one chubby hand reaching up to touch his brother's face.
"That's me and Sasha," Nikita whispered, his breath hitching. "Mama and Papa died soon after."
Walter looked at the picture again, at the Alex he had never had the chance to know, the boy poised on the brink of a life of pain and loss. His eyes absently traced the long pale left arm tucked protectively around the little boy's waist, thought of a cold unforgiving night in the Tunguskan forest, a hot knife and howling agony. Alex had spoken of it only once, describing the wet snap of the bone, his long struggle to crawl across the tangled frozen forest floor, half-mad from the pain. Walter had wondered how Alex survived, what had driven him to fight when it would have been so much easier to lay down and die. Now he knew.
He handed the photograph back to Nikita. The boy took it, wrapped it in a heavy sweater, and tucked it almost reverently into his rucksack, fat tears rolling down his cheeks. He scrubbed them away almost angrily with his shirtsleeve, fighting a losing battle against his emotions.
"Nicholas, I know it's hard," Walter began, putting a hand on the boy's arm. He was surprised when Nikita pulled away.
Nikita stood and backed away from Walter, busying himself with his CDs, stacking them and putting them into his rucksack.
"Nicholas?" Walter asked with concern.
"I-I'm okay, Walter," Nikita said, his chin trembling. It was a struggle for him to get the words out. "I'll be okay."
Walter stood helplessly, wanting to offer solace.
"It's okay to cry, you know that, don't you? I know how sad you are to be leaving."
Nikita stood, staring at a point just beyond Walter, shaking with the effort to staunch the flow of tears. His face was flushed and damp from crying, his small hands bunched into fists at his sides.
"N-no, it's not, Walter," he whispered vehemently. "I...I have to be strong."
"Nicholas, it's okay-"
Nikita sank down on the bed, overcome by a fresh torrent of sobs. Walter stepped closer, but froze at the sight of the boy's eyes. He watched with a familiar sick sensation as Nikita took deep, regulated breaths, using sheer force of will to make himself stop crying. He sat utterly motionless, finally raising his eyes to Walter. Those lively green eyes were flat now, dead in his pale face. Walter had seen Alex do this many times, but in Nikita, the effect was eerie. Walter stared in shock as the boy forcibly held his emotions at bay, his young face blank. Nikita took a deep, shuddering breath and spoke quietly, his eyes closed in resignation.
"I have to be strong like Sasha."
He stood, the teartracks still drying on his cheeks, picked up his rucksack and went downstairs.
Walter stood in the now empty room, so barren now without Nikita's cheerful mess, without the spirit that Walter felt he had just seen wither before his eyes. He took a deep breath, then another. Then he went to find Alex.
Alex was in the bedroom, his shaving kit in his hand, when Walter stepped in and closed the door.
"Don't do this, Alex."
Alex growled in frustration.
"Please don't, Walter."
He moved to walk past Walter but was stopped by Walter's hand on his arm. He lifted pleading green eyes, shadowed with exhaustion.
"Please," he said again. "It's hard enough already. Please just let it go."
"No," Walter said fiercely. "You're going to listen to me, Alex."
Alex's eyes widened in surprise.
Walter folded his arms. His heart pounded wildly. There was no time to stop and think, no time to wonder if this was the right thing.
"Do you really think he's safe at school?"
"Alex," Walter said firmly. "How long before they knew he was gone? What if he hadn't left on his own? What if he had been taken?"
Alex began to pace, running his hand roughly through his hair.
"I'm going to check it out when I get there, I'm going to make sure he's safe."
Walter held out his hands placatingly.
"Alex. Think. These men who helped your brother pull this stunt, teaching him how to pick a lock, supplying him with forged documents...don't you wonder how they happened to be there? Why they were so eager to help him?"
"They were just lowlifes from town, small-time hoods," Alex snapped. "They'll be dead hoods when I get through with them."
Walter stood silently for a moment. Finally, he spoke, his voice gentle.
"Do you really think Spender doesn't know about him?"
Alex stopped in his tracks. His breathing was becoming rapid.
"No! He doesn't know! He doesn't!" Alex yelled, slamming his hand down on the dresser. "He doesn't know about him, Walter, I've been careful. I've protected him."
"Yes," Walter said soothingly, stepping closer, pulling Alex into his arms. "I know you have. I know you've always done everything you could to keep him safe. But," he added, tilting Alex's chin up, forcing him to meet his gaze, "ask yourself, Alex. Just ask yourself if it's really possible that Spender doesn't know about Nicholas. You've worked for him since you were seventeen years old. Do you really think there's anything he doesn't know? Anything he can't find out?"
Alex shook his head, pulling away.
"No..." he said again, less sure now. Walter cupped Alex's cheek gently. He knew how much Alex needed to believe he had kept Nikita's existence a secret, how it was the only thing that kept him sane, the only way he was able to pick up the pieces after each Consortium job, the thought of his brother safe from Spender's grasp the talisman he clung to.
"Alex," he whispered. "Please just listen to me. That's all I ask. I know you want to protect him, you want to wrap him up and keep him hidden away so that the bad things in the world will never touch him. So that Spender will never do to him what he's done to you."
Alex looked down, tears standing in his eyes. Walter took a deep breath and continued.
"But he's already doing it to him, Alex. He's already destroying him. I saw it just now. I saw him crying for you and I saw him force himself to stop, to cut off his emotions and withdraw into himself, just as I've seen you do more times than I can count. That little boy downstairs still has his innocence, Alex, but every day he's apart from you is one more victory for Spender. And when there's nothing left of that beautiful, happy boy but a brittle shell, when he's finally made himself dead inside so he won't have to miss you anymore, Spender will have won. He'll have stolen his soul and there'll be nothing you can do about it."
Alex was rigid, every muscle standing out in sharp relief. His eyes were dark pools of pain.
"Why are you telling me this?" he whispered brokenly.
"Alex," Walter said gently, "I don't think there's any safer place on earth for Nicholas than with you."
Alex was in agony.
"I can't, Walter," he almost begged. "You know I can't. I...Spender could call me anytime, day or night, you know that. I can't be with Nikita twenty-four hours a day. And there's no one I'd trust with my brother."
Walter looked into Alex's eyes.
"Not even me?"
Alex sat on the edge of the bed, stunned. Walter smiled serenely.
"Wh-what?" Alex said, shaking his head. "You have a job, Walter, remember? Lots of early morning meetings and late nights. What are you going to do, take him to the Hoover with you and give him a coloring book?"
Walter grinned and went to his chest of drawers. He opened the top drawer and withdrew a single folded sheet of paper. He handed it to Alex.
Alex unfolded it and read it with disbelief. He looked up at Walter, his eyes huge and uncomprehending.
"Walter?" he croaked. "What is this?"
"Just what it says," Walter said, sitting down next to him and putting his arm around him. "I'm retiring. I've had enough, Alex. I figured I'd take the golden parachute, maybe spend some time looking at beachfront property."
Alex sat, utterly poleaxed. Walter gave him a gentle tap on the chin to remind him to close his mouth, marveling at just how beautiful surprise looked on Alex. He decided he liked seeing that look on Alex's face.
Alex continued to stare at Walter in silence. Walter leaned his forehead against Alex's and stroked his dark hair.
"It's been in the pipeline for a while now," he said with a smile. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner but I didn't want to say anything until I was sure."
Alex sat clutching the paper in his hand, his throat working.
"You're...you're really...Walter, I can't let you do this."
"It's already done, Alex. I've had enough. I'm tired of all the bullshit. Let someone else kiss Kersh's fat ass, let someone else clean up Mulder's messes. I've done my time."
Alex swallowed. Could they really...Nikita...stubborn hope flooded him and he fought it, shrinking from the pain that always came after. It won't work. It can't work. Think about Nikita and be strong for him. Don't think of yourself now.
Walter caught Alex's face between his two hands, looked into his eyes solemnly.
"I'll be with him, Alex," he whispered. "I pledge to you, with all my heart, that every minute you have to be away, he'll be with me, and I'll protect him with my life. He'll never be alone, Alex. He'll never be in danger. I'll watch over him as though he were my own."
Alex drew his breath in sharply, his eyes brimming with tears.
"Walter, he's...it's such a...I can't ask you to do this for me."
Walter kissed away the tears, smoothed their paths away with his thumbs.
"You're not," he said softly. "And I'm not just doing it for you. I'm also doing it for me. And most of all," he said, his voice shaking with emotion, "I'm doing it for that little boy downstairs. A little boy who still has his innocence, who deserves the chance to keep it. Nicholas needs you, Alex. He needs a home, his family. Let me give you that, let me give it to you both." He paused, a sob escaping him. "To all of us."
Alex was numb. He stared at Walter helplessly, unable to express in words what his lover had given him.
"I...I don't...how...what about school, his education-"
"Shhh," Walter whispered, pressing a silencing finger to Alex's lips. "We can work out details later. This is no time to sweat the small stuff. Right now I think there's a traveler downstairs who needs to know his flight has been cancelled."
Alex stared at Walter for a moment and then threw his arms around him, finally succumbing to the emotions he had fought so hard to keep at bay. He sobbed, his cries deep and guttural, torn from his very heart. Walter let him cry, his arms tight around him, keeping him anchored, keeping him close.
At last Alex looked up and smiled, wiping the tears from his face, his face red with embarrassment.
"Sorry," he mumbled. Walter growled and kissed him, a slow and lingering kiss. Both men were gasping for air when he finally released him.
"Don't ever apologize for crying, Alex," Walter said. "It's nothing to be ashamed of."
Alex looked down, smiling a little.
"I'm just...not...used to it," he said awkwardly. "I haven't cried like that since I was little."
Walter squeezed Alex's hand.
"Go on," he said softly. "Go tell your brother he's home."
Alex stood, but didn't let go of Walter's hand.
"Not without you," he whispered.
Glossary of Russian Words and Phrases: