CATEGORY: X Files, Sk/K/M (eventually)
SUMMARY: Skinner meets up with an old nemesis and discovers
that being kidnapped can be both informative and restful.
THANKS: Leila, Karen, Merri Todd, Kass, Dawn and all those who
periodically talk my ego off the ledge!

Settling: Book One
by JiM

In retrospect, Skinner supposed he ought to have been expecting
it. There he was, standing on a the rain-drenched sidewalk
outside the Red Cross shelter, a check for two hundred
thousand dollars in his pocket and a gym bag half-filled with
what were now his only possessions in the world. The chaos
theory that had governed his life since he had first heard of
the X Files practically demanded the gleaming black SUV that
skidded to a halt in front of him. He was almost unsurprised
when the passenger door swung open and a high-caliber muzzle
yawned at him from the depths. What rocked him was seeing
whose hand actually held the pistol.


"Get in."

"What the hell...? I saw you go down. You were dead!"

"Get in the car, Skinner. We're going to take a little ride."

"Of course we are. Shit," muttered Skinner, tossing his bag
into the footwell of the vehicle and climbing in. Krycek kept
the pistol trained on him as he pulled the big vehicle back
into traffic. Without looking at his prisoner, he said, "Put
your seat belt on."

Skinner complied with an oddly peaceful sense of inevitability.
Of course he had lost his job, become homeless and now was
being kidnapped, all within the space of one week. Oh, they
had given him a very nice severance package as they eased him
out the door, but the waters were now full of younger, hungrier
sharks, and he had made too many enemies supporting Mulder's
insanely right crusade. Success was no shield and he had left
the Hoover building one empty week ago. Last evening, a
neighbor had left a faulty coffee-pot on and now he was homeless,
as well. One sleepless night spent in a shelter answering
questions and filling out forms and here he was, on a rainy
Friday, driving through the streets of Washington with a former
dead man.

He started to laugh and he wondered if it were delayed reaction
or the beginning of a comfortable slide into madness. Whichever
it was, the noise was making Krycek nervous and Skinner liked that.

"What the hell is wrong with you?"

The crazy laughter subsided into rumbling snorts, allowing him
to speak, eyes still on the muzzle of the gun pointed at his
midsection. "You. You're what's wrong, Krycek. My entire
life just crumbled around me in the space of a week and here
you are. You're just the aftershocks, Krycek."

"Open the glove compartment, Skinner. There's a flask in
there." Skinner complied, only vaguely interested. "Take a
slug. You sound like you could use it."

"I'm not thirsty."

"Drink it, Skinner. It's Glenmorangie, 18 years of single malt
perfection. Nothing else, I swear it."

Skinner didn't want to feel surprised at Krycek having a flask
of his preferred brand. He didn't want to consider the note of
concern in the former triple-agent's voice. He sure as hell
didn't want to look at Washington in the rain any more, so he
closed his eyes and took a deep draught. He felt the warmth
pour smoothly through him, pooling in his gut, curling up there
like a contented cat purring before a fire.

He capped the flask and put it back in the glove compartment.
He felt enough curiosity to now notice that they were crossing
over the M street bridge and heading out of the city. "Where
are you taking me?"

"Somewhere quiet."

Somehow, those words should have sounded more menacing; instead,
Skinner found them soothing.

"Where have you been for the past year?"

"Somewhere quiet."

When Skinner looked carefully at his captor, he thought he could
see the effects of that quiet life on Alex Krycek. There were
silver strands in the glossy dark hair now, but the bitter lines
beside his mouth and at the corners of his eyes seemed to have
been smoothed out. He had put on weight since Skinner had seen
him last and he was dressed like any other fashionably idle man
trying to look younger than forty on a day out in the city. He
drove confidently, with his prosthetic hand gripping the wheel
easily and his gun held in his right hand.

"What happens when we get there?"

"That depends on you," Krycek said, still not looking at Skinner.
Rain-laden trees flashed by on both sides and they rode in silence
for a time, the only sound the windshield wipers hissing and the
tires humming. Then Krycek said, "Will you give me your parole?"

"What?!" He felt vaguely offended; this was not how a kidnapping
was supposed to go.

"Swear to me that you won't attack me or try to escape for one
week." The gun's muzzle punctuated the point, bobbing at each
verb. Skinner felt the crazy laughter beginning to bubble up again.

"Sure. You've got my word, Krycek. Of course, you *do* have a
gun," he pointed out helpfully.

Krycek took his eyes off the rain-slick road for a moment, glancing
down at his right hand almost in surprise. He nodded, conceding
the point to Skinner. Then he tossed the gun into Skinner's lap.

Skinner stared at it for a moment, then picked it up and pointed
it at Krycek, who didn't look at him, although he was probably
very aware of every breath of movement on Skinner's part. Then
Skinner gave up and let his hand drop into his lap. He just
stared at Krycek and wondered if he ought to take another belt
of the scotch.

"Why are you doing this?"

Krycek shrugged, then asked, "Did you really have any plans for
the weekend?"

"If I had, I can guarantee that they didn't include you."

Krycek shrugged again, then concentrated on the highway, the
rain coming down more heavily now. Skinner noted that they
were going south and tried to remember if his cell phone had
survived the fire. It hadn't. They rode in silence for a
while and Skinner stared mindlessly out at the gray day, some
fragment of his subconscious worrying away at Krycek's atypical,
if not aberrant behavior. It poked its way to the forefront of
his mind finally and he popped the magazine out of the pistol.
It was empty. So was the chamber.

"You kidnapped me with an empty gun?!" He was definitely
offended now.

"I didn't want anyone getting hurt."

That did it. The crazy laughter spurted and shot sky-high and
Skinner laughed until he gasped for breath. Krycek's worried
glances only fueled his hysteria. "You didn't want me to get
hurt?! You spend a year playing with my life like it's a
video game, you killed me, for god's sake, and you didn't
want me to get hurt?!"

"Well, I didn't want you to shoot me, either," Krycek pointed
out reasonably.

Skinner's laughter bubbled down into snorts and chuckles again.
What a mess to have to call a life. Divorced, fifty, bald,
jobless, homeless and locked in a car with a known assassin
and an empty pistol. His own was so much half-melted slag
now, lost in the fire. He pitched Krycek's useless gun over
his shoulder onto the back seat and took a deep breath. "So,
where are we going?"

"You OK now?"

"I'm just tired, Krycek. Where are we going?"

"You'll see when we get there."

"That's a very annoying habit you have, not answering questions

"I know," Krycek looked as if he were considering smirking.

Skinner leaned against the door and watched his kidnapper for
a while. The dark hair was longer than he had kept it at
the FBI and longer than the military-style hair cut he's
worn when Skinner had him cuffed to his balcony or the
handful of times they'd met since. His last view of Krycek
had been watching the man disappear into a cloud of greenish
smoke and hearing an explosion at a site that hadn't existed
on any maps. They'd won and Krycek had been part of the
reason; he'd dealt with that and shoved aside his own fury
at the man for so long that the emotion was stone cold, just
a numb spot inside him now.

There was a finger of scar running down the side of Krycek's
throat, disappearing into the collar of his green sweater,
where it showed over his tan field jacket. Crisp jeans and
black boots completed the look. Prosperous and relaxed, that's
how Krycek looked now. Skinner knew that if he looked in the
mirror, he would see a middle-aged man with a desperately
steady stare, unshaven and gray with exhaustion and defeat.
He slipped into sleep without realizing it.

He was awakened four hours later by Krycek shaking his shoulder
gently. "You want some lunch?" They were sitting in the parking
lot of a Cracker Barrel restaurant by the side of some highway.

"Where are we?" Skinner sat up and rubbed his face, his whiskers
rasping against his hands.

"Almost to North Carolina. Come on, I'm starving."

So Walter Skinner found himself eating a silent meal with a man
he'd sworn to kill. In fact, he had sometimes beguiled
sleepless nights by imagining how he would kill Krycek, how
he'd make him suffer before snuffing out his life. When the
waitress cleared their plates and promised to come back for a
dessert order, Krycek handed him a bag.

"Go clean up." Oddly, it wasn't an order, but a gesture of
concern. Skinner couldn't decide how to respond, so he went.
In the men's room, he dug through the bag and found an electric
razor, a towel and a fresh navy and red polo shirt in his size.
He stripped and sponged off his torso, ignoring the stares he
got from other patrons, preferring instead to get rid of the
choking scent of smoke that clung to his skin. He shaved,
then put on the shirt. When he looked in the mirror, he still
saw a middle-aged man, but the desperate edge was gone,
replaced by a weary kind of confusion. He shrugged at his own
reflection, then left the men's room.

There was a pay phone outside the men's room. Krycek was
nowhere in sight. He could make his escape now, he knew.
He pulled out his calling card and reached for the phone,
then stopped. His hand dropped and he shook his head at
himself. When he turned, Krycek was there, just watching
him. They stared at one another, then Krycek said only,
"Your coffee's getting cold."

They went back and finished their meal in the same silence.
When they got out to the car, Krycek asked, "Who were you
going to call?"

Skinner saw no point in lying. "Mulder. He was supposed to
pick me up at the shelter this morning. He's probably assumed
the worst and pissed off at least three federal agencies by now."

"Probably," Krycek agreed, a hint of a smile in his voice.
He put the key in the ignition and started the engine, then
stopped. He pulled a cell phone from his pocket, looked at
Skinner measuringly, then punched the star key and a two-digit
number. Skinner heard the tinny ring as Krycek passed him the
phone. His brain felt muffled in cotton as he heard Mulder's
answering machine message begin. At the beep, he pulled himself
together enough to say, "Mulder, it's me. I'm fine. A ...
friend surprised me and picked me up this morning. I'm not
sure when I'll be back in town, but don't worry. I'm fine.
I'll call again in a week." He disconnected and handed the
phone back to Krycek, who said only, "Well, if that doesn't
raise his suspicions, nothing will." But he grinned as he said

Skinner smiled, too. "That's Mulder."

"How is he?" Krycek asked carefully, staring at the dashboard.

"He's OK. He was riding high for a while on finally being
proved right and bringing down the whole damned conspiracy.
Then the bureaucratic shit started to pile up higher and
deeper and I think he's ready to chuck it all. Scully already
did. When they canned me, it really shook him."

"It was supposed to. They want him gone, but they can't very
well cashier the Golden Boy, can they?"

It was no more than he'd suspected, really. The embarrassment
went deep for the agency, they wanted everyone who knew the
details gone. Then a thought struck Skinner. "You have
Mulder's number on speed-dial."

Krycek only nodded, then put the car in gear. Skinner
pondered for a while, then asked, "Why didn't you take Mulder
instead of me?"

Krycek merged smoothly with traffic, then answered. "I don't
think I have the right answers for him."

"Does anyone?"

Krycek shook his head. "No one still alive. Besides, he'd
just find something else to ask."

"True. So you think you have answers for me?"

Krycek shrugged. "Maybe."

* * *

Skinner must have slept again. He'd taken note of highway
signs and realized they were on I-95 southbound, somewhere
in North Carolina. But he found himself dangerously
disinterested in their destination. He couldn't even begin
to predict Krycek's motives or purpose here and he found
that he simply didn't care. After everything they had done
to one another, he felt oddly... well, if not safe, exactly,
at least unthreatened.

He woke as the big SUV lurched around a switchback. They were
on a dirt road and it was nearly dark underneath the evergreens.
The dashboard clock read 6:04. Without much expectation of
getting an answer, Skinner stretched and asked, "Where are we?"

"Boone, North Carolina."

Pleasantly surprised at the success of his first query, he
tried another. "Why are we here?"

"It's quiet. No one bothers you here. It's pretty."

Pretty? He had been kidnapped at gunpoint and transported
across state lines to someplace "pretty"? Skinner shook his
head and wondered if he had hit his head somewhere along the
way and was merely hallucinating this entire odd episode.

Krycek drove carefully up the road, apparently familiar with
all of its pothole and twists. After a short time, the road
simply ended in front of a cabin. When the car rolled to a
stop, lights on the corners of the log cabin came on, flooding
the entire clearing. Krycek turned off the engine and they
sat for a moment. "We're here," he said unnecessarily.

"Ok," Skinner said, abruptly wary again. Krycek just sat and
stared straight ahead. The he seemed to shake himself out of
his reverie and he opened the car door. "Come on. Watch
your step, the grass is slippery when it's wet like this."

Feeling like a post-modern Alice in Wonderland, Skinner followed
his captor across the grass, up a slight rise and up three wide,
shallow steps to the front porch of the cabin. Krycek pointed
his keyring at the front door and pressed several buttons on it.
Skinner was almost disappointed when nothing especially exciting
happened, except for the blinking of a tiny green light to the
upper left of the front door. Then Krycek opened the door
using a very ordinary housekey and ushered him inside, turning
on lights as he went.

The cabin was spacious and warm inside. Golden wood gleamed
beneath their feet. There were handmade rugs dotted around
the large living area. A kitchen area was open to their left,
a huge fieldstone fireplace to the right. There was a broad
pine farm table with a couple of chairs around it, a pair of
sofas in front of the fireplace and a desk area surrounded by
tall bookcases in a back corner. Directly in front of them
across the room from the front door were three doors. The
furnishings were spare but comfortable. Huge windows and
skylights, dark now, would flood this room with light in the

When Skinner turned to look at Krycek, the other man had a
self-conscious look on his face and Skinner realized with a
start that Krycek was waiting for his opinion. It was only
getting weirder, he thought, and said "Nice place. Did you
build it yourself?"

"Most of it. I had a mason and an electrician come in, but
I did the rest from a kit."

Skinner's mind was bouncing off the idea of Alex Krycek
building a log cabin during the year that they'd all thought
him dead, an unlamented casualty of a shadow war. He slipped
out of his leather jacket and handed it to Krycek when he held
out a hand for it. Their jackets went onto wooden pegs beside
the door, Krycek's keys on an iron hook in the doorframe.
Catching Skinner's speculative glance at them, Krycek said
quietly, "Don't go outside when the perimeter alarms are set."
He touched a sequence of buttons on his keyring fob, too
quickly for Skinner to see, then pointed above their heads.
A little red light shone steadily in the crack of one beam.
"Red means the alarms are set. Green means they're off."

"What happens if the alarms are tripped?"

"There's either a hell of a lot of noise...or none at all."

Skinner nodded shortly. So he was to be given run of the
house. It beat being cuffed to a bed or locked in a basement.
He tried to feel grateful, and, when that didn't work, tried
resentful. Finally, he settled on too damned tired to care.

"You want a beer?" Krycek was rummaging in the gleaming steel

"Sure. I could use a beer." And possibly another dose of
lithium, he thought, and grinned a little. Which seemed to
startle Krycek, even as he handed over a bottle of some microbrew.

"Are you OK, Skinner?"

He twisted the cap off the beer and took a long swallow. It
was dark and just the right amount of bitter. "You keep
asking me that."

"Well, it's just that you're not reacting the way I'd
expected, exactly."

"What did you expect?" He took another swallow and leaned his
elbows on the kitchen island, across from where Krycek was
leaning and looking at him speculatively.

"You know, the usual rage and resentment, maybe some body
shots, handcuffs, chloroform, that kind of thing." Krycek
gestured with his false hand.

"You were prepared for all of that?"

Krycek grinned, a sharp flash of fangs very out of place in
the warm homely kitchen. "Oh yeah, I'd planned ahead."

"And you got me with an unloaded gun? What sort of planning
was that, Krycek?"

Krycek shrugged and took another sip of beer. "It worked.
Besides, I didn't say that *all* my guns were unloaded."

"Oh." He felt muzzy-headed and stupid. Why had he assumed
that Krycek had only the one gun he'd showed him? Alex
Krycek always had something else going on; hadn't the past
taught him that, if nothing else?

"I'm sorry about your condo."

"Why? Did you torch the place?" Skinner wondered why he was
baiting the man, then decided it was probably because he just
plain didn't give a shit any more. He took another sip of beer.

But Krycek didn't even look needled. "No. But I'm guessing it
sucks to have all your possessions fit inside a gym bag."

"I've got what I need." Skinner looked down at the counter
top and traced a line of white quartz as it shot through the
green marble.

"A wedding photo, an address book, a clock, a Vonnegut novel,
a set of sweats, a towel and an emergency toiletries kit from
the Red Cross," Krycek recited. "If that's all you need in
life, your expectations are WAY too low, Mr. Skinner."

"You went through my bag?"

"You were sleeping pretty soundly when I stopped for gas."
Krycek was completely unapologetic. Skinner was unsurprised;
when was Krycek ever sorry? He just shook his head and
finished his beer.

"You want another?" Skinner shook his head. "Hungry?" He
shook his head again. Suddenly, he was terribly tired. He
was tired of the world spinning out of control, looping around
him; he just wanted something to make sense again. "Why am I

Krycek looked at him for a long moment, then said only,
"Tomorrow. We'll talk about it tomorrow. Come on." He put
his bottle down, then led the way to the bedrooms in the back
of the cabin. He opened the middle door and pointed out the
small bathroom with its doors opening into each bedroom. Then
he opened the right hand door and flipped the light switch. He
stood back and let Skinner enter.

The room was square and moderately sized, cool and impersonal.
It was dominated by a queen-sized bed covered with a rich
maroon patterned comforter. It looked both rich and
seductive, calling to him even as he stood swaying in the
middle of the room. There was a mission oak bedside table
with a brass reading light on it, a clock radio and no phone.

"You'll find everything you need in the bathroom; toothbrush,
towels, razor, whatever. If you don't see it, let me know.
I'll get it."

Skinner blinked, opened his mouth to say ... what? Then he
closed his mouth and nodded.

"Good night, Skinner. Don't forget about the alarm." Krycek
turned and left, closing the door behind him.

Feeling like his brain was in neutral, Skinner went into the
bathroom and stripped off his sooty jeans and the new shirt
Krycek had given him. He hadn't even had time to find
underwear when the fire alarm had gone off, just rolled
into some clothes he had left on top of the laundry hamper,
grabbed the photo and a random handful of useful items,
tossed them into the gym bag he'd left beside the door and
gotten out. He'd spent the next ten minutes helping the
young family across the hall shepherd their four kids and
two dogs down the smoky hallway and then it was too late to
go back for anything at all.

He turned the shower on and waited for the water to run hot.
He stepped under the pounding stream and almost moaned in
approval as it hit tense muscles. A smoky scent rose from
his skin and he grabbed at the brand new bar of sport-scented
soap and began scrubbing it away, hating that smell of
destruction, so like the sooty aroma of failure and despair.
He preferred not to think about why there was a fresh bar of
the soap he always bought in Krycek's shower.

His car had been parked in by the fire trucks, so he had gone
back to his young neighbors and allowed himself to be taken
to the shelter with them, watching over their two oldest
little girls, cuddling and soothing them, keeping them warm
and smiling reassuringly at the overwhelmed parents. The
shelter had been a welter of distraught people, jagged colors,
garish lights. He had sat on the edge of a hard cot, feeling
the scratch of wool blankets under his hands, and read Winnie
the Pooh tales to the little girls until they had finally
passed out from sheer exhaustion.

Four am, then five am had passed with him just sitting, watching
the children and their parents sleep, on self-imposed guard duty.
At six am, the young family's relatives had claimed them and he
finally called the only person he could think of to come and
pick him up. At 7 am, while waiting for Mulder, Alex Krycek had
intersected his life again. And here he was, twelve hours later,
in another state, the pampered prisoner of a man he'd thought
dead and beyond revenge.

He got out of the shower and wrapped a huge cobalt bath sheet
around himself, appreciating the luxury. He brushed his teeth
using a fresh brush and a new tube of his own brand of toothpaste,
debated shaving again and decided he wasn't up to it. His hands
were shaking as he finished drying himself off and he wondered
briefly at his own exhaustion. Then he reminded himself that
he had had a hell of a couple of weeks; first, fighting the powers
above him for full disclosure of the conspiracy, then losing his
job, and spending much of the following week drunken and raging,
then losing his home and a night's sleep. So far, he was finding
being kidnapped the most restful event of the past month.

He wandered back into his bedroom, the towel wrapped once again
around his waist. He debated putting on the sweats, then
decided that being clean felt too good to put on his stale
workout clothes, even when weighed against the psychological
disadvantage of nudity. He eased himself into bed, finding
the sheets were a rich, soft maroon flannel that nicely countered
the chill of the room. Sleep claimed him before he could reach
to turn out the light.

When he woke, it was to a thin line of gray showing beneath
the curtain across the window to his left. The bedside light
was now off and he thought he had the memory of a sound heard
just before waking. The clock told him it was barely 6 am.
He rose, used the bathroom, then dressed in his clothes from
yesterday, trying not to cringe at the greasy feel of his jeans.
He padded out into the living area of the cabin and found it
empty, the predawn gloom softening the lines of everything.

Suddenly, he felt cramped and breathless. Looking up at the
beam over the door, he saw the tiny green light flashing. He
flipped the deadbolt on the door and stepped out onto the porch
in his bare feet. The autumn air was cold up here in the
mountains, with a sharp bite that promised winter with every
crystal-flavored breath. The cabin faced east, and Skinner
found himself sitting on the top step with a clear view of the
valley below and the mountains from which the sun would climb.
He sat and watched the gray lighten and rouge and become golden
and orange, seeing shades of flame and peach and even a flash of
green as the sun rose. It was cold and his feet and butt became
numb, but he was distracted by watching his breath steam and rise
in the golden dawn. A breeze rattled away at the last dead leaves
on trees all around and an eagle cried out, once, far away down
the valley.

After a time, he heard the door behind him open and close,
then boot heels on the boards of the porch. A new scent came
to him in the dawn and a mug of coffee was put down by his
right hand. Krycek said nothing, just stood behind him.
Skinner heard him taking long, deep breaths of frost-scented
air. He picked up his coffee and wrapped chilled hands around
it, relishing the warmth. It was hot and rich and tasted
wonderful, here in the crisp morning. Halfway through the mug
of coffee, he said, "I haven't watched the sun rise in years."

"This is a good place for it. I get up most mornings to watch it."

Then Krycek said nothing more. They watched the light grow,
the sole witnesses to a raccoon's homeward waddle and the
breakfast browsing of a deer and fawn not ten steps from the
SUV. Then Krycek said, "Breakfast?"

Skinner nodded and rose stiffly to his feet. He turned and
met Krycek's gaze without expectation, but could not tell what
expression was there. He followed the other man back into the
cabin, relaxing into the warmth without regretting how chilled
he had gotten.

Krycek cooked breakfast without speaking, refilling Skinner's
cup silently before pulling bacon and eggs out of the
refrigerator. Skinner sat on a stool at the kitchen island
and watched his captor's efficient motions and did not offer
to help. Within a short time, they were sitting side by side
at the counter, eating, still without speaking. Skinner
appreciated the silence and the complete lack of expectation
on what he knew was both their parts. Who would have guessed
that Alex Krycek would have been a restful breakfast companion.
He grinned, then snickered quietly to himself; Mulder would
appreciate the irony in this situation, he thought. Assuming
he hadn't already just gone and shot Krycek. He snickered again.

"You're doing it again," Krycek said. "That 'I'm going slightly
mad' chuckle is very disturbing."

"Sorry." He poured himself a third cup of coffee, then topped
off Krycek's mug. "I was just thinking what Mulder would do
in this situation."

"Beat the shit out of me," Krycek said without rancor.


"You gave me your parole."


Krycek pushed his plate away. Then he said, without preamble,
"I have a lot of material to show you, Skinner. It'll take
you days to go through it all, but it's important that you do."


"Because you're going to make the final decision about what we
ought to do with it."

The world looped and dodged again and Walter Skinner wanted
another cup of coffee, but the pot was empty. "Me?" he said
stupidly. "Why me?"

"Because I'm tired of making all the tough decisions by
myself," Krycek said quietly.

"I don't understand."

"You will. Just read the files I'm going to show you.
You'll understand more than you've ever wanted to."

"Why me?" he asked again, a little plaintively. "Why not

"You'll see."

Krycek led him over to the pine table, arranged in a windowed
corner of the room that overlooked the valley. It was a
beautiful autumn day, full of sunlight and the browns and
grays of oncoming winter. There was a laptop there, an expensive
new model, Skinner noted. Krycek opened it, powered it up, then
held up a finger. "Watch carefully," he instructed, then tapped
a sequence of control and letter keys. "That'll allow you to
open whatever applications and programs you want. If you get
the sequence wrong, or if someone tries to use it without the
pass code, it'll blow. And take everything in a three foot
radius along with it. So get it right."

"Show it to me again." Skinner didn't even question Krycek's
security precautions. He had seen men and women killed for
touching only a fragment of the mystery. If Krycek was to be
believed, here was the whole thing, beneath his fingertips.
Krycek's hand moved in a slow graceful dance over the keys,
tapping each one and reciting its name. "F8, Shift, Control, Shift,
A, F2, Insert, Z, Shift." Then he took Skinner's hand in his and
tapped out the sequence again using Skinner's index finger, reciting
it once more.

"What happens if I get it wrong?"

"You'll know. There is no 'saving throw' here, Skinner. Don't screw

"Isn't that the rule?" he asked, suddenly bitter again. "Don't
screw up or we won't promote you. Don't screw up or your wife
will leave. Don't screw up or we'll kill your agents. Don't
screw up or we'll kill you. Don't screw up or the world will
end. Don't screw up or we'll 'retire' you." He was surprised
to feel Krycek's fingers flex on his, still holding his hand
above the keys. But Krycek said nothing and when Skinner
turned to look at him, he released his grip, straightened and
stepped away, saying over his shoulder, "Read the files with
the red labels first. Then the blue, then the yellow labels."

Krycek crossed the room to the desk area and settled himself,
flipping open another laptop. After another moment's
observation, Skinner turned back to his own screen, called
up the directory and opened the first red-labeled file. He
sank quickly into a world fifty years gone, the official
language not obscuring the panicky beginnings of the
conspiracy he had been tormented and used by and had finally
helped to destroy. He read the first- and second-hand
accounts from Roswell, the first contacts, the devil's pact
signed by representatives of the UN, the private plans hatched
in secret places. The sunlight seemed cold on his back now
and his right knee bounced in an idiot rhythm he had trained
himself out of in high school.

Sometime in the middle of the morning, Krycek brought him
another cup of coffee. He stood behind Skinner, reading over
his right shoulder. Skinner was deep into the lab notes of
the first abduction experiments and there was a roiling in
his gut. He wondered if he would be ill. Then Krycek broke
the pit and pendulum swing of his thoughts by asking, "What're
your measurements?"

"What?" Skinner said stupidly.

"Waist, neckline? Sleeve? Shoe size?"

"You don't already know all that?" Skinner sneered, off-balance
and nearly vibrating with his new knowledge. "You know what
soap and scotch and toothpaste I use but not my waist
measurement? I'm disappointed, Krycek."

But Alex Krycek just stared at him until he said disgustedly,
"38" waist, 34" leg. Shirts are 18" collar, 36" sleeve. Shoe
size - 13 medium. I take a 46 long jacket. I prefer briefs
and rarely wear patterns. I avoid yellow because it makes me
look dead. Anything else?"

"Hat size?"

"I have no idea." He stared at the screen and wondered if
this could get any more surreal. Krycek dropped a package of
Oreo cookies on the table beside the coffee and went back to
his desk across the room. Keys began clicking and Skinner
let himself sink back into the mire of the past.

Tests, implants, women impregnated, fetuses aborted,
monsters created and destroyed, genetic dead ends and sports
studied then annihilated. There was an oily, bitter taste
in his mouth as he read and imagined Dana Scully in the hands
of the men and women who could write about such horrors
dispassionately. They made Josef Mengele look like a basement
hobbyist, these so-skilled scientists and geneticists.

Finally, he could take no more. He pushed away from the table
and began pacing back and forth, staring out at the mountains
sleeping in the sunlight and wondering how such peaceful
beauty could exist in the same world with the hideous truths
he'd just absorbed. Krycek watched him silently for a time,
then seemed to make a decision. He shut down his computer,
crossed to Skinner's laptop and shut it down, then grabbed
Skinner's jacket off the wall and held it out, intercepting
his next pacing ellipsis through the living room.

"Come on." It wasn't an invitation and it wasn't an order,
exactly, but Skinner knew there weren't any options, either.
He struggled to surface out of the past and slid into his
smoky-scented jacket, wondering if he smelled the aroma of
Morleys. Krycek put on his own jacket and led the way out of
the cabin. He reset the alarms and went down the steps to
the SUV. He unlocked the doors, got in and waited until
Skinner was seated beside him before starting the engine.

They drove down the dirt road Skinner remembered from the
evening before. There were drainage ditches on both sides,
filled with sere reeds and cattails and twice deer scooted
across the road before them. The radio played something
light and classical and wholly forgettable as he stared out
the window. Eventually, the road descended to meet a paved
route and Krycek headed west. Soon, they began passing other
cars and the occasional house as the road dipped and curved
across hills. The road dropped down into a town, houses and
shops suddenly sprouting up. Krycek braked and pulled into a
parking space in front of a small cafe. Brightly-colored flags
fluttered in the breeze, snapping and whispering. Shoppers,
tourists and loiters passed around them as they stood on the
sidewalk. Krycek jerked his chin toward the door. "Lunch?"
Skinner shrugged, not caring, but following when Krycek stepped
onto the porch and led the way inside.

They sat at a small table by the window, overlooking the street
with its cheerful, uncaring normalcy. A pleasant-faced waitress
came and offered them menus. Skinner stared stupidly at her
until Krycek ordered the special for himself and a meatloaf
plate for Skinner. She smiled brilliantly into Krycek's patented
cheerful grin, then trotted off to get their food.

"Come on, Skinner, snap out of it."

Skinner just shook his head in amazement. How could Krycek
just shrug off those images, the eyewitness accounts to
atrocities written by the monsters themselves, the diaries
of men and women who had no idea of how hideous they had made
themselves in their quest for collaboration and survival?

"I know it's bad, but it's over now. You're here, *now*. You
can't let it consume you." Somehow, it sounded like the voice
of experience talking and Skinner heard it. He shook his head
sharply and blinked several times, finally focusing on his
surroundings and the man sitting across from him.

There were people sitting all around them, jabbering, eating,
laughing, snarling at one another, living normal lives that
now seemed hopelessly alien to him. He stared at a family
lunching at the next table to theirs, the mother laughing as
her small son stole french fries from her plate with her
husband's connivance. Two women in their sixties, friends
in jeans and flannel shirts, hay clinging to their work
boots, talking briskly at another table. A suited man
standing up, dropping bills and coins on the table before
buttoning his trench coat and passing their table without a

Skinner looked up quickly at Krycek, a question in his eyes.
Krycek shook his head. "He's a local banker. No one to
worry about."

Skinner thought that he ought to be worried about how quickly
he seemed to have moved into collaboration with his captor,
scouting out possible threats. He also wondered when a
trench coat and suit had begun to spell 'danger' to him. He
snorted with unamused laughter at that.

"You're doing it again," Krycek said, toying with his fork.

"I'm just considering the implications of Stockholm Syndrome."
The waitress' arrival prevented him from saying more and
Krycek said only, "Eat your lunch."

The food was hot and good and Skinner thought he could feel
himself sliding back into synch with the world around him as
he ate and watched the traffic in the street. The sense of
horror receded and he watched the clouds scudding overhead,
flickering shadows and sunlight on the pavement and buildings

They were nearly done with their meal when a the door opened
and a voice boomed, "Alex Michaelson! How the hell are you?"
and a man in a brown sheriff's uniform was striding over to
them. He shook Alex Krycek's hand warmly, then yanked an
empty chair over and sat down without waiting for an
invitation. The man's ruddy face was lined, cheerful and
open and Skinner watched Krycek, wondering how this situation
would play out.

"Sheriff Dan Hunt," Krycek introduced him with the merest
cocking of an eyebrow in warning, "this is Walt Skinner, an
old friend from back north."

"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Skinner. Any friend of Alex's...
Welcome to Banner Elk, NC." The sheriff's grip was strong,
perhaps the merest bit too strong, testing. Skinner let his
own grip tighten until he felt Hunt's loosen and saw his grin
grow a fraction wider.

"So what are you doing in this neck of the woods? You missed
foliage season by a good three weeks." Cheerful curiosity
with a bright eye focused on him. Krycek's expression was
determinedly neutral and it came to Skinner suddenly that
Krycek was placing a hell of a lot of trust in that promise
he'd made the day before with a gun pointed at his gut.

"I'm between jobs right now and Alex made me an offer I
couldn't refuse." Krycek's eyes flickered with humor at that,
but he said nothing.

Hunt's glance became assessing. He looked carefully at
Skinner's hands and build, then stared into his eyes for a
moment. "Let me guess - you were a lawman, right?"

Skinner was surprised by the man's insight. "Something like that."

"Well, if you're looking for a job, I might just have one for you."

"I don't think I'll be staying too long, thanks."

"Well, think about it. I could really use a decent deputy.
The one I got right now, she's no damned good. What those
fool selectmen thought they were doing, giving me a broad as
a deputy, I don't know. Now I ask you, can a woman ever be as
tough as a man in this job?" Hunt's gaze had become shrewd and

Dana Scully's face swam before his inner eye. He saw her
glaring at him in a hospital corridor, smiling gently at him
from her hospital bed, arguing politely, demanding his help,
felt her delighted kiss when he came through, bled with pity
when he could not, remembered the night she had held a gun on
him in Mulder's apartment and he had known that he was going
to die at her hand, felt her hand in his as he lay dying
because of Alex Krycek and his toys. Suddenly, he needed to
get away from this ignorant redneck asshole before he beat him
for his innocent stupidity.

He decided to test the length of the leash. He stood and said
into Krycek's instantly alert face, "I'll be across the street,
getting a paper. Sheriff." He nodded coldly and slipped into
his jacket as he strode to the door. "Touchy, isn't he?" he
heard Hunt ask before the door closed behind him and he stood
on the sidewalk, zipping his coat against the chill.

He crossed the street and went into the country store he'd seen
from the cafe. Inside, it was warm and filled with the scents
of cinnamon and coffee and the liquid chatter of some language
he didn't understand. He wandered the wide aisles aimlessly
picking up and putting down candles and cookie cutters, toy
bears and wooden tops. His fingers felt unwieldy and everything
seemed to have strange new textures, as if he were an invalid out
for the first time after a long illness. Then Krycek was beside
him, holding a paper bag of handmade peppermints. He fell into
step without a word and followed Krycek to the cash register.
The lady behind the register smiled at Krycek and said something
unintelligible in a musical voice. Krycek laughed and replied
in the same language. The woman smiled approvingly and said,
"Your accent is getting better, Alex. Pretty soon we'll have
you speaking Gaelic like a native." She handed him his change
and smiled as they left.

"Gaelic?" Skinner asked as they crossed the empty street.

"The whole area was founded by Scottish settlers come to
work the Duke of Avon's paper mills and forests here. The
only Gaelic speaking high school and college in the country
are here. Many of the natives still speak Gaelic at home."

Waiting for Krycek to unlock the SUV's doors, Skinner heard a
car horn and watched as Sheriff Hunt's cruiser passed them by,
the sheriff giving them a cheerful wave. "Asshole," Skinner
muttered childishly.

"Dan's OK," Krycek said with a grin. "His niece is the deputy
here. He was prouder than hell when she graduated from the
Police Academy and he campaigned hard for her to be made his
deputy. She's his little litmus test. If you had agreed with
his macho bullshit, he'd have written you off."

Skinner stared at the dashboard. "And I fell for the redneck
routine like any city rube."

"Nah, he still wants to hire you, actually. He realized he
was playing with fire when your jaw started clenching.
That's still a scary looking expression, Walt. Did you
practice that in front of a mirror?"

Skinner resented Krycek's attempt to tease him back into a
better mood. "So, now what, Alex, my 'old friend'?"

"A quick trip to the lumber yard," Krycek said calmly. "There's
a cracked board on the front steps that needs to be replaced."

Skinner just fastened his seat belt and wondered when a trip to
the lumber yard had begun to sound strange and out of place in
his life.

The lumber yard was surprisingly calming. He had always liked
the pine-scented order of such places, a nostalgic snapshot of
doing Saturday morning errands with his father. He and Krycek
both lingered over a hundred piece drill set and exchanged
conspiratorial and longing looks over the titanium bits before
remembering their actual errand. The board was inspected and
purchased, then stored in the back of the SUV and they were
back on the road, arguing amiably about the merits of pressure-
treated woods versus untreated woods.

Somewhere past the center of town, Skinner realized that he
was enjoying a friendly argument with a man who had kidnapped
him, killed him, blackmailed him, beaten him up, robbed him
and used him as an errand boy to half-destroy Fox Mulder's
life, a man who was responsible for the death of Dana Scully's
sister. That numbed corner of his emotions flash-thawed and
the rage rose to choke him. He was shaking with the urge to
slaughter, could feel his hands clenching, couldn't get enough
air into his lungs, felt his skin grow icy and tight when he
realized that Krycek had stopped speaking and was pulling the
car to the shoulder of this deserted stretch of road. Krycek
killed the engine and they sat for a time during which the only
sound Skinner could hear was the harsh rasping of his own breath.

"Go ahead, Skinner, take your shot. It's not going to get any
better until you do," Krycek said matter-of-factly. "I'm right
here and I won't raise a hand to stop you."

Skinner shook his head, not trusting his voice. His hands clenched.

"Do it," Krycek ordered. Skinner could taste the coppery flavor
of rage behind his teeth and he shook his head, refusing to give
in to it.

"Coward!" Krycek took a clumsy, slow swing at him which he blocked
easily, snatching Krycek's right hand out of the air and locking
his wrist in an unbreakable grip. They glared at one another,
breathing ragged, a desperate fury rising and swirling around
them like a fog.

Finally, Walter Skinner could force a few coherent sentences out.
"I don't need your cut-rate brand of home therapy, Krycek. I
gave my word that I wouldn't attack you for a week. Nothing,
*nothing* you do, ever again, will make me break my word. Is
that clear?"

When Krycek didn't reply, Skinner dug his fingers in tighter and
shook the arm in his grasp. "Is that *clear*, boy?"

Finally, Krycek nodded, eyes very dark and Skinner had to work
at getting his hand to release its frozen grip. He saw Krycek
flex and turn his freed wrist and saw the bloody welts and the
beginnings of some spectacular bruising on the fair skin. The
flash of guilt drained away Skinner's rage and left him
bewildered and suddenly tired. He rolled down his window and
took deep breaths of cold air, hoping it would clear his head.

"Damn it, Krycek, don't you even know how to kidnap someone?"
he asked plaintively. "You sure as hell don't make them promise
to behave for a week then goad them into beating the shit out
of you."

Krycek shrugged, not looking at him. "So I don't get any
points for consistency. I just thought it might help." He
reached for the key in the ignition.

"You know, your life is pretty fucked up when you think that
someone beating you half to death might actually help something."

"Skinner, you have no idea what an improvement this is."
Krycek pulled back onto the road and Skinner let the wind roar
in his face for long cold miles until tears streamed down his
numb cheeks.

"Would it help if I told you I was sorry?" Krycek asked quietly,
sometime later.

"No." But somewhere deep inside, Skinner thought that perhaps
there might come a time when it might help, somewhat.

They said nothing more for the rest of the drive. When they
reached the cabin, Skinner looked at the laptop waiting for
him with real distaste. Then he went into his room and closed
the door, needing to be alone. He stretched out on the bed and
tried to focus on the Vonnegut novel he had been reading the
evening his condo had burned. He fell asleep before he had
even found his place again.

Dinner was silent, Skinner still too muzzy from his unexpected
nap and the dregs of ugly emotions stirred from the depths of
an unquiet soul. Krycek had dished up cold fried chicken and
cole slaw and Skinner was surprised to find that his appetite
had returned. He refused Krycek's offer of a beer, then stood
up and put his plate in the sink before slowly going over to the
laptop. He opened it, powered it up, then started to punch the
keys, mumbling the security sequence under his breath when he
realized that he was hearing Krycek recite it with him. "F8,
Shift, Control, Shift, A, F2, Insert, Z, Shift."

The directory came up and he sighed before sitting down and
choosing the next red-labeled file in the list. This file
was all about animal experimentation and the intentional
combining of alien DNA with animal DNA. He found this file
easier to sort through, no disturbing images of people he
knew suffering. At least, not until he reached the research
regarding bees and the dissemination of smallpox using them
as the carriers. He remembered that first slip into dishonor
and lies, felt again the freezing dead weight of an innocent
victim of careless accident on his shoulder, the result of an
unscheduled test of the disease-carrying bees.

His knee was jerking and jibing again. Krycek had disappeared
into the other bedroom, then he re-emerged and Skinner glanced
up and did a double-take. Krycek was standing in front of one
of the bookcases, sliding a CD into a mini stereo perched on
one shelf. He had changed into ragged blue jeans and a faded
black sweatshirt whose left sleeve hung empty below the elbow.
Delta blues, played on a slide guitar, rich and deep, flooded
the room. Krycek turned around and met Skinner's gaze firmly.
"Where are you?"

"The bees."

Krycek nodded, a small frown on his face. "Keep reading. It
gets worse."

"That's the one thing I was pretty sure of."

They were silent again and Skinner went back to his file
reviews. The hollow sense of horror kept yawning wider and
wider in the pit of his stomach. He moved through the bee
files and on to the next set of human/animal experiments.
There were photos attached to this file and he scrolled
through them slowly, paying attention to every lurid detail,
teeth tightly clenched.

He began to piece together which of the X Files Mulder and
Scully had investigated which could be traced to Consortium-
sponsored experiments. He remembered the reports on the
human liver fluke, looked at some of its failed predecessors
and felt his gut roiling again. He looked over and saw
Krycek lying on one of the sofas, reading. The man looked
reassuringly normal and Skinner was inclined to be grateful
for that, no matter how much of an illusion it might be.

Finally, he was done with the animal experimentation files,
chilled by the experimental cross-cloning of human and bee
genetic material, designed to produce the drone-like children
Mulder had seen in Canada. Solemn-faced little girls and boys
stared at him in identical rows, picture after picture until
he reached out and hit the emergency shut-down key, blacking
out the faces.

"Why did the girl-drones resemble Samantha Mulder?" he asked
the lounging man across the room.

Krycek just shook his head. "Tomorrow."

"Just answer the question, Krycek."

But Krycek shook his head again. "No, you've read enough
for today. That whole story will take more than a day to
piece together and it's definitely better learned in the
daylight. Trust me."

Skinner sat up straight and realized how stiff he was. He
stretched and then asked, "Is there any more of that scotch

"In the cupboard." Krycek pointed to the last cupboard to
the right but didn't get up. Skinner powered down the
laptop, then got up and poured himself two generous fingers.
After a moment's hesitation, he took down another glass and
poured another two fingers into it. Then he corked the bottle
again and picked up both glasses, crossing the room to stand
over Krycek.

When the wary green gaze fastened on him over the book, he held
out the glass. Krycek put down the book, then sat up slowly
and took the glass, raising it very slightly in a toast before
taking a sip. Skinner returned the gesture and let the silken
warmth of the scotch unravel down his throat, hoping it would
warm him.

"How did you get that material?" He jerked his chin back
towards the laptop. Krycek took another sip, then said, not
looking up at him, "My ... mentor gave me some of it. Some of
it I bought, some I stole. The rest, I scavenged. You might
almost call it my inheritance."

"What are you going to do with it?"

"If I knew that, Skinner, you wouldn't be here."


Krycek cut him off. "Just wait Skinner. Read everything,
then ask as many damned questions as you want." Krycek rolled
to his feet and stalked into his bedroom, leaving his book and
glass behind.

There was nothing for Skinner to do but to listen to the disc
play one more time, finish his scotch and Krycek's too, then
turn off all the lights and go to bed.

* * *

The next morning saw Skinner awake, showered and shaven by 6
am. He couldn't face his filthy blue jeans for another day
and turned unhappily to pull on his old sweats. He needed some
clothes; he'd have to ask Krycek for a loan.

He wandered out and found the living room empty again but the
alarm light showed green, so he went out onto the porch. This
morning, the dawn was a fuzzy gray that looked to remain that
way. There was an unbroken ceiling of low clouds that seemed
to fall into the mountains that swam in the mist. Skinner sat
on the top step again, noting the new board that Krycek must
have replaced sometime the afternoon before while Skinner slept.
He sat and watched his breath steam and listened to the muffled
sounds of the forest around him waking up. There was a watery
scent to the air this morning, the tang of evergreens overriding
the thicker aroma of decaying autumn leaves.

The cloud cover over the mountains gradually lightened and became
pearlescent, but all color save the deepest greens and browns
bled away. He knew it would be a day of rain, a perfect Greek
chorus to the human tragedy that Krycek insisted he learn. He
shivered in the clammy air.

He heard a sound from indoors and turned to look over his shoulder.
Krycek had come out into the kitchen and was moving around making
coffee. He had turned on the lights and the kitchen looked golden
and welcoming, a single island of light in a sea of grays. Skinner
clambered stiffly to his feet and went back inside, carefully
shutting the door behind him.

Krycek looked up with an uncertain smile on his face. "How
is it out there this morning?"

"Gray." Skinner accepted a mug of coffee and saw the bruising
on Krycek's wrist, dark and angry. When he looked up into
Krycek's eyes, the other man gave a single head shake,
warning him to say nothing.

So they said nothing. Breakfast was another silent meal, then
Skinner sighed, got up and went over to his laptop with its
hateful red-labeled secrets. He punched in the security
sequence with a sigh, knowing he had it memorized for life,
then settled down to read the next file on the list. He dimly
heard Krycek rinse out their cereal bowls then go outside.

Skinner spent the morning reading about the experimental farms,
the drone children, the extreme ease and dependability of the
Mulder gene as a clone basis. The material was all dry and
rather factual and it only became horrible when he called to
mind the faces of the very real people involved. Midmorning,
Skinner got up from his chair and pawed through the
refrigerator until he found a half-full quart of orange juice,
which he drank straight from the carton.

The Consortium collaborators had done no more than many
medieval vassal kings had had to do; they had sent their
children to live in the homes of their conquerors,
guarantors of good behavior on their father's parts. But
Bill Mulder had been forced to endure what few others
could even understand. His daughter's face, repeated again
and again, in a number of forms, her very genetic material
the sculpting medium for alien experimentation. She, the
only child of the Project to be stolen rather than given
away. Her disappearance had shaped her brother's life as
no amount of genetic tampering could have.

She was dead. She had died very soon after her twelfth
birthday, unable to withstand the stress of the tests her
"hosts" put her through. But her DNA was still usable and
use it they did. Samantha Mulder lived on, in bits and
pieces, in over three hundred hybrid beings. But there
was no one that Fox Mulder would ever be able to hold in
his arms and call his sister again.

As the Project had sped up and the date came closer, it
was determined that more and fresher Mulder genetic material
would be useful; Fox Mulder himself had been taken. Which
was when the aliens and their human collaborators got their
next surprise. Bill Mulder's son bore none of his useful
genetic anomalies. The reason was simple, so simple.

Skinner drained the orange juice carton and crushed it in one
hand while he thought about the conclusions noted in the
report on Mulder's blood work. He thought he was beginning
to see why Krycek had brought him here to make the decisions
about this information. Damn him.

Skinner realized that he had been hearing an irregular
thumping from outside for quite a while now. As he listened
more carefully, he thought it might be Krycek splitting wood.
He wondered how the ex-assassin managed with one arm, then
decided he didn't care. He managed, Skinner had seen that
for himself.

He went back to the computer files and let the past reach out
to seize him again, starting on the blue labeled files. He
was halfway into the first few years of observation files on
one Fox William Mulder, dating from age 12, when he heard an
engine. He looked up to see a UPS van pulling into the clearing.
Since when did UPS deliver on a Sunday? The driver did nothing
more sinister than get out and go around the back of the truck
and begin stacking cardboard boxes onto a mover's dolly, but
Skinner closed all the files and powered down the laptop. The
solid thunking of the axe had stopped at about the same time
as he had noticed the truck. He was very aware that he was

The UPS driver came up the steps, maneuvering a dolly with
four boxes on it. He reached the front door and knocked,
eyes meeting Skinner's through the glass of the window.
Skinner didn't move and the man's brows drew together in a
confused frown. Just then, Krycek came around the corner
of the house, axe clamped casually in his prosthetic hand,
his gun hand free and relaxed at his side.

Apparently the delivery was expected. Skinner relaxed
fractionally when he saw Krycek sign for the boxes and tip
the driver before watching him off the property. Krycek
poked his head inside and said, "Give me a hand with these,
will you?"

Skinner took a deep breath and wondered why this was his
life. Then he went to help Alex Krycek maneuver the unwieldy
boxes indoors. "What are they?"

"Open them and find out," Krycek said with elaborate casualness.
He was flushed with working in the cold air but he wouldn't
meet Skinner's glance. As soon as Skinner began ripping into
the first box, Krycek disappeared. Just about the time Walter
Skinner was pulling out a third pair of slacks in his size, he
heard Krycek's axe falling again.

It was a full wardrobe, fashionably conservative and from
a very good maker. Krycek hadn't forgotten a detail,
including belts, socks, underwear, casual office wear and
heavy duty work boots, leisure clothing, work clothes. There
was far more clothing than Skinner could be reasonably expected
to wear in seven days. The set of matched luggage in the
fourth box explained it. He really *did* intend to release
Skinner at the end of this, whatever this was. Looking at
the piles of clothing spread around, Skinner wondered idly
if Krycek really *had* burned down his condo complex and this
was merely his way of apologizing.

He decided that he didn't care. He had gone for nearly three
days looking like the refugee from a house fire and he was
tired of it. If he was going to be a kidnapping victim, at
least he could do it in style. He had to admit, as he
shuffled through the clothing, it would definitely be in style.
Krycek's taste was more daring than his own, so the clothing
was tighter and brighter than he might have chosen for himself.
The black jeans were almost a second skin, the black mock
turtle neck stretched just a touch across his chest and the
sleeves of the bright blue plaid flannel shirt rolled up
comfortably over his forearms.

He returned to his reading, searching the file photos of a
round faced boy looking for the sad-eyed brilliant man he
would become. Bill Mulder's slide into alcoholism and its
effect on the family and on the research subject was noted
in detail. The foolish secrets of a normal kid's life were
horribly exposed by the clinical dissection - his first kiss,
friends he made carefully monitored, some even crafted for
him, memories implanted or wiped as was grotesque.
Skinner thought back to his own childhood, knee jerking
steadily as he stared out at the fog-wrapped hills. What
would it be like to see your entire fucked up childhood laid
out, the result of someone's behavioral science project?

Krycek came back inside around noon, raindrops beaded on his
wool jacket. His quick admiring glance disturbed Skinner, an
incongruous lick of human warmth as Skinner came near to
drowning in cold facts. Krycek seemed to catch his mood and
said nothing as he put a plate of lasagna in the microwave to
heat. He still said nothing as he set two places and dished
out steaming food. Skinner sat beside him and took two bites,
chewing and swallowing mechanically before he said quickly,
"Krycek, did you have a normal childhood?"

"What, you thought I was hatched? Yeah, Mom & Dad and a dog
in the suburbs. About as boring and normal as it gets. Why?"

"Tell me."

Krycek put his fork down and glared. "What are you after,

"Just tell me about it," he said hoarsely. "Anything. Did
you play sports?"

After a moment, Krycek's glare dimmed and went out. He nodded
slowly and started talking in a low voice, about Little League
and Saturday morning soccer, trips to the library and any
boringly normal detail he could dredge up about growing up in
a small east coast town in the 70's.

After a while, Skinner picked up his fork again. Krycek
watched him take another bite, still talking about running
the beach with his dog. When Skinner took another bite,
Krycek let his voice run down and picked up his own fork again.

When the meal was done, Krycek got up and began to clear the
table. Skinner sat and watched him for a while, then stood up
and went over to the sink. He picked up a dish and began
scrubbing it with meticulous care. Krycek wisely said nothing
about the empty dishwasher to their left; he just picked up a
dishtowel and began to dry the dishes Skinner washed. When
all the dishes were washed and the counter tops wiped, Skinner
said, "Thanks for the clothes." His voice sounded strained
and hoarse in his own ears.

"No problem. They fit OK?"


The two men stood and stared at one another, then Krycek
offered, "I could use some help stacking the wood. It gets
slick when it's wet and I can't get a grip on it with this,"
he gestured with his gloved left hand.

Skinner nodded and went to grab a jacket from the clothing that
had arrived this morning. He needed to be doing something
stupid and muscular and repetitive, something that would let
the newest pieces of the puzzle settle into place in his head.

There was half a cord of wood stacked and seasoning between two
birch saplings. Close beside it was an oak stump that Krycek
used as a block. There was a nimbus of freshly split oak logs
around it; their scent rose sharp and sweet in the cold
rainwashed air. They worked in that same silence, efficiently
stacking wood neatly on a new level, to age for some winter in
the future. It began to rain again, softly, but neither of
them stopped working.

"His whole life is there, in every fucked up detail, from the
time he was 12," Skinner said suddenly.

"Now you know why I needed you to see those files. I couldn't
...I don't know what to do with them. If Mulder's ever going
to know any more of the truth, he's going to want it all."

"You want *me* to make that decision?" But he knew that
already, really. "Shit, Krycek. Why the hell couldn't you
have kidnapped me for real?" The truth rattled around the
little clearing as the rain pattered down on the dead leaves
all around them.

Krycek made no reply and they went back to stacking wood.

* * *

Eventually, the rain became stronger than their enthusiasm
for work. It was cold enough that any exposed wet skin had
begun to steam and Skinner wondered if the rain would turn to
sleet before evening. Inside, Krycek lit a fire in the
fireplace and Skinner went into his bedroom to strip off
his damp clothing. It was an odd luxury, to choose fresh
clothes from an entirely new wardrobe. He had never much
cared about his clothing, preferring to look neat and appropriate
in the office, comfortable and unfettered at home. Often he had
let Sharon choose his clothing for him, dressing in whatever she
deemed appropriate. Afterward, he had allowed sales assistants
or catalogues to dictate what he wore in the office or at leisure.

Now he was neither in the office nor at home. In fact, he
reminded himself, he had neither any more. The chill, both
inside and out, made him choose a pair of fresh blue jeans
with a maroon chamois shirt. It felt like armor, of an odd
sort, but against what? When he wandered back out into the
living room, he thought he might know.

Alex Krycek had changed, too. He had put on fresh jeans,
acid-washed and worn until they were nearly white, and a
forest green river driver's shirt. He had taken off his
prosthetic and combed his damp hair back out of his eyes.
He was kneeling in front of the fireplace, putting another
log on, and he turned to look back over his shoulder when
Skinner came into the room. The brief brush of his gaze
was nearly a physical thing and Skinner stopped dead.
Krycek was all sleek dangerous lines, wounded but all the
more dangerous for that, his empty sleeve emphasizing the
taut readiness of the rest of him. Skinner's throat felt
dry and gripped by smoke again.

No, he thought with a touch of desperation. This is not a
good idea, he instructed himself. It wasn't a good idea six
years ago when you thought he was sweet and green and wanted
nothing more than a daddy. You *know* what he is now. You
ignored it then, you can ignore it now.

Krycek straightened up slowly, and stood for a moment, backlit
by the fire, edged in flame. Then he came toward Skinner and
the older man held his ground, but he could feel himself
vibrating on the edge of motion. He wondered which direction
he would break. Krycek passed by, right shoulder barely
brushing his. The sorcerous moment passed as Skinner looked
after him. Krycek went into the kitchen and put a kettle of
water on to heat.

"You want some hot chocolate?"

Skinner stared at him, the entirely commonplace question
hanging in the air like mist between them. Then he started
to chuckle.

"Jesus, Walt, were you always this unstable? What is it
this time?" The words were sharp but the tone was gentle.
Skinner could only shake his head slowly, not sure how he
could even begin to explain or conceal.

Krycek shook his own head. "Next time, you're gonna have
to file an affidavit of mental competency before I kidnap
you." He pulled down two mugs and a tin of Dutch cocoa powder
and began to measure and stir. Skinner came to lean across
the kitchen island and watched the movements of Krycek's hand,
skillful and certain. He did not object when Krycek held up
a bottle of brandy, stared at him assessingly, then added a
measure to one steaming mug. A dollop of cream, then he handed
the doctored mug to Skinner.

Rich and hot, it was another unusual luxury to him. He
savored it, trying to fixate on those sensations to the
exclusion of all others. The warmth spread outward from
his gut and he wondered if he hadn't been just a touch
shocky, the sugar bringing him back to himself.

"It's good," he said after a while

Krycek only nodded, careful eyes watching him. Finally, his
gaze dropped to the counter top and he said, "I screwed up.
I should have waited before having you read those files."

"Waited for what?" Skinner asked harshly. "It's not like I
have anything better to do with my time, just now."

"It wasn't good timing on my part. I know what reading all
that shit in one gulp is like," Krycek shrugged, not looking
at him. "I should have waited a couple of months, let you get
used to being retired..."

"I didn't retire. I was forced out."


"Because I didn't want to see another cover-up. The FBI
and the NSA and FEMA and the president are just going to
classify the whole fucking thing out of existence again.
We won, but no one will ever know. And it could happen all
over again, any time, because no one will ever suspect that
it *could*. And I needed...never mind." Skinner drained his

"You wanted redemption, right? To expose some of the
conspiracy that you were forced to help?" Krycek asked
quietly. Skinner shrugged, not wanting Krycek to understand
him so well.

"But you resigned," Krycek continued, questioning.

"No choice. The bastards painted me into a corner. If I
resigned, I got a nice severance package and sterling
references. If I didn't," he shook his head, "there was
enough in my file for summary dismissal and I could pretty
much expect that the only job I'd ever be able to get would
involve lifting heavy objects. And others would suffer, as well."

"Mulder." Krycek said it without a doubt in his voice.

"And Scully. Kimberly. A few others who have supported me
over the years."

Krycek was silent for a long time and when Skinner finally
looked up, he saw that dangerous blade of a man he'd seen
earlier, in front of the fire. Krycek was running his thumb
over the tips of his fingers again and again. When he looked
at Skinner, there was a decision in his eyes. He spoke quickly.

"There's another locked directory of files. Orange labels.
When you've finished with the others, I'll let you read
those." A feral smile slunk its way onto his lips. "If
you want revenge, you can have it. There's something about
everyone in those files. Bureau upper echelons, FEMA, NSA
folks, a few senators, a congressman or two, the vice president can have them all, Skinner. You can hang them all out
to dry ... or force them to expose the entire mess; the
Consortium, the proof of extraterrestrials, the collaborators
and the tests, the abductions...whatever *you* want.

"Just help me figure out what to do about Mulder and those
files, then you can do whatever you want with the rest. Is
it a deal?"

It was hard not to be seduced by Krycek's wild grin; it made
Skinner want to prowl and howl and turn and rend the people
who had stolen his career from him. But native caution made
him suspicious of gifts from such an unlikely source. "What
do you get out of this, Krycek?"

The other man was silent for so long that Skinner thought he
simply wasn't going to answer the question. Then he said,
staring at his boots, "You think you're the only one looking
for redemption, Skinner?"

* * *

He woke very early the next morning, so early that Krycek
wasn't up and the alarms were still set. So he stood before
the huge windows and stared out into the predawn gloom,
wondering why his life seemed to be one long series of deals
with the Devil. Then he put a pot of coffee on to brew and
started rummaging around for the makings of a western
omelette. When Krycek wandered out half an hour late, he
accepted his plate of breakfast without comment and Skinner
began to wonder if they would ever speak over a meal.

The blue-labeled files bore the names of people he knew.
Fowley, D.; Kersh, A.; Spender, J.; Blevins, R.; Mulder,
T.; Scully, D. He spent the morning reading about Dana
Scully's abduction and the procedures performed on her
and the reasons why. He stumbled to the bathroom once
and hung over the basin, saliva flowing and waiting for
the bitter retching to begin, but it didn't. After a while,
he went back and began reading again. Personal histories,
pressure points, observations, weaknesses, useful factoids...
they were all there.

Mid-morning, Krycek picked up the car keys and paused by the
door. "I need to make a run to Asheville to pick up my mail.
Is there anything you need...want?"

Still half-submerged in the unsuspected lives of men and
women he had known only fractionally, Skinner merely shook
his head, frowning at the screen, at his abysmal lack of
understanding of the true nature of events years past now.

There was an unexpected sound behind him and Skinner froze
before he'd even truly identified it. Krycek stepped up
behind him slowly; his hand came into view and Skinner
tried not to jerk. Then Krycek laid the pistol on the
table. "Just in case," he said.

"Is this one loaded?"

Skinner could almost hear the grin in Krycek's voice as he
turned and headed for the door. "Seven rounds in the magazine,
one in the chamber. I won't be back until dinner time. The
alarms are off." He paused at the door, holding it open and
letting a gust of chill air in. "Don't read too much of that
today, Skinner. It's...tough stuff."

"I've already read about what they did to Scully. And why,"
he said coldly.

"There's more. A lot more. Just take it slow."

And Alex Krycek left, leaving Walter Skinner in possession
of his home, all his secrets, a loaded gun and a slowly
blossoming rage as he learned exactly what pressures had
been brought to bear upon formerly innocent men and women
to force them to do unthinkable things.

Then he found his own file.

* * *

Krycek didn't return until after dark. The outside floodlights
clicked on when his SUV pulled up in front of the cabin but
Skinner hadn't turned on any other lights. Krycek flowed up
onto the porch, gun in hand, and was through the door without
a sound. He stopped when he saw the bluish glow of the
laptop's screen saver, then took a step toward the living
room area where Skinner sat silently in front of the fire.
There was a glass next to the bottle of scotch, but the level
in the bottle was nearly the same as it had been the day before.
The pistol Krycek had left was sitting on the table beside the
bottle; the magazine was missing.

"How much did you read, Skinner?"

"All of it," he said hoarsely.

Krycek swore in what Skinner assumed was Russian. "I told you
to take it slowly!"

"So I wouldn't blow your fucking head off when you came
through the door?"

Krycek crossed the room slowly and sat on the couch directly
across from Skinner. He put his own weapon on the table facing
the one he'd given Skinner. "No," he said quietly. "So you
wouldn't put a bullet in your own fucking head.

"Where's the magazine?"

Skinner gestured vaguely toward the kitchen, where he'd
thrown it hours before. He kept staring into the fire, liking
its simple purity. He sighed, then said, "It's OK, Krycek.
You don't have to worry, I'm not in some kind of self-
destructive fugue state."

'Any more,' he added to himself.

Seeing his entire fucking life laid out like that, sneering
comments scribbled into the margins of his failed marriage,
the truths behind the couple of stillborn romances he'd
tried since, gloating speculations on his sexuality, health,
appetites... it had been too much. They had tried seduction
twice and he'd only fallen for the hooker. Hurrah for him.

Krycek had been too new, too subtle, Skinner too married,
too conservative then, his days of wild experimentation
under the gun long over. A long-ago Krycek's notes,
curiously colorless, suggesting that Skinner's alleged
bisexuality might have been a war-time stress anomaly and
not an available handle for exploitation. His recommendation
that the relationship between Skinner and Mulder be monitored
for blackmail potential.

Well, he'd avoided that trap neatly by pushing Mulder away
any time he got too close to anything that might be the real
Walter Skinner. Then they'd forced him to betray Mulder and
there went that angle. Even after he'd been freed of the
nanocyte threat and could once again aid Mulder and Scully,
he'd never allowed the younger man any closer. Slowly, they
had begun to build something of a friendship, something that
didn't put any pressure on the tenuous threads of trust that
were being respun. At least, not until Skinner disappeared
from the sidewalk in front of a Red Cross Shelter at 7 am one
morning, leaving no more than a mumbling answering machine
message in explanation.

His file had also contained contingency plans for pushing
him into alcoholism, noting his own father's dissolution
in middle age, assassination, then the final damning
recommendation that he was no longer effective enough to
even waste a bullet on. There was a scanned copy of a
handwritten note in which Alexei Krycek suggested that he
be used as a subject for the nanocyte project. The Tunisians
were easily manipulated into agreeing to use their second-
choice subject and Walter Skinner had played D.O.A. games
with Krycek for a year before becoming free again.

The two men stared into the fire for a while. Then Skinner
asked a question to which he was pretty sure he knew the
answer. "Who was their first choice for the nanocytes?"

Krycek's eyes gleamed in the firelight, as they had one
night in the greenish glare of his dashboard lights. "Mulder.
They wanted Mulder."

"So you gave them me."

Krycek nodded, then stood up abruptly, gathered both weapons
and walked away. Skinner heard him moving through the
kitchen until he found the missing magazine. There was
the clatter of hardware on the counter top, then Krycek
went to hang up his jacket and Skinner heard the buttons of
his keyring security system being punched. "The alarm's on,"
Krycek said tonelessly. He picked up the guns again and
disappeared into his bedroom, closing the door.

Skinner watched the fire burn down to a bed of glowing coals,
then he, too, got up and went to bed.

* * *

But sleep didn't come. He lay there for two hours, staring
at the ceiling, before finally giving up and getting up.
He slid back into his jeans and shrugged into the flannel
shirt he'd left draped over the foot of the bed. Then he
wandered back out into the dark living room in search of
the bottle of scotch. He stood and watched the stars burning,
a million white and cold fires out over the dark mass of the
mountains. It was cold and the coals burned a sullen orange,
so he stirred them up and added kindling and a log until the
fire burned golden and embraced him with warmth again.

He sat back down where he'd spent most of the evening and
poured himself a carefully measured half inch of scotch.
He had taken three sips, staring into the flames and
thinking of nothing at all, when he looked up to find
Krycek watching him. The other man stood just in the
shadows beyond the half circle of fireglow. He was wearing
black plaid flannel boxers and a black tee shirt which did
nothing to disguise his maiming, his scars, or his beauty.
Skinner took another sip and Krycek came a pace closer.
He stood, painted out in flickering gold, eyes dark and
deep as the forest outside the cabin. Skinner blinked
and then Krycek was standing right in front of him. He
stared up at Krycek and Krycek stared down at him and his
glass stayed on his knee. He could feel some expression
seeping onto his face but he didn't know what it might be.
Then Krycek asked quietly, "What have you got to lose?"

That breathy whisper undid him. He reached out and took
hold of Krycek's right hand, leaning forward and reaching
around Krycek's thigh to put his glass on the coffee table.
The glass thunked onto the wood and he looked up at Krycek,
up the unimaginable length of his body, so close that he
could smell the musk and sweetness of him, his chin almost
touching the cotton of his tee shirt. Krycek's fingers
twitched in his and his gaze was more remote than the
coldfire stars. Skinner tugged on Krycek's hand, not knowing
what he expected, only knowing surprise when Krycek slid to
his knees, gaze still locked on his.

The warm fingers left his hand and then Krycek was sliding
his hand down Skinner's chest, curving it beneath the open
flannel shirt, skimming over his ribs and belly. Skinner
didn't move when Krycek's hand unbuttoned his jeans, nor
when it pulled open his fly. His own hands lay forgotten,
palm up, on the couch to either side of him. Krycek's hand
touched his cock and only then did he realize that he was
hard and straining and that Krycek's touch would push him
over some dark brink he hadn't ever suspected.

Krycek looked down then and shoved lightly at his knee, making
a space for himself between Skinner's parted legs. His heat
soaked into Skinner's thighs as Krycek leaned over him, the
grim abbreviation of his left arm helping him keep his balance
as his right hand scooped Skinner's cock into his mouth.
Skinner jerked at the writhing warmth surrounding his cock,
his hands balling up into fists. He was too close, it had
been too long...

Krycek's voice sounded in his ears again, behind the wet
sounds of sucking, the harsher sounds of his own breathing,
'What have you got to lose?' Nothing. He remembered his
hands, suddenly, and reached out to cup Krycek's head. He
let his fingers slide into the slick dark hair, let his
palms ride over the beard-shadowed cheeks, full and flexing
beneath his touch. Nothing to lose. That was what put him
on this couch in the deep darkness with Alex Krycek kneeling
between his knees. Nothing. That's all this was, as Krycek's
skilled tongue demanded his response from some dark space he
hadn't wanted to know he had within.

He was tired of nothing.

He flexed his hands, slid them back into Krycek's hair and
tugged gently but irresistibly. Krycek's head came up
slowly, lips wet and full, eyes wary and dark. "What?"
he whispered.

"Nothing," Skinner said, then dragged Krycek's face toward
his and kissed him. It was clumsy, Krycek was off-balance
and surprised, Skinner unpracticed and no more than half-sure.
But it was real, it felt like life and he relished it. Then
Krycek began to kiss him back, skillful mouth taking over
this field, too.

Skinner let his own hands wander down from Krycek's head,
drifting down to ring his throat, finger finding and tracing
the raised ridge of scar he had seen. Then his fingers combed
down over Krycek's chest, feeling the tense heat beneath the
cotton. He found the hem of the shirt and dragged it upwards,
breaking the kiss only long enough to discard the shirt before
leaning back in. He let himself slip to his own knees, trapping
Krycek between the coffee table and his own body.

He put his arms around Krycek, palms flat against the muscled
smoothness of his shoulder blades. He splayed his fingers wide,
then flexed them, drawing them down like blunt-tipped claws,
thrumming across the tense muscles until Krycek arched and
moaned against him.

"Come to bed with me," he whispered against the other man's mouth.

Krycek drew back, caught in the circle of Skinner's arms.
His gaze was hazy and nearly drugged, but some native
suspicion flickered and darted in the firelight. Skinner
knew then that the other man was no stranger to the quick
blowjob and hadn't intended much more than that mock-intimacy,
nothing more than a safety valve. But Skinner was feeling
something dark and dangerously alive begin to prowl within
him. He wanted more, wanted to taste sharp sweat and hear
sobbing breaths and feel hot blood humming beneath his hands.

"What have you got to lose, Krycek?" he whispered, taunting
a little, then lightly bit at the scar under his jaw. A
nearly soundless moan answered him.

Then Krycek was lurching to his feet, dragging Skinner up
by one hand. He started to lead him to his bedroom, but
Skinner tugged firmly in the direction of his own room.
The darkness was deep there, the starlight barely enough
to frost them both with silver as they dropped their clothes
to the floor.

Suddenly, Krycek was hesitant, touching shyly, a newness to
his kisses that Skinner didn't know how to interpret. So he
didn't bother - he simply took what was offered to him. He
licked and tasted, nibbled and kissed. The hot salt scent of
Krycek's skin had him humming as he rubbed his face against
its fire-warmed silkiness. The cinnamon-sharpness of Krycek's
cock in his mouth warmed him better than scotch, the half-
strangled cries feeding the dark dangerous thing in him,
making it howl with triumph when Krycek's release filled his
mouth like hot blood.

They lay together a moment, Krycek's harsh panting filling
the room. Then he jerked himself down the bed, roughly
pushed Skinner flat and sucked Skinner's cock into his mouth.
He sucked hard, his hand circling Skinner's cock and ripping
his orgasm from him. The tremors had barely subsided before
Krycek was swinging himself across Skinner's body, heading
for the door, already in full retreat.

"No," Skinner whispered, grabbing hold of the bowtight
shoulders and yanking him back down. They wrestled for a
long minute, Krycek fighting with the same panting breaths
with which he had come. His strength or anger gave out
suddenly and he dropped half on top of Skinner. Skinner
just pushed and shifted until the other man was comfortably
arranged on his right shoulder, arm pulled across Skinner's
chest and clamped beneath his other arm and against his ribs.
Their sweat was chilling rapidly, so Skinner reached down
and pulled up the comforter from the foot of the bed.

Then his energy was gone and he lay on his back in the dark,
staring up and listening to Krycek's breath, feeling each
exhalation across his chest. He tightened the arm around
Krycek's shoulders and felt the other man shift a little in
response. The terrible tension had left Krycek's body and
it was now slack and warm against his. So Skinner turned
his head just enough to feel the dark hair against his lips
and went to sleep.

* * *

It was, Skinner reflected, a good thing that they appeared
to have developed a habit of eating without conversation.
Otherwise, the arctic silence at breakfast might have fazed
him. But he had expected this from the moment he had awakened
alone, well past dawn.

At first, he had merely lain in bed and enjoyed the overall
buzz of good humor and health that decent sex leaves in its
wake. Then he had begun to actually remember some salient
points, including the facts that he had invited Alex Krycek
into his bed, and that he had silently insisted that Krycek
spend the night beside him afterward.

It had not been a restful night. Krycek stirred often,
sometimes mumbling, sometimes flailing. But he did not move
away, pressing up against Skinner's warmth even in his sleep.
He was easily soothed, though, sent back into deeper sleep by
fingers stroking through his hair or quiet words whispered in
his ear. But Skinner hadn't gotten more than an hour's sleep
at a time.

So he lay in bed and watched the play of morning sunlight on
the wall of his room and wondered which emotion he would
settle on, of all those that strobed through him. Guilt,
satisfaction, anger, sadness, regret, resignation, hatred,
black humor, hunger. Deep down, there was a treacherous
tickle of something too soft, too newborn to even be named.
But, frail and tender as it was, he shied violently away
from observing it too closely, not wanting to admit its very
existence yet.

He settled on hunger, eventually, and staggered out of bed.
He showered, shaved, and dressed in no more than twice the
time it usually took him. Then he went out to confront the
man who had beaten him, blackmailed him, killed him, kidnapped
him, and nuzzled against him, murmuring in his arms the night

Krycek was frying sausages and did not look up as he handed
Skinner a mug of coffee. He served breakfast with jerky
movements and sat across from Skinner in the same wary silence.
Skinner found himself more and more relaxed as the meal went
on and as he realized how completely thrown Krycek was. It
was nice not to be the confused one for a change. He thought
he might have more familiarity with need than Krycek did.

They finished their meals in record time and Krycek was up
and shoving dishes into the dishwasher before Skinner had
swallowed his last mouthful. He sat and watched the younger
man's quick, agitated gestures and felt a glimmer of humor.
A snort escaped him before he could clamp down on it.
Krycek's head jerked around and he stared at Skinner, a
dangerous glint in his green eyes. Skinner met his glare
frankly and it was Krycek who broke first. He turned and
strode to the door, yanking his coat off the peg and slamming
out without a word. Skinner shook his head, poured himself
another mug of coffee and went over to open the directory of
yellow-labeled files.

There were a lot of them, each file a complete thumbnail
sketch of the businesses and organizations involved in the
conspiracy. Biotech firms, pharmaceutical companies, DoD
contractors, think tanks, nuclear laboratories, universities,
various medical facilities, military installations... the
list went on. Dimly, he registered the sound of an axe outside.

The past three days' reading had had a homeopathic effect
on him; so much horror, pain, fear had numbed him eventually.
He scrolled through these files with a growing sense of
impatience. Finally, some time after noon, after five or
six hours of mind numbing detail, he gave up. He could
still hear the axe thunking solidly outside, a steady,
thoughtless rhythm that drew him out and around the corner
of the cabin. He stood and watched Krycek splitting wood in
silence for a time.

Krycek had shed his coat and his shirt and was working in
nothing but a tee shirt. There was a corona of split logs
all around him, several feet deep in places, but he kept
mechanically setting them up, swinging his axe in a perfect
arc and cleaving each log before stooping and putting another
on the block. His stance was a little overbalanced but Skinner
figured that was due to the artificial arm. He watched the
hypnotic ballet of blade and wood until the moment the rhythm
broke and Krycek missed the block, nearly slicing into his own
leg. Skinner was in motion before he even knew it.

He crossed to Krycek's side and took the axe out of his slack
hand while he was still standing there staring at his leg.
Skinner let the axe fall, lodging the head neatly in the
block, then turned to Krycek. "Inside. Now." He tugged
on Krycek's sweat-slicked arm and was a little worried when
the man allowed himself to be tugged away. Skinner retrieved
Krycek's coat and shirt from the low branch he'd hung them
over; he handed Krycek his flannel shirt and glared at him
until he put it on, then he pushed Krycek back into the cabin,
directing him with a firm hand on his shoulder.

Inside, he made Krycek sit on a stool in the kitchen and he
got him a large glass of orange juice. When Krycek had
finished drinking it, he put down the glass and stared at his

"What the hell were you trying to do out there?" Skinner growled.

"I was ... cutting wood."

"You almost took your own leg off."

Krycek shrugged.

"It's not like you have that many extra limbs to lose,
Krycek." At that, Krycek's head snapped up and his eyes
blazed. Skinner saw his fist clench and was pleased that
he had shaken Krycek from his fugue; he was also pretty sure
that he was going to take a shot to his jaw.

Suddenly, Krycek was chuckling, a low unlikely sound, his
hand falling open on his thigh. "Christ, Walt, that was a
low blow."

"Whatever works," Skinner smiled. "What has you so spooked anyway?"

Krycek's face closed down again and he looked away. "Nothing."

"You're usually a much better liar than that, Krycek. Try again."

Krycek shrugged. Then Skinner noticed the palm of his hand.
The flesh was blistered and raw. Clear fluid oozed from the
blisters, mixed with blood and dirt. Skinner swore and grabbed
Krycek's wrist, bringing the hand up to inspect it.

Krycek said nothing, not as Skinner stomped off to the
bathroom for the first aid kit; not throughout the entire
cleaning and disinfecting process, nor did he make a sound
as Skinner bandaged and taped the hand.

"If I'd known one blow job would push you over the edge,
Krycek, I would have made due with the scotch and my right hand."

"Fuck you," Krycek said between his teeth, flexing his fingers
to test the give of the dressing.

"Sure," Skinner said amiably. Krycek's head jerked up and he
snarled into Skinner's evil grin. He opened his mouth to say
something and Skinner kissed him. It wasn't brutal, but it
was undeniable, and Skinner made certain that Krycek was no
longer fighting him before he drew back and broke the kiss.

"It's what it is, Krycek. Deal with it," Skinner said, then
picked up the first aid kit and took it back to the bathroom.
When he came back, Krycek was still sitting in the kitchen,
watching him as if debating where to place his first shot.
So Skinner grabbed his coat and left.

Winter was breathing down his neck as he strode down the
dirt road. He thought about taking one of the paths into
the woods, then realized he had no idea when hunting season
began down here. So he scuffed along the road, hands in his
pockets, breath steaming before him. There was a cold kind
of peace to the early afternoon; the sky overhead was a
crystalline blue and there was no breeze to stir the dead
leaves on the trees or the dried reeds in the ditches. The
road snaked down the mountain and he just kept following it,
glad of the chance to simply be. No one was depending on him,
no one expected anything from him, there were no life or death
decisions to be made... hell, he didn't even have to worry about
weatherproofing for winter. For the first time in five days,
he'd finally found the positive side of having his house burn down.

He still felt the ego-gouge of having his job wrenched from
him, though. He kicked at a stone and watched it skitter away,
wondering if he would ever let himself accept Krycek's offer
of ample blackmail material. The ethical part of him argued
that he would be no better than those who had put him here.
The logical part agreed, but pointed out how much fun it would
be to make those smiling bastards squirm and wince.

He still hadn't reached a satisfactory answer when he stood
on the asphalt of the county road. It wouldn't take much
effort to escape, he knew. All he had to do was wait a few
minutes, stick out his thumb and hitch into town. In an hour,
he could have Alex Krycek in federal custody and he would be
free. To do what?

He was still pondering the question as he turned and hiked
back up the road to the cabin.

When he walked in the door, dusk was beginning to fall. The
cabin was warm and he sighed gratefully as he shrugged out of
the new wool jacket Krycek had bought him. The valley below
was filling with blue mist and tongues of ground fog were
beginning to lick out of the forest to surround the cabin.
Krycek was sitting at his own computer, staring at the screen
with questionable intensity, saying nothing. Skinner looked at
him, then went into the kitchen area. He rummaged and poked
and explored and finally produced two large plates of spaghetti
and sauce.

"Come and eat." There was no room for demure in his voice
and Krycek was up and halfway across the room before he
himself had realized it. He stopped and his look at Skinner
was venomous; Skinner ignored him in favor of opening the
single bottle of red wine he'd found and pouring out two
glasses. He calmly seated himself and waited for Krycek.
Who finally shrugged, came over and sat down. They ate in
their accustomed silence for a while, Krycek fumbling his
fork a little as he tried to maneuver around the bandages.
Then Krycek asked without preamble, "Where did you grow up?"

"Isn't it in the files?"

Krycek tipped his glass and stared at the wine as if wondering
what might lurk in the glass. "Just tell me about it, Walt.
Did *you* play sports?"

So Skinner found himself talking about playing high school
tennis, growing up outside Houston, knowing early on that he
wanted something more than to go into the oil business like
his father. Krycek started to look at him, then began asking
questions that no one had bothered to ask him in decades. Why
wasn't the oil business enough? What would he have done if he
hadn't been drafted? Why not stay in the Marines? What had he
thought about the morning he'd first awakened after seeing his
own corpse lying in a clearing? Krycek had swallowed, then
asked if his thoughts had been the same the morning he'd awakened
after being declared dead, blood sludgy with nanocytes and
failures. And Skinner kept talking, answering every question
asked, as honestly as he could, not always knowing the answer
before he opened his mouth and heard the words spoken for the
first time.

They cleared the table and did the few dishes and he was
still talking, no longer even surprised at hearing so many
private thoughts spilling out of him. He felt over-ripe
with secrets and things unsaid and it had only taken the
sweeping away of every single support system in his life
to make it possible to speak them aloud.

The one thing he didn't speak of was Fox Mulder. He and
Krycek both skirted that topic tonight, knowing that this
was not the right time for either of them to breach the wall
of thorns around the perplexity that was Mulder. Someday
soon, they knew, he would have to be spoken of and decisions
would have to be made. But not tonight. Tonight was for
something else and Skinner didn't know what.

Not until it had become a velvety midnight and he was hoarse
with candor. A silence fell, then Krycek got up. Skinner
stood and stretched and yawned while Krycek began his nightly
routine, checking doors and setting alarms. He nodded good
night as he passed Skinner. He got one pace beyond when
Skinner's hand on his wrist stopped him. Alex Krycek didn't
look up as Walter Skinner gently tugged on his hand, patiently
leading him back to his bed.

This time, they undressed in the light, watching one another.
Krycek's kiss was far less uncertain this night and his hand
moved with a sure glide, the gauze bandage scratching lightly
across Skinner's chest and thighs. His eyes stayed open,
watching everything Skinner did, watching the effect of
everything he did to Skinner. Every movement, every moan and
sigh seemed magnified and separated for Skinner, as if it were
echoing in the spaces left by everything he'd spoken aloud
tonight. There was no desperate edge this time, just a sure
and steady building to a flashpoint that could be shared.

Afterward, they lay panting together, half-sprawled across
one another. This time, Krycek didn't even bother trying to
leave. He rolled off of Skinner's chest and dragged the
comforter up over them. He flopped back next to Skinner,
his arm covering his eyes until Skinner reached over and
turned off the bedside lamp. They lay, side by side, not
speaking as the night lightened to starlight and shadows.

"This is crazy."

"Yeah. So what's your point?"

"Shit. I think I liked it better when you were laughing
maniacally at weird moments."

"Alex, in the past six years, I have dealt with everything
from hauntings to telepaths to sea monsters, government
conspiracies to alien invasions. I have been beat up, shot,
deposed by Senate subcommittees, arrested, divorced,
blackmailed. I have lied, stolen, destroyed evidence,
burned a body, betrayed my friends, my country, my oaths and
my faith. The good guys won anyway and I am out on my ass.
I have no home, no job, no family and precious few friends
left. And you want me to get all upset because I just had
really good sex? I don't have the patience to pretend to be
shocked any more." Skinner shifted a little and ruffled his
fingers through Krycek's hair. "But you can be, if you want,"
he added kindly.

"Thanks." Krycek's tone could have stripped paint, but he
shifted until his head was on Skinner's shoulder.

"It's what it is," Skinner said softly. He felt Krycek nod
finally, then they were silent until they slept.

* * *

Skinner woke up alone again, but he heard the shower running.
He considered joining Krycek, then thought that it might be
too early for that kind of intimacy. He smiled a little,
when he considered that Krycek was used to the giving and
receiving of blow jobs and other easy physical pleasures but
that simple affections, unheated kisses, showers together,
friendly hugs, seemed to be outside his stars.

He had slept curled against Skinner, jerking and twitching a
little at times, but was easily soothed back into sleep with
a soft word or a warm hand run down his back. Krycek had
muttered once into the curve of Skinner's throat, something
low and musical and Russian, then his eyes had snapped open
and he'd stared at Skinner with a horror that dimmed and went
out as he realized that Skinner spoke no Russian. Skinner
had merely sighed, urged Krycek to lay back down, head pillowed
on his chest, and then he had massaged the wire-tense shoulders
until they relaxed into sleep.

Skinner got up and dressed in jeans and a thick blue sweater.
The air in the cabin felt chill and when Skinner wandered
out into the living room he saw the reason. Winter had
come in the night and everything outside was frosted with
snow. The valley was nothing more than a palette of grays
that flowed into a snow sky. The snow was falling slowly,
with the lazy lightness of floating dust, an uncommitted
type of weather that promised nothing and delivered it.

He pulled the coffee out of the cabinet and filled the
coffee maker, half-listening to its cheerful burble as he went
back to stand at the windows and stare out at where the sun
ought to be rising just over the edge of the mountains. The
grays lightened, but there would be no sunlight today. He had
missed these days of diffuse, kindly light. They had always
seemed to hold a cheerfulness within their dimmed brightness.
He realized, standing there, staring out at the snow, that it
was because on days like this, there were no shadows.

Alex Krycek came and stood beside him, freshly dressed but
with a sort of humid warmth cloaking him from his shower.
Skinner smelled the sharp, fresh scent of his soap on Krycek's
skin. They stared out at the snow together for a time, then
Skinner tried to explain. "No shadows today."

Krycek's head cocked slightly at that and he misunderstood.
"You want a break from the files? I figured. We need to
stock up on groceries anyway."

"No, I know what to do with them now. I just meant -- look.
There are no shadows today."

Krycek looked out again at the falling snow, then he half-turned
and looked at Skinner. He shook his head slowly. "This is not
going the way I expected."

"Tell me about it," Skinner agreed, then went to get a cup of coffee.

* * *

After considering the breakfast options available in the sadly-
depleted refrigerator, Krycek looked at Skinner and jerked his
thumb toward the SUV with a questioning look. Skinner nodded
and grabbed his jacket. The drive to town was quiet, the snow
blowing across the road like sand in the desert. They ate in
the same cafe they had lunched in. Huge plates of fried eggs
riding islands of buttered grits sopped up with a stack of
toast helped to put the morning in perspective.

Somewhere into his third cup of coffee, Krycek said suddenly,
"You figured out what to do with the files?"

Skinner grunted and nodded, watching the pretty waitress
filling salt shakers decorated as little turkeys. "It's
Thanksgiving tomorrow," he noted.

"What?" Krycek looked startled. "Oh yeah. I guess we should
get something... you like turkey or ham?"

"Roast beef." Skinner drained his mug.

"Iconoclast," Krycek muttered and tossed down some bills beside
their plates.

At the grocery store, elbowing their way through other late
shoppers, he tried again. "The files - what are you going to
do with them?"

"Give them to Mulder and Scully." Skinner hefted a quarter
peck bag of apples, waited until Krycek nodded in agreement,
then put them in the cart.

"All of them?" Krycek threw a head of red cabbage in as well.


"You're holding back his file?"

"Until he asks for it, yes. I'm also holding mine. And
yours," he added, striding down the freezer aisle. Krycek
watched him put a couple of half gallons of premium ice cream
into the cart in silence.

"Alex!" The hail came from the sheriff, who was holding two
kinds of frozen pie crust and staring at them both with
bewildered suspicion. "The wife sent me out for pie crust and
I have no clue which is better," he explained. He nodded to
Skinner. "Hope your visit's going well, Mr. Skinner."

"It's been...informative, Sheriff. How's your deputy?"

Hunt's eyes narrowed, then he gave a bark of laughter. "She's
up to her elbows in baking with the rest of the women in my
house. She's already got cherry pie filling on her Sam
Browne." He tossed both of the frozen pie crusts into his cart,
then turned back. "I meant what I said, though. If you're
looking for a job down here, I've got one for you."

Skinner shook his head. "My week is up on Friday and it'll be
time for me to get back to D.C. and make some decisions."

"Traveling the day after Thanksgiving," the sheriff shook his
head, "is crazy. I'd recommend you stay the weekend. More
traffic fatalities on that day than any other in the year."

Krycek said abruptly, "Mulder can wait until Monday, can't he?"

"He's waited this long," Skinner said slowly. They stared at one

Hunt, oblivious to the tectonic shifts happening in front of
him, said only, "Happy Thanksgiving, gents. See you around,
Alex," and he left.

Skinner said, "I was supposed to be at the Scully's tomorrow
for dinner. Give me your phone." He tried to ignore the
curious lightening in his gut.

Krycek nodded and dug it out of his coat pocket. "With the
weather the way it is, the reception will be better outside."
His words were matter-of-fact, but Skinner thought he saw
that same lightened look in Krycek's face. "I'll finish up
here and meet you outside."

Skinner went out to the parking lot and took a deep breath of
frosted air. He found a corner of the parking lot away from
the constant ebb and flow of shoppers and he dialed Dana
Scully's office number. She picked up on the third ring.

"Dana? It's Walter Skinner."

"Walter! Where are you?! Mulder's been tearing up the city
looking for you!"

He sighed. "I told him I was fine. I still am."

"Well, your message was awfully mysterious. He was positive
that you had someone holding a gun to your head when you made
the call."

Damn Mulder. Skinner didn't want to think about how it was
that Mulder knew him that well. "I'm fine, Dana, truly. I'm
with a ... friend. I've been invited to stay through
Thanksgiving and I think I will. I'm just calling to cancel
and to ask you to make my apologies to your mother."

"But you'll miss Bill and Mulder skirmishing again over my
honor," Dana teased, relief clear in her voice. Skinner had
as little love for Bill Scully as the next man, particularly
when the next man was Fox Mulder. The Scully women merely
suppressed Bill's more egregious rudenesses and Mulder ignored
them. It had been Skinner who had gotten most annoyed last year.

"Heaven knows I'll miss the floor show, Scully," he said dryly.

There was a silence, then she said in a gentler voice, "You
haven't called me 'Scully' in over a year."

He didn't know what to say. She filled in the silence for him,
saying cheerfully, "You sound good, Walter. Relaxed. I guess
your friend has been treating you well."

"Yeah, he has. Will you tell Mulder..." he stopped. She
waited while he looked up at the falling snow, watched a crow
flap lazily into the evergreens on the hill above him, took a
deep breath. "Tell Mulder *I'm fine*. Tell him to stop
trying to file a missing persons report and not to hassle
his computer whizgeeks trying to find me. There's no mystery."

"You'll be glad to know there was no suggestion of arson
about the fire. He's checked," Dana said. "It was just the
timing of it all - you lost your job, wouldn't let any of us
see you all week, then your place burned down and you up and
disappear. There were a couple of odd eyewitness reports from
the shelter that suggested that you'd been kidnapped at gunpoint.
You can see how, after everything, he'd worry. *We* were worried."
She sounded vaguely reproachful.

"I know. I'm sorry. I just wasn't thinking too clearly when I
left that first message. And I don't have access to a phone
most of the time up here."

"Where are you, Walter?"

He hesitated. "Some place quiet."

"Ok," she said eventually. "I remember when I needed that,
right after everything went down. Mulder's going to hit the
ceiling, but I'll tell him something. sometimes,
all right? He's still holding the line but they're wearing him
down. Cassidy has him supervising wiretaps."

"I will," he promised. "Tell him he'll be getting something
in the mail very soon that will blow them all out of the water.
Tell him to hold on until I can get it to him, then he can
start messing with their heads as much as he likes."

"What the hell are you doing?" she breathed.

"Watching the snow," he told her, trying to be as honest as
he could. "After that, I have no clue what I'm doing." He saw
Krycek come out of the grocery store, pushing a cart, and he
began walking to meet him at the SUV. "But I'm OK, you got that,
Dana? Tell Mulder not to go off half-cocked. I'm fine." He got
to the car just as Krycek opened the back. He tucked the phone
under one ear and began helping to load the groceries.

"If you need anything..." she said.

"Could one of you go over and get my car?" he asked suddenly.
"I'm not sure when I'll be back and they must need to clear the

"What about your mail? Where shall I forward it?" He knew
that she honestly wasn't fishing and he felt a warm rush of
affection for her, gratitude that, after everything, she was
still his friend.

"Can you keep it for me? I don't know when I'll pick it up."

"Are you coming back, Walter?" she asked softly.

"I don't know," he said slowly, realizing that it was true.
"But I won't disappear. I just need to be ... some place quiet
for a while."

"OK," she said softly. "Take care of yourself, Walter.
Happy Thanksgiving."

"You, too," he said and disconnected the call.

Krycek didn't ask. He merely unlocked the doors and accepted
the phone back from Skinner. He started the engine and they
pulled back onto the highway. Skinner stared out at the snowy
evergreens for a while, thinking deep slow thoughts about
friendships and alliances. Then he said, "Head for the
lumber yard."


"That axe you're using is too light for the wood you're
splitting. We need a better maul, too."

"You just want to drool over their power drills again,"
Krycek accused, but he made the u-turn, throwing up sandy
slush. "If the ice cream melts, it's your fault."