See part one for disclaimers and other information.
Skinner shut the door and then leaned against it, his eyes closed. His stomach was roiling. The smug bastard who had tried his level best to kill him had just violated his home, then walked out unscathed. Skinner itched to take the man apart with his bare hands, but he knew it would never happen. Spender was literally untouchable. Skinner walked into the kitchen and took down the bottle of antacid. He chewed one of the chalky, fruit-flavored tablets and then another, for good measure.
He put a hand on the back of his neck, rubbing the taut muscles. He, Walter Sergei Skinner, had just arranged to buy another human being. He had agreed to purchase Krycek from Spender as though he were an animal. Skinner shook his head. No. He couldn't allow himself to think in those terms, to think like Spender. He wasn't purchasing Krycek. He was purchasing Krycek's freedom. A fool's argument, he knew. It was a subtle difference. Subtle, Walt? He chided himself. Try practically nonexistent. He just had to hope it would be enough to help him sleep at night.
Skinner shook his head. He suddenly had a vivid picture of Krycek's life and it was not a picture he wanted to see. It would have been so much easier to be able to keep hating him, to keep seeing him as the victimizer. It was all too obvious now who the victim was. Fourteen. Skinner closed his eyes again, remembering himself at fourteen. A tall, gangly boy who could outrun almost anyone, his father proudly clapping him on the back after he placed first in the all-county track meet. His first school dance, the school gymnasium decorated with balloons and crepe paper. Stealing a kiss from Sarah Swanson by the punch bowl, telling her jokes so he could see the way her little freckled nose crinkled up when she laughed.
Skinner stood, his hands in his pockets, thinking about Krycek. Had Krycek ever gotten to experience any of those things? Had he ever had the chance to experience anything at all except misery and fear? He wondered about Krycek's parents. Where were they? Had they sold their son to Spender? Skinner remembered Spender's cold, casual words. Original investment. Spender had purchased a fourteen-year old Alex Krycek for five thousand dollars.
Skinner frowned. No matter what else happened, he would have to make sure Krycek never found out about the five thousand dollars. Skinner was disgusted enough with the situation. He couldn't bear to see that disgust in the eyes of another, even Krycek. Skinner had more than enough in his retirement fund to supply Spender's blood money. He would pay the man and then try to forget it ever happened.
Skinner heard a stifled cry from upstairs. He quickly climbed the stairs to the bedroom. Krycek was struggling to sit up, his one hand clutching his side, his face contorted with pain. He froze when he saw Skinner, his green eyes huge and frightened. Seeing Krycek's fear, Skinner spoke quietly and soothingly.
"Don't move around too much, be careful of your ribs."
He took a step toward the bed, intending to help Krycek position himself more comfortably. Krycek whimpered and shrank back against the headboard. Skinner backed off, keeping his hands at his sides, trying to appear as unthreatening as possible. He could imagine what Krycek was thinking, having been the recipient of Skinner's hospitality in the not-too-distant past. Skinner cautiously pulled the chair a little further from the bed and sat down. Krycek watched his every move, trembling, his breathing shallow. Skinner spoke again, softly and deliberately.
"Take it easy, Krycek, I'm not going to hurt you."
Krycek swallowed nervously and bit his lip, those terrified eyes full of pain and distrust.
"Do you want me to help you sit up?" Krycek didn't answer. Skinner tried again.
"Look, you can't stay in that position," he nodded toward Krycek, who was propped up awkwardly on one side. "You're putting too much strain on your ribs." Skinner stood up very slowly and went to the closet, retrieving an extra pillow from the top shelf. He turned back to Krycek.
"I'm just going to make you more comfortable, okay?"
He took a careful step toward the bed. Krycek's trembling increased. It was obvious that it was requiring a monumental effort on his part to remain still. Skinner advanced slowly, the pillow held in front of him like a shield. He reached the side of the bed and stopped.
"Are you ready?"
Krycek shivered and closed his eyes, waiting for the hurt. Now Skinner would hit him, pull him from this warm bed and drag him out into the cold. He was pretending to be nice so he could make his revenge all the more sweet. Skinner reached down and placed his hand under Krycek's arm, then carefully pulled him up, placing the pillow behind his back. Krycek watched him closely as he returned to the chair.
"See? That wasn't so bad, was it?" Skinner said.
Krycek hesitated, then gave a small shake of his dark head. Skinner was worried. Krycek was far too pale, a thin sheen of sweat shone on his forehead and upper lip. Skinner leaned forward slightly, trying not to spook the frightened man.
"Are you in a lot of pain?" Krycek nodded slowly.
"Where do you hurt?"
For a moment it seemed Krycek would not answer, but then he did, staring at his lap, his voice so low Skinner had to lean closer to hear.
"All over, sir," he said softly. "My ribs and my back."
Skinner breathed a small sigh of relief. At least Krycek was talking.
"I've got some painkillers in the medicine cabinet. I'll bring you one. It'll help with the discomfort." Krycek's reaction was extreme. He whimpered again and began to shake.
"NO! Please, sir, no drugs," he begged, his voice breaking. "Please, please don't, sir."
Skinner was surprised at Krycek's reaction. If he had taken a beating like that, he would have been begging for a Percocet. He also found Krycek's use of the word "sir" a little strange, but he let it go for the moment. Right now he needed to calm the man down.
"Okay, okay Krycek," he said soothingly. "No drugs. But you need something. You're in pain and I'm afraid it's probably going to get worse before it gets better. How about something a little less strong, strictly over-the counter? Will you take a couple of Tylenol?"
Alex looked at him for a long time before nodding. Skinner left the room. Alex could hear him opening the medicine cabinet and rummaging through it. Alex stared at the empty bedroom doorway. He was confused. He had been awake a few minutes now, and Skinner hadn't hurt him yet. He was in a soft warm bed, under his own coverlet. How had that gotten here? He tried to remember. He remembered Spender, and Nikolai. His stomach tightened and he trembled. Spender had given him to Skinner, after all. But why was Skinner being so nice? Alex swallowed again, his pale lips a tight line. Revenge. That had to be it. He was being solicitous now but then he would pull the rug out from under Alex and hurt him badly. Alex blinked back tears.
Skinner returned with the pills and a glass of water. Wary of Krycek's skittishness, he moved slowly, avoiding any sudden moves. He walked to the side of the bed and held the pills out to Krycek in the palm of his hand.
"See? It says 'Tylenol'. That's all they are. Might take the edge off the pain, at least."
Skinner knew that was far from likely, but Krycek's terrified reaction to the suggestion of painkillers made him reluctant to press the subject any further. Krycek shyly reached for the pills, his fingers brushing Skinner's hand. He studied the pills for a moment and then put them in his mouth. He took the glass of water, spilling a little as he maneuvered it to his mouth with a shaking hand. Skinner helped him hold the glass steady while he drank. Skinner put the glass on the nightstand, beside Krycek's prosthetic. He had left it where Krycek could see it when he awoke, and had noted with satisfaction that Krycek had looked at it several times, as if he wanted to reassure himself that it was close by. Skinner stood by the bed silently, trying to think of what to say next. Krycek stared down at the coverlet, his expression blank, his fingers toying with a loose thread. Skinner cleared his throat.
"I'd like to talk to you. Are you up to it?"
Krycek looked up in surprise, then gave a slight nod. When was Skinner going to stop toying with him? He was here, he was helpless, he was hurting. Go on and finish it, he thought. Skinner moved slowly back to the chair and sat down. Skinner looked at Krycek for a few moments, then began.
"I know what you did, Krycek. The nanocytes. I know you were ordered to kill me and you didn't." Krycek looked up sharply, his eyes wide.
"I was there, in your apartment. I heard everything."
Skinner took a deep breath and continued. He needed to say this, needed Krycek to hear it.
"I went there for revenge," he paused as Krycek's body stiffened, "I wanted to hurt you."
"I wanted to hurt you so badly that you would at least be able to imagine what I was going through. I wanted to beat you until you told me how to free myself from those goddamned machines."
Skinner fought to keep his voice low and even. Krycek was even paler, if that were possible, and he had begun to tremble again. His hand was clutching the coverlet, his head bent as he listened silently.
"But Spender showed up, and I hid. I heard the truth, Krycek, all of it. I saw what they did to you. I didn't have time to think, I just got you and me both the hell out of there."
Krycek looked up. His face had that frightened, hunted look again.
"Spender? Oh God, what time is it? How long have I been here?"
Krycek roughly pushed back the coverlet and tried to get up. Skinner jumped up from the chair and rushed to the bed, grabbing Krycek's shoulders.
"Hey! What the hell do you think you're doing?"
Krycek struggled, the pain of his sudden movements making him gasp.
"You don't understand," he said, frantically trying to free himself from Skinner's grasp. "I have to get back, he'll be angry, he'll hurt me---"
Skinner held Krycek tightly, immobilizing him. He looked into Krycek's panicked eyes.
"Krycek. Stop it. Krycek!" he said, using his military voice. Krycek stilled, shaking and panting with fright.
"Are you listening to me, Krycek?" Krycek swallowed and nodded.
Skinner let go, not relaxing until Krycek settled back a little against the pillows.
"Calm down. It's over, Krycek. You don't ever have to go back to him again."
Alex's mouth opened soundlessly. His eyes were uncomprehending, disbelieving.
It couldn't be true. There was no way to get away from Spender. Why was Skinner saying this? Was he setting him up for punishment, keeping him from Spender until Spender thought he'd run away? Alex shivered at the thought. Skinner saw the doubt in Krycek's eyes.
"It's true, Krycek. He won't ever bother you again," Skinner said. Krycek shook his head, as though it would clear away the confusion.
"I met with him. Here, downstairs. He just left a little while ago."
Alex gaped at Skinner incredulously.
"He was here?" Skinner nodded.
Alex looked at Skinner's face, his eyes searching for the sadistic smile, the malicious flicker in the eyes that would reveal this to be another cruelty. He didn't find it. He looked down at his shaking hand, clutching the coverlet.
"It's really true, sir?" he whispered.
"Yes," Skinner said simply.
Krycek's face was a map of conflicting emotions. He trembled, blinking back tears as he tried to come to grips with the enormity of what he had just been told. Skinner sat silently, waiting for Krycek to regain his composure. He had to admit, it felt good, even slightly heroic, giving Krycek his freedom. He felt better already, that suffocating feeling of obligation loosening slightly. He would help Krycek get back on his feet, give him a little money to get himself started somewhere, and then they would be even. A life for a life. Skinner smiled. He just hoped the old man would keep his end of the agreement. He hoped his performance had been convincing enough. Krycek looked up, his expression strange. Even though he sat only a few inches away, Skinner had to lean forward to hear him.
"Am I yours now?"
Spoken in a near-whisper. Skinner looked at Krycek in amazement. Krycek's eyes were grave. Skinner saw something else in those eyes, something he was not prepared for. Trust. Hope.
It came out sharply, more sharply than Skinner had intended. Krycek's eyes filled with tears. He was confused. Hadn't Skinner just told him he wasn't Spender's anymore? Hadn't Skinner brought him here and put him into bed? Alex's lower lip trembled.
"Don't you want me, sir?" he asked sorrowfully, a tear sliding down his cheek. "I'll be good, you won't have to hurt me. Please, sir," he gulped. "please don't send me away."
Alex was terrified. Why had Skinner saved him, if he didn't want him? Who would he be given to? Would he be given back to Nikolai? Krycek trembled again. He knew only that Skinner had not yet hurt him. He was in a warm bed. Skinner had seemed concerned about his pain, given him pills. He couldn't remember the last time he had been in the same room with another man for this length of time and had not been hurt. Would Skinner send him away? Alex sniffled. He had nowhere to go.
Skinner watched in growing alarm as Alex became more and more distressed. Damn, he thought, this wasn't the way it was supposed to go at all. He had tried to give Krycek his freedom and had only succeeded in making the boy think he was his new master!
Krycek was trying to get up again, tears running unchecked down his pale cheeks. Skinner grasped his shoulders again, holding him still. Krycek turned to him, his eyes frightened and confused.
"Who do I belong to? Please, sir, please tell me, who do I belong to?" His voice broke, and he began sobbing in earnest.
"Please tell me, Skinner. Please tell me who owns me. If I don't do what they want, they'll hurt me. Please, sir, please tell me what I'm supposed to do."
He looked at Skinner pleadingly. Krycek's breathing had become erratic again. He was on the verge of full-blown hysteria. All that moving around wasn't doing his ribs any good, either. Skinner spoke quickly.
"Okay, okay, Krycek," he said.
He gently grasped Krycek's chin and forced him to look into his eyes, hoping to calm him as quickly as possible.
"Listen to me. I'm-you're mine, okay?" Skinner couldn't quite believe he was saying this. "You belong to me now. I'm not going to hurt you and I'm not going to send you away. You're safe here."
Skinner winced as he unintentionally echoed his own past words, words he had growled out in anger before hitting Krycek as hard as he could and chaining him on the balcony like an animal. If Krycek noticed Skinner's discomfort, he did not show it. Instead, he looked back up at Skinner, his eyes brimming with tears.
"You mean it?" he said tentatively. "You won't send me back?"
Skinner hesitated almost imperceptibly. He wasn't sure where this was going. Krycek was obviously shellshocked and helpless, apparently having suffered some sort of breakdown. He had suffered horrific abuse and was going to need careful handling to gain any semblance of normalcy. Krycek looked at him, pleading with his eyes. Skinner nodded.
Krycek sagged with relief, sinking back into the pillows, his eyes closed. His wet eyelashes fluttered slightly. Skinner watched him, silently reproving himself. Well, you brought him here, Walt. He's your responsibility. What did you think was going to happen? The man has been a virtual slave since the age of fourteen. He's been beaten, burned and very likely raped. Did you really think he was just going to thank you, dust himself off and sail out the door to begin a new life? Skinner made a mental note to make sure this was his last impetuous decision. Ever. Krycek interrupted his reverie with a tug on his sleeve. Skinner looked at Krycek. Krycek's eyes were big and serious.
"How do you want me, sir?" he said softly, almost sadly.
Skinner sat puzzled for a moment. He realized what Krycek was asking and a sharp pang of sympathy pierced his heart. How many times must he have said that, in that same soft, sad voice? Skinner frowned slightly, pressing Krycek firmly but gently back against the pillows. He pulled the coverlet back up, tucking it in around him.
"Just like that, flat on your back, covers up to your chin," he said firmly.
Krycek looked up, confused. Skinner looked down at Krycek with just the barest hint of a smile.
He left the room, making sure to leave the bedside light on. Alex lay staring up at the ceiling, surprised at Skinner's reaction. He had expected to be used, hadn't expected to be tucked into bed with such gentleness, with nothing expected of him. Alex sighed and let himself relax a little, though his mind wouldn't let him rest. Was Spender really gone from his life? Alex couldn't even begin to comprehend it. Could he stay here with Skinner and not be hurt? Alex knew this couldn't last. At least when the hurt started again, he would have a memory of being cared for. Alex yawned, wincing as his ribs protested. In a few moments, he was fast asleep.
Krycek slept on and off throughout the night. Skinner dozed in the chair by the bed, a blanket over his legs, waking frequently to check on Krycek. Krycek's bruising was severe. He was black and blue over most of his torso and lower back, with some patches of yellow. His tortured muscles were beginning to seize up, and Krycek moaned in pain even as he slept. Skinner woke him every few hours to give him more Tylenol, Krycek peering blearily at the pills before he would swallow them. Skinner had been sorely tempted to slip Krycek a Percocet, but held himself back. He didn't want to erode any fragile trust that might have built between them in the short time Krycek had been there.
Skinner awoke as Krycek gasped in pain. He had tried to sit up on his own. Skinner rubbed his eyes and got up from the chair.
"Krycek? What are you doing?" Krycek looked at him fearfully.
"I have to go to the bathroom, sir," he said timidly. Skinner looked at him doubtfully.
"I don't know," he said. "You're in a lot of pain. I can bring you a bottle." Krycek considered this, his face reddening.
"Please sir," he said softly. "I'd like to try to walk."
Skinner held out his hand to help Krycek up. Krycek flinched back. Skinner exhaled, trying to remain patient. He sat down on the edge of the bed next to Krycek.
"You know, Krycek," he said, not unkindly. "If I'm going to be taking care of you, you're going to have to work on not being afraid of me."
Krycek looked down, nodded.
"I'm sorry, sir," he whispered.
"Don't apologize," Skinner said firmly, but smiling as he did so.
"Tell me, have I hurt you? Have I done anything to harm you since you've been here?" Krycek shook his head.
"Then just try, Krycek, that's all I ask. I know it'll take time before you trust me. Just try to get used to me, that's all."
Krycek looked up again, as if he wanted to say something. Skinner waited, but Krycek only glanced down again, then nodded. Skinner gently eased Krycek up off the bed. Krycek moved slowly down the hall, in obvious agony, shuffling like an old man. Skinner waited outside the bathroom door until he heard the toilet flush, then helped Krycek back to bed. Krycek fell back against the pillows, exhausted, falling back to sleep almost immediately. Skinner sat back in the chair, pulling the blanket around him. He was definitely going to have to deal with this "sir" issue.
At precisely eight the next morning, Skinner called his personal assistant, Kimberly, and advised her that he would be taking his accumulated vacation time immediately.
"All... all nine weeks, sir?"
"Yes, Kimberly. I have a... personal matter to attend to. AD Kersh will be handling any matters that arise in my absence."
Skinner had called him ten minutes before, and he hadn't sounded happy. Too bad, Skinner thought. He went upstairs to check on his guest. Krycek was sleeping, curled in a ball, a shock of dark hair peeking out from under the covers. Skinner went back downstairs and read the newspaper, working his way through most of a pot of coffee as he did, listening all the while for any sounds from the guest room. It was half past nine when he went to check on Krycek again. He found him sitting propped up against the pillows, his head turned toward the window, the sun playing across his face.
"How are you feeling?" Krycek opened his eyes, squinting a little.
"Sore," he admitted. Skinner looked at him carefully.
"When was the last time you ate something, Krycek?" Krycek looked down quickly, not meeting Skinner's eyes.
"I... I don't remember, sir."
He really didn't. He had lived on instant soup for a few days, but before that, he wasn't sure. He couldn't remember the last time he had had an appetite. Skinner left the room, returning a few minutes later carrying a tray with a bowl of cereal and milk and a glass of orange juice. He placed the tray on Krycek's lap and sat down beside the bed.
"Mind if I keep you company?" he asked.
Krycek shook his head, toying unenthusiastically with the spoon in the cereal. Skinner had decided to try to spend as much time in the room as possible when Krycek was awake. Maybe then Krycek would start to get used to him.
"Come on now. Stop playing with it and eat it," he admonished gently.
Krycek looked up with a strange expression, and then took a mouthful of cereal. He managed to eat about two-thirds of the cereal and drank all of the juice. Not bad for a start, Skinner thought. Krycek closed his eyes as Skinner took the tray, the effort of eating the small meal having worn him out. He drowsed as Skinner went downstairs and cleaned up the breakfast dishes, waking when Skinner returned carrying a small television set. He put it on the chest of drawers that sat against the opposite wall and plugged it in.
"I thought you might like this, to help pass the time."
"Thank you, sir," Krycek murmured. "Maybe later." Skinner sat down in the chair.
"Krycek? I think we need to set a few ground rules." Krycek nodded, his posture straightening perceptibly. He understood rules.
"Yes, sir." Skinner smiled, trying to put the younger man at ease.
"First, you don't have to call me sir. In fact, I'd prefer it if you didn't. This bald head of mine makes me feel old enough."
He smiled again, watching carefully for Krycek's reaction. Krycek looked down for a long while, then looked up.
"Okay," he said softly, not smiling at Skinner's joke. "I... I always... I mean, I might forget sometimes."
His eyes told Skinner everything he needed to know. If Krycek had ever forgotten his manners once, it was a safe bet there hadn't been a second time. Skinner knew he was seeing the direct result of years of programming through terror and abuse.
"It's all right, Krycek. I won't get angry if you call me sir. I know you're used to saying it and it may take time for you to relax enough so that you don't feel like you have to. Just try, that's all. I know," he said brightly. "Why don't you just call me Skinner?"
Krycek looked down, smiling slightly, and nodded. Skinner continued.
"Secondly, I am not going to hurt you. Not today, not tomorrow, not next week. Do you understand?"
Krycek hesitated, then nodded again. Skinner pressed further.
"I want you to say it." Krycek cleared his throat nervously and looked at Skinner. "Go on," Skinner encouraged. "I want to hear you say that you understand that."
"I understand... that you won't hurt me," Krycek said, a little unsteadily. Skinner was pleased.
"Do you believe that, Krycek?" Krycek stared at the coverlet for a long while, then spoke in a whisper.
Skinner knew better than to believe him. The tense shoulders, the bowed head, the nervous fingers plucking at the coverlet, all told him that Krycek was far from certain about anything at this point. Skinner decided to let it go, for now. There was no use in trying to talk the boy into trusting him. He would have to let him see for himself, day by day, that he was safe.
"Very good." Skinner stood. "The third and last rule is," he pointed at Krycek with mock sternness. "You get better. You eat and you rest and take your Tylenol and get better. Understood?"
Krycek nodded, his eyes suddenly and suspiciously bright. He ducked his head. Skinner took a deep breath. He wanted to proceed cautiously, get the boy used to his presence. Rushing things would only panic Krycek.
"Is it all right if I sit on the edge of the bed?"
Krycek tensed and for a moment Skinner was sure he was going to say no. After a long while, thought, Krycek nodded almost imperceptibly. Skinner sat on the edge of the bed, gingerly, so as not to jar Krycek. Krycek watched him warily. Skinner made sure not to get too close. He spoke softly.
"It was hard, with Spender."
It wasn't a question. Krycek nodded again, a lump in his throat. Skinner was afraid of upsetting Krycek, but he wanted to get him talking, and there were things Skinner wanted to know.
"Those burns on your back, Krycek... "
Krycek caught his breath and looked down, his face scarlet. Skinner cautiously put a hand on Krycek's arm. Krycek jumped a little but did not pull away. Emboldened, Skinner put a finger under Krycek's chin and tilted his face upward.
"Don't be ashamed, Krycek. It's not your fault. Do you want to tell me about it?" Krycek bit his lip, then spoke quietly.
"It was for Bill Mulder."
Krycek looked up at Skinner's face, watching intently for any sign of judgment. He saw none. Skinner waited for him to continue.
"I was supposed to kill him. I went there but I couldn't. I just... couldn't. Spender didn't trust me. He had Jason follow me. I hid in the bathroom but I couldn't do it. I couldn't," he paused, his voice choked, "I couldn't take his father away. Bill Mulder came into the bathroom and Jason shot him through the window, then he dragged me back to Spender. Spender did that to me. He made a circle, he said so I wouldn't ever forget that I was nothing, zero."
Krycek laughed softly.
"And I never have." Skinner tilted Krycek's face up again, noting the tears in his eyes.
"I don't want to hear you say that again," he growled.
Krycek's eyes widened. Skinner's tone softened.
"You are not nothing. Spender is a cruel, sadistic old man who victimized and abused you. I know it's going to be hard for you to try and unlearn all the horrible things you've been taught, but," he paused, his own words surprising him, "I'll help you."
Krycek blinked, his mouth falling slightly open. He flushed and looked down so that Skinner wouldn't see his eyes filling again. Skinner stood again, smoothing out the creases in his trousers.
"How about a nap until lunch?" Krycek nodded.
"Yes, s---I mean, yes," he said, catching himself.
He tried to keep himself from flinching, the response was so ingrained in him. He looked up at Skinner, and saw only a proud smile.
"Very good. Let me know if you need anything."
Skinner went downstairs and busied himself, tidying up and making a few phone calls. Except for one trip to the bathroom, Krycek slept until noon. Skinner helped him sit up so he could eat, then brought in the tray.
"Think you can handle chicken noodle soup and a sandwich?"
Krycek nodded, although he wasn't at all sure about the soup. Skinner had brought his lunch up, too.
"I thought we'd eat together," he said. Krycek hesitated, then nodded.
They ate in companionable silence. Skinner polished off his sandwich and started on his mug of soup in the time it took Krycek to eat a few bites of his sandwich and three spoonfuls of soup. Skinner frowned. The boy was too thin and his appetite did not seem to be improving. Skinner took the tray and handed Krycek the remote control for the television.
"Why don't you watch a little TV while I clean up? I think you should try to stay awake for a while."
Krycek flipped around, finding little of interest, finally settling back to watch a documentary on sharks. Skinner went downstairs and put the dishes into the dishwasher, thinking all the while. Krycek needed some meat on his bones, and he wasn't eating enough at meals to do it. A memory surfaced. Skinner had gone into the cafeteria in the Hoover building for a late lunch and encountered the new agent raiding the snack machine. Skinner had thought he looked awkward in his unfashionable suit, as though he were wearing his father's clothes. He had made pleasant conversation with Agent Krycek as the fresh-faced rookie produced a handful of change and purchased several chocolate bars.
"Just stocking up," he had said, looking a little embarrassed.
Skinner remembered seeing Krycek at his desk, poring over a stack of files, absently nibbling on a Hershey bar. Even Mulder had commented on the man's propensity for consuming chocolate, seeing no parity whatsoever between that and his own sunflower seed habit. Four years later, Skinner stood in his kitchen, grinning. He went into the pantry and rummaged around on the shelf, exclaiming triumphantly when he found what he was looking for.
Sharon had loved gadgets of all kinds. When they were still married, Skinner had never known what new gizmo she was going to come home with next. There was the electric rice steamer, the dehydrator, the juicer, the milkshake machine. Skinner held it in his hands. The only gadget she had ever bought that had had his enthusiastic approval.
When Sharon moved out of their home in Alexandria, Skinner had surreptitiously squirreled the milkshake machine away so that she wouldn't take it with her. He had made prodigious use of it until his doctor put a stop to his one-a-day milkshake habit. He had sadly packed it on the top shelf of the pantry, behind the olive oil and canned soup. It was made of gleaming chrome, just like the old-fashioned ones in the ice cream parlor back when he was a kid. He took it into the kitchen and wiped the dust off with a dishcloth, then washed and rinsed the metal cup.
He opened the freezer and took out the premium chocolate ice cream he had bought on impulse a few days before, intending to indulge his occasional sweet tooth. His doctor hadn't forbidden him the occasional bowl of ice cream, now had he? It was a weak rationalization, Skinner knew, but one he was glad to have made. He dropped two scoops of the ice cream into the cup, followed by a generous amount of milk, chocolate syrup and three heaping spoonfuls of protein powder. He went to work, blending the milkshake to perfection, not too thin, not too thick. He poured it into a tall glass, impulsively adding a dollop of the real whipped cream he kept for hot chocolate and the apple pies that Mrs. Napoli down the hall brought him, always remembering her bachelor neighbor when she baked.
Skinner started toward the stairs and paused, returning to the kitchen. He opened the cabinet door and felt for the small bottle of chocolate sprinkles. Good, it was still there. He shook a liberal amount decoratively over the top of the whipped cream, pleased with his creation. Skinner smiled as he headed for the stairs. He was fond of Mrs. Napoli. She was a widow and liked to bring him pies and cakes, no doubt thinking that he never got a decent meal. He hadn't had the heart to tell her that he made a pretty mean apple pie himself.
Krycek turned off the television when Skinner came in. Skinner stood next to the bed.
"Don't turn it off because of me." Krycek shrugged.
"It was nearly over anyway."
Krycek looked at the milkshake, then dropped his gaze, his expression neutral. Skinner thought he understood. Krycek didn't want to assume anything. Skinner stepped closer to the bed.
"I made this for you. I thought you might like it."
Krycek's eyes widened. He looked up at Skinner, taking the glass as though it were a chalice. He stared down at the whipped cream floating in its pool of chocolate.
"You made this for me?" Skinner nodded.
"There's plenty more where that came from. I'm going to fatten you right up, boy."
Krycek took a small sip, then another. Another sip, then a smile. A real one. Skinner felt his heart swell. The smile disappeared all too quickly, as Krycek seemed to withdraw into himself again. Krycek got a tiny dot of whipped cream on the end of his nose, and Skinner caught himself wondering what it would be like to kiss it off. Slowly, Krycek drained the glass. He handed it to Skinner.
"Thank you, Skinner," he said quietly. "That was good. I'm really tired. I'd like to sleep for a while."
"All right, but just for a little while. If you sleep too much now, you'll never get to sleep tonight. I know it's hard, but we need to get you on a schedule."
Skinner paused at the door. "I want you to get a bath in after dinner, all right?"
Krycek nodded and closed his eyes, already half-asleep. Skinner stood there for a long moment, watching as Krycek drifted off to sleep. Skinner took the glass downstairs and put it in the dishwasher, then cleaned up the milkshake machine. He mentally congratulated himself. Who would have thought that a chocolate milkshake could make an abused former assassin smile like a child? The smile had been fleeting, but it had been there, and Skinner was grateful that he hadn't missed it. He knew it would take more than chocolate milkshakes to get Krycek well, mentally and physically. But, he thought, it's a start.
Skinner sat down on the living room sofa, shifting around a little. Sleeping sitting up in the chair the night before had done nothing at all for his back. He found a comfortable position and sank back into the cushions with a sigh, looking forward to relaxing until it was time to check on Krycek again. He turned the television on to the sports channel, keeping the sound low so he would be able to hear any noise from upstairs. He smiled and sipped from a bottle of his favorite beer, pleased that he was in time for the start of the Capitals game. The puck had just dropped when he was startled by a loud pounding at the front door. Skinner crossed to the door and looked through the peephole. He leaned against the wall for a moment, cursing softly. He squared his shoulders and opened the door.
Mulder rushed past him, rumpled and agitated. He looked around the living room, his eyes wild.
"Where is he? Where is that son of a bitch?" He was breathing hard, his fists clenched.
"Are you all right, sir?"
Skinner closed the door and positioned himself between Mulder and the staircase. He folded his arms. His jaw was clenched.
"That's enough, Agent Mulder," he growled.
Mulder began to pace around the living room, his eyes darting about as though he expected to find Krycek lurking under the sofa or behind the drapes.
"I'm going to kill that fucking little rat!" he yelled. "Where is he?"
"Lower your voice, Agent Mulder," Skinner snapped.
Mulder faltered and stopped in his tracks, suddenly realizing he was the unfortunate subject of Skinner's most furious AD glare.
"AGENT MULDER!" Skinner shouted.
Mulder's eyes widened and he dropped down onto the sofa, his mouth slightly open. Skinner didn't move from his position by the stairs. He fixed the errant agent with look that he knew well. Mulder began to realize that he was in deep trouble.
"Agent Mulder, would you like to explain just what in the hell you think you're doing, bursting in here like this?" Mulder flushed and looked down sheepishly.
"Sir, I-I was worried. Kimberly said you were taking nine weeks vacation all at once, and then I heard that Alex Krycek... " he trailed off. Skinner's eyes were flashing fire.
"Go on, Agent. What about Alex Krycek?"
Skinner's voice was calm. Mulder swallowed nervously. Skinner's calm voice together with that clenched jaw and red face meant one thing: storm warning.
"Well, sir, I... uh," he stammered. "I was told... isn't he here?" Skinner stared at Mulder.
"And if he is?" he said evenly. Mulder's face reddened and he jumped up from the sofa.
"Sir, we're talking about Alex Krycek! He killed my father! He killed Scully's sister! He betrayed us all! He's nothing but a lying, murdering, traitorous scumbag and I'm not leaving until I get a chance to even the score with him! Where is he? Where is that fucking coward?"
Mulder was shaking with rage. He took a step toward the staircase. Skinner stepped in front of him.
"Sit down, Mulder."
Mulder tried to duck past him. Skinner moved in front of Mulder, his face like a thundercloud. Mulder shivered as the AD's eyes bored into him. Skinner's voice was shaking with the effort of holding his temper in check.
"Agent Mulder. Sit. Down. Now."
Mulder quailed, returning to the sofa and sitting down obediently. Skinner stared at the agent for a long moment. Mulder began to fidget uncomfortably. He was flabbergasted at the turn of events. What's going on here? He thought. Alex Krycek is here in Skinner's home instead of in jail where he belongs and Skinner's yelling at me? Skinner finally spoke, in a tone with which Mulder was unhappily familiar.
"Now, why don't you tell me exactly what you heard regarding myself and Alex Krycek." Mulder gulped.
"Well, sir, I received an anonymous phone call. The caller said that they could tell me where to find Krycek. Then they gave me this... your address," Mulder said hesitantly. Skinner's gaze was withering.
"So you rush over here without so much as a phone call? You barge into my home and behave like a madman? Because of an anonymous tip?"
Skinner snorted. Anonymous, indeed. He wondered how long it had taken Spender to teach the missing link how to use a phone. Mulder rushed to his own defense.
"But, sir," he said, his voice sounding dangerously close to a whine. "We're talking about Alex Krycek! I thought you might be in danger!"
Skinner stared him down again. Mulder's shoulders sagged. Skinner spoke quietly.
"I know what we're talking about, Agent Mulder. We're talking about your blatant disregard for my privacy. We're talking about you going off half-cocked as usual and assuming that you have all the facts when you clearly do not." Skinner paused. "And yes, we're talking about Alex Krycek. I am only going to say this once, Agent Mulder, so make sure you pay attention. Alex Krycek is a guest in my home. Period. I am not going to apologize and I am not going to explain."
Mulder gaped at Skinner, astonished.
"A guest?" He said incredulously. "Krycek? But he's-"
"I know what you think, Agent Mulder, and up until a day ago I thought the same thing. You don't have all the facts. I don't either, but I'm starting to understand a few things. Krycek didn't kill your father and I don't believe he killed Scully's sister."
Mulder opened his mouth to protest, but Skinner cut him off, his voice rising.
"Don't, Agent Mulder! I've heard all I'm willing to hear from you on the subject. Alex Krycek has lived a life that you couldn't imagine in your worst nightmares. And before you accuse me of being swayed by his wide-eyed charms, let me assure you I have witnessed it firsthand. The man lying upstairs in that bed is so badly beaten that he can barely move. He's been systematically tortured and abused. He's so traumatized that he can barely hold a conversation. You know what Spender did to him, Mulder? He burned him with a cigarette. Not just once, but over and over. I've seen the scars, Mulder. He ground a lit cigarette into Krycek's back again and again."
Skinner took a deep breath.
"That was his punishment for not killing your father."
Skinner's pulse was racing. He was surprised at just how angry Mulder's outburst had made him. Mulder was staring at Skinner, his mouth open, dumbfounded. Skinner pinned him to the sofa with his glare.
"I have one more thing to say, Agent Mulder, and you'll want to listen. Alex Krycek is off limits. You will not attempt to contact him. You will not attempt to have him arrested, detained or otherwise inconvenienced. You will not come here again without speaking to me beforehand and making the appropriate arrangements. And if you ever try to harm him, you'll have to come through me to do it. Is that clear?"
Mulder continued to gape, his face white with shock.
"I said, is that clear?" Skinner barked.
Mulder jerked and stood up quickly, his face ashen.
"Y-yes, sir," he said quickly, his eyes round with disbelief.
Talk about an X-File, he thought. Have I stumbled into some bizarre parallel universe where up is down and down is up and Skinner is playing The Great Protector to poor helpless Krycek? He shook his head numbly. When did everything stop making sense? Skinner opened the door.
"I think it's time for you to leave, Agent," he said. "I'll give AD Kersh a call. We've got quite a backlog of surveillance tapes that need transcribing and I'm sure he'll agree you're just the man for the job."
Mulder paled and quickly made his exit, mumbling an apology. Skinner closed the door. He turned off the television, suddenly uninterested in the game. He poured the remains of his tepid beer down the sink before walking down the hall to his office to make that phone call.
Skinner hung up the phone and glanced at his watch. He climbed the stairs and went to the bedroom, moving as quietly as possible so as not to awaken Krycek. He stopped in the doorway, surprised to find that Krycek was not asleep.
Krycek was sitting up in bed, his eyes rimmed with red. He had been crying. He stared at Skinner with an expression of disbelief, his face seeming all the more ashen in contrast to the dark hair falling across his brow. He looked down, struggling to speak, twisting the coverlet around his long, delicate fingers.
"I heard you," he said, his voice hoarse.
Skinner walked over to the chair and sat down heavily. He looked at Krycek, his face etched with concern. Krycek looked up again, his eyes shining with unshed tears.
"I heard you," he said again, "you and Mulder. I heard everything." His voice dropped to a whisper.
"You... you took my side. You protected me."
He shook his head in wonder, still barely able to believe it. He had been jolted awake by the sounds of shouting from downstairs. Two voices. When he had recognized the second voice, he had begun panting with fear, looking frantically around the room for a place to hide. Mulder was here. Mulder was screaming his name, baying for blood. He had huddled under the covers in a miserable ball, waiting for the sound of rapidly ascending footsteps, waiting for the angry snarl, for the punch in the gut. Waiting for the pain. But it hadn't come. Cautiously, he had emerged from his cocoon and cocked his head, listening to the voices. Listening to the words. Skinner's furious growl carried up the stairwell, accompanied by Mulder's plaintive whine.
Krycek stared at Skinner now, as though he were seeing him for the first time. He spoke softly, as if saying the words out loud would bring this fragile hope crashing down around him.
"You defended me," he said. "Against him. It was Mulder," he whispered, his voice tinged with awe. Skinner nodded.
"Yes," he said simply.
Krycek continued to stare at him with that expression of wonderment in his eyes, his mouth slightly open, utterly amazed. Those fathomless green eyes searched Skinner's face, as if Krycek were trying to memorize each line and contour, each shadow and plane. Abruptly, Krycek realized that he was staring and looked away, blushing.
"Thank you," he said quietly.
Skinner leaned forward slightly, smiling.
"It's all right, Krycek. It's all taken care of," he said gently. "Did you get much sleep?"
Krycek stretched a little, his sore back and ribs pulling him up short.
"A little," he answered, then added, hesitantly, "the yelling woke me up." Skinner stood, his hands in his pockets.
"I'm sorry you had to hear that, Krycek. Mulder won't be troubling you and that's a promise." He grinned at Krycek.
Krycek nodded, his eyes fixed on Skinner's.
"Right," he said softly.
"Do you need the bathroom?" Skinner asked.
Krycek shook his head shyly.
"All right," Skinner said, "if you need it, all you have to do is call me. I'd better start thinking about dinner."
Skinner turned to leave, stopping when he heard Krycek's soft voice calling after him.
"Skinner? Would you stay?" He looked down at his lap.
"Would you sit with me for a little while?"
Skinner nodded and sat down in the chair again, secretly pleased. It was the first time Krycek had asked for anything, had seemed willing to have Skinner there. It was definitely progress. For a while, neither man spoke. Skinner sat quietly, content to watch the beginning of the sunset through the bedroom window, the copper-gold light illuminating his face, softening his features. Krycek leaned back against the pillows, the gnawing fear that was a constant undertone in his life retreating slightly, loosening its grip for a little while. He closed his eyes, basking in Skinner's quiet strength.
They spent an hour like that, speaking little, watching the shadows slowly melting together as darkness approached. Just before the room became more darkness than light, Skinner reached over and turned on the bedside lamp. He patted Krycek's shoulder gently and went downstairs. Krycek lay in the small pool of warmth provided by the lamp, slowly beginning to accept his place in the light.
Skinner stood in the kitchen, filling two plates with poached chicken and steamed rice. Not his favorite meal, but one that he hoped would be easy on Krycek's stomach. He had looked longingly at the steak as he had pulled the package of chicken from the freezer, but had decided to eat the same dinner as Krycek. No need to make the boy feel like an invalid. He picked up the plates, balancing the cutlery carefully, then stopped. Cutlery. Brilliant, Walt.
He placed the plates back on the counter, chiding himself. That had been a close call. He began cutting up the chicken on Krycek's plate, thankful that he had realized his mistake before taking the plate upstairs. There was no way Krycek could cut up the chicken himself, even if he was wearing the prosthetic. It would have been an agony of embarrassment for him and Skinner was glad to have avoided that. He thought he was finally getting through to Krycek, and a careless mistake like this could have been a major setback. He finished cutting up Krycek's chicken and then started on his own, efficiently cutting it into neat cubes. He mixed the chicken in with the rice, then took the tray upstairs.
Alex had been dozing, smiling a little at the unfamiliar, homey sounds drifting up from the kitchen. Skinner had been humming as he cooked, his rich baritone mingling with the sounds of dishes clanking and water running. Alex's eyes filled as he listened, so unaccustomed to someone cooking for him, caring for him. To someone else being there. The smell of cooking chicken wafted up to him and his stomach growled. He knew he was physically hungry, but his appetite remained absent. He sighed. Maybe he could eat a little. Skinner seemed to want him to and he didn't want to make Skinner angry at him. Deep inside, he knew the caring and kindness wouldn't last. Sooner or later, he would end up alone and hurting again, but if he was good, maybe it would last a little longer. Alex heard Skinner coming up the stairs and began to sit up, hissing as his sore ribs protested.
"Anyone order room service?"
Skinner joked as he entered the room. He saw Alex's pained expression and sat the tray down on the nightstand.
"Hang on a minute, Krycek, let me help you."
He gently helped Alex sit up, then had him lean forward. He plumped the pillows and put them back behind Alex.
"Are you all right?" he asked. Alex nodded shyly.
He looked at the tray as Skinner put it his lap.
"This smells good." Skinner sat down in the chair, balancing his own plate on his lap.
"Well, it's nothing fancy. I think we'd better stick to bland food until your stomach gets accustomed to regular meals." Alex nodded.
"But what about you?" he asked, glancing at the plain chicken and rice on Skinner's plate. "Do you like this?" Skinner laughed.
"This is just fine, Krycek. Believe me, my doctor would approve."
There was no need to tell Krycek how he had been lovingly eyeing the Black Angus in the freezer downstairs. The steaks would still be there when the boy was better. Alex smiled a little and ate a few bites of chicken. Skinner ate his dinner, glad for the liberal dose of salt he had given his meal before coming upstairs. He watched Krycek pick at his food, eating a few forkfuls of chicken and rice without enthusiasm.
"Is it that bad?" he asked, not unkindly. Alex looked up, embarrassed.
"No," he said hastily. "It's just... I'm not really that hungry."
He nervously toyed with his fork, looking carefully at Skinner from under his lashes. Was Skinner angry at him? Alex trembled involuntarily. Was he going to be punished? Skinner watched him with concern. He thought he knew what Krycek was thinking.
"It's okay, Krycek," he said. "Just try. I know you don't have much of an appetite right now, but you've got to get your strength back." He looked at Alex's plate.
"Do you think you can eat at least half of that?"
Alex looked down at his plate. He was a long way from half. Skinner placed his own empty plate on the nightstand and took a sip of iced tea. Alex hadn't touched his own glass of milk. Alex looked up.
"I guess so," he said hesitantly. Skinner smiled.
"I'll tell you what. If you eat at least half of that, and drink all of the milk, I'll make you another milkshake before bed."
Alex blushed and smiled, feeling like a little kid being promised dessert for finishing his dinner. He glanced up at Skinner, but there was no mockery in those brown eyes, only kindness. Alex's eyes filled again and he looked back down at his plate so that Skinner wouldn't see.
"I'd like that," he whispered. Skinner stood.
"I'm just going to take my dishes downstairs. And you," he pointed at Krycek in mock severity. "You get to work. I want half of that milk gone and I want to see a dent in that chicken and rice by the time I get back. I warn you, my milkshakes have addictive qualities, so you'd better get used to eating your meals, young man."
Alex nodded. He swallowed a forkful of rice past the lump in his throat as his plate shimmered in front of him, hot tears threatening to spill onto his cheeks. He took a sip of milk and closed his eyes, willing the tears away, so grateful for the small kindnesses.
Skinner lingered downstairs, flipping idly through a magazine, giving Krycek time to eat. He returned to the bedroom to find Krycek had done better than he expected, finishing his milk and almost two-thirds of the chicken and rice. Skinner was very pleased. He had been planning to make Krycek another milkshake before bed anyway, but if it proved to be a useful incentive to get him to eat, so much the better. Alex put his fork down and wiped his mouth, carefully folding the napkin and resting it on the tray.
"Did I eat enough?" he asked.
Skinner took the tray, patting Krycek's shoulder as he did. Krycek looked surprised but didn't flinch away. Skinner was secretly pleased. He sensed that Krycek was still afraid of him and regarded each minor victory as a milestone.
"You certainly did," he said. "Later, I am going to make you a spectacular milkshake and enjoy watching you drink every drop." He smiled as he carried the tray to the door.
"After all, every artist likes to see his work appreciated."
He thought he heard a soft snort as he descended the stairs.
Skinner finished cleaning up after dinner and then went upstairs to the hall bathroom. He began running a bath for Krycek and placed clean towels on the vanity. He walked into the bedroom.
"Ready for your bath?" Alex pushed back the covers, looking down sheepishly.
"I don't remember the last time I had one," he admitted. "I must smell pretty bad."
Skinner slowly moved to Alex's side and helped him swing his legs over the side of the bed.
He wrapped one arm around Alex's waist and took his hand, gently lifting up until he was standing.
"You'll feel a lot better once you're clean."
Alex had gotten paler and his breathing was labored. He was obviously in pain. Skinner stood next to him, supporting him with his arm around his waist.
"It's okay, Krycek. Whenever you're ready."
After a moment, Alex nodded and they made their way slowly to the bathroom. Skinner sat Alex down gently on the closed toilet seat, then dipped his hand into the bathwater. He adjusted the taps, adding a little more cold water to the mix. Alex watched silently, his solemn green eyes taking in everything. Finally, Skinner turned off the water and turned to Alex.
"All right," he said. "Let's get you undressed."
Alex suddenly reddened and began to fidget nervously. He looked down at the tile floor, unable to meet Skinner's gaze.
"M-May I please have a shower instead?" he asked.
Skinner understood. He sat on the edge of the bathtub and spoke quietly.
"I'm afraid the shower is going to have to wait until you're stronger. We don't want to take a chance on you falling." He stood up.
"Besides," he said kindly, "a good long soak is going to do wonders for those sore muscles."
Alex hesitated, then nodded slowly. Skinner smiled and extended his hand, waiting for Alex to take it. Alex apprehensively took Skinner's hand and allowed himself to be hoisted up. He hooked a finger into the waistband of his boxers and stopped, flushing furiously.
"Come on, Krycek," Skinner said gently. "Believe me, I saw everything there is to see when I was in the military. There are no surprises left."
He smiled and reached slowly for Alex's boxers, keeping one hand on Alex's arm to keep him from losing his balance. He tugged Alex's boxers down and helped him step out of them. He put them on top of the laundry hamper and looked at Alex.
Alex stood, trembling, flushing furiously, half-turned away from Skinner. He knew Skinner had seen the stump of his arm, obviously. He hadn't worn the prosthetic since he'd been here. He shivered a little, hating the feeling of being exposed like this. Being naked like this, in front of Skinner, was almost more than he could bear. Being naked meant being hurt, being used. Alex closed his eyes against the tears and forced himself to turn towards Skinner. He belonged to Skinner now, and Skinner had the right to see him like this, to do with him as he pleased.
Beautiful, Skinner thought, seeing Krycek's naked body, so pale and so slender. He was too thin, but his finely honed musculature had not deserted him. He curved gracefully, all smooth flowing lines, ending abruptly at the termination of his left arm. Skinner had grown used to the sight of the stump and to the occasional scar that marred Krycek's otherwise enviably smooth skin. Somehow they seemed to conspire to make Krycek seem more real, more there, flawed but still possessed of an almost ethereal beauty.
Krycek's eyes were tightly shut, his dark lashes fluttering gently against his cheek. Skinner's eyes took in the long pale throat, the sparsely haired chest, the dusky pink nipples. The flat stomach, the fine trail of dark hair that led down to the neat dark bush and the thick, uncircumcised cock. Skinner coughed a little and shifted position so that Krycek would not see that Skinner's own cock had taken more than a passing interest in the proceedings.
"Come on, Krycek, let's get you in the tub." He gently grasped Alex's arm as he stepped in.
"It's not too hot, is it?" Skinner asked, concerned.
Alex shook his head and began to sit down, losing his balance and nearly falling. Skinner caught him and gently lowered him down into the water. A flash of pain crossed Alex's face and he gave a bitter laugh.
"What is it?" Skinner asked. Alex stared down at the bathwater.
"Just look at me," he said harshly. "I was a highly trained operative, a skilled assassin, and now just look at me," he indicated his scarred, naked body.
"I hate being like this," he whispered. "Pathetic."
Skinner sat on the closed toilet seat.
"Krycek," he said. "You're not superhuman. No one could go through what you've gone through and not suffer for it. You've been abused and beaten and you need time to heal. Why don't you give yourself a break? I think you could use one."
Alex looked up, watching Skinner intently. Skinner looked back, his expression one of concern. Alex smiled, the ever-present tension seeming to ease a little. Skinner rose and went to the medicine cabinet over the sink, retrieving a small glass bottle. He uncapped it and poured a little of the oil into the bathwater. The scent of eucalyptus filled the room. Alex watched, his eyes wide. He swished his hand around in the water a little, a smile curving his lips. He murmured a thank you as Skinner returned the bottle to the medicine cabinet. Skinner handed Alex a dark blue washcloth.
"There's soap in the dish. I'll be just down the hall." He paused as Alex's eyes followed him to the door.
"Please don't go," Alex said quietly. "I mean, unless you want to." Skinner turned.
"You sure you don't mind?" Krycek gave that shy smile again. Skinner was beginning to like that smile, to look forward to it.
"No," Krycek said. "I'd like the company, if it's all right."
Skinner nodded and sat down again, watching as Krycek rubbed the wet washcloth against the soap in the dish. He wanted to help, but it felt right to let him do it on his own. If Krycek wanted help, he'd ask. Alex began washing his chest, making small circles. Skinner thought for a moment, then spoke.
"Why was Spender so cruel to you? Why train you and then... " he paused uncomfortably, "break you like that?"
Alex paused momentarily in his bathing. His stomach knotted. He didn't want to talk about Spender, about the awful things that he had been forced to do. Talking about the past might make Skinner angry. He bit his lip, reminding himself that Skinner owned him now, that Skinner had the right to know. He swallowed nervously.
"It was always bad," he said softly. "I always knew if I fucked up, I was going to get it. But after Bill Mulder... it just got worse and worse."
"Did you ever try to run away from him?" Skinner asked.
"Once," Alex said, his expression faraway. "I ended up in the silo, buried alive. He left me there, alone, no food, no water... I was sure I was going to die, crawling on the floor of my own tomb." He laughed ruefully.
"That was the last time I ever tried it."
There was silence in the room for a moment. Skinner cleared his throat and asked softly,
"Did you kill Melissa Scully?"
Alex's hand tightened on the washcloth. He looked up at Skinner, his green eyes clear and serious.
"No," he said quietly. "It was Luis Cardinale. Spender didn't trust me, so he sent Cardinale everywhere with me, to watch me and report to him. I was so scared, Skinner. I knew what Spender would do to me if I disobeyed him, but I didn't want to be there, I didn't want Scully to be hurt," Alex said, his voice shaking.
"Please believe me, I didn't want that. I tried to stop it, but it happened so fast. He shot Scully's sister before I could stop him."
Skinner considered him silently. Alex looked down, wondering if this was it. Skinner was remembering, seeing him for what he was, and this small period of kindness and safety would be over. After a moment, he looked up into Skinner's solemn brown eyes.
"I believe you," Skinner said simply.
Alex's mouth dropped open slightly. He felt his heart resume its normal rhythm. He believes me, he thought incredulously. He believes a rat bastard like me. He blinked back tears, unable to find the words to express his gratitude. Skinner leaned forward, his expression intense.
"There's something I've got to ask you, Krycek," he said.
Alex stiffened and nodded, waiting tensely.
"It's been on my mind ever since that day in your apartment. Spender was interrogating you. He asked you why I was still alive, why you hadn't killed me." Skinner paused.
"You said it was because I didn't deserve it." Alex nodded, then spoke softly.
"You were nice to me," he said. Skinner gaped.
"I was nice to you?" Alex nodded again.
"Back when I started at the FBI," he paused, looking up cautiously, afraid that the mention of the Bureau would remind Skinner of his betrayal. Skinner merely smiled and nodded, waiting for him to continue. Alex cleared his throat and began again.
"When I started at the Bureau, when I was assigned to your section. You asked me how I liked it so far, and you said my reports were good, that you were impressed with my work." Alex smiled at the memory.
"You didn't deserve it," he said, his voice a whisper. "You're a good man and I didn't want to do it."
Skinner stared at Alex, amazed. He barely remembered the conversation he had had with the green new agent, it had probably been a quick chat in the hallway as he rushed to make yet another budgetary meeting on time. But it was obvious that it had been very important to Krycek. Skinner released a long slow breath. To think that a hurried, quickly forgotten platitude muttered to a subordinate would end up saving his life. He looked at Alex, shaking his head in disbelief.
"But... what about the balcony? The night Mulder brought you here?"
Alex soaped up the washcloth again and absently scrubbed one knee.
"I deserved it," he said, biting his lip. "For the stairwell."
He tensed as he said the word, sure that Skinner would descend on him now in a vengeful rage. Skinner tensed also, albeit only for a moment. He remembered the stairwell, remembered the piano wire around his neck, remembered being held as Krycek punched him again and again. That last gratuitous blow to the jaw. He exhaled slowly, and forced himself to relax. Krycek had stopped bathing and was watching him, his eyes wide.
"I didn't want to, Skinner," he said, his voice trembling. "Cardinale was there. I knew they'd kill you to get the tape if they had to. I had to make it look good, I had to make it look like I wanted to do it." He looked down.
"I'm so sorry," he said miserably. "I'm so sorry for everything."
Skinner looked at the pale young man hunched over in the bathtub, already flinching, waiting for the first blow.
"Krycek," he said softly. Alex raised his head, his eyes bright with tears.
"I have things to apologize for, too. The night that you were here, I slugged you in the gut and left you out on the balcony all night in the cold. I shouldn't have done that." Alex started to protest but was waved silent.
"Two wrongs don't make a right, and what I did was wrong. So, I'll tell you what," he said, looking Alex in the eye. "Why don't we make a deal? You forgive me and I'll forgive you. We'll let bygones be bygones. Deal?"
Alex stared, stupefied.
"B-But I have so much more to be forgiv---" Skinner held up his hand.
"No. We're not going to get out the scales of justice and weigh wrongdoing against wrongdoing. Maybe you do have more to be forgiven for, but I also know that Spender forced you into most if not all of it. I know you've been tortured and abused until you didn't dare even think of going against him. So, what do you say? A clean slate?"
Alex's eyes were huge. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. Skinner was giving him a gift so incredible he couldn't even bear to believe it was real. He shook his head, dumbfounded.
"Just say 'yes'," Skinner said gently. Alex swallowed.
"Yes," he whispered, a tear escaping and rolling down his cheek. Skinner noticed that Alex was shivering.
"Is it all right if I help you finish up? Then we can get you out of here and back into bed."
Alex nodded. Skinner took the washcloth and washed the younger man's back and arm, then helped him stand. He wrapped him quickly in a bath sheet and then helped him dry off, allowing Alex to do most of the work himself, hovering nearby in case he lost his balance again. After Alex was dry, Skinner helped him back to the bedroom. He sat Alex down in the chair while he efficiently stripped the bed and made it up again with clean sheets. He turned back the covers and looked at Alex thoughtfully.
"We're going to have to get you some clothes," he said thoughtfully.
He sat Alex on the edge of the bed and went to his bedroom, returning with a pair of boxers and a T-shirt. The boxers were an old pair, too small for him, but they all but swallowed Alex. The same with the T-shirt. Standing up, it reached nearly to his knees. Alex saw himself in the mirror and laughed.
"I should pose for the 'after' picture for one of those weight loss programs," he joked.
Skinner helped him back into bed and pulled the covers up to his waist.
"Don't forget, you've got a milkshake coming. You'll be the 'before' picture by the time I'm through with you." He paused at the door.
"Do you need anything?" Alex smiled sleepily.
"No, thanks," he said. "I'm okay."
"All right," Skinner replied. "I'll be up in a little while with your milkshake."
Alex lay back against the pillows, replaying the conversation in the bathroom. Skinner had believed him. Skinner said he forgave him. Alex began to cry softly, so Skinner wouldn't hear. The hope he had held at bay for so long was too strong now to resist. He let it take him, sobbing helplessly. Please, please let this be real, he thought. Please don't let it be taken away. He closed his eyes, surrendering, the tears flowing through the thick lashes. I am his, he thought. He said so. I belong to him and he can do with me as he pleases. If he is just toying with me for revenge, I'll be grateful when he kills me. He looked toward the empty bedroom doorway, sniffling. Skinner's deep hum carried up the stairs, followed by the whir of the milkshake machine. Alex stared at the ceiling, listening, his heart full of desperate hope.
Skinner put the can of protein powder back in the cupboard. He had added an extra spoonful this time, to make up for the food Krycek wasn't eating. He put the finishing touches on the milkshake, heaping the whipped cream on generously before covering it with a fine dusting of Dutch cocoa. He made a mental note to pick up a jar of maraschino cherries at his earliest opportunity. Anything worth doing is worth doing right, he thought, smiling as he neared the top of the stairs. He paused in the doorway, noticing Alex's red eyes. He had been crying again.
"Is anything wrong?" he asked, crossing the room to the bed. Alex smiled a little and shook his head.
"No, I was just thinking, that's all. I'm okay." Skinner was concerned, but decided not to press.
"Well, if this doesn't cheer you up, nothing will," he said, handing the glass to Alex. He watched Alex's eyes as he took the first sip and closed them reverently.
"Ohhh," he sighed. "This is so good." He sipped some more and sighed with contentment. "Thank you."
"I can tell you're a connoisseur," Skinner said with exaggerated pride. "You recognize true craftsmanship when you taste it."
He sat down in the chair, watching approvingly as Alex sipped the milkshake. When the glass was empty, he took it and handed Alex a napkin, repressing the urge to wipe the whipped cream from his lips. Alex wiped his mouth and handed the napkin back. He yawned, his eyelids already at half-mast. Skinner took the glass downstairs and cleaned up before returning upstairs to get Alex ready for bed. He helped him to the bathroom, making sure he was steady before stepping discreetly outside the door. Alex finished and Skinner came back in, helping him back to bed. He got Alex comfortable and then left the room, returning with his pillow and blanket. Alex sat up a little, watching him.
"Skinner?" he said. "Why don't you sleep in your bed? You've got to be stiff from sleeping in the chair every night. I'll be okay."
Skinner hesitated. He hadn't left Krycek to sleep alone since he'd been there, but his back was definitely not appreciative of the nights spent in the chair.
"Are you sure you'll be all right?" Alex nodded.
"Go ahead," he said, swallowing hard. "Please, you'll be more comfortable."
Part of him wanted Skinner to sleep in the chair. He felt safer with Skinner there. But the man had been so kind to him, asking nothing for himself, had taken care of him even after all he'd done. The least he could do was try to make sure the man got a comfortable night's sleep in his own bed.
"All right," Skinner said at last. "But promise me, if you need me, you'll call me."
"I promise," Alex said. Skinner gathered his pillow and blanket, pausing at the door.
"I'll leave my door open. I'm right down the hall. Good night, Krycek."
"Good night, Skinner."
Alex lay back, already regretting his decision. The room seemed empty without Skinner's big frame slouched in the chair, his soft snores reverberating in the not-quite-dark. Tears came to Alex's eyes as he thought of Skinner's selflessness. He even left the lamp on, all night, he thought. For me. He smiled as he drifted off to sleep, thinking of Skinner comfortable in his own bed, feeling good to have been able to give back a little something.
Skinner lay in his own bed, groaning with pleasure as his aching back pressed against the mattress. It did feel good to be sleeping in his own bed again, although he remained alert for any sound of distress from Krycek. He went to sleep in stages, listening for Krycek's husky voice, listening to see if he was needed.
The next week passed quickly. There had been a brief, worried phone call from Scully and an apologetic e-mail from Mulder. Skinner kept himself occupied, taking care of Krycek and attending to the usual household chores. He kept Krycek on a regular schedule, realizing his need for structure. To be suddenly without it would have left him frightened and confused, and he responded well to the regimen. Skinner hadn't realized just how well until the day that he was fifteen minutes late with lunch and found Krycek sitting up in bed, nervous and agitated, wondering where Skinner had been. He had comforted Krycek, spurring him on to eat his meal with the promise of a milkshake.
The milkshakes, too, became routine. One between lunch and dinner and one between dinner and bedtime. The milkshakes themselves remained the same, plenty of protein powder and chocolate syrup, but Skinner varied the toppings, liking to surprise Krycek with a different one each time. Crushed Oreo cookies, shaved chocolate, even ground pistachios. Krycek was always appreciative, always whispered his thanks before taking the first sip. Both men began to look forward to the time of day when Skinner would hand Krycek his milkshake and then sit down in the chair by the bed. Sometimes they talked quietly, sometimes they just shared the silence, each enjoying the other's company.
Gradually, Skinner began getting Alex up and out of bed more and more. At first, he would get him to walk up and down the hallway outside his bedroom, then sit for a while in the chair before going back to bed. The bruises were beginning to fade and Alex was able to move about with less discomfort. He was able to walk to the bathroom unassisted and, much to his relief, able to take a shower by himself, although Skinner found things to do near the bathroom in case Krycek needed him. That Thursday afternoon, Skinner came into the bedroom. Alex had been lying atop the covers, watching television. He turned it off and looked at Skinner questioningly.
"How about coming downstairs?" Skinner asked. "You must be tired of these four walls by now."
Alex hesitated. He wasn't sure about this.
"Come on, Krycek. A change of scenery will do you good."
Alex allowed himself to be helped out of bed, although he could manage better on his own now than before. Skinner handed Alex the robe his mother in law had given him for Christmas the last year he and Sharon were married. He had never cared for it, but it seemed to suit Krycek, although it was far too big. He cinched the belt around Alex's waist and led him to the stairway.
"Lean on me, now," he admonished as Alex started down. "Not too fast."
He helped Alex to the bottom of the stairs. Alex stood looking around, taking everything in. His gaze reached the spot by the front door where Skinner had punched him before dragging him out to the balcony. His eyes seemed drawn to the balcony door against his will. He stared through the glass at the railing outside, seventeen floors above the city, where he had spent a cold and miserable night, chained and helpless. He swallowed and looked away. Skinner went to the balcony door and pulled the drapes. He looked at Alex with understanding.
Alex nodded timidly, the memory of that night still vivid in his mind. Skinner took him around the condominium, showing him his office, and the kitchen, studiously avoiding the balcony. Alex was impressed with Skinner's home, and touched at the way Skinner carefully showed him where all of the telephones were, and the first aid kit, and the fire extinguisher. Like he was going to be here for a while. Skinner led Alex over to the sofa and picked up the television remote control.
"You like hockey?" Alex smiled.
"Are the Canucks playing?" Now it was Skinner's turn to smile.
"As a matter of fact, they are. You support Vancouver?" Alex nodded. Skinner went to the kitchen and returned with a beer for himself and a Coke for Alex. Alex took the Coke, making a face.
"No alcohol for you yet," Skinner said gently. "I promise you can have one as soon as Dr. Skinner gives you a clean bill of health."
Alex laughed a little, sipping his Coke. Skinner listened, absorbing the sound. He had never heard Krycek laugh before and he caught himself wondering what he might not do to hear that sound again. They watched the game, each rooting enthusiastically for his team, Skinner having taken up the cause of the Maple Leafs. He looked at Krycek. Krycek was leaning forward, cheering as the Canucks scored, looking incredibly beautiful with his dark hair falling forward into his eyes.
Skinner felt an almost irresistible urge to pull him close, kiss along that sweet curve where his neck and shoulder met, nibble along his jaw until he sighed with pleasure. Skinner got up abruptly, going to the kitchen for another beer. No, he thought to himself, smiling encouragingly as Krycek turned around inquisitively. He's traumatized and a long way from being well. I can't take advantage of him. Skinner sighed and returned to the living room as Krycek cheered another Vancouver goal. He turned to Skinner, smiling like a boy, his cheeks flushed, his eyes bright.
"Thanks so much for this, Skinner," he said. "I don't remember the last time I saw a hockey game. I used to love it, before-" he broke off, that faraway look in his eyes again.
He bit his lip and looked away. Skinner thought he was probably remembering something from his childhood, before Spender got him. He had wanted to ask Krycek about his parents, but had avoided the subject, afraid it was too sensitive a topic to explore just yet. Krycek had made good progress, but Skinner remained worried. He was still very vulnerable. He experienced mood swings, sometimes smiling, seemingly a little more at ease, and sometimes withdrawing into himself. Skinner had heard him crying in his sleep on at least one occasion and agonized over whether or not to wake him, lingering at the door until the soft, hiccuping sobs diminished. Often, Skinner would go upstairs to find Krycek's eyes red and swollen, but Krycek rarely responded to Skinner's gentle questioning. Skinner always backed off, never pushing too hard, hoping that eventually Krycek would be able to talk about it.
By the weekend, Alex was off bed rest, coming downstairs on his own, carefully minding Skinner's orders to hold tightly onto the rail and take it slow. Skinner, as usual, was up early, brewing coffee and cooking breakfast. Alex sat down at the counter and Skinner placed a plate of bacon and eggs in front of him. Alex nibbled a piece of bacon, glad to be gradually getting off of the bland diet Skinner had had him on. They ate breakfast quietly, each letting the other finish waking up. Skinner parked Alex on the couch while he did a little light housecleaning, adamantly refusing Alex's request to be allowed to help. Alex looked down, crestfallen. He felt so useless. Skinner saw his look of disappointment and relented.
"You're still healing, Krycek, so you need to take it easy. I'll tell you what, though," he said, reaching over the kitchen counter to the stack of bills he had been meaning to get to.
"Here," he said, handing the bills to Alex along with his checkbook, a book of stamps and a pen.
"Do you mind helping me with this?" Alex shook his head, his eyes wide. Skinner nodded approvingly.
"Good. Just write out a check for each of those bills, and I'll sign them when you're done. You can also stamp the envelopes. All right?"
Alex nodded as Skinner went into the kitchen to clean up after breakfast. Alex looked down at the leather-bound checkbook in wonder. He trusts me that much? He thought in amazement. He smiled and set to work, writing out the checks in a careful, neat script, making sure to note the account number on the memo line of each check. He made three neat piles on the coffee table. One pile of checks waiting to be signed, one pile of envelopes, and one pile of payment slips. He began putting the stamps on the envelopes, finishing just as Skinner came back into the living room.
Alex looked up from the last envelope.
"Yes," he said. Skinner surveyed the organized piles on the coffee table.
"Thank you, Krycek," he said admiringly. "You've done a great job and I definitely needed the help. You've saved me from one chore I really hate."
Alex beamed as he handed him the pile of checks and the pen.
"If you'll sign them now, I'll stuff the envelopes."
"All right," Skinner said, signing each check with a flourish.
"There you go." Alex looked at the pile of checks.
"Do you want to check my work?" he asked timidly. "Make sure I got the amounts right?"
"No, Krycek," he replied. "I'm sure they're fine."
He walked into the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee, smiling to himself, feeling Krycek's startled eyes on him. Alex stared after him in amazement for a moment, then started matching up the checks, envelopes and payment slips, blinking hard to see through the sudden tears in his eyes. Trust, he thought again. He trusts me.
That night, they dined on casserole, Alex determinedly plowing through his required half plate. Skinner watched approvingly, glad for the slight improvement he had seen in the boy's appetite. After dinner, Skinner took inventory in the kitchen, looking in the cabinets and in the refrigerator. They were getting low on supplies. He would have to go shopping soon. He glanced at Krycek, who was sitting on the sofa, one leg jiggling up and down absently, watching an old science fiction movie.
Skinner realized with a start that he hadn't left the condo in nearly a week. He laughed to himself. Normally, he would have been half out of his mind with cabin fever by the end of the second day, but he had been so absorbed in Krycek's care that he had scarcely noticed. He wondered if Krycek was strong enough now to be left alone for a couple of hours. He decided to broach the subject with Krycek tomorrow. He was not about to leave Krycek alone unless he agreed to it and wasn't afraid. If need be, he could ask Mrs. Napoli to pick up a few things for him at the corner store.
"Do you want your milkshake in here or do you want to go up to bed first?" Skinner asked.
Alex thought for a moment, and then said shyly,
"I'd like to have it down here." He looked at Skinner. "Could I watch while you make it?"
"Sure," Skinner replied, opening the freezer.
Alex settled in at the counter, his feet, clad in Skinner's too-large socks, hooked around the rungs of the barstool. He watched intently as Skinner scooped the ice cream, dropping it into the metal cup, followed by the chocolate syrup and milk. He peered at the label on the can of protein powder.
"What's this?" he asked curiously. Skinner measured three heaping spoonfuls of the powder into the cup.
"It's protein," he said, putting the lid back on the can. "My secret ingredient. Guaranteed to help you get your strength back. Even," he paused, giving Krycek a mock-stern look, "when you're not eating enough."
Alex smiled and looked down, his breath hitching in his chest. No one had ever been so good to him. Skinner turned off the machine and poured the milkshake into the tall glass. Alex practically licked his lips in anticipation as Skinner spooned on the whipped cream and topped it with few chocolate chips. He slid the glass over to Alex, who stared at it for a moment with that now familiar look of delight and disbelief. Disbelief that such a thing had been created just for him.
"Thank you, Skinner," he whispered.
Alex pulled the glass closer to him and leaned down, his eyes closed, sighing with happiness. Skinner watched, transfixed, as the tip of Krycek's pink tongue delved into the whipped cream and disappeared back into his mouth. He repeated this process twice more, and Skinner leaned against the counter, groaning inwardly. Lord, give me strength, he thought helplessly, his knees threatening to buckle at the sight of the dollop of whipped cream on the end of that delicate pink tongue. Krycek looked up and smiled, unaware of Skinner's agony. He picked up the glass and began to drink through the straw, to Skinner's only slight relief.
After Krycek had finished his milkshake and Skinner had cleaned up the kitchen, they retired upstairs to bed. Skinner made sure Krycek was settled in for the night before going to his own bedroom. He placed his glasses on the nightstand and switched off the bedside lamp, sighing a little as he lay his head on the pillow. He remembered Krycek's fascination as he made the milkshake, and the look of almost transcendent happiness on his face as he took the first sip. The way he looked intently at Skinner sometimes, as though he were trying to commit him to memory, as if it might be the last time he ever saw him. His heart went out to Krycek. He had lost so much in his life, it was no wonder he found it hard to count on anything. Skinner fell asleep gradually, as he had grown accustomed to doing, listening for any sound from Krycek's room.
Skinner woke in the night and got up to go to the bathroom, pausing at the door to Krycek's room to check on him. Krycek was curled up in the middle of the bed, his lips slightly parted, sleeping soundly. Skinner watched him for a moment as he sighed in his sleep, pale and beautiful in the lamplight. Skinner looked around the room, Krycek's room. When had he stopped thinking of it as the guest room and started thinking of it as Krycek's room? He smiled a little. He would have to see about getting Krycek's things from his apartment. Hopefully they would still be there. Maybe having his things would make him feel more at home. Skinner quietly walked down the hall to the bathroom and then went back to bed. Soon, he was asleep again.
Skinner awoke, disoriented, his heart pounding. Someone was hurt, someone was screaming. He switched on the bedside lamp and fumbled for his glasses as another terrified shriek pierced the air. Krycek! Skinner bolted from the bed and tore down the hall into Krycek's room. Krycek was lying on his back, tangled in the bedsheets, his limbs flailing. He was screaming and sobbing at the same time.
"NO!" he screamed, "Please! Please don't! Don't leave me here!"
Cautiously, Skinner approached the bed, trying to decide on the best way to awaken Krycek. Krycek suddenly sat up, his eyes wide and unseeing. His face was chalk white, his sweat-soaked hair plastered to his skin. He began backing up toward the headboard, staring at something only he could see. The look on his face was one of stark terror.
"Please! Please let me out!" he sobbed. "Please! Please don't leave me here! Not in the dark! Not in the dark!"
He screamed again, a terrified wail that made the hair on the back of Skinner's neck stand up. Slowly, he reached out toward Krycek.
"Easy... easy, Krycek... it's me," he said gently. "It's me, Skinner. Can you hear me, Krycek?"
Krycek was huddled against the headboard, shaking violently. He seemed to look through Skinner, his green eyes almost black. He rocked back and forth, crying, his one arm locked around his knees. His breath came in ragged gasping sobs. Skinner put one knee on the bed, leaning close to Krycek.
"Easy, Krycek," he said again. "Krycek? Come on, it's all right. Wake up now."
He reached for Krycek's shoulder, his fingertips barely grazing it before Krycek let out an animal shriek and twisted around, his one hand pounding, clawing at the wallpaper. Skinner stared openmouthed for a moment, aghast at what he was seeing. He had considerable experience with nightmares. This was no nightmare. This was a night terror. Krycek was sobbing and screaming, pounding at the wall, begging to be let out.
Skinner winced as he stump of Krycek's left arm slammed against the wall. He moved quickly, grabbing Krycek by one shoulder and pulling him down. He covered Krycek with his weight, pinning the struggling man beneath him. Krycek screamed louder, his eyes wide with horror, as he frantically bucked and fought. Skinner held him down, trying to get Krycek to hear him, trying to cut through the terror that was gripping him.
"Krycek! Krycek!" he shouted. "Krycek! Wake up, you're having a nightmare!"
Skinner kept this up for several minutes, until gradually Krycek's struggles began to weaken. Skinner gathered Krycek into his arms and held him tightly. Krycek lay against Skinner's chest, sobbing and panting, his eyes closed. He whimpered and tried to pull away. Skinner held him close, smoothing the dark hair away from Krycek's face.
"Krycek? Come on, Krycek, wake up," he said firmly. "Come on, come on, Krycek. Come back to me."
Krycek shuddered and gasped. Finally, through the sobs, Skinner heard a muffled gasp.
"That's right, boy, that's right," Skinner said, rocking him gently. Krycek lay exhausted in Skinner's arms, shaking, the memory of the awful dream still close. He tried to pull away again, murmuring an apology, afraid Skinner would be angry at being awakened. He was surprised to find himself pulled closer, nestled more deeply in Skinner's strong arms.
"It's all right, you're safe now, it's all right," Skinner said, one hand rubbing circles between Krycek's shoulderblades.
Krycek tensed, then lay his head awkwardly on Skinner's chest. Skinner looked down at Krycek. It felt like he was holding a bundle of wires. Christ, he thought, you'd think he'd never been held before. A sudden pain lanced through him and he looked down at Krycek again, his own eyes filling with unexpected tears. God in heaven, he thought. He really hasn't ever been held before. Alex was crying quietly, exhausted sobs muffled against Skinner's chest.
"That's right, let it out, Krycek. I've got you. Let it out," Skinner whispered.
Alex began to cry harder, his slight body racked with sobs. Skinner held him tightly, tears pricking at his eyelids. He rested his cheek against Krycek's damp head and rocked him as he cried. Alex felt Skinner's hand rubbing his back, felt the warm weight of Skinner's head against his, and let go. He lay in Skinner's arms, crying harder than he ever had in his life. He had had another nightmare. But this time he wasn't alone, he wasn't curled up in a ball in his cold bed in his empty apartment. Skinner was here, holding him. Holding him. He sobbed for several minutes as Skinner held him and rocked him, whispering a litany of reassurances.
"Shhh, Alex," he whispered. "Shhh, Alex, it's all right. Relax, just relax."
Skinner raised his head for a moment, realizing what he had said. It had slipped out unintentionally, but it felt natural, it felt right.
"Alex, it's all right, I've got you. I'll keep you safe. Shhh, it's all right... "
Alex burrowed deeper into Skinner's chest and breathed deep, taking comfort from the clean, manly smell of him. Slowly, he relaxed into Skinner's embrace, his sobs diminished, and he began to calm. Skinner continued to rub his back and smooth back his hair.
"That's it, Alex," he said softly. "That's it, take deep breaths."
Alex obeyed, finally sitting up, Skinner holding his shoulders gently and looking deeply into his eyes.
"Okay now?" Krycek wiped away tears and looked down.
"Y-You called me Alex," he said in a small voice.
Skinner smiled and reached for the box of tissues on the nightstand. He cleaned Alex up, drying his eyes and wiping his nose.
"Is that all right? May I call you Alex?" he asked.
Alex looked up, the answer shining in his eyes. Skinner pulled Alex close again, surprising him for a moment. Alex went willingly into that warm embrace, this time resting his head against Skinner's chest with a small sigh. Skinner wrapped Alex in his arms, thinking to himself how well they fit together like this, Alex's smaller frame nestled against his larger one.
"Do you want to talk about it?" he asked gently.
Alex shook his head. Skinner rocked him gently for a few minutes and then said, "Do you think you can go back to sleep?"
Alex hesitated and then nodded, even as his face crumpled and he began to cry again.
"I-I'm scared," he whispered. "The dreams always come back."
Skinner dropped a light kiss on the top of Alex's head, unable to stop himself and not giving a damn.
"I'll stay with you, Alex," he said. "Go on, lie down, there you go," he soothed as he pulled the covers over Alex.
He took off his glasses and left them on the nightstand, sliding into bed beside Alex. He spooned Alex up against him, one strong arm around his waist. Alex tensed involuntarily, then relaxed as Skinner's reassuring voice eased his tension.
"It's all right, Alex. We're just going to go back to sleep, no bad dreams this time."
Alex melted into Skinner's embrace and soon was snoring softly. Skinner watched him sleep for a little while, listening to his soft breaths, feeling the warmth of him against his chest. He lay his head down on the pillow, the quiet rhythm of Alex's breathing lulling him to sleep.
Skinner awoke the next morning with Alex curled against him, sleeping soundly, his dark head nestled against Skinner's chest. Skinner looked down at him, raising his hand to stroke Alex's hair. Alex sighed and murmured in his sleep, his one hand clutching Skinner's T-shirt. Skinner looked at the ceiling, a faint smile on his face. He was in love with Alex Krycek. He looked down again at the sweetly sleeping face of his former enemy and laughed quietly to himself. God loves irony.
Skinner's eyes filled with tears as he lay listening to Alex's quiet breaths, feeling the warmth of Alex's body pressed against his. Alex needed him. A lump rose in his throat. Christ, when was the last he had felt needed? With Sharon? He dropped his hand to Alex's shoulder, resting it there, holding him close. Alex stirred and Skinner found himself looking into two sleepy green eyes. Alex looked up at Skinner, surprised for a moment, then remembering the events of the previous night. He tensed, wondering if Skinner would push him away now. Skinner saw the fear and wariness in Alex's eyes, felt him tense.
"Come here, you," he growled, pulling Alex into a bear hug.
Alex laughed, a healthy, unaffected, utterly delightful sound, and Skinner savored it. Alex snuggled close, Skinner's arms wrapped tightly around him, and sighed. He wished he could stay there forever, held in those strong arms. Tears stung his eyes and he closed them, resting his head on Skinner's chest, that strong heartbeat soothing him. He had never thought he would ever be free of Spender. He had never thought anyone would ever hold him like this. Skinner's hand traveled over Alex's back, rubbing gently through the thin cotton of his T-shirt.
"Skinner?" Alex said softly.
"Yes, Alex?" Skinner replied, kissing the top of Alex's head.
Alex sighed and wriggled a little, nuzzling his face against Skinner's neck.
"I'm glad you own me, now," he whispered.
Skinner closed his eyes, Alex's soft words paining him. He had nearly forgotten his hastily spoken promise to Alex. He had told Alex that Alex belonged to him, that he was his. I only said it to calm him down, he thought, worried. What am I going to do? Will Alex be able to adjust to being loved instead of being owned? His stomach turned as he remembered the payment Spender had forced him to make. A token sum for a token boy. In Spender's eyes, Alex was just a commodity, a piece of property. Skinner vowed again never to let Alex find out about the money. He loved Alex. He never needed to know what Skinner had done to gain his freedom.
Skinner smiled at Alex's slight weight pressing against him. Falling in love definitely hadn't been in the game plan. He had planned to get Kry---Alex back on his feet and send him on his way, but now, all that had changed. Skinner felt a pang of guilt as Alex lifted his head and gazed up at him trustingly. He was in love with Alex, there was no doubt about it. But what did Alex want? Was Alex in any condition to exercise free will? Was he able to make his own decision, without fear, without coercion? Skinner bit his lip. He wanted Alex Krycek in his arms, in his bed, in his heart. Would he be taking advantage? Would Alex understand that he had the right to say no?
Stroking lightly down Alex's neck and back, Skinner made his decision. He would love Alex, give him the home he had never had, give him the guidance and structure he needed. When the day came that Alex was ready, he would give him the choice to leave or to stay. Skinner looked determinedly down at Alex as he drowsed, a blissful expression on his face. Alex had spent half his life in Spender's grasp. Could he even function on his own, now, after all he'd been through? His life, horrific as it had been, had had a certain structure. Skinner knew that to have that structure suddenly stripped away could send Alex into a tailspin. He kissed Alex's head again, inhaling the clean sweet smell of his hair. He would give Alex the limits, the boundaries he needed. But, he thought grimly, I'll be damned if I'll let him spend even one more day thinking he's owned like an animal. After breakfast, Skinner thought. A long talk is definitely in order.
Skinner was standing at the kitchen island, stirring batter for pancakes when Alex came downstairs, dressed in a pair of Skinner's old sweats and a T-shirt. The borrowed clothes hung on him like curtains.
"Looks like you need a few more milkshakes, boy," Skinner growled affectionately.
Alex laughed, coming into the kitchen and peering into the mixing bowl.
"Or blueberry pancakes," he said, smiling.
"Well," Skinner said with a grin, "sounds like someone is getting his appetite back."
He turned to the stove and began ladling the batter onto the hot griddle. "I certainly hope so. My pancakes are almost as good as my milkshakes."
Alex leaned against the kitchen counter, fidgeting a little as he watched Skinner expertly turning the pancakes.
"Yes, Alex?" Skinner replied, arranging sausage links on the other end of the griddle.
"I want to help."
Skinner turned and looked at Alex. Alex stood, looking at him from under his lashes, his hand nervously fingering the hem of his T-shirt. Skinner smiled reassuringly. He knew it was difficult for Alex to express his feelings, to ask for anything. Years under Spender's control had taught the young man that his feelings, his wants, were not important. That he was not important. Skinner sighed and wondered how long it would take for Alex to lose that worried, tense expression. How long it would take for Skinner to make him understand that he mattered. That asking to help with breakfast wasn't going to earn him a beating.
"I don't think setting the table for breakfast would be too much of an exertion," he said. "But no reaching or stretching. I'll get the plates and glasses down and then you can set the table."
Alex nodded happily. Skinner placed the plates and juice glasses on the countertop while Alex explored the rest of the kitchen, as curious as a cat. He quickly found the silverware and napkins and set about his assigned task. Skinner watched, amused at the seriousness with which Alex went about his work, carefully aligning the silverware and glasses, and fanning out the napkins just so. When he was finished, he stood back, surveying his work, reaching out to brush a nonexistent wrinkle from the tablecloth. He looked at Skinner expectantly.
Skinner smiled, his heart full of love for this beautiful, battered ex-assassin who had somehow stolen his heart.
"It's perfect, Alex," Skinner said. Alex beamed.
"Thank you," he said. "What can I do now?"
Skinner chuckled at Alex's eagerness, piling a platter with pancakes and sausage.
"Go ahead and have a seat," he said, grabbing the bottle of maple syrup on his way into the breakfast nook. "It's time to eat."
Alex sat down at the table, still glowing after Skinner's compliment. It felt so good to be told he had done something well, even if it was something as ordinary as setting a table. Abruptly, the smile faded from his face. Jesus, you're pathetic, Alex, he thought. All you did was put some plates on a table and manage not to fuck it up and you're acting like you just won the Nobel Prize.
He absently toyed with his empty juice glass as he thought about the old Alex, the man he used to be. The old Alex would have sneered at the new Alex, the Alex who woke up screaming, woke up crying, was afraid of his own shadow. Then the old Alex would have taken great pleasure in kicking the new Alex's ass, a three-minute job, tops. He closed his eyes, seeing the face he had spent years trying to forget. Nikolai's face. Alex had spent years hiding behind a dark and dangerous facade, hiding the broken and frightened boy with tough talk and black leather. Seeing Nikolai again had stripped him of his thin disguise, left him naked, exposed as the helpless, beaten thing that he was.
Alex blinked back tears, watching Skinner as he got up and walked back into the kitchen to retrieve the butter. He wore jeans and a crisp white T-shirt that hugged his broad shoulders, the fabric rippling slightly as he moved. He really was attractive, Alex thought, incredibly sexy, in a way that made you look twice. Alex looked down at his plate, a faint, bitter smile on his face, wondering how much time he had left here. His heart ached as he thought about leaving this place which for one night had been his prison, and which now seemed like the warmest, safest place he could imagine.
He knew it was only a matter of time, that soon those kind brown eyes would look at him with disgust, with the realization that Alex wasn't good enough, could never be. What then? Would Skinner send him back to Spender? To Nikolai? Alex shivered, willing a look of casual contentment onto his face as Skinner returned to the table. Skinner placed the butter on the table between them and picked up his fork, spearing a plump sausage link from the platter with gusto.
"I'm starved," he said, "let's dig in."
They enjoyed a leisurely, quiet breakfast, Alex nearly cleaning his plate, much to Skinner's delight. After they had eaten, Alex cleared the table while Skinner loaded the dishwasher and washed and dried the big griddle that had been his grandmother's. Alex was wiping down the kitchen counter with meticulous, even strokes, frowning a little as he did, making sure not to miss a spot. Skinner watched him, a little sadly, Alex's look of grim concentration making him want to grab the sponge from his hand and fling it across the room. He wanted to hold Alex, to kiss all the worry and fear away. Skinner held himself back.
It seemed so important to Alex to help, to feel useful, instead of having everything done for him. Having spent time recuperating after Vietnam, Skinner understood the feeling of helplessness. After two weeks in bed, he had ceased to feel like a person, more like a piece of meat to be poked and prodded and fed pills. Some of the nurses didn't even bother to make conversation as they bathed the embarrassed young ex-Marine with cool, impersonal efficiency.
Skinner knew how much completing the smallest task mattered to Alex, how important it was to him to do it right. But, Skinner thought, as Alex began cleaning the same section of countertop for the second time, he would do anything to see that hesitant, fearful look gone from Alex's face for good. Skinner sighed. It was going to be hard work, convincing this unloved, unwanted man that he was finally loved, finally wanted. That he was home. But then, Walter Skinner had never been afraid of hard work.
Skinner had been about to steer Alex into the living room for a talk when a knock at the door startled them both. Alex started and turned toward the door, immediately tense and alert. Skinner put a reassuring arm around Alex's shoulders and felt him trembling slightly. Alex looked up at Skinner questioningly, his green eyes wary. Skinner realized grimly that getting Alex used to him was only half the battle. He would then have to get Alex used to the rest of the world. Skinner rubbed Alex's back as he guided him over to the sofa. Alex sat down, his eyes fastened on the door, his jaw tense.
"It's all right, Alex," he said. "I'm expecting someone."
Alex watched apprehensively, biting his lip as Skinner went to the door. A tall young man with a dark, neatly trimmed beard stood in the doorway. He wore a T-shirt with "Pete's Moving" emblazoned across the chest. He grinned and shook Skinner's hand.
"Hi," he said, "I'm Peter Napoli. My Aunt Jeannie sent me over to," he fished a crumpled piece of paper out of his pocket and looked at it, "111 Morgan Street, apartment 12, to pick up some stuff."
He reached into his other pocket and handed Skinner a key.
"Here's your key. Where do you want the stuff?" Skinner pocketed the key and stood to one side.
"Right here by the door will be fine. I really appreciate your doing this, Peter," Skinner said. "I hope it didn't take you away from anything."
"Oh, no," Peter said as he carried in a large box and placed it beside the door. "There's really not much. I didn't even need the truck, it all fit in my car."
"Can I offer you a cup of coffee?" Skinner asked as Peter brought in the last box and put it down beside the others.
"Oh, no thanks," he said, wiping his hands on his jeans. "I've got to get down to the soccer field. My kid's got a game this afternoon." Skinner went to the sofa and placed a hand on Alex's shoulder.
"Peter, this is Alex Krycek. Alex, this is Peter Napoli. His aunt lives down the hall. You'll meet her. She's a great lady." Skinner smiled broadly.
"It's a wonder I don't weigh three hundred pounds the way she keeps me stuffed with those delicious cakes and pies of hers."
Peter laughed and nodded.
"You and me both," he said with a grin. "She's never happier than when she's got someone to feed."
Alex looked up at Skinner. Skinner nodded and smiled. Slowly, Alex got up and walked over to Peter, trying to will the fear away. He hadn't expected to have to deal with a stranger today, no matter how gregarious. It reminded him too much of his life with Spender, of strange men, strange, leering faces, a knock at the door and then being laid bare, stripped of everything, degraded and used and hurt. Stop it! Alex scolded himself. God, you're a basket case, he thought disgustedly. This man is not going to hurt you. He's Skinner's neighbor's nephew. Skinner trusts him.
Peter put out his hand and waited patiently, smiling at Alex. His Aunt Jeannie had told him that Mr. Skinner had a houseguest, and that it was his things that Peter had been sent for. Aunt Jeannie had also mentioned that this houseguest had not been well.
"Hi, Alex," Peter said.
Alex looked at Peter, then back at Skinner. Skinner nodded, gesturing toward Peter, whose hand was still out.
"Hi," Alex said shyly, and shook Peter's hand. "Thank you, sir."
He quickly retreated to the sofa, curling up with a pillow in his lap, his one arm wrapped around it. His heart thundered in his chest and he flushed bright red, humiliated and embarrassed at his weakness.
"You're welcome," Peter said, turning to go. "Well, I'd better get going. Aunt Jeannie said to tell you you're invited to dinner whenever you want to come."
Skinner followed Peter into the hallway.
"Thanks again, Peter, I can't tell you what a help this is. I would have gone to get Alex's things myself, but he's been ill and I didn't want to leave him alone." Peter smiled and pushed the button for the elevator.
"No problem. Hey," he said amiably. "Aunt Jeannie talks about you all the time. The way you check on her, help her with repairs. I can't thank you enough. I live all the way across town and it makes me feel good to know you're right here when she needs you. It's the least I could do."
He pulled out his wallet and gave Skinner his card. "Anytime you need any moving done, just give me a call."
The elevator doors opened and Peter got on, waving as the doors closed.
Skinner waved good bye and walked back into the living room, closing the door behind him. Alex was still on the sofa, clutching the pillow. As the door closed, he seemed to relax visibly. Skinner walked over to the sofa and sat down beside him. He spoke gently.
"Are you all right, Alex?" Alex swallowed and nodded.
"I'm sorry. I hope I didn't embarrass you in front of Mr. Napoli," he said. "I-I guess I'm just not used to... strangers."
Skinner smiled and put a hand on Alex's arm.
"You could never embarrass me, Alex," he said kindly. "It's all right. You've been through a lot and you're still adjusting. Just give it time."
Alex smiled a little, the warmth and weight of Skinner's hand on his arm feeling substantial and real.
"Alex? I want to talk to you about something." Skinner said, and immediately felt Alex tense.
Alex looked at Skinner apprehensively.
"W-What about?" he asked softly.
He swallowed again, his mouth suddenly dry. Was Skinner tired of him? Was he going to send him out, make him whore like Spender had? Had the last wonderful week been only a dream? He closed his eyes. It was what he had been expecting, after all. At least he would still have the memory of being held. He opened his eyes to see Skinner looking at him with concern.
"Alex, it's all right. I just want to talk, that's all. Come here," he said, gently pulling Alex toward him.
Alex was tense but unresisting as Skinner drew him close, one strong arm encircling his shoulders.
"Comfortable?" Skinner asked. Alex nodded.
"Good," Skinner said gently. "What I want to talk about, Alex, is us."
Alex stiffened again, and Skinner rubbed his back soothingly.
"It's okay, Alex," he said. "What I have to say to you is very important, for both of us. Will you promise just to listen, to hear me out?"
Alex nodded again, his fingers picking nervously at the knee of his sweatpants.
"I promise," he whispered.
Skinner continued to gently rub Alex's back, making circles against the thin cotton, soothing him. He felt the tension ease a little, felt Alex relax a little.
"Do you like it here, Alex?" Alex looked up at Skinner.
"Yes," he said. "I love it here. I feel safe here." He paused, a lump forming in his throat.
"I never had anything like this before."
Skinner took a deep breath before speaking again.
"Alex, when I said that you belonged to me... I... I said it because you were upset. I didn't mean it the way you think."
Alex suddenly sat up, freeing himself from Skinner's arms, his eyes brimming with tears.
"You said I belonged to you! You said I was yours!"
He began to back away from Skinner, his lip trembling as the tears began to trail down his cheeks.
"Please, Skinner, please don't send me away."
He broke down, pleading through his tears.
"Please, whatever I did, I'm sorry, please let me stay. Please don't send me back."
Skinner's own eyes filled with tears as Alex huddled, shaking, in the far corner of the sofa. Slowly, carefully, he moved toward Alex. He took Alex's hand and gently pulled him close again, wrapping his arms around him, letting him cry.
"It's all right, Alex," he said. "It's all right."
He waited until Alex quieted, then looked down into the tear-streaked face, wiping away the tears with his hands.
"You promised to listen, remember?"
Alex looked down and nodded. Skinner sat beside him, his arm around Alex's shoulders.
"Alex, do you think it's right for one person to own another person? For one person to have the right to abuse another person, to ignore their feelings? To hurt them?"
Alex looked down, fidgeting nervously with the pillow that had again found its way into his lap.
"No," he said softly. Skinner smiled and continued.
"Alex, I know that you were with Spender for a very long time, and that he was cruel to you. He treated you like a piece of property. I don't want to be like him."
Alex looked up, his eyes shining.
"I want you to live here, with me, Alex. I want this to be our home. I want you to be my lover, my friend, my soulmate. I do want you to belong to me, but I want to belong to you, too. Do you understand? Not owning. Belonging. To each other."
Alex nodded, fresh tears threatening to spill over his lashes. Skinner leaned down and kissed an errant tear away before it could wend its way down his cheek.
"I love you, Alex Krycek," he whispered into that perfect elfin ear. "I love you and I want you here with me always. I want to take care of you the way you need to be taken care of. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I want you to be here, with me, not because you think you have to. Because you want to." He paused.
"Alex, look at me." Alex obeyed.
Skinner looked into his eyes and spoke softly the words he felt it most important for Alex to hear.
"If you don't want to be here, Alex, you have the right to say so. I know that what you want hasn't mattered very much up until now, but it matters to me. You matter to me."
Alex looked up, startled, then threw his arm around Skinner's neck, hugging him tightly.
"I want to stay, Skinner," he whispered against Skinner's neck.
"Please, I want to stay with you. I don't ever want to leave."
Skinner held him tightly, overwhelmed with emotion. He began to speak, then hesitated. He took a deep breath. He had to be sure. He gently pushed Alex away, so that he could look into his eyes.
"Alex, I need to know. Are you sure about this? Are you saying that you want to stay with me because you're afraid of making me angry? Do you think you'll be hurt if you say that you want to leave?"
Alex shook his head vigorously.
"No, Skinner," he said, his eyes huge and serious. "I know you won't hurt me." He hesitated.
"I... I was scared at first, but now... " he smiled, the wary, watchful look gone from his eyes. "I know you won't hurt me. I do want to stay, because you want me to. Because I want to." His lip trembled.
"No one ever treated me like you do. Like it matters what happens to me. Like I'm important." He put his arm around Skinner's neck again.
"I want to stay," he said softly. "I love you."
Skinner laughed and held him close.
"My little rat," he whispered. Alex looked up, surprised for a moment, and then laughed, too.
"I'm yours," he agreed. "Your rat. And you're mine. My... bear."
Skinner laughed again, a delighted roar.
Alex smiled and rested his head against Skinner's chest.
"You're always giving me bear hugs," he explained.
Skinner couldn't resist giving Alex a kiss on the nose.
"All right," he growled. "The rat and the bear. If nothing else, we can move to England and open a pub."
He smiled and stood up, going over to the three large cardboard boxes beside the door.
"I hope you don't mind," he said, gesturing toward the boxes. "The key was in the pocket of your jeans."
Alex stood and went over to the boxes, opening the flaps of the nearest one.
"Oh no," he said, smiling a little. "I don't have much, but I thought it was gone forever. I know I couldn't... " he trailed off, his eyes suddenly clouded with pain. "I know I could never go back there."
He reached into the box and exclaimed with delight, pulling out his battered leather jacket. He hugged it close to him, a genuine grin spreading over his face.
"Thank you, Skinner, thank you!" He slipped it on with a sigh. "I thought I'd never see it again!"
Skinner watched, a grin lighting up his own face. Alex looked adorable, smiling and talking more at one stretch than he had the entire time he'd been there. He sorted through the boxes, seeming to let his guard down completely for the first time as he lovingly handled his small, well-worn collection of books. Skinner couldn't help but notice that he looked sexy as hell in that black leather, too. A smile played about his lips as he watched Alex, looking so much like the cocky, confident Alex Krycek Skinner remembered, like the man he used to be. And will be again, Skinner thought, with love and perseverance.
"I'll get a bookshelf for those," Skinner said as Alex repacked the box.
"We'll find places for all of your things, the old and the new."
Skinner looked into one of the boxes, which was filled with clothes, reaching in and pulling out the neatly folded stacks of T-shirts and boxers, all of which were dark blue or black. He put them on the sofa, followed by the few pairs of black jeans and sweaters. Alex looked at the clothes miserably.
"He bought those," he said softly. Skinner put a hand on Alex's shoulder.
"I understand how you must feel, Alex. We need to go shopping and get you some new clothes. You'll pick them out yourself."
Alex bit his lip and nodded. After nearly fifteen years of being dressed like a doll by Spender, the thought of being allowed to choose his own clothes was a revelation. But the thought of going out was terrifying. There were so many people that had hurt him, that had enjoyed being cruel to him. The only safe place was here, in Skinner's home, in Skinner's arms.
"W-When?" he asked. Skinner smiled.
"Not for a little while, yet," he said. "Will you be all right with these until then?" Alex nodded.
Skinner moved to pick up one of the boxes.
"I'll just move these into my office for the time being. I'll just be a minute."
He hefted the box and began to carry it toward his office. Alex reached for one of the remaining boxes.
"I'll help," he said. Skinner stopped and looked back at Alex.
"No, Alex," he said with concern. "It's too heavy. Your back and ribs are still healing."
Alex stooped over and got his arm around the box, attempting to lift it.
"It's not that---" he broke off, gasping, the color draining from his face as pain raced up his side.
Skinner quickly put the box he had been carrying down and crossed the room in three swift strides as Alex slowly straightened up, his face white. He put his hand on Alex's shoulder and looked into his eyes, his expression worried.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
"I think so," Alex said, rubbing his side gingerly. "It was just a twinge." Skinner looked at Alex seriously.
"Good," he said. He grasped Alex's arm and turned him around, swatting him firmly on his backside. Alex gave a surprised squawk and put his hand back to rub his suddenly stinging backside.
"Ow!" he yelped, staring at Skinner in shock.
He rubbed the seat of his sweatpants, his eyes wide with shock. Skinner immediately wrapped Alex in his arms, holding him tightly. Alex resisted fiercely, trying to back away, then sagged, burying his face in Skinner's chest. Skinner stroked Alex's hair, murmuring softly.
"Shhh, it's all right, Alex." Alex clung to him, his hand clutching Skinner's shirt.
"I'm sorry," he said, his voice choked with tears, "I'm sorry, please don't be mad at me."
Skinner held Alex tightly, rubbing his back through the soft fabric of his T-shirt. He tilted Alex's face up to his.
"I'm not mad at you, Alex," he said softly. "It's over now. You did something foolish, endangered yourself, and I swatted you for it. It's over and forgotten. Okay?"
Alex nodded, biting his lip.
"I'm not helpless," he whispered.
Skinner held Alex close, massaging the back of his neck, Alex's face pressed against his shoulder.
"I know," Skinner said. "I know you're not helpless. But you were badly beaten, Alex, and even though you're up and around now, you're still not completely healed. You have to be careful not to overexert yourself. Understood?" He smiled at Alex, to reassure him that he wasn't angry.
Skinner brushed away a tear from Alex's cheek and put a finger under his chin, gently bringing his face up again.
"Alex," he said gently, "Nothing matters more than your health and well-being. I had a good reason for telling you not to pick up that box and you should have listened. You're important to me, Alex," Skinner said, looking deeply into Alex's eyes, "I love you. I'll never do anything to hurt you, and I won't let you do anything to hurt yourself. Promise to trust me next time?" Alex nodded again.
"I promise," he said. Skinner smiled and kissed Alex's hair.
"Good," he said, smiling brightly. "The important thing is that you're all right." He leaned down and whispered,
"I love you, Alex."
Alex sighed and cuddled against Skinner's chest.
"I love you, too, Skinner." Skinner looked down at him and chuckled.
"Alex?" Alex raised his head, his eyes bright.
"Do you think you could call me Walter?"
Skinner's tone was lighthearted, but his expression watchful, almost tense, realizing at that moment just how much Alex's answer meant to him. Alex looked up, smiling, his eyes clear, bottomless green. He hooked his arm around Skinner's waist, holding tight.
"I love you, Walter," he whispered.