by Lorelei

Part 3

Alex perched at the kitchen counter, his chin resting on his hand, watching as Skinner made lunch. Alex's pleas to help had been quickly and firmly refused, and he had found himself consigned to the barstool. His ribs did still ache a little, he admitted to himself. Trying to lift the box had aggravated them and it hadn't done a thing for his backside, either. He shifted a little on the barstool, the spot where Walter had swatted him still warm although it no longer stung.

Alex sat, deep in thought, as Skinner stirred the soup and rummaged in the refrigerator for the cheese, his T-shirt stretching over his well-muscled back. Walter had hit him. No. Walter had swatted his butt, as though he were a naughty child, and then had folded Alex in his arms and held him, told him he loved him. Alex remembered the look of concern on Walter's face when he heard Alex gasp, remembered Walter rushing over, worried that he was hurt. Alex felt himself tearing up and blinked the tears away, not wanting Walter to see and misunderstand. Walter loved him. He had said so, demonstrated it by his actions, by his gentle and constant care, his soft, whispered words.

Alex swallowed past the lump in his throat. Walter. There was a time, when he was green young Agent Krycek, that he had glimpsed the imposing, gruff AD in the hallway for the first time and never dared to imagine that the man had a first name, let alone that he would ever be allowed to breathe it. That he would ever sit in his kitchen, still warm from his embrace, and say it out loud and see him turn and smile, see the love in his eyes.

"Yes?" Alex looked up. Skinner was standing at the stove, buttering a slice of bread.

"Huh?" Alex blinked in surprise.

"You said my name," Skinner said, grinning.

"I did?" asked Alex, blushing. "I-I guess I'm still getting used to it." He answered Skinner's grin with one of his own. "I like it."

He looked at Skinner, unconsciously running the tip of his own finger along his bottom lip. "Walter," he said huskily. Skinner crossed the kitchen, his eyes locked onto Alex's, seeming almost to look into the very center of him. He took Alex's hand and kissed the fingers lightly, one at a time, then placed his hand lovingly along Alex's cheek.

"Alex," he whispered, smiling. Alex's heart felt as though it would burst, and he did not fight the tears this time. He had never known such love, such gentleness, each tiny kindness a treasure undreamt of, each touch almost unbearably beautiful. He smiled at Skinner, speaking with his eyes, and turned his head to kiss Skinner's palm. Skinner squeezed Alex's hand and returned to the stove, smiling over his shoulder.

"I hope you're hungry," he said. "My grilled cheese sandwiches are---"

"Almost as famous as your milkshakes and pancakes?" Alex asked, his eyes wide and innocent over his smirk. Skinner gave Alex a mock stern look.

"This is good for more than just cooking, young man," he said, brandishing his spatula. Alex grinned.

"Gotta catch me first," he said, laughing. Skinner smiled, placing Alex's plate in front of him with a flourish.

"Welcome to Walt's Lunch Counter," he joked. "One bowl of vegetable soup and one grilled cheese sandwich. That'll be $3.75."

Alex's smile made the older man's heart rate increase. Skinner felt himself growing warm, felt his knees weaken a little.

"Run me a tab?" Skinner gazed at Alex adoringly, loving the way those green eyes welcomed him, no longer afraid, no longer wary. He covered Alex's hand with his.

"For the rest of your life," he said softly, and was favored with a dazzling smile, Alex's hand turning under his, clasping it, interlocking their fingers. Alex blushed and looked down, almost shyly, but his smile remained. Skinner put his own plate down on the counter next to Alex's, and sat down beside him. He placed a glass of milk in front of Alex, taking a sip from his own glass of iced tea. Alex cast a longing look at Skinner's glass before taking a sip from his own. He didn't like plain milk very much, but he knew that he was underweight and needed to get his strength back. Somehow, knowing that Skinner knew that, too, that Walter cared, made the milk taste better than any he had ever had.


Alex nibbled the last of his sandwich as Skinner emerged from the pantry, a pen and paper in his hand. Skinner glanced approvingly at Alex's empty soup bowl and nearly empty plate. Good, he thought, he's definitely getting his appetite back. He looked worriedly down at the grocery list. It was already a page long and he hadn't even gotten to meats and fresh fruits and vegetables. This trip to the supermarket was going to take at least a couple of hours, and he still wasn't sure about leaving Alex alone. He sighed. They were out of nearly everything, and there was no question of Alex going with him. He hadn't asked and Alex had seemed relieved, not ready yet to leave the safety of the condo and deal with the outside world.

Skinner thought to himself, tapping the pen thoughtfully against the paper. He wanted Alex to be a little stronger physically before going out for the first time, and mentally... He glanced at Alex, who had hopped down from the barstool and gone to put his dishes in the sink. Mentally, it wasn't going to be easy. He would have to introduce the outside world slowly, in stages. The giant supermarket with its garish colors, noise and throngs of people was definitely not the way to start. He wondered if Alex would have forced himself to go had he asked, for fear of disappointing him. Skinner watched as Alex wandered into the living room and sat down on the sofa, turning on the television.

Skinner looked at Alex worriedly. He would have to begin slowly, but he would have to begin soon, before Alex's retreat from the world became irreversible. He made a mental note to telephone Mrs. Napoli that evening and accept her invitation for dinner, maybe for the upcoming weekend. He wanted Alex to meet Mrs. Napoli and it would be a good way to introduce the idea of leaving the condo. He smiled. It would also introduce Alex to Mrs. Napoli's lasagna. He picked up the paper and pen and joined Alex on the sofa.


"Hmm?" Alex murmured, surfing through the channels with lightning speed, finally giving up hope of finding anything watchable. He put the remote control on the coffee table and smiled at Skinner. "What's up?"

"Tell me some of your favorite foods," Skinner said, poised to write. "What do you like to eat?" Alex looked surprised for a moment, then looked away.

"It doesn't matter," he mumbled. Spender had trained the wanting and needing out of him early on. What did he like? When was the last time he could remember wanting anything and having it matter? He saw the look of concern on Skinner's face. He knew Walter cared, wanted him to be happy, and he wondered if he would ever be able to be free of Spender's influence, able to forget the hard lessons he had learned at his hand.

"It doesn't matter," he repeated shyly. "Anything." Skinner frowned.

"It matters, Alex." Gently and quietly, he questioned Alex, recalling the meals they had had in their short time together. Gradually, a picture emerged of a young man who liked chicken and steak, hated fish. Liked soups, except split pea. He liked salads and pasta. Liked bacon and eggs, wouldn't touch oatmeal. Skinner filled another half page with his neat, precise handwriting. He smiled, jotting down another item. He didn't have to ask about the chocolate. Slowly, with Skinner's encouragement, Alex began to enjoy helping to make out the grocery list, even mentioning a couple of items Skinner had overlooked. Alex smiled as he remembered long-forgotten likes and dislikes, preferences that, with no one there to care about them, he had long since locked away. He felt as though he were rediscovering himself as he made his quiet, simple requests, loving the careful way Skinner noted each one. Skinner put down the pen, put his hand on Alex's arm.

"Are you sure you'll be all right tomorrow? It's only for a couple of hours." Alex smiled. It was his turn to reassure Skinner.

"Don't worry, Walter, I'll be all right," he said. "I'll read a book or watch TV. I'll be fine. Besides," he added, "it'll do you good to get out for a while instead of being cooped up with me all the time."

He laughed as Skinner swept him up into a hug, tickling him gently.

"I can't think of anyone I'd rather be cooped up with," he said, holding Alex tightly.

"Come on," he said, standing up. "We've still got toiletries to do."

Alex gave a mock groan and followed Skinner into the bathroom, secretly happy to be doing something of use.


That night, Skinner awoke suddenly, on the verge of an explosive orgasm. He blinked and looked around, thinking at first that this was one incredible wet dream, then realizing that Alex was not beside him. Alex was under the covers, his long fingers delicately manipulating Skinner's swollen balls, his warm wet mouth sliding up and down Skinner's cock, his tongue expertly dancing under the crown, flicking over the head. Skinner's hips bucked and he clutched the side of the mattress, gasping.

"A-Alex? Alex!"

God, he was so close. Alex redoubled his efforts, driving Skinner half-mad with pleasure. Groaning, Skinner threw back the covers and sat up, gently pushing Alex away. Skinner sat panting, his throbbing cock hard against his belly, as Alex knelt beside him, naked, his own erection beginning to subside. Skinner hunched over, trying to get his breathing under control, as Alex stared at him, his eyes filling with tears. He started to reach for Skinner, then stopped. Skinner looked at Alex's face and wanted to weep for the hurt he saw there. A tear rolled down Alex's cheek and he made another attempt to reach out, only to withdraw again. He looked at Skinner with misery in his eyes.

"Don't you want me?" he asked softly, his voice trembling.

Skinner reached over and pulled him close, lying back so that Alex was draped partially over him. Alex rested his head on Skinner's chest, his shoulders shaking under the gentle weight of Skinner's arm. Skinner could feel the wetness of Alex's tears against his bare skin, could hear the sobs Alex was trying so hard to suppress. Skinner stroked Alex's hair soothingly.

"Alex," he whispered. Alex lay motionless in his arms, his breath hitching slightly.

"Wasn't it good?" Alex choked. "Didn't you like it? Why don't you want me?"

Skinner lay against the pillow and groaned. His cock still felt hard enough to shatter glass. He gently raised Alex's head, wiped away the tears. Alex's lip trembled and he looked away. Skinner gently drew his face back toward him and looked deeply into those sad eyes.

"Alex," he said, his chuckle surprising them both. "That was incredible. Do you have any idea how hard it was to make myself stop you?"

Alex sat up, confused.

"Then why did you?" he asked. His brow furrowed. "I wanted to please you. I thought you'd like it."

Skinner reached behind him and fluffed the pillows, stacking them against the headboard. He put his arm around Alex, bringing him close again and settling them both back comfortably against the pillows. He kissed the top of Alex's head and spoke softly, choosing his words carefully. What he was about to say was important and he wanted to be sure to get it right.

"Alex," he began. "I want to do this right. I want our first time to be special. Not," he added, ruffling Alex's hair affectionately, "that what you were doing wasn't special, but... " he trailed off.

He didn't want to hurt Alex. What Alex had been doing had been pretty damned special indeed, if Skinner's rock-hard erection was to be believed. But it had been too much like... being serviced. He wondered about Alex's time with Spender, the man who had stood in Skinner's living room, smoke curling from his lips as he called Alex a "slut" and a "whore". The choice of words had seemed strange at the time, but Skinner remembered the sick gleam in the old man's eye and understood.

Skinner looked down at Alex, curled tightly against his side, and his heart ached as he remembered Alex's solemn eyes, that soft, sad voice asking "How do you want me, sir?" Expecting to be used again, degraded and debased and tossed aside. Skinner thought bitterly of Spender, wishing vainly for revenge, revenge for this shattered man, this unloved boy who had been used and hurt and sold.

Skinner gently stroked Alex's back and shoulder, feeling him relax slightly under his touch. He knew he might never know the full extent of Alex's suffering under Spender's hand, and he knew now was not the right time to bring it up. Alex was very vulnerable right now. One day, Skinner hoped, when Alex was stronger, he might be able to tell Skinner about what had happened to him, and Skinner would help him heal.

He massaged Alex's shoulders gently, feeling the smooth skin under his hands. Alex had said he loved him, and Skinner had no reason to disbelieve him. But, Skinner thought, has Alex really had the chance to think? Is he capable of understanding, really understanding, that he has a choice? Does he think he loves me because he views me as his savior? Or, Skinner thought with dread, his master? Tears filled Skinner's eyes as he looked at Alex, his heart full of such fierce love. I'll never take advantage of you, Alex, he promised silently. I'm going to do this right. I'm going to be everything you want me to be, everything you need me to be, and one day you'll realize how much I truly love you and how much I want you to love me, for the right reasons. Skinner squeezed Alex's shoulder gently.

"Alex, look at me."

Raising up on his elbow, Alex obeyed, looking up at Skinner, remnants of his tears sparkling in his black lashes. Skinner leaned down, holding his breath, his heart pounding, and kissed that rosebud mouth, feeling Alex's soft pink lips parting under his as he explored that moist velvet mouth with his tongue. Alex sighed, his breathing becoming more rapid, his hand clutching Skinner's thigh as Skinner's tongue flicked gently against his, as Skinner gently sucked and nipped at his bottom lip. When Skinner released him, Alex lay stunned, flushed, and thoroughly kissed. He looked at Skinner and closed his eyes, his fingertips delicately brushing his lips as if he were trying to rub the kiss in, to savor it forever. Skinner waited for him to open his eyes again and then spoke softly, his hand closing over Alex's.

"I want to do this right," he said softly. "I... you've been through so much, Alex. I want us to take every step together. I want us to discover each other, learn everything there is to know about each other. I want us to fall asleep every night in each other's arms, and wake up every day that way. And when it happens, Alex, it'll be perfect. For both of us."

Alex considered this silently for a moment. That kiss had been... incredible. But why had Skinner really pushed him away? He looked away. He had thought Skinner would be pleased with him.

"Alex?" Skinner asked softly.

Alex swallowed and looked up, smiling bravely.

"Do you understand what I'm saying? I'm not rejecting you, baby, far from it. I just want it to be right, I just want it to be special. For you and for me."

Alex nodded unsurely. He wanted so desperately to believe, but doubt was beginning to creep into his heart.

"Will it be soon?" he asked.

Skinner leaned down and nipped gently at Alex's ear.

"If I have anything to say about it," he growled, cuddling Alex close.

He lay back against the pillows, his arms wrapped around Alex. Alex lay with his back against Skinner's chest, looking up at the ceiling.

"I think we should have a talk, Alex," Skinner said. "About relationships." Alex shifted uncomfortably.


Skinner's hand rubbed circles against Alex's stomach, played gently with the light hair there.

"Monogamy is very important in a relationship, Alex. It's very important to me. Do you understand?" Alex swallowed again.

"Y-yes," he whispered.

Skinner held him more tightly and kissed him softly on the neck.

"You will be the only one to touch me, Alex. I make that promise to you now. No one will ever touch me again but you."

Alex turned his head to look up at Skinner, his expression serious. Skinner continued.

"Would you like that, Alex?" Alex nodded.

"Yes," he whispered, his hand resting on Skinner's arm. Skinner kissed Alex's neck, close to the jaw, lingering for a moment in that soft, sweet hollow.

"And I want to be the only one to touch you. Will you promise me? Only me. No one else."

Alex nodded again. He had become very still. Skinner rested his cheek against the top of Alex's head.

"Say it," he whispered. "Please." Alex looked down.

"I promise, Walter," he said softly. "No one touches me but you." And in the back of his mind, Spender's voice whispered, "Whore."

Skinner hugged him tightly, unaware of Alex's growing apprehension.

"I love you, Alex," he said, tugging the pillows back down and lying back, pulling the covers back up over them both.

Skinner sighed as he rested his head against the pillow, Alex pressed tightly against him.

"My Alex," he murmured, drifting off to sleep. "I love you."

Alex sighed, the words he had longed his entire life to hear now wounding him to the very heart. He clung to Skinner, feeling the tears pricking his eyelids. God, Alex, he thought bitterly, you're such a fucking fool. Did you really think this would last? Did you really think you were good enough for him? Walter wanted the first time to be special. How special would their first time seem when he found out how many had been there before him? Alex lay very still, listening to Skinner's even breathing, feeling him relax into deep sleep. Alex raised his head to look at him, his handsome face in repose, lit faintly by the bedside lamp. He even keeps the light on, all night, Alex thought, for me. He let his fingers brush reverently over Skinner's face, careful not to disturb him.

Alex sagged, burying his face in the crook of his arm as the doubts assailed him, his heart aching as he envisioned what was to come. Walter had brought him to his bed, held him close, kissed him, told him he wanted to be the only one to touch him. My Alex, he had said. What would he say when he found out that His Alex had been passed around like a party favor for the last fourteen years? That he had been fucked by every sleazy business associate, every dignitary, every "client" of Spender's in the fifty states and several foreign countries?

Skinner stirred briefly in his sleep and then settled, snoring softly. Alex lay listening to that comforting sound, wondering how many more nights he would get to lie there like this, listening to him, how long it would be before Walter found out what he was and where he'd been. He felt sick as he remembered the photographs he'd been forced to pose for, the videotapes that even now circulated amongst Washington's elite.

How long before someone, Spender, for instance, made sure that evidence of Alex's degradation fell into Walter's hands? Walter wanted him to go out, eventually. To go places together. How long before they ran into a former "client"? How long before an eager mouth pressed close to Walter's ear, spilling Alex's shame, his secrets, telling stories of Alex moaning, thrashing, his legs spread, his mouth open...

"No. No, please... " Alex whispered, the hot tears beginning to fall.

He breathed in Walter's scent, huddled close to him, shaking. Was that why Walter had pushed him away? Did something in him sense what Alex was? Alex curled up in a ball, his bedtime milkshake sitting heavily in his stomach. Walter wanted to be the only one but it was too late, too late. Alex might be able to hide the truth for a while, but sooner or later Walter would find out what he had done. Alex moaned softly, aching with the pain of knowing that he could never be good enough for Walter. Walter would learn the truth and look at him again with disgust and hatred in his eyes and throw him back into the gutter where he belonged.

Alex sniffled, curling tighter. Walter deserved so much more than a used-up whore who couldn't even sleep through the night without waking up screaming. He deserved to share his life with someone who was clean and decent, like him. Not someone like Alex, dragging along his wretched past, his nightmares, his sad, scarred body that had been used by so many.

Alex trembled, remembering the hands that had held him down, the harsh voices, the coldness the revulsion in their eyes as they rammed into his ass, his mouth. Spender's little whore, only good for beating or fucking. So many men, faceless, unnumbered, filling him and then leaving him empty, broken, huddled in his tiny shower, the hot water turning his skin scarlet. Trying to wash away the shame along with the blood and semen and piss. Alex shivered, his agony almost physical. He knew he could scrub himself raw every night for the rest of his life and he would never be clean enough for Walter, never be worthy of the heaven of his bed, of his heart. Skinner slept, blissfully unaware that beside him, Alex was employing one of his lesser known talents: the art of crying in absolute silence.

Skinner sipped his coffee, watching Alex over the rim of his cup, his handsome features creased with concern. Alex had been quiet and withdrawn all morning, speaking only when spoken to, and then only a few nearly whispered words. He had barely touched his breakfast, pushing the scrambled eggs around on his plate and tearing the toast into tiny pieces, finally losing interest even in that. He sat now, shoulders slightly hunched, staring down at his plate. Skinner frowned.

Only the day before he had been congratulating himself on Alex's progress, pleased with the improvement in his appetite and the increased frequency of those dazzling smiles. Alex had accepted the swat and the reasoning behind it without resistance and had seemingly forgotten the incident. They had fallen asleep in the same bed for the first time, Alex feeling so right, so perfect, nestled in the crook of Skinner's arm.

Skinner was puzzled. He and Alex had had such a good talk in bed the night before and he had fallen asleep secure in the knowledge that he and Alex were starting their relationship out right. True, Alex had been upset at first when Skinner had prevented him from completing the most incredible blowjob he had ever experienced. Skinner groaned inwardly at the memory. Never let it be said that Walter Skinner was not one tough Marine.

Skinner had held him and given him plenty of love and reassurance, explaining why he felt it was important that the first time be special, the two of them discovering one another, as equals. Skinner himself had fallen asleep smiling, a small sigh of absolute happiness escaping his lips as he drifted off to sleep with his lover beside him. His lover. The words made him grin in the dark like a teenager, a big, goofy I'm-in-love grin that would have been instantly recognizable to anyone who had ever experienced the blissful high of a new romance.

Skinner had awakened that morning and reached over to gather Alex in his arms and kiss him awake, only to find Alex's side of the bed cold and empty. He had gone downstairs in his boxers and T-shirt to find Alex sitting in the breakfast nook, staring out the window, an untouched cup of tea in front of him. Alex had turned to look at Skinner, that watchful, hesitant look back in his eyes. Skinner had hugged him and kissed him, worried that Alex was in the throes of another mood swing.

Alex had continued to sit quietly as Skinner prepared breakfast, his huge eyes following Skinner's every move, his responses to Skinner's cheerful morning conversation limited to a few mumbled words. Skinner poured the orange juice into their glasses, casting a few concerned looks Alex's way. He had to admit to a little disappointment at Alex's sudden reticence, but immediately chastised himself. Come on, Walt, he's been through hell. He's going to be like this for a while. He just needs time to heal and to adjust to everything that's happened.

Skinner finished his coffee and looked over at his silent lover.


Alex looked up, unconsciously biting his lip.

"You barely ate a bite," Skinner said with concern. "Is there something wrong with the eggs?"

Alex stared down at his cold eggs for a moment.

"No," he said quietly, fidgeting a little. "I guess I'm just not hungry."

Skinner stood and walked over to Alex, leaning down and putting his arms around the smaller man.

"It's okay, Alex," he said, kissing Alex on the cheek. "I won't nag you, but you know how important it is for you to eat. Promise to have a snack while I'm gone?"

Alex nodded. Skinner moved to begin clearing the table but Alex stood and began placing the cutlery on the soiled plates.

"Please, let me," he said softly, his eyes briefly meeting Skinner's before traveling quickly back down again.

"It's not much, it won't be a lot of work. You go ahead and shower." Skinner smiled and ruffled Alex's hair.

"All right," he said, "but... "

"I know," Alex said, "no stretching and no lifting."

He smiled briefly, turning on the tap and beginning to scrape his uneaten eggs into the disposal. Skinner poured himself another cup of coffee to take upstairs, watching Alex as he methodically cleared away the breakfast dishes and put the frying pan in to soak. Well, he had seen a smile, at least, but it had been all too fleeting. Skinner frowned again.

"Alex? Is anything wrong?"

Alex shook his head, biting his lip again, focusing intently on tamping the last of the eggs into the disposal with a wooden spoon. Skinner stirred his coffee, noting the shadows under those beautiful eyes, the tight line of his lips.

"Alex," he began again, waiting for those sad green eyes to meet his. "Please tell me if anything's troubling you."

Was it the trip to the supermarket? Was Alex anxious about being alone but unwilling or unable to say so? Skinner decided to broach the subject.

"Is it this morning? Being alone while I'm out? I can ask Mrs. Napoli to pick up a few things, maybe have some things delivered... "

Alex shook his head again and forced a smile, trying to reassure Skinner.

"No," he said, "I guess... I guess I just didn't sleep well last night. Please go, Walter," he said, attempting a light tone. "We're out of everything and it'll do you good to get out. I'll be okay, really, I'll just take a nap or something."

Skinner hesitated, sure that there was more going on with Alex than just lack of sleep, but not wanting to press too hard. Alex had experienced a great deal of trauma and had a new relationship to deal with as well. Events had progressed at a dizzying speed for both men and maybe this was just Alex's way of dealing with it. Alex put the juice glasses into the dishwasher and began to wipe down the counter. Skinner placed his hand over Alex's.

"All right, love," he said softly. "I'm going to have a quick shower and then go to the supermarket. And when I get back, I'm going to make you a milkshake with extra chocolate syrup and all the trimmings. How does that sound?"

"Good," Alex murmured, managing another faint smile. Skinner squeezed his hand and headed up the stairs to the shower, intending to get to the supermarket and back as quickly as possible and then see if he couldn't raise Alex's spirits a little. A milkshake followed by a good long cuddle on the sofa might do the trick. He showered and shaved efficiently and dressed in freshly pressed jeans and a crisp white T-shirt under a chestnut brown v-neck sweater. He returned downstairs and paused in the kitchen, tucking the neatly folded shopping list into the pocket of his jeans. Alex watched with a heavy heart as Skinner shrugged into his jacket, dropping his car keys into the pocket.

Skinner approached, his arms wide, and Alex obediently stepped forward for a hug, fighting to keep his carefully neutral expression in place. Skinner hugged Alex, kissing him lovingly, smiling as he looked into Alex's eyes. Skinner found himself again vaguely worried. That lost, haunted look that he had hoped was gone forever was back, although Alex seemed to be doing his best to hide it.

Skinner gently caressed Alex's face with his fingertips, tracing the elegant line of his cheekbone. The last of the bruises Spender had inflicted had faded, but how long would it be before the bruises on Alex's soul would fade? How long before the deepest, unseen wounds healed? Skinner sighed and held Alex close again, feeling the younger man suddenly cling to him tightly, and wished for the thousandth time that he could take Spender apart slowly, with his bare hands. Skinner gave Alex a reassuring squeeze and looked into his eyes again.

"Are you sure you're all right?" he asked for the second time that morning.

Alex nodded, his eyes remaining solemn as his lips curved into a pale imitation of a smile.

"I'll be okay," he said quietly. "Don't worry, please, Walter."

He opened his mouth, wanting to say more, much more, but closed it again and looked down. He clenched his hand at his side, fighting the urge to go down on his knees and confess everything, to tell Walter the truth about what he was, what Spender had turned him into, about the many men who had come before. To beg Walter to let him stay. Alex closed his eyes against the pain, cursing himself for being a coward.

He trembled, wanting to throw himself at Walter and beg, plead, promise anything if only this didn't have to end, if only those chocolate brown eyes would still look at him with love once he knew the extent of Alex's sins. Weak, Alex, he thought. Pathetic. A stupid slut, just like Spender always said. Skinner will find out sooner or later. Tell him. Get it over with. He deserves someone good, someone clean, like him, and you know it. He knows it, and he'll hate you for not telling him before he had to hear it from someone else.

Alex looked up quickly and then back down again, his chest aching, wishing vainly for a second chance, as he had countless times before. To be worthy of this man, this man who now stood before him with such tenderness in his eyes, this man who caressed him, held him with such reverence, touched him with such gentleness, as though he were good and pure and whole. This man, this good man, who never dreamed that the flesh he so lovingly kissed was unclean, that the secret places of this sad, scarred body were known to so many. Alex quickly blinked back tears. Walter had forgiven him so much. Was there a chance, even a small chance, that Alex could be forgiven this too? Alex swallowed hard, fearing the answer. Perhaps Walter would try, at first. But would he be able to truly forget? Forget that he held a whore in his arms? Forget that the skin that lay against his was all too familiar territory to countless men? Alex looked back up at Skinner.

"I'm fine," he said, a little too brightly. "Go to the supermarket."

Alex's smile hid the agony blossoming within. He was just postponing the inevitable. Again he fought the urge to tell Skinner everything, again he faltered. I love you, Walter, he thought. I just want you to love me a little longer.

"I'm fine, Walter," he said again. "Go and try to enjoy it, you need an afternoon out."

Skinner placed a hand on Alex's shoulder, a slight frown still visible on his face. Alex was obviously not telling him something. Skinner smiled encouragingly at him. Maybe after the milkshake and the cuddling, he would be able to get Alex to open up a little. Skinner gave Alex another small kiss.

"All right, rat," he said with a smile. "I'll be back as soon as I can. Keep the door locked and don't open it for anyone. I have my key and I'll let myself back in. Okay?"

Alex nodded. Skinner went to the door and opened it.

"Go ahead and take that nap, the rest will do you good. And don't forget that snack you promised to have. There's apples and yogurt in the refrigerator."

"Yes, Walter," Alex whispered, his eyes moist.

He savored the moment, tucking it away carefully, clutching it to him. When would anyone ever care for him like this again? Skinner closed the door behind him and in a moment, Alex heard the sound of the elevator doors closing. He sagged, finally releasing the flood of emotions he had been struggling to contain all morning. He sobbed quietly, hugging himself as best he could with his one arm. The scent of Walter's cologne still hung in the air and Alex breathed it in, squeezing his eyes shut, rocking slightly back and forth. He looked around the living room, alone here for the first time. Here in Walter's home.

The strain of keeping himself together in front of Skinner had exhausted him and he began to tremble a little as he walked slowly into the living room, weeping, tears dripping onto his dark blue T-shirt. Two hours, Walter would be gone for at least two hours. He was suddenly seized with longing, hyper-aware of missing Walter, wanting him there, even though the man had only left moments ago. Alex then switched with dizzying speed to dreading Walter's return.

Walter would be back in two hours. It hurt so much to see him, to hear his voice, feel his touch, knowing that these treasures were not his to keep, knowing that he would likely be relegated to being Walter's whore as he was Spender's, or worse, cast out altogether. Alex drew a ragged breath, gazing around the room at Walter's books neatly lining the shelves, Walter's morning paper neatly folded, aligned with the corner of the coffee table, Walter's umbrella standing neatly in its brass stand in the corner. Neat, orderly. Like Walter. Like Walter's life. Walter's neat and ordered life, just waiting to be destroyed by Alex's shameful past.


Alex sat down on the sofa, hunching over miserably, tears sliding down his cheeks. A large book lay in the center of the coffee table, its cover a black and white photograph of a narrow dirt road bordered on either side by dense jungle. White letters across the center of the photograph spelled out the book's title: "Tour of Duty: Photographs from the Vietnam War". Alex slid the book across the coffee table and flipped it open. He knew Walter had been in Vietnam. He knew a lot about Walter's life from the thick dossier he had been given on the AD prior to infiltrating his section. But the dry, impersonal tone of the dossier hadn't really given the young double-agent a real sense of the man, of what he had been through, of what he stood for.

He sighed, fresh tears pricking his eyelids. He had only just begun to get to know Walter, the man he truly was, and now he was going to lose him. Alex silently turned the pages, the glossy stock under his fingertips contrasting with the roughness of the images it contained. The burnt-out shell of a hut, its occupants killed or fled. A small boy sitting, vacant-eyed, on a pile of rocks by a road, clutching a skinny white cat to his narrow chest. Planes flying low over the dark trees, trails of white fire falling away beneath them. Napalm. Mud. Alex studied the stark images, trying to imagine what it had been like for Walter. He came to the last photograph in the book and caught his breath as he suddenly found himself looking into familiar eyes. Walter's eyes.

The photograph was of a group of five men sitting on a felled tree by the side of a dirt road. They squinted into the camera, gazing out from 1969 with eyes too old for their boyish faces, their rifles slung across their backs or leaning against the tree, close at hand. At the end of the fallen tree sat a young Walter Skinner, a skinny teenager, his bony wrists dangling between his knees. A hank of dark hair peeked out from under his helmet. His sweatstained shirt was open at the neck, his dogtags glinting against his hairless chest. Alex stared at the photograph, his fingertip tracing the familiar angle of the jaw.

Nineteen. Walter had been nineteen when that picture was taken, in a hellish place thousands of miles from home, a moment captured in the life of a boy forced too soon to become a man. Alex gazed into those dark eyes. They met the camera levelly, hiding nothing, speaking of things no one should see. Alex closed the book and put it back on the table, his hand sliding across the cover almost reverently. Walter was a soldier. Walter was a hero. Alex bit his lip, bright pain blossoming in his heart. And what about you, Alex? What are you? Where were you at nineteen? That taunting voice in his head, never letting him forget. He closed his eyes and moaned softly.

Nikolai had kept him in Russia most of that year, refining his training. That cultured voice rising over the swish of the cane, demanding obedience, punishing imperfection. Alex shuddered as he remembered the endless days spent blindfolded in the small windowless room, willing his hands not to shake as he assembled and disassembled the various weapons. The dry, spicy scent of Nikolai's cologne as he stood behind the chair, leaning close, the terror of his nearness almost unbearable. Trying not to flinch as the cane split the air and blazed a white-hot trail of agony across his shoulders. Thin trickles of blood beginning to thread their way down his back. That cold voice in his ear, relentless, implacable.

Again, Alexei. Faster this time. And stop biting your lip. Yes, Teacher. I have warned you before, little one. Yes, Teacher. Please, I'm sorry. Nikolai's voice growing harsh as he gripped Alex's jaw, fingers digging painfully into the flesh. A hiss of irritation as Nikolai's dark eyes scrutinized Alex mercilessly. You have made marks that will take a day to fade, Alexei. Alex could feel his tormentor leaning closer and instinctively tried to pull away. The slap made his ears ring. Your body is not your own. Do you understand, Alexei? It does not belong to you. It is ours to do with as we please. The hard fingers released Alex's jaw. You will be punished after your lessons, Alexei. Yes, Teacher.

Choking back bile, trying not to vomit. Pale, sweat-slicked hands gripping the gunmetal tightly, trying not to slip. Trying to make the pieces fit.

Long hours spent in the tiny cinderblock room, huddled shivering on the concrete floor, his sobs swallowed by the crushing darkness. Alex hugged his knees and rocked back and forth, trying to calm his fear as he awaited his punishment. First the dark and then the pain. The sound of a key turning in the lock, the heavy iron door swinging open with a groan, letting in only the barest amount of light. Alex's trainer had identified the boy's intense fear of the dark early on, and had used it to great advantage. The sound of his teacher's footsteps approaching filled Alex with uncontrollable fear. Trembling and blind, whimpering as unseen hands pulled him to his feet and arranged him against the wall, the rough surface scratching his chest and stomach. Tugging uselessly at the sturdy leather cuffs that encircled his wrists, holding him in place. Nikolai's voice, solemn and implacable. You must learn, Alexei. The unforgettable sound of leather against flesh. Agony, consuming and complete.

Tasting blood in the back of his throat as he gasped the familiar catechism in a voice ravaged from screaming. I'm sorry, Teacher, please, please, I'm sorry, I'll be good, please... Released at last, returned to his rooms on tottering legs, stunned by this most recent scourging. Nikolai's voice directing him back to his training. Not a minute must be wasted, little one. We have much work to do, and look at how much time your misbehavior has already cost us! Bad boy! Alex flinching, scurrying to obey, gritting his teeth against the pain that seemed to consume every cell in his body. Training. His purpose in life. The purpose for which he was allowed to live. Nothing must interfere with training.

Alex sat once again in the hard wooden chair, forcing himself to remain ramrod straight, fighting the almost overwhelming urge to pull away as Nikolai once again tied the blindfold across his swollen eyes. Trying not to cry, trying not to let the moan tear itself from his throat as the darkness closed in. White hands reaching, feeling blindly for the partially assembled rifle, the coldness of the oiled metal a peculiar comfort. Nikolai trained Alex every day that year, readying him for the Consortium, for Spender. Honing the tool for its many possible uses. Hour after hour of drills. Hand to hand combat. Explosives. Surveillance. Special Skills.

Alex caught his breath, squeezing his eyes shut tightly against the memory. Special Skills was always at night. Alex never knew which night, his only warning the sound of the black sedan approaching the dacha. No cars ever came down the long, tree-lined drive, except on those dreaded nights. Kneeling by the window in his little room, careful to stay back out of sight, Alex trembled as he listened to the sounds cutting sharply through the frigid air of a Russian winter night.

The sound of the car door shutting, the crunch of the driver's feet on the gravel drive. The chime as he pressed the discrete button set into the doorknocker. Nikolai's voice, quiet and precise. His footsteps on the stairs. His obsidian eyes as he stood in the doorway of Alex's room, dark, neatly folded clothes over his arm. Alex fighting to control the trembling, head bowed, staring at the rug on which he knelt. The only pretty thing in the room, it gave him a tiny measure of comfort. Nikolai's terse commands were obeyed mechanically as Alex repeated the familiar pattern over and over in his head. Red, green, gold, blue. Red, green, gold, blue. Red, green, gold, blue.

The parties were in grand ballrooms. Ballrooms he caught only a glimpse of as he was led up ornate staircases to the rooms upstairs. Music he heard drifting faintly up from below, briefly increasing in volume as the door to the bedchamber opened and closed, as a new voice whispered in his ear, as different hands touched and claimed and hurt. Pale arms stretched to their limit, straining against the bonds. Dark satin sheets, cool against his face as he pressed it against the bed, trying to block out what was happening.

It was worse when he was untied, when he had to see their faces. When he had to talk to the nameless men who entered the room one by one, passing the corner where Nikolai sat unmoving, observing his student. Nervous, aware of Nikolai's constant presence, Alex sat on the edge of the bed, trying to be everything they wanted. Trying to please his teacher. Terrified of the punishment that would follow if he did not.

His cool exterior belied the panic that always dwelt just below the surface as he spoke softly, answered the questions put to him, offered opinions on the topics he was given. Nikolai had seen to his education with his customary thoroughness. Alex spoke six languages and was well-versed in literature, history and politics. He spoke knowledgeably and volubly on many subjects, all the while reciting the litany in his head, remembering the lessons that really mattered. The ones that had been carved into his flesh, their supreme importance driven home by the sting of the whip, the bite of the cane. Don't slouch. Don't fidget. Don't bite your lip. Arrange yourself pleasingly, let the client see you. Smile. Flirt. Trying to keep the tremor out of his voice as he charmed, flattered and seduced. Keeping his expression carefully neutral as he flirted and aroused, artfully shedding his simple, elegantly cut clothing, the dark silk whispering as it fell away, leaving him naked, exposed.

Kneeling between unfamiliar legs, hands behind his back, head bowed gracefully. Looking up through his lashes as he leaned forward, trying to make his mind blank as rough hands grabbed the back of his head. Closing his eyes as his mouth was brutally plundered, straining to keep his balance, trying not to gag, trying to make pleasing sounds out of what wanted to be cries for help, for salvation. Choking down the last of the bitter semen that flooded his mouth as the client grunted and thrust forward. Pale hands gripping the sheets as Alex was lifted from the floor and thrown across the bed, his legs roughly parted. Closing his eyes and waiting for it to be over as the client impaled him, a little spit the only lubrication he granted to the pretty whore beneath him. Riding the wave of painful thrusts as the voice echoed in his head, constant, implacable, refusing to be silenced. Your body is not your own. Your body is not your own. Your body is not your own.

Alex forced himself back to the present, closing his eyes against the painful memory. He stood and began to pace, losing the struggle to keep control. He would have wrung his hands, had he had two, but had to settle for wrapping his one arm around himself as best he could in an attempt at self-comfort. His bloodshot eyes looked around the room, as if he were trying to memorize everything in it. His teeth worried at his lower lip. Walter said he loved him but he couldn't be held to that. Walter didn't really know him, didn't really know the man he held and kissed and touched.

Alex trembled as he fought against the flood of images from his past. The leering men, too many to count, who had possessed him, who had bought pieces of his life like the real estate, the stocks and bonds, the secrets they bought and sold. The innumerable impersonal hotel rooms, bedrooms, back rooms in too many cities to recall where he had been forced to strip naked and spread himself wide for a stranger's pleasure, trying not to tremble, trying not to cry. Pasting an expression of idiotic blankness on his face so the client wouldn't see the self-loathing, the fear, the misery. So he wouldn't earn another hour in the dark, another beating.

Alex walked to the closed front door and leaned against it, his one hand unconsciously massaging the opposite shoulder, his eyes squeezed shut against the hot tears. I should just leave, he thought desperately. Leave before I'm thrown out, before I have to see the look in his eyes when he sees me for what I am. Alex ran a shaking hand through his dark hair. I should get out before I ruin his life, it would be the kindest thing I could do.

He moved away from the door, swiping roughly at the tears on his cheeks. Of course he wouldn't go. Coward! The harsh voice in his head snapped. Deep inside he knew he couldn't do it, could never be brave enough to do the right thing, to just slip out and disappear, sparing Walter the grief and embarrassment that was sure to come. Selfish! The voice nagged. Alex cringed and moaned again, his shoulders shaking with the increased force of his sobs. He knew he couldn't bear to leave, couldn't bear to leave this, the only safe place he had ever known. Couldn't bear to lose even one second of time with Walter, even if it was the last. Even if his last moment with Walter was filled with anger and hatred, that kind and handsome face contorted with rage. Those warm brown eyes grown cold with disgust.

Alex glanced fearfully back at the door, then moved close to it again, checking the lock. Spender was out there, and Nikolai. His mind raced as he peered fearfully through the peephole at the deserted hallway on the other side of the door. He could leave, could try to disappear. But you belong to Skinner now, the voice hissed. Alex backed away from the door, whimpering.

You're his, the voice continued. Alex knew the voice was right. He was Walter's and it wasn't his place to decide. He would have to stay, miserable and afraid, dreading the moment when Walter would send him away. He couldn't go away on his own. But even if he could... how long before Spender found him? How long before he reclaimed the property, so recently given away, now unwanted? He would then give Alex to Nikolai to be retrained--Alex's stomach lurched sickeningly at the thought--and then... Alex swallowed. He knew what then.

Alex moved across the living room, almost unconsciously drawn to the balcony door. Neither man had mentioned that night on the balcony since Alex had first arrived at the condo. They had both studiously avoided the subject as well as the balcony itself, Skinner thoughtfully keeping the drapes partially closed, in order that Alex not be reminded of their confrontation and the long night that followed. Alex moved closer, almost in a trance, and grasped the door handle. Without knowing why, he slid the door open and stepped outside, trembling a little in the late October morning air, the cold tile floor of the balcony chilling his stockinged feet.

The balcony looked just as it had that night, the night that Walter-Skinner, then-had slugged him viciously in the gut and hauled him out here, throwing him down like a bag of garbage. Alex winced at the memory. It had been no more than he deserved. He looked around, hugging himself more tightly, and took another cautious step toward the railing. The wind picked up and whistled around the building's corner, making an eerie howling noise. Alex stood on the empty balcony, shivering in his T-shirt and sweatpants, staring out at the skyline. He had a passing thought that the last time he had been here, he had had two arms, had been whole.

The city droned on, oblivious to his suffering just as it had been that cold November night when he had huddled here, his manacled hand alternately numb and aching, his muscles beginning to cramp. Alex stood at the railing, his finger tracing and retracing a small scrape on the painted surface, the scrape made by the handcuff he wore as he dangled seventeen stories above the ground. Gritting his teeth against the agony of the metal slicing into his wrist, the small bones cracking and shifting, using all of his remaining strength to vanquish his enemy, to survive. To fight the darkness, the all-consuming void, to win the right to live another day, even if it was on his knees.

Alex turned and sat with his back against the railing, the coldness of the tiles seeping through his sweatpants. He wrapped his arm around his knees, unconsciously echoing his movements of that terrible night. He looked at the balcony door, remembering. Skinner leaving him there, cold and alone, returning to the warmth and the light, sliding the door shut behind him. The way that Skinner had stood there, framed in the doorway, for just a moment, his expression unreadable. How bereft Alex had felt when Skinner had turned off the last light inside, leaving him only darkness and his own faint reflection in the glass balcony door.

Alex wept intermittently, occasionally scrubbing his hand roughly across his cheek, hating himself for his weakness, for the hope that had filled him so completely, the hope for which he was now paying a terrible price. He stood awkwardly, his one hand clutching the railing to pull himself up. He paused once more before going back inside, staring at the balcony door, that cold, disdainful voice in his head sparing him nothing. This is where you belong, Alex, the voice whispered. On the outside looking in. Alex drew in a deep, hitching breath and stepped back inside, sliding the door shut behind him.

Morton's Supermarket was always crowded on a Saturday. Skinner paused as he passed the coffee shop, tempted by the aroma of freshly roasted gourmet coffee. He glanced at his watch and decided not to stop. He wanted to hurry back home to Alex. The coffee shop was just one of the conveniences Morton's offered. The clean, modern supermarket also boasted its own bank, flower shop, pharmacy and dry cleaners. Skinner skillfully navigated through the sea of well-heeled shoppers. He had shopped at Morton's ever since moving to Crystal City, but his previous visits had been hurried, grim affairs as he quickly filled his cart with steak, beer and frozen dinners, the staples of bachelor life.

He smiled appreciatively as he approached the extensive gourmet foods section, already planning a week's worth of sumptuous meals that would have Alex's appetite running at full throttle in no time. He selected a bottle of good red wine and a variety of freshly ground spices.

He chose generously from the attractive array of meats in the butcher's shop. Morton's sold only Black Angus beef, and Skinner deliberated for a moment before choosing the New York strip. He had steak in the freezer at home, but chose two of the best steaks and stacked them in the cart. Alex would need plenty of red meat if he were going to get his strength back. Soon, packages of plump chicken breasts were piled next to the steak and Skinner moved on to the lamb. His mouth watered as he remembered his Aunt Tati's kharcho, the way it smelled as it bubbled away on the stove, the way she would always save aside a few walnuts and dried cherries for her favorite nephew. He smiled. The recipe for Tati's kharcho had always been a closely guarded secret, and he had been surprised and deeply touched when she had sent him the recipe a few months before, tucking it into an ornate Easter card.

Skinner headed for the produce section. If he were going to make kharcho for Alex, he was going to need fresh lemon juice, cilantro and onions. He efficiently selected and bagged the fresh cilantro, already anticipating surprising Alex with the traditional Georgian lamb stew. He chose from the heaping bushel baskets of lemons, oranges and apples, carefully placing them in one corner of the cart to avoid bruising.

He passed by an attractively arranged display of strawberries and paused, unable to resist their sweet scent. He leaned down and inhaled deeply, grinning in spite of himself. The strawberries were out of season, but they were unusually red and juicy. He added a quart of them to the cart, then stopped, picturing one of those plump, juicy strawberries disappearing between Alex's lush lips, white teeth biting deep, droplets of pink juice on those lips, just waiting to be kissed away... Skinner shook himself out of his reverie and looked around quickly to see if anyone had noticed him standing there daydreaming. He quickly picked up a second quart of strawberries and headed for the dairy section, in search of fresh whipping cream.

Skinner finished in the dairy section and moved into the pharmacy. He stopped next to a display rack of condoms and chose a large box. He smiled as he anticipated the night ahead. He had told Alex that he wanted their first time to be special, and he intended to keep his word. He would cook Alex dinner, then they would relax together, perhaps have some wine. Candlelight, strawberries and cream. By the time the last strawberry had been eaten, they would both be naked, and he would show Alex what it was to be loved, truly and passionately.

He glanced at the box of condoms and imagined Alex wearing only the bedsheets, writhing, his lips parted, calling his name. Skinner felt stirrings of interest from below and hunched over a little, glad he had worn his jacket. He grinned and pushed his cart along a little faster, pausing to select a bottle of potent multi-vitamins for Alex. He started to move along, then stopped and tossed another bottle in the cart for himself. He was going to need it.

Morton's flower shop was well-stocked, the gently humming refrigerated cases displaying a stunning variety of roses, irises, lilies and tulips. Lush potted plants, from the smallest pot of ivy to the tallest ficus tree, lined the shop's paneled walls. Skinner's gaze wandered over the violets, lilies and tulips, only to return again and again to the long-stemmed red roses, a heart-shaped sign on the window of the refrigerated case displaying their price. He hesitated. Maybe Alex would like something a little more exotic. Skinner glanced at the stargazer lilies and then back at the roses, undecided. Roses were so overdone, almost... corny, he thought, but yet... he smiled as he thought of Alex.

It seemed hard to imagine that he had once hated Alex Krycek, now that it seemed he lived for those green eyes to see him, counted the moments until he could see that rare and beautiful smile again. That soft, husky voice that made his pulse quicken at the mere sound of it, the way Alex's body seemed sculpted to fit his, how holding Alex felt like he was holding the most precious thing on earth, something half-glimpsed in dreams, almost too beautiful to believe. His smile widened as he opened the door and reached into the case. Damn it, he was in love and if that wasn't a reason to be as corny as he wanted to be, he didn't know what was. He selected a dozen long-stemmed roses, pleased to find no blemishes on the delicate, blood-red petals. The salesgirl gave him a knowing smile as she wrapped the roses.

"These must be for someone pretty special," she commented.

Skinner grinned as he took the roses from her and placed them gently in the child's seat of his cart. The salesgirl giggled as he looked down and gently fingered the heavy floral paper, feeling the blush creeping along his neck.

"Very special," he answered.

Skinner found himself drawn to an area of the store he could not remember visiting previously: the candy section. He smiled to himself as he surveyed the astonishing variety of chocolates and candies, the very air in this part of the store seemingly saturated with sugar. Alex's sweet tooth amused him and, in some strange way, touched him deeply. His smile widened as he saw the small bottles of decorative candies. Soon, the items in his bulging cart were joined by a bottle of white chocolate sprinkles and one of tiny dark chocolate stars. Those would certainly add a little interest to Alex's twice-daily milkshakes.

Skinner bought two bags of Hershey's Kisses, Alex having mentioned them as a particular favorite. He was about to move on when he spied the elaborate endcap display of imported Belgian truffles. He raised an eyebrow at the price but couldn't resist picking up a box. The truffles, dark chocolate with raspberry filling, a tiny white chocolate ribbon tied around each one, nestled in their golden box. He hesitated, looking at the bags of foil-wrapped kisses already in the cart, then shrugged, beaming happily as the truffles found a home beside them. It was too much, but damn it, where Alex was concerned, too much was barely enough.

Skinner's cart fairly groaned under the weight of his purchases as he made his way toward the checkout stand, a gallon of double-fudge ice cream balanced precariously on top of the heaping cart. Skinner checked his list, pleased to see that he hadn't forgotten anything. He rummaged in his wallet for his credit card, looking impatiently at the woman ahead of him who seemed to be taking an eternity to write her check. Skinner glanced at his watch again, wondering helplessly why people didn't ever do that sort of thing ahead of time. He wanted to get home to Alex.

At last, the preceding customer was on her way and the cashier gave Skinner's nearly overflowing cart an apprehensive look. Skinner shrugged and smiled apologetically, enjoying the sight as bag after bag was loaded onto the courtesy clerk's trolley. Skinner's eyes misted over momentarily. How long since he last shopped for two? He held his hands out for the roses.

"I'll carry those myself," he said.

Morton's was one of the last supermarkets on Earth, it seemed, that still employed courtesy clerks to carry shoppers' groceries out to their cars. Skinner had been fortunate to get a good parking space, a near impossibility on a Saturday and the clerk had to push his trolley at a fast clip to keep up with his impatient customer. Despite the roomy trunk of Skinner's sedan, the clerk looked a bit uncertain as he began packing the car. By the time the last bag was loaded in, the trunk as well as the back seat and the passenger seat were loaded to capacity. Skinner thanked the clerk and got into the car. He pulled out into traffic and laughed as he glanced in the rearview mirror. He could see nothing except the brown bags. He drove cautiously but quickly, eager to get home and surprise Alex with the gifts he'd bought.


Alex had made his way upstairs and now lay in Walter's bed. Alex had spent the night in this bed, "our bed", Walter had called it, but Alex still thought of it as Walter's bed. He had to. He knew it wasn't his, not permanently. He lay clutching Walter's pillow, breathing in his scent, wishing he could bottle that clean, familiar scent and carry it with him always. So that no matter what happened, he could smell Walter and remember what it was like to be with him, to feel safe and loved, even if it was only just for a little while. Alex lay on his side with his knees drawn up to his chest, his eyes shut tightly against the memories that he had tried so long to wall away. Memories that now seemed to wash over him in an almighty flood, unstoppable.

He moaned softly and rocked a little, clutching the pillow more tightly as he remembered. Spender. Those cruel implacable eyes, the acrid smoke, the big wooden desk and the brass horse. Nikolai. Darkness and pain. Jason. Hurtful hands probing, handling. The clients. The man with the thick extension cord, his face impassive and cruel. The man who had drugged him, advancing toward him as he lay helpless on the bed, the needle glinting in the light... something in him broke and the memories came even faster now, memories from long ago, things he had forgotten, things he had been forced to forget. A beautiful woman with long dark hair and eyes that sparkled as she laughed. Her voice, low and husky, amused as the tall, dark man helped her with her coat.

"I tell you I don't need it, Viktor," she said, "it's not so cold." She laughed playfully as she buttoned up the coat. "Only a month in Washington and already these American winters are too much for you?"

The tall dark man smiled, his teeth so white and straight.

"It'll be cold enough, Sonia," he admonished, caressing her cheek lovingly. "And you are in a delicate condition. We don't want Alexei's little brother or sister getting cold, do we?"

Papa. Mama.

"A brother," Alex murmured into the pillow, a tear sliding from beneath his lashes. "I hoped for a brother."

A flurry of hugs and kisses, Papa sweeping Alexei into his arms before gathering up the luggage and opening the front door of the townhouse, letting in a blast of icy winter air. Mama, smelling so wonderful, hugging him, her hands in his hair, her green coat matching her eyes.

"Be good for Mrs. Karlinski, Alyosha."

Alexei had gone to the window to watch as they got into the car to leave for the airport. They had never come home. Alex curled around the pillow, remembering, not wanting to remember. The phone ringing in the middle of the night. Mrs. Karlinski in her blue bathrobe, her eyes puffy, sitting on the edge of his bed. Alexei sitting stunned and silent as she told him that his Mama and Papa were gone.

Watching numbly as the movers came and took everything away, all of Mama's things, Papa's things. Alexei's things loaded into a different truck. Mrs. Karlinski's face, so different now, blank, her eyes cold and distant as she led Alexei down the sidewalk toward the black sedan that sat idling at the curb, plumes of exhaust rising in clouds behind it, white in the chill morning air. The back door opening. Alexei craning for one last look at his home as the door closed behind him and the car began to pull away. The man sitting across from him, watching him silently, the tip of his cigarette briefly glowing brighter as he inhaled.

Alex sat up abruptly, flinging the pillow aside. He ran his hand through his hair, shaking his head as if to try to stop the onslaught of painful images from the past. He stood and began to pace manically, biting his lip, his arm crossed protectively over himself. It was bad. The anguish wasn't lessening. He whimpered softly as he paced, trying unsuccessfully to block out the pain. It wasn't often that it got this bad, but when it did, the anguish was nearly unbearable.

There was only one thing that would give him any relief, and he resisted it as long as he could. Something in him knew that it was terribly wrong. He also knew the relief, blessed though it was, would be only temporary. His stomach lurched and he paused in his desperate movements, gulping air, trying to calm himself. Mama, happy, laughing as Papa helped her into her favorite green coat. Papa's hand on Alexei's cheek as he said goodbye to his son, expecting to see him again in two weeks. Not knowing it was the last time they would see each other. Not knowing what cruelty and despair lay in wait for his beloved son.

Alex moved down the hall as if in a dream, his eyes taking on a vague, distracted cast. He went into the hall bathroom and opened the medicine cabinet, feeling behind the bottle of cough syrup. His hand closed around the tiny box and he held it in his palm, staring at it for a moment. Pal. He had found the box as he was unpacking his things from the moving boxes and had hidden it in the back of the medicine cabinet, telling himself he wouldn't need it.

He took out one of the single-edged razor blades and carefully held it between his teeth, using the fingers of his one hand to peel the protective cardboard strip from around the blade itself. He paused and looked at himself in the mirror. His eyes were red and puffy and his hair in disarray. His heart pounded in his chest as he willed himself not to think about what he was about to do.

He had begun doing it when he was about sixteen. The scars left by the razor blade were fine and light, lost amongst the more prominent scars already disfiguring his young body. Alex shuddered to think what Spender would have done to him had he known his young charge was taking such liberties with his property. Alex closed his eyes, feeling the slight weight of the razor blade in the palm of his hand, and remembered the first time. He had just begun his training under Nikolai Andreiev. Hours spent in total darkness, kneeling naked and shivering, unable to lie down lest he be choked by the collar and leash securing him to the wall. Crying softly, afraid his teacher would hear and come to punish him again. Damp stone wall rough against his flesh, trails of agony across his back where the whip had cut in. Finally released, trembling and disoriented, led back to his room.

"Bed, Alexei, now." A disapproving frown from the tall man in the black suit. "You must learn to tolerate pain, little one. We have much work ahead of us."

Alexei had stumbled into his small, dimly lit room, closing the door against the horror that lay on the other side of it. He had paced then as he paced now, trying to outrun the fear and misery that effortlessly kept astride of him. He had knelt then, and pulled up the edge of the rug, glad his secret hadn't been discovered during one of the regular inspections of his room. He had taken the razor blade from one of the servants' rooms a few days before without really knowing why. He had slipped it into his pocket, terrified of being caught, and had hidden it away just in case... in case of what? Alexei didn't know. He just knew it made him feel better to know that it was there. He had taken the razor blade into his tiny bathroom. There wasn't much blood. The two thin scratches on the inside of his left arm looked black in the fluorescent light. He had felt better then, eerily calm, almost serene. For a little while.

Alex placed the razor blade on the edge of the sink and tugged at the waistband of his sweatpants, exposing the pale curve of his hip. His eyes were distant and unfocused. He tried not to concentrate on the reality of what he was doing. He tried to concentrate on the relief it would bring, the strange inexplicable calm, no matter how fleeting. He picked up the razor blade and brought it toward his hip.


Alex's face bore a look of intense concentration as he carefully drew one thin red line across his alabaster flesh, wincing a little at the sting. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, feeling the ache in his chest subside a little, concentrating on the sting, letting the small pain eclipse the larger one. He opened his eyes and touched cold metal to his skin again. One more should do.


Skinner's voice was almost a whisper, his soft tone disguising his shock. Skinner's military training was the only thing preventing him from surrendering to the almost overwhelming urge to rush in, to physically prevent his lover from hurting himself again. Stay calm, Walt, he admonished himself. Contain the situation. Then react. Alex held the razor blade between his finger and thumb, his eyes wide. His mouth opened and closed. Finally, he bit his lip and looked down at the floor. He knew Walter would never understand, never comprehend why Alex had to do this, why this was the only way to get a little respite, a little peace. He gripped the razor blade tightly, his hand trembling. What did it matter? It was over anyway. Walter would be disgusted, of course, repulsed by what he had just seen. He would be cast out.

Alex," Skinner repeated quietly. "Alex, listen to me."

Alex looked up, his expression one of resignation. Skinner winced at the exhaustion and despair he saw in Alex's face. He took a deep breath and looked into Alex's eyes.

"Put the razor blade down." Skinner's voice was even and unstressed, yet the undertone of command was unmistakable. Alex flinched almost imperceptibly.

"Walter, I—"

"Please, Alex," Skinner said quietly. "Do it now."

Alex slowly placed the razor blade on the edge of the sink and moved away from it without being told. He stared at the tile floor, his shoulders hunched, waiting for what would happen next. His face burned with shame. No one had ever known about this, no one was ever supposed to know. To know how bad it could get. What he had to do to make the pain stop.

Skinner moved quickly. Picking up the small wicker trashcan that sat just inside the bathroom door, he held it under the edge of the sink. Tearing a length of toilet paper from the roll, he wadded it into a protective ball and used it to sweep the razor blade into the trashcan, grimacing a little at the faint red smear on its thin blade. Skinner noticed the small box with the remaining razor blades and dropped it into the trashcan, too. He turned to Alex, who was still staring at the floor, his sweatpants still shoved down below his right hip. Skinner's eyes were drawn to the red trail the razor blade had left across Alex's pale skin. His eyes filled with tears. Alex. He had been wasting time in the supermarket, precious minutes ticking by as he pondered whether the porterhouse looked better than the New York strip, what brand of catsup to buy, for Christ's sake, and Alex was here, in pain...

Skinner grasped Alex's shoulders firmly and leaned down. Alex's eyes were fastened on the floor.

"Alex. Look at me."

Alex mumbled something and shook his head. Skinner gave him a gentle shake. Alex looked up, his expression one of apprehension. Skinner's eyes sought his and held them.

"In God's name, Alex, why?" Skinner's voice was raw with emotion. "Why? Haven't you been hurt enough?"

Alex's eyes widened and he squirmed in Skinner's grasp.

"It's not what you think, Walter," he said quickly. "I wasn't—"

Skinner's grip tightened slightly and Alex stilled, trembling slightly.

"I wasn't going to try to kill myself," he whispered, tears pooling in his green eyes. Skinner spoke quietly but firmly.

"I know exactly what you were doing, Alex." He took Alex's arm and guided him over to the closed toilet seat. He sat Alex down and then bent down, opening the cabinet under the sink and taking out the hydrogen peroxide and cotton balls. Skinner knelt down and examined the cut on Alex's hip. It was about an inch and a half long and shallow, what little bleeding there had been had stopped. Skinner applied the disinfectant. Alex winced a little as the peroxide bubbled, cleansing the wound. Skinner recapped the brown plastic bottle and stood.

"I know what you were doing," he repeated. He gently cupped Alex's jaw, forcing him to look up. "It's called self-mutilation. Intense emotional distress manifested physically."

Alex saw the naked pain on Skinner's face and tried to look away, but Skinner wouldn't allow it.

"Are you hurt anywhere else?" Skinner asked softly. Alex shook his head. Skinner helped him to his feet and pulled his sweatpants up.

"I don't think that needs a bandage," Skinner said. "But we'll need to clean it frequently to make sure it doesn't get infected."

Alex nodded numbly, knowing that shortly it wouldn't matter if the wound became infected or not. He would be out there again, alone. A cut on his hip would be the least of his problems. Skinner led Alex downstairs to the living room. The area just inside the front door was so thickly strewn with grocery bags that Alex couldn't see the carpet. Skinner gestured toward the sofa and Alex's legs carried him over to it. He sat down, his hand in his lap, looking at Skinner resignedly. Skinner glanced at the grocery bags.

"I need to get the perishable things put away," he said. "I want you to stay right there and not move."

Alex nodded mutely. Skinner picked up two of the grocery bags and carried them into the kitchen, pausing as he passed the place where his lover sat, his expression curiously blank, staring at nothing.


Alex looked up slowly. His voice was a whisper.


Skinner put the bags on the kitchen counter and began unpacking them. He spoke quietly but firmly.

"I want you to think about why you were doing what you were doing just now. When I'm done with this, you and I are going to have a long talk."

Alex nodded. Skinner moved efficiently between the kitchen and living room, swiftly unpacking the bags and filling the refrigerator and freezer. He bit his lip as he came to the bag containing the strawberries and cream. Tonight was to have been so special. He had planned a romantic evening, had intended to kiss and caress Alex all night long, to show him all the love he had never been given. His lips thinned into a determined line as he pushed the berries toward the back of the refrigerator. That would have to wait. He had a serious situation to deal with first. The roses lay alone on the top shelf of the refrigerator, Skinner having stowed them immediately upon returning home, relieved at the time that Alex was nowhere in sight and the surprise hadn't been spoiled. Skinner picked up the bag with the chocolates, looked into it, paused, then folded the top of it down and set it aside. Alex barely noticed. He was only waiting for the inevitable.

Skinner put away the last of the perishables and leaned on the counter for a moment, steadying himself. He was not surprised to find his hands were shaking. He looked at Alex. Alex was sitting with his knees drawn up tightly against his chest, his one arm wrapped around them. His eyes were closed. He looked utterly exhausted. Skinner's heart ached. Why, Alex? He thought desperately. Why? What could have happened? I was only gone a couple of hours... Skinner's stomach tightened. I shouldn't have left him. He cursed himself silently. My gut told me something wasn't right and I ignored it. I should have stayed.

Skinner sat down next to Alex, unsure what to do. Alex huddled in his corner of the sofa, unmoving, his face a blank mask. Waiting. Skinner hesitated, then made a decision.

"Come here, Alex," he said softly.

Alex's eyes opened. He looked at Skinner's outstretched hand and stiffened. He shook his head. Skinner saw that he was trembling.

"It's all right," Skinner said gently. "I won't hurt you, I would never hurt you. Come on, Alex. I just want to hold you."

Alex made a small sound deep in his throat and shook his head again. He swallowed and looked down, hoping to hide the pain in his eyes. He wanted nothing more at that moment than to fling himself into Walter's arms and hold on tight, but he refused to let himself. That's over now, Alex, he thought to himself. Don't make it harder than it has to be. If you let yourself feel those arms around you again it'll hurt that much more when he pushes you away. And he will.

Skinner took a deep breath. He wanted to take Alex in his arms and soothe the pain away, hold him until that hunted, frightened look in his eyes was gone for good. His eyes stung. He had left the condo that morning smug and pleased, so convinced of his progress in healing Alex, body and soul. He cursed himself now, inwardly. Damn, you're a cocky bastard sometimes, Walt. Did you really think a few milkshakes and hugs could fix everything? You got him to smile a few times, even laugh, got him to stop flinching every time you came within five feet of him, so that's it? You just pat yourself on the back and congratulate yourself? You work your patented Skinner magic and presto! A horribly abused young man becomes a happy, confident member of society? He shook his head, still reeling from the shock of seeing Alex mutilating himself. He had a long way yet to go with Alex and right now, Alex's body language was screaming Stay Away.

"Alex? Are you afraid of me?" Skinner asked, unable to keep the hurt from his voice.

Alex looked up, surprise evident on his face before he willed that blank look back upon it.

"No," he said quietly.

Skinner was relieved. Cautiously, he inched closer to Alex. Alex watched him sadly. Skinner held his arms out again.

"Then why won't you let me hold you? I'm not angry, Alex, if that's what you're worried about. I'm upset that you were hurting yourself, yes, but I'm not angry. I just want to understand."

Alex's resolve weakened and he leaned forward, desperate for Skinner's touch. Skinner's eyes filled with tears as Alex slowly moved into his embrace. He held Alex tightly and rocked him gently, rubbing his cheek against the soft dark hair. Alex closed his eyes, nestling his cheek against Skinner's shoulder. The tiny relief afforded by the stinging cut on his hip had been short-lived, and the raw emotions were back with a vengeance. He clung to Skinner tightly, knowing it was for the last time, trying to imprint every word, every touch into his memory, knowing that soon it would be all he had left of this time, this place, this man. This love.

Skinner kissed the top of Alex's head and then looked down into agonized green eyes.

"Please, Alex," he begged. "Please tell me why."

Alex shook his head.

"I can't," he whispered.

He tried to pull away but Skinner's strong arms held him in place. He felt a warm hand rubbing circles in the middle of his back, and he sagged. His one hand fisted in Skinner's sweater as he tried to fight back the tears.

"Please, I can't... "

Skinner continued to rub Alex's back, trying to ease the tension he felt there. He felt it ease fractionally.

"Tell me, Alex. Tell me what's hurting you so badly on the inside that you have to hurt yourself on the outside."

Alex's voice, sounding impossibly small and defeated.

"I'm not what you want."

Skinner sat stunned, his hand ceasing its circuit between Alex's shoulderblades. Alex was rigid. This is it, Alex thought. Goodbye.

"Alex, how can you say—"

Alex suddenly broke free of the embrace and leapt up from the sofa, his face contorted with pain.

"I'm a whore!" he shouted, his voice choked. "A worthless slut, that's all I've ever been!"

Walter stared at Alex, his eyes wide and shocked. He stood and stepped toward the anguished man.

"Alex... "

Alex backed away.

"No... please," he whispered. "Please don't touch me. I can't bear it. When you know, you'll never want to touch me again."

Walter moved closer, reaching out to Alex.

"Alex, I don't understand. Talk to me, please."

Alex pressed his back against the wall and slowly slid down, resting his head against his knees, hiding his face. He spoke in a muffled monotone, as though he were talking about someone else.

"I was trained to be many things, two things above all others. An expert assassin and a skillful whore. Spender always liked me better as a whore, but he needed me as an assassin. I only got whored out when it was necessary or when I was being punished for screwing up. Until," Alex's voice broke and he paused for a moment, trying to regain his composure. "Until Bill Mulder. Until I took the tape and tried to run. After that-" Alex's control broke and he began to cry, his body shaking with the force of his sobs.

Skinner moved slowly and carefully. He knelt next to Alex, desperately wanting to touch him, to stroke his hair, but he held himself back. Alex's shoulders shook as he cried, and he drew himself even tighter, as though he were trying to disappear.

"Alex, please," Skinner said softly. "Talk to me, tell me. I can't help you unless you tell me what the problem is. How can you think I wouldn't ever want to touch you again?"

Alex gave a strangled laugh and wiped his hand roughly across his reddened eyes. He leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes.

"I'm sorry, Walter," he whispered. "I should have told you. You're going to find out eventually anyway."

Skinner waited. Alex took a deep, ragged breath.

"The first time they called me a whore I didn't even know what one was." He gave another sharp, humorless laugh. "But I learned."

Skinner winced. He reached out, unable to stop himself this time. He cupped the back of Alex's head and gently massaged it.

"Alex, please let me hold you."

Alex hesitated, those hollow, hopeless eyes closing tightly and then opening again, regarding Skinner with a look of utter sorrow. Why not, Alex thought to himself. One for the road. Skinner sat down beside Alex and Alex allowed himself to be held. He lay his head on the older man's shoulder as Skinner's strong arms encircled him. Skinner stroked Alex's hair gently.

"Tell me, Alex. Tell me all of it. Everything."

Alex waited for a moment, wanting to savor the sensation of being held by Walter this last time. Then he began to speak, his voice detached and remote. Squeezing his eyes tightly shut, he told Skinner everything. His years as Spender's property. His training. Broken, naked, crawling, degraded. Countless men in countless places. Alex the whore, legs spread wide, taking whatever he was ordered to take. No part of him left unused. Skinner sat silent and motionless as Alex quietly spoke of the nightmare the last fourteen years of his life had been. Alex's voice was tired and resigned as he spoke of his many "clients". He heard a sharp intake of breath from Skinner as he spoke of the man with the frightening needle and the hallucinations that had resulted from the drug he had been given. Finally, Alex grew silent. He lay still, his head on Skinner's shoulder.

"I'm sorry, Walter," he whispered.

Skinner made no sound. Slowly, Alex raised his head, fearing the look of disgust he knew would be there. He looked up just as the first sob broke the silence. Skinner sat, staring straight ahead, tears coursing down his cheeks. His broad chest hitched as he cried, his sobs rough and deep and terrible. Alex got to his knees and began to back away, stricken.

"I'm so sorry," he repeated hoarsely. "I'm sorry I'm not... what you want. What you deserve." A tear trickled down Alex's cheek. "I never should have-" he bit his lip, unable to find the words.

The devastation on Skinner's face was utter and complete. Alex choked back a sob and began to get to his feet, wanting to spare Skinner the sight of him even as he mourned the loss of contact.

"No!" Skinner shouted, his voice strangled with emotion.

He grabbed Alex and pulled him back down to his knees, wrapping the younger man in his arms. He held him close, burying his face in the curve of Alex's neck. Alex could feel Skinner's tears soaking through the thin material of his T-shirt.

"Alex," Skinner sobbed. "Alex, what they did to you... "

He rocked Alex and cried, cursing Spender, cursing the abuse that his lover had suffered. Alex knelt there, still as a statue in Skinner's arms, his eyes closed, his lashes stark against his pale cheeks. He waited for the anger. Waited for the hurt. Skinner slowly, in stages, got control of himself. He wiped his eyes, then gently tilted Alex's chin upward. Alex looked at Skinner, accepting, waiting.

"Alex," Skinner whispered, his voice trembling. "How could you think that any of this would change things? That I wouldn't want you anymore?"

Alex looked down.

"Because I'm... " Filthy? Used up? Fucked up? He swallowed and looked back up into Skinner's worried brown eyes.

"I'm not... I'm not what you want," he repeated. He shook his head, confused. Didn't Walter see that? "I'm a whore, a slut. You deserve someone good and clean, like... like you," he said softly.

Skinner stood up slowly. Alex knelt there on the floor like a penitent, his eyes closed. Skinner held out his hand, waiting until Alex opened his eyes and saw it.

"Come on," Skinner said quietly.

Silently, Alex took Skinner's hand. Skinner gently pulled Alex up to his feet and took him in his arms, holding him close before leading him back to the sofa and waiting for him to sit down. Skinner sat next to Alex, still holding his hand.


Alex looked at him. Skinner stroked the back of Alex's hand gently as he spoke.

"Do you remember the talk we had when you first came here? The one where we said the past stays in the past? We were going to start over with a clean slate?"

Alex nodded.

"But... but this is different," he said, unable to meet Skinner's eyes.

"How, Alex?" Skinner asked, trying to keep the frustration from his voice.

How could Alex think that he could forgive him for the murders he had been forced to commit but not for being forced to prostitute himself? Alex took a deep breath, his eyes still cast downward.

"Last night in bed," he whispered. "You want to be the only one. But I'm not clean and good like you." A tear ran down his cheek. "You pushed me away, like... like you knew."

A look of pain crossed Skinner's face.

"Oh, God, Alex... "

He pulled Alex close and held him.

"Alex, I had no idea... you can't think... I told you why I stopped you. I want our first time to be mutual, to be special for both of us, not just for me."

Skinner stroked Alex's hair again.

"I have a past, too, you know," he said, kissing the top of Alex's head.

"Not like mine."

"No, Alex, not like yours. I was lucky. I wasn't forced to do the things you've been forced to do."

Alex clung to Skinner, trying to fight back the tears.

"You said you wanted to be the only one."

Skinner grasped Alex's shoulders firmly and looked into his eyes.

"I am the only one, aren't I?"

Alex nodded seriously.


Skinner kissed him gently.

"But what? What else could matter?"

Alex looked down, desperately trying to find the words, to make Walter understand.

"Don't you get it?" he whispered savagely. "I'll cost you everything! You'll lose it all because of me!"

Skinner drew him close again.

"I love you, Alex. Nothing else matters. There is nothing I have that could be taken away that would matter more than you."

Alex tried to pull away but Skinner held him tightly. Alex looked up into Skinner's eyes, his expression one of agony. He gripped a fistful of Skinner's sweater tightly.

"You don't understand!" he cried. "There are pictures! Videotapes! People who know! Don't you see? Please, Walter," he sobbed. "Please, I can't bear to watch your love for me turn to hate when you lose everything you've worked for your whole life because of me. I'm not worth it," he whispered.

Skinner stared at his young lover with eyes full of deep sadness. He ached to make Alex whole again, to say the words that would erase the memory of the years of abuse and degradation. To make him understand that he was worthy of love. He trailed his finger lovingly along Alex's cheekbone.

"Alex, I want you to listen to me," he said firmly.

Alex looked at him, not knowing what to expect. Skinner looked deeply into those wounded green eyes as he spoke.

"First of all, I love you. Period. End of sentence. I am the only one for you now, just as you are the only one for me. It doesn't matter what happened before."

Alex looked down. Skinner continued, letting a little bit of Marine creep into his voice. He was going to need it.

"I'll say it again. I love you, Alex Krycek. I want you to understand that. I... love... you. Nothing else enters into it. Is that clear?"

Alex nodded numbly.

"Second. You are not, I repeat, not a whore. You are not a slut. You are a beautiful and intelligent young man who suffered years of systematic abuse. You never had a choice. You did what you were told or you suffered terribly. Am I correct?"

Alex wiped away a tear and nodded. Skinner cupped Alex's jaw and raised Alex's face again.

"I don't ever want to hear you use those words to refer to yourself again, Alex," he said sternly. "That's my lover you're talking about."

Alex's eyes were wide and bright as he nodded. He buried his face in Skinner's chest, shaking as the emotions washed over him. Relief. Gratitude. Disbelief. Desperate hope that it still wouldn't all be snatched away.

"I should have told you," he mumbled. "I was so scared, I thought you wouldn't want me anymore—"

"Shhh," Skinner soothed, rocking him slightly again. "You don't ever have to worry about that. Nothing could ever stop me wanting you. You're here, with me, where you belong."

"Walter," Alex whispered. "Walter."


They sat like that for quite some time, the only sound they made the occasional whispered declaration of love, the only movement the occasional small kiss, an effort to move closer. Touching. Reassuring. Reclaiming.


Alex's head lay pillowed on Skinner's shoulder. He never wanted to be anywhere but here, nestled in Skinner's arms. He sighed, still worried about Skinner paying a terrible price for loving him, knowing from experience that the past sometimes just wouldn't stay buried. Deep inside, he felt sure that someday this happiness would end, would be lost just as he had lost everyone he ever loved. Alex closed his eyes, savoring the feeling of Walter's arms encircling him. He wanted this so badly, wanted nothing more than to love Walter Skinner with all of his strength.

He thought of his parents, stolen from him so long ago. He had to make sure nothing happened to Walter, that he didn't have to pay with his life the way Mama and Papa had. He trembled a little, felt Walter's arms hold him a little tighter. Alex knew he had to fight, had to do everything in his power to hold on to this unexpected and incredible gift he had been given, to be worthy of Walter's love.


Alex raised his head. Skinner watched him, his expression serious. He was taking a risk, he knew, but he had to make Alex understand that hurting himself was not an option. Skinner took a deep breath and placed his hand on Alex's hip, over the place where the small cut lay hidden under the thick material of his sweatpants.

"We have to deal with this."

Alex froze for a moment, then looked down again, nodding silently. Punishment. He understood that. He looked back up at Skinner.

"Anything," he whispered. Beat me. Hurt me. Just love me, let me stay.

Skinner understood too. He had no doubt that Alex would accept anything he dealt out, without question, without protest. He shook his head. That wasn't what he wanted.

"No, Alex," he said gently. "This isn't about hurting you. I'll never do that. I need you to understand that."

Alex nodded. Skinner continued.

"It's important that you understand something else, Alex. That it's never, ever okay for you to hurt yourself. Not ever. When I came home today and I saw you cutting yourself—" he broke off, his eyes filling with tears.

Alex touched Walter's face gently, caressing his cheek and wiping away a tear.

"I'm so sorry, Walter," he said, his own voice breaking. "I'm sorry, I never meant for you to see that. I... " he trailed off.

Skinner regained control, making sure to keep eye contact with Alex as he continued.

"Alex, what you did is very serious. You know that nothing matters more than your health and well-being." He paused. "You need to be punished, Alex. Not hurt. Punished. I need to know that there is no doubt in your mind that you must never do that again."

Alex looked down, picking at a nonexistent piece of lint on the leg of his sweatpants.

"Yes, Walter," he said quietly.

"Alex? Look at me," Skinner said firmly.

"I won't punish you unless you agree to it. Enough has been done to you without your consent. And, Alex," he said, as Alex began to nod. "I want you to trust me. I love you and I am trying to do what's right for you. The last thing I want is for you to be frightened or to feel coerced in any way. You have nothing to fear from refusing to be punished. It's a decision we both have to make. Do you understand?"

Alex nodded again. Skinner's voice was thick with emotion.

"I love you. I want to try to help you understand that you matter, that you are valuable, that you're not just a body, some piece of meat to be used or," his voice took on a firmer edge, "to be cut into because you're upset about something."

Alex bit his lip.

"I know you love me, Walter," he whispered. "I know you have to punish me because of what I did to myself. Because... because you love me," he whispered. He looked away, ashamed. "I-I know it's wrong. I didn't want anyone ever to know."

Skinner held him and rubbed his back.

"Tell me, Alex. Tell me why you do it, how it helps you. Tell me how it makes you feel."

Alex hesitated, then looked down. He spoke in a near-whisper.

"I... I just didn't have any other way to... " he paused, unsure how to express his complex feelings in words. "Sometimes, it just gets so bad, it hurts so much... I need a... a release, you know?"

Skinner didn't truly understand. The concept horrified him. The image of that angry red line on Alex's white skin... he tried to understand what Alex was trying to tell him.

"I did it for the first time when I was sixteen. I was terrified Spender would find out. But he didn't notice the scars, with all the others."

Alex went on, not noticing the flash of pain on Skinner's face.

"I didn't do it that much, I swear," he said, needing to convince Walter of this. "Today was the first time in a long time. I just... I just never had a way of making the pain stop, never had anybody to... I can't explain why it helps, even though it's only for a little while. It just seems like if I bleed a little, it makes the pain stop. Makes me stop remembering for a while."

Alex wouldn't meet Skinner's eyes. He cleared his throat.

"You must think I'm sick," he whispered.

"Look at me, Alex," Skinner said. Alex obeyed, reluctantly, his eyes shining with unshed tears.

"I do not think that. You're not sick. You just need another way to express your emotions, to let the pain out."

He kissed Alex softly on the lips.

"You have that now, Alex. You have me. If you're ever upset about anything, no matter what, you can come to me and talk about it and we'll handle it together. You don't need to do that to yourself anymore."

Alex smiled and shyly returned the kiss, then nodded.

"Yes, Walter," he whispered.

Skinner smiled and stroked Alex's sable hair again. His heart ached for the young man in his arms, a young man who for almost half his life had been told, had had it beaten into him, that he existed for others' purposes, that his body was but a thing to be used. Of course he thought nothing of carving his flesh with a razor blade. Of course he though to bleed was to be cleansed. Skinner gazed down lovingly at Alex and gathered his courage. He had to be sure that Alex understood.


Alex looked up. He knew what Skinner was asking.

"I trust you, Walter," he said again.

Skinner considered this.

"Do you agree that you have to be punished?" he asked. Alex nodded.

"Yes, Walter," he answered. He swallowed nervously. "What—how will you punish me?"

Skinner thought for a moment.

"Well," he began, "in my family, the surest way to earn a spanking was to do something reckless, to endanger yourself. It always made me think twice before I did anything foolish again." He looked at Alex seriously.

"I think sometimes the old ways are the best ways. You and I are family now, Alex," he paused and saw the tiny, tentative smile as Alex heard what he said, "and I think under the circumstances that a spanking is entirely appropriate. Do you agree?"

Alex hesitated, but only for a moment. His heart pounded in his chest. He knew Walter wouldn't hurt him, but still, it was a little scary, the prospect of getting spanked. He had been spanked in sexual situations with clients, but never as punishment. Nikolai would never have wasted his time on such a mild form of discipline. He swallowed hard.

"Yes, Walter."

Skinner sat on the edge of the sofa, and guided Alex to stand before him.

"Take down your pants and underwear."

Alex squared his shoulders and nodded. He slid his sweatpants and boxers down to his ankles and then, with Skinner's help, awkwardly lay himself down across Skinner's thighs. Alex lay rigidly, his one hand gripping the sofa cushion tightly. Skinner looked down at Alex's bare back and buttocks, at the shiny scars and puckers that were the legacy of years of mistreatment. He saw the six round scars that marred the small of Alex's back, felt Alex's slight trembling as he awaited the first blow, and felt his resolve begin to weaken.

He was about to punish a man who had endured more pain than most people could imagine. He remembered the look on Alex's face as he cut himself. Distant, detached, as though he were dissecting a specimen in a lab. Skinner shook his head. Come on, Walt, he scolded himself. You know the difference between discipline and abuse. You have to be strong. He needs you. Skinner looked past the scars to see the young man who lay across his lap, swallowing nervously, awaiting his punishment.


Alex didn't respond for a moment. He seemed almost afraid to breathe. Skinner rubbed his back gently.

"Alex? Tell me what this punishment is for."

Alex hesitated, then mumbled something Skinner couldn't quite hear. He caught only one word. "Whore". Skinner swiftly pulled Alex up from his position across his lap and slid him down until he was kneeling on the floor in front of him. He looked into Alex's eyes.

"No, Alex," he said firmly. Alex looked away.

"Look at me," Skinner commanded. Alex obeyed.

"Apparently I failed to make myself clear," he said. "You are never, ever to use that word to describe yourself again. You are not a whore, Alex. I want to hear you say it."

Alex stared down at the carpet. Skinner grasped his shoulders and shook him gently to get his attention.

"Now, Alex."

"I'm not a whore," Alex answered softly.

Skinner kissed him on the forehead and then pulled him back across his lap, positioning the bare bottom over his thighs.

"Very good, Alex," Skinner said. "Now, let's try again. Why are you being punished?"

"Because I was bad," Alex answered, as if by rote. His voice sounded distant.

Skinner raised his hand and brought it down sharply, leaving a large pink blotch on the pale skin. The smack resounded in the previously quiet room. Alex gasped and jumped.

"Try again, Alex. You're not bad. That's not what this spanking is for."

Silence. Skinner brought his hand down sharply on the other cheek.

"Why are you being punished, Alex?"

"Because... because I h-hurt myself!" Alex cried. He couldn't believe how much two swats could sting. Skinner rubbed Alex's back gently.

"That's absolutely right, Alex," he said approvingly. "I am spanking you because you hurt yourself. You have to understand that harming yourself is absolutely not acceptable under any circumstances. You're not alone anymore, Alex. If something is upsetting you, talk to me and I'll help. We'll solve the problem together. But you have to trust me enough to come to me."

Alex nodded, close to tears. Walter was right.

"I am going to spank you hard, Alex. What you did was very serious and it must never, ever happen again. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Walter."

Alex rested his cheek against the sofa cushion and closed his eyes. He was afraid of the pain of the spanking, but he knew that he was safe. He knew that Walter was punishing him out of love.

"Alex, do you understand what could have happened if you had cut yourself too deeply? What if it had gotten out of control?"

He didn't need to say what was obvious to both of them. With one arm, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to effectively administer first aid.

"Yes," Alex whispered. "I'm sorry, Walter. I won't do it again."

"I'm glad," Skinner answered. "I want you to really think about what this punishment is for. Think how devastated I would be if anything happened to you."

Alex nodded, his hand still gripping the cushion tightly. Skinner raised his hand again.

"I'm not going to use anything but my hand on you, Alex, but I promise you, you're going to feel it for a while."

The sound of Skinner's hand on Alex's bare skin was very loud in the small room. Skinner began to spank in earnest, methodically covering each rapidly reddening buttock with a circuit of sharp swats. Alex began to whimper. He tried to keep still, determined to take the punishment he knew he deserved, but eventually began to wriggle a little under the blazing smacks.

"OW!" he yelped. "Ow, Walter, please!... Please... ow... I won't do it again, I promise!"

Skinner dealt a particularly stinging slap to the top of Alex's right thigh.

"Did I ask you this morning if everything was all right? Did I ask more than once?"

"Y-yes," Alex gulped.

"And what did you say?" Skinner asked, whacking the top of the other thigh.

"Ow! I-I said yes!" Alex yelped. Two more hard spanks to the tops of both thighs.

"And was that the truth?"

Another smack to the sit-spot of the left buttock. Alex kicked a little.

"OW! No! No it wasn't!"

Skinner went to work on the other sit-spot.

"And it's important to always tell the truth, isn't it, Alex?"

"OW! Yes! Yes, Walter!"

Skinner heard Alex's whimpers growing steadily in volume over the loud, crisp smacks and increased the frequency and force of the spanking, sensing that Alex was close to the breaking point. He aimed a particularly stinging volley at the tops of Alex's thighs.

"Are you ever going to harm yourself again, Alex?"

"I won't, Walter! I swear!"

Alex bucked a little as the painful swats came fast and hard. He felt Skinner's other hand spread wide on the small of his back, holding him still. The other hand continued to rise and fall ceaselessly, covering Alex's hot red bottom with carefully placed, overlapping spanks. Alex squeezed his eyes shut as the tears began to flow. He clutched the cushion, trying to be stoic, waiting for the punishment to be over. Skinner stroked Alex's back.

"Let it out, Alex," he said gently. "It's all right, cry it out."

Alex resisted for a moment longer, then the dam burst. He lay his head on his arm and cried loudly as Skinner continued to blister his ass, each stinging smack of his hard hand driving the point home. Skinner didn't stop until Alex's entire bottom was a uniform shade of crimson, Alex lying limp and sobbing across his lap. Gently, Skinner eased him up, taking care to avoid making contact with Alex's smarting bottom, and swept him into a bear hug.

"You did very well, Alex," he whispered. "I'm so proud of you."

Alex nestled his head against Skinner's shoulder, his shoulders shaking as he cried.

"I'm sorry," he choked. "I know it was wrong. I promise it'll never happen again."

"I know," Skinner whispered, running his aching palm along the curve of Alex's back. "I believe you. But," he added sternly, "if you ever do anything like that again, I'll strap you. Do you understand?"

Alex blanched and nodded quickly.

"Yes, Walter."

He sniffled and wiped his eyes, shifting uncomfortably.

"That hurt," he said thoughtfully, putting his hand back to rub. Skinner laughed.

"It's supposed to," he said, smiling. "Come on, I've got a couple of things in the kitchen to take your mind off it."


Alex sat at the writing desk, the straight-backed chair that usually stood there having been replaced with a small armchair with a well-padded seat. He looked at the writing pad and pen doubtfully. Skinner placed a double-chocolate milkshake on the desk next to Alex, topped with whipped cream and the white chocolate sprinkles. Alex's eyes widened appreciatively.

"Are you comfortable?" Skinner asked.

Alex nodded. He took a sip of the milkshake and smiled.

"Thank you, Walter."

Skinner put the vase with Alex's roses on the windowsill in front of him and sat down in the wing chair beside the desk. He looked at Alex seriously.

"I don't want you to think of this as a punishment, Alex."

Alex looked back down at the writing pad and pen and frowned. It felt like a punishment. He reluctantly picked up the pen. Skinner gave Alex an encouraging smile and opened the newspaper.

"Fifty times, Alex. I'll be right here beside you. If your hand gets tired, take a break. Don't just write the lines," Skinner admonished. "I want you to really concentrate on the words, what they mean."

"Okay," Alex said. He sighed as he regarded the expanse of white paper in front of him. He glanced at Skinner. Skinner looked at him over the top edge of the Sports section. He nodded encouragingly.

"Go ahead, Alex. I told you I don't want you to think of it as a punishment and I meant it. The spanking was your punishment and it's over. This is for you. Trust me?"

Alex nodded and bent to his task. The only sound in the room was the scratch of his pen on the paper and the occasional rustling of newsprint as Skinner turned the page. Alex covered line after line of the ruled paper with his careful script. I am not a whore. I am not a slut. I am not a whore. I am not a slut.

Skinner watched from behind his newspaper. He knew it would take more than this to erase the effects of years of mental and physical abuse, but he hoped that this primitive form of deprogramming would at least get Alex thinking. Alex looked up from his writing to admire his roses, the afternoon sun illuminating the petals as it streamed through the window. Skinner smiled, thinking of the look on Alex's face when he saw the roses, Skinner's worry over the selection evaporating as Alex's expression went from surprise to purest joy. He had shaken his head in a tiny gesture of disbelief, that elusive smile flickering and growing stronger. He gazed down at the flowers almost reverently, whispered one word, so quietly that Skinner could not be altogether sure that he heard it at all.


The gift of the chocolates was met with considerable enthusiasm, Alex popping a truffle in his mouth and groaning with pleasure before moving close to Skinner and offering his mouth up for a kiss. Skinner had eagerly obliged. Alex's tongue had found his, like satin, like rose petals, soft and sharp and delicate, Skinner's mouth suddenly full of the taste of dark, sweet raspberries.

Skinner pretended to read his newspaper, all the while gazing surreptitiously at Alex, watching his pale hand move across the page, the sunlight through the window finding all the red and gold in his dark hair. Alex glanced up and caught Skinner looking, and dropped a wink before turning back to his task. Skinner grinned and got back to the article on budget cuts in Washington, grumbling a little as he read.

They spent the rest of the afternoon like that, Alex carefully writing his lines and Skinner finishing with the newspaper and then starting on the new Tom Clancy. Skinner occasionally stopped Alex, not wanting his one hand to get too fatigued, and not wanting the words to run together in a meaningless blur. Alex finished his milkshake, three of the truffles and a handful of Hershey's Kisses, having somehow managed to convince Skinner that the chemicals in the chocolate would stimulate the release of endorphins and ease the pain in his sore butt.

Alex finished his fifty lines and stood, stretching with feline grace. His relieved smile faded when Skinner gestured to him to sit back down. Skinner appraised the lines Alex had already written and tore the pages off, putting them neatly aside. He wrote something across the top of the blank page.

"Fifty more and then you're done," he said, rubbing Alex's shoulders. Alex twisted around in the chair, his eyes wide and injured.

"But, Walter-" he whined. Skinner pointed to the page.

"I'm going to start dinner. We're having steak. Dr. Skinner thinks you're ready for alcohol again, so you can have a beer with dinner but only if you finish all of your lines. Deal?"

"Deal," Alex said sulkily, turning back to his tablet.

He picked up the pen again, muttering under his breath about the injustice of someone telling someone else they had to write fifty lines when what they really meant was a hundred lines... Suddenly the white page swam as his eyes filled with tears. He blinked them away as he read the line Skinner had written again. He looked up with a grin, his eyes shining. Skinner smiled back at him from behind the kitchen island. Alex gazed at him for a moment, his expression one of love and understanding, and then turned back to his work. He began to write.

I am loved. Walter loves me. I am loved. Walter loves me.

The End

Author's Notes

PAL brand razor blades are manufactured in Staunton, Virginia.

Ketamine is a dissociative anesthetic, meaning that it separates the mind from the body. It is used in human and veterinary medicine, often as a "restraint" drug for lower primates. Also known as Special K, Ketamine can cause emergence reactions, including vivid hallucinations such as the ones Alex experienced. Some patients have reported hallucinating their own deaths. In human surgery, Ketamine is usually given along with another drug, such as Versed, to induce amnesia concerning the emergence reactions.