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Sunflower Seeds I thru III

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Sunflower Seeds I by Jami Wilsen

Date: 11/10/2000
Disclaimer: this piece of slash fanfic is written purely for entertainment purposes; all characters and X-File series' situations referred to belong to Chris Carter, 1013 Productions, etc.
Spoilers: possibly all eps up to, but not including, Season 8.
Rating: NC-17 - slash, language, m/m sex, bondage, discipline
Pairing: Sk/M/K
Summary: Skinner and Mulder enjoying R&R (retirement and rest) in seclusion; until Krycek, in need of sanctuary, appears in their midst. Can they accept him into their life, or will his presence tear them apart?
Warning: This is my first Loving Discipline fic! Yay! If angst, explicit sex, emotional disclosures, consensual mild punishment, and tender declarations of love stress you out, don't read this. [g]
Betas: Many sincere thanks to Cattnip, Lorelei, Candace, Jeanie and Jas. This story wouldn't have been half as readable without their help!
Dedication: A Special Hug and Thanks to my dear friend Lorelei, without whom I never would have found the inspiration or the courage to write this.

Sunflower Seeds
by Jami Wilsen

Autumn leaves flung themselves at the windows while the cold wind sprang from one direction to another in indecisive gusts. Inside the rather large house that was ex-AD Skinner's residence, along with his fellow tenant, ex-Special Agent Mulder, the two of them sat pensively in the living room.

Mulder had just come downstairs to join him. Skinner rubbed his face with both hands and exhaled, looking over at Mulder. "There was a phone call from Bill Peterson. We've got a possible situation."

Mulder's brows went up alarmingly. "I thought we were retired here, Walt?"

"I know," Skinner sighed. "It's - " he hesitated, well aware of what this news was going to unleash from within Mulder's buried past, his psyche and old traumas. Damn, and just when he'd thought they both had recovered so well, too. Life was quiet, life was good. *Retirement* was good, if a trifle early.

Mulder noticed he wasn't telling. "Come on, Walt. Give. What, are you worried I won't be happy with it?"

"I'm worried you'll go ballistic." Skinner pulled a wry, knowing face. "It isn't anything relevant to anyone but us, probably. Although it's hard to tell. But it may not be as mysterious and paranormal as you'd prefer. I'm afraid it's rather personal, actually."

"Enough mystery, here! I don't want paranormal, I'm sick of aliens and X-Files! Normal is nice," Mulder declared. "Normal is good. Just give it to me straight. No chaser."

Skinner regarded him with a raised brow. "Okay then. But remember, you asked for it. I'm gonna let you have it right between the eyes," he warned. He sent up a silent prayer, sure that Mulder was going to have a full-blown hissy fit over this.

"Give it to me," Mulder said carelessly, grinning.

And he did.

Peterson had called Skinner about a source who had requested asylum and immunity, insisting he held information that was of paramount importance to the 'powers that be'. When given tasters of the information that the contact had, as well as proof of its validity, heads had nearly spun and satellites almost stopped in their orbits. This information was hot and somehow Peterson had ended up having to arrange the culmination of the deal. Having come through on his side of the deal, the source now wanted protection. And it would be final and costly. Apparently upon learning of the newly designed witness protection programs already utilized for some for Consortium-linked individuals in their files, even those who had dealings with them and were known faces like Skinner and Mulder, the source had requested highest security identity suppression. He was well known enough to still present a target and was wanted in too many circles. Dead.

A simulated death was the best option, of course, for agents and witnesses under threat and so arranging the contact's "death" was a necessity. But he said he'd arrange it himself. He didn't want any fuck-ups. Peterson suspected the contact only trusted himself to do it right; to not end up actually buried for real. But Peterson had grown desperate to find somewhere to arrange for him to go. And had told Skinner he was anxious, with intense pressure from above and below squeezing him, to find somewhere, *anywhere* that their source would accept.

At a loss and with abject apologies, Peterson had finally contacted Skinner, knowing his place was probably the best bet, at least for a while. Especially given that due to Mulder's extreme paranoia and courtesy of the Lone Gunmen's abilities, they'd managed to equip a fairly unreachable place with a set of twisted, electronic travel trails that ran cold early on and had left them with a single non-traceable contact phone to Peterson. Living on the edge of civilization in the far north of Canada presented the necessity of having interesting survival skills, particularly in winter, but Skinner and Mulder had actually relished the challenge, aware that anything softer would have taken the edge off their reflexes.

Mulder had specifically requested it and was quite happily looking forward to the peace and quiet of an actual retirement out of the whole mess, and Skinner had agreed. They'd taken a house that Skinner had already eyed earlier and was in the process of buying for his planned retirement and used it as their bolt hole. It wasn't until they were living together here at the house that they'd eventually discovered they'd both had feelings for each other for some time. Their friendship was first priority; neither of them was willing to give that up for sex, however good it was. Of course, neither of them let it get to the point of having to make that choice and the sex *was* good, so it was an all-around nice arrangement; having their cake and eating it too. Skinner wondered if Peterson would still have contacted them if he knew that their relationship had bonded in this way. He said nothing though, aware that the man had far more urgent problems.

The contact needed to lay low. Very low. Invisible. In fact, he refused to turn himself in and said he'd make his own way to the location when they found one for him.

While trying to explain what Peterson had outlined, Skinner found himself indeed facing an instantly ballistic Mulder, just as he'd feared. Especially since he made the mistake of mentioning the man's name: Alex Krycek. Who was of course traveling under a different identity.

Skinner didn't like it anymore than Mulder did. He found himself in the unenviable position of having to try to convince him that it was only temporary, that Krycek didn't even know it was them at this particular safe house (private as it was) and that Peterson had come to them as a last resort. Apparently none of the other options had been considered effective according to Krycek. Skinner was hardly pleased to know that Krycek approved of their choice of hideaway or the design of their convoluted system of contact with the 'outside'. But Peterson was desperate and had promised him that Krycek would behave. Skinner had laughed, telling him he didn't know Krycek at all and they'd never believe anything the man would ever say. Peterson had begged, saying that apparently Krycek would release the final crucial data only if and when he was securely situated at the safe house.

Never mind it happened to be their home, Mulder bitterly reminded him. Pacifying Mulder was an added stress Skinner really didn't want to have to deal with.

Things went rapidly downhill from there. Skinner attempted to get him to lighten up, telling him that his fixation was still in full force, which Mulder emphatically denied. Even when Skinner reminded him of the time when Mulder had ordered on a whim some mail order videos over the Internet. One of them had been entitled 'Alex, Jean and John', about a hot threesome... Mulder had watched it, waiting more and more impatiently for the second guy to enter the picture until Skinner had patiently explained that Alex could be a girl's name. Not pleased to be reminded of this lapse at this time, Mulder stomped out of the house. It wasn't until he reached the end of the driveway that he remembered there was literally nowhere to go, they were so remotely located in the wilds. And darkness was already falling. He stopped and returned to sulk on the couch, refusing to look at Skinner.

Skinner patiently explained that Mulder was going to have to sort himself out. To his credit, Mulder tried. But in the end he succumbed to the temptation and complained, infuriated, growling and snarling about it until Skinner had thrown up his hands and dryly commented on how some fixations tended to act up in violent ways with *some* people and required space for reflection. This was all said in very loud, heated tones, of course. For the first time in a long while, Mulder retreated to his own bedroom and closed the door. Slammed it, in fact. Loudly.

Skinner took this time to reflect, himself, before calling Peterson back to reply whether they'd agree to take Krycek in. It would be another few years before they would feel happy enough to walk freely without fear of being recognized and targeted themselves by mavericks or ex-Consortium affiliates. Going into hiding could be much like self-inducing cabin fever. Introducing Krycek into this environment could be explosive, if not handled carefully. And Krycek didn't even know that it was them. Skinner had warned Peterson not to tell him or Krycek would bail for sure.

But this might also prove to be the perfect opportunity to help Mulder heal from some of the mental anguish and post-Rebellion trauma that he'd been projecting onto the form of Krycek for so long.

And it might also help himself, Skinner realized, not forgetting for an instant that he had just as much a vested interest in happily taking in Krycek and then putting a bullet in his head. He had no intention of doing so, of course. He knew he needed to resolve this. They needed closure. He found he really didn't *want* to kill him, which surprised him.

And then there was Krycek himself. They could not trust him. But he too needed to heal. And it would be a temporary thing, six months at the most. It was unlikely that Peterson was selling them out; the man was a close personal friend of Skinner's from way back. And it was equally unlikely that Krycek knew it was them and intended to kill them. The risk was there of course, but Skinner was willing to bet that it would shock Krycek far more than they, to find them here. It would have to be handled carefully. Krycek was not the kind to shoot first and ask questions after. Ironically, that was more Mulder's style - at least where Krycek was concerned.

He had tried to explain some of this to Mulder earlier but his lover had simply yelled louder, saying rather hurtful things to the effect that Skinner was the one with issues about Krycek, and what else had the man blackmailed him into doing all those years ago, and was he indeed still under his sway... Mulder knew this was nonsense, all of it. But he was understandably upset. Skinner suspected if it had been anyone *but* Krycek, Mulder wouldn't have displayed such a violent reaction. He was projecting like crazy and for the first time Skinner was tempted to throw a pail of cold water over him. Fox always had been stubborn. Skinner was more so, however. Particularly when he didn't have the Syndicate, the Director of the FBI and the federal government, the military or other intelligence branches of the United States breathing down his neck, impeding his progress and disrupting his actions.

There was a certain level of healthy respect that Skinner had always had for a man who could survive the apparent number of mishaps and horrors that Krycek had endured. It went beyond the man's abilities and competency to get any job done. It also went far beyond the nearly heroic deeds Krycek had performed towards the end of the Rebellion. It went beyond the respect tainted with fear during the blackmail period and the fact that Krycek's coldness had been more than legendary - it had been a reality, as evinced by the friction between them whenever Krycek showed up. His 'professional' attitude was far too smug for Skinner's liking. No, the respect did not go too far beyond that, just barely enough. The grudging respect he had for Krycek sprang from an uncomfortable understanding of his motives. But Skinner understood survival. In fact, he knew he respected him more now than before, but did not share this with Mulder. But for Krycek to have survived it all, with no support whatsoever, no back up, nothing... It didn't mean he believed Krycek had a soul. But maybe Krycek could regain it, while helping Mulder to heal his. Mulder had already told him about Krycek's little games with him, that Kiss (that stood out so starkly for Mulder, for some reason) and all the lies and obfuscations over the years.

Skinner had experienced a number of interesting incidents back during his Marine days, things he again would not necessarily share with Mulder. There were bad memories that had long since been exorcised. He knew what it must have cost Krycek to have to be that strong, to will himself to survive. It gave Skinner an edge over Mulder's understanding of the possibilities and he ended up falling back on his concern for Mulder's well-being to show him exactly what he needed to do for his partner; to stop this tantrum that Mulder was throwing like a sulky boy. He did the only thing they had agreed, through trial and error, which actually worked with him when he began to show this wild, stubborn, reckless side.

He spanked him.

And afterwards, he called Peterson back to accept - on the condition that Krycek would be evicted at the first sign of trouble. Peterson was understandably bemused because his own calls with Krycek had always been cool and calm, precise and chillingly distant. Nothing like the volatile, delicate balancing act Skinner had portrayed would be played out here upon his arrival.

A week later...

They sat, waiting. They had been told they could expect him to arrive sometime this week. Skinner had guessed Krycek wouldn't leave it very long to make the journey up here once he was given the location. Peterson had told them he guessed today would be the day.

"It'll be dark in a couple of hours," Mulder pointed out, with a measure of satisfaction.

"Since when has that ever stopped him from going anywhere?" Skinner asked, mildly. He was reading, keeping half an eye on the monitors from both cameras situated at the front and the back approaches to the house. They were linked to his laptop and he had the screen displayed in front of him so he could watch and read at the same time. The front one overlooked the driveway. The backyard camera: the tree line, the edge of the lake and hill behind the house.

It was November, and Skinner had wondered if a snowfall might deter him. But so far they'd been lucky... or not, according to Mulder, who was muttering, "It might save us the trouble if he gets himself lost. Or meets a moose, in the dark."

Skinner merely snorted, absently. "Krycek? I wouldn't bet on it. He's armed, of course, and can bring us back the moose for steaks. In the interest of goodwill. And he could find his way here if you dropped him in the middle of an Alaskan tundra plain."

"You know, once he gets here, and finds out just exactly who is here, he might turn around and head back out again."

"And go where? But you're right. He might get pissed. He might think he was compromised, or that they set him set up somehow."

"Walt, I'm impressed," Mulder said, surprised. "I didn't think you understood the paranoid mindset so well."

"Well, after working and living with you for so long, it rubs off," he replied absently, still reading.

Mulder sighed. "Alright. So what do we do if he does? If he runs?"

"We bring him back and convince him we're not going to kill him," Walter replied, nose still in his book.

"Since he's already dead, how would that make a difference?"

Skinner pinned him with a searching stare. "Fox, if you can't handle this, you can wait upstairs while I greet him. I don't want any scenes."

"Okay, okay. I was just kidding." And under his breath, "Christ."

Minutes passed.

Mulder's fingers were drumming on the arm of the couch.

Skinner looked up finally. "Nervous?"

"No," Mulder replied, irritably.

Skinner couldn't help cracking a smile at that, which he quickly smothered. The waiting was getting tense, he admitted to himself, but he didn't think it would be too much longer.

Sure enough, a lone figure suddenly appeared, walking up the driveway. It stopped, a dark, indistinct figure on the camera angle displayed on the laptop. He was willing to bet that it *was* Krycek, because after standing looking in the direction of the house for a few moments, it disappeared. Then a dark vehicle that had obviously been parked out of sight beyond the farthest line of trees came driving up the long dirt road, up to the front of the house.

Skinner drew a deep breath. He shot a warning look at Mulder. "Fox, I don't want any showdowns now. Behave yourself. Please?"

Mulder thoughtfully chewed the inside of his cheek, his eyes narrowing. "Oh, don't worry about me, I'm on the edge of my seat here. I'm dying to see him again." His voice dripped sarcasm.

Probably the most honest thing you've said so far, Skinner thought, not daring to smile at this. Skinner stood; Mulder remained sitting on the couch. There was a knock on the door.

"Amazing: he knocks. He finally learned to knock, after all this time." Mulder sounded flat, his authentic monotone was perfectly executed.

But Skinner heard the suppressed tension; he shot him a final glower and called out, "It's open."

The door swung back wide and Krycek stood there on the doorstep, regarding them. He was dressed in his customary black leather jacket, although the rest of his apparel seemed more appropriate for the climate and the current weather conditions, which were threatening very cold rain later on. He looked rugged, like he'd been outdoors for a while and had been enjoying it. He stared at them in disbelief as the reality of their presence within this so-called 'safe house' registered upon his mind. Finally, nearly speechless, he managed, "You've got to be fucking kidding."

Skinner kept his voice controlled and calm. "What, didn't they tell you?"

"No, they fucking well didn't." Krycek's voice was clipped and curt. He was displeased, that much was certain. He didn't move. He was obviously expecting them to get up and go for him. When they remained where they were, waiting for him to do something, he realized they had known whom to expect. His gaze flicked alertly between the two of them, taking in Mulder's domesticated attitude, as he lay sprawled in the couch. And Skinner's relaxed stance, an expression devoid of any frown. He was confused. First to be landed with this unwelcome surprise, and then to find that they weren't openly shooting at him... it was strange. And then it hit him. "Aren't you supposed to be dead?"

"We are," called Mulder from his slouch in the couch. "So are you."

"Come on in," Skinner said, moving slowly to the door. "How much did you actually bring?"

Krycek stared at him, a puzzled little frown creasing the center of his dark, slim, arched brows. Skinner took a breath. Damn but Alex was looking good; he had to force himself to remain distant. But that had always been a problem with Krycek, hadn't it? It was hard to remember not to trust him when one couldn't help but react to him on an instinctive level to his nearly unconscious charm. The threat of him turning it on and actually using it was considerable. He didn't seem to be acting; he appeared genuinely surprised. Skinner liked that look on him. It made him seem more human than the smug stone-cold assassin who'd blackmailed and controlled him for far too long.

But Krycek seemed to be floundering for once. "You - I..." he actually turned and looked behind him, at his vehicle, at the trees and landscape beyond before turning back to him. He was wondering if he was going to have to trek all the way back to civilization from here; having come all this way, it didn't really appeal to him at all.

"Come on," urged Skinner, a bit more impatiently. "You're letting the cold air in."

"It's not an ambush," drawled Mulder. "Come on, it's freezing in here! Get a move on."

Krycek blinked, confounded, had to visibly steel himself before stepping inside. Once he made the decision however, he quickly adapted and regained his poise and composure, ready to deal with whatever this situation yielded.

Skinner shut the door behind him and then moved around to face him again, raised his eyebrows at him and nodded once, indicating his boots. "Take them off -you'll get mud everywhere. Unless you want a hand unloading? Thought you might appreciate a cup of coffee first, though. It's a long trip out here. Usually we get a chopper drop for things we can't get hold of at the supply store in town, supplies and food." And Krycek had to know by now that 'town' was a settlement forty miles west.

Skinner then sauntered off to the kitchen and began pouring coffee. "Black?"

"Sure." Krycek watched him curiously. Then turned to regard Mulder once more, his face returning to his customary, impassively stony expression that revealed nothing. Mulder looked back at him, his face not revealing much either. Stand-off, thought Skinner, watching this.

He returned to Krycek bearing a cup of coffee. "No ambush, Alex. We've been expecting you. They asked us if we'd let you stay here for a while and we agreed. Want to give me your coat and drink your coffee before unpacking? We'll give you a hand bringing your things in."

"I can manage, thanks. I'll do it in a minute. Just - just what *is* this?"

Skinner made a mental note: can't accept or ask for help. "What is what?"

Krycek would have made a sweeping gesture with his hand but was intercepted as Skinner finally pressed the hot cup into it. "*This*," he said. "Is this your place? You own it? Are you both just... cohabiting here?"

"Why is that so surprising?" Mulder questioned. "Things got too hot. I had four death threats and two attempts on my life. Wal-... Skinner was shot."

Krycek didn't respond, lifting his cup and taking a cautious sip. It wasn't too hot; he took another.

Skinner stood nearby and hooked his thumbs in his pockets. "We live here, Alex. You're welcome to as well, for a while. Six months was the deadline, I believe. We -"

He was interrupted by Krycek asking, "Why? Why am I welcome here? I would've thought you two had more to gain by killing me." His eyes strayed to Mulder momentarily. "For revenge, if nothing else."

Mulder nodded. "So did we. But we talked it over. You've had a stay of execution. You're on probation, actually."

Skinner broke in as well. "We're willing to give this a shot, if you are. As long as we establish some ground rules, there's no reason why we can't learn to get along. Sure, there are things we hold against each other, but we can work through it without resorting to killing anyone. Look at it this way, Alex: who else is going to understand your background in the Rebellion and your history? We at least share common ground. We had different roles and parts to play, but we were in the same war. We might also be able to help each other get over some of the, shall we say, outstanding accounts."

Lifting his head, Krycek's eyes narrowed dangerously, giving him a feral look, particularly framed by his dark lashes. Skinner was reminded of how dangerous he was. "You mean grudges."

"No," stated Skinner, firmly. "No grudges. This is not about revenge. It's about clearance. Believe me, we've all got a lot of baggage still left over from the past. We can help each other to heal old wounds and start again. Since we have to hole up anyway, why not learn and grow while we're at it? That's my reasoning on it. It's certainly worked so far."

Mulder sniggered. "We're an excellent example of self-help therapy and New Age armchair psychology at work."

Krycek stared at Skinner in perfect bewilderment. "I can't believe you actually... expect me to believe... that you," his eyes glanced to Mulder and back again, searching for some trace of what he'd come to expect from them and still not finding it, "both of you, can do that. Can just... let me in here like that."

"I dunno; it's kind of ironic. The spy who came in from the cold, and all. There are precedents." Mulder seemed lost in his own weird visuals at this, obviously recalling various black and white spy films and conspiracy magazines.

Skinner ignored him, his attention fixed on Krycek. "We can do it because we believe that you are sincere about wanting to hole up for a while. We're proof that this place can provide what we need, and I for one don't believe in dragging out dirty laundry and skeletons from closets. Let them stay there. You wouldn't have come here if your agenda didn't coincide somewhat with ours. We can give you a chance, if you want it."

Krycek drained most his coffee and said, "I can accept that. But Jesus, if you needed safety, why'd you come out here, this far away? You know, you could've contacted me. I would've eliminated most of the players who threatened you."

Mulder was about to snap back some smart reply, but Skinner beat him to it. "Despite the relative karmic justice of that, we really didn't want to. Cleaning up the place isn't our fight. Nor is it yours. Hiring you would've simply prolonged the problem. Let them sort out their own mess. We've done what we can. As for contacting you, hell! You're impossible to track. Even with our best resources I don't think we would have found you in time to effectively remove the most troublesome of them. No, we were looking *forward* to retiring out here for a while. We've given our blood, sweat and tears for the cause. Besides, it's easier to recover from trauma in an isolated and safe environment."

Krycek looked down. He had to agree; it was exactly the same reasoning he had when he'd concluded his only decision was to go underground for a while. Lifting his chin, he said, "Yeah, I guess you're right. I could have taken them out for myself, too. It just didn't seem worth the trouble. It's still a rat race out there."

Mulder murmured, "You should know; it takes one to know one."

"Fox," Skinner rumbled in warning.

Mulder merely gave him a sardonic smile but he shut up.

Krycek watched this little exchange with interest. It seemed apparent that Skinner had some sort of dominant sway over Mulder - he'd give anything to know what his secret was. Curious, he tentatively probed this. "So, it's your house, eh, Skinner?"

"That's right. If you're going to be living here, there are some house rules, too."

Krycek's lips twitched, in spite of himself. "How domestic."

"It's a home. Treat it as such. Care to go over them? Or are you going to walk out of here because it happens to be Fox and me who are living here?"

That was blunt. Talk about calling him out, Mulder thought, but he said nothing. A warring part of him wanted Krycek to leave, another wanted him to remain and to see what unfolded.

Krycek let his breath out audibly, letting go of some of the tension at the same time. "There's the issue of trust."

Mulder perked up with interest at this. "Yeah, exactly. That's something we really should talk about."

Skinner folded his arms and stood where he was. "Okay. Let's, then. Trust doesn't come easily to any of us. We have no reason to trust you, Alex; in fact, excellent reasons not to. But for our own sake and yours, we've allowed you to come here into our life. That alone implies a certain level of trust in itself. The thing is, can we? Trust you, I mean?"

Krycek regarded him warily. "Bit of a catch-22, isn't it? You're asking me if you can trust *me*, who you don't trust? Whatever I tell you, you can't trust it until you decide to. So the real question is, can I trust you to believe me?"

"Okay," Skinner declared, firmly, "so what we have here is a truce. A compromise, for now. The best way to enforce it, to ensure this doesn't get out of hand, is to abide by certain rules. As long as we all follow them, and deal with things as they arise *within* the limits of those rules, then we've established a situation we can handle. Agreed? I'm asking you here, too, Fox. Can we agree on this?"

Mulder sighed. "Yeah."

Krycek considered this. Then both of *them*. There was something appealing about the notion of settling here for a while, settling their differences, and being allowed into their world. He'd always looked up to Mulder, for his idealistic pursuit of the truth if nothing else. He refused to examine the relief and secret happiness he felt at seeing the man again. Even lounging on that couch, scowling at him mistrustfully, he was simply... Fox. Long-limbed, languorous and as always... Beautiful. He drew in a breath. As for Skinner -his conscience was ruthlessly berating him. He'd had his own reasons and rationalizations for blackmailing the man. And Skinner had been far too important and pivotal in his own way in the Bureau, to *not* have some leverage of control over. It didn't make up for the fact that Skinner was standing there virtually telling him he was willing to let bygones be bygones! He couldn't understand it.

But he grasped at this chance, this slim opportunity. Christ, he knew far better than they did exactly how much he did *not* deserve to be in this house with them. "Alright. But I have to know what those are first. I'm not agreeing to any rules until I understand them and I'm not unpacking until this is settled."

"Fair enough," Skinner replied, going back to his armchair and sitting down in it. "Have a seat."

Krycek shifted and then slowly leaned down to remove his boots. Then he took off his jacket and hung it on the spare peg behind the door. His black turtleneck was figure-hugging enough to reveal that he at least had not been starving; he looked well, in fact. Robust and toned. It made a change from the usual encounters either Skinner or Mulder had with him in the past, in Hong Kong, after Tunguska, even after Tunisia. Gone was the scruffy thug or even the barely-suited spy, the Syndicate rep. He'd been taking care of himself for a change. He approached Mulder and Skinner and finally decided upon the armchair on the other side of them. Hard choice: Mulder was laying on the couch full-length, taking up three seats worth.

Skinner was thinking to himself that he was glad it was a three-piece and it was nice to see each of them sitting there, symmetry achieved at last in his living room. If they could maintain a congenial atmosphere and avoid outbreaks of cabin fever, this should work nicely. It was interesting how just having another person around could change things. Three's company, he thought.

"Are these rules already in effect?" Krycek's voice broke his reverie, brought him sharply back to the present.

"If they weren't," Mulder said, deadpan, "you wouldn't have made it in the door."

"It's a good thing we're about to go over them again then, isn't it?" Skinner said to Mulder with displeasure. He looked back over at Krycek. "First rule: no violence. There will be no fighting. There isn't anything that can't be sorted out by discussing it. No weapons allowed in the house, either. We do have some but they are to be used only in the event of our location being compromised to someone from the outside who decides to, shall we say, try and take us out. Also, in the spring we do have a problem with hungry bears here. They can have mean tempers and cause problems. Other wild animals, too. Moose have quick tempers; they can be very dangerous." He stopped, frowning.

"So, no fighting. Considering your background in particular, I think this is the most important rule of all. Especially when we look at the history that you and Fox share. Fox," Skinner turned and fixed Mulder with an adamant stare, "you *will* refrain from attacking Krycek here, and keep hold of *your* temper."

Mulder sighed reluctantly. "Yeah, okay."

Krycek nodded. "I agree with all that. It seems reasonable. What about the rest?"

"Everyone pulls their weight. There are a number of chores and there's no reason why we all can't take turns and even have specific jobs that we do. I chop wood and mind the coal store. There's also a lot of game around here. We'll all pitch in to clean, prepare and freeze the meat. There's fish in the lake. We take turns cooking and cleaning. This isn't a bachelor pad and I have zero tolerance for slovenliness and slackers."

"He isn't kidding," murmured Mulder.

Krycek folded his arms before him, resting one foot over his other knee. The motion made it even harder to tell that his left arm wasn't quite right, it was done so casually. Skinner glanced down at the left hand - it looked as though somewhere along the line, Krycek had fitted an appropriate and better replacement to the cumbersome plastic he'd had before. Skinner looked away. "Third rule. In the event that either of those rules are infracted, there will be a penalty. I don't give a damn if you two are angry or if you end up shouting your heads off, there will be absolutely no physical fighting, no physical contact. No violence, or you're out of here. That goes for you especially, Krycek. I mean it; if you start it, you go. Your training makes you more dangerous at close quarters and I don't want any incidents or bodies here. For one thing, we're too remote for any serious injuries. For minor unpleasantries or loss of temper, once again, we can work it out. This is my home, my house, and both of you are here at my good will and discretion. Fourth rule: you agree to accept any punishment that I see fit to prescribe or administer, in the event of minor infractions. Are those acceptable to you?"

Despite himself, Krycek found he was impressed. Clear, no-nonsense and basic. And Mulder was proof that they worked; for it was true - in the past, Mulder hadn't thought twice of leaping up at the sight of him and attempting to beat the shit out of him.

He found himself nodding thoughtfully. "Yeah. It sounds good. Alright. I'm in, if you're okay with that."

Skinner turned to Mulder. "Yes?"

Mulder nodded, although he didn't look at Krycek. "Okay."

"Good." Skinner stood up. "Let's get you unpacked."

Outside, Mulder stood entranced beside the truck. It was like a transit van but heftier, built more for heavy terrain. He sounded almost awed. "What *is* it? It isn't like any other model I've ever seen."

Krycek was amused. "It's a custom-made job, built to requirements. When I realized I was coming out here, I figured it would be needed."

Mulder was practically drooling over it. Skinner grinned. "It's a fine machine. A worthy addition. You can stay."

Krycek found himself smiling back, before he realized it. "Thanks. But I'm keeping the keys."

Skinner watched Mulder eyeing its sleek black lines. "Good idea," he answered, thinking of the number of cars and vehicles Mulder had managed to destroy during his career in the FBI.

Together, they brought Krycek's things into the house and into the guest room. It was the third bedroom on the upstairs floor. Beside it was Mulder's, and then the master bedroom, Skinner's. At the end of the landing was an ample bathroom. Heavy timber beams supported the roof and the walls and gave the whole place a log-cabin feeling, although it really was more of a lodge.

Fortunately, it was Skinner's turn to cook. He was far better than Mulder, although Mulder *had* made progress over time. So it was that Krycek found himself in the bizarre situation of having dinner in the middle of nowhere with two enemies from his previous life, under amiable and even comfortable circumstances. After dinner, Mulder and Skinner appeared to return to their usual habits. Skinner read his book, Mulder was on his computer in the corner of the room.

Krycek found himself occupying what seemed to have been designated 'his' armchair and perusing the bookshelves. Luckily enough, Skinner had eclectic taste in literature.

They had only made it halfway into the evening when Krycek stood, stretched and announced he was going to bed. Hearing Skinner and Mulder simultaneously murmuring goodnight was such a surreal experience that he had to stop to let in sink in, momentarily.

Once he was gone, however, Mulder turned in his swivel chair. "Well?" he asked, meaningfully.

"Well? Well what?" Skinner repeated.

"I behaved. Aren't you proud of me?"

Skinner snorted to himself. "It's a bit premature. If we get through tomorrow without incident, then I will congratulate you."

Mulder was chewing his lower lip. "Do you think he knows?"

Skinner looked up, wondering. "Oh, you mean - us? I don't know."

Mulder shook his head. "I'm uncomfortable with this. I mean, it was bad enough when Scully visited."

"Dana was fine. I thought she took it very well, actually, all things considered," answered Skinner with a twinkle in his eye. "Don't tell me that having him here is going to make you come quietly?"

Mulder stared at him. "Just what exactly are you implying?"

"Do the words screech owl make it clearer?" Skinner was grinning at him.

Mulder actually growled in his throat and lunged for him, Skinner still laughing. Somehow, they made it upstairs without thumping.

As Alex lay upstairs in his bed - *his* bed? - without sleeping, as he stared into the darkness and enjoyed the scent of the walls. The wood. The linen of the bed. It didn't feel like a hotel, or a safe house, or even a house. It felt like a home. It terrified him. Nothing in his world had any right to feel that comfortable, that normal. Normal things tended to be taken away, or to not last very long. He couldn't trust normal.

And this bizarre turn of events; both Mulder *and* Skinner being here when he had believed both of them dead... he realized now he should have checked into it more thoroughly. The initial jolt of pain and the subsequent slamming down of any kind of reaction to it when he'd tried to think about it had been the reason why he had left it alone. And later on, he didn't dare go digging into it for fear of the further pain it might cause him. He found himself relaxing into the bed, letting his muscles loosen more. It was such a novel idea, being dead. And to disappear for a while, to make it more believable... he'd thought it so original and clever. Damn it, those two *would* beat him to it, he grinned suddenly to himself.

He wondered if he would make it through the night. He found it hard to believe that those two could just accept him into their little homey scene. But neither did he want to fall asleep. Unfortunately, this place made him feel safe enough that he might be able to fall asleep for longer than an hour or so at a time... and that brought the nightmares.

Evil. Most people really had no clue as to what evil was. Evil was an experience, evil was helpless terror. Evil was being unable to -

A sudden sound grated across his nerves and he stiffened, ready to react. He listened and it came again. It was coming from down the hall but... better to be safe than sorry.

He got up and went cautiously to the door in the dark. Opening it silently, he strained to hear. It was repeated and although muffled, it was definitely Mulder. Mulder's voice. Strained and rough, as though torn from his throat. And, of course, it was coming from Skinner's room. Why was Mulder...

The realization was like a hot flash. It ran with a shock through him. It rooted him to the spot. He felt hot and cold at the same time. Of course, of course they would. After all these months together. Living here in this isolated place. Years, even. They'd been through it all. Known each other from the beginning. Somewhere along the line, the boundary between subordinate agent and AD had been crossed. And then he wondered why he hadn't noticed it before, in the way the two of them behaved towards each other. The sounds continued, increasing in frequency and urgency until Mulder suddenly stopped.

Overload. It was both titillating and horrifying at the same time.

He slipped back into his room and closed the door. And stood in the dark trying to breathe. He was unaccountably disturbed by this. He'd been so wrapped up in trying to stifle his own attraction to Mulder, his reaction to his presence and the knowledge that he was alive, *alive*. He hadn't even considered the possibility that they were - he flinched at the thought - lovers. He should have. He wondered that he might have been so out of it, so off-balance that he might have missed such obvious signals. But as he sifted through the impressions of the day, he realized the signs had been there. Maybe he just hadn't wanted to see them.

Pain, pain. And a dark ache, a reminder that they had what he'd never had, never would.

His own encounters had consisted of hasty liaisons in dark streets, hotel rooms, other people's rooms. He couldn't even remember the last time he'd slept with someone, or had a sexual encounter that wasn't somehow commercial. Sex was a commodity, a luxury item, something deals could be sealed with; either it was paid for or it was the price itself.

To imagine a relationship where sex was only part of the equation, next to affection, security, companionship...

Pain and pain, and more pain. He forced himself to lay back under the bedcovers and close his eyes. He had dealt with pain, had lived with it for a long time. He knew how to transmute it into a wish instead. Always had. Keep it in the back of his mind as something to get around to once everything was finished, complete, over... once he could leave and think of himself for once, as separate from the larger scheme of things. Unless he died first.

It didn't help to know that really, he *was* dead now. There was no reason why he couldn't begin to do what they had done; start building his future, bringing his own wishes to fruition. To fulfill whatever whims and personal dreams he might have.

He could hardly begin here, in their home. With them carrying on like that at night. Jesus fucking Christ, he thought vehemently. How was he to remain impartial? To pretend he didn't hear? Didn't *want* to hear? He acknowledged that he envied them, what they had. But he also had to face that he was jealous. It was too much. To find both of them alive. And together. Fox! His heart constricted inside him, flooding his chest with something like watery grief, once more hot and cold at the same time. He would be a fool to remain here. And yet, he was so tired of running. The irony of it all made him want to laugh. And he wondered why, after all this time, his heart which he had thought long since suppressed and gone, would suddenly leap again.

How was he supposed to retain any dignity at all, in the face of this? He could just see it, day after day, the two of them enjoying each other's company, the security of knowing that they were safe in the other's regard. The love they shared. He realized at this that he must have hidden masochistic tendencies. The ability to withstand levels of pain that were intolerable to most other people, sharpened by the loss of his arm and other traumas he'd survived, was hardly the same as this.

He spent the rest of the night in contemplative agony.

Breakfast was a feast. Bacon, eggs, small steaks of something that was decidedly *not* beef, butter so light it was almost another entity entirely, some strange kind of bread and fresh coffee. There were other things too, but those were the important ones.

Mulder suspected Skinner was laying it on thick in an attempt to start the day off on the right foot. Despite his other equally obvious attempt to pacify him in the night with particularly hot sex, Mulder found he was unable to relinquish the anger and resentment he felt at Krycek's intrusion into their lives. Mulder had been enjoying a peace he'd never felt before. Days had flitted by easily. He'd gotten more work done than ever, and yet found more chances to enjoy himself. This had all changed the moment Skinner first mentioned Krycek's name a few days ago.

And even in the midst of their lovemaking, Mulder had found himself unable to ignore the fact that Krycek was only two rooms away and most probably listening, getting a kick out of their sex life. Never mind the fact that when he'd finally climaxed, it had been with a frenzy of final, hasty images that he'd been unable to keep out of his head - of going next door and holding Krycek down, hitting him, tying him down, fucking him -

He flushed, looking around the room. Skinner was still outside, in his beloved storeroom near the woodshed. Krycek hadn't yet come back downstairs after retreating there when breakfast was over.

And the anger boiled anew. Goddamned, traitorous, murdering, fucking rat *bastard*, he thought. After everything, to end up having to take care of him, here. To endure his presence, here. It was horrible. The subject of Alex Krycek had been one of the few things he refused to delve into with Skinner, saying it wasn't important enough to require going over. Now he kind of wished he had. The man set his teeth on edge. And his prettiness, offset by the knowledge of things he'd done, it was almost offensive. He had no right to look so damned pretty; no man should be that pretty. And despite Bill Mulder's own Consortium exploits and his own guilt at having cost Krycek his arm, it still didn't make him feel any better about the ratbastard.

Skinner came in with an armful of wood and immediately began dealing with the fireplace. He cast an absent eye on Mulder before going to the front door again. "I'll be back soon. Got some more things to do," he said.

Mulder only nodded from his customary place on the couch. He sat there, doing nothing, in fact. Although anyone could see that his brain was far from inactive. Abruptly, he shoved himself upwards and went to his own room to rummage about.

After a while, Krycek emerged from the guestroom and went downstairs. Mulder was upstairs; Skinner was outside, out back.

Krycek sat down in the armchair nearest the fire. It was crackling and casting a palpable glow of heat over the room. The smell was deeply welcoming.

He found himself approving of the décor, and the furniture. It was cozy and yet spacious at the same time. And it gave the impression of warmth and comfort while retaining a high quality of taste. He imagined it had to be Skinner who was responsible for this. Having become familiar with Mulder's apartment in DC for so many years, under covert surveillance if not actually physically present, he didn't think Mulder was blessed with such an ability to decorate.

He was still trying to adapt to the fact that nothing was required of him, beyond a modicum of polite help around the place. He didn't need to earn a ranking position in any organizations, there were no secrets to be sold, no ghouls that needed to be iced, no marks to protect, no agents to monitor under surveillance, no bases to infiltrate, no aliens to convince of his loyalty, nothing. He realized he was going to have to adapt to being at peace. The idea was outlandish. His nerves were frayed to hell and back, and yet he still felt edgy as though he expected action. He closed his eyes, trying to find a way to relax. It was too great an effort to be effortless.

Restless from inactivity, he got up and prowled about, familiarizing himself with the house. He wondered why he felt no desire to enter the men's shared bedroom; it was Skinner's actually - but it was obvious that Mulder's own room was never used. Somehow, the need to know everything about the escape routes, from basement to attic, didn't include that room. It was a rule he always kept; always learn the layout. He put it down to wanting to respect their privacy. But secretly, he knew it was because he didn't belong there. Never there. With either of them. Let alone *both*. The thought had crossed his mind and then quickly fled, as he knew both of them had reason to hate him deeply. Hell, there was no telling what they might do if they caught him in there. He wanted to avoid Mulder's temper, but it was Skinner who actually frightened him. Krycek wasn't afraid of many people but he knew Skinner, especially after his successful and thorough blackmailing of him with the nanocytes, had a righteous grudge against him.

He returned to the living room and sat down, his attempt to feel at home failing miserably as he knew he was out of place here. He wished he'd never come here. Why had he stayed, again? Oh yeah - he'd wanted so badly to see them... together. To see... him. Fox. Not his. Not his Fox, never was. Never would be. Always belonged with someone else.

There was a bowl on the table in front of the couch. It was a large glass bowl, nearly empty of the familiar shelled seeds Mulder was so fond of. Krycek realized Skinner must get them in bulk, and had run out. Another example of touching care, and he sucked in a breath at a little resurgence of the dark hollow thoughts that had morbidly depressed him until the dawn.

He was so very bitter at the way things had panned out eventually; the last time he'd seen Fox Mulder, the man had launched himself at him - Skinner preventing him from getting close enough to hit him. And afterwards, a cold truce borne of necessity to listen and cooperate. He couldn't hope that the way might be fully cleared between them, but he wanted to try at least make a cautious peace with him.

Time passed. He finally wandered over to scan more of the titles on the bookshelves again. He had rather envied the sight of Skinner sitting there so happily engrossed in his book the previous evening.

Skinner, out in the storeroom, found himself examining the number of cans and frozen food they had. He realized he would have to alter the figures, the budget, and the tally to incorporate Krycek's presence in the household. He grabbed a number of cans and small containers of food and took them back into the house, clattering about in the kitchen. Then went back out to the shed, and began counting, doing a stock take so that they could change the numbers when they reordered.

Krycek was growing restless. He went upstairs to his room for a while and missed Skinner's return to the kitchen. He heard him though. By the time he went downstairs, Skinner had gone back out. He hadn't found a book that captured his attention yet, and he ended up sitting in the armchair and thinking, his thoughts chasing one another. There was too much left unspoken, between all of them. The future was uncertain and distant, and the past was pressing up behind them, crushing them with urgent demands for attention and resolution.

He looked up as Mulder suddenly came in the front door, a rush of cold air reminding him of the harshness outside. Their eyes met, Mulder's accusatory glare was as stingingly harsh as the draft. Mulder shut the door behind him and removed his boots. Then his coat and gloves. He ignored Krycek then, moving to the kitchen and pouring himself coffee.

Weird. He'd thought Mulder was upstairs. Maybe he'd gone out the back. There was a back staircase; he must have slipped out. His eyes narrowed. Mulder was avoiding him.

Mulder came into the living room and set his coffee mug down on the table. "Bored already? Why don't you go out back and try some target practice? We don't have any moving ones, though, sorry. Unless you count the birds. But they won't give you much sport - not like people do, anyway. Just make sure you don't hit Walter, by accident."

Krycek pressed his lips together and didn't look at him.

Mulder saw the now full bowl of sunflower seeds sitting on the table. He smiled knowingly, but his tone was scathing. "For me? How thoughtful of you. Should I have my food-taster check them first?"

"I didn't put the fucking seeds there, Mulder. I have more important things to worry about than catering to your weird addictions." This was delivered flatly, with almost no emotion whatever.

Mulder sat down on the couch, and began to pick seeds out of the dish and nibble. Nonchalantly, he said, "So. Going to stay, after all? I would've thought this might be too tense, even for you. What is it that makes you want to stay?"

Krycek found himself fighting conflicting urges, to stay and take part in their usual exchange, or to get up and leave before it escalated out of control. There was a third option of course; there always had been. He could simply state the truth. Confront Mulder with his actual opinion of him, even declare outright that he wanted to get past all this crap. And yet again he dismissed it as pointless - Mulder would either take offense or use it as an opportunity to hurt him. And as always, the latter seemed more likely. A strange desire rose in him: to lick those long fingers, take them in his mouth, roll his tongue softly on them, tasting the sweat and the salt from the sunflower seeds. He tore his gaze away, absently saying, "The ambience. You know I can't refuse a challenge."

"Really? Here's one for you: can you stay here without killing anyone? Without telling any lies? Without betraying anyone, without selling us out? Or how about developing a conscience? Wait, *that* one's a bit much to ask for, isn't it. I take it back."

Krycek tossed a noncommittal glance at him. "I'm willing to give this a chance. Why aren't you?"

Mulder delivered his next rant with a perfectly flat voice. "You've done things that are... despicable. You're a despicable, sorry creature who should have been flushed away with the rest of the leftover remains, the slimy scum left crawling around blinded by the daylight when the Consortium folded and the Rebellion ended."

"Oh, well. Forgive me for not living up to your expectations. I'm sorry, Mulder - did I disappoint you?"

"Not really. So far, you've lived up to your reputation as pond-scum quite admirably. I'm surprised you wanted out; I thought you'd have felt right at home with the back-stabbing, unethical liars swilling about in the new system, whoring themselves to whoever can pay them enough."

"I came here to die."

"I can give you hand with that," Mulder rejoined, instantly.

When he didn't rise to this, Mulder turned and looked at him. Krycek sat there without answering. His face was downcast, looking at the furry rug on the wooden floor without blinking. He looked forlorn, alone; resigned, as if he had indeed come to this place to die - or at least didn't care if he did.

A twinge of pity panged inside Mulder at the sight and in the next moment he was seized with panic at the realization, followed on its heels by pure rage. Krycek was a slimy, no-good, cock-sucking *bastard* and he'd be damned if he'd start developing feelings for him.

"What do you want, really? What are you doing here?" Mulder demanded, starting to see red. "You think you can just waltz in here and take over, fuck up my life again? You think I believe your bullshit story, that you want out? I think it's a little too big of a fucking coincidence that you showed up at our door."

Krycek closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Mulder was spoiling for a fight. Probably from the repressed tension of having to play nice, docile and civil in front of Skinner. He wished Skinner would return. "I already told you. Skinner's probably told you. Peterson told you. I'll tell you something else, too, Mulder. You touch me again, I'm leaving. I won't take it from you anymore."

Mulder's eyes flashed somewhat. They never lost that wounded, betrayed look that had always haunted Krycek, but they were certainly darkening with familiar fury now. Why was it that Mulder's fits of rage were always justified? Mulder caught him by surprise though, with his next sentence. "Why did you...? Why do you always let me beat you? Before, I mean. You could have fought back."

Krycek merely stared back at him, anger starting to rise in him, too, at Mulder's stupidity, and unnecessary attitude. "Why did *you* come here? Gave up on your search for truth, did you? Found it a little too bitter to swallow in the end, after spending all those years waiting for it? And why the hell come all the way out here to play houseboy? What is it about Walter Skinner that does it for you - is it the big daddy or the Marine? Sir, yes, sir," he said, mockingly.

Mulder didn't answer, too surprised and angry that Krycek would attack him on this ground, about his involvement with Skinner.

"My guess is you just needed someone to give it to you up the ass, keep you in line. It was about time, I guess. You needed it for years. You could've just asked. Who knows? I might have obliged you," Krycek snorted. Mulder's face was beginning to turn white with anger again. "S'okay though, Mulder. Looks like you found someone else to do it, instead."

"Son of a *bitch*," Mulder said in a low voice, his response expelled out of him along with his breath as he started towards him.

Krycek was on his feet faster than Mulder could register.

The sudden appearance of a wicked-looking knife stopped him in his tracks, forcing him to reconsider.

"I've bottomed out here, Mulder, but if you think I'm going to put up with your shit, you're wrong." Krycek's statement was like cold water in his face, reminding him through his anger that the man was a killer.

"What, can't you defend yourself like a man, Krycek? Why do you need that to help you?"

"This is just a deterrent to remind you. Don't play with me if you don't want to get hurt. I won't tolerate you hitting me for your own amusement, or using me for taking out your frustrations on anymore. If you still want a piece of me, let's at least take it outside." Krycek's rational, calm voice wasn't helping Mulder's frame of mind.

Incensed already, he shot back, "Fine; let's go, right now."

Krycek regarded him with no change of expression. "It won't solve anything. You'll just find your ass on the ground. I'm not in the mood for your games anymore, Mulder. Try to keep your games in the bedroom."

He'd meant it as a warning but it only served to enrage Mulder further, who took it as a taunt. He was surprised that Mulder decided to rush him despite the knife. He of course wouldn't ever use it; he had only been trying to make a point. If he'd had a gun on him it would have been more effective - Mulder always did respond better to them, having carried a gun himself for years. Mulder respected guns.

He dropped the knife and started to dodge. But Mulder had already charged, like a bull, and he found himself on the floor, Mulder getting in a few good body blows to his ribs. Here he was, yet again trying to defend himself from the man's violent temper while not harming him in the process. And he wasn't doing a very good job of it either; his heart hadn't been in this in the first place.

Mulder ground his body against Krycek's; Krycek wasn't hard but Mulder was. This upset Mulder even further; he felt embarrassed that he should find this involuntarily arousing and the other man didn't. "What's wrong? Doesn't this do it for you anymore?" he exclaimed, as they grappled, "I thought you got off on letting me beat you. You've been a glutton for punishment *this* long; don't tell me you've lost your taste for it!" he spat at him.

Krycek couldn't really appreciate the fact that this was Mulder's hard cock pressed up tight and hard against him through their jeans; all he wanted was to get away from him. As usual. And of course not having a very useful left arm didn't help - he didn't want to hurt Mulder with it. Scrabbling under him, trying to get a handhold on something other than the bearskin rug that was sliding and slippery on the wooden floor, Krycek gasped out, "Get real! *You're* the one who gets off on me, every time! You can't keep your fucking hands off me! Fuck, Mulder, you're practically humping me here. Get - get off me!"

Mulder was already enraged enough without Krycek stating it as baldly as this. He pushed against him with renewed strength. "Don't give me that shit! You're the one who broke into my apartment, threw me against a table and then kissed me at gunpoint!" he exclaimed.

Krycek choked at Mulder's hand pressing against his windpipe. He managed, "I only wanted to get - you -" he wheezed, straining, "-to listen to me, you -stupid - asshole!"

"Fucking faggot, slime-bag, mother-fucking bastard!" Mulder spat, quite unable to find words to properly express how angry he was, furiously contending with the hard left arm Krycek was holding against him as a shield, with him to try to get his hands back on his neck and pound his head against the hardwood floor.

Krycek noticed while blocking the worst of Mulder's right arm with his hard left, that Mulder had apparently forgotten that really that first epithet applied to himself more than Krycek, for all he knew. *He* was the one currently involved in a committed, long-lasting relationship with another man; he had no idea who Krycek's preferences included. But he wasn't thinking at all, blinded by the biting anger that encompassed him.

Skinner sighed. He'd come in a few moments before and they hadn't even noticed. Well, he suspected Krycek had. And he quickly moved up behind them. "Mulder!" he bellowed, pulling him off of Krycek abruptly, a look of relief flooding Krycek's eyes, even a flicker of gratitude before he looked away. Skinner used his superior weight advantage to keep the straining man from reaching back down and returning to his assault.

Krycek had pulled up his knees and was already starting to crawl away, to a position of safety behind the couch, to catch his wind and assess his bruises. Damn Mulder anyway! Still, he knew this was bound to happen eventually. He was right; the man couldn't keep away from him.

"That is *enough*," Skinner said, shaking Mulder like a terrier with a rat, hard. He looked back over at Krycek who was still on the floor, doubled-over and panting. Mulder had managed to wind him a couple of times with a well-placed knee. "You," he glared at Krycek, "upstairs, *now*," Skinner added.

Krycek painfully and slowly pulled himself to his feet and went upstairs to his room, collecting his knife before doing so. Which was noticed by Skinner. Skinner turned to Mulder. "What was with the knife?"

"He drew it when I went for him."

"And *why* did you go for him?"

"He - Walter, he - " Mulder's voice was pained. "He said that I was basically your- your houseboy. Well, he said more than that, but it was nasty. I just snapped."

"Explain it to me," Skinner said, breathing hard, his anger evident. "From the beginning."

Mulder started off angry, himself, but by the time he'd come to the point where he'd asked Krycek about always letting him hit him without defending himself, and Krycek's reply about - Walter and himself... he couldn't bring himself to repeat it.

"And that's when he snapped. Which is when *I* snapped."

"I've had just about enough of this as I'm going to take," Skinner declared, "and it's time Krycek learned a lesson, too. If he wants to stay here, he's going to have to stay under the same conditions you do. When we're through here, I want you to go to our room and stay there until I'm done with him."

This however caused Mulder to sit up sharply and stare at him, alarmed. "What are you going to do?" The fear and concern was evident in Mulder's voice.

Skinner frowned at him, confused. "What are you afraid of? You don't care if you beat him black and blue but if I spank him it's too much?" An expression of realization spread over his face. "Oh, I get it; you can use him as your personal punch bag but no one else is allowed to touch him. And you don't want me touching him because you're afraid that it'll interfere with what *we* have. Am I right?"

A ripple of guilt crossed him. "Yeah. Something like that. Look, what we do, it doesn't include him. Okay, I can see how he'd benefit from it. But he isn't - I mean, he's not - surely you aren't going to let him into our relationship! "

"Fox, I thought you understood. I discipline you because I love you, but not as part of our relationship. I do it as a friend because it's the only check on your temper that works. Just because a taste of the same might help straighten him out too doesn't mean he's suddenly in our bed. That's a separate issue. And one you and I are going to have to talk about."

Skinner's face relented somewhat.

"I've got more reasons than you do for hating him, Fox. The man *killed* me and then brought me back, in pain. He blackmailed me, has hurt you and Dana and others I care about, more than once. And on many occasions, he's used me, exploited me to further his own agenda, whichever one he might have running alongside whatever twisted events happened to be unfolding. But I'm over it - I can understand his justifications and excuses. I don't agree or condone them but I understand them. It was during a war and people do things they regret under difficult circumstances. I don't agree with it but I can let it go. You're problem is a lot more personal. It's really fucked-up, in fact. It won't be easy untangling this. But you realize I'm going to have to tan your hide for what you said to him. That was inexcusable."

Mulder stared. "What? Why? What did I say - "

Skinner stared at him, penetratingly. "You called him a faggot. You said other things, too. I heard what you were yelling as I came back up to the house. And you were pounding on him again. You damage him inside every time you do that. You hurt his feelings, whatever shreds of them there are left. I wanted to offer to help him rebuild his psyche, not send it into permanent exile along with his previous identity. He looks up to you. And he looks up to me. You aren't helping him."

Mulder stopped, stock-still. The light turned on behind his eyes and he began to hear what Skinner was saying. The more he hurt Krycek, the less respect Skinner had for him.

"Calling him names, insulting him like a school bully. You always threaten him with violence, hurl sexual crudities at him and then do what you can to demean him. And I can't tell you how sad it makes me that you are still capable of such immature behavior, Fox. But that isn't the worst of it. I can't believe you ran into a knife. You *saw* he had it. You went for him anyway. I don't want to lose you, Fox. I love you, you know that! At least, I thought you did. I don't want you dead. He's a trained killer; you might want to ask yourself why you continuously throw yourself at someone who could have killed you several times over by now. It is unacceptable to me both as your friend and your lover. You have to learn to control your temper. Now. Assume the position."

Mulder drew up tight with dismay and anger. "God, not - not out here! He'll hear!"

Skinner nodded. "I know. That's partly why I want to do it here and now. It's important that he understand what lies ahead for him. He's going to have to submit to this too, if he wants to remain here. If I don't enforce our rules, and also make sure they apply to you as well, we don't have a foundation anymore and we might as well all pack up and go. Fox, I won't say it again; assume the position."

Mulder's stomach went cold and muddled inside at the thought of Krycek listening to what was to come. It was too private, it was too personal. It was purely between them, a dynamic of their relationship that Krycek had no part knowing about. "Walt..."

Skinner gave him a searching look. "Fox, that's part of the punishment. I know you don't want him to hear. But it's important that he does, and it's important that you get used to it, too. Either he'll stay, or he won't. And it bothers you that he might understand how it is that I keep you in line - how *he'll* be kept in line. And you've earned yourself twenty extra swats for this."

Mulder bit back a retort. He wanted to demand what or who was going to keep Walter in line if they were his whipping-boys and could be punished at the slightest thing. Slightly askew from the truth but even so... And realized that so far, Skinner was well within his right to assert dominance, mete justice and punishment however he saw fit. It *was* his home. Mulder swallowed, realizing he'd jeopardized not only his relationship with Walter, but his life, and his tenancy. Feeling entirely angry and ridiculous, venomously cursing Krycek silently in his mind, he pulled down his pants and shorts, and swore he'd find a way to pay Krycek back for placing him in this predicament. Krycek was probably going to laugh his ass off. He wouldn't be able to look him in the face again without that snide, sneering smugness in his eyes - even worse than before.

He bent over the edge of the couch, and as Skinner began to swat him with merely his bare hand, not even a belt, he steadfastly refused to give in, to let Krycek hear even a single cry.

Soon though, he was hollering out loud, unable to keep it in. How did he manage to forget every time, that Walter had such strength in his arms?!

Upstairs, Krycek was stunned for the third time in less then twenty-four hours. First, to find these two alive and well, living in what he'd been looking forward to being his home, his safety net for a while. Second, to hear them having sex - correction, to have to listen to Mulder's orgasm, which in itself was interesting and yet unbearable at the same time. Third, this new sound at which he had not be able to believe his ears, quickly joined by Mulder's voice again, this time in pain? Skinner, spanking Mulder?! He shook his head slowly, wondering if he really wanted to remain here. There was something about this that made him feel uneasy, in fact - downright queasy inside. Yet, the thought that it took only a whipping to keep Mulder in line; he wanted to laugh. That quickly fled when he realized that Skinner was probably going to ask him to leave.

There was no way that they were going to go through with this. The situation had already broken down once. The next time it might be worse. And Mulder had proven that he could not control himself around him. Who was wrong and would have to go? Skinner's lover... or their mutual enemy, the intruder into their private life together?

He sat heavily on the edge of the bed. Torn. He didn't want to remain in this - frankly - *weird* house with rules and Mulder's temper and hatred of him, and Skinner's disciplinary measures. But he didn't want to leave the only place he had finally come to at the end of his rope, the last attempt he had managed to arrange in his life for a place to hole up. To heal. The end of the road. The only other option, if he left here, was to go out back, off-road rather than return to civilization, and stay there with the wolves until the wilderness took pity and finished him off. He sat with his head in his hands, experiencing the incredibly intense and somehow wonderful sensation of choosing life with it's absurd pains and trials, or death. Cold, clean death. Beautiful death, for real this time, not just a ruse, a trick. A way out. He should have known he wouldn't be able to cheat it in the end. All those lives he had taken over the years, snuffed out, no matter how necessary had been their deaths, how justly deserved. He'd survived this far. What was the point now? He couldn't see any reason to carry on. His one wish, to find 'home', somewhere... he put his face in his hands and sighed, hating with one absent part of his mind yet again, the sensation of one cold unyielding hand and one warm one against his face.

Mulder stood, pulling back up his pants.

"Do you need another one, Fox? I'm quite willing to do it again if you think that's what it will take to get you to behave like an adult. I don't want to have to find you bullying him ever again. Do I make myself clear?"

"Crystal, sir." But there was still a trace of fire in those deceptively mild brown eyes, staring so soulfully and sorrowfully after the tears had been hastily wiped away.

Skinner sighed to himself. The only way this was going to be resolved was with patience and the defusing of the conflict situation between them. Mulder needed to face his feelings towards Krycek, and Krycek needed to face his feelings, period. Privately, Skinner suspected Krycek would respond better to authority than Mulder ever would, given he understood the stakes. If he elected to remain, that is.

"We have to talk, later. After I deal with him. And when I find out whether he'll be staying, or leaving. Go upstairs. I'll probably have to do this down here. Unless you want me to do this in his room?"

Mulder shook his head. "I'm going outside. I need - to clear my head. Think things over."

"Okay. You gonna be alright?" Skinner let his concern and feeling for him enter back into his voice. The effect was immediate. Suddenly Mulder was holding him tight, hugging him almost desperately.

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry," he whispered, muffled into Skinner's sweater.

Skinner was flooded with relief, returning the hug warmly. "It's alright, I understand. It's a bit much, seeing him again like this. We both knew this would be difficult. But it's probably a good thing. At least we can get this sorted out. No matter what happens, it at least gives us a little closure."

"Yeah," Mulder answered thickly before pulling away. He placed a warm kiss on his cheek and then went to the front door, pulling on his boots once more. "I won't go far. But don't come looking. I'll be a while."

Skinner nodded. As the front door closed behind Mulder, he found himself looking at the stairs, wondering how on earth he was supposed to enjoy 'retirement' when he was having to act simultaneously as a therapist for shell-shocked veterans of a cold war against several arrayed alien forces amidst the blind stupidity of a schizophrenic global government. As well as a father figure to two overgrown, emotionally-stunted boys, keeping from killing each other simply because they were too blind to see how much they needed each other. Retirement. Right.

He went upstairs and knocked on the bedroom door. There was a murmur of assent and he opened it. He stood in the doorway, not coming in. Krycek hadn't begun packing at least. That was a good sign. But he looked shuttered, withdrawn, sitting on the edge of the bed, unmoving. He fully expected to be told to leave, Skinner realized.

"Fox displays all the characteristics of a spoiled brat when he doesn't get his way," Skinner explained. "We discovered that a check was needed to help him to learn what is and is not acceptable behavior. A light spanking seems to do the trick. Sometimes a more vigorous approach is needed. We don't let it interfere with any other part of our life here, either. It's simply discipline. Knowing him as you do, I'm sure you'll agree that something that keeps him in line is beneficial to all." His eyes even twinkled at that, remembering the first time he'd done it. Mulder had been utterly floored. The look on his face had been priceless.

Krycek found his lip curling up despite himself. He almost chortled. "Yeah, yeah I can." And winced as he pulled a muscle that was too sore still from the bruising. His expression turned blank again. Waiting. He didn't look at him. Feeling almost lightheaded from the expectation. Waiting for the words to ring in his head with finality.

"I have a proposal that I'd like you to consider," Skinner said, enjoying the way these unexpected words hit him. "An equal standing with Fox here, where you accept a like-punishment for your involvement in this little skirmish you two had. I am not suggesting for a moment that I would abuse you. Nor would I abuse your trust, in allowing me to punish you for bad behavior, or remaining here under our roof - my roof, as a guest. Despite the fact that Fox is still unpredictable and needs to sort out his reaction to you. Who knows, a spanking might do some good to sort out your guilt complex. You have a bad one, Alex. Or you wouldn't let him hit you. You don't tolerate it from anyone else. I'm asking you to tolerate it from me as well, not just from Fox Mulder. Although given your... history," the somewhat sarcastic tone was not lost on Krycek, nor was the looking him up and down, "it probably wouldn't be enough."

Krycek couldn't believe his ears. "You're - actually suggesting that I let you spank me?"

"Yes. You contributed to that scene downstairs. Granted, I know he was going to break at some point. But you didn't help. And you could have avoided the worst of it. There was no need for you to provoke him the way that you did, towards the end there. You said some things that cut right to the quick. You made him feel ashamed for being here with me. I'd say that's grounds for a spanking, wouldn't you?"

"I'm not a child," Krycek said, tightly. The disbelief was apparent though, and behind it an anxious fear.

"You're acting like one," Skinner replied. He sighed wearily. "What's it going to be, boy?" He said it, knowing it would nettle him.

A ripple of anger visibly washed over him at the use of that word. "I don't have to take this."

"No, you don't," Skinner agreed. "You're free to go, in fact. Go on, leave. You come in here, with all the baggage and reminders of our painful past, our long-standing enemy - both of us have personal reason enough to kill you and feel good about it afterwards, at least for a while. You're also a distraction and a hindrance to our own relationship. It would make my life a *hell* of a lot easier. Not to mention give me back my peace of mind. Somehow, I can't imagine why, I find it hard to sleep with you under this roof. I don't know how *you* do it, either, to be honest. Fox would like nothing better than to nail you to the floor... and I don't mean fucking you. Although I'm sure it's very prominent in the back of his mind. That's why he's reacting this way to your presence here."

Krycek flushed at this last part and his eyes slid away. He'd been calm and relatively accepting of what was being said until then. Interesting, Skinner thought. "Right now, he wants nothing more than to beat you to a pulp."

His eyes downcast, his cheeks surprisingly red, Krycek said in a low voice, "He already has. Repeatedly. It's his favorite pastime."

"Yeah, but I notice that you always let him."

Krycek's heart was burning inside his chest - even more so than his face.

He looked so desperate, so vulnerable. Walter wondered if he yet realized what effect he had on him. He licked his lips with a pink tongue, the sight sending a flicker of arousal through Walter who sternly ordered himself to ignore it for now.

Walter suspected that he desperately wanted to be accepted into their little situation here to the fullest extent. He couldn't help but think it probably might work, if he really wanted to stay with them. The younger man was probably one of *the* few people that they could relate with, given their common history. And it would help get Mulder over his obsession with him.

Skinner was actually wondering why it didn't bother him that the same man who his lover was still experiencing suppressed desire and longing for after all this time was now in the same house. He realized he had always wanted to see Krycek redeemed - and this seemed the most reasonable and loving way to do it. If Skinner could forgive him and accept him into their life here, help him regain his heart and soul, get Fox sorted out simultaneously, maybe they could all lay their ghosts to rest. And begin their healing and retirement for *real*, rather than hiding from the pain of their collective past.

He saw how Krycek had always been competition too, holding one last key to Fox's heart - his lover, his Fox, his own Fox... and yet. The chance to hold the other key to Alex's heart himself, gave him the edge. He could keep both. He would certainly try.

Certainly it was also an irresistibly tempting possibility as Krycek had always been a stunningly good-looking man. He wondered if Krycek had ever realized that deep down, despite the anger and resentment of being blackmailed by him, he had felt a sorrowful regard and acknowledgement at how far the boy agent had fallen in the years afterwards. Finding maturity in the harsh cruelty of alien agendas and scheming old men who thought nothing of feeding humanity to their enemies.

He found himself looking forward to seducing him with loving kindness. But Krycek did not need that yet; first things first.

Krycek for his part, though, was upset, visibly shaken by his own reactions. They were a lot stronger than he'd imagined. He'd thought he could control the pain that it caused him every time Mulder attacked him. He muttered, "It's all I can expect from him. I let him hit me because I hurt him. It's the only way he can relate with me."

"That's pretty screwed-up, wouldn't you agree? I'm not making a judgment here, just saying that it doesn't really help in the long run. But it still doesn't excuse what you did. Your part in what happened."

Krycek defiantly looked up at him. "He won't listen, he won't believe me. It wouldn't have mattered what I said, he still would have gone for me."

"Not quite good enough. And you know it. Pull down your jeans and come over here," Skinner ordered him flatly, sitting down in the armchair in the corner of the room. It was a low chair, and quite long, almost like a short couch. It was a two-seater.

For a moment, he thought Krycek would turn and stalk out. A dangerous variety of emotions quickly played over his face but Krycek stood for a few moments. His hand went to undo the buttons of his jeans and he slipped the dark denim down past slim hips, revealing his briefs. They were black, snug and fit him too well. Skinner found himself catching his breath - they offset Krycek's pale skin and male beauty in a way that seemed wicked, sinful, as if it were hard to remember that he was not an innocent. It was like looking at something forbidden.

Ah, the pitfalls to avoid, in being a disciplinary authority figure. He wondered which was worse; the need to keep his arousal at bay with Krycek, or the way he always had to stop himself from bursting out loud with laughter whenever Mulder dropped his own pants - it didn't actually happen that often but whenever it did, Mulder seemed to be wearing a new pair of hilariously entertaining shorts. In fact, his taste in shorts was worse than his taste in ties. Or better, if one counted the amusement factor.

Krycek moved slowly forward and stood beside him, allowing Skinner to draw him down over his knees. "Jesus," Krycek managed, slightly breathless and feeling torn between anger and shame. He was not at all happy with the way things had turned out. Being laid across Skinner's lap like a kid - not only was it humiliating and a little pointless, he felt, but it was very hard to take seriously. He was just glad that it was on the couch, allowed to lean and balance himself with his right arm and he wasn't just hanging over the man's knees; it felt precarious as it was.

Skinner's tone went hard. "No one is ever too old for a spanking, if they are behaving like a child throwing a tantrum. I won't tolerate attitudes like the one you have, or like Fox has. I have had about as much of this as I'm going to take." He gathered Krycek closer and settled him on his lap, reaching up to pull his right arm back down and hold his wrist in the small of his back. He landed a volley of hard slaps onto the firm black mounds situated across his lap. Krycek was unmoved. Skinner laid into him a little harder, knowing he could take it.

Krycek didn't even flinch. Skinner almost sighed aloud. He should've known it would be tougher than with Fox. But he was more than aware that it would have to go farther to get Krycek to open up. He said in his best AD voice, "Stand up."

Krycek didn't move. "What? That's it?!" The surprise and incredulity made Skinner smile.

"Not at all. Get up." He helped Krycek to his feet off him and then looked up at him, standing there. "Pull those down too. The material's absorbing too much. It's more effective without them."

A ripple of distaste crossed Krycek's face, his apprehension obvious. "I'm not into sick games."

"No, I'm sure all *your* games are very healthy, very conducive to your partners' peace of mind," he agreed, allowing himself a measure of sarcasm. "This isn't about sex, Alex, and you can leave anytime you want to. There's the door. But if you want to finish this, and see it through to the end, you'll do as I tell you."

Krycek could see his point. His eyes narrowed as he considered his options, which were actually rather simple. Stay - or go? Of course it was out of the question that he leave over something so trivial as a spanking; and Skinner didn't really seem to be getting anything out of it. In fact, it was this that finally enabled him to make the decision. Skinner seemed to be motivated purely by his concern for him. There was something about *that* that moved him inside, left him feeling empty, forcing him to face that turbulent dark place he usually only faced at night, alone with his own mind. Why should Skinner care? With a touch of curiosity, he decided to go along with this.

He inched his briefs down past his knees, to his ankles, exposing himself. Where he stood, his groin was right in the man's face. Skinner paid no attention and detachedly helped him lean back down across his lap, ensuring this time that no part of Krycek's crotch was in contact with his own jeans, situated in fact just before his right leg, it being Krycek's chest and stomach that was over his knees. He didn't want to mix sexual signals with this initial induction into punishment. Skinner was of the firm belief that sex should be a comfort, not a disciplinary measure.

Besides, he knew the other man would be unable to ignore it, himself, particularly given the fact that it was obvious that Skinner and Mulder were bed partners, lovers, and entirely romantic about it. Probably sickeningly so, to the outsider since his arrival. He hoped it would bring Krycek in a little closer to have to face the fact that he *wanted* their acceptance, wanted to be part of that closeness. And of course wanted Mulder... Hell, it was alright with Skinner; he was already decidedly interested by the sight of the delectable ass in front of him, and that smooth back visible by the riding up of his sweater and shirt, the slight figure. Alex was a smaller man than either Mulder or himself, and beautiful too - he shook his head to bring himself back. He needed to remain focused...

He didn't touch him, but as he spoke, he felt Krycek tighten as if anticipating the blows. "Now, let's go over this again. You threatened Fox with a weapon. After I specifically forbade any in this house. I told you, no fights. And you agreed."

Skinner seemed to be awaiting his answer, so he said a little defensively, "I was defending myself."


He jumped, then cursed himself for doing so - it had stung a little, nothing more; he was more surprised than anything else.

"Come on! I never would have used it!" his exclamation was more than a little anxious.

But Skinner interrupted him. "Never, ever break the rules. I outlined the ground rules when you arrived. They exist for a reason. Tell me what that reason is."

Another loud crack as Skinner's hand fell upon his butt, this time leaving a clear handprint upon his white skin.

Krycek's voice was strained slightly, and not from the spanking so far, either. Shit, he could grow to like this, he realized, never having been in a situation like this before. There was something about the way Skinner held him there in place with his ass exposed. He didn't want to analyze that just now. In fact, he found himself distressed to discover that he was getting really hard. But the alternative was to focus on why he was having to endure this in the first place. He swallowed in a throat that had gone unaccountably dry. "Safety. There's no need for anything to be worked out here with violence. We can talk it through. And we only use weapons in self-defense."

"Yes, in the unlikely event that we have unwelcome visitors. I'll admit the chances of that happening have increased substantially since your arrival here, Alex, but I also trust your instincts. You are to tell me if you even get a whiff of something not being right."

Krycek nodded, wondering where this was leading.

"But you threatened Fox with a knife. And that is inexcusable."


And now Skinner began to speak, swatting him very hard after each word to punctuate them, "You - will - never - do - it - again!"

Krycek's ass was reddening and though he didn't move or flinch, he was taut and poised like the string of a bow, tensed. Indeed, the muscles of his ass were clenched tight. "No, I won't. I'll remember," he ground out.

"Good. And now, I'm going to give you thirty more, for arguing with him, encouraging him and even provoking him, instead of doing the right thing. Which was?" Skinner prompted.

"I should have gone to you. We should have talked - you could have talked him down."

"That's right." And without warning, Skinner launched into a severe series of swats, turning the reddened cheeks scarlet.

Krycek finally gasped halfway through and couldn't help squirming in an inadvertent attempt to escape them.

To his consternation, the force of Skinner's strength he could feel behind the blows, as well as the fact that his bare butt was exposed so vulnerably, began to take it's toll. Not the mention the sound of Skinner's hand on his heating flesh - it sounded - almost - erotic. His cock was so hard now, and yet he was also feeling as though Skinner could see right through anything he might say. He was used to pain, he was also used to torture, having unfortunately been interrogated in the past. But nothing had ever struck him so close to the heart as this. It was as if the barricade of his carefully erected shields he'd constructed around his heart were being torn down, like the walls of a child's snow fort, and offering as little protection.

The humiliation of this was more than Krycek could bear and it was *that* that finally made him cry out as Skinner delivered several more short but very sharp, heavy-handed swats to his ass.

And finally he tried to say something. "P-please!" The gasp was ripped from Krycek's mouth as he panted, unable to keep from shuddering under the weight of Skinner's palm bouncing off of his blazing asscheeks. In the back of his mind, he found himself actually entertaining the possibility that this might be fun, under different circumstances... and he blushed furiously. Hating it. He'd played many kinds of games before, but nothing had ever reached down into the core of him like this. He suspected it was because the sexual aspect *was* held at bay, and could be used afterwards. He wondered how Skinner would receive such a suggestion. And then wondered why the hell he was even considering it, even as he was twitching and jumping in his lap. H-he didn't want this, he didn't want sex with them, he didn't want into their bedroom - did he?

Skinner stopped. "We're done with that now. But I think you need to tell me something. Why do you think that you can't talk with Mulder and tell him why you let him hit you? You *know* why he lost his temper with you. You didn't answer his question and he deserved an answer. Now, I want you to tell me. I'm going to spank you until you do." Skinner spoke his next sentence very slowly and carefully. "Why do you let him hurt you?"

And Skinner paused momentarily, giving Krycek a chance to think it over, to speak before he started. When Krycek resolutely remained silent, he began. Little red welts were beginning to rise. But he swiftly brought his hand down harder, sharply, letting himself put more into it. His hand would hurt afterwards but he didn't want to change the flow of events by getting up and finding something else to use.

He knew Krycek needed it; it would allow him to break down in a way that could then be worked with, give him the catharsis that he needed, to let himself trust Skinner enough to at least talk with him openly.

Krycek's whole cycle with Mulder of bait, attack, provoke, pummel and finally fight, always letting Mulder punish him for his 'sins' was a vicious circle. And always it ended without any real resolution. Skinner was tired of dealing with Mulder's suppressed love/hate/desire problem that was so tied up with Krycek, reinforced by literally years of brutal encounters. Not only did it detract from their own relationship (not that he ever would have wanted anything that violent, regardless of the passion it fostered) but it also left Krycek in a helpless spiral, forever falling backwards into himself in a depression of guilt and self-recrimination. It was entirely unhealthy, and with this in mind, he leaned into the spanking with renewed vigor.

Finally, Krycek was gasping open-mouthed, and unable to stop twisting under the spanking that continued mercilessly. Okay. This had ceased to be arousing long ago. He wanted to confess but it would cost too much to do so. He wanted to blurt out the answer that would end this painfully humiliating and yet surreal experience. And he wanted Skinner's support, he needed him to believe him. Somehow, he didn't think Skinner would be able to. Especially since he was Mulder's...lover. He silently swore at the thought, as it ripped into him yet again, more painfully than anything Skinner or even Mulder could ever subject him to. Every time he saw what they shared, it made him bleed inside. With envy, mostly, though the other things also left him feeling black and empty. And the ache to be loved the way Skinner so obviously doted on Mulder, and to be able to dote on Mulder, himself... it was too much. *Breakfast* had left him bleeding inside. "Stop, stop," Krycek said, getting angry at the pleading tone of his voice, his own loss of control and his own level of anxiety.

"Not until you tell me, Alex!" Skinner said. He kept up the blows, letting the stinging swats land repeatedly on the same spot four or five times before moving to another, occasionally wandering down to the tender skin of his upper thighs -that seemed to get quite a jerking response.

"Fuck, fuck you! Damn it - I - I love him! Alright?! What do you want me to say?! Fuck! - tvoyu mat! - " And he dissolved into a stream of helpless curses that were so ragged as to be unintelligible; the curses interlaced with breathless attempts to suck air in for more invectives so jumbled up Skinner couldn't even place what languages they were. He stopped spanking him, breathing heavily himself. He hadn't expected to find this such a demanding task. He was hard-pressed not to turn him over and kiss him passionately, reassure him. He realized Krycek had probably surprised himself with that little outburst and would have to deal with it.

Krycek was shaking. What? *Love*? Why? Why had he said that? He didn't love Mulder - he couldn't stand him. The man was cruel, abusive and intolerably mean to him. It always hurt to be around him. Sure, he wanted him, who wouldn't want a body like his, an ass like that. But 'love'? Never! He would be damned to hell before saying something like that to him, let alone 'admitting' it.

"Alex? ALEX!" Skinner demanded. He waited until Krycek had stilled in his lap, trembling uncontrollably. And then continued, "You are going to have to tell him."

"No!" But the explosive denial was laced with desperation and a definite pleading.

"Why shouldn't he know!? He deserves to know." Skinner let his hand fall heavily upon the scarlet cheeks once, to make the point.

"N-no!" gasped Alex, his voice tight and harsh as he desperately tried to twist out of Skinner's grasp.

"Why?!" Skinner demanded again, this time letting his hand fly free several times in quick succession.

"I - I'm -" Alex's eyes had filled, the tears now spilling down his face, splashing full and heavy though he hardly noticed as he continued, "I'm not good enough for him." He bowed his head, letting the truth of it wash over him, leaving him feeling almost clean. It felt surprisingly good to let it out. He hadn't known that he'd find the words. And they were so simple. But the cost; he felt as though something had broken inside him.

Skinner knew something had broken too, and he knew what it was. It was his heart. Because Alex thought he wasn't good enough for Fox. Skinner sat there, feeling unexpectedly stunned at this revelation. Not only was it surprising that he had such an inferiority complex, but it was a breakthrough. Krycek's guilt ran deep, he suspected, but he hadn't realized that he thought so little of himself in respect to the object of his infatuation. Must be the integrity thing, he thought to himself. Having built Mulder up in his head as a shining example of nobility - Christ, it was no wonder he let him beat him up constantly.

Alex continued, "Please... please!" His voice dwindled to an almost inaudible whisper. "Please don't tell him. Please!" The tears had become a stream now, flowing unceasing, blinding him.

Skinner took a breath and searched for the words that would stabilize this situation. It was rapidly spiraling and he didn't want it degenerating into the relief zone and then depression, too quickly. He understood Krycek's cathartic need to let it out - however deeply in ran - but they needed also to get clear that his version of how things stood were not necessarily the reality.

He kept his voice soothing and gentle, calm. "I won't tell him. Alex, why shouldn't he know?" He kept his hand on his ass, feeling the way the heat radiated and flamed his palm and fingers. He didn't move it though, aware that the simple caress would burn. He just left it there, almost reassuringly reminding him he was still in charge, while lending a certain amount of support, that he was there for him.

"Because he doesn't want me!" There were actually silent sobs issuing forth, now; Krycek was shaking, his shoulders and the hand that Skinner still held firmly by the wrist, keeping it pinned behind his back, quivering under the strain. "He hates me, he hates me!"

Skinner knew Fox was in the hallway, nearly outside the door listening to this. His days in the V.C.-infested jungles hadn't left him dull and he'd heard the cautious footsteps earlier, well before any of this confession had begun. Good, he thought, maybe it'll shake him up enough to make him see a little sense. It went against the principle of the thing but he knew Fox would benefit from hearing it from Krycek's own lips, as a confession and under spanking, no less. As opposed to an open declaration face-to-face under tension and threat of renewed eruptions of temper from Fox... or even from Skinner - Fox might think that he was trying to speak on Krycek's behalf. Fox knew the process firsthand and could hardly deny the honesty that was extracted during the experience.

But Krycek had finally broken and was crying now, not entirely silently either, unable to keep quiet the moans and tiny sobs that punctuated the ragged breaths he tried to take.

Skinner let a frown color his voice. "Are you sure he hates you? How do you know? Have you asked him?"

And Krycek almost gave a short laugh in a hysterical voice, "Are you kidding?! He - he would laugh. There's no way he'd ever believe me..." and he could no longer speak, as a pang of pure pain squeezed inside of him, like a metal band around his heart, finally releasing him, wringing open-mouthed cries from him, his shoulders shaking.

Skinner knew that Krycek had now reached the point he needed to, in order to fully face how he felt and what he wanted from the bizarre arrangement they had. Time for the next step. Gently and firmly helping him to lift himself back onto his feet, he then pulled the younger man against him, letting him sit on his lap and easing him down gently with caution for his sore butt, and cradling him against his broad chest. He held him close, one hand on his head, stroking his hair. "There," Skinner said, quietly. "It's alright. It's over now."

Krycek continued to weep with little gulps, trying desperately to stop. He hated feeling this open, this vulnerable to attack. He felt like an animal, or indeed a child, expecting any moment to be pushed away and told to get out. He also felt incredibly stupid. He was a grown man. Part of him was screaming that he was so desperate for attention, any kind of positive attention, that he was allowing himself to be drawn into this twisted little game Skinner and Mulder had going. Another part of him rebelled against that, knowing that he'd do virtually anything to be able to share at least a small part of the amount of care and affection he'd had to endure watching from the sidelines since his arrival. It was driving him insane. He hadn't been touched in far too long, and he wanted to relax in Skinner's arms but a part of him still didn't believe that the man was serious.

Skinner kissed the top of his head. Krycek froze. Skinner wasn't sure if he'd gone too far for this first time but Krycek didn't move. He carefully placed light kisses down the side of his face, to his cheek, and Krycek moved his face numbly towards him so their lips met, just barely. Krycek kept his eyes closed, waiting for Skinner to move back. When he didn't, Krycek moved his face up, leaving Skinner no mistake that he was offering his mouth.

Skinner found himself relieved; Krycek did want it, after all. And pressed his mouth to Krycek's more firmly, tasting his full, plush lips and finding traces of tears even there.

Krycek was surprised; he hadn't expected to feel so safe, so comforted here. And being held in Skinner's arms, no less! He wondered at the feeling of security and affection that surrounded and suffused him, even as Skinner's probing tongue casually flicked against the tip of his own. He wanted to relax now, to go ahead and let down his guard completely. And he realized, he owed Skinner this; this was the best way to clear the way between them - to actually trust Skinner not to hurt him.

He let his mouth open further and returned the kiss more deeply. To be forgiven and then to receive this...*attention*...acceptance... it was enough to cause a resurgence of tears to trickle down. Skinner felt it as he broke down again, and caught them all, kissing them away, while murmuring softly, "It's alright, Alex. You don't have to go. I want you to stay here, with us. I'll be here for you. It's all over now, and you can let it go."

He found Krycek clutching him hard, his face pressed against his shirt, taking comfort from his heartbeat, his warmth. He rocked him gently, quietly, keeping his arms wrapped around him.

"We can work this out. We'll talk, all three of us. Okay? I won't let him hurt you anymore."

Krycek didn't reply, he couldn't. He just wanted to die, like this. He wanted to fall asleep here and never wake up again. It was the first time he'd ever felt like this; usually he prayed for insomnia, because the nightmares when he did sleep were so terrible. Dark silos, vomiting up oil aliens, car bombs, men with garrotes and wires, faceless aliens with burning torches and having his arm sawed off with hot blades did not make for very palatable dreams.

Unfortunately, it had to end. Skinner shifted, restlessly, as he was growing stiff from sitting in the same position for so long.

Softly, he said, "You alright?"

Krycek only nodded.

Skinner drew a breath. "I'm going to go downstairs. Come on down when you feel up to it. Why don't you go wash your face, gather your thoughts? I'll wait, okay?"

"Yeah, okay." Krycek's voice was still rough from crying.

Skinner hugged him close again, tight. "You're staying right here. You're not going anywhere. I want you, in whatever capacity you decide. If you're not comfortable with anything but friendship, that's fine as well. But consider accepting this, too." He kissed the top of his head again and then got up, helping him to stand and ease his pants back up over his crimson welts.

Skinner left the room, returning in a few moments with some gel. He tossed it onto Krycek's bed. "Here, put this on it. It'll ease the soreness." He didn't miss the thoughtful, grateful expression on Krycek's face.

Returning downstairs, he saw Mulder's boots by the door. He looked around the room, went to the kitchen. Nothing. He went into the pantry. Then the utility room. Mulder was there, stuffing clothes roughly into the washing machine.

He stood up after thrusting the last set of socks into it and turned the switch. Then turned to face Skinner.

"You heard?" Skinner asked.

Mulder bit his lips, licking them, thinking. "Yeah."

"What do you think? I think it could work, but it's up to you."

Mulder realized what he was saying. In terms of authority, Skinner was in charge. But in their relationship, Mulder was the one who called the shots. It was he who decided how far, how often, and how deep the affection ran. In the beginning, Skinner had been taken aback at Mulder's eagerness to take their friendship to the next level. He hadn't thought the younger man would accept his advances. Mulder had practically had to seduce him. He shoved his hands in his back pockets. "He has to earn it."

Skinner considered him, a curious frown marring his right brow just barely. "How?"

"Good behavior. He has to prove that he really has changed; that he values what we have here. He has to understand that he's not calling anything, he's - that he's - " Mulder stopped, not able to find the right way of putting what he meant into words.

"Bottom dog," Skinner finished.

"Yeah. He has to accept it, and like it. If he really meant what he said upstairs, then he will anyway. But he has to show it. He has to make us believe it."

"Yeah, okay. For how long?"

"How long? For good! For as long as he's here."

"No, I mean, how long does he have to prove it to us? Before we let him into -" Skinner paused, meeting his eyes, before finishing, "into our bed."

Mulder stopped at this, chewing his lower lip with consideration. "Your bed is your call, whenever you decide. But my bed? That's a different story. I might never, or I might tomorrow. I don't know. And please don't try to convince me either. It has to be in my own time. Alright?"

"Agreed. That's only fair. Alright. Do you want me to talk to him? Or should we discuss this openly, all three of us?"

Mulder shook his head. "You talk to him. But go ahead and tell him that if he wants to talk to me, I promise not to lose it again. I won't go for him." He looked at Skinner again, more shamefaced. "I promise, okay? I won't hit him. I'll behave. I'll give him a chance. And Jesus, Walt - I really do hope for our sakes that he isn't giving us a line."

Skinner made a face. "Yeah, I know. But I don't think even he is a good enough actor to spill his guts the way he did up there with me, and not mean it. He might be able to cry on demand, to make it look good, but I don't think he'd lie about the way he feels about you. Maybe I'm wrong. But if he really intended to do us harm, he could have killed us last night. He isn't sloppy; he wouldn't need to wait this long. And he has no reason to. Especially considering who he is. I think he really would have more to fear from those lunatics out there than we do."

"I know." Mulder nodded.

Skinner sighed. "I'm going to go see where he is. I don't want him brooding for too long. I'm responsible for seeing him through what we started."

Mulder sniggered suddenly. "Mother hen, huh? You realize what a fucked-up family this is becoming?"

"God, if I'd known... I almost wish I'd stayed here alone." Skinner shot him a grin though.

Mulder shared it, and then frowned, as a thought occurred to him. "Where'd you get those sunflower seeds? I thought we ran out weeks ago. Did you have them in the storeroom?"

"No." Skinner stared at him. "No, I didn't. I thought you put them out."

They both looked up at the ceiling, in the direction of the guest room... and then exchanged a look.

Mulder found himself biting his lip, suddenly feeling a dart of shame pass through him.

Skinner nodded slightly. "Give him a chance."

Mulder stood where he was, wondering why he hadn't picked up on this earlier. He knew Walter was right. He had overreacted, blown his top and very nearly destroyed something delicate that was in the making. And he began wondering what it meant that Krycek, Alex rat-bastard Krycek, had said - while sobbing -that he loved him.

Mulder remained in the washroom, standing there, thinking.

When Skinner entered the living room, however, Krycek was sitting in the armchair as though everything was fine. His face was composed, his position casual. "Hey," Skinner said, in a wondering tone.

"Yeah." And, measured and even, "So. How are things?"

Skinner went to his own seat and sank down gratefully. "My hand hurts like a son of a bitch." He shook it ruefully. "You're lucky; I don't think I'll be repeating that for a while. Give me a break, okay, and don't break any of the rules?"

Krycek smiled. "Least I can do. What about the rest of it, though?" His eyes betrayed a certain amount of tension at this.

Skinner nodded. "For now everything's a go. But you have to be on your best behavior and not fuck it up. You have to show that you value the chance we're taking on you, that you understand it's a privilege, us taking you at your word. Trusting you. But he said to tell you he won't attack you again. Ever."

Krycek's eyes fell and then he looked back up at him, his gaze clear. "Yeah, alright. No problem."

Skinner let his head sink back and he closed his eyes. "Thank god. I've had enough domestic strife to last me the rest of the year."

Krycek raised a brow at him. "That's over in less than two months."

"Yeah, I know."

By the time Mulder wandered into the living room, there was an easy peace and the vibe was fine once more. Krycek met his eyes when he came in and Mulder could sense that they shared an unspoken mutual apology. As well as an agreement not to fall back to that level of violent disagreement again.

The day slipped by.

Dinner that night was quiet, unassuming. They ate at the same time but no production was made of it and they kept to their own pursuits. Skinner had his book he was still reading and Mulder was on the computer again. Alex sat in his chair, enjoying the novelty of absently going through Walter's books and having an armchair that was 'his'. Suddenly the guest room upstairs was 'his', too. Simple but somehow priceless. However warped, strange and misbegotten this little arrangement might be to anyone else, Alex found that it was starting to work already on that gaping hole inside his head and heart. A sense of belonging, of being accepted, of having a place here. Of home.

Alex lay in bed. Another night, and another dark length of hours to try to find something to fill it with.

The thought that the two were fucking in there, even at that exact moment - no, not fucking... making love - sent a twin surge of utter jealousy and desire through him.

He sat up abruptly. He was fool, longing for the impossible. It was one thing to accept Skinner's attention, to agree that it might be therapeutic for him to, like Mulder, also accept discipline as a way of working through his inner demons and guilt. It was quite another to have to lay there, straining to hear muffled cries of pleasure, wondering if it was Fox, if Skinner's cock was causing them, and then straining equally as hard *not* to hear them when he finally did.

And to his shame, for the second time in the same day, he wept. Carefully, quietly, burying his face in the pillow until it was soaked and he had to turn it over if he wanted to sleep on it. Maybe Skinner was right, he thought, letting his tears run silent now. Maybe he *did* need this; he hadn't actually cried since his childhood. Pain and suffering through torment and torture was one thing; actual emotional release was another. He wondered if this set-up started to work, if he might also begin healing the scars, dealing with the nightmares. And taking a shuddering breath, he wiped his eyes and began to think. To scheme, to plan the assault. Good behavior, combined with ass-kissing - figuratively speaking; he had to find a way to talk to Mulder, to find a way to get him to believe that, despite everything, despite years of being enemies, he was worthy of friendship, tolerance and affection. Of being more than just part of this household; of being part of Mulder's life, his feelings.

Skinner was sitting downstairs in the dark. The fire was starting to die. He held the whisky glass in one hand without drinking from it, resting it on the arm of the couch. It was possible that having Krycek here would tear apart the quietude of his relationship with Mulder. But it was obvious that Mulder was still in love with him the way he always had been; even if he still refused to recognize it. And strangely, Skinner found he took some comfort from the younger man's presence. Krycek was quiet, reliable (as much as one *could* trust him), competent and neat. He didn't throw sulks when Skinner refused to relinquish control of the remote, he didn't openly glaze over and salivate at the sight of a blond woman on the television, did not leave sunflower seed shells everywhere, he cleaned up after himself and didn't demand attention. Skinner took a guilty pleasure from being able to relax too, knowing that having Krycek here would act as a deterrent as much as another target. Krycek had survived this long - it was unlikely he'd let anything happen if he had anything to do with it.

Skinner wondered if Mulder really were the pivotal person in this newly developing strange triangle. Krycek represented chaos and disruption, mistrust, the sowing of discord. Yet, he was also the central figure - the one that always came like a shadow between him and Mulder whenever he tried to ask Mulder *anything* about the Consortium or the past. Interestingly, Mulder had ended up fusing Krycek and his part in Mulder's own history with everything to do with the Consortium. Sure, Krycek had risen in their ranks but he'd proven even at the end that his loyalties had always lay, somewhat selfishly perhaps, with Mulder's own ideals and projected heroism. Justice. The 'good of humanity'.... Had served it from his own side of the fence in ways Mulder's morality would never have allowed him to. And from that viewpoint had proven himself worthy, actually.

Still, Skinner couldn't yet forgive him for the blackmail and the horror of the nanocytes. Even after they'd been deactivated and Krycek had disappeared. He was actually tempted to abuse Krycek's trust and kick the shit out of him for it. But he knew, better than anyone would ever hear from him directly, that revenge was *not* sweet and in fact he'd be unable to do it. No, revenge was not an option. Jesus, to be saddled with the task of redeeming Krycek. To accept the challenge as a service to himself, as well as the men who lay upstairs. He rubbed his eyes wearily. And then cast them upwards, regarding the ceiling. No doubt Krycek's nightmares would start soon. They were too disturbing to ignore, let alone sleep through.

Hell: what the man had been through had been hell for him too. They all bore scars. No one escaped the blight of war without being touched by the hand of discord or pain. And then he wondered if he was being selfish, by wanting them *both*. There was only so far he could invite Krycek in, and only so far that he could push Mulder towards him. They had to want to make it work. Damn it, he groused, it was like having two wives. Why couldn't they just get on with it! Trust me to be left with the two most screwed-up, psycho, ex-FBI, alien-hunting survivors of the Millenium's special brand of apocalyptic cold war.

He placed his glass on the table. It had been a token gesture anyway. He didn't actually like drinking anything, ever. Despite the healing and disappearance of his ulcer, he didn't like to push it. A slight noise from the stairs caught his ear and he went still, waiting.

A dark shape detached itself from the shadows and flowed into the room without another sound. Alex, Skinner realized. Fox wouldn't bother to move that quietly and had long since given up his more paranoid creep around corners; ever since they'd settled here, in fact.

"Can't sleep?" Skinner asked, casually, letting him know he was there.

Krycek brought his face up sharply, illumined now by the dim remaining firelight. Surprise made his reply rough, as he moved to stand beside the red embers and black cinders. "Still afraid to. I don't like waking up screaming. I don't think you'd appreciate it either."

"What, waking up like that? Or hearing you? We've been treated to it already a few times, so far. Last night."

Krycek winced. He hadn't thought he had slept - maybe he'd been so out of it and exhausted he hadn't realized.

Skinner looked at him more shrewdly. "Those pills of yours. Are they to stay awake, or to sleep?" He'd seen them on the bedside table earlier that day.

"Neither. It's the pain meds Peterson left me at the checkpoint. Don't worry, I'm not hooked or anything. They're not strong enough and I don't need that kind of complication on top of everything else right now. I only took them because of the... skirmish." Krycek allowed himself to drop easily into couch, to Skinner's right.

"Look, Walter," Krycek began, throwing him a quick glance at the use of his name to see how he would react. When Skinner merely waited, he continued, "I made decisions, hard ones. Maybe they were wrong. They weren't even choices, I wasn't given the luxury of choice. And if I hadn't made those decisions, if I had skipped out, I wouldn't be sitting here now; I'd be - I don't know, floating around somewhere rattling chains or something."

"Haunting Fox, maybe." Skinner allowed a note of humor into his voice though.

"Yeah." Krycek actually gave a nervous chuckle. "Probably." And then bit his lip, looking away, obviously ill at ease.

Skinner sighed to himself. Here it comes. "What is it?"

"I've got these bruises and I can't sleep on them. I'll just stay down here." He said it a little too lightly. As if he was still unable, still afraid, to ask for help.

Skinner was surprised, expecting a torrent of insecurity about his past, the terror of his nightmares, his anxiety over Mulder, etceteras. Instead, he was mutely asking for medical attention.

He stood. "Come over here. Come on," he repeated, making it clear he meant him no harm by holding up his hands, briefly. "How bad are they?"

"Hurts worse on my back." Krycek stood up beside him, pulling off his shirt to reveal a t-shirt beneath. He paused, unwilling to remove that too.

"Don't worry about it. I've seen far worse than a missing arm, and seen wounds treated even less well, in my time," Skinner murmured as he lifted the right side of the t-shirt to inspect the bruising on his back from Mulder's pummeling earlier. He grunted. "I can't really tell in this light. Let me turn on the lamp and get my kit."

It wasn't long before Skinner had Krycek lying face down on the fur rug, shirtless, and was straddling him, carefully rubbing ointment into the yellow, green and purple bruises on his back. "Amazing," he murmured, "I had no idea a wooden floor could cause such damage."

"No one has ever shown me kindness like this. Without expecting something in return, I mean." Krycek's voice was soft. Skinner had to lean down to hear him better. "I don't understand why you care. Why you let me stay here. When you *knew* it was me - god! Why?"

Skinner continued the massage, unabated. "Alex?" he asked, casually, slowly, "What's with the sunflower seeds? I thought you didn't know we were here."

Alex jerked imperceptibly beneath him. He wouldn't even have caught it if he didn't have his hands on him and felt it.

After a long series of moments, he finally replied, "I got into them. I mean, I wondered what the attraction was, you know? What was so special about them? And I just, sort of - got hooked. So when I was unpacking, I realized who else was here and I thought I'd give it a shot."

Skinner grinned above him, working on the muscles of his neck with both hands. "Well, you should know that I don't think it went to waste. He noticed."

"Yeah, I know." Krycek sounded bitter.

"No, afterwards. He realized it was you, and knew what you meant by it. It's okay."

There was silence at that, Krycek assimilating the implications. So Fox had accepted his little offering, had he? "I thought he was dead," Krycek began, almost inaudibly again. "It was the only way I could remember him without dying inside, myself. Anything else was too painful."

Krycek sighed. Skinner's hands were working magic on him. He couldn't remember the last time someone had touched him - and he opened his eyes. Skinner had held him, spanked him even; kissed him. "I want to stay. I want to work this out."

"I know." Skinner's hands began to slow down, the movements reflecting more of admiration and caressing than massage. "How long has it been since you," he paused. "Had someone?"

Krycek's explosive snicker told whole tales. "Can't remember the last time it meant something."

"Mm. And how much would it mean to you, here with me?"

Krycek couldn't answer because his throat had closed up.

Keeping his hands still now, but on his back, Skinner leaned forward, and said in his ear, "How much is worth, for me to want you? Is it worth hanging around for?"

There was a whispered "Yes."

"Is it worth an apology, to me, for having put me through utter hell?"

Krycek tightened under him, but swallowed and repeated, "Yes, it is."

Skinner waited. "Well?"

His eyes tightly shut, Alex decided to go for broke. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry for what I did to you. I didn't enjoy it. I thought it was necessary at the time and I knew you would hate me for it, would kill me if you had the chance. It was like, like the story, having a tiger by the tail. And I honestly expected either you, or Mulder, or both of you, to shoot me on sight. It would have been no more than I deserved. And I can't understand why you think I'm worth the trouble." Damn it, his eyes were leaking again. Twenty years of keeping himself together under the most trying conditions - well, apart from torture -and suddenly he couldn't stop crying every time Walter spoke to him. What the hell... He wondered if this was part of the healing process. If it was, he wanted it over, and fast. He hated feeling like this, like an open sore.

The gentle and undemanding kiss on his cheek was kind of surprising then. And Walter saying, "I forgive you. I want you. I want you here, and I want *you*. If that's what you want."


"Because you're worth loving. You're worth saving. Because you're beautiful, regardless of what you've done, of what you think you are. Because it would be a waste for you to go out there, put a gun to your head and pull the trigger when you could be living, with me. With us. With Fox."

Alex winced, visibly. Skinner's words struck a chord somewhere within him. That anyone, let alone one of his past enemies who he was responsible for causing so much pain and trouble for after so long, should express this to *him*. It rocked him. It didn't make sense. He shook his head. "How can you think that? I'm an intrusion here. I've already caused trouble for you two. I don't see how you can think I'm valuable in this... home."

Skinner stretched his back and shoulders, considering. "Well, love has it's own logic. So does forgiveness. My advice to you is not to look a gift horse in the mouth. I'm not just doing you a favor. This way I can lay all the pain to rest too. Pain you caused me, in a past we shared. Somewhere along the line, I developed feelings for you. When I heard you were looking for a way out, that you might actually come here, it made me think. I wasn't sure but I wanted to take the risk. We both had unfinished business with you. And Fox is in love with you."

Alex replied coldly, "Yeah, well I don't think 'Fox' would agree with you." But his insecurity was obvious, especially when he tightened under Skinner's hands. He didn't want Skinner to think he valued Skinner's attention any less than the possibility of gaining Fox's.

Skinner sat up, enjoying the feeling of Alex's butt where he sat on it. He absently made a mental reminder to himself to put more gel on it afterwards. "Fox isn't actually that complicated, once you understand Einstein."

"Walter, what the fuck are you talking about?" Alex's voice was lazy.

"Every action has an opposite and equal reaction. Fox's reaction to you is inversely proportionate to how he feels about you. He gets mad and hits you all the more furiously because he is very, very glad to see you and has no idea how to let himself love you. He wants you, but he's afraid that he might lose me *and* be rejected or betrayed by you."

Alex took all this in. It made perfect sense. "*Christ almighty*," he remarked, fervently. And then miserably, resignedly, "Oh, god."

"What do you want, Alex?" Skinner knew what *he* wanted, he wanted to fuck Alex through the furry rug. But he had to be patient. Didn't want this lost little boy panicking.

"I want - " and he stopped. Started again. "I want to... to eat him..."

"Yeah. Devour him. Lick him all over and then chow down. Believe me, it's good."

"What about you?"

"Me? I want to devour *you*."

Alex sighed. "Fuck."

"Something like that," Skinner agreed, moving back off of him and kneeling beside him. "Where'd you put the tube of gel I gave you earlier, for your ass? We need to put some more on, I think."

A sudden, knowing grin spread over Alex's face and he leaned up on his right elbow. "It's in my room."

Skinner heard the note of pride and contentment. "Well, let's get up to *your* room, shall we?"

Alex held back. "I had forgotten how... caring and kind you can be. It always took me by surprise; how you could be such a nice guy, with all that ex-Marine, FBI history and being so buff. How can you do this? With him here?"

Skinner smiled. "I have two very talented, interesting and beautiful young men living with me, plus they're in love with each other. Makes for exciting and tempting possibilities. And no, I'm not worried you'll steal him from me. I stole him from *you*, only none of us realized it."

Alex was silent, considering.

Skinner gently probed, "You okay with this still?"

"Fuck me," was the hoarse reply. "Let's go. Upstairs." And Alex was suddenly moving, fast, gathering up his clothes and going upstairs.

Things moved quickly and hazily after that. Skinner had no memory of them undressing, or even climbing into the bed. Alex's bed. And there was a dark, hot impression of his cock being sucked expertly into a burning, swirling, sucking mouth, the loss of that mouth followed by the incredible sensation of Alex impaling himself on him and riding him with urgent thrusts against him. He placed his hands on either side of his hips and took over, wrenching little gasps and cries from him until Alex's own hand went to squeeze and milk his own swollen, needy cock, and they were both splashed with the results, Skinner pumping deeply up into that tightly gripping hole.

Sleep began to overcome them. The dark silence of the night surrounding them helped. The relief and exhaustion of having been through it all, that day, was taking its toll. Skinner was slightly disappointed. It was hot, and great, but he wanted more. This merely took the edge off. He wanted to experience the full meal, not settle for a quick snatch and grab. Would have to rectify that tomorrow, he thought. Fox could help. He grinned. And fell asleep with Alex partially draped over him and out like a light.

Next: Sunflower Seeds II: Fried Eggs



Date: 11/15/2000
Disclaimer: this piece of slash fanfic is written purely for entertainment purposes; all characters and X-File series' situations referred to belong to Chris Carter, 1013 Productions, etc.
Spoilers: possibly all eps up to, but not including, Season 8.
Rating: NC-17 slash,language, m/m sex, bondage (eventually), discipline
Pairing: Sk/M/K
Summary: Skinner and Mulder continue to enjoy R&R (retirement and rest) with the addition of Krycek. Skinner can forgive Krycek for the past but can Mulder?
Warning: This is the second part of my Loving Discipline series! If angst, explicit sex, emotional disclosures, consensual mild punishment, and tender declarations of love stress you out, still don't read this. [g]
Betas: Grateful thanks to Cattnip, and especially to Jas who tirelessly continues to monitor my hyphen addiction and exasperating tendency of sprinkling commas wherever my fancy deems they should be! Jas, thank you so much! I'm forever grateful. J
Dedication: Another Thanks to my dear friend Lorelei for inspiration and being my armchair coach, as this is really part of the original series, and I dedicate this to her in the hopes she'll forget I dedicated it to her again and she'll write another hot, juicy apology snippet (hey, subtle or what?! ) [G].

Sunflower Seeds II

Fried Eggs
by Jami Wilsen

The sight of Fox Mulder in an apron studiously making waffles and preparing a bowl of fruit while intently looking after several other pans on the stove was unexpected. Alex stood in the kitchen doorway, blinking, his dark hair tousled, wearing only a long-sleeved shirt and sweats. He was starting to shiver, but didn't notice. He gaped at Mulder and wondered if this was a sight he should get used to.

Mulder, still facing the stove, looked up at him briefly while he quickly and deftly rolled sausages in a hot pan. "Good morning. Jesus, Alex, have some common sense. You'll get chilblains walking around these floors with your feet bare like that."

"Okay, Mom." His flippant reply did nothing to hide his surprise.

Mulder grinned at him. "Sorry about yesterday. I guess I lost it, huh? But how do waffles sound? Will that make up for it?"

"Yeah, I guess. But only if they're edible." Alex shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "Shit, this floor is freezing!"

"Told you," Mulder said, whipping a boiling pot off the back burner.

Walter came in the front door, stamping his feet. "It snowed last night," he declared. Then he caught sight of Alex's bare toes. He was about to make a joke about warm thoughts and decided against it; that had been a long time ago and he didn't want to recall the painful balcony episode to Alex's mind. "We got about two inches. I just checked the generator though; we're fine. Maybe later I could show you around, Alex; let you know all the things you need to know about in the event of getting snowed in or a storm?"

"Yeah, sure." He shifted from one foot to the next continuously until Walter chuckled.

"Get upstairs, boy! Get dressed before you freeze to death."

He took off his coat and hat, and then his boots. He went in to sit at the kitchen table. Pouring himself a glass of orange juice, he remarked to Mulder, "You seem chipper. What's gotten into you?"

Mulder didn't turn around; he was too intent on the food. "I've been thinking. About us, and him, and what happened. About the past. You know something, Walt? You were right."

"About what? Which part?"

Mulder sniffed and flipped an egg over. "I wasn't willing to give him a chance. But I am now. If he meant us any harm, he could have already hurt us."

"I know. I'm glad you agree. Does this mean... Are you okay with this, then?"

Mulder turned with a glint in his eye and a little half-smile. "I guess I'll have to be if I want to keep up. You didn't waste any time last night, did you?"

Walter nearly choked on his swallow; the juice burned the back of his throat. He was lost for a reply and before he could find one, Fox had already turned back to the eggs.

But Fox's voice was easy, light. He didn't sound upset. "It's my turn tonight. We'll have to set up a rotation, a schedule. God, Walt; I never thought I'd see the day that we'd have Alex Krycek on a timeshare." He shook his head slowly.

"Why so limited, Fox? Why not all three of us in my room? Bed's big enough." But Walter was grinning hugely.

"Maybe later. He and I... we've got - things to sort out. You're not gonna feel left out, are you?"

The genuine concern in his voice moved Walter. "No, no. Don't worry about it. Besides, I need recovery time. I'm not as quick off the bat as you two are. I think those days are over for me."

Mulder nearly dropped the spatula with anger and rounded on him, brandishing it. "You are *not* getting old! Don't you dare start using this as an excuse to start complaining about your age."

Walter was laughing at him quietly. "Fox, Fox. I was referring to the fact that there are two of you. Running from room to room trying to keep both of you happy is a bit much. That's why I'm quite okay with relinquishing him tonight, and why I still think it's a good idea for us all to get used to the thought of my bed." He stopped, and chuckled. "Besides, last night was a bit rushed. We were both too tired and it was too dark to really enjoy it properly. These things are meant to be savored."

Mulder raised his eyebrows at him. "You're really taken with him, yourself. Aren't you?"

Walter snorted. "You're one to talk. 'Let he who is without sin.' Christ, three years of mooning over him and now that he's here we're scheduling him in. But if you want him that badly, I won't fight over him."

Fox was about to retort to that but there was a noise upstairs, Alex closing his bedroom door behind him, and he bit his lip, wanting both to scowl and to chuckle, not really sure if he was upset or not. He felt differently this morning, about everything. He was even a little ashamed at being unable to control himself the previous day. His breakfast endeavor was an attempt to make up for it. Although he was very aware that he *was* going to have to talk with Alex later. The anticipation that ran through him at that thought made him very glad he was busy over the stove. He felt nervous and jittery. For fuck's sake; it wasn't like he had never felt like this for anyone before. Maybe it was just knowing how the other man felt about him. Overhearing Alex's tearful confession yesterday had struck him deeply. At first he'd just been stunned, later he'd felt ashamed. Now he didn't know how he would be able to hide his nervousness from either of them.

Alex was coming downstairs and had let his footfall warn them he was there. Walter looked up as he came in to join them. A red and gray checkered flannel shirt and simple jeans gave him a rustic look; he looked as though he'd been living here for years.

"You'll fit right in," Walter commented, letting his gaze caress him warmly. "Sit down; help yourself to the waffles." He nodded at the plate that was piled high in the center of the table.

Alex looked almost startled at the welcoming tone, the obvious admiration in Skinner's eyes. He sat down at the table, feeling self-conscious.

Mulder turned, holding a skillet and the spatula. "Eggs? Hash browns?" His apron was now clearly visible.

Alex took one look at the apron and couldn't help himself, bursting into quiet laughter as he tried to suppress it, without much luck. Finally, sniggering, he asked, "'Kiss me, I'm the cook,' or even Garfield, I could understand, but - a French maid?"

"It was *his* idea," Mulder muttered. "He gave it to me for my birthday last month." He turned away, mumbling under his breath.

"I'll have to order you something appropriate, Alex," Walter mused. "For Christmas."

"A pair of charcoal gray shorts; with two fried eggs on either cheek," Mulder suggested, bringing eggs and other fried foods to the table, unloading them onto their plates.

"No, those are for you," contradicted Walter. "I doubt Alex here will need as much correctional attention as you do. No, I think something more fitting-"

"Jesus, Walt. Any tighter fitting than those and he's not gonna be able to sit down." Mulder was indicating Alex's jeans. Then stopped, obviously wishing he hadn't said anything to make it so plain that he'd noticed them. The jeans. The tightness of them. That he'd been looking. That they looked so good on him... Mulder turned and fled back to the stove.

Walter acted as though he hadn't noticed this, although he did look up at Alex and give him a surreptitious wink and said, "Not being able to sit down is not always a result of tight jeans. You should know that from experience, Fox." He regarded Alex. "Actually, I'm surprised you *can* sit down this morning. But no, you need something else, something a little more suave."

Mulder coughed. "Suave!? I get the French maid and he gets *suave*!?"

"Well, how about a compromise then? A French gentleman?"

"I thought he was Russian. Aren't you, Alex?"

Alex was taking all this in mutely, not quite sure how to enter the banter. Walter caught his eye and smiled warmly at him, with a little shake of his head. Almost as if to say, don't worry, just go along with it. And then Walter supplied, "I meant appropriate. Like a fishing rod or something. He's going to have to help bring in the trout now. We all earn our keep, remember? And don't worry, Fox, I won't make you cook it. Hell, I won't let you near any fish *I* catch."

"Suits me," Mulder shrugged, coming to sit down at the table, sans apron. "I won't clean them either."

"Why not?" Alex asked.

"I don't like the way they stare at me."

"Fox gets freaked out by their eyes as they lay there on the counter," Walter put in, dryly. "He won't eat them if they have their heads still attached, either."

"I guess that rules out fish-head bouillabaisse, then," Alex suggested.

Mulder frowned, suspicious that he was the butt of a joke that he couldn't quite grasp. It wasn't funny to him. Fish eyes staring bug-like up at him without blinking was a reminder of aliens, out of some strange association his mind had made in the past.

But Walter regarded Alex with renewed interest. "My god, someone who understands real food. What a relief. Can you cook, too?"

Alex smiled. "If you dare to let me in the kitchen, yeah."

"Uh-huh. Who's all domesticated now, then?" Mulder murmured, into his eggs.

Walter found it very interesting that Mulder had refused to look at Alex even once so far. Apart from his jeans. He grinned, and caught Alex's eye again. "Wait until he hears about the rotation," he said to Mulder.

Who froze and then said quickly, "Can't that wait?"

Alex was looking from one to the other, lost again. "Rotation?"

Walter's lips twitched but he took pity on Fox who was looking rather tense and red-faced. "Later. We'll have to work out who does what." And whom, he thought. Ah, Fox, you have no idea how obvious you are. It's kind of cute, but you're such an amateur. Alex is a sure thing. There's no need to get so flustered.

He addressed Alex again. "If you cook, we do the dishes. And don't worry, we won't patronize you by making allowances for your arm, except where you decide you want to. You've proven you can be more than able with what you have."

Alex gave a small smile. "Thanks. Actually, I can do a lot more with this one than you might think. I've got rudimentary control over the fingers and the grasping action. There's a slight delay in timing but it's pretty good. I have to be careful sometimes; they're stronger than actual fingers. So, don't worry about it."

Walter noticed the hasty glances that Alex would cast at Fox, as if he dared not be caught lingering over him. As if he too was afraid their eyes would meet. Walter privately hoped this adolescent behavior would stop after tonight; it was stressful enough after having to go through yesterday's problems. He took another waffle. "Help yourself, Alex."

"I'm going to be working again today. Collating research," Mulder explained for Alex's benefit. "What are you guys going to do?"

Walter lifted his chin at Alex, motioning with his fork before swallowing. "I was thinking of going hunting. Care to join me? We could do with more meat in the freezer before we get more snow. It would give you a chance to get to know the countryside, let you know what our area is like."

"Yeah, sounds good," Alex said, an interested tone entering his voice. Almost eager.

"Great, that'll get us out of Fox's hair and keep us outside for a while. After we're done here?"

"Sure." Alex's smile was definitely more eager this time; he was warming to the idea.

Mulder was trying not to stare at him. Alex's face transformed when he smiled. Particularly when it was a real one; he looked so much younger, freer.

And then Alex was peering at him, a hasty glance in his direction out of the corner of his eye. Their eyes met. And slid away. Mulder realized he was holding his breath. He forced himself to concentrate on his plate. Alex was wondering why he felt like he was walking on eggs here.

Walter of course watched this little exchange with interest. "Are we back in school, kids?" he asked, gently.

"Yeah, well, you know," Mulder dissembled, "nothing like a little sexual tension to lighten the mood."

Walter took in Alex's blush and Mulder's nerves. "Fine. I want to avoid a repeat of yesterdays' affair with the knife and the tumble on the floor. We might as well get this right out in the open. Alex, Fox and I were mentioning that we might try a rotation. You know, take it in turns who gets a good night's sleep and who doesn't?"

"That's one way to put it," Mulder said with a slight smile.

"Well, it's my turn to get some sleep, tonight." Walter was grinning again.

Alex swallowed and went very still.

Mulder sucked in a breath. "God, I can't take this." He stood up abruptly, leaned over the surprised Alex and caught him by the chin to plant a kiss on his lips. He then strode out of the kitchen into the living room and turned on his computer, out of sight.

Alex sat in stupefaction while Walter smiled at him. "You okay?"

Clearing his throat and regarding his plate again, his fork forgotten in his hand, Alex replied, "Yeah." ...*Not*. Why did Mulder do that? Was he having second thoughts? Did he have a chance with him? Was Mulder going to forgive him? Did this mean that Mulder might really *want* to spend tonight with him? He forced himself with an effort to keep his attention on Walter.

"Good. Because I think we're on kitchen detail."

Mulder sat before the monitor without really seeing it, listening to Walter and Alex chatting about god knows what; he couldn't really hear. Bless Walt, he thought, for keeping them from getting too heavy. If Walt wasn't here, Mulder suspected he would have ended up wrestling Alex to the floor and dry-humping him. At the thought of this, though, he flashed on the memory of what it felt like yesterday and a hint of shame and anger went through him. He pulled up his files, opening them with angry jabs of his fingers on the keys.

He was soon engrossed though and even the reemergence of Walter and Alex from the kitchen wasn't enough to distract him. At least, he hoped that's what they thought. He absently waved a hand as they passed through, telling him they were going out soon. He didn't dare think of what it meant, that he'd just kissed him... it wasn't enough and he wanted to do it again, properly.

Alex went upstairs for a shower and Walter pottered about readying things for their hunting trip. By the time he'd finished, Alex hadn't yet come back downstairs and Mulder found himself with of a pair of heavy hands on his shoulders, kneading him. And then Walter placed a kiss on the back of his neck. "You okay, then? We'll be back in a while. Takes a while to get there, as you know. And then there's the stakeout. And if we do get something, we'll have to pack it up. I expect we'll be gone all day."

Mulder considered the screen. "I'll be fine. I just need some time to think about it more. Maybe being alone here will give me the space I need."

"Alright. You know, you don't have to go through with this. Maybe both of you need more time to adjust."

"Walt, we spent years dancing around it. I've spent more than enough time avoiding him, and the issue. Pretending it wasn't there, that it would go away. It was only through hating him that I could ignore the way he looked. I think I subconsciously understood the danger of falling for him when we met. In a way, if he hadn't betrayed me it would have been my undoing, 'cause I don't think I would have been able to resist him. Especially," Mulder laughed now, "if I'd had anything to do with refitting his wardrobe!"

Walter chuckled and kissed his ear before standing up and going over to put on his coat. "I hear that."

So do I, thought Alex, at the top of the stairs. Weird. It looked like Mulder was beginning to crumble fast. He thought it would have taken a lot longer, but maybe Walter was right; Walter had been working on him for some time now, and had also hinted that many other issues had been sorted in Mulder's mind over the last year or two. Maybe Mulder was actually going to prove he could get past his denial of their relationship and their dynamic sooner. Alex wasn't sure that *he* could, though. Shaking his head, he wondered how he was supposed to explain to Mulder that he would do anything at all for him... just to be accepted by him here... without losing face. Without Mulder looking down his nose at him. He thoughtfully went downstairs to join Walter at the front door.

As they pulled on their outside gear Walter opened the front door. "Well, so much for the snow," he reported. "It's already slush. Should make life interesting. Those waterproof?" he pointed at Alex's boots.

"Yeah, of course."

"Good. We're going slushing. Bye, Fox."

Alex looked over at Mulder, hesitantly. "Bye."

Mulder caught his eye and held it. "Come back in one piece."

Alex nodded and then ducked his head, obviously wanting to say more and deciding not to.

He listened as they got into Walter's fancy jeep and drove off. He sighed. God *damn* but Alex Krycek looked good. Why did he have to be so fucking pretty? WHY? It wasn't fair. If he were anyone else, Mulder knew he would not have the slightest compunction to show any compassion whatsoever. But Alex had that wounded look perpetually on his face like a shroud of desperate hope, begging for the chance while trying to act tough. He realized that he had always seen that look in Alex's eyes, every time he'd hit him. Every time they'd met.

He sat, unmoving, cursing silently. Tonight. Tonight! He couldn't stop thinking about it. It was a good thing they were going out, or he knew he wouldn't have been able to stop himself from initiating something. Anything! Walter must've known this. Now how could he go through with this and still save face? He didn't want a repeat of yesterday's embarrassing moment, when he'd realized Alex wasn't turned on by their contact and he *was*. He worried next that Alex had feelings for him but they didn't extend to the physical. But no, that couldn't be it either, or he would have said something to Walt, and... Jeez, Alex was already *with* Walt, wasn't he? He groaned aloud and went into the kitchen to make himself coffee. No more distractions. He needed to get on with his notes. He would throw himself into it and refuse to let himself think about Krycek, Krycek, Krycek. Alex. Krycek. Dark lashes and that deliciously evil, beautiful mouth. Fuckable mouth. Alex-fucking-Krycek. No.... *fucking* Alex... Fuck! His cock leapt and he sighed. They'd be gone all day. His hand moved to the front of his pants.

As they drove farther and farther northeast along a difficult trail, Alex realized the severity of their location in terms of distance and placement in the wilds. His approach had been along a dirt road - the only one. This barely marked track was just a pair of indentations in the ground. They ended up in a crawl, the tires feeling their way over every bumpy rock and muddy pool.

Finally, Walter stopped and turned off the ignition and looked over at him. "Well? Shall we?"

Alex's answering grin was good to see. Walter found himself wondering when was the last time Alex had done anything for the fun of it, rather than for survival, intrigue or Consortium planning.

As Walter got out on his side, Alex stepped out onto the ground and experienced a moment of disorientation. What was he doing here? It was hard to take it in; it was so different being here. The usual normality of hotels, clandestine meetings, warped people and vicarious liaisons with Rebel Aliens was so far away. All he had ever wanted was right here in the palm of his hand, right now.

To have waited all these years for a normal life, to end up in this remote, primordial place and find these two here, and together? It was surreal and yet so fitting. His life was nothing if not interesting. He frowned, wondering how long they actually had left together. He found a deep longing to stay here forever, for the rest of his life.

"Deep thoughts, Alex?" Walter's voice was instantly grounding. He pulled the backpacks and gun cases out of the back seat and slammed the door.

Alex smiled to cover the morbid flavor of his mood. He was feeling rather overwhelmed by the emptiness of the vista, the paradoxically rich surrounds of the landscape. There were distant craggy hills that led to farther peaks, the wind sang slightly over the grass and although gray, the sky was still bright. It was almost idyllic, despite the knowledge that the beauty masked the dangers of this country. To be this far north and try to live here all year round was quite an undertaking.

And it was sufficiently removed from any other countryside he'd ever visited. He didn't have to suffer impressions overlaid from past experiences that might have marred the beauty for him. No bad memories. It was a welcome change. The experience of it was unspoiled and virgin, like the land itself.

They each took a pack and a rifle, and went the rest of the way on foot. Walter knew of an excellent place for watching for deer, elk and other animals. There was wet snow everywhere. They might have been able to track spoor and hoof prints in the snow but it was already melting. When they reached the foothills there was a large, shallow riverbed with many dry stones along the bottom and all along the sides. The dirt of the embankment was smooth and offered a rise up out of tall grass, giving them a perfect vantage point to observe passing wildlife. Luckily, they didn't disturb any nesting river fowl as they set themselves up amidst the grass.

Then came the wait. Walter turned and whispered to him, "It's just a matter of time, I think. They come along here to drink sometimes. I've had a lot of luck with this particular spot."

"What are we looking for?"

"Something big enough to carve up for the winter. We've got one more supply drop which we'll arrange in about a week, and then that's the last one until the end of January, so we have to make it count. We can always make it into town but they don't have everything. And this meat will do us for a while, if we get something. Probably an elk, or a deer. They come down out of the foothills to range around here. I'll let you take the shot, okay?"

Alex shrugged slightly. "If you want. I don't mind."

Walter smiled. "Hey, I didn't drag you all the way out here for nothing."

Alex took a deep breath. The air was heady, filling his lungs with the deep scent of plants, grasses, even the smell of the water. It was a far cry from the city and the petty rivalries of squabbling intelligence agencies. The sharp tangy green scent of trees, dark green trees.

And he found he loved it. This was all so removed from the considerations of conscience or duty, or loyalty, or even survival. This was primal. The attempt to socially and personally integrate into their home here was equally distant and seemed not as urgent as when he was in the house.

The distant call of birds and marshy bubbling of water and trickling streams nearby, flowing in cracks into the riverbed, was broken only by the muted sound of the wind blowing occasionally through the reeds and grasses where they lay.

Silently, Walter's hand touched his elbow. He followed his gaze and saw a large stag making his way down to the river. He was quite a long way off.

"Remember; through the heart, clean, one shot," Walter mouthed.

Alex nodded, training the sights.

There were a few minutes of silence, filled with heart-pounding thuds in their eardrums as they waited for the stag to near them. Closer, closer. A perfect shot. Lined up beautifully. Walter held his breath. Now. Now... He waited. It was an excellent shot. Now. Now!

Alex lowered the rifle. "I can't," he whispered, hovering between misery and surprise. "It isn't the same. He - he doesn't deserve it."

Walter turned his head, taking in his expression. Alex looked shocked, looking down at the rifle with a puzzled stare.

Walter quickly lifted his own and brought it to bear on the stag's heart. Gently squeezed the trigger. But then the stag was no longer there.

It was too late; they'd had their shot. If they were to get it, Alex should have taken it in that few precious seconds. The stag was leaping away, having perhaps overheard something that had carried on the wind. "Oh well. You're lucky, little brother," Walter murmured. "Another time maybe."

Alex was staring out into the distance; somewhere in that direction the stag was flying over streams and rocks amidst the trees, having reached the tree line. "I'm sorry. I couldn't do it."

Walter thought he understood, at last partly. He was assailed by several feelings at once. He identified some of them as relief and tenderness, and a little frustration. He was glad Alex had discovered he couldn't shoot indiscriminately, or take a life without just cause. He was also slightly pissed that they'd missed the stag; venison made very good eating and he didn't have any left in the freezers. He sighed to himself. Looks like it was back to trout fishing in the backyard. Unless they stayed out here for a good while more, it was unlikely they would get anything.

Gruffly, he observed, "At least you know that you can't kill without having a good reason to. I'm kind of glad, Alex. It means I was right about you. I took a chance on you, you know."

Alex's fingers were trembling and he looked pale. Shock, Walter thought. Best to keep him talking. But Alex looked him right in the eye and said, "It's still hard to believe that I'm here. That you want me here; either of you. It kinda takes some getting used to, you know?" He shook his head and put the rifle down, turning and laying on his back to regard the sky. "I shouldn't have come out here. I should've let you go alone. I lost the deer for you. I'm sorry."

"Nonsense," Walter said firmly, sitting up and stretching. He rummaged in his backpack and took out coffee and a sandwich. "The main reason we came out here was to get you out of the house. I wanted you to see some of the countryside, get a feel for where we are. All of this is our territory. And I'm glad, too, because it shows me that you aren't the ruthless killer we all thought you were, including yourself, Alex."

"That's generous of you to say so. Still, I am sorry, Walter." Alex sat up to lean on his elbow, accepting the offer of coffee in one of the thermos lids from Walter. "I feel alive here, out here with you. In this place. I don't mean just here and now. It's like I've been running for so long I forgot what it was like to stand still without feeling like either that deer or the hunter."

"You're both. If you can feel it and remember it, let it start to drop away and just take pleasure in being here, now... That's when you stop being the hunter or the hunted and become saved. You have to save yourself by letting it happen. Believe me, it took us months before we stopped jumping at every little sound, expecting people to jump out at us from around every corner. Before we could remember what it might be like to just live and not be so concerned with what the rest of the world was doing."

Alex looked past him, surveying the cold terrain and the distant mountains. "I like it here. I could get used to it. I don't think it would be very easy for me to leave." He stopped himself short at this, wishing he hadn't said it aloud. He'd quickly gotten so used to spilling everything he was thinking to Walter that he hadn't realized what he was revealing. He shot a terrified glance at him; sure that he'd overstepped his boundaries this time.

Walter smiled reassuringly. "Six months is a long time. I'm willing to bet that if you try to leave us at the end of it, Fox and I will both threaten to chain you to the bed and not let you go."

Alex licked his lips and looked down on the ground, at the lumpy grass they were lying on. "I'm not used to this. I don't know - how to act. What to say. I'm not used to being wanted." He looked up, meeting Walter's gentle eyes. "I feel like a wild animal and I don't know how to be... like Fox is. So domestic."

"He was wrong," commented Walter. "You're not a rat, you're a wolf. Wolves are pack animals; they can live alone and survive, but it makes them lonely. There's a part of you that'll always be wild and I don't think that should change. But that doesn't mean living in splendid isolation in an ivory tower somewhere, letting your heart wither away. Let me assure you that you are welcome here; you're part of this family, if you want to stay."

Alex only nodded, not trusting himself to speak around the lump that had suddenly developed in his throat.

"Believe me, I know how much that means to you." Walter sighed. "I missed out on that feeling for years, and trying to get Fox through his pain in the beginning was bad, too. He lost his sister, then his father, then his mother. He had only his partner and his boss, and a few close friends. Not even that, towards the end."

But Alex's expression went mournful and clouded at the mention of Mulder's father. Damn, thought Walter. Should've remembered. Still, there was no sense in hiding from it and pretending it wasn't important. It would've come up at some point soon, anyway.

"Another skeleton in the closet," Alex said, tersely.

"Stop it," Walter said, putting more of a command into his voice. "Feeling sorry for yourself isn't an option. There's no need to. You'll have to apologize to him at some point for that. But you have to stop letting yourself die slowly in that guilty loop you keep running in your head all the time." Impulsively, he got up and moved the last few inches to sit beside him, pushing the startled man once more onto his back and resting his weight with his forearm on his chest, against his thick winter coat, holding him down. Leaning over him, he brought his mouth down to cover Alex's warmly, before pulling back and adding, "Any time you need punishing for that, you let me know. Don't let Fox drive you into a guilt cycle over his father. Hell, he wasn't even his father. And it's a hell of a better way to release all that anxiety than pushing yourself to the brink of suicide, or pulling away from people who care about you, who can forgive you."

Alex shook his head slightly. "I don't get it, I don't. Yesterday, when you - when you punished me... What is it about that; why do you do it? How can you not... not find it exciting?"

Walter searched his face, carefully. "Does it excite you?"

He swallowed, hesitating. "Yeah. With you, yeah. I guess."

"Then maybe you need another form of punishment instead. Maybe your punishment needs to be in the form of acceptance, of loving. To know that you are forgiven."

"You're serious, aren't you!? How is that a punishment?"

Walter leaned closer, stopping just before his lips touched Alex's and whispered, "I love you; I care about you. I'm here for you, just as much as I am for Fox."

Alex gulped and closed his eyes, trying to counter his immediate reaction of his eyes tearing up at this, with a nervous reply, "Okay, alright. I get it."

"You think I'm just saying that to prove a point?" Walter pressed his lips to him, once, pulling back once again.

Too much love... Alex let out his breath, hissed, "How can-!" And then demanded, "Why? Why do you -" He couldn't bring himself to say it. And then abruptly changed the subject. "I'm sorry, I meant to tell you this morning. I'm clean; completely. I had myself tested before coming out here. I just wanted you to know. After last night?"

Walter shook his head slowly with amazement. "Talk about changing the subject... Okay, I'm glad to hear that. So are we. So, you don't mind if I fuck you right here, right now? Since you're so 'available' and all?"

Alex closed his eyes again and bit his lips. "I don't think I've had this much sex, this frequently, in years. I haven't exactly had a steady partner, you know?"

"If I'm moving too fast for you, you have to let me know," Walter said, instantly contrite. "I don't mean to push you."

Alex relaxed, looking up at him, steady. "Why do you *want* me? I don't get it."

"I don't know," Walter admitted. "I think it might have something to do with - with how beautiful you are, for a man. I mean, I love Fox. I really do. He's incredible to me. But you're different. Incredible in another way entirely. I don't know. Maybe it's because you have so much... *need* in you. You remind me of a broken child, a little brother of long-lost relation from a long time back. I just know that you're worth the effort." Then he gave up, losing himself instead in the sheer sensation of kissing the man under him hard, deeply. Not letting him up even as he began to run out of breath, until Alex was desperately breathing in through his nose and making little moans against him.

He began to taste his lips, to slide his tongue between them, loving the way Alex returned his kiss, letting his own tongue battle with his. Walter released him suddenly and lifted his head, leaving Alex gasping.

A slow grin overtook him and he looked down at Alex. "Those perfect teeth," he murmured. And then said, "Did you know that apart from you and I and that stag, there is no living soul for ten, maybe twenty miles around?"

"Yeah. So?"

"So it doesn't matter if you scream or not." He continued to grin down at him.

It was an expression that gradually found its way across Alex's face as well. "What about bears?"

"Hell, they're probably all looking for somewhere to hibernate."


"I didn't see any. Did you?"


"You're reaching now. Give it up."

"Wolves?" Alex's grin was positively sparkling, making him catch his breath.

"Only the one I've got right here," he muttered and captured those lips again, this time savagely sucking at them until they were swollen. Meanwhile, their hands were busy trying to loosen their clothing.

The sharp cold air on their skin was a marked contrast to the heat of their bodies against each other. The cold also had the interesting effect of bringing their nipples into relief. Walter placed ravaging kisses and little bites all the way down the smooth chest, past the navel, following a trail to the treasure below. Alex's cock was a dark red in the cold and when Walter's mouth engulfed the head, he cried out. As Walter began to slide up and down in a lewd, outright motion, he bucked against him and broke out with alternately incoherent entreaties and curses. The heat of Walter's mouth was like a hot, wet glove wrapped tightly around him and he couldn't stand it. Shuddering, he gasped, "I can't - I'm gonna - oh god - "

Walter didn't let up, merely sucked harder, and then Alex was thrashing ineffectually, with strangled cries, his hot fluid spilling out onto Walter's tongue. Walter drank him in, all of it, everything, the contrast of the cold and heat of their bodies, the salt and the bitter taste of him, the joy and the sadness of brushing away yet a little more of Alex's loneliness. There was so much. So new. The lightness of the sky and the whiteout of the overcast winter clouds. The rushing noise and buzz in their ears of the silence that surrounded them. And finally, as he let Alex's drained and tired cock slip from between his lips, Walter looked up at the face of the panting creature he'd subdued.

"Guess I caught me something after all," he said, in a low voice.

"God. Fuck," Alex breathed. "I'm... that was..."

"Yeah, yeah. They all say that afterwards. Get your breath back," he ordered, with a smile.

Alex lifted his head, seeing Walter's still-erect state. "Oh, yeah. Right." He sank back, taking a few gulps of air. "Sure thing, Walt. Lay down."

Walter was waiting for him and finally Alex sat up with another grin. Then pounced, holding him down. "Games, huh? The hunter becomes the hunted. Let's see what you've got, big man."

"Come on, I'm not that big," protested Walter.

Alex snorted with derision. "Yeah, right. You forget last night I had that monster up my ass; believe me, I couldn't help but notice." And he squirreled backwards until he was face to face with the cock in question.

Slowly and deliberately teasing him, Alex ran his tongue lightly along its length, allowing it to cool rapidly. He didn't take his mouth away for one instant, yet kept it wet all over until Walter was moaning. Meanwhile, his hand was rolling his balls gently, enjoying the heavy weight of the sac.

"Jesus, damn it - Alex! Just do it, already! It's freezing out here!"

With a wicked chuckle, Alex finally went down on him, letting the engorged and straining cock have the relief of being enveloped in the heat of his mouth. With a few practiced sucks and with the head right against the back of his throat, suddenly Walter was coming, filling his mouth with the bitter, salty flood. He swallowed, repeatedly. Then licked his cock clean, until Walter was begging him to stop for the sensitivity, particularly in the cold.

Panting, Walter said, "God *damn*, boy; if you can give head like that, there's no way you're leaving! I'll keep you tied up in the basement if you try to go. That's a promise."

They pulled up their pants; the cold of the wind was too chill and biting to keep themselves bare for long. And then Alex was lying atop Walter, hugging him desperately, tightly. "I can't believe this is really happening," he said in a raw voice. "I keep thinking I'll wake up and it'll all just be a dream. But I can't think where I would've come up with this good a dream!"

Walter found himself awkwardly trying to pet him, to soothe him. "I know how you feel; I do, believe me, I do."

A whuffing sound to their right suddenly disturbed them and lifting their heads, they tried to find out where it was coming from. As they sat up they found themselves face to face with a large moose, about ten feet away. It stared at them and they stared back.

It seemed they were in a stalemate. The moose had wandered up on them because it had been concentrating on the grass, not expecting to find them there. And of course they had thought they would have noticed the approach of something that huge out here.

It was a very big creature. Very big. Up close, it seemed larger than life. It was a bull, and mature, with an impressive rack of antlers. They did the only thing they could do. They sat, not daring to move.

Unfortunately, the moose had the same idea. Time stood still.

With remarkable presence of mind and alacrity, born of years of self-preservation and assassin-honed instinct, Alex suddenly swung his rifle up and aimed true, straight for the heart, and pulled the trigger before Walter could react. Before the moose could react. Next thing they knew, the moose had jumped upwards into the air with the impact and was running.

But the poor creature was doomed. It was running blindly in a direction off to the side, and made it only a few yards before collapsing in a heap.

Alex collapsed anew on the ground, staring up at the sky, panting. "Fuck," he muttered. "Great country, Walter. Thanks for taking me out here. Nothing like a taste of the real thing, first-hand! Stags, blow jobs and near-death experiences."

"This would happen the first time I bring *you* out here," observed Walter, in a nearly accusatory tone.

"Oh? What happened the first time Mulder came out here?"

"Everything went smoothly. I had to take out the deer. But everything went fine. Smooth."

Alex grinned at him, in a very good approximation of the wolf Walter had likened him to. "What do you mean? The moose is dead. I took him out. We're fine, everything's great. It did go smoothly."

"Alex. You're supposed to lie in wait and then shoot them from farther away, not wait for them to walk up and step on you. He could have attacked and gored us."

"Hey, it's me, here. You forget my training, my abilities."

Walter shook his head, climbing to his feet. "It was a wild bull moose, Alex. Beginner's luck."

"What?!" Alex's exclaimed indignantly.

They were still arguing about it when they returned to the house, hours later. It took a while to cut up the animal and get it packed. They had taken as much as they could and worked fast, especially motivated by Walter's warning that the smell and the blood would attract bears and other predators. And of course dragging the meat back had been a heavy and dangerous undertaking. Then there was the task of loading it into the vehicle.

When they climbed wearily out and made it up to the steps of the front porch, Mulder came out to greet them. Taking in their bloody appearance, he smiled grimly. It took them all some time to get the meat unpacked and into the freezers.

It was already growing dark by the time they washed the stench and grime away, changed their clothes and gathered in the kitchen for a meal.

As they sat at the table downing potatoes and gravy, burgers and peas, Walter declared, "Next time I'm going hunting alone."

Mulder threw him a look. "What, you didn't get enough? The freezers are stuffed, Walt. Why would you need to go out again?"

"Between you being unable to hit anything and Alex waiting until we see the whites of their eyes, it's a miracle that I'm still alive and that we have any meat at all."

Alex grinned at him in reminder of why they hadn't heard the beast or seen its approach. "It wasn't all my fault."

Walter nodded sagely. "Distraction. No more distractions when I'm hunting."

"Distractions?" Mulder was none the wiser but he had caught the undercurrent of their words.

Walter fixed Alex with a mock glare. "Yes. He can't shoot living creatures it seems, unless they're about to run over him. Life threatening situations; survival, self-defense... Right, Alex?"

Mulder stopped and regarded Alex with surprise.

Alex was suddenly more interested in his food.

"I guess we underestimated you," Mulder said, in way of apology to him.

"Don't worry about it," Alex replied, still not looking up, obviously anxious to leave it alone.

"The only thing I really don't like is the amount we had to leave behind. What a waste." Walter didn't like leaving as much as they had.

"Well, think of it this way - it isn't really a waste because about right now, a pack of wolves and a couple of dancing bears are tucking into it," Mulder said, helping himself to the gravy.

"What about cougars?" Alex asked.

Walter lifted a brow and nodded. "Possibly."

"Yeah, if you hear a scream that sounds like a woman being murdered? It's probably a mountain lion. We heard one this summer." Mulder frowned at the memory. "It was blood-curdling."

They continued to share past encounters they'd had with the local animals with Alex until Walter began yawning expansively.

"I'm fading fast, here," he said, taking in the time on the wall clock. "It's after eight. I'm going to get in some reading and then hit the sack. It was quite a day."

"Yeah. Hacking up moose isn't all it's cracked up to be," commented Alex.

As Walter got up and stretched, left the table to wander into the living room and settle himself with his book, Alex and Mulder began to clear the dishes away. They worked well together, quickly and efficiently, anticipating each other's moves and not once coming to any disagreement about what to do or how to do it. In fact, it was slightly frightening; they made such a great team. As this dawned on Mulder, he found himself staring at the empty, submerged pot he was scrubbing.

Alex was drying dishes with a cloth. He noticed Mulder's frozen state. "What? What is it?"

"We work really well together."

"Yeah. We do." He looked around the kitchen. "So?"

Mulder chewed his lower lip and looked up at him. "We're good partners. We team up well."

Not knowing how to reply to that, Alex looked away, down at the dishes on the draining board and returned to drying them and putting them away by trial and error. If he didn't find the obvious place for the item, he placed it on the table for a more thorough search afterwards.

Mulder resumed his own scrubbing, although he was far from discarding this notion and continued to think on it. Partnership. The reason Alex's original betrayal had hurt so much was that Mulder had found himself wanting to believe he was sincere. He didn't have to explain everything all the time like he did with Scully, and Alex had seemed eager, sympathetic to his ideas. It all seemed so far away now.

It didn't take long before the kitchen was done. Alex quietly excused himself and went upstairs.

Mulder sat down at the kitchen table. He didn't resent the fact that Walter had offered as much to Alex as he had. In fact, he was surprised that he wasn't upset about it at all. Perhaps it was because he was so sure of his own place with Walter that he couldn't see Alex as anything *but* a distraction up until now. With Walter, that is. For himself... god. It was more than a blow to his world, it was a stick of dynamite in his reality. Not to mention his pants... he was sick of sprouting a boner every time Alex entered the room. He rubbed his face with both hands, tiredly.

He could no longer pretend even to himself that he didn't want him. He felt assailed by disgust for his own embarrassment at feeling the desire, as well as the desire itself. How could he want Alex? Even though Walter had been able to take the steps in maturity towards forgiveness for what the man had done to him in the past, Mulder wasn't sure he could. And his own attraction to him muddied the water. He wanted Alex Krycek. Fiercely. Badly. He tried to remember when it had started. He couldn't. All he knew was that somewhere along the way, rage and hurt had been joined with the desire and he felt angry that he couldn't tell when or how it had smuggled itself in.

He doubted very much that simply fucking him was going to defuse the outstanding issues between them. If he thought about it any deeper, he always came to the same barrier. His father's murder, Scully's abduction -a host of numerous other crimes and painful episodes that he'd suffered and in which Alex Krycek had somehow been implicated in, on whatever level.

He could hardly dismiss all of that. How could he defuse the issues without dismissing them? If he focused on any single one of them, he felt rage rise like bile and he wanted to bite his tongue to stop himself from getting up in anger from where he sat. Why was sex and hatred both so tied up in his reactions to the man?

And why, *how*, could the ratbastard actually propose that he 'loved' him? That was somehow terrifying to him. He'd always thought that Krycek had a thing for him, ever since he'd kissed him that night he gave him the tip about the Rebel leader held at Wiekamp Base. He'd thought it another Krycek mind-fuck special, a production for Mulder's benefit; a means of confusing him and making him wonder at Krycek's motives and his own reasons for the kiss. What it came down to in the end was that he'd gone merely on Krycek's word, sealed with his kiss and the fact he'd given him back his gun, leaving himself wide open for Mulder's shot at the time.

It was true; every time they met up, he'd gone for Krycek and the man had never done anything to hurt him back, had only protected himself where he could, in self-defense. If Krycek, no, *Alex*, had done it because he was 'in love with him?'... that definitely changed the perspective. It meant that what Alex had confessed the day before, during his spanking, had been exactly as it sounded; that he believed he didn't have a chance with Mulder, not for forgiveness or acceptance. Maybe for sex, but only tolerated in their life here. Just because Walter took him under his wing didn't make it a foregone conclusion that Mulder would, nor did it mean that he believed him.

He sighed. Walter was right. He needed to talk with him, without falling back into his usual reaction of hitting him just because he didn't like the way he felt towards him.

He got up and went into the living room. Walter was asleep in his chair, his glasses perched precariously. He shook him gently. "Walt, hey, Walt -why don't you go upstairs?"

Walter took a deep breath. And stretched. "Yeah, I think I will. Thanks. Hey, what about you?" He regarded him sleepily. "Are you going to... what are you going to do?"

Mulder sat down near him, on the couch. Quietly, he said, "I need to talk with him but I don't want... Walt, I can't just forgive him. Not just like that. I mean, the things he's done, and everything. I can't."

Walter looked at him. Took another breath, looked about the room and said, "Look, I probably shouldn't be telling you this, but I think it might help. Yesterday, he began to respond to the punishment, as in he found it... exciting. At first. And, I think that if you were to use that, as you said, to let him know he's lowest in the pecking order here... or something. Make a statement with it. He may not trust you to do that, because he knows you hit him in anger. But then, there's the dynamic you two have, the tension you still share that hasn't been taken care of. It might be one way of dealing with it."

Mulder exhaled. "Walt, I don't think I could do that and have it be the release you're suggesting. I'm too likely to - to use it as a way of, well, a justified means of hitting him. You know?"

"Yeah, that's what I'm afraid of, too. But then again, you'd be punishing him in an acceptable form for things you feel he deserves punishment for. Instead of just blindly lashing out at him. If you could get him to agree with the reasoning of that. It's only a suggestion. I think we've shared enough in our own relationship that you've learned where the line is, don't you?"

Mulder considered this. "I'm still not sure I can trust myself to keep from crossing that line, though."

"If you accept the responsibility of it, once you have him over your knee, I promise you'll feel differently. The power of it will make it feel different to you. You'll know exactly where the line is and you'll know not to cross it. It's not the same as indulging in a loss of temper the way you usually do."

Mulder snorted. "I'm not you. I'm not that good with responsibility, you know that. You should be the one punishing him."

"Fox, I hate to tell you this but I can spank you - I *can't* spank him. Not in the same way; sure, I can punish him if he does something wrong, but the only punishment that works with him, if I'm to administer it, is kindness. It's the affection. Love - he isn't used to being loved or cared for. It makes him... vulnerable. And I think I've done him a disservice in revealing that to you. You'd better make damn sure not to betray my trust in you by abusing that."

Mulder closed his eyes and swallowed; he sighed. "Okay. I won't. I'll remember, and keep that as my boundary, alright?"

Walter nodded with approval. "Good. And remember: whatever you believe, he's still a wounded man. Push him too far and he'll run. I mean it, Fox. We have a chance to help him heal, and to heal ourselves. Don't screw it up over a matter of pride, okay? Whatever he's done, you can be the bigger man by actually turning the other cheek. I *know* that's hard for you, given what he's done. But I don't think he had many better choices to make. It could easily have been you in his position if you'd been handed the same choices. In the beginning, I mean."

Mulder snorted. "Right. Whatever. I won't push it. I won't."

Walter sighed and stood up. "Today was kind of rough, and yesterday was ridiculous. Please don't let's have any scenes tonight? Fox? I'm begging you here. I don't want to find you at his throat again."

Mulder sighed and grinned up at him. "Walt. Trust me. I'll handle it. Get some sleep." He stood, reached over and let himself be pulled into Walter's expansive embrace.

"Fox, I'm proud that you made it this far. I really am." Walter's voice held a note of relief.

"You should be; I'm making sterling efforts. Just for you." Mulder was grinning.

"I love you," Walter said, leaning back and regarding him at arm's length.

"And I love you, Walt," Mulder said, with a warm smile that might have been mistaken as cheeky. "Get some sleep. I'll take care of our errant guest."

Walter leaned in and kissed him goodnight; they clung to each other briefly until Walter was wracked by another yawn and chuckling, he went for the stairs.

Mulder sat down heavily on the couch once more. Walter closed the door to his bedroom upstairs. There wasn't a single sound from Kry - Alex's room. Considering, he went upstairs himself, to his own room. He sat on the edge of his bed, wondering if he trusted himself to visit the man next door without losing his temper. Then berated himself. Of course he could. All he had to do was stop feeling embarrassed about wanting him. Alex wanted *him*, didn't he?

He realized that just hearing that Alex loved him wasn't enough; in fact, that was open to interpretation. Alex thought he hated him; true enough, he did, well, *had* for a long time. And Alex thought he wasn't good enough for him... The memory from yesterday, of the tearful sobs, the pain in his voice, the hopelessness in his eyes and the yearning expression that told him he dared not even ask, every time he looked at him since...

Fuck, who was he kidding. The man was in love with him. He stood up and decided to go before he lost his nerve. There was something irresistible about knowing that someone felt that way for him. Would do anything...

He'd been waiting all day for this. Why should he worry about going through with it, now? He wondered if what he were actually afraid of was *Alex* refusing him, not wanting to go through with it.

Leaving his room, he crept to stand outside Alex's door and tapped on it quietly. There was no reply. "Alex?" he called, keeping his voice down. There was still no sound. Mulder sighed. Oh well. He had tried. He slowly began to walk back down the hall and ended up going downstairs.

There, with the only light in the room coming from the fireplace, Alex was sitting in his armchair. He looked up as Mulder entered the room. A wary look stole onto his face and he immediately tensed. "Hey."

"What're you doing down here?" Mulder asked him.

A little frown crossed over him. "Don't want to sleep. Besides, it's too early."

Mulder sat down in the couch. "Nightmares?"

"Don't," Alex started, "don't patronize me."

Mulder looked him over in the flickering light, thoughtfully sucking a tooth. He reached into the bowl of sunflower seeds and began his little ritual. Nibbling, he said, "Thank you for these. I appreciate it. No, I do; really."

Alex looked away. "There's too much left unsaid, Mulder. I don't want - "

Mulder interrupted him. "Fox. You can call me Fox. It's only us here."

Alex stared back at him briefly before turning away. "Aren't you tired? I am. So fucking tired." He kept his gaze on the fire. "Of everything."

Mulder regarded him thoughtfully. "I have a proposition for you."

"I'm not *your* houseboy, Mul -" he stopped. "I won't be. Not for you, not here. Not now and not ever."

"You haven't even heard it yet," Mulder said in a teasing voice. When Alex didn't reply, he continued, "Amnesty and a complete pardon, in exchange for a punishment session. With me," he added, to make that clear.

Alex turned to him in disbelief. "From houseboy to whipping-boy, huh? No, thanks; I'll pass."

"Think about it, Alex. I'll forgive everything you've ever done, if you let me do that. I mean, shit rolls downhill, right? Walt gets to spank me -and so I get to spank you. Just this once. This one time only, I promise. And I won't attack you or hit you anymore, that's over and done. I give you my word on this."

Alex flared in anger. "Why?! What is about me that everyone thinks it can all be straightened out with a simple spanking?"

Mulder grinned at him, at the way he'd left it so wide open. "I dunno, Alex. Maybe it's your ass? It does kind of attract attention, you know."

Alex let out a frustrated breath. "I felt stupid enough laid out over Walter's lap. If you think I'm going over yours, you're wrong."

"A complete and total pardon," Mulder repeated. He spread his hands. "Hey, I can wait, if it's too soon. I understand; I had a taste of it myself yesterday, remember? He's got a heavy hand."

Alex snorted. "I can take it. That was nothing."

"Yeah? Well, you're probably right. My butt's more delicate than yours, I guess. Still, there's no reason for you to decline my offer then, Alex."

"Stop *calling* me that!" Alex ground out in frustration.

Mulder was taken aback. "What - you want me to call you 'Krycek'?"

"No! Just - " Alex stopped, not wanting to elaborate further. He winced and put his hand to his face. How could he explain what it did to him to hear Mulder call him that? In any tone of voice, rather than the cold inflection he used before, when saying 'Krycek'... his heart was beating too fast and he was afraid that if Mulder kept using that friendly - even *kind* - and gentle tone of voice he was going to break down into tears in front of *him*. And that was simply and wholly unacceptable. "Look, I'm tired, okay? Not tonight. I can't; I don't want to deal with this right now."

"How about tomorrow?"

Alex let his head drop backwards and he laughed almost soundlessly. "Damned if I know. I guess if I'm still here and it's the only option I have, I could put up with it. Sure." He lifted his head and regarded him, puzzled. "Why? I mean, why just that? How is that going to help clear things between us?"

"As an arrangement, and as an honorable one that we both accept." Mulder's tone was entirely too reasonable.

Alex's eyes narrowed and he lifted his chin to regard him suspiciously now. "Did Walter put you up to this?"

"Not exactly. I did talk with him. But I need something to give *me* closure where you're concerned and I don't think just an apology from you, a handshake and another kiss on the cheek is going to make it all better."

"So that's your price? The cost of forgiveness sure is cheap, from you."

"Hey, take it or leave it." Mulder stopped, and added meaningfully, "Alex."

Alex sucked in a breath. "Alright then, *Fox*. I accept. But no restraints. I can't do this with cuffs or anything."

"Did I mention any?" Mulder said, reprovingly.

Alex was shaking his head. "I've got to be out of my fucking mind."

"Join the club. You've been driving me out of mine," Mulder said, and then bit his lip, wondering exactly what he'd just said. Oh well, never mind.

Alex regarded him curiously at that, his eyes glittering before he turned away. Suddenly it dawned on him: it had been bad enough when he'd been across Walter's lap... he'd gotten so hard... how the hell was he supposed to lay over Mulder's knees without... Why, just being here in the man's presence was enough to make him hard. "No," he said, swiftly. "No, I can't do this. I can't agree to that, what you're offering. I can't."

Mulder realized it wasn't panic in his voice; it was something else. "Why not?" he asked, out of sheer curiosity.

Alex drew a silent breath. And closed his mouth. He wondered what he stood to lose by admitting it. And thought: oh well, what the hell. "Because it won't be," he hesitated, "a punishment."

Mulder was glad Walter had confided in him earlier. He immediately knew what Alex was talking about. Now, how to get around this without revealing that? "Why not?"

"Because it's no different to any other time you've hit me in the past." Alex knew he had a point. Just not the one he really meant.

Mulder nodded in agreement. "I know. But this is under controlled conditions."

Alex laughed, once, derisively. "You don't believe that any more than I do."

Mulder shrugged. "Okay, have it your way. I would have thought that a simple spanking, consisting of, oh, say - fifty swats, would clear matters between us? Seems a small price to me, considering."

Damn it... they were still only discussing it and Alex was already sporting a very stiff erection he didn't need right now. For god's sake, how was he supposed to do this?

Mulder had noticed. Alex might have felt better if he knew that Mulder was, too. Mulder, however, was more used to being erect in Alex's presence. He felt a little like Pavlov's dog - place him near Alex and woof! There we go: lift-off. He was gradually getting used to it and right now it was almost ignorable. He was too curious to see which way Alex would go.

Alex bit his lower lip. Maybe he was being silly for turning down this offer. Christ, everything forgiven, for *that*? What he'd had to go through since arriving here... was all this really worth it? Even as he asked the question, he knew the answer. Hoarsely, he said, "Alright. Alright!" And sighed. Quickly, he asked, "Where are we going to do this? Here? Right now?"

Mulder wondered what had made him decide to accept. "Yeah, here and now, if that's okay with you."

"It *isn't*, but we might as well get it over with," Alex growled, standing.

Mulder sat up straight on the couch, suddenly taken aback. He found himself wondering if *he* was ready for this, right now. Why not? Maybe because he wasn't sure he could stop himself from jumping Alex if the man were to come while being punished across his knees. He thought perhaps they should wait; after all, Walter was sleeping upstairs... and then realized this was probably easier for Walt to overhear than Alex's screaming during his nightmares the night before last.

He kept his knees apart and patted his left knee. "Lean over this one, against the edge of the couch, here. Right over the seat. Uh, without the pants, Alex," he reminded him.

Alex swore to himself and undid his pants, pushing them down roughly and quickly kneeling to lean over his left knee and thigh, which was right up against the edge of the couch. Alex wondered at the position and then found himself offering a deeply relieved prayer of thanks up to some unknown deity - this way, his arousal would be pressed up against the side of the couch, not directly in contact with Mulder's leg.

Then had to suppress a gasp as Mulder's left hand reached down to pull his briefs down too, exposing his tightened buttocks. The red stain from the previous day had faded already; there were a few lines of welts still but they were healing fast. It was true that Alex healed quickly, and could take probably twice the amount of punishment that Mulder could.

A shiver ran through Alex though, and left him trembling slightly. "Damn it, just get on with it!" he said, brusquely.

Needled slightly, Mulder lifted his hand and brought it down with a crack. Alex didn't move in the slightest. Mulder began to swat him seriously, counting them in his head, letting his hand fly fast and furious.

Soon, there was a dark blush on the perfect mounds of Alex's ass; Mulder could only imagine the actual color in better light. The firelight wasn't enough to illuminate it properly. He kept at it though, slapping and punishing that perfect skin, enjoying the way Alex twitched involuntarily at first, and then began little squirming motions as if trying to avoid his hand.

Alex was making small noises, in his throat, wishing he wasn't pushed right up against the couch. Every time Mulder's hand landed on his ass, his cock was pressed harder against it with each contact. Much more of this and he didn't think he could withstand it.

Having him leaning over his leg was so good... Mulder's hand began to hurt and he suddenly realized what Walt had to go through. He stopped at forty, breathing hard, and enjoying the way Alex moved, expecting the next one.

When it didn't land, Alex grew nervous. He was so hard, his cock was dripping. "Mulder - Fox, are we done?"

"Not quite. You've got ten more," Mulder said softly. "Are you enjoying this, Alex?"

"No, I'm not. And if you don't mind, I'd like to take the rest now?" Alex was sardonic but he was still shaking slightly.

"I think you're lying, Alex. Are you lying?"

"No!" And he wasn't; he didn't *want* to be so hard, so achingly hard from having Mul - *Fox's* hand touching him, however hard and stinging it was...

Mulder licked his lips. "Are you hard?"

Jesus *Christ*. Alex felt annoyed now. Not to mention humiliated. Maybe that was idea, though. And in a small voice, he replied, "Yes." But at this point he was so goddamned hard he didn't care what Fox thought.

"I'll make a deal with you," Mulder said. "If you haven't come by the time we're through here, I'll suck you off myself."

A bolt of pure want rocked through Alex and he roughly answered, "Sure thing." Breathing hard, he waited.

Mulder quickly landed several more slaps to his already-ablaze butt cheeks, and waited a good three seconds between each of the last five.

His hand smarted. And curious, he traced his fingers over the reddened skin, making Alex move once more, as they trailed tiny fire licks across the punished surface, so hot, so red.

He pulled his briefs up over them then, and helped Alex climb onto his knees before him, and then regarded him, kneeling before him as he was. Mulder couldn't wait any longer. He lunged forward, pulling him against him and mashing their lips together, sucking and devouring Alex's mouth. With a stifled whimper, Alex returned it with as much intensity. Tearing himself away, Mulder said raggedly, "Get up on the couch. Now."

Alex did so, shaking, barely noticing the fire that raked across his bottom as he quickly pulled down his briefs all the way down past his knees and sat down on the couch. Was he really going to do this? Oh god, just... he *had* to be dreaming. Had to be.

Mulder was on his knees in front of him, running his hands along his thighs, touching his flanks, his waist. Then trailing an admiring hand over his skin to touch his drawn-up balls. Mulder placed another hand on the hard, weeping cock before him, wondering how he had managed to ignore how much he wanted him until now. It leapt in his hand and Alex gave a strangled little moan. "G-god, please, Fox, please... *Fox*!"

Awkwardly, Alex reached down his own hand and placed it in Mulder's hair, not hard, just urging.

Leaning forward, Mulder pressed his face into the join of Alex's thigh and crotch; nosing him. The fresh fragrance of the warm tufted hair was intoxicating. He wanted to just lay there and bury his nose; but he didn't want to delay. He made up his mind to remember to do this later, when Alex was too tired and satiated to care. If he lingered too long Alex might get the impression he was enjoying it rather too much at his expense. A deal was a deal, after all. He grinned and closed his eyes. And opened his mouth, taking him in.

Alex felt like all the blood had rushed out of his head and was now journeying in a mass exodus to his groin. He couldn't help the moans and groans that were induced with each lick of Mulder's tongue, each time the head of his cock was slid through those lush lips.

He opened his eyes to the sight of a happy Fox peering up at him from beneath warm, dark eyes that made his fingers itch to capture his face and stroke the eyelids, trace along his brows. Mulder's tongue was twirling around the crown of his cock like it was candy and his slight smile as he did so made him look impish, leaving no doubt as to how much he was enjoying this.

He couldn't bear the sight; he should really have kept his eyes closed, he would have lasted longer. As it was, the view of Mulder's mouth sucking on him expertly was enough to make him tense and shove himself forward in jerking thrusts, unable to stop himself, as he felt the energy and all his conscious thought begin to race along the same path his blood had taken earlier - straight out his cock and into the waiting mouth that sucked it all down. He couldn't help the muffled shriek that he emitted as he came, quite beyond recognition as his own voice.

When he came to, he was having difficulty catching his breath. And Mulder was saying, "Hey, Alex. That's pretty impressive."

And the admiration in his tone was just - *just* - enough to make Alex feel that he'd done something right somehow and to his alarm, and frustrated shame, he began to cry again. It just wasn't fair. He couldn't even enjoy orgasms anymore without tears. Fuck it all. What had Walter *done* to him?! It was like some kind of dam broke and now he had become this weepy, wet thing that couldn't even handle a blow job... But then, this was Fox Mulder who'd just swallowed his load... Talk about a wet dream come true. He just wished it had meant as much to Fox as it did to him.

Suddenly he wished he were upstairs, outside, somewhere else, anywhere but here. It was just sex, wasn't it? To seal the deal - punishment enough. He turned his face to the side. Well, it was punishment, indeed, for him. And he would have stood, would have risen to leave if it weren't for the fact that Mulder was nuzzling against him once more, moving up, leaning in to kiss him, to lick at his face, lick away his tears. Mulder drew back, thoughtfully, at the taste of them.

It was delicious; the taste of salt, of tears, sweat and come, a cocktail of oral sensation that made his cock twitch and stiffen even more eagerly. Mulder knew what he wanted. He slid out of Alex's lap now and pulled the thick bearskin rug closer to the fire. And began taking off his clothes.

Alex jerked his head up as he realized what he was doing. He wiped his eyes. What the hell -?

Mulder was naked in the firelight, his skin burnished and glowing. He looked like a magnificent animal, all supple and toned. Alex found it speechlessly beautiful to see him like this; it was like being treated to a vision he never thought he'd be allowed to witness.

Mulder lay down upon the rug, voluptuously, his cock waving in the air like a trophy. He murmured, "Alex, get your ass over here."

Alex got up, unsteadily, and went to join him, pulling off his own clothes until he was as naked, and sinking down beside him. He lay upon his back, in the same position. Mulder leaned up on one elbow, his gaze raking hotly and possessively over him, leaving him feeling slightly flayed. Finally, with a scowling twist of his lips, Mulder said, "We're going to need lube, I think. I'll be right back. Don't move," he shook a finger at him as he climbed to his feet and then practically ran upstairs to disappear into the bathroom.

Alex lay beside the fireplace, feeling the heat as though it were the flames themselves licking at him. How had this happened? When did it turn and change into something else? He felt strange, as though he had taken some unknown drug. He turned and watched the fire dance and leap. I asked for this, he thought, and I got what I wanted. Maybe I *did* die somewhere along the line and this is heaven. Or I'm dreaming and it's under the influence of some chemical substance... But reality remained in place and the fire was hot. In fact, he didn't realize how tired he was until now.

Next thing he knew, Mulder had returned and was laughing, sniggering through his teeth at him as he crouched beside him. "Hey, wake up. I found it. Turn over."

Oh. The knowledge of what Mulder wanted was enough to rouse him abruptly. Ah well. It was only fair, after what Mulder had done for him, he supposed. He rolled over, and was immediately clambered upon by Mulder who was obviously very intent upon slathering his crack with plenty of lube, his fingers swiftly opening him and sliding in and out of him. He gasped at the intrusion, and wondered just how difficult this was going to be. He realized too that anything at all was good, as long as it was Fox.

But Mulder was not in the mood to waste any time, having waited already throughout the entire time he'd been sucking Alex. He wanted him. Now. He quickly moved into position, sliding his cock into his tight asshole with one swift motion, spearing him with a few inches. Alex gasped again, louder, and couldn't help moaning with a terrifying sensation of simultaneous pain and pleasure. Mulder began a hard, rocking swell against him, pushing inside of him deeper and deeper with each thrust.

It felt barbaric, almost ritual. He was claiming him; the teeth Alex suddenly felt in the back of his neck brought this sharply into focus for him. That long, hard length was pressing against his prostate with every plunge and bump, and now the tightness of his ass as well as the level of urgency Mulder had been brought to finally peaked out and Mulder was shoving into him repeatedly with loud shouts. Mulder was then abruptly shuddering atop him, shooting inside of him with quick, hard little thrusts, and the sounds Mulder made ignited something inside him, as well as the repeated pressure on his gland from that battering cock... and when Mulder's hand reaching down to grab his own stiffened penis, he came, again. Not as hard as before, certainly. The keen edge had been taken off it, particularly as he'd already been with Walter earlier that day, too. But it was still lovely, luscious, long, protracted and deliciously sweet.

He was bent over, open-mouthed, breathing in gasps as Mulder panted over him. Finally, he had to move. He tried to pull to one side only to have Mulder wrap his legs and arms about him more tightly. "Where do you think you're going?" Mulder growled.

"Please, Fox, I have to move. I'm getting squashed here. Just let me up; I'm not going anywhere."

Mulder reluctantly let him move to one side and lay back down beside him on the rug.

Alex sighed to himself. He didn't want this to end. "Are we clear then? Everything, between us?"

"Yeah, for now."

A warning went off in his head. "For now?"

Mulder grinned. " You're going to be paying it off over time, for as long as you're here. Your ass is mine, Alex. For good. "

Alex's eyes narrowed. "Fine. So is my heart."

Mulder shifted beside him, getting more comfortable. "What do you mean?"

"Walter told you, didn't he?"

Mulder sniffed and frowned a little. "Told me what?"

"That being spanked by either of you turns me on. It never has before, with anyone else."

"Oh, that. Yeah. He said he felt he'd betrayed you by telling me; please don't blame him. But he only told me so that I would know where the line was, so I could do it with the proper level of responsibility."

"Bunch of crap," Alex said, but he smiled slightly.

"Yeah, I think so too. See, I was listening outside the door when you were with Walt yesterday."

Alex didn't really know how to take that at first. Then he began to remember exactly what it was he'd *said* in there... And he muttered, "Damn it, that was private, Fox." God, how could he stand this. It wasn't *fair*.

"Well, did you ever intend to tell me?"

Alex was still. Finally, he said, "No."

"And I know Walt wouldn't have told me. I'd say I was lucky to overhear."

"S-so where does that leave �us'?"

"I guess - that you love me, and I'm in love with you. Sound okay to you?"

His eyes dropped, almost filled again. And he bit his lower lip suddenly, trying to stifle the overwhelming hope and tenderness that went over him at this. Alex turned onto his side, so he could touch him. He lifted his hand to stroke Mulder's forehead, his cheek, the line of his jaw. "It was never my decision. It's always been up to you."

"Well, it's time we changed that, isn't it?" Mulder looked uncomfortable, with that subtle reference to the past.

Alex smiled sadly, a little indulgently. "I think the moment I fell I love with you was when I saw you again in Hong Kong. Remember, in Kallenchuk's office? Everything after that happened so fast... but I think that's when it was. I just remember thinking it was so good to see you again, even though things were so bad."

Mulder grinned a little shamefacedly. "I think I enjoyed grinding you into that phone bank a bit too much. But I don't think I actually loved you until I saw you get out of that truck. When you'd joined that militia group? I was so upset about your hair. I couldn't believe how short it was. I hated it. Of course, by then, I was so *angry* I didn't really want to let myself feel anything else." He stopped. "Listen, Alex... I'm sorry for hurting you." He looked right into his eyes, not avoiding him. "I didn't want to want you."

Alex smiled without humor briefly. "I know. I'm sorry too. Just, I never thought we'd end up here. I keep thinking I'll wake up."

Mulder pulled him closer and luxuriated in the feel of their bodies pressed tight against each other, naked, in the firelight. "Then sleep with me. Until we both do." And he placed his arms around him, holding him. Stroking him. They fell asleep like that, murmuring and holding, just being... Together.

Next: Sunflower Seeds III: Storm



TITLE: Sunflower Seeds III: Storms
ARCHIVE: RatB, Persuaders, Nixxers
DISCLAIMER: This piece of slash fanfic is written purely for entertainment purposes; all characters and X-File series' situations referred to belong to Chris Carter, 1013 Productions, etc.
SPOILERS: Possibly all eps up to but not including Season 8, although I doubt it.
RATING: NC-17 -- language, slashy m/m sex, discipline, bondage (eventually, though not this chapter, either)
SUMMARY: Can a balance be maintained between all three living in such close quarters and sharing such a difficult history? Or will the storms, raging both inside and outside the house, have to blow themselves out first?
BETAS: Grateful thanks to Candace, Jennie and Jas for beta, as always this wouldn't have been readable without your help! Thank you so much!
DEDICATION: To Lorelei, for being my armchair coach and quarterback!

Sunflower Seeds III

by Jami Wilsen

Alex awoke to find himself in his bed. A hasty glance at the bedside clock told him it was nearly noon. He swung his legs over the side of the bed, trying to remember what happened to him. He remembered falling asleep with Fox on the fur beside the dying fire. He had a hazy recollection of Walter leaning over them, shaking his shoulder slightly. They must have staggered up to their respective rooms in the dark.

He wondered why they'd let him sleep so late.

He had no memory of experiencing the usual nightmares of smothering and choking in black oil, nor could he recall another panic attack while reliving the pain of losing his arm. But then, he never could. It was always too deeply buried unless his own screams woke him up but somehow, he knew he had slept very well. He felt awake and alert, better rested than he had in a very long time.

And then he gasped as he was assailed with the full recollection of everything he and Fox had said and done the night before. It had all happened so quickly, so removed from their usual tacit, wary circling of each other. Fox had been...*willing*, even aggressively active in pursuing a resolution with him. For a moment or two, he considered staying upstairs. He wasn't sure he could face Fox in the daylight. Walter was another matter; Walter had already given him too many reassurances that he accepted him here. But Fox... there was too much history. Alex could only hope that the sex would act as a cementing of their new relationship rather than a flame that would burn out all too quickly, burning up their truce along with it. He didn't think Fox was capable of putting all their issues behind him as glibly as he'd appeared to act last night. Not if his own unresolved doubts were anything to go by. Doubts? Hell, guilt. Why play games with himself. He still couldn't forgive himself for some things; why should Mulder? Perhaps they just needed time. Time to heal, to let things go. To get to know each other. Hell, they'd never known each other. At least Mulder was finally in a position to be able to relax his usual irrational reactions towards him.

With a sense of foreboding that the previous night had been too good to be true, he finally finished his shower, dressed and went downstairs.

Mulder was sitting at the computer. He looked over at Alex as he came down. "It snowed. In fact, it's still snowing. Have a look. If it keeps up, we'll be snowed in for good."

Alex went to the window. "How much?"

"Three feet, Walter says. It snowed all night. He's out shoveling; he said it keeps him fit. I think he's crazy. He's going to hurt his back. We may have to go bring him back inside at some point and finish the job ourselves."

"Why'd you let me sleep in for so long?"

Mulder didn't look at him, busy with the keyboard and answering absently, "Walt said you needed the rest. There's food in the pantry for you."

Fine, thought Alex to himself. If you want to pretend that nothing happened, I guess that's your prerogative. Still, he couldn't help narrowing his eyes and feeling a little disgruntled at Mulder's attitude. He had to fight the desire to go over and kiss the back of his neck, put his arms around him. Alex wondered if an open display of affection towards Mulder would shock him... coming from Alex. He sighed and went to rustle up something he could call breakfast.

Once he'd eaten though, there was no avoiding it. In fact, he didn't want to avoid it anymore. He straightened and returned to the living room. Sitting down in his chair, he said, "I'm kind of surprised that you didn't stick with Dana Scully. You two were close." He knew now was not the time to mention how much he hated her. If he did, Mulder would fly off the handle.

Mulder looked over at him with a frown and then away. "Yeah, too close. I think we waited too long. It felt like sleeping with my sister or something."

Alex lifted a brow. He couldn't keep the amazement out of his voice. "You actually...?"

"We tried for a while. But I think she just couldn't put up with me in the end. She said she'd had enough of looking after me all those years without having to do it for the rest of her life. Said one child to take care of was enough." He grinned, a softness covering his face as he spoke of her. It was an expression that Alex had not seen on Fox until now.

That familiar twinge of hurt returned. He tried to ignore it. Pointless jealousy. Trying to keep his tone light, he asked, "So who snaffled her in the end? I would've thought either you or Walter... I mean, it was kind of a shock to find you two together. Dana's quite a catch."

Mulder snorted. "Yeah, there was a waiting list. Poor Frohike. He really wanted his chance but she found herself a doctor. Someone a little more down to earth, who didn't remind her of spooky government conspiracies, aliens and world altering agendas." He smiled. "We're still friends; she comes up to visit now and then."

"Good," Alex replied, noncommittal.

Mulder shot him a knowing look. "Your conscience still bothering you?"

Alex sneered slightly. "Why should it? She involved herself. Besides, it's ancient history. Why are you dragging all that out again? I thought we'd gotten past this."

Mulder shrugged and turned in his seat, away from his work. "Have we? I still don't know what you were doing it all for, Alex. Why? How did you sleep at night, what justifications did you tell yourself? What was your angle on it?"

"Freedom. What did you think I was working for? It was always about freedom. Mine, mostly. But yours, too. In fact, everyone's. Hell, they were all tied together; came as a package deal. Think about it, how could I be free if no one else was?"

"You're a real humanitarian."

Mulder's own interests and motives in his original involvement were hardly impersonal or altruistic. Alex threw him a piercing look. "Samantha," he said, without elaborating further. He knew it would touch a nerve to remind Mulder that his own need to find his sister had been the prime factor in his search for the 'truth'.

But it had the desired effect. Mulder scowled, immediately baited. "I can't just suddenly start seeing my greatest enemy as my bosom buddy."

"Can't I be both?" Alex suggested it reasonably, as if he was offering it to him as an alternative. "Love and hate go hand in hand, after all."

Mulder ran an agitated hand through his hair. "Walter is my best friend. He's more than that; he's been there for me when no one else was. You hurt him, you hurt Scully - Dana. You hurt me..."

"Enough. I get the picture." Alex looked angry and Mulder felt a sudden fear. He couldn't explain why. Alex didn't usually show anger; it was always a retreat back to that flat, cold expression. But now he actually looked mad. Yet Alex didn't even raise his voice. "I should have known you'd back out of that little 'deal' you offered last night."

Guilt washed over Mulder at this reminder and he wanted to take it all back, to try to explain. To start over. Why was it so easy to lose his temper with this man? He was tired of feeling like he was navigating through an emotional minefield.

Alex beat him to it. "Why are you doing this? Why bring up old ghosts? I thought we laid them to rest yesterday."

Mulder decided to pay him back for his earlier remark. "My father."

This too had the desired effect. He didn't need to say anything else; it spoke volumes. Alex went very still.

Mulder took this opportunity to add another private matter to his list of grievances. "Diana Fowley. I loved her. You knew I did. I didn't agree with her part in things, I know she betrayed me but in the end she still loved me. You practically jumped with joy when they decided to off her, didn't you? Was it you who pulled the trigger?"

At the mention of her name a look of pure hatred spread over Alex's face. Frankly, he didn't see how that bitch's betrayal of Mulder was any more forgivable than his own. It was far more premeditated and her treachery to Mulder had endured over years and years. If only Fox could have seen for himself firsthand how sympathetic she had been to that smoking son of a bitch's plans and views. Still, there was obviously no point in arguing about it with Mulder. He always believed what he wanted to. But it remained a sore point for Alex. Deeply sore. He knew Mulder had always wanted to believe in her.

Mulder sighed and put his head in his hands, leaning forward. Tiredly, he said, "Look, Alex, I'm not going back on our agreement. But you have to give me time to get used to - to this new thing between us. I'm so used to hating you I don't know how to do anything else." And he almost bit his tongue as he heard how candid and callous those words sounded, especially in the context of their agreement and the admittedly hot exchange of mutual affection that had followed it.

"Bullshit. You're just afraid of examining exactly what you do feel for me." Alex sounded hollow and weary. "Maybe this is a mistake. Maybe I shouldn't be here. No matter what we both agree, I'm always going to be a reminder to you of everything you tried to leave behind in coming here."

"You're the one who's bullshitting now. You're just feeling guilty for shooting him."

Alex stood up, fury written across his face. It made him rather formidable, and also as if he were looking down at Mulder with contempt. But Mulder saw with a rare flash of insight into Alex's soul that it was an attempt to cover up his fear. Alex's tone was venomous now. "Your 'father' was far more of a *bastard* than I ever could have dreamed of becoming. You know he was! To keep holding the act of killing him over my head every time I try to get close to you is like - it's like -" he ran cold suddenly, aware he was getting too worked up. And then whispered, "They cut me loose so early on. I never worked with their interests in mind after that. But it's oh so easy for you to pin the blame on me, the one face you could find to use as a convenient scapegoat. So much frustration - you needed to hate me. I understand that, Fox, I really do. Never mind that eventually, everything I did was inspired by one motivation: to someday hear you say you forgive me. God! All I wanted was a little credit towards the end, there, but you would never admit that I'd done something right, would you? And at the end of it all what did you do but continue to blame *me*. Fuck this. I don't have to explain myself to you. Either you get it or you don't. I'm tired of trying." He was breathing hard. He looked like he was ready to leave the room or go outside or break something.

Mulder found himself wishing he hadn't taken this particular tack with him. Tiredly, he said, "Sit down, Alex. You're right. Okay? Are you satisfied? You are right." Why was it so hard? Why did he find it so difficult to accept Alex as he was? It would be petty of him to continue to jab at him, making him hurt over the past. He knew Alex was telling the truth. But he still couldn't handle the murders, the assassinations. "I just find it hard to accept the deaths. Why did you kill? Will you at least explain that to me? How could you do it?"

Alex stared down at him, baffled. "I didn't have a choice. It was them or me. I wanted to live. If you can't understand that, then you've never been in that position, never had to face that decision. And I can't believe that you've never had to in all your years working in the FBI, Fox. There's blood on your hands, too, however much you might tell yourself you had no choice. Every time. Maybe the circumstances were different but I ask you, which of us had the harder choices? You were dealing with monsters and criminals. Weird life forms. I was dealing with aliens and old men who thought nothing of sacrificing the planet to save their own skins, to save an elite pocket of humanity in the face of an offer they couldn't refuse. It's a toss-up, I guess. But they were the ones who hired me. Considering the stakes, I don't think I really had many options to choose from."

"Now you sound just like them." Despite his words, Mulder's answer was soft, his voice placating, almost entreating him not to react despite the sting of what he was saying. In his own way, Mulder was trying to exorcise the residual frustration and pain he felt. "The end doesn't justify the means. Every pawn sacrificed was another stain on your soul."

Alex smiled bitterly at him. "My soul, my business. What would you have done in my place? Sacrifice yourself? Besides, it's over. Finished. You are so lucky that I've been there for you, that Walter and Dana have been there for you, to save your skin when you placed yourself in danger. God, so many times, too. I often wondered if you had a death wish or if you really were just recklessly, blindly stupid. The only thing that kept you alive was your DNA. You have no idea. You're fortunate that they considered you more valuable alive than dead. And besides, for every one of *them* I killed I can provide proof that they deserved a far worse end than I gave them. Including William Mulder. And he wasn't even your father, something you conveniently never care to discuss."

"What, no pawns got in the way? Duane Barry, others?"

A shadow flitted over Alex before he replied. "That wasn't me. As for the others, haven't you ever killed anyone and then regretted it?"


"I regret every single one. And there are far less than you're trying to make out. You always act like I'm some kind of mass murderer... I may not have been a true soldier but fuck, Mulder, you've killed more people in your lifetime than I have."

"Right. You're a real bleeding heart. Alex, I won't go back on what we agreed. I forgive you. But I can't forget it, I just can't. There are too many innocents, too many dead. You can't compare yourself to me and make me believe that every killing was a noble deed, done for the cause. Come on, Alex...Every single time?"

Alex took him by surprise, sinking swiftly to his knees in front of him and earnestly addressing him. "Just don't hate me. Please. I can't stand it when you hate me. I'll do anything you want as long as you stop hating me."

Taken aback by this unforeseen display on Alex's part, Mulder found himself stammering, "I - I don't. I don't hate you, not any more. All I'm saying is that I don't think I can ever forget what you are."

Alex asked quietly, sadly, "And what am I?"

Without shrinking away, Mulder looked Alex in the eye and regarded the solemn face of the one he'd always considered his personal nemesis. "A paradox; a final reminder of my life's pursuit and the inevitable losses that I've had to endure in trying to achieve my goals. You're the unwitting face of my enemy and the embodiment of everything about myself I've tried to deny. The mirror of my desire, my fear of what the truth would actually end up being in reality, and a constant reminder of just how responsible I actually was, all at the same time. You have to admit that's all rather a lot to cope with in one person, Alex."

With a helpless little moan, Alex leaned forward to rest his forehead on Mulder's knee. "All I want to be, Fox, is forgiven. That's all. I'm sorry. For all I've done, everything, for anything I've done, I'm sorry. I'm sorry."

Mulder could hardly deny the heartfelt sincerity in this plea and he wondered why nothing could ever be simple. He slipped down in front of him and held him close, comfortingly. "Alright. I forgive you. I do. I mean it; I won't go back on that. But you'll have to be patient with me. I thought I'd found my truth and seeing you again reminded me of all the things I still don't know, all the answers I never found. It woke up old memories and things I thought I'd buried."

Alex didn't answer, merely continued to keep his hold on him. It was at that point that Walter returned, coming in the front door and stamping snow off his boots, his glasses fogging up quickly in the warmth of the living room. He looked up, taking in the little tableau before him.

Dryly, he said, "Let me guess: another near miss?"

"We're working it out, don't worry." Mulder kissed Alex on the forehead and then stood up, helping him to his feet. "We... needed to touch base. That's all."

Walter noticed the way Alex avoided his eye though. Damn it, he thought. I can't leave these two boys alone together for ten minutes, let alone the time it takes to clear the driveway.

"Fine," he said firmly. "Then the two of you can go out and finish clearing the rest of the drive. Put these new-found brotherly sentiments to work."

Walter went wearily up the stairs to change, shaking his head.

He had a light lunch and then went back out to see how they were getting on. They had made it quite far back along the driveway, throwing themselves into it with great enthusiasm, armed with their shovels, when he waved at them to come in.

"It's not that big of a front, the weather will probably clear by tonight," Walter said as Mulder came inside, his nose and ears markedly red.

"Damn. It's gonna freeze, then."

"It's already frozen," Walter smiled.

"Yeah, but the temperature's gonna drop way below what it's been the last couple of weeks, if the clouds lift. And don't forget the wind chill factor."

"What was all that about, earlier?" Walter asked.

Mulder sighed. "Just working out some loose ends. I can forgive but I can't forget. You know, the usual. He killed my father, hurt you and Dana, the whole spiel."

Walter frowned. "Where is he?"

Mulder looked around and went to one of the windows. "He was right behind me." Peering out of it, he shrugged. "Maybe he went for a walk."

Concerned, Walter went to join him. "Out there, in this? Doesn't he know better? Go back outside and have a look."

Pulling his boots and coat and gloves back on, Mulder went out the front door. Scanning the driveway, he could see no sign of him. He went around back and checked by the storehouse and the sheds and there was nothing. No fresh tracks. He ended up walking back down the driveway where they'd been clearing, right up the point where they'd stopped. Sure enough, there was a set of Alex's tracks, leading off into the distance.

Alex himself was nowhere to be seen. Feeling stupid, he called out his name a few times. There was no response. He wondered why he hadn't tried harder to control himself earlier. Maybe Alex had wandered off in a sulk because of him...

Trying to ignore the unsettled feeling that came over him at this, Mulder returned to the house. When he came in, he said, "Maybe he's just gone off for some time by himself."

Walter took a breath. "Okay. We'll give him some breathing room. But if he doesn't show up in an hour, we'll have to go out in the jeep."

"He hasn't left; he's got all his stuff back here, and his car. He'll have to come back for it. He must be taking a walk."

Three hours later, Walter and Mulder were in Walter's jeep driving slowly over thick, powdery, snow-covered ground. They'd lost his tracks and had no idea which direction Alex had taken. The snow had covered them up. Finally, the drifts were too deep and they had to turn back. It was dangerous for them to continue.

But as darkness began to fall, Walter turned to where Mulder had taken up a unmoving vigilance at the window. "We might have to face the fact that he decided to take off."

When Mulder didn't answer, he added, "It's not your fault."

Mulder didn't turn around. "Yes, it is." He sounded disparaging of himself. "I had to get all accusatory with him and I pushed him too far. If he doesn't come back..."

"Fox, I think it's time you told me what you said. What really happened?"

"I let him know I still don't trust him. I said I didn't hate him anymore, but that it was hard to forget - the past."

"So why were you both on your knees when I came in?"

"It wasn't what you think it was, Walt, I promise. We just... came to an understanding, is all. At least, I thought we had," he muttered.

"So suddenly you're worried about him? Fox, do you think you might actually care about him?"

Mulder turned a dark scowl on him. "What are you getting at?"

"You're conflicted," Walter snorted, adding, "Exactly as I've been telling you all along."

Mulder surprised him by smiling a little. "Yeah, I know."

Walter came up behind him and leaned his arms across Mulder's shoulders, looking out at the falling snowflakes on their driveway they'd struggled to clear. "He'll be back. You'll see."

Softly, Mulder wondered, "Does anyone ever recover from the past? We can bury it but it can always come back to haunt us. Especially words."

"You realize we can't really forgive him until he learns how to forgive himself?"

"I know. I think the only thing that keeps me from forgiving him is the shooting of William Mulder. Krycek is right; my father *was* a bastard. I think I still have a lot of guilt over that. I went to my father that night for closure, for answers. If he'd told me, they'd have killed me. Not many choices for anyone, there. Dad couldn't really tell me anything, Krycek would've had to choose which of us to kill... and I was drugged out of my mind."

Walter held him a little tighter. "Don't you think it's time you also faced the fact that it was for that very reason that the confrontation you had with Alex afterward was so violent, on your part? Acid makes one paranoid at the best of times and what they were giving you was enough to send you completely off your head. Scully had to shoot *you* to stop you from killing him. And I don't care what Alex says - you aren't a killer, Fox. Even for revenge. You can be erratic and impulsive, even passionate, but you don't just kill. I know it's hard for you to accept, but you have passionate feelings for him, both love and hate."

Mulder leaned back into his embrace and nodded. "Of course. I just can't accept yet that I - I actually find myself liking a man who killed for money, sold his soul to that smoking devil, betrayed me and my partner, blackmailed you and played all ends against the middle. Whatever his reasons, there are no excuses that can justify mercenary behavior."

"It was a *war*, Fox," Walter reminded him. "We were all on the same side, actually, although it may not have appeared that way. We were stuck in the middle of it all, doing what we could. When I was compromised in my position at the Bureau, you never blamed me. In a way, you need to cut him the same slack now. And you have your own sins to remember. You haven't been beyond reproach."

"Alright, alright," Mulder said, a little testily. "I know I'm not lily-white, either. He was right; I carried a gun for years. I guess just because it was in an official capacity doesn't justify all the times I've killed anyone."

"Exactly. It could have been you in his position, easily, if it weren't for your sister's abduction and your drive to find her."

"You're right. I think that's what he was trying to say to me before you came in. Just the thought though, that he's gotten lost out there because of a stupid disagreement this morning... I don't think I can bear this." Mulder shook his head suddenly, abruptly. As if coming out of a trance. "There he is," he said, in a low voice.

Sure enough, a dark figure barely discernible amidst the rapidly descending and swirling flakes came clearer as Alex trudged back up to the house, along the driveway.

He stamped up the steps and came in the front door into the warmth, peeling off his hat and scarf. "It's freezing out there," he managed. "It's still coming down, too, it's covered up all our good work." He had the nerve to look exhilarated and cheerful.

"Where the hell have you been?" Mulder demanded. "How is it that you didn't fucking freeze to death?!"

Walter watched Alex impassively.

Alex came to a pause, taking in their angry faces. He grinned widely; he couldn't help it. "Well, well. This is a new experience for me. Do I detect a note of concern?" This last was aimed at Mulder. Alex's eyes were almost sparkling but with mischief or delighted happiness that they might care, it was hard to tell.

It was probably both, decided Walter. "We've been out searching for you. We had to finally turn back. Thought you'd jumped ship and decided to lose yourself out there. Frankly, I'm surprised you're alive. Aren't you frostbitten?"

Alex shook his head slightly. "I'm fine. I kept moving. You forget, I've had practice - in Siberia. Spent some time there." He flicked a glance at Mulder who looked away, already feeling guilty enough for the problem earlier without also having to recall that it was his fault Alex lost his arm.

Walter said, "Do you have any idea how worried we were, that you were lost and couldn't find shelter? Did it even cross your mind to tell us that you were going to pull this stunt?"

Alex raised a brow at this. "I didn't think I was here on a probationary basis. If I can't even take a walk -"

"No one minds if you need to clear your head, if you want to get out and spend some time on your own, Alex. That's not what we're saying. But making us worry about you is selfish. We've been pacing the floor. We were out there driving around expecting to find you stuck in a snowdrift or drowning in the middle of a frozen lake. Fox here has been frantic, beside himself with anxiety the entire time."

Mulder nearly protested but it died as a stricken look crossed Alex's face. Obviously Alex hadn't thought that they would worry. He probably hadn't guessed that they would care all that much if something happened to him, in fact.

Alex removed his coat with a sigh. "I didn't think it was that big a deal."

Walter's brows lifted alarmingly. "You didn't."

"No." He looked from one to the other.

Mulder quietly put in, "The least you could've done was let us know how long you were going to be gone. So we could know when to start worrying, when to organize a search party. We thought you'd run off, upset over what happened earlier."

Alex passed his hand over his face, rubbing his eyes. "Look, I'm sorry. Next time I'll tell you. Okay? I'm not used to people... caring about my welfare, let alone thinking I can't make it in weather like this. Believe me, this is mild. I've known worse."

Something in Walter's face told Alex that there would be reparations later. For Christ's sake, he wanted to grumble and then thought better of it. He held his tongue, realizing that they had indeed got themselves worried sick about him. Him! It was a novelty, to warrant such attention. And he smiled, mostly to himself. It was a nice feeling. Yeah, he'd deal with any consequences in good spirits, knowing that it was an honor, actually, to be let into their home like this. And he really was sorry he'd made them worry for so long. He'd been enjoying the peace and the delicious freedom of wandering so much that he honestly hadn't realized that time had flown so quickly either. He put it down to the surreal quality of the outdoors with the snow falling. He was surprised though that the both of them thought he was so thoughtless as to wander off without taking note of landmarks or without a compass. And he hadn't actually gone that far.

Outside, the clouds fell down thickly like copious feathers falling from torn pillows, piling up in huge swells, the icy wind blowing them into sculpted shapes.

Alex offered to cook dinner that night, partly to make up for the stress they'd had to go through over his disappearing act. He'd been doing a lot of thinking on his own. He'd really needed to get out for a while. The solitude, the undemanding wilderness and the peacefulness of the snow everywhere had helped clear his thoughts and quell a few of the stronger anxieties that had been bothering him.

He'd come to the decision to do whatever it took to remain there with them. It was like a final call on his path in life, not to mention a chance to repair some of the damage he knew he'd done to both of them. He had returned this afternoon with a renewed sense of direction and purpose, not sure where it would take him eventually but adamant that he wanted it more than anything that had ever been offered to him.

Despite the whiteout outside, the blackness fell early due to their latitude. As far north as they were, the days were getting considerably shorter. It had begun to affect their daily routines, too.

Mulder gave up trying to get any reception on the TV, due to the interference from the blizzard, and ended up throwing himself into his couch to munch his way through the bowl of seeds. Walter was quietly reading yet again.

Alex was restless. He finally went upstairs to his room and shut the door.

Walter looked up at the sound as the door closed behind him, then looked over at Fox. "What?" It was obvious something was on Mulder's mind.

Mulder wetted his lips with his tongue, carefully choosing his words. "I know that I made everyone worry about me constantly, when I was working for the Bureau. It was a difficult habit to break but I got over it. I have you to thank for that."

"All you needed was for your life to settle down," Walter said, gruffly.

"No, Walt, you helped me to work on a potentially life-threatening habit I had. I was always throwing myself into dangerous situations and impossible places, often leaving myself stranded with only Scully's ability to ferret me out as a way of surviving what I'd got myself into. With nothing more for her to go on sometimes than a vague knowledge of how my mind works. And that wasn't easy for her, either. I can't even predict myself what I'm going to come up with next, you know? But you gave me a way out. You taught me how to value my own skin more both for my own sake and that of others. I considered my pursuits important above their needs and feelings. You made me think of other people before myself. Thank you."

"You're very welcome. I have to admit I did it partly out of selfishness, Fox. I hardly want you lost or dead. And it was more than a little satisfying to finally be able to knock some sense into you somehow." Walter's reply was humoring of him though, and he was smiling.

Mulder grinned at him. "Yeah, but you love me. Or I wouldn't let you. It may seem childish but it helps me to have a guideline, knowing what my boundaries are, where the line is when I cease thinking about how I make others feel. But," his smile fell away, "I thought you said something about this arrangement of ours applying to Alex as well."


"So he's up there getting off scot-free after having scared both of us to death today. Aren't you going to paddle him for that?"

Walter smirked at him. "Why? You want to watch? Does it get you off, hearing him get smacked? I seem to recall someone employing stealth tactics in the hallway a couple days ago, when a certain rat came in from the cold..."

"That's not what I'm talking about and you know it. Surely he deserves some kind of disciplinary measure for this."

"If he does, that's up to me," Walter pointed out.

"Yeah. So, what are you going to do?"

"I'll tell you two things about Alex that you may have not considered. First of all, he's more used to being alone that we are. He hasn't yet adapted to living here, any more than we've gotten used to having him around, either. He needs space. And time. And second, he needs more attention... as contrary as that may sound, seeing as he is used to being alone. He isn't used to being around people in a friendly situation. He hasn't adapted to this, or to us. So, any punishment has to be meted accordingly, wouldn't you agree?"

Mulder was in one of his famous pouts though. "I get it. I get spanked for unacceptable behavior while he gets a pat on the head."

"No, but you will if you keep this up," returned Walter. "I oughtta paddle *you* for what happened this morning."

"Ouch. You have a point. But seriously, what kind of feedback are you going to give him? Walt, I thought he was *gone*. You were worried too, I saw you. He could have died. He's not stupid, he's expecting it. He'll be worried if you *don't* go up there."

Walter looked upwards. And sighed. "You're right, I'm delaying the inevitable, aren't I?" And he stood up. Turning suddenly, he shook a finger at Mulder. "No eavesdropping this time, either."

Mulder grinned saucily. "I won't need to, if the look on your face is anything to go by. I'll be able to hear it just fine from down here. Don't worry, Walt. When you're all through, I'll be waiting in bed. Just be sure to bring him with you."

Walter regarded him with surprise. "Isn't that moving too fast? He hasn't been here that long."

"If we wait longer, it might just create more problems," Mulder pointed out. "Don't tell him I'm going to be there though. I want to surprise him. He might back out if he knows."

"Good point." Walter stretched until he could feel the bones pulling. "Okay. I'm gonna get this over with. See you in a while."

Mulder did not envy him as he went up to confront Alex, now knowing full well that it required a delicate balance between admonishment and care where Alex was concerned. He thoughtfully regarded the fire, unable to put out of his mind the events of the previous night. He replayed them inside his head as he gazed at the bearskin rug that still lay before the hearth. He found himself promising silently to make up for this morning's unpleasantness between them... after Walt was done with him.

Walter knocked on the door. At Alex's grunt, he went in. Alex was in the process of unpacking what little remained in his bags; it was obviously part of an attempt to move more solidly into his room. He eyed Walter warily as the man sat on the edge of Alex's bed. "Hi. What's up?"

Walter hesitated, wondering what tone to take. "You do realize that by not taking into account the fact that we'd be worried about you, you acted rather selfishly today?"

"Yeah," murmured Alex, "but you also know why I had to get out for a while."

"True. Still, you could have mentioned something to Fox. Or even come back in and said it to me if you were worried that he might try to stop you."

Alex was silent. He folded both arms across his chest and came to stand before him. "So? So what? I apologized to both of you and I promised I'd let you know next time. What's the big deal?"

"I don't think you're sorry at all. You're only saying that because we demanded it out of frayed nerves."

Alex tried not to smile at this.

Walter continued, "That hardly reassures me that you won't go off again. Or that you don't think that we're a couple of paranoid assholes for worrying about you: the accomplished assassin who can survive anything, even a horizontal snowstorm with temperatures down to minus forty. After sweating like that, too, shoveling the drive -you ran the risk of becoming hypothermic. You were gone for over four hours. Where the hell were you trying to go? The Canadian/Alaskan border? You aren't even familiar with this region." He stopped, giving Alex an appraising glance. "You think I'm making a mountain out of a molehill, here? Or do you agree that maybe I have a point?"

Alex smiled. "I guess you have a point. You're making it very well. I can't really say anything to that, can I... but that's the idea, isn't it?"

"Your implication being?"

"You've got it into your head that simply administering a series of punishments for 'naughty' behavior is going to help me."

"I'm asking *you*, Alex: what do you think would help you best?"

"Time," Alex replied simply, his voice rough. "Time to adjust. To get used to being here. To - be here with you two. It means a lot to me; I don't want to do anything that might end up with you kicking me out. I didn't mean to jeopardize my stay here with what happened today. I need... space. I can't help it. I'm used to living on my own. Completely alone."

"How long do you think that might be? Before you consider yourself adjusted, I mean."

"Six months, to hazard a guess." Alex was grinning again now.

"I'd say that sounds like an understanding of probationary status, to me," Walter pointed out. "It also sounds like avoidance."

"Oh come on, lighten up."

Walter grinned back at him though. "You're afraid I'm gonna suggest you let me chastise you, aren't you? After all, it's a lot harder to forget making a promise like we've asked you to make, when you have the reinforcement of punishment as a reminder ."

To his surprise, Alex found that he was nervous about another spanking, despite the fact that he really did trust Walter now. He didn't want something that personal or arousing interfering with things. As long as it remained outside the sexual arena... He needed something else to hold on to. He knew Walter provided a secure threshold he could rely on, a harbor he could allow his emotional states to spill into without fear he'd be lost in them. Not only did it appeal to him, the idea that with a simple act of discipline he could let all his guilt float out of him completely, but he could simultaneously take the opportunity to clear some more of the psychological hang-ups he'd accumulated over the years. All that was required was trust on his part, trust that Walter meant well and that he *did* care for him. That he truly was doing it with Alex's interests in mind. He believed Walter; he knew the man had a paradoxically soft heart while having what it took to be able to administer discipline when needed. It made him perfect for this. He suddenly found himself envying the fact that Mulder had already been able to avail himself of this for years now. He came to a decision silently. It had to be done in a way that he wasn't going to find arousing, or else the experience wouldn't really help him. He looked down, almost protectively, self-defensively. He nearly winced as he realized how much he'd been giving away subconsciously the whole time he'd been here since he'd arrived, with his mere body language. He lifted his chin slightly, looking down at Walter, his arms still folded in front of him.

"A spanking isn't going to do it. But I don't think just a kiss and a hug from you will cut it, either. I need something else to drive the point home."

Walter took a breath. "I thought you might say that."

"How far are you willing to go?"

"I won't hurt you, if that's what you mean," Walter said in a disapproving tone. "This isn't about making you pay for your sins or any of that kind of crap. It's not a religious disorder or a game to me."

"I know that," Alex said quickly. "But I enjoy it too much, both the love and the act - well, your hand."

Walter waited. Then said, "It's up to you. What do you think you need?"

"Nothing heavy. A touch of the strap, maybe."

Walter sighed. "I'm curious, Alex. Were you beaten when you were young?"

Alex shook his head. "Not really; nothing worth remembering."

"Will my belt do?"

Alex considered this seriously. "Yeah. Yeah, it would."

"You sure? I don't want you coming up to me afterwards saying that I beat you... and for no good reason."

Alex's lips twitched. "Hardly. If anything, it gives me something real, something tangible to hang onto, to avoid in the future." He chuckled. "Don't worry, I can take it."

"I know you can. Okay, since you're sure. I'll be right back." Walter left then, to go retrieve his belt from his closet. It was hanging in his pants. He was glad Mulder hadn't come upstairs yet.

Walter was surprised. It was obvious that Alex had actually given this thought. He was tempted to believe that Alex was considerably more emotionally in touch with himself and mature than Fox was. It had taken Fox a long time to get to this point, to be able to face himself inside and see that he actually craved real limits he could work with, without using it as another means of feeling sorry for himself in attempts to avoid past pain. But then, Alex was smart and could hardly have survived what he had thus far without being intimately aware of his actual needs and having to deal with them. And Alex had known too that he couldn't indulge in lying to himself. It was purely the lack of human comfort that he was starved for. It was his heart that had been driven underground, into hiding. If anything, it was a testimony to the existence and depth of Alex's capability for feeling that he had turned out the way that he had. A little love and guidance and Alex would be a changed man, Walter felt sure. And he felt a measure of pride that he had been right; he'd been more right in his hunches about this man than he'd ever guessed -- even before Alex's arrival in their home.

It was so easy to mistake this kind of situation for sexual or domination games. It was the same combination of dependability, strength and caring in Walter that had enabled him to support and lead men in the Vietnam War as in this situation, to provide an authority they could trust in a disciplinary sense. It had also been there to an extent in his position as Assistant Director, although he was less effective there because of the hypocrisy inherent in the hierarchical bureaucracy of a federal agency. He was just relieved that Alex could understand this and actually saw the positive opportunity it provided him.

By the time Walter returned to Alex's room, Alex was already leaning across the bed with his pants off, waiting for him. Walter was rather glad; it spared him making a scene of it. And from this position, he could administer the belt standing up.

He took a breath. "How many do you need, for making us worry for so long today?"

Alex replied, his voice slightly muffled from his position on the bed, "Five. For the hours."

He was right; it had been five hours that he'd been gone. Walter moved and saw Alex tense slightly, expecting the first blow.

He raised the leather belt, both ends in his hand, folded, and brought it down sharply. The sound reverberated harshly around the bare walls of the room as a slight red stripe appeared on Alex's left cheek. "Count them out."

"One." Alex's voice was even.

Walter brought it down again, this time a little harder, on the right butt-cheek. Alex couldn't help wincing. "Two," he said, a slight strain entering his voice.

"What is this for?" Walter asked. He brought the belt down again, even harder, this time laying it straight across both previous strokes and leaving a welt trail.

"Three. F-for making you worry about me. For making you wonder if I'd even come back."

Alex gasped as a lick of fire landed at an angle diagonally across the other burning paths, hard. "Four."

"And what will you do next time you go out?"

Alex closed his eyes, breathing hard, trying not to move away, wanting to avoid this last one. Somehow, he knew if he did, Walter would end up giving him more. He wondered why even now, despite having suffered so much more greatly in the past, this circumstance made him want to weep. Again, it was that Walter was only doing this because he cared, and because he knew that Alex actually cared, and it was like some kind of unspoken declaration of love that they agreed this was the only way he would accept any criticism from Walter. Ever. Violence and anger was too uncontrolled and bitter. This at least gave structure to something that could have been potentially damaging to the beginning of their relationship here. And he swallowed against the lump in his throat. He felt an enormous freedom as though a weight had lifted from him, as he said, "Next time, I'll tell you how long I intend to be gone. And where I'm going in case something happens to me."

"Good." And Walter gave him the last lash of the belt right on the underside of his bottom, where it was surely going to be sorest... As Alex would discover the next time he tried to sit down.

Alex jumped under it, wincing. "Five!" exclaimed Alex; incredibly relieved it was the last. Even now he couldn't help twisting beneath it as the flame raced over his skin, burning and itching.

Walter let the belt fall from his grip and snatched up the tube of aloe gel from the bedside table. Spreading the cooling gel on his fingers, he applied it to the broad red stripes on Alex's butt. "Do you have any idea how proud I am of you?" Walter asked him. "I had no idea you would be able to take such large steps, so quickly. I can't understand how you can believe that we have some kind of plan to kick you out, come the summer. Surely you know that you have a place here with us. How many times do we have to prove it to you, that we love you?"

As he'd come to expect, it was this that finally made Alex tighten and he could see the tears spring down.

Alex murmured hoarsely, "I didn't think anyone could care this way for me. I didn't even realize that you two would be worried. It didn't occur to me."

"Hell, after yesterday? I'm surprised, Alex. I thought you'd know you mean something to me, by now. I told you I loved you. And I'm guessing, even though things are still shaky between the two of you, that something happened last night with Fox."

"I know. You're right." Alex sniffed, the sound reaching straight into Walter's chest and tugging at him as he carefully spread the gel over the sore welts. "I'm sorry, Walt."

Walter leaned down to kiss his cheek. "All's forgiven. And now, if you're willing, I'd like you to come next door, to my room. You can lay on your side," he grinned, "and just - whatever."

"Whatever?" Alex smiled through his tears and was wiping them away as he gingerly pulled himself off the bed to stand up and pull up his shorts. He didn't look Walter in the face though.

Walter wondered long it would actually take Alex to believe that they loved him, that they didn't think less of him for breaking down in front of them. Oh well, he thought. They had a number of months, at least, to prove it to him. And he pulled Alex into his arms, holding him tightly. Alex relaxed against him, sighing with relief. They stood like that for a while.

Finally, Walter smiled. "Feel up to spending some time next door? You can stay the night if you want. Why don't you?"

Alex pulled back to look him in the eye this time. "Are you sure? In your room? You sure that's - okay?"

Walter realized this was a bigger thing for Alex than he had previously thought. "Of course," he said, as if it should be obvious. "No problem. Come on."

Walter deliberately left the light off as they entered the room. He shut the bedroom door and led the sightless younger man into the room towards the bed. "Go on, get under the covers. We'll snuggle up," he said quietly, tossing the belt in the direction of the closet and stripping his clothes off.

Alex took off his shirt. He felt for the bed and crawled between the sheets and the heavy blankets, taking a secret pleasure in the combination of scents that hit him. Subtly mingled there, were both Fox's and Walter's smell and it was indeed cozy as well as exciting. He felt slightly taken aback at being here. He wondered why he felt such original trepidation and put it down to the fact that before, he never would have imagined that they would let him in here. Oh, who was he kidding. He wanted to be here so badly. It was like finally achieving a fantasy and having it come true, fulfilled by two people he loved... He drew up short at this admission to himself. Stop it. He found himself shaking slightly and cursed his nerves. It wasn't 'generosity' on Walter's part; it was genuine affection and a desire to spend time with him. He was still bemused that Walter could put the past behind them like this.

The bed dipped slightly as Walter now came in after him, moving up closer under the covers and reaching out to him with an arm. In the still darkness, Alex found himself breathing easier as Walter's hand reached him and lazily slipped over his shoulder, down to his elbow and then to his hip where he lay on his left side, facing him. He had removed the left arm prior to the earlier session and was glad that it was dark. He still felt stressed about anyone seeing what was left of his arm. He was inordinately glad and relieved that neither of them had even acted as though they'd noticed, so far.

Walter's other hand went to his head, stroking his hair. As Walter moved closer to press in towards him, warm and solid, Alex jumped slightly at the touch of another hand, slipping in to touch him at his waist, from behind him. Mulder.

Alex tensed, biting his lip. Hell. He hadn't counted on this. He hadn't expected both of them to be there. And here he was in between them, in the middle... He found himself holding his breath and forced himself to take a few. Alex wasn't sure about this, mostly because he wanted it so badly.

Mulder's other hand pressed against his back as he moved in close behind Alex and lay against him. Mulder was naked, as was Walter. He could tell from the unmistakable rigid lengths that were brushed up against him from both sides, as well as the hot skin that he felt against him like being deliciously wrapped in comfort. He silently cursed the fact that his own ass was covered in gel and welts - he would have preferred for this to happen when he was able to enjoy it more. Mulder leaned against him, pressing his lower stomach against Alex's shorts, sliding his cock silkily between his closed upper thighs.

Alex hissed at the sensation and Mulder chuckled behind him, in his ear, holding him tight against him. "Wow, that's a couple of hot buns you've got there, Alex. I can feel them even through these. I think I could fry eggs on them without any trouble."

Walter meanwhile had moved in close as well and now Alex was sandwiched perfectly between them, gulping for breath and shaking more uncontrollably now. His hand was on Walter's arm. "Fox," suggested Walter, over Alex's head, "I move that we keep him here for a while."

"Yeah, I'll second that," Fox said into the back of Alex's neck, making him squirm slightly. His voice was lazy honey and made Alex shiver inside.

Being held so closely, so tightly, by both of them, was nearly more than he could bear. Sensory overload was threatening his brain and he wondered if one could come just from anticipation. He was already throbbing, aching, drooling hard; his cock leaping slightly against Walter's right side and his lower stomach.

Then Walter was kissing his face gently, slowly, pressing his lips to his skin, warm and full. "What do you want, Alex? Do you want to be enjoyed?"

"Yes," he gritted out as a shudder ran over him; Walter's hand had fallen to play with his nipples, pulling at them slowly, bringing them hard and stiffened quickly.

"Relax, Alex; just let it happen," Walter murmured.

In perfect anguish, Alex moaned, "Please don't tease me. Please! I need you."

Mulder asked in his ear from behind him, "What do you want us to do?"

Walter stopped, puzzled. "Which of us, Alex?"

"Both of you!" he exclaimed, unable to move as he lay squeezed between them. They had the upper hand over him right now. He moved, shifting slightly, and both of them instinctively held on to him, proving his point.

Mulder came to a decision. "Turn around, Alex."

Alex obeyed, Walter assisting him, and then Mulder was gathering him into his arms, tightly against him. And behind him, Walter's hands fell to his waist to slide his shorts down. At the sudden move, Alex felt a thrill shoot through him; he knew what Walter intended to do. Mulder was kissing him, slow and lingeringly.

The excitement and anticipation curled in his lower belly as Walter slid two wet fingers in his crack, while Mulder's kisses grew more demanding. Sensory overload, followed by conflicting desire and doubt assailed Alex. And as Walter's cock nudged at him now, forcing into him slowly, stretching him hard and deep, he found himself moaning into Mulder's mouth. And then Mulder's hand was reaching between them to grip Alex's throbbing prick - it jumped in his hand, nearly shooting at the stimulation.

Walter pulled out a bit, and then shoved back into him a little quicker, grunting himself at the sensation of Alex's ass clenching around his cock so tightly. Walter had been looking forward to this ever since that first taste of it the night Alex and he had spent the night.

All three of them began to move in unison; it was like a dance, with Alex thrusting back against onto Walter's hardness, then pushing forward into Mulder's hand, slick with his juices.

"God, Alex, fuck, oh fuck," Mulder was hoarsely muttering, strained.

Walter stopped a moment and ordered, "Fox, turn around."

The words didn't really register in Alex's mind but as Mulder pulled away from him and then backed up against him, reaching back to angle his ass against Alex's cock, realization hit him and he gratefully slid into him. Mulder had already lubed himself up, he discovered. With a whimper, he realized he'd never been in a position like this before, able to fuck and be fucked simultaneously.

And then they were undulating with a sort of sensual synchronized wave, every time Walter penetrated Alex deep, slamming into him harder and harder, he was forced with the momentum into Fox's slick, tight asshole even deeper, making Fox emit the most incredible open-mouthed cries.

Breathing hard, Walter said, "Come on, guys. Let's move. On your stomach, Fox. Alex, move with me."

It took some precision and Walter ended up pulling out of Alex to get them into position. Mulder was lying with his hips angled upwards and his legs apart, with Alex sliding into him again eagerly, laying over his back, kissing his neck and whispering into his ears. Walter was leaning over them, and then he was driving into Alex harder and faster this time, letting him have it, driving him into Fox so deep that Fox was nearly shouting under them.

They weren't going to last much longer at this rate. Alex started to come first, from the double-pleasure spiking into him as Walter battered his ass and his prostate, while fucking Fox under him - something he'd dreamed about for as long as he could remember knowing him.

As his ass began to clench and massage Walter's cock, Alex came, flooding Fox's hole with a burst of spasms while Alex cried aloud. Walter came with the next thrust into him. Fox's breath hitched as he reached down to grasp himself with one hand and he groaned loudly as his load shot over his own hand and onto the sheet.

Fox was lying in a dark comfortable haze under them, content to just lay there. Alex gave a little shudder and enjoyed being plastered against him, his member shrinking inside Fox. Walter got up and went out to the bathroom, collecting warm and wet towels as well as dry. When he came back in and turned on the bedside lamp, there were a number of protestations. They stopped though once he tossed the towels at them.

Once they were cleaned up and Walter was leaning up to turn off the light again, Fox found himself in the middle with an affectionate and contented Alex snuggling up against him, grinning and sighing happily. Alex was lying on his left side, so he could wrap his arm around him. Walter did the same from the other side, and Fox said sardonically, "Hey, guys, are we gonna have a repeat performance of that later?"

"Greedy," chuckled Walter, before seizing his neck in a mock bite, then licking at it to soothe the impression of teeth in his flesh. He lifted his head and said to Alex, "He's insatiable. You'll have to help me keep him satisfied now that you're around."

"Anytime," Alex breathed fervently, nuzzling against Fox with a warmth that made Fox's breath hitch in his throat and wonder how he could have ever doubted that Alex wanted this, wanted him.

Fox said quietly, "I love you too, Alex." Which of course made Alex freeze momentarily before clutching him fiercely.

Then, Mulder reached a hand over to Walter, curling it round his neck and pulling him in for a deep kiss. "Thanks for putting up with us, Walt. I know it's been hard for you; having to be so patient and everything."

Walter ran an admiring hand down Mulder's chest, to his belly, stroking the soft skin there and encountering Alex's fingers. "I'm just glad you two have finally decided to work things out and stop behaving like idiots."

Alex cleared his throat. "Sorry, Walter."

"Yeah, we're sorry, Walt. We really are," Mulder chimed in.

"It's okay," Walter reassured them. "I expected we'd be off to a rocky start, considering the way you two have danced around each other for so many years. Just let's remember that there are alternatives to resorting to bitch-slapping and infantile sulking when you disagree."

"You mean like this?" Alex asked, innocently, entwining his fingers with Walter's and drawing their hands down to Mulder's quiescent cock.

Mulder breathed a sigh. "Guys, I think I'm out for the count for a while. I could go another round right now but I think it would be better if we waited."

Walter raised a concerned brow in the dark. "Jesus, Fox! This is the first time you've ever turned it down. Are you feeling okay?" They didn't remove their hands.

"Peace!" Mulder said. "I just mean I need some more recovery time, is all."

Alex chuckled wickedly. "I don't think Fox Junior here agrees with you."

Indeed, Mulder's cock was already lifting its head at the touch of their hands upon him.

Mulder groaned. "Mercy!"

Alex made a little noise of complaint, but he let go, went back to cozying up against him. Walter did the same.

They fell asleep together, warm and content, unspoken visions of positions and combinations of what they might try all together crossing their minds - all unknown to each other.

Mulder groaned. Walter was pushing him, urgently. "Come on you guys, wake up. Get up!"

Alex lifted a blinking head, tousled. "What is it?" he frowned.

"The sky's on fire," Walter grinned.

"Aurora?" Mulder asked, a little more enthusiastically.

"Come on, get dressed!" Walter was impatient now. "Let's go! Dress *warmly*," he said.

Alex lay back with a sigh. Mulder turned to him. "Alex, you don't want to miss this." He kissed him. Alex scowled. Mulder grinned and kissed him roughly, forcing him to wake up.

"Alright, alright," Alex relented. He winced as he scooted across the bed, his welts painfully reminding him of their presence.

They left the lights off and went out into the night. The sky was clear and it was freezing, just as Mulder had predicted. The stars burned cold and clear in the night sky. There was an icy wind that occasionally blew with a chill that was so cold it was sweet. In fact, it held the tangy fragrance of the nearby evergreen trees.

Whispering over the frozen snow was an electric light. There were bright green shafts of light in the sky. It looked like it was on fire. Alex gaped; he'd seen aurora before but not to this scale. Walter was carrying a large thermal blanket and an insulation wrap. "Come on," he said, heading for a slight rise, a little hill just off to the side of the house, where they'd have a perfect vantage to view the whole sky.

As they lay down to look at the sky, Alex was impressed. It was like staring up into a deep, dark bowl, lit with sharp blue pinholes of stars, with huge shafts of green now sweeping upwards towards the center of the sky in unison. In radials, shooting towards the center point above them, the aurora began to pulse with shivery motions.

Arcing above them, more shafts appearing to the south and the west, the radials began to appear as streamers, shaking across the sky and meeting up in the middle. A pool of electric light began to converge straight above, and melting with color as deep red and purple began to join the predominant green. A hint of blue came sweeping up along with the green, making the whole display look like a sea of shifting rainbows.

Then, they heard it. It was like a hissing roar, muted by the distance, but singing above them like a far-away engine.

"Fuck!" breathed Alex, wide-eyed. Walter and Fox chuckled beside him.

"Told you," said Walter, grinning.

"This is a good display, one of the best we've seen yet," Mulder remarked.

The lights began dancing now, the shafts looking like curtains, resembling the netted, gauzy lace of moth's wings as it flickered along unseen lines of energy towards the central pool. The center began to look like a starburst. If Alex had to compare it to something, he'd have said it looked like a supernova picture captured by the Hubble telescope or something.

And then he felt it; the hair all over his body was lifting. Each and every one was standing on end, his teeth chattering and not from the cold. The air was charged with sweeping magnetic waves, making him gasp. The cold was seeping up even through the insulated blanket and he relished the way it reached icy fingers upwards to numb and cool his welts on his backside.

Mulder's hand was reaching down for his waistline, slipping under his clothes and fumbling beneath to open his pants. Alex could only stare and let him do it; he was too entranced by the light show above him. It looked like a rainbow sun with angel's wings now. And then Walter's voice jolted him.

"Look on the horizon, over there in the east."

As Alex lifted his head, he caught sight of the crescent moon which was just lifting above the horizon. Mulder's hand found his cock and closed around it.

With his body shaking and shuddering while the lights danced and shook above them, Mulder began to pull on him with an expert hand. And from the noises Mulder was making, Walter was obviously doing the same to him. He lifted his head and almost laughed. Mulder's other hand was in Walter's pants...

But then the sharp, bright introduction of even brighter blue and green from the south came sweeping up, distracting him again. And all the while, the stars shone bright and high through it all, like a backdrop of diamonds. The entire sky was now ablaze.

And the pulsing of the lights were now moving in unison, all moving up to the center of the sky together. Almost in time with their hands as the three of them brought each other off. Mulder's warm skin was delicious on his, and Mulder's hand was moving faster on Alex's cock, really working it. With the rushing noise of the electric waves above them and his own body responding to the charged magnetism surrounding them in brief touches, he found himself coming, slow and hard, with gasps and moans as a liquid ecstasy moved and circulated in his body to match the feathers of light above them.

He heard Walter coming, on the other side of Mulder. And then Alex reached his hand into Mulder's pants, to lay it upon Mulder's thigh, rubbing it, stroking it in time with Walter's hand now pumping Mulder's cock hard. Mulder came with a choking, strangled moan as he climaxed over Walter's stroking fingers.

Strangely, as though aware of their change of pace now, the beams of light changed and became not so much powerful strobes of shafts rising above them but pale feathers, moving faster and faster with shivering ripples... they spread across the sky at a speed so quick that it looked like the surface of water as wind blew gently on it.

The light was so diffuse, and the central pool now spread huge wings like a giant butterfly, lacy white with sparkling, uneven congealing blobs of color.

The white of the snow on the ground was a perfect foil against the dark of the sky, and it reflected the colors and the lights in such a way that the miniscule snowflakes compacting together shone with tiny colors like fairy lights.

"Totally, fucking awesome," croaked Alex.

"I am really impressed," said Walter, "I don't think I've seen anything like this before, ever. I've never seen it move so fast."

"And we've been treated to quite a few, here," put in Mulder.

"Why does it make that noise?" asked Alex.

"Hell if I know," Walter said, shaking his head.

"Sure beats the crap out of a planetarium," murmured Mulder.

And now the swirling center grew larger until it took up a third of the sky. There were still paler flickers shooting up to join it but it melded all together like the shifting of oil on water, or the surface of a soap bubble, all rainbows but the distinct colors lumped beside each other.

It had become a vortex spinning slowly above them, fed by the radials of streamers. It was hard to know what to look at, because in every direction there were different colors still rising up. It was like staring into the face of a living being, though what manner of life was undeterminable; it could only be likened to that of an angel.

A distant object that looked like a satellite moving slowly above them reached the higher northern part of their sky and - abruptly shifted direction, executing a perfect ninety-degree angle turn...

"What's that?" Alex wondered.

"It's an X-File," quipped Mulder. "You'll see them occasionally out here on nights like this. Don't worry about it. They never land. Bastards."

Walter was laughing at him. "Fox has never given up the hope that someone not affiliated with the Rebels or the Grays will come down and give him some proper explanations."

"Hey, I can relate to that," Alex said. "Don't worry, Fox, I know how you feel."

They watched as the object slowly moved away, it's path unchanging as well as its speed. The crescent moon had risen clear of the horizon now and the aurora was beginning to fade even more. Alex was shaking from the cold by now, rather than just the electric tingle. "I'm freezing out here. I'd've gone in earlier to warm up, but I was afraid to miss anything."

"Yeah," Walter said, regretfully, "I guess we'd better go back inside. It looks like the show's winding down, anyway."

They sat up and began picking up the blankets. Trudging back inside, Alex said, "That was the most beautiful, amazing thing I've ever seen."

"There'll be others, too," Fox said. "It happens a lot up here."

"I can't wait," Alex said fervently. "I've seen aurora before but nothing to compare to that."

When they got inside, they gathered in the kitchen to make hot chocolate. After a cup or two and some mild enthusiastic reviewing of the lights they had seen, they retired back upstairs to Walter's room.

All three of them were exhausted and they fell asleep in an easy tangle, relaxed and warm, arms around each other. Somehow, this time Walter ended up in the middle with both of them on either side, nuzzled into him like a pair of rabbits.

They slept like hutch rabbits, too, undisturbed.


Next: Sunflower Seeds IV: Winter

Archived: July 04, 2001