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by Claire Dobbin

Title: Triptych
Author: Claire Dobbin
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Status: Complete
Category: Unclassified
Pairing (Primary): Skinner/Krycek
Pairing(s) (Secondary):
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Rating: Not Rated
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Series or Sequel/Prequel: Set in the Lifeboat Trilogy universe

A gift to my beta readers.

Guinness is good for you!

(for Jessabelle)

The Fair City
August 2001 ...

Walter Skinner watched Alex weave his way back from the bar with two glasses balanced aloft on a tray to avoid the crush of the Saturday night crowd. He noticed Alex's footsteps were not as sure as they had been when they'd begun their Dublin pub crawl several hours ago, but he nonetheless managed to make it back to the table without spilling a single drop of the dark, thick brew for which he seemed to have developed a taste.

"Here you go," Alex told him as he set the pint of Guinness on the beer mat in front of Walter. "The bark and the berries, the roots, the nuts and the grass."

"And you think that information is going to make me want to drink this?" Walter queried.

"It's good for you," Alex countered, pointing to the framed fifties advertisement on the wall, which had that very slogan emblazoned below the picture of a workman carrying an iron beam with apparent ease.

"It tastes like it's made from an iron beam," Walter said, grimacing at the drink. "And having them draw a smiley face in the foam doesn't make it any more palatable."

"No, but it's cute." Alex turned his glass round so Walter could see. "I got a shamrock."

Walter snorted as he watched Alex take a first, long swallow of the stout, his eyes closing in blissful appreciation of the bitter liquid. When he set the glass down he was wearing a creamy moustache and Walter leaned in to remove it for him, taking a Guinness flavoured kiss as he did so. Pulling back Walter glanced around. Not surprisingly, in a pub called 'Sodom and Begorragh', no one paid the slightest attention to what he had just done.

He looked back at Alex and smiled, saying, "Mmm ... that didn't taste so bad."

"Course not," Alex told him, holding up the glass to peer into the depths of the dark brew. "You know, they say that if you put a pint of this in a horse's mash ... there'll be no holding the bugger back." The latter was delivered in a frighteningly realistic Moore Street accent.

He fixed Walter with a meaningful look. "So drink up. It's going to be a long night."

Walter let loose a roar of laughter. "I'll take that as a compliment," he chortled.

Alex laid a seductive hand on the older man's upper thigh. "Too fucking right," he said, huskily. "A compliment ... and a promise."

"If you want to follow through on that promise," Walter warned, pointing to the half finished pint, "that had better be your last."

"I don't make promises I can't keep, Walter. You should know that by now." There was a menacing edge to the quiet tone in which Alex spoke the words and it sent a shudder of anticipation up Walter's spine. He leaned in again to take another, deeper kiss that left them both a little breathless.

"Soon," Alex whispered a second promise, before returning to his drink.

Walter dragged his attention away from the beautiful sprawl of his lover to take a closer look at their surroundings. The recently converted Georgian townhouse didn't have the authentic feel of 'The Brazen Head', the oldest watering hole in the city and their first stop that evening. Nor did it have the blood stirring music that poured from the traditional musicians to be found at 'Fibber Magee's' where it appeared to be socially acceptable to spit in the sawdust. But it was full of people, talking and flirting and enjoying the 'craic'. Walter felt the good humour of the place seep into him as he sipped at his pint, deciding that whatever its 'goodness' it was going to be his first and only Guinness.

The barman tapped noisily on the side of a glass and announced, "A bit of hush for Fergal please."

Stepping out from the crowd, a twenty something, dark haired lad began to sing. The sweetness of his lyric tenor voice, and the haunting tune of the ballad held the audience enraptured from the moment the first pure note resounded through the room.

... dear thoughts are in my mind, and my soul soars enchanted, as I hear the sweet lark sing, in the clear air of the day ... For a tender beaming smile, to my hope has been granted .... And tomorrow he shall hear, all my fond heart would say ...

Walter felt Alex's arm winding around his waist as the younger man moved to rest against his side, and he leaned back into his lover's body counterbalancing the welcome weight. The melody swirled around them, and the words told of feelings familiar but seldom spoken.

... I shall tell him of my love, all my soul's adoration, and I think he shall hear me, and will not say me nay .... It is this that gives my soul, all its joyous elation .... As I hear the sweet lark sing ... in the clear air of the day ...

The final note faded into a silence that held for several beats before the audience erupted into noisy appreciation of the fine performance. Walter watched the singer's partner walk over to enfold his lover in his arms, his expression one of love and pride.

When he turned to Alex the look on his own lover's face told him the time had come to make good on the promise, and without a word they stood and made their way to the door.

Once outside, Alex pulled on the creamy Aran sweater Walter had insisted on buying for him in the Kilkenny Shop, when he found out his love had packed nothing suitable for the unexpectedly cool Irish summer evenings. Walter smiled as he reached out to straighten the snagged collar, then together they walked across O'Connell Bridge and wended their way up the cobblestones of Grafton Street to St. Stephen's Green. In the historic, leafy square the grand, old Shelburne Hotel opened its doors to welcome them home. And all the while in room 312, a big and comfortable double bed awaited them, and the keeping of a promise.

Hearing the Music

(for Anika)

Hotel Sacher
Three weeks later ...

Alex gave up ignoring the polite tapping on the room door and reluctantly pulled away from the solid bulk of his lover. He put on one of the fluffy white robes provided by the hotel and ran his hand through his hair as he walked through the suite to the door.

"Good morning, sir," the cheerful waiter greeted him, wheeling in the breakfast cart.

Alex found his wallet and took out what he hoped was an appropriate tip. They'd only been in Austria for two days and he wasn't yet fully conversant with the schilling.

"Will that be all sir?" the waiter asked as Alex signed the check.

"Yes, thank you." He handed over the tip and wheeled the cart into the bedroom, placing it close to his side of the bed.

He slipped off the robe and climbed back in, enjoying how Walter immediately turned towards him, two strong arms seeking him out.

"You awake?" he asked gently, bending down to kiss the closed eyelids.

"Sure ... " came the muffled response, "what time is it?"

"Breakfast time," he replied and watched the eyelids flutter open to reveal his lover's beautiful brown eyes.

He dropped another kiss on the end of Walter's nose and reached over to pour out the coffee. A snowy linen napkin covered a basket of buttery croissants and pastries. He placed it between them on the bed and handed Walter his cup. Taking a sip from his own cup he chose one of the spiral shaped, sugar coated puff pastries and settled down to enjoy a delicious and leisurely breakfast.

Eleven o'clock saw them hot on the tourist trail, St. Stephen's Cathedral, the Hofburg, then the Kunsthistorisches Museum. In the late afternoon they decided to have dinner at the Caf Mozart right across from Opera House, its interior decorated in polished mahogany and crystal chandeliers. A buzz of relaxed conversation filled the place, while between the tables passed quietly efficient waiters, dressed in full evening wear. They were soon seated at a window table and Walter gazed out at the strolling pedestrians and passing trolley cars as Alex got to grips with the German menu.

The meal was ordered in Alex's halting but sufficient German, which he refused to translate for Walter.

"Trust me, you'll like what I've chosen," was all he'd say.

When it arrived he was proved right. The first course was a clear consomm with liver dumplings. For entre, Walter had Talelspitz, a kind of boiled beef with horseradish, roast potatoes and bread sauce, while Alex had gulasch. For dessert they both had the strudel with sweet cheese filling, and melange, coffee with lots of frothy milk.

A kind of pleasant lethargy descended on them with the heavy meal and they went back to their hotel. Stripping down to boxers and t-shirts they climbed into bed together. Contented and close they drifted somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, until Alex pushed their underwear out of the way and encouraged Walter on top. The sensuous and rhythmic contact brought them slowly to satisfaction and afterwards they went back to cuddling and necking, leaving the bed reluctantly when the time came to shower.

By eight thirty they were dressed and in a taxi on their way to Schloss Schonbrunn. The driver dropped them at the gates and they walked along the gravel drive towards the magnificent rococo palace, its yellow walls turning golden in the rays of the setting sun. Lights had begun to shine from some of the hundreds of windows in the faade and they climbed one of the curved stone staircases to a set of open double doors. A palace official looked at the card the travel agent had included in their travel documents and waved them inside, giving them directions in perfect English to the tour starting point.

Unlike the daytime tours, in which thousands of tourists trundled through the beautiful, old building, the evening tours were restricted in numbers, so only about thirty people had gathered in the reception area when the guide arrived and welcomed them. She gave an introductory talk and led the way towards the first of the forty state apartments they would visit. Alex and Walter stayed at the back of the group, their hands loosely twined, feeling a real sense of history as they walked through the same corridors and rooms that had echoed to the footsteps of such giants as Mozart and Napoleon.

Saving the best for last, the guide brought them into the Great Gallery. The huge room was brilliantly lit with sparkling crystal chandeliers, their light reflected in many large gilt framed mirrors. Its white walls and golden parquet floor enhanced the effect. It was breath taking in its grandeur. One by one the members of the tour group made their way along the length of the ballroom and out of the door at the other end until only Alex and Walter remained.

Glancing into one of the mirrors, Walter's attention was caught by the reflection of his lover watching him, similarly reflected. Their eyes held for a long moment before Alex smiled and turned towards him and that was when he heard it ... the music. He could tell from Alex's expression that he heard it too. And then they were in each other's arms and they were moving across the polished floor, their feet following the centuries old pattern of the countless lovers who had danced in this room before them.

Alex closed his eyes and allowed Walter to guide them as the older man imprinted the beautiful sight on his memory. The sight of Alex completely open, completely trusting, completely happy, and like his heart, the music swelled and carried him along.

Neither of them noticed the guide watching them from the shadowed doorway, nor did they see her indulgent smile as she pulled the door almost closed, gifting them with a private moment in the place where memories are made.

The Brass Ring

(for Bertina)

'La Bandita'
Abbazia di Spineto Estate
The next week ...

Alex had gone into full hibernation mode. For the three days sine they'd arrived at the old Tuscan farmhouse he hadn't stirred from the terrace, other than to allow his lover to take him to bed. And he had no plans to spend the rest of their time in this glorious place any differently. Five weeks of 'seeing' and 'doing' had left him ready to simply 'be'. Much as he'd enjoyed every moment of their trip, the museums, the theatres and restaurants, this was 'their' time, with no distractions other than the beauty of the landscape around them or the occasional shout of the farmhands as they went about the work of the estate.

Each morning a large basket filled with the fresh bread and fruit for the day was left on the kitchen table. The larder and fridge were similarly stocked and they helped themselves to breakfast and lunch from the store provided. In the evening Celestina would let herself discreetly into the kitchen to prepare their evening meal, and soon the whole house would be filled with the aroma of garlic and parsley. Leaving the meal cooked to perfection, only needing to be served, she'd slip away again. They ate on the terrace, by candlelight, watching the sky turn from crimson to indigo, while one of Walter's jazz CD's harmonised with the chorus of crickets in the meadow below the house.

Walter had spent the first day and a half with Alex on the terrace, but he didn't have the younger man's capacity for indolence, and he was soon up and around investigating their temporary home. But he never strayed far. Alex smiled, thinking how, even the afternoon Walter had climbed into the hills opposite the farmhouse, he had been careful to remain within Alex's light of sight. Or within his hearing, like now when he could hear Walter trying out the rudimentary Italian he'd picked up from the language tape he'd listened to in his car in the weeks before they'd set out. The estate workers were harvesting olives in the small grove at the side of the house in the time honoured way of their ancestors and Walter was there with them, clearly enjoying himself. Alex could hear them chuckling at his lover's mistakes, correcting them and offering him encouragement for his efforts.

Alex let the voices fade into the background and resumed his contemplation of how the colour and shape of the stand of cypress trees across the valley changed with the passage of the sun across the sky.

He must have fallen asleep for the next thing he knew he was being kissed awake by a familiar and knowing mouth.

"Mmmm ... " he responded, encouraging the contact. But it was removed and he looked up to see Walter's face beaming down at him.

"I have lunch ready," Walter told him, grabbing hold of his hand and pulling him upright.

On the table rested a heavy iron pan, from which a delicious smell arose. Alex sat down eagerly, suddenly aware of his hunger.

"Amailia gave me a bundle of asparagus fresh from her garden and this recipe," Walter explained. "You just fry the asparagus in a little butter with salt and pepper, then crack the eggs over it and bake it in the oven. Grate some parmiggiano over it and it's ready."

Alex took a mouthful and nodded vigorously at Walter's questioning look, managing only a muffled, "S'wonderful," as he loaded his fork again.

They finished the meal in appreciative silence, and then carried their glasses and the bottle of wine back to the sun lounges. Alex pushed them together and they lay down. After a few sips of the wine Alex set it down and rolled over so he was lying partially on top of Walter. He nuzzled into the older man's neck and ran his hand up under the damp shirt to stroke along the well-defined chest.

"You've been working hard Walter," Alex remarked.

"Yeah," he agreed, "guess I could do with a shower."

"Uh-uh," Alex assured him, "you smell wonderful."

Walter chuckled at the comment and Alex immediately resumed his nuzzling.

"They are going to press the olives tomorrow," Walter told him. "There's a celebration after and we're invited." He glanced down at the younger man. "If you feel like it ...? "

"Sounds good, Walter," Alex replied. "Anyway we have something to celebrate ourselves."

"We have?" Walter questioned.

In answer Alex reached into his pocket and took out the two rings he'd been carrying around since they'd left home. Somehow he knew this was the right time. He held them up for Walter to see.

Walter became completely still, his gaze riveted on the small objects that carried so much meaning. They were traditional Russian wedding rings, interlocking bands of yellow, white and pink gold. He drew a shaky breath and looked into Alex's eyes. Solemnly he nodded his consent.

"Give me your hand, Walter," Alex requested.

When Walter held out his right hand Alex looked up at him confused.

"No, the other," Alex said.

"Equal in all things, Alex," Walter told him.

The statement drew a loving smile from the other man.

They fumbled a bit, but eventually Alex slipped the wedding band onto Walter's finger and watched as his lover did the same for him.

They kissed then, deeply and demandingly, sealing forever the silent vow they had just made.

"Let's go in," Walter said, standing up and taking his lover with him. Eyes never leaving each other's face they walked hand in hand into the coolness of the shady bedroom.

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