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Settling In: Book Three

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They had driven in silence for a time, then Skinner finally asked, "So what do you get out of it?"

Krycek paid careful attention to negotiating a curve that he usually barreled around and was determinedly silent. Skinner decided to pull out the big guns. "Alexei...."

Krycek's teeth clenched and his hand tightened on the steering wheel. "Don't do that."

Skinner smiled grimly and said nothing. He had gotten good at waiting. Less than a mile later, it came.

"You get what you want, I get what I want, Mulder gets what he wants."

"It's that simple?" Skinner knew that Krycek didn't see things the way most people did, but this kind of ruthless practicality was alien to him. He sighed and stretched his legs, now stiff and aching from his long, cold walk. "What does Mulder get?"


Skinner felt himself detach again, watched the effects of Krycek's word ripple through him; the flush of pleasure, the drench of pure fear, the hazy guilt, the greedy joy that wrapped around him and wanted it all. "What do you get?"


Another warm wash of pleasure, the afterglow of a hundred nights spent together, a hundred mornings, stories told, things left unsaid, hatred washed away, a clear-running channel left in its wake. More greedy rejoicing somewhere deep in his soul.

"And I get?"

A sudden sideways glance, hot and direct, melting into something less dangerous, more domestic. "Whatever you want."

"When the hell did this become about me?" Skinner grumbled, staring out at the brown slush on the side of the highway. He hated being this exposed, being this well known. The silent curve of Krycek's lip annoyed him with its knowing generosity as he turned the heat up. They said nothing more.

After the first panicky escape attempt, Mulder managed to calm himself down and start thinking, planning rather than reacting. Last night, it had seemed much simpler. Most of his basic assumptions about his life were exposed as ashes and lies now. Hell, his professional career hung in shreds once more and he had very little left except the truth about what he'd seen and learned, Scully's unswerving friendship and the history he shared with the two men whose lives he'd invaded.

He hadn't even really known, at first, why he had come seeking Skinner. All he knew was that everything he'd worked for was now finished or about to be taken away and he had walked out of the Bureau, gone to Scully, gotten the keys to Skinner's car and headed south by a circuitous route. Homing in on Skinner. He thought about that for a while.

The grief and exhaustion of the past months were receding a little, giving him back the use of his mind, bringing him back to himself. He had learned too much in the past few days, too much about himself, about Krycek and about Skinner. He was choking on secrets, lost in the murk of his life and in desperate need of strong hands to lead him out of the labyrinth. Skinner and Krycek had both survived it, he supposed he could, too. With help.

Last night, he had made a deal with Krycek and the terms were simple; he wouldn't take Skinner away and he wouldn't hurt him. When Mulder considered the situation using those two criteria, his plans started to fall into place rapidly.

He was in motion before he knew it, fingers running lightly over the stores in the pantry, choosing jars and boxes off the shelves and from the refrigerator. Skinner had walked almost fifteen miles in the cold; he was bound to be chilled and hungry. Krycek had what ought to be a death-dealing hangover; he, too, would need something to eat.

Mulder didn't have a lot of cooking skill, but he could manage a decent pot of soup when the ingredients were ready to hand. Half an hour later, he had a pot steaming and was sitting in front of the fire with a cup of coffee and a hollow space inside where his common sense told him the fear ought to be.

When Krycek and Skinner walked in a quarter of an hour later, all he could do was nod and say nothing. Skinner's jeans were wet to the knee and splashed liberally with highway mud and sand. He looked tired and there was a frown line between his eyes, but he and Krycek had obviously come to some understanding.

"Hey," Skinner said, looking like he wanted to smile.

"Hey," Mulder said. "You wanna take a hot shower?"

Skinner blinked at him until Krycek nudged him in the shoulder. "You're soaked." He waited until Skinner took off his wet sneakers, then hung up both jackets. After another long look at both of them, Skinner went.

Mulder got up and went into the kitchen area, Krycek drifting after him, looking unsure of what to say.

"You look like shit," Mulder said tentatively. "You want the patented Mulder hangover cure?"

Krycek shrugged and didn't look at him.

Mulder filled a glass with water and handed it to him, along with three aspirin and a couple of B complex vitamins from a jar he'd found in a cupboard. He waited until Krycek swallowed the entire handful and drained the glass. Then Mulder filled the glass with orange juice and stared until Krycek drank that, too. "Should have offered it earlier...," Mulder said apologetically. But they had both been too worried, too fucking scared by Skinner's absence to be able to do more than snarl at one another and pace.

"What's in the pot?"

"Chicken soup."

Krycek's lips twitched and Mulder wondered if he were going to be ill. In the silence between them, they heard the shower go on. "I kidnapped him, we have mice, we're about to blackmail half the US government, and you made chicken soup?" There was a tinge of hysterical laughter to Krycek's words that reassured Mulder's logical side. It was almost comforting to know that someone else found this situation as crazy as he did.

"You forgot the part about drawing a dotted line down his middle and splitting him."

"Oh shit, I said that out loud?" Krycek now looked faintly green.

"Right after we made our deal." Mulder refilled the glass with cool water and handed it back to him. Krycek drained it automatically.

"Did we shake on it?" Krycek asked, staring into the glass, looking for answers.

"Better than that." Mulder took the glass out of his hand and took hold of his shoulders with gentle hands. Then he leaned in and very carefully, almost hesitantly, touched his lips to Krycek's. A small breath escaped Krycek's mouth, a sound so like a whimper that Mulder had pulled him close, a hand pulling the dark head to his shoulder before he knew what he was about.

They held each other for long moments before Krycek said shakily, "This is how all the trouble started last night."

"Next time, when I say we should go talk to Walt, don't pass out."

"Sounds like a plan," Krycek said and tightened his hold around Mulder's waist. "Think this'll work?"

"Maybe. It's worth a try; the worst that can happen is that we kill each other."

"Been there, done that," Krycek said without thinking. Mulder's arms tightened convulsively at those offhand words. He concentrated on unlocking his muscles before saying tightly, "Are you always this blunt?"

"It's a new thing," Krycek said quietly and Mulder understood suddenly. This was how Krycek and Skinner had learned to survive with one another; somehow, their relationship flourished in the stony soil of unflinching honesty about the past. Krycek's unlooked for proposal was nothing more than a continuation of that honesty. Mulder supposed that men who had moved beyond a point where they had nothing left to lose could afford to deal in that coin. Slowly, he released Krycek.

"What now?"

Krycek told him.

Skinner had already soaped and rinsed himself and was just lingering under the blessedly hot spray of the shower when he heard the bathroom door open. Through the misted glass door, he saw Krycek moving around the bathroom, taking items from drawers and tossing them into a kit. "Alex?"

The door to the shower opened and Alex Krycek stepped in, fully clothed. He crowded Skinner back against the tile wall, his eyes very deep and very green in the steamy dimness. Ignoring the water pounding against his back, soaking into his jacket and jeans, Krycek took Skinner's head between his hands and stared into his eyes. Then he kissed Skinner slowly, deeply and very thoroughly.

"Alex?" The water hitting his shoulders threw up a corona of spray behind Krycek's head.

"I'm going over to Asheville to pick up the mail and do a few errands. I'll be back first thing in the morning."

"You'll be back?" Skinner's hands came up to clasp Krycek's soaking shoulders.

Krycek nodded, eyes still fixed on Skinner's. "Of course I will, Walt; it's my house." Then he bent his head and touched his lips to Skinner's collar bone. He kissed, he licked, then he bit down, hard. Skinner gasped but didn't pull away. Krycek's hands slid across Skinner's body, shaping familiar contours, slipping around his waist, sliding down to cup his half-hard cock and caress his balls. Krycek's mouth still worked and worried that spot, making Skinner twist and groan. Krycek's hands squeezed the firm muscles of Skinner's ass once, then he pulled back.

"Done marking your territory?" But Skinner looked calm, nearly indulgent for a man who had a serious bruise forming while he was supposed to be showering.

Krycek nodded, water still pouring over his shoulders.

"You don't have to do this," Skinner said, not really sure what he meant.

"Yeah, we do." No doubt in the leaf-green eyes. There was an expression in those eyes that wasn't worry; it reminded Skinner more of a kid outside a candy store. But before he could form a thought, it was gone and Alex was simply looking at him, blinking a little in the steaming spray.

Skinner stared a moment longer, then pulled Krycek close again. "Thank you, Alex." Wet denim scraped his naked skin, wet leather pulled hungrily at him.

"Just... don't let it all be about the past, Walt. Have some fun."

Skinner nodded and Krycek stepped back. A small grin began to blossom, as if he were finally aware that he was standing, fully clothed, in his lover's shower, giving him pointers for an assignation with another man. Skinner started to smile, too and he reached out and cupped Krycek's jaw lightly, letting his fingers touch the point of Krycek's ear. But all he said was, "Take some aspirin."

Krycek nodded, then turned and left without another word. When Skinner finally got himself out of the shower, dried off and dressed, the only sign that Krycek had been there was a wet path from the bathroom through their bedroom and a pile of wet clothes. By the time Skinner came into the living room, the SUV was gone and Mulder was sitting at the kitchen table, not looking at him.

"Did Alex leave?"

Mulder nodded, staring at the table top. Then he asked quietly, "Is he coming back?"

"I told you before, Mulder. He has to, it's his house."

Mulder looked up suddenly, shyly, and started to smile at whatever he saw in Skinner's face. "You want some soup?"

They ate. They talked about inconsequentials, cautiously avoiding the wounds of the past, just for a while. Skinner took Mulder for a walk along one of his favorite trails behind the cabin. The air was clear and cold and still, so they said nothing. It was a friendly silence; Skinner felt something in him relaxing into it. Sometimes Mulder met his glance and they half-smiled at one another before looking back over the grays and browns of the valley struggling out from underneath a long winter. Once, Mulder said, "We will talk about all this, eventually, won't we?"

And Skinner nodded and said, "Eventually." 'But not now,' he added silently to himself. Now was too pure for all the debris of the past to sully.

Before long, Skinner's overworked leg muscles protested the further exercise and they turned back. They were still silent as they returned through the blue twilight, their breath rising straight up into the cold air whenever they stopped to rest.

When they got back to the cabin, Skinner lit a fire while Mulder brewed coffee. They drank it, sitting on a sofa in front of the fire, moving closer by gradual and unnoticed degrees until Mulder was suddenly pressed all along Skinner's side, warm and real and free. Skinner moved the last few inches, touching his lips carefully to Mulder's temple, then the curve of his cheek, then the side of his jaw. He slowly pulled Mulder's chin around, then stopped and looked into hazy eyes. Mulder nodded once, smiling gently, then kissed him.

Mulder's kiss was serious, skilled and soul-catching. It was the last moment before drowning, when the miracle of breaking the surface and drawing breath again is the first moment of a new life. Idly, Skinner wondered how long he had wanted this and knew that it must have been years, all unknown within him. His lips began to curve with a strange delight at his own foolishness. Mulder felt it and pulled back, smiling slightly as he asked, "What?"

There was no way to explain, but Skinner tried. "You... me... I never thought... this is crazy... Krycek...."

Which pretty much summed it up, really. But Mulder seemed to understand and his smile deepened as he nodded, then said, "And all it took was an alien invasion, the end of the world, dying twice and being fired. Simple, really."

"Don't forget being burned out and kidnapped," Skinner added helpfully, just before Mulder took his mouth again, laughter bubbling up between them.

There was more laughter later as they came together in the fumbling and wonderfully awkward way of all first times. They traced each other's scars, then turned their attentions to all the flawed perfections of a lover's body; a waist thickened by time, muscles softened by a more peaceful life, hair gone grey or simply gone, calloused hands, raspy jaws that needed shaving... all the things that another might have found wrong or unpleasing in them were instead nuzzled and caressed, simply loved for belonging to the other, all of it bringing pleasure.

Then there was that wondrous silence between them again as they lay sweating and sticky, wrapped together in Skinner's bed, watching the cold spring night deepen beyond the window.

"Fox," Skinner said, just because he could.

"Walter," Mulder drawled and Skinner could hear the smile in his voice, as if Mulder knew.

"Alex," he began, then had no idea where he had intended to go with the sentence.

"I know," Mulder said, then dropped a quick kiss on the point of Skinner's shoulder.

"Then you know a hell of a lot more than I do," Skinner grumbled, but his vague irritation fled when Mulder shifted enough to tuck his head into the pocket formed by Skinner's neck and shoulder.

"I think it'll be all right, Walter. Strange as it seems, I think it'll work," Mulder whispered, then yawned. "Stop worrying so much," Mulder waffled through his yawn.

"You're right," Skinner groused, "Why worry? My lover is an ex-assassin who's in love with my new lover. No problem."

"Sounds good," Mulder yawned again. "The lover part, I mean. The rest just sounds like a really unlikely piece of fiction."

"Mmm," Skinner said and nuzzled the hair at Mulder's temple. "But it is fun," he confided softly. His only answer was the sound and touch of Mulder's sleeping breath against his throat.

When Krycek pulled into the clearing, it was a little before dawn. The sky was just lightening, a serene pearl color. It wasn't until he strode onto the porch that he saw Skinner standing at the very end, staring out over the valley, a cup of coffee on the rail beside him. The man was standing there in jeans and a sweater as he did nearly every morning, watching the snow melt drip off the eaves. Krycek came to stand beside Skinner and he, too, stared out over the misty valley. After a time, he picked up Skinner's coffee cup and took a swallow. When he put it down, Skinner was looking at him.

"So," Krycek offered hoarsely, "how are you?"

Skinner merely shrugged, then grabbed Krycek and pushed him back against the wall of the house, trapping Krycek's head between his hands. Then, very slowly, with a kind of leashed power that made Krycek swallow quickly, Skinner leaned in and kissed him. It was very thorough, it took a long time, and Krycek was gasping for breath the instant he was released. When Skinner smiled at him, Krycek licked his lips nervously. "Walt?"

Skinner didn't know what to say. He had never been good with words and this situation certainly wasn't covered in any etiquette book he'd ever forced himself to read. All he knew was that his body was still humming and purring from Mulder's touch, he was still bathed in Mulder's scent, but the sight of Alex Krycek was a different kind of warmth in his gut and a certainty in his chest. That low, hesitant voice had broken through to something trapped in him and he knew he couldn't live without hearing it every day of his life. He knew what to do now.

"Come on." Skinner led Krycek inside, waiting patiently while he shucked his jacket and shoes. Then he grabbed Krycek's shoulder and steered him toward their bedroom. Krycek balked at the door. "Walt, this isn't...."

"It certainly is, Alex. Move it." For a moment, it occurred to Skinner that Krycek's complaint about his "damned alpha behavior" wasn't entirely without basis, then he decided that he didn't care. Krycek was the one who had started this, all those months ago when he had decided that Skinner should make the decisions about his information horde. This morning was the logical outcome of a thousand insane decision points... and he intended to enjoy it. They all would.

He gently shoved until Krycek stepped into the room, then stood behind him as he took in the view. Fox Mulder lay loosely curled in easy sleep. His skin was almost lunar against the rich maroon sheets and a very slight smile curved his lips. Christ -- no guilty fantasy he'd ever had about his subordinate could measure up to the musky, salty-sweet reality in his bed.

"Walt, what do you want?" Krycek asked, even as he let Skinner strip away his shirt and unbuckle his belt.

"I want it all, Alexei, I want it all." As he knew it would, the use of Krycek's full name, whispered low into his ear, completely undid him. Krycek moved like an automaton now, letting Skinner undress him, then push him over to the bed. Skinner stood back to strip himself and watched Krycek cautiously sit on the edge and watch Mulder sleep for a long moment.

Krycek's fingers were almost hesitant as he reached out to brush the hair away from Mulder's temple. Skinner saw a flash of that same look he'd seen in Krycek's eyes the day before, a sort of wistful hunger that would never be sated. He was opening his mouth to speak when Mulder stirred slightly under Krycek's hand and opened his eyes. Krycek froze, hand wavering uncertainly in the air.

Mulder's gaze skimmed quickly between Skinner and Krycek as he assessed the situation, then his lips curved a little more deeply and he said in a husky voice, "The room service in this place is incredible."

"Make sure you tip well, then," Skinner said, grateful that Mulder seemed to know exactly how to handle Alex. He watched as the wire-tight muscles of Krycek's back released in sheer relief at Mulder's light tone, then they rippled as Krycek leaned down and kissed Mulder. Gentle at first, their caress was rapidly becoming something heated. So Skinner dropped the rest of his clothes and slid into bed on Mulder's other side. Then he disposed himself comfortably to watch as one lover seduced another.

He had never seen much appeal to porn films before, not really able to respond to the impersonal rutting of strangers. But this was something else entirely, he realized. This was the coming together of two men with whom he shared too much for comfort, too much for anything but love or hate to be the end result. His hatred for Krycek had been transformed by the alchemy of time with understanding and his feeling for Mulder... well, that had probably never needed much alteration. Lying here, watching their hesitant touches become stronger, seeing their hands slide and flex and grip, mouths open and hot against one another, he was suddenly bathed in a flush of lust. He could smell Krycek's arousal, familiar now, as it twined with the older, darker scents of his previous lovemaking with Mulder. Rich and ripe, it made him want to bite.

Mulder rolled suddenly, pulling Krycek over himself and depositing him with a grunt onto the bed between them. Alex was flushed and rumpled and had just enough of a morning beard to make him look wild and dangerous. His eyes glittered up at Skinner in sensual challenge and Skinner suddenly knew exactly what he needed, what he wanted.

"Close your eyes, Alex."

Krycek's brows knit together in a frown. "Do it," Skinner whispered and stroked a hand down Krycek's chest, reminding him of their game. Mulder was watching them both, his hand slipping up and down Alex's right thigh. Two breaths, then three, and then Krycek's eyes were closing. He brought his arm up, hand locking onto a spindle in the headboard. Skinner watched Mulder's lips part as he looked at the sculpture of erotic surrender that Krycek made between them. His eyes flicked up to meet Skinner's, watching, waiting for him to make the next move.

Skinner bent his head to nuzzle at Krycek's ear. "Alex," he breathed, "he's here, Alex. He's looking at you now. Can he touch you? Let him touch you, Alex, he wants to, so much. I can see it in his eyes. Where should he touch you?" Krycek's breath came in small gasps now and Skinner knew that he'd tapped deeply into one of Krycek's dreams. Skinner stroked his hand through the glossy dark locks, then whispered again, "Tell him where to touch you, Alex, you have to tell him where."

Krycek frowned blindly; Skinner was changing the game, forcing him to speak his needs aloud. Skinner just ran one blunt finger across the wrinkled brow and waited; Mulder's eyes were bright and hot and he felt them on his skin. Finally, Krycek forced a few words between his teeth. "My face. Touch my face."

Surprised, Skinner nodded to Mulder, then gently pressed his lips to Krycek's temple in approval. Mulder brought those wonderfully long, clever fingers up and began mapping Krycek's face. He traced along the dark brows with a forefinger, then stroked a thumb over each high cheekbone. He used all his fingers to track down the edge of Krycek's hairline until they disappeared behind his oddly pointed ear. Then Mulder touched Krycek's open mouth with two fingers, stroking them back and forth over that rich lower lip.

Finally, Krycek growled and jerked his chin down, demanding that those fingers slide into his mouth. Mulder gasped and Skinner felt his own breath skip as he watched Krycek suck and lap at Mulder's callused fingers. Long, deep drawing sucks interspersed with almost kittenish licks and nips had Mulder making the small desperate noises that Skinner had just begun to be familiar with. Krycek finally raised his chin, letting Mulder's fingers slide out of his mouth; Skinner could hear the slight rasp as the gleaming digits trailed down Krycek's unshaven jaw. Krycek smiled blindly, a touch of arrogance on those lips now.

That smile was obliterated by a gasp as Skinner bent and began nibbling at one of Krycek's nipples. Skinner looked up at Mulder and winked, then tipped his head, indicating Krycek's other side. Mulder nodded and dedicated himself to Krycek's right nipple. First, he lapped at the entire area with long, loving strokes of his tongue, eyes closed in pleasure. Then Skinner watched as Mulder carefully traced the outline of Krycek's nipple with the very point of his tongue. Remembering the multitude of touches that Mulder had lavished on his own chest last night, Skinner felt a shiver rise in him as he watched Alex begin to twist and shudder blindly beneath Mulder's mouth. The spindle that Krycek's hand was wrapped around began to creak. Then Mulder raised his head and looked expectantly at Skinner, waiting to be told what to do next.

The rush of power was hot and electric, knowing that both men lay waiting for him to make the choices for all of them, to bring them all pleasure. Mulder's fingers trailed lightly around Krycek's throat as he waited for Skinner's next direction, tracing the scars, the long line of tendon, the rise of his adam's apple.

Skinner turned his hand over and drew his nails lightly down Krycek's panting chest and let it slide all the way down to his left thigh, circled the knee cap gently, then brushed his fingertips all the way back up to tease at the nipple that was still wet with his saliva. Mulder nodded and repeated the gesture, his caressing fingers coming within a hair of Krycek's bobbing cock. There was a smothered whimper from Krycek.

Skinner touched a finger to the very tip of Krycek's cock, gathering a drop of clear ejaculate. Then he pressed his lips to Krycek's ear and breathed, "Shh," softly as he traced his wet finger over Krycek's tightly compressed lips. Krycek began to shudder and his mouth opened as he blindly tried to catch Skinner's finger between his teeth. Instead, his mouth was caught by Mulder's.

Skinner slid his hand down Alex's side, then over his thigh to cup his balls gently. They were tight against his body and Skinner could feel the deep tremors beginning, Alex couldn't last much longer.

"Fox," he whispered, stroking the back of Mulder's head until he ended his kiss with Alex. "He needs you."

Mulder smiled, a happy, hungry look that Skinner had never imagined on that face and knew he would want to see again and again in the years to come. Then he slid down Alex's flushed body until he was staring at the eager erection bobbing before him with every gasping breath Alex took. Skinner snuggled closer to Alex and put his mouth back against the pointed ear. "He's here now, Alexei. And he wants to taste you so much. Can he, Alexei? Let him take you in his mouth...."

Suddenly Alex's head was thrown back and his mouth opened in a silent cry; Skinner looked to see Mulder's mouth moving slowly up and down Alex's cock. Christ, if there was one thing Mulder did well, it was suck cock; Skinner's body was still tingling from his morning wake-up call. Alex's body jerked once more and Mulder put a strong arm across Alex's stomach to hold him down, his head still moving in that steady, maddening rhythm that could rip a man out of this world. Skinner threw his own leg over Alex's and slung his arm around the heaving chest. Then he reached up and unlocked Alex's fingers from around the spindle, tangling them up with his own fingers, letting him hold on as hard as he needed.

Krycek's eyes were still closed; Skinner was willing to bet he'd forgotten that he could see. His mouth was open, breath sobbing as he thrashed his head from side to side. Mulder reached up one hand and stroked Skinner's thigh, then squeezed it once. He made a long, wet sucking sound and Skinner remembered the incredible sensation of that mouth drawing him on and on.... He caught Alex's tossing head against their interlocked fingers, then he bent to rumble in his ear, "Come now, Alex. Come for him." And Alex did, his body suddenly a wave caught out of time, flexed and shouting, Mulder drinking him down until he dropped back onto the bed, mouth hanging open, barely breathing, or so it seemed.

Knowing how sensitive Alex got just after coming, Skinner carded his fingers through Mulder's damp hair, then tugged firmly until Mulder released Alex. They smiled at one another across Alex's limp body and Skinner reached out to run a finger across Mulder's swollen bottom lip. Then Skinner bent his head and touched his lips to each of Alex's eyelids. "Open your eyes now, Alex. Look at him. He's here now, Alex, just for you." And when Alex wouldn't open his eyes, Skinner growled softly, "Open your eyes and look at him now." Unable to resist, Alex did.

Whatever it was that Mulder saw in those eyes caused him to suddenly press his own face against Alex's and hold him tightly, rocking them both from side to side. He whispered something again and again, too low for Skinner to hear. Alex said nothing, but his fingers tightened painfully on Skinner's. So there was nothing to be done but grab the comforter and pull it up over them all, then settle down, holding both of his shattered lovers tightly as they slid into sleep against him.

An hour later, Skinner slipped out of bed, leaving Mulder and Krycek asleep. His right arm was completely numb as he watched them sleepily shift and murmur at the loss of his warmth. Krycek wound up with his head tucked beneath Mulder's chin and the two seemed to subside back into sleep again. Skinner stretched and grimaced as some overworked muscles reminded him that he was a bit older than he ought to be in order to keep up with the two men asleep in his bed.

He turned the water on as hot as it would go as he considered his situation. Not just one man in his bed, but two. He shook his head as he let the scalding spray hit the back of his neck. Krycek and Mulder. Not just one unstable lunatic with baggage, but two. He reached for the soap and began lathering his chest. No doubt about it, Walter Skinner was a lucky man. For sufficiently strange values of the word 'lucky,' he supposed Mulder would say.

There was a drift of cold air, then a drawling voice asked, "What are you smiling about?" and Mulder's arms came around him.

"What are you doing awake?"

"I heard the shower. And," Mulder smiled shyly, "I like showering with someone. Is it OK?"

Skinner turned so that Mulder was directly under the spray and smiled as Mulder yipped at the first shock of hot water, then relaxed into it. "Me, too." He started soaping Mulder's chest, grimacing every time his elbow hit the wall.

"Alex needs a bigger shower."

"Alex doesn't seem to see the recreational value of showering with other people," Skinner said, momentarily distracted by the vision of the three of them together, the hot spray hitting them, steam wreathing each man as his hands slid across their skins, creamy lather smoothing....

"Alex can be taught," Mulder said cheerfully and rubbed his soapy chest against Skinner's. Slick, hard, hot....

"Mulder, I'm too whipped for this to go anywhere," he said regretfully.

"Me, too," Mulder confessed with a small grin. "But it's still fun and we've had precious little of that in the past few years. So hand over the shampoo and stop worrying. I don't expect anything, Walter. I'm just grateful for whatever you and Alex can give me." Mulder's voice had gone husky near the end and he turned his face into the spray. Skinner had no answer except to pull Mulder back against his chest and begin gently washing his hair, carefully keeping the soap from Mulder's eyes. They stayed there until the water ran cool over them.

Breakfast, as Skinner had come to expect, was silent. He had returned from the shower to dress in silence. Krycek lay in bed still, but Skinner was convinced that he was awake. The line of his back was too conformed, his body too still, his breathing too even for true sleep. Remembering other first times with Alex, Skinner left him to his confusion. But, just as he reached the door, he turned and said quietly, "It'll be all right, Alex. You'll see." He knew that his words had been heard, saw it in the jerk of Alex's shoulders, the coiling of his spine. He left, silently closing the door behind him.

Mulder was quiet, too, taking his cue from the other two. For a change. Skinner had no illusions that the peace and quiet would last. The air between the three of them hummed with electricity. He felt it when his fingers brushed Mulder's passing the jam, saw it crackling in Krycek's eyes whenever their glances met, heard it in the deeper breaths he himself needed to take just to sit there between them and drink his coffee. He was reluctant to stand and break this new circuit, as if it meant swimming against a tide he preferred not to fight. They sat there over empty dishes and half-empty mugs, the current snapping and whispering and flashing between them until Mulder suddenly stood and said, "Time for me to get back to work." He grabbed his bowl and mug, put them in the sink, then walked over to Krycek's desk and scooped up the laptop before retreating to the living room area. He settled himself in at the coffee table and powered up the machine, punching in the password codes with total concentration.

Mulder's departure seemed to snap the pulsing stasis Skinner had felt. Collecting the dishes left, he brought them to the sink, rinsed them and put them all in the dishwasher. When he turned back, Krycek was still sitting, staring at his coffee cup. Skinner wanted to smile at the younger man's distraction, but settled instead for laying his hand on Krycek's shoulder as he passed him.

"Short day today -- I'll be home by three." He caught up a set of keys and grabbed his jacket from the hooks beside the door and was out into the clammy midmorning air without either man saying another word.

He supposed that a better man would sympathize with Alex's complete bewilderment. But, he considered, as he backed the SUV out of its muddy spot, a better man would never have found himself in the insanely tangled position he was in now. And a better man would certainly never enjoy this nearly as much as it seemed he was. Mulder and Krycek needed to find some balance between them, hopefully in the next six hours while he was safely out of the house. "No chance in hell, Walter," he told himself cheerfully. He heard his own chuckle rumbling through the car as he started down the mountain road.

When he got home that afternoon, Mulder was the only one in the cabin. He was standing in the kitchen drinking orange juice out of the carton. Skinner tossed his coat over a chair, strode into the kitchen and growled, "Were you raised in a barn?" before filching the juice out of Mulder's hand, taking a healthy gulp and grinning at Mulder's expression.

"How'd it go today?" he asked, putting the carton back in the fridge.

Mulder shrugged. "Reasonably well. I sorted through some of hottest of Alex's blackmail files, trying to figure out which people are the ones to pressure in order to get full disclosure. Right now, I don't see how we're going to do it without getting ourselves killed in the process. And Scully," he added, pulling worriedly at his lower lip.

"Or Kimberly," Skinner added, reminding Mulder of his assistant's unflagging support through the worst of the storms. "What does Alex think? He's the specialist," and they shared a look with a touch of grimness.

"Alex has been behaving pretty goddamned strangely all day," Mulder grumbled. "He spent hours staring at his computer, pretending to work and not hearing anything I said, then jumping like a startled deer every time I stood up. What the hell is the problem with him?"

Skinner leaned against the counter and crossed his arms. He could feel himself giving Mulder his best 'A.D.' look. "Aren't you supposed to have a psychology degree? What do you think his problem is, Mulder? He just got everything he always wanted and never expected to have. He's waiting for the axe to fall."

Mulder stared at him, thinking hard. In the silence between them came the sound of an axe methodically splitting wood. "How poetic," Mulder said and started to smile.

Skinner shook his head and wandered into his bedroom to strip off the shirt he'd worn to stack crates in. As he shrugged into a fresh flannel shirt, he heard Mulder say quietly, but still pitched so that he could hear it, "At least we have that in common."

Then there was the sound of the front door opening and closing.

Skinner had already learned that the woodpile was Krycek's retreat, his dojo, his analyst's couch. Usually, they gave one another enough space to weather the occasional storms of memory; Skinner had his walks, Krycek his woodpile. But Mulder had no such understanding with Krycek and Skinner saw him disappearing around the corner of the cabin and wondered if either of his lovers would survive the conversation that Mulder was determined to have.

He resisted the urge to go out and check on them for a solid hour although he was reassured by the syncopated rhythm of the axe splitting wood. He reasoned that if Krycek were still splitting logs, he couldn't be killing Mulder. He hoped.

When he finally did succumb and amble around the corner of the cabin, he found Mulder stacking wood as Krycek freshened the edge of the axe with a handheld whetstone. The silence between them was nearly palpable. Without a word, Skinner went to help Mulder, picking up logs and stacking them on the new pile that was to begin seasoning itself for next autumn. Mulder's frustration was clear in the stubborn set to his mouth, in the jerky movements of his body as he stooped and straightened. The source of his mood was equally clear in the way that neither he nor Krycek looked at one another.

For his part, Krycek was remote, in retreat far behind some kind of internal wall that Skinner had rarely encountered in all their months together. Krycek checked and rechecked the edge of the axe with his thumb, bending all of his available attention toward sharpening the steel. Several times, as Skinner turned from the woodpile back toward the heap of newly-split logs at Krycek's feet, he saw the green eyes turned toward him with the ghost of the same longing expression he had seen in the shower the day before. But now that hungry look slid over the both of them before Krycek caught him looking and shored up his defenses.

Skinner sighed and reminded himself to be patient with both of them. It wasn't like he didn't know Mulder's penchant for barreling toward the truth, blithely ignoring locked doors, minefields and loaded guns. It wasn't like he didn't know that Alex Krycek was a puzzle box of contradictions, no more than half-tame, violent in his loves, his hates, his fears, and having little enough experience with anything in the normal range of the spectrum of human emotions. So much for the idea that sex would take the edge off of anything between them.

There was a stab of lust deep in his belly as he thought about watching Mulder and Krycek making love. There was such a fine line between passion and anger; the unspoken anger surging here under the trees was so close to the wash of desire they had nearly drowned in this morning. Krycek was afraid... and something he had done or said made Mulder afraid, as well. They had scared one another, Skinner realized suddenly, so abruptly that he fumbled the quartered log he was tossing onto the stack. Mulder stooped down and picked it up, stacking it into place before Skinner could even move. Skinner wished, suddenly, just for a moment, that he had followed the flicker of interest that had once seemed to point him toward Dana Scully. He knew that life with her would have had to be simpler than this.

Krycek suddenly sunk the axe deep into the block and walked towards the cabin without a word. As if pulled by invisible strings, Mulder dumped his armful of logs and drifted along after him. Skinner decided to remain exactly where he was until gunshots or shouting insisted he get involved again. He kept stacking wood until it grew too dark to see.

When Mulder wandered back inside, Krycek had already pulled off his muddy work boots and disappeared into the room he shared with Skinner. So much for trying to get him to talk again. There was so much that needed to be worked out between them, so many thing he needed to know, and Krycek was refusing to say a word about anything that mattered.

He shook his head as he toed off his own muddy work boots by the door. He wanted this too much, he knew. Whenever he wanted something this badly, so much that it was a block of ice in his gut, that's when he made mistakes. It was axiomatic; the more he wanted something, the more he seemed to push it away. There was nothing of his past left now; neither family nor friends were what they had been only days ago. Everything was exposed as lies, his youth was a fraud and he himself nothing more than a failed real world lab experiment. He needed to belong to someone so badly, needed to feel kinship with just one other person in the world who had gone through what he had gone through. And it seemed that all he was for Krycek was a reminder of the pain and loss.

"Fuck," he said tiredly and rolled his strained shoulders. Maybe a shower would help. He went into the room they had given him and stripped, then wrapped a towel around his waist and went into the bathroom to start the water. The connecting door to Skinner and Krycek's room was open halfway and he could hear the rustle of cloth beyond it. He reached out to close it, then decided to fuck that, too. Not twelve hours earlier, Krycek had looked at him like he was every birthday present he had never received, all rolled into one. If Krycek was uncomfortable with the idea of a naked Mulder in his shower, then it was his problem. Mulder could feel himself pouting, knew that he was slipping into a sulk, but that felt infinitely safer, far more familiar, almost comforting compared to the bleak wastelands of knowing himself to be alone in all the world.

He stepped into the shower stall and let the water run as hot as he could over his overworked shoulders. He had to give Krycek credit; when he was angry, he could work like a demon. It had been a point of pride for Mulder to keep up even as he pumped him for details about the kinds of conditioning he had received at the hands of the Consortium specialists. There was no question in Mulder's mind that Krycek had been worked over and the learned responses had been programmed well and deeply into him.

The tip off for Mulder had been when he noticed that Krycek spoke of himself as an only child. When Mulder reminded him of Peter, he saw suddenly that it required what was nearly an act of will for Krycek to speak calmly and coolly about anything in his past beyond the cover story documented in the files. Knowing that he was onto something, Mulder had pushed and worried at it, trying to compare the facts of the cover story with Krycek's own memories and absently noting Krycek's increasingly non-verbal responses, until he had turned around and seen Krycek looking at the edge of the axe. His eyes had flickered up to Mulder's then and in that moment, Mulder knew that it was taking most of Alex Krycek's conscious will to not throw that axe at Fox Mulder to shut him up, to stop the flood of questions that battered at him again and again.

After a time, a moment or an hour, Krycek's hand began trembling and he looked away. Mulder knew there was nothing he could say, nothing he could do to prove that he still trusted Krycek. Nothing... except to keep working beside him, stooping and bending, stacking wood within an arm's length. So he did, but this time, it was in silence.

Mulder turned and let the water stream over his face, pour into his mouth and through his hair. Once again, his mouth had nearly been the death of him. And what would it have done to Krycek to have been triggered like that? Mulder slumped against the cold tile wall and shook his head at his own stupidity.

There was the sound of a drawer in the vanity opening and closing. Through the clouded glass of the shower stall, he saw Krycek moving through the bathroom. Trying to lighten the tension between them, Mulder said, "Hey Alex! Come on in and play, the water's fine."

He saw Krycek straighten up and take a step toward the stall, then the door was yanked open and a rush of cold air swirled in around him.

"It's all a game to you, isn't it, Mulder? As long as someone'll play with you and let you root around in their head, you're happy. Well, I have news for you, Mulder -- it's not a game to me."

Mulder blinked for a moment, water running down his face. Then he said quietly, looking directly into the poisonous green glare directed at him, "I wasn't playing, Alex, honest. There are things we need to talk about, but I'm not playing here, I'm deadly serious."

Krycek shook his head and Mulder knew somehow that it wasn't a denial of his words so much as an attempt to shake off his fear, his anger, the constructed emotions that Mulder had unwittingly tapped. "Fuck you, Mulder," Krycek said desperately.

And Mulder knew. Krycek had handed him the key and he nearly smiled. Instead, he only nodded and slowly turned his back on Alex Krycek, then leaned his forehead against the wall. "OK, Alex. Good idea. Fuck me."

There was a pained grunt behind him and then a long moment in which all he could hear was the hiss of the water striking his skin. Then Krycek was suddenly there, pressed tightly against him, his now-naked skin cool and sticking to Mulder's warm wet back. Mulder braced himself firmly against the tile wall and whispered, "Do it, Alex. Come on, we both need it." There was some fumbling behind him and a bottle of shampoo fell to the floor, then Krycek's slickened fingers were sliding into his ass and Mulder's limp cock suddenly forgot that he had been scared to death not half an hour before by the same man who was now crooning into his ear and whose fingers were stretching and caressing him.

The pain, when it came, was sharp and bright and he had forgotten how impossibly large a man's cock felt. Then he remembered to breathe and bear down and something in him eased and the pain was now only a dull ache and then Krycek's hand began stroking his rising cock and the ache was now a hot fullness as Krycek began sliding into him deeper and deeper now, faster and harder until they were slamming together and Mulder needed the support of Krycek's amputated left arm braced against him and the water poured down between them and over them and he couldn't get a full breath until the moment that Krycek shouted in his ear and went rigid against him, squeezing his cock so tightly that there was nothing to do but gasp and come and come and let the water pour down over both of them as they panted and gasped. Krycek's face was buried between Mulder's shoulder blades and his arm was still wrapped around Mulder's waist, although now it was Mulder who was holding him up.

When Mulder had gotten enough of his breath back, he moved a little in Krycek's grasp and felt his now limp cock slip out. Then he turned and took the other man in his arms, bracing him against his chest and turning slightly so that the hot water poured down Krycek's side. Krycek's panting breath was loud in his ear as Mulder managed to get a grip on the soap and begin slowly lathering Krycek's back.

"What the hell are you doing?" Krycek asked tiredly.

"Playing," Mulder said quietly. "Just relax, OK? It's fun, I promise."

Carefully, methodically, he coated Alex Krycek in silky lather, letting his hands slide down the broad chest and across his tight stomach, slipping up and down his long legs and across his ass and up and down his tense back and shoulders. And somewhere in there, Alex Krycek got the idea and began to caress back, scooping up handfuls of creamy suds and running his hand over any part of Fox Mulder that didn't suddenly twist away with a ticklish snicker. They drained the hot water tank.

As Skinner discovered when he finally came in at dusk, tired, muscles aching and brow furrowed with worry and irritation. His outraged roar only made his companions smile without contrition as they slapped together a cold supper, faces still flushed and hair still damp.

Supper was also a quiet meal, but without the tension that had pulsed and dragged at them through breakfast. Skinner was ready to forgive his ice cold shower in trade for the new sense of accord between Mulder and Krycek. He didn't know what had happened between them, although he had a shrewd guess. He saw Krycek's hand linger on Mulder's shoulder, rubbing lightly in a perfectly unconscious gesture of affection, the kind he'd been trying to school Krycek to for months. Neither man appeared to notice it, so he made no comment, merely picked up his plate and brought it to the counter.

"I'll do that," Mulder said, suddenly appearing at his side. "Why don't you and Alex go sit down for a while?" Mulder's cocked eyebrow and tiny nod gave more meaning to the words and Skinner hesitated for only a moment. Mulder thought he and Alex needed some time to themselves, apparently.

"All right. Let me just check the traps." He had set the mousetraps in the pantry, baiting them with peanut butter yesterday afternoon. He realized that this somehow meant that he had been elected chief rodent control officer and he had to give Krycek credit for that subtle manipulation. Skinner found himself obscurely glad when he discovered that all three traps had been sprung and their gooey baits eaten without a single casualty. He mentally saluted what had to be the guerrilla specialists of mice and reset the traps automatically before going back out to join Krycek in the living room.

Krycek was squatting in front of the fireplace, building a fire in the cool dimness. Skinner knelt next to him as he stripped newspaper for quick kindling. "What's with Mulder?" he asked, watching the flame glow and flicker in Krycek's eyes as he frowned with concentration at the struggling blaze.

"I think he's being tactful."

"Now I'm worried. What has he got to be tactful about?" But Skinner thought he knew. There was silence and he watched the skin of Krycek's face turn golden and ruddy as the fire grew strong feeding on the wood he'd cut.

Krycek said abruptly, "We made love in the shower. When we came in from splitting logs."

Skinner grunted and nodded, then stood slowly, trying to ease the stiffness in his back. "I figured it was something like that." He moved to sit on the sofa and leaned his head back with a tired sigh.

Krycek's hand came to rest on his shoulder, then his head was nudged up off the sofa and brought to rest on Krycek's firm abdomen as he began to massage the tight muscles. Skinner grunted a little as that strong hand teased into the knots left from days of tension. The sound of dishes clinking and water running came to him and when he cracked his eyes open, he could see Mulder moving around the kitchen area with a sureness that looked very right there.

"It's all right, Alex."


"It's all right," he said firmly. The hand stopped, slid up to cup the side of his face for a moment, then moved back down to begin the massage again.

Mulder finished the dishes, his mind miles away from his simple task as he tested, assessed, theorized and guessed what to do next. He knew now, with that familiar certainty honed over a hundred cases, not the desperate grasping after straws he had felt earlier in the day. He dried his hands and went to join Skinner and Krycek where they sat in front of the fire. There were no other lights on in the room and the two men appeared to be completely at peace just sitting and staring into the flames, no conversation needed.

"Tell me about Peter," Mulder said suddenly into the firelit silence. The other two looked up, one set of dark eyes questioning, one set of green eyes startled. Skinner shot him a cautionary look and Mulder ignored it, following his gut instinct. He knew that Peter was the key to the bond that Krycek seemed to have forged with Mulder long before they had ever met. Peter and what had happened to him was the key to Alex Krycek... Michaelson, he corrected himself. Once, the man across from him had been Alex Michaelson, son of a Soviet scientist and a Princeton geneticist, a boy who had played sports and gotten good grades and had had a little brother who had been snatched away to die in the stars.

"Mulder," Skinner rumbled warningly. Mulder kept his eyes locked on Krycek, who stared at him, assessing, wondering, wary. Finally, he spoke.

"Why do you want to know?"

Mulder shrugged. "No special reason," he lied. "I'm just interested, a little curious. There's not much on any of the taken children in those files. It makes you wonder why they were the ones taken, why them, not us?"

He noted that Krycek's gaze had slid away from his, a sure sign of the kind of mental conditioning he suspected had been used. "I don't know why they took him especially, Mulder. Didn't our parents have a choice? Weren't they the ones who chose which children went?" Krycek's voice was harsher now.

"Maybe. I thought at first that it was the younger ones that were chosen, but the files don't bear that out. Most of the hostages were first-born children but you and I, the first-born sons, were left here. I find that odd." He watched as Krycek's fist clenched and released several times before he shrugged but said nothing.

"I wasn't Bill Mulder's biological son and they knew that." There was less pain in saying it aloud than he'd thought there would be. "His genes were the ones they wanted for the cloning experiments, so Samantha was the logical choice. But why Peter?" Mulder mused aloud. He could feel Skinner's sharp eyes on him and hoped he was right. A theory had suggested itself as he combed through the Consortium files; the gestalt leapt out at him tonight and he wondered that no one else seemed to see the pattern. "Who chose Peter, Alex? Your father... or your mother?"

"Mulder...." Krycek's voice was strained.

"It was your mother, wasn't it, Alex? Irina chose Peter to be the one to go... just as she chose you to be the one to stay behind to help her in her work. Her cause."

Krycek's head snapped up and his flat gaze met Mulder's. Skinner shifted uneasily. "Her work? What are you talking about?"

There was a cracking silence in the room, the snappings and poppings of the birch logs in the fireplace the only certain sound. "What did your mother do, Alex?" Mulder felt his own nails biting into his palms as he clenched his fists and willed the strength to speak into Krycek. Now, tonight, it was time to break the last layers of secrecy.

"My mother was an undercover spy for the Resistance," Krycek said tonelessly. "They recruited her while she was still at University. They gave her a cover story and a new background and even wrote her dissident poetry for her so that she would be forced to 'flee' the Soviet Union. Her marriage to my father was very carefully arranged, as was her introduction into the Consortium. She was very good at her work; she had the two children she was ordered to have and, when the time came, she carefully chose which of us...." Krycek's voice stopped.

"She chose which of you would make the better Fifth Columnist, didn't she, Alex?"

Krycek nodded, eyes blank. "She explained it to me the morning after Peter was taken. Why he was gone, what we would have to do now, what I would have to learn to do and become. She saw the potential in me long before anyone else did."

"Potential?" Skinner asked.

Krycek's lip curled coldly. "To do what I do best, Walt. She looked at her little boys and figured out which one would make the better killer."

"She looked at her two sons, Alex, and tried to figure out which one of them would be able to survive," Mulder corrected him quietly. "She and Sir John and the others were playing a dangerous game for the highest stakes in the world. They chose the one they thought would manage to live through and win." Mulder dropped his head in his hands for a moment, rubbing at his face tiredly. When he raised it again, he could feel the moisture smeared across his cheeks.

"Hell, Alex, I wasn't even considered stable enough at twelve. By fifteen, I'd had my mind wiped enough times that they weren't sure I would be worth anything to the Consortium. At least you knew what you were fighting." God, he hated the self-pity he heard in his own voice and he sternly reminded himself that this wasn't about him.

"Irina knew that Peter wouldn't be able to survive what was coming, Alex. It's all there in the files, if you only know how to read them. I just figured it out now, myself. So she sent Peter away. Maybe she thought he might be safer there, I don't know."

Krycek shook his head slowly, stiffly. "No. She knew. She told me. Said that Peter couldn't do it and all their hopes were on me. For years, they'd looked for some other way, but that the options had all failed and there was nothing to try but this. Me."

"What about your father?" Skinner asked.

Krycek shook his head. "He never knew. He was one of Them, don't you see? She raised her own resistance fighter and let me be trained by the enemy so I could destroy them from within. He handed Peter over because that's what they were all required to do. Only she knew which child was chosen and why."

"Christ," Skinner rumbled, an appalled look on his face.

The silence became tarry and dangerous; Mulder knew that nothing would escape from this night unless he could pull them all out again. Alex had finally spoken aloud his deepest secret and Mulder refused to let it drown them all in the past again. He searched desperately in his own mind for something to say. When he found the words, they were so simple, so innocent that he nearly didn't trust his own intuition. But he said them anyway. For the second time that night, Mulder said, "Tell me about Peter."

"What do you want to know?" Krycek asked tiredly.

"What was his favorite color?" Mulder's soft voice broke whatever brittle defenses Krycek had called into play. Krycek blinked rapidly and Mulder watched as he began running his thumb over and over the fingers of his remaining hand, almost as if he were counting them. Worry beads, the thought slid through his head before he focused his attention on Krycek's face again.

"Green," Krycek said suddenly, with a faintly wondering tone. "He liked forest green. When he was nine, our parents let him choose the colors for his bedroom walls and he wanted them all this deep green. It was like an aquarium in there, all dim and cool."

"Did he have an aquarium?" Mulder asked casually. Skinner shifted once on the sofa and Mulder flicked a glance at him, warning him to stay silent. Skinner gave a half-nod and Krycek began to talk, staring at a point over Mulder's left shoulder.

"No, he didn't like fish much. But we had a dog, an Irish Setter, that he loved. We used to take him down to the beach and just walk and run for hours...."

"You used to play soccer," Mulder prompted.

Krycek nodded, eyes still fixed in the past. "I loved it. Peter liked it, but I think he would have preferred to be left with his books. He only went because I did and because our parents said that every boy should play a sport. So we did... he would sit on the bench and read until the coach put him in; it used to drive his teammates nuts. He'd play, maybe get a goal or two, then back to the bench and he'd pick up his book again. They all thought he was kind of weird, but he was a good player and they liked him well enough. Everyone liked Peter."

"Did you?"

Krycek's gaze snapped to the present. "Yeah," he said roughly, "I did. He was a good kid. I used to let him hang out with me and my friends and he never got in the way. We never fought, really."

"And when he was taken?"

A frightening kind of coldness came over Krycek's face. "He was gone. That's all."

Mulder, seeing that he had tripped some internal defense system, some conditioning laid down a long time ago, backpedaled. "What kind of books did Peter like to read?"

The cool remoteness began to fade from Krycek's face; he darted a glance at Skinner, who nodded reassuringly, then he fixed his eyes on Mulder's face again. "Science fiction, fantasy, anything he could get his hands on like that. He read the entire 'Lord of the Rings' series when he was in fourth grade." There was an echo of a big brother's pride in Krycek's voice.

It went on and on.

Slowly, gently, Krycek's answers to Mulder's questions drew a verbal portrait of Peter Michaelson. Finally, without a sound, the tears began to flow down Krycek's face, unnoticed, unchecked as he kept speaking about his little brother, the only memorial service he would ever have.

Finally, Krycek ran out of words. He simply sat there, staring at the embers of the fire that had burned down. Mulder looked at Skinner; when their eyes met, Skinner cocked his head. Mulder gave a small reassuring nod, the hint of a very gentle smile on his face. His eyes moved to Krycek, then back to Skinner and he nodded again with purpose. Then he stood up and quietly went into his room and closed the door.

"How does he do that?" Krycek's voice was low and rough after hours of speaking. Skinner could almost see him trying to shrug himself back into the present.

"I don't know," Skinner got up and began turning out lights and setting the alarm. Krycek sat and watched him, pale and quiet now. "No one knows how Mulder does anything, Alex. It's better not to ask."

"I've never told anyone that stuff before."

"It's OK," Skinner said foolishly, because some response seemed required. He offered Alex a hand that he didn't need and pulled him up out of the chair. Then he kept hold of it and led Alex to bed.

Later, with the lights off, all traces of tears washed from Alex's face, Skinner held him as he slept and silently thanked Mulder, his damnably accurate and relentless mind and the unexpected deep well of kindness that had brought them to tonight.

The next few days were quiet, as if they were all recovering from a bout of illness or the remnants of a great storm. Conversations were strictly impersonal, teasing, shallow and kind. Mulder slept a great deal, read the files again, ran the mountain roads and channel-surfed through the four hundred channels that Alex still subscribed to. Skinner, used to Mulder's work habits, just waited. He could tell that something was brewing behind those closed eyes but he was more than content to wait and see. Mulder's startling insights into Krycek's past had shaken him more than he'd cared to admit. He had read those same files and that particular truth had eluded him. But then, that skill had made Mulder the prized oddity of the VCU and had given him the insane solve rate on the X-Files that had started all the trouble in the first place.

Krycek worked for hours every day on two separate consultations and said very little. It was not a bitter nor pained silence. Instead, he gave the impression that he was talked out. His dreams made him more restless at night, murmuring and groaning in his sleep. Skinner resigned himself to less and less sleep and simply held Krycek and soothed him out of his nightmares with a soft voice. The reward for his patience in the dark was the touch of Krycek's hand on his face or the apologetic rubbing of the tight muscles at the back of his neck. They said very little in the night, but Skinner found that he was coming to understand it all very well.

As with everything about Alex Krycek, actions spoke louder than words. It wasn't long before a second brand of toothpaste appeared and the fridge became stocked with garishly colored sports drinks that Mulder drank after his daily run. Krycek obviously drew the line at mail ordering clothing for Mulder, but more and more pieces of both Skinner's and Krycek's wardrobe were finding themselves onto that lanky frame.

Mulder and Skinner had made love once since their first evening. Colliding in the bathroom late one night, Skinner had found himself somehow drawn back into what they now thought of as Mulder's room, pulled gently into Mulder's arms and kissed with that same intense focus that seemed to obliterate thought. So he decided to stop thinking and gave himself over to the hard body that rubbed against him, the gentle voice that caressed him.

They woke late the next morning; Skinner could smell bacon and coffee and the light that crept around the edges of the shades was definitely not dawn-tinted. He tried very hard not to feel like a cheating bastard, reminding himself as he shaved that this had all been Alex's idea. By the time he had shrugged into a pair of jeans that were finally getting broken in comfortably, he had convinced himself that there was nothing to worry about. Until he got out to the kitchen and took the mug of coffee that Krycek handed him and saw that damned look back in his eyes again.

If he were honest, he thought, as he deliberately chewed some toast, that look had never really left Krycek's expression. A few times in the past few days, it had been masked by pleasure or affection or anger or plain ruthlessness, but it had always been there. It wasn't anything nearly as uncomplicated as jealousy or hurt or longing, although it owed something to all of those things. It was a look that asked nothing, expected nothing, hoped for nothing, merely waited for what Krycek seemed to think was the inevitable. It annoyed the shit out of Skinner.

By noon, Skinner's annoyance had grown to outright aggravation, which was compounded by Mulder's sorrowful look of understanding and the sense that, even as he sat at the kitchen table, diligently reading orange and red labeled files, Mulder was already leaving them.

Finally, Skinner had had enough. He startled Mulder as he slapped down his half-read book and went to find Krycek. Predictably, he was out back, stacking wood.

Skinner had intended to start his interrogation slowly, to uncover the heart of the problem carefully. Instead, he heard himself snarling, "What the hell is your problem, Krycek?!" and mentally tossed an otherwise good plan out the window.

Krycek looked up coolly. "I don't have a problem, Skinner." The scar on his throat flashed white as he shook his head and, paradoxically, it made Skinner angrier.

"The hell you don't. Every time I look up, you've got that damned look in your eyes and I'm tired of it."

Krycek mouth twisted. "A look? You're pissed off because I gave you a look? What is this, kindergarten?" But his eyes slid sideways and something in the way he wouldn't meet Skinner's gaze unlocked a small door of understanding and Skinner suddenly knew. And that knowledge pissed him off enough that he took two steps forward and grabbed Krycek by the shoulders before he could turn away. The words, when they came, spilled out of him.

"You've been afraid that we'll remember. That's what it is... you've been waiting for me to remember the times you killed me, the times you smiled at me and tortured me, the times you beat me and...." Skinner shook Krycek in his grip, punctuating each phrase. He shoved Krycek against the small birch that formed one support for the woodpile and he pinned him there, a hard arm across Krycek's throat and his feet barely touching the ground.

Skinner leaned in close, until his face was inches from Krycek's. "All this time, you've been babying me and looking after me and we've been playing house and pretending that everything is so simple, you've had that look in your eyes. And it's just gotten worse since Mulder got here." Krycek wet his lips and started to struggle, but one hard shake from Skinner bounced his head against the tree and he subsided again, eyes very bright. "I get it now," Skinner growled. "You've been afraid I'll remember, haven't you, boy? And what did you think I'd do when I did?"

"Something like this," Krycek choked out as Skinner's forearm pressed a little harder against his adam's apple. His eyes were starting to glaze, even as they darted wildly, but he didn't fight and that, perversely, made Skinner even angrier.

"Well, I've got news for you, Krycek," Skinner's breath hissed against Krycek's face. "I remember it all. I remember every single damned thing. I always have. I didn't suppress it. I didn't absolve you. You didn't seduce me. It's just over, got it?"

Krycek blinked at him and tried to swallow against Skinner's forearm. Skinner let up on the pressure after a moment but didn't remove his arm. "It's over. So stop staring at me and wondering when I'm going to snap or leave with Mulder or come to my senses and beat you to death, 'cause it's not gonna happen. Just... get over it."

Krycek swallowed again and opened his mouth, then closed it. He blinked at Skinner and croaked, "Get over it?!"

Skinner nodded shortly. "I'm staying. Mulder's staying. We," he stumbled over it a little, saying it for the first time, "...we love you and we're staying, you stupid bastard."

"Fuck," said Krycek and turned his face away. Skinner held him pinned against the tree for a while, then slowly pulled Krycek against his own chest. He said nothing for long minutes. Finally, Krycek sniffed and rubbed his face dry against Skinner's flannel shirt before looking up, eyes watery and face red. "OK, I'm over it. Now what?"

Skinner smiled gently. "Lunch."

Mulder was sprawled on the couch when they came in. He said nothing as he surveyed Krycek's flushed face and slightly shell-shocked look. He cocked an eyebrow at Skinner's determinedly bland expression, but said only, "I'm hungry."

"We're going out," Skinner said. He herded the other two towards the SUV. The drive into town was silent. Skinner noticed the tank was only half-full and stopped for gas. Krycek pumped and left to pay for it without saying a word.

"Walter?" Mulder asked, leaning forward and laying a hand on his shoulder. Skinner knew what he was asking.

"I think he'll be OK now."

"And us?"

"I don't know, Mulder. It's going to take some time before any of us really believes in it. Especially him. But I know what I'm hoping for." Mulder nodded, squeezed his shoulder and sat back to wait for Krycek to return.

The diner was only half-full when they arrived. They took a table near the window and the blue-haired teen waitress was there in a heartbeat, smiling warmly at Skinner and nearly glowing when she poured Krycek's coffee. Mulder grinned at her and she dropped her pencil.

Krycek left them as soon as his order was taken, going to wash the gasoline from his hands. A familiar voice hailed them.

"Agent Mulder! I see you found him." The sheriff's bright eyes flicked back and forth between Skinner and Mulder, observing, assessing, wondering.

"Yes, Sheriff. Thank you," Mulder said dismissively.

Skinner merely said, "Hello, Dan," then topped off his own mug of coffee and drank it with careful attention.

"Well, now, I wonder if you'd drop by the office a little later today? I'd like the chance to compare some notes with you. I've always had a few questions about Alex Michaelson and background checks don't go too deep with him, you may have noticed."

Mulder smiled slowly even as Skinner stiffened. The hazel eyes warned him to let Mulder take point, so he remained silent as Mulder replied, "Somehow, that doesn't surprise me. Was there anything in specific you wanted to know?"

"What would you like to know, Dan?" Krycek asked from directly behind him, an affable smile on his face that didn't quite reach his eyes.

The sheriff jumped like a scalded cat but recovered quickly. "Just wondering about you, Alex. Always have. Agent Mulder here seemed to have the answers."

The silence hummed and crackled for a moment.

"Sheriff? Would you believe that Alex used to be a triple agent working for a shadow government against a shadow conspiracy that was preparing the world for an alien invasion that never took place?" Mulder asked. His eyes were limpid with sincerity.

Skinner had a flash of deja vu, remembering that look aimed at him across a polished desktop at least once a week for years. He had automatically assumed that Mulder was bullshitting him, every time. How wrong he had been. He chuckled to himself, shaking his head slowly and staring into his coffee. The others all turned to stare at him.

"Ignore him," Krycek said quickly. "It's just something he does."

Hunt just shot an annoyed look at Mulder, displeased at being the butt of the Federal man's joke. "It's nothing personal, Alex. I'm just curious about everyone who comes to my town." He grinned winningly. "I told you that when you first came here."

"I understand, Dan. But do me a favor. The next time you decide to root around in my past, call me and give me some warning. At this rate," Alex stepped around the sheriff and slid into the booth next to Mulder, "I'm going to have to put on a second storey."

Hunt stared at him, one eyebrow rising slowly as he took in the careful postures of all three men. There was a subtle threat swimming around him and yet he couldn't say which of them he needed to guard against. He nodded once, said, "Gents," and backed away, leaving them alone.

"Shit," Krycek said, sloshing coffee into his mug. "If he digs around too much, he'll be bringing the wrong kind of attention down on Mulder. And me."

"Do we need to move?" Skinner asked.

"I've still got my dad's place on the Vineyard," Mulder offered, chasing grains of sugar around on the table top with a fingertip. "We could go there."

"I'm not certain," Krycek began, survival instincts already kicking in at high gear. "He may decide to drop it; there's not a lot he could find out, anyway. Most of the records have been excised...." Then his brain actually processed what it had heard and he stuttered to a halt. He looked up, his eyes wide and a very dark green. He stared into Skinner's candid gaze, then turned to look at Mulder. " 'We'?"

Mulder only smiled and picked up his coffee mug, sharing a look of complete agreement with Skinner. "Gonna have to redo the bathroom," he said thoughtfully. "The shower's not nearly large enough for three." He turned his head and smiled into Krycek's eyes, expression softening as Krycek blinked rapidly.

"Eat your eggs before they get cold, Alex," Skinner said gently. "After all, we've got a lot to do today; review some files, blackmail the government...."

"Same shit, different day?" Krycek asked a little hoarsely. Mulder and Skinner both nodded at him, then turned their attention toward their breakfasts. After a time, Krycek picked up his own fork and began to eat, too, a growing smile on his face.