No Greater Gift

Author: KinkyGrrl Diane (


Keywords: Skinner POV, S/K/M, implied slash, h/c, mpreg

Spoilers: As if anybody cares about spoilers by now...

Archive: Ask, please.

Disclaimer: All characters belong to Chris Carter and Them, yadda yadda. No copyright infringement intended, I write for love and feedback, not money.

Summary: Krycek is pregnant. He goes to Walter one last time, expecting to be thrown out. Instead, Walter decides to take charge.

Dedication: To Ursula and all the other folks who worked on the Christmas Edition, which is what this story was written for.

No Greater Gift Can Man Give

Walter Skinner sat down heavily on the couch. "You're what?!" he demanded. Tell me this is a joke…

"I'm pregnant."

"I don't find this at all funny."

"You think I do!?" Alex Krycek exploded. "This is no fucking joke, Skinner. It's a…it's an abomination. Jesus Christ…" he slammed his fist into the wall with a force that made Skinner wince.

Skinner gaped at him and tried to wrap his brain around what Krycek was saying. Pregnant? An abomination? The implications of it appalled him. "How could you let them do this to you?"

"You think I have a choice? You think I can just tell them no? Spender owns me, goddamit." Krycek raked a hand through his hair, turning his face away from Skinner. "It's not like I've made any secret of that fact to you, Skinner."

"No." No, Krycek never had. He wouldn't tell Skinner any of the details, but Skinner knew that the smoker considered Krycek his personal piss-boy when it came to all the dirty little jobs the Consortium wanted to get done. He'd asked Krycek, repeatedly, why he didn't just quit, but all Krycek would say was that the old man had him by the balls and there was no way out.

"And before you make the suggestion, no, I can't get rid of it. I was told that if I lose this one, they'll gave me another and then I'll spend nine months or however long it takes strapped to a medical table. Besides," Krycek's voice dropped bitterly "the procedure was unpleasant enough the first time that I don't want to risk having to repeat it."

"Jesus..." No matter how much he thought he knew about the Consortium's dealings, it seemed like there was always something worse under the next rock. Sometimes he wondered if Krycek just enjoyed shocking him. Skinner was fairly certain the Consortium's errand boy was passing on a lot more information to Skinner about the Consortium’s operations than was safe for either of them. "Why are you telling me this, Krycek?" It wasn't often that Krycek shared details of his personal life with Skinner, despite that fact that the two of them had been engaged in physical intimacies, off and on for several years now.

"I…" Krycek turned around, and Skinner could see that his question had caught the man off-guard. For just a moment Krycek's expression was one of confusion, and despair. Then the familiar mask snapped back into place, the sneering, uncaring expression Krycek showed to a basically hostile world. "I just thought you might want to know that your fuck toy was going to be unavailable in a few months, in case you wanted to make other arrangements. That's all." Krycek shrugged, and headed for the door.

Skinner stood up. There were warning bells going off in his head as he struggled with his own shock and dismay. Don't let him leave, something screamed at him. "Krycek. Wait." What the hell am I supposed to say?

Krycek paused, but didn't turn around "What?"

"What are you going to do?"

"What the fuck does it matter? Survive, probably. It's not like I've been given any choice."

In several quick strides, Skinner caught up to Krycek as he was yanking open the door. Acting on impulse, he shoved the door closed and pulled Krycek against him, trapping the younger man's body against his.

Krycek fought him, briefly, half-heartedly, and then stood, rigid and trembling in the circle of Skinner's arms.

Skinner buried his face in the sleek, soft hair of his sometime lover. "You're not my fuck-toy, Krycek," he protested gently. "Maybe I haven't been a very good lover, if you think that's all you are to me."

"Don't say that," Krycek said hoarsely. "It isn't you. It's me. I'm not worth shit, Skinner. We both know that. You want to pretend differently, to make yourself feel better about where you’re putting your cock, go ahead. But don't try to make me lose sight of reality. I'm a Consortium whore. Just a hole and a gun. Don’t make me think I’m something better. They’ll just remind me...of what I am."

"You're not, goddammit. You may have to follow their orders, and I'm still not convinced that you do, but you don't have to let them tell you what you can be."

"They don't tell me. I know what I am, Skinner."

"The hell you do. You know what they're trying to make you into."

"But I let them do it. I let them, so I am."

"Bullshit." Skinner tightened his hold on Krycek's unyielding form. "I know you. Better than they do. Better than you think I do. All they know is what you do. You let me see more than that, when you're with me. I know you don't like to talk about this. You want to pretend that all we do on that bed upstairs is fuck. It's not. It's not, Alex."

"Don't call me that," Krycek said tightly.

"You try to protect yourself from me like you do from everything else. You think if I don't use your first name and you don't stay with me past the afterglow, and sometimes the night, it means we aren't being intimate."

Krycek tried to jerk away from him, but Skinner kept the younger man firmly captured. "I want more of you than I've been getting. And I think it's time you admitted that you do, too. I know that you come into my apartment sometimes when you're sure I won't be home." He felt Krycek stiffen in shock. "I know that you don't do anything but sit on my couch, or sometimes on my bed. You walk around looking at my things, touching them, opening drawers and cupboards and closing them…"

"What the hell makes you think I do weird shit like that, Skinner?"

"The Consortium's not the only one who has bugs planted in here." Krycek had planted several listening devices in Skinner's apartment, car and office over the years. Some of them he'd admitted to, some of them he'd only warned of obliquely and Skinner had been forced to call in some friends of Mulder's to hunt them down. "I had a micro-camcorder up for a while. I used to watch you from my PC at work."

"Son of a…" he heard Krycek mutter.

"So you might as well come clean, Alex. It's not like I haven't already figured it out."

"Don't do this, Skinner." Krycek's voice was sharp with warning. "Don't read more into this than there is."

"I'm not." He was certain of it now. If there had been no truth to his guesses, Krycek's body would be relaxed, and his voice would have that swaggering note that Skinner hated. "You need to stop fighting me, Alex. Everybody needs at least one person in their life who isn't an enemy."

"You're assuming a lot, Skinner. What makes you think I don't already have someone?"

"You don't." If you did, you wouldn't keep coming back to me. "You want this, Alex. You want me. You want a safe place to come to when you're hurting."

"I can have you any time I want," Krycek sneered, but his voice cracked on the word 'want'. His body was still rigid, but he allowed himself to be held without struggling. "And there is no place that's safe. Not from them." The last word was thick with venom.

Skinner sighed. Krycek had a point. There wasn't anyplace safe, for either of them. "Just because we can't have exactly what we want doesn't mean we don't want it."

"What's your fucking point, Skinner? Are we sharing, here? Is that what we're doing? Are you going to feed me milk and cookies and tuck me into bed and tell me it's all going to be all right if only I have faith and keep my nose clean and say my prayers every night?" Krycek made a sound that was halfway between a snort and a sob. "Or is this like one of those self help groups? Hi, I'm Alex Krycek and I'm an addict. I break into Walter Skinner's apartment so I can sniff his underwear…"

Skinner couldn't suppress a bark of laughter. "I wondered what my briefs were doing stuffed between the mattress and the headboard. And why you'd break into my apartment just to change the sheets on my bed."

"Oh, fuck…" Krycek made strangled sound and began to struggle in earnest. The skin of his neck was a dull red.

"Stop it, Alex. Calm down. Dammit!" Skinner cursed as Krycek managed to free his arm and dealt his lover a glancing blow to the cheekbone.

Skinner wrestled Krycek to the floor and straddled his hips. He forced Krycek's arm behind his back and held him down until Krycek had exhausted himself struggling.

"Bastard," Krycek rasped.

"That's right. I am." What the hell am I supposed to do now? And when did Alex Krycek become my responsibility?

Since the day you let him into your bed, Walter…

"You're crushing me, goddammit, Skinner," Krycek's voice was strained. "Get off."

Wary of a trick, Skinner leaned forward, taking most of his weight on his protesting knees.

Krycek gave a couple of gasping breaths and went limp.


"I guess," Krycek admitted tonelessly. "It's getting late, and they're gonna be expecting me back. If you want to fuck me, Skinner, then whip it out. If not, then let me go."

"You're not going anywhere. You're staying with me tonight."

"You know I can't do that, Skinner. They'll come looking for me."

"Let them come. I'll deal with them."

"Oh, that's just brilliant. Let them kill you. That'll sure solve my problems."

"You don't think very highly of my survival skills, do you Alex?"

"You're not a killer," Krycek said sadly. "All things being equal, the killer's going to have the edge. And there are a lot more of them than there are of us."

"Look…Alex…" Skinner shifted slightly, wincing as his knee cartilage grated and popped against the unyielding surface of the floor. "Give me five minutes. That's all I ask. If you still want to leave after five minutes, I won't try to stop you."

"Five minutes? And then I can go?"


Krycek hesitated for a moment, and then said "Okay. Deal."

Skinner used the nearby couch to drag himself to his feet. His knees ached and popped as he straightened them.

Krycek rolled to his feet, the picture of youthful grace.

Skinner stared at him, a slight uneasiness rippling over his skin at the way Krycek's hand hovered protectively over his abdomen.

Noticing the direction of Skinner's gaze, Krycek yanked his hand away as if burned by his own flesh.

If Krycek wasn't lying, and there was no reason to believe that he was, then…

Dear god. He's pregnant. His body is protecting a baby. A living baby. An innocent child.

He had a sudden flash of memory, of the shocked look on Krycek's face as his fist drove into the younger man's gut. If the Consortium had been doing its experimentation on Krycek back then and Krycek had escaped them, running to Mulder for sanctuary and Skinner had struck him like that, before he'd even asked why Krycek had come to them…

I'd have killed the baby. Krycek's child.

Jesus. With the kind of life Krycek led, how could he possibly carry a child for long? Hardly a week went by without some new bruise or broken bone or bullet wound to add to the man's already badly scarred body. Skinner had gotten adept at performing bone-settings and other emergency procedures. And those are only the times when he happens to come to me, when I happen to notice. He had learned to perform a thorough examination of Krycek's body before initiating anything physical; Krycek never drew attention to his injuries, never complained, even if Skinner hurt him.

"How…long has it been. Since…" Skinner gestured uncomfortably at Krycek's midsection.

Krycek reddened, and shrugged. "A couple of months. I don’t know exactly. They had to mess around a lot."

"They aren't making you…" Skinner gestured helplessly, not quite knowing how to phrase his question "…work…are they?"

"They aren't sending me out on any wet-work, if that's what you're asking," Krycek said bitterly. "But they find other ways to keep me busy." Worse things, his eyes said.

"How can they..?" Walter started walking, trying to work the knots out of his knees, found himself pacing back and forth across the length of his living room. He found it hard to verbalize exactly what about the situation was offending him so deeply. "Don't they have any decency at all?"

Krycek began to laugh. He fell back against the wall and wheezed until tears were trickling from the corners of his eyes. "Decency? Skinner, I'm just…I'm nothing. An incubator. An experiment. A resource. They use me in as many ways as they can." He slid to the ground and sprawled at Skinner's feet.

"What the hell are they going to do once the baby is born? You can't…"

This sent Krycek off on a fresh spate of near-giggles. There was a slightly hysterical edge to them that was beginning to worry Skinner. "Are you really that naïve, Skinner? You think they intend to let me keep it?"

It had been naïve of him, Skinner realized. The Consortium had no respect at all for the dignity of anyone or anything. It bothered him, though, that Krycek seemed to be accepting the situation without serious thought of rebelling. It seemed…unnatural.

"You're the baby's father, Krycek."

Krycek's face grew suddenly expressionless. "What the fuck does that matter?"

"Don't you want to keep your baby, Alex? Your own child?"

"Who the fuck cares what I want?" Krycek curled up, arms hugging his knees. "What I want doesn't matter. To anyone. It's just a fact of life. No use letting it get to me. It doesn't bother me." His eyes were wide and staring. "It's not important."

"You think I don't care what you want?"

Krycek shrugged. "Why should you? What does it matter? You know I wouldn't keep showing up if it wasn't what I wanted, too. Beyond that…" He looked up at Skinner, slightly bewildered. "Why should you care?"

I guess it's official, then. As a lover I rate pretty fucking low, if this is any indication. How can he not know? How can he think I'd let him back in my bed, that I'd even let him in the door when he comes knocking, if I didn't care?

I'm just a hole and a gun, Krycek had said.

He thinks I let him in for the sex. He thinks he's just a body for me to sate myself in.

"Let's keep this honest, okay, Skinner?" Krycek said, almost pleadingly. "You don't have to bullshit me. I'll keep coming back to you for as long as I can." Krycek's voice dropped huskily. "You're a fucking sex-god, Skinner."

Now who's pitching shit, boy? With that dark, green-eyed, sex-on-legs swagger of his, Krycek could have them fighting on the floor of any bar-room in America. "That isn't why you keep coming back to me, boy."

The sudden flash of near-terror was quickly hidden beneath a practiced coolness. "Well, it sure isn't your cooking I keep coming back for," Krycek drawled. "What the hell's wrong with you, Skinner? You gonna be sending me roses next? Fucking is fucking, f'r christ's sake."

What is he afraid of? And what does keep him coming back? Skinner pondered those questions for a moment while Krycek fidgeted. Krycek was courting severe reprisals with every whispered warning, every note he left beneath Skinner's pillow. They planned carefully choreographed conversations before Krycek installed his latest audio bug, and enacted them afterwards. Krycek's information was always useful, and always accurate. It was more use than Skinner had ever hoped the slippery double agent could be put to, but it wasn't enough any more. I want to wake up in the morning with him, dammit, Skinner realized. Not just a piece of paper. No matter how many lives were saved by the information on those hastily scribbled notes.

Krycek had told him the Consortium was aware of his sexual liaison with Skinner, even approved of it. They assumed he was pumping Skinner for information, and passing on false information, and Skinner had worked hard to help Krycek foster that assumption, even making up some “pillow talk” that Krycek could safely carry back to the Consortium.

At first, Skinner had assumed that Krycek was playing both sides, secretly feeding information about him to the Consortium, and leaking secrets to Skinner. Certainly, Mulder had been quick to agree with his suspicions, and the two of them had enacted an elaborately scripted scene one afternoon during one of Krycek's secret visits. They had arrived at Skinner's apartment, done a 'bug sweep' and proceeded to make plans for a raid on a Consortium-run laboratory whose location Mulder had stumbled across.

Later examination of the video feed from Skinner's camcorder had revealed that Krycek had listened in on the whole conversation, from the slightly ajar door of Skinner's bedroom. It was the perfect setup to catch their Consortium double agent with.

Except that the raid had gone off without a significant hitch. Even better than might have been expected; several Consortium bigwigs had been caught in their net as well. Skinner had always wondered if Krycek had been responsible for that.

Mulder had gone away simultaneously elated at their success, and disappointed by the fact that “the Rat (his pet name for Krycek) hadn't shown his true colors yet." His hatred for the man who had betrayed them and murdered Mulder's father still burned as brightly as ever, and Skinner had come to greatly regret having involved Mulder at all. Ever since that day, his most relentless agent had pestered at him for news of Krycek's whereabouts and doings. Thank god Mulder doesn’t suspect that our relationship has gone beyond the exchange of information. Mulder had allowed Skinner to extract a promise not to attack Krycek, or have him arrested, but beyond that he'd been evasive about his intentions concerning Krycek.

And what are my intentions?

"Your five minutes are about up, Skinner. Pretty much a waste of time, wasn't it?" Though his words and expression sneered, there was something hurting behind Krycek's stony eyes. Something lost.

He wants to stay. Maybe he always wanted to stay. Suddenly everything slid into place. Krycek's secret visits. The refusal to even consider a more complicated or intimate arrangement. The wild-eyed panic and quick subject change every time Skinner tried to bring the subject out into the open.

He wants it, but he's afraid. Is he afraid of me…or for me?

Only one way to find out…

"Let's take this into the bedroom, boy," he ordered gruffly. "Then we'll see if you still think your time has been wasted."

There was a quick flash of disappointment, then Krycek gave him a lascivious up-and-down. "Sure thing, Skinner. You think you can fuck me into oblivion? Bring it on, big guy." He rose to his feet with a fluid grace that went straight to Skinner's cock.

You think you've got me figured, don't you, boy? Skinner's apprehension at what he was about to do vanished as he followed his lover into the bedroom, smiling at the practiced sway of Krycek's ass and at the man's assumption that Skinner was going to try to use sex as a method of persuasion.

Been there, done that. Time to change the rules.

Krycek casually shed jacket and boots, and then unzipped his jeans and began to work them down his muscular thighs.

"Hang on," Skinner ordered. "Let me do that." He peeled Krycek's jeans down to his knees, and then slipped a hand beneath the waistband of Krycek's briefs, pulling the man's hips against him and caressing the lean buttocks.

"Hey," Krycek protested. "You have too many clothes on." He pressed himself into Skinner's crotch, grinding his hardening cock against Skinner's.

"I know." Ignoring the sparks of arousal that threatened to turn his legs to jelly, Skinner slid his hand further down the split of Krycek's buttocks, rubbing briefly against his hole and past it, until his finger was delicately fingering the peritoneum. Krycek's eyes closed, cock twitching, and he gave a little gasp as one of Skinner's fingers slid between his balls, gently separating them.

"We'd better move this to the bed," Krycek suggested huskily.

"Not yet. I think we're doing fine right here. I want everything off. Now."

Krycek stiffened slightly. "We don't have time for…this. You've got access to all my assets right now. Let me get on the bed for you, Skinner. On my knees, with my ass in the air. You like that, don't you? Oh, yeah, I can feel that you do. Here, let me…"

"Hands off, boy!" Skinner barked, slapping Krycek's hands away from the buttons of his shirt. "We do this my way. And I want you naked," he gave a teasing caress to Krycek's balls "and on your feet."

Without further protest, Krycek allowed himself to be stripped. It had taken a long time for Skinner to win Krycek's trust to the point that the man was willing to allow himself to be divested of shirt and arm and stand before Skinner, in all his scarred and mutilated beauty. Skinner peeled off the black tee shirt and ran appreciative, gentling hands over Krycek's pectorals and ribs until the muscles beneath his fingers began to relax, before unbuckling the straps and sliding the prosthesis off.

Krycek stood stiffly in his arms with the half-defiant, half-wild look he always had whenever his truncated arm was bared.

Skinner bent his neck to place gentle kisses over the shoulder and thick scar tissue on Krycek's left arm.

"Knock that shit off, Skinner. You're wasting time."

Krycek's tone was casual, but Skinner could feel the way the man's body relaxed and melted into his grip. "Stop snapping at me, boy. I know what you need." Skinner reached back into a dresser drawer and pulled out a tube of lubricant before divesting himself of his jacket. "You need a good reaming. We're just going to do this standing up. I want to see how long you can take it."

"You know I can take anything you dish out, Skinner," Krycek murmured. "That's why it's me you keep bringing it to."

It had taken a fair amount of trial and error, and a lot of patience, to work out that Krycek liked tough talk, but responded best to gentle lovemaking. At first, Skinner had assumed Krycek was worried about surveillance, but that belief had soon faded. It was as if, as long as they didn't talk about it, Krycek could pretend that what they were doing was only physical. Just fucking.

"Stay on your feet now, boy. If you go rubber legs on me I'll pull you back up by your balls."

"You're such a bastard, Skinner," Krycek purred, as Skinner's lubed fingers slid down the crack of his ass. “Stretch me, big man. Split me wide open. Make me…ungh…" he gasped as Skinner's fingers slid into him. "…Jesus…yes…deeper…oh, fuck…"

Bracing his other hand against the small of Krycek's already sweat-dampened back, Skinner pulled Krycek against him and probed for the prostate. He could feel Krycek quiver and spasm every time he found it.

"C'mon Skinner. I'm ready for you. Shove that baby right up my ass. You can do better than this." Krycek was desperately rubbing himself against Skinner's crotch, wincing as his delicate cock-skin scraped against the metal snap on Skinner's jeans. “At least give me a couple more fingers.”

"You'll get it when I want to give it to you, boy." That was a hell of a lie, Skinner thought. There was almost nothing he wanted more just then, than to unzip himself, turn Krycek around and bury himself to the hilt in that lean, muscular ass. If he did that, though, he would come and Krycek would come and then, just as he had a hundred times before, Krycek would get up, dress and leave. How the hell does he manage to stay so focused when he's post? Skinner wondered. His finger ceased its assault on Krycek's ass. "All right, Krycek. On the bed."

"About fucking time," Krycek muttered as he allowed himself to be pushed down onto the bed. He reached for the front of Skinner's jeans.

"Not so fast. We're still doing this my way."

"Cock-tease," Krycek accused. "Sadistic bastard. You just like watching me squirm."

"You'd better damned well believe it," Skinner said huskily. "One of these days I'm going to make myself a video tape, have it transferred to DVD and take it to work with me. Might help me get through the bad days."

Krycek ran a tongue over his lips and gave Skinner a smoldering look. "As long as I get one of you, too. To help me through the bad days." For just a moment the mask of sexual arousal slipped, and a bleak desperation showed in Krycek's eyes.

Not going to happen, boy. You're not going back to those bastards. "Grab metal, Krycek," Skinner barked.

Krycek's hand shot out and grasped one of the brass bars on the headboard of Skinner's bed.

"One more thing we'll need. Well, maybe two." Skinner got up off the bed, slid open another drawer and removed a length of black silk.

"Not the blindfold," Krycek begged. "Skinner…I want to see you." …one last time, his eyes said.

That's why he came here, tonight, Skinner realized. He came to say goodbye. Pain and panic twisted a knot into his throat. "I'll take it off later," he promised Krycek as he slid the slippery fabric beneath the man's head and tied it over his eyes. "Just one more thing I'll need," he told Krycek.

He had wanted Krycek aroused, distracted and blindfolded before enacting the first phase of his plan. It might not have been necessary, but Krycek's instincts were finely honed to survival, and with him it was always best not to take chances. As silently as possible, he extracted a pair of handcuffs from the drawer and returned to the bed.

Krycek's cock was standing at attention, weeping slightly. There was a reddened spot on the underside, probably from where the metal snap had scraped against it. "Jesus, Skinner, just get on with it," Krycek said, voice quivering with anticipation. "You're going to give me blue balls."

"Okay. Here it comes."

Krycek's breath caught as Skinner bent over him, then hesitated in surprise as Skinner slapped one cuff over his wrist, just long enough for Skinner to get the other end fastened to the headboard. Skinner pulled back as Krycek erupted.

"You son of a…" Krycek snarled and yanked at the cuff hard enough to make Skinner wince. "Goddamn it to fucking hell! Skinner! Let me out of this!"

"Calm down, Krycek," Skinner said in a soothing voice, careful not to get too close to Krycek's powerful legs. "We've played this game before. I'm not going to hurt you."

"What kind of a dumb-shit do you think I am, Skinner?!" Krycek howled furiously. "I know exactly what you're doing. You lying son of a bitch. I trusted you." He kicked out wildly, almost catching Skinner square in the face. "You fucking liar! You lied to me!"

The man was almost in tears, and it made Skinner uneasy. Krycek didn't normally allow himself to lose control of his emotions like this. Still avoiding Krycek's wild kicks, Skinner tugged the blindfold away from his eyes. "Krycek…Alex…"

"Don't you 'Alex' me, you son of a bitch! Damn you, Skinner." One tear broke free of the corner of Krycek's red-rimmed eyes and crawled rapidly down his cheek. "Damn you! Let my arm go. You fucking liar…"

"I'm sorry, Alex." Skinner sat on the bed and cradled Krycek's head in his hands. "I'm sorry. I can't let you go back to them. I can't let them do this to you any more."

"You can't stop it. They'll kill you, Skinner. They'll kill both of us. Don’t do this…"

"They won't kill you. You’re too valuable to them." Skinner gently stroked Krycek's hair. "They won't kill me because…I won't let them."

Krycek gave a bark of bitter laughter. "We've already been through this, Skinner. You don't stand a chance. You're a fucking boy scout, and they're a pack of killers."

"Guess we'll just have to find out who's better, then, won't we? Besides, I don't intend to play the lone wolf this time. You're too important to me to risk losing, even if I have to…do something that goes against the grain."

Krycek had ceased to struggle against Skinner's grip. His eyes were closed. "Please don't do this, Skinner. There are things you don't know about the situation. I can't tell you what they are, but knowing them would…change things for you."

"If you aren't going to tell me what they are, then nothing will change, will it?" Skinner waited, but Krycek wasn't forthcoming with any further explanation. "Are you going to tell me that you're a murderer? A saboteur? A thief? A thug? I've seen you do all those things. I doubt there's anything you could tell me about what you've done that could shock me."

"I wish that was true," Krycek said bitterly. "But I know it isn't. I can still shock you, Skinner."

"Go ahead, Krycek. Try."

Krycek shook his head, lips thinning in an unhappy line.

I know you better than you think I do, Krycek. "I already know what it is that they're holding over your head, Krycek. I know why you stay with them."

Krycek started, and his eyes flew open. He started at Skinner intently. "You do?"

"Yeah. I do." You do it because you don't think you have a choice. You do it because they're holding something over your head. And I think I know what it is... "They're holding a gun to the head of someone you love, aren't they?" Skinner's thumbs traced the curves of Krycek's face. "I wish you'd trusted me enough to tell me, Alex."

Krycek stared at him, with horror dawning in his eyes. "You know about that?"

Got you, boy. Skinner toyed with the thought of pretending that he already knew the specifics, trying to trick Krycek into revealing them, but how can I ask him to trust me unless I'm prepared to be trustworthy? "I don't know what this person is to you…a brother or sister? Parents? A…lover? Tell me, Alex. I can help you. We'll find a way to get whoever it is away from those bastards."

The lines of Krycek's face relaxed. "You would, wouldn't you? Even if I told you they were holding my lover. Even if you knew that getting him back would mean the end of our…relationship."

"Of course I would," Skinner snapped, but something inside him ached at the thought. "Is that it, then?"

Krycek considered the question gravely for a moment. "There's nothing you can do for him, Skinner. Put that out of your mind."

So it was a lover then… Skinner tried to think of some kind of reply, but it felt as if a heavy weight had settled over his shoulders and his mind.

"Skinner." Krycek's hand reached for him, but was brought up short by the cuffs. "They're holding someone over my head, yeah, someone I care about. Not a lover, though. You're…the nearest thing to a lover that I've got. That I've ever had."

There was something in the man's eyes that told Skinner he wasn't being told the whole truth. It didn't matter, though. There was plenty of time for him to pick at that particular scab. "Still don't trust me, do you?" He gave a gentle tug on Krycek's forelock. "Either way, I'm not going to let the bastards have you."

"Then you're a fool, Skinner." Krycek said sadly. "I'm not worth it. Whatever you may say, there are things I've done that would shock you…things that even I'm ashamed of having done. Things I'll never forgive myself for. I've made a real shit-hole out of my life. But if I had to do it over again," his eyes met Skinner's steadily, "I'd do them again. Some of them," he amended darkly.

"Would you still have come to me, that night?" Bleeding from a dozen stab wounds and the freshly opened amputation, feverish with pain, being chased by the two surviving would-be assassins, Krycek had staggered to Skinner's door and collapsed against it. Hearing the noise, Skinner had opened the door in time to be menaced by a burly, knife-wielding thug, who had seemed quite surprised to be suddenly facing the business end of Skinner's Sig.

Krycek's eyes softened. "I…" His head fell back against the pillow. "Yeah. Yeah, I guess I would. I'm a selfish bastard."

"You're a survivor, Alex." Skinner's hands tightened in Krycek's hair. "Nothing to be ashamed of there. How long before that Morley smoking bastard sends out the dogs?"

"I don't know." Krycek's face smoothed into a casual mask. "If you're not going to fuck me and you're not going to let me go, at least give me my arm back. I hate feeling like a cripple."

"They're expecting you back fairly soon, are they? Well, I guess I'd better get moving." At Krycek's surprised look, Skinner chuckled. "You think I don't know about the lockpick hidden in your prosthetic, Alex? And I figure you wouldn't have taken the chance of pushing so hard if you had thought you had time to wait me out." He gave Krycek's hip a fond pat, stood up and, with a reluctant sigh, pulled the covers over the man’s naked body. "I'll be back in a short while," he said reassuringly as Krycek began to show signs of panic. "I won't even leave the apartment."

"What are you going to do?"

"It's time to call in a few favors that I've been saving for a rainy day." Skinner gave a savage grin. "You're about to see a side of the Assistant Director that I haven't brought out in a long time." He cracked his knuckles with comfortable satisfaction. "The Consortium won't know what hit them. At least, some of them won't. As for the rest, well, I'll make sure they know exactly what hit them." Skinner felt the banked frustration that had been smoldering inside him for so long burst into angry flame. It felt good, the thought of cutting loose on the bastards who had made his life hell for so long. It felt damned good.

"I hope you know what you're doing, Skinner." Krycek sounded as if he didn't have much hope for a successful end to the coming conflict.

So do I. Skinner closed the door behind him, and went to look for his cell phone.

The answer to his first summons came fifteen minutes after the call. There was a short knock on the door, then the knob was tried.

Mulder, thought Skinner. He never could wait for anything, never took anything for granted. He was a good agent. Brilliant. Intuitive. Not a quitter. Not that that was always good…

Just in case, he picked up his Beretta, which he had been cleaning on the kitchen table, and went to answer the door. He kept his hand at his side, concealing the weapon.

It was Mulder. "What's up, sir? Where's the fire?"

"Come in. Sit down. What do you want to drink?"

"At this time of the morning? Coke, if you've got it. Dr. Pepper in a pinch."

"How about a wine cooler?"

"Are you trying to get me drunk, Assistant Director?" Mulder grinned at him, then turned serious as Skinner didn't laugh.

"Maybe a little. I want you relaxed and just a bit less prone to jump to conclusions, or at least less likely to act on them right away."

Mulder's expression changed to one of keen speculation. "In other words, you don't want me starting any fist fights until I've heard the whole story."

"Something like that, yes."

"Who am I going to be fighting with? You?"


Mulder's face suddenly grew cold. "This has to do with Cancerman. You want me to make some kind of deal with him?"

"God, no. That…monster," Skinner spat out the epitaph, letting all the rage and horror he was feeling take control of his expression "has engineered an unspeakable act on someone I…care about, Mulder. And now he intends to follow up his crime with another act, this time of inhuman cruelty, both against his original victim and against an innocent child."

"Sir?" Mulder's voice was uncertain. "We're not talking about Scully, are we?"

Scully had been rendered barren by her abductors, an abduction that Krycek had been partly responsible for. What irony, that Krycek should be in the situation he was in now. "No. Not Scully."

"Another woman, then? Someone Cancerman has subjected to tests and who is now…pregnant?" Mulder guessed. "Cancerman has plans for the baby?"

"Almost right, Mulder." No wonder they call him Spooky. "There's just one detail that you've got wrong. Damn." Skinner's fists clenched. "I need that drink, Mulder. You can join me or not." Without waiting for a reply, Skinner turned and stalked into the kitchen.

Mulder waited until Skinner had downed half a beer before resuming his interrogation. "You're personally involved with this woman, aren't you?"

"I'm personally involved," Skinner agreed.

"Sir." Mulder's face was serious, totally lacking the man's customary sarcasm. "I want you to know that anything you tell me in confidence will remain in confidence. I don't like keeping secrets from Scully, but you have my word that…"

"It's all right, Mulder," Skinner sighed wearily. "I'll need Scully's help. I don't want the medical records of this pregnancy getting into public record. And no, the child isn’t mine."

Mulder's were suddenly alight with anticipation. "Is the baby an alien, sir?"

"God…I never even considered that," Skinner stared at Mulder in horror. "I never even asked. I wonder if he even…"


Skinner tipped back the last of the beer, rinsed out the bottle, dropped it into a paper bag beside the refrigerator, then fetched out two more bottles. He handed one to Mulder. "I'm in a relationship, of sorts. No…goddamn it…" I will not deny this any more. I refuse to be ashamed of who I am or what I feel "…I have a male lover, Mulder."

"You're..?" Mulder looked at him questioningly.

"I'm in an intimate relationship with a man. You can put whatever label on the situation you want. Myself…I'm not fond of labels." He popped the cap off the beer and took a long swallow. "Never have been."

"I could see that. I've always thought you were the kind of man to call a spade a spade and not worry about whether it was a gardening implement or something to dig latrine ditches with."

Skinner felt himself begin to relax. "You're dealing with this rather well."

"What, you expected me to be shocked because my buff, macho ex-marine boss is sleeping with a man?" Mulder grinned. "I've been known to play both sides of the fence myself. Scully thinks it's very P.C. of me."

"Really? But…you and Scully…" Skinner broke off. "Sorry," he said gruffly. "Not my business."

"I love Scully more than…more than I've ever loved anybody," Mulder said wistfully. "But we'd be a disaster as a couple. Well…" he amended, "we might have worked through that if we both wanted it badly enough. It would have destroyed our ability to work together the way we do, though. We talked about it one night and decided…we'd rather keep what was most important in our lives."

"I'm glad," Skinner told him honestly. "You two are extraordinary together. I've never seen an agent team that works in such perfect unison. Sometimes…" he amended.

"So…" Mulder gestured, unopened beer in hand. "How does your…lover fit in with the smoker? And this woman who…wait…it wasn't a woman you were talking about, was it? It was your lover. Has the smoker kidnapped him? Or threatened him?"

"The smoker has…had him…for some time."

"I'm sorry, sir. And he's done something to him? I hope the 'unspeakable' was just hyperbole."

"No, Agent Mulder. It wasn't." Skinner took another long swallow to fortify himself. "If my source is correct, that bastard's doctors have succeeded in creating the world's first male pregnancy. Outside of comedic movies, science fiction stories and bar-room jokes, that is," he added reflectively.

"Jesus." Mulder's legs gave way beneath him and he fell back into a chair. "That's…" Dazed, he unscrewed the cap and took several swallows.


"Yeah. I guess that fits the bill. Why him? Your lover? Is the smoker trying to get to you?"

"I don't know. He…works for the smoker. Not by choice," Skinner added as Mulder's expression darkened. "In fact, he started out in much the same position as Scully did."

Mulder scowled. "Scully never worked for that bastard."

"Call it whatever you want to. In his case, something happened to change his…situation. Now they're basically using him as a lab rat. He thinks they plan on taking the baby and…using it for something."

"Jesus," Mulder said again. He blinked twice, and shook his head as if to clear it. Then his jaw tightened, and his eyes met Skinner's fiercely. "We'll get him out, sir. Whatever it takes. I have friends who are experienced at this sort of…"

"Not necessary, Agent Mulder," Skinner said softly, "but thank you. Your support means a lot to me. I'm going to…we're both going to need it."

"Have you already made arrangements to get him out, then?"

"I don't need help to get him away from the smoker, Mulder. I just need help in keeping him. He's in the bedroom."

"Here? Now? He's…is he okay? Should I call Scully?"

"He's not injured. Just…exhausted and frightened." And pissed as hell at me for keeping him here. "I'd appreciate it if you would call Agent Scully. Another agent to help guard him would be appreciated, and her medical training will be absolutely essential."

"No kidding…" Mulder muttered. "Do you think the smoker will try to take him back?"

"I'm certain of it."

"Are you planning on keeping him here?"

"I can't exactly requisition a safe-house without answering questions that I'd rather were not asked."

"Can't blame you for that," Mulder agreed. He chewed on his lower lip, and Skinner couldn't help but recall Mulder's recent confession.

I wonder if Alex ever used to watch him, like this. Back when they were partners. Were they ever lovers? Skinner gave his head an angry shake. What an inappropriate thought for him to be having at a time like this. Especially since Mulder was one of his agents. His sex life was none of Skinner’s business. But Alex’s is…

"I might be able to find someplace safer and more defensible,” Mulder offered. “I'll need time to make arrangements."

"We don't have that kind of time, I'm afraid. They'll be expecting him back tonight."

“We could run. Find a motel somewhere.”

“I’d rather have this out now. I’m going to call in some friends. Cancerman needs to know that A..that my lover is now off-limits.”

"I'll call Scully."

Skinner pulled up a chair and allowed himself to collapse into it in relief. Mulder and Scully were two of his best. If he could gain their full support, a substantial part of the burden of keeping Alex safe would be lifted from his shoulders, and there would be a fall-back in case something happened to him.

"…gee, how'd you guess, Scully? Oh, right, caller ID. Hey, listen…"

He hadn't yet won that support, though. There was still one major hurdle to cross. Two, if you counted Mulder and Scully separately.

"…don't want to say anything over the phone, just in case, but I need your medical advice on someone…"

Three, really, if you counted Alex. His lover's opposition to the plan would only get worse once he discovered that Mulder was involved.

"…okay, that's probably a good idea. I'll ask him. Sir?"

Skinner lifted his head.

"Scully wants to know if we can meet at her place."

"I'd rather not."

"It would be more convenient for Scully. There's an important phone call she's waiting for."

Skinner pushed aside a surge of irritation. After all, he was asking them for the favor here. "I guess…we can do that." Krycek would have to stay cuffed to something, probably him. That left Mulder to drive. "Is this really necessary, Agent Mulder?"

"I would advise it, sir." There was a look in Mulder's eyes that warned Skinner there was more to Mulder's request than he was willing to say. An intent look, as if he was waiting for Skinner to make some kind of connection.

Fuck. Mulder thinks I'm tapped. Or bugged. Skinner let his eyes do a circuit of the room, then return to Mulder. He cocked his head slightly and Mulder nodded, his expression changing to one of satisfaction. "We should go now," he said, matter-of-factly. "Scully's got plans for the evening."

"Sounds fine to me. Tell her half an hour to an hour. I’ll need time to get things packed up."

"Less than an hour," said Mulder. "Right. Yes. Oh, and don't forget to have a pot of coffee on. You know what I like. Cream and sugar. Lots of sugar. I'm in the mood for a sugar rush." He laughed, hung up the phone and stood up. "Let's get going."

Skinner stood as well. "There's just one more thing you need to know before I take you in there, Mulder. The identity of the man who's been my lover for almost two years." Not that Krycek would admit to being his lover. Yet. Dammit, I need more time with him before the shit starts to fly.

"Does it matter, s…" Mulder stopped. "It’s someone I know. Isn’t it?"

"Yes." He hated playing twenty questions, but it felt like he was wading into deep water. One misstep and he was afraid the situation would be swept away in the current of Mulder's explosive temper. Something had happened between Mulder and Krycek in Russia two years ago, something that had left Mulder practically spitting with rage every time Krycek's name was mentioned. As near as he could figure, Krycek had returned from Russia not long after Mulder, wounded in body and spirit, half-wild with the loss of his arm. "He used to be one of my agents. Before the smoker got ahold of him."

Skinner knew the precise moment when Mulder's whirling brain finally made the right connection. The man's face paled, and his hazel eyes widened. "Krycek?" he guessed hoarsely. "It's Krycek, isn't it?"

Skinner said nothing, letting Mulder read the answer in his silence.

"He's here? He's in your…bedroom?" Mulder's face was bone white.

"He's naked, he's handcuffed to the bed and he's going through seven kinds of hell, Mulder. If you hit him I'll break your arm."

Mulder made a small motion, as if weakly swatting at a fly, but he made no effort to move, otherwise. He looked as if he'd just been pole-axed.

"I understand that your feelings toward him are…not good, Mulder, and I will understand if you choose to withdraw your offer of…"

"I don't understand," Mulder interrupted. "If you and he are…lovers…why is he…" he swallowed "…naked? And in handcuffs?" There was still no anger in Mulder's voice, only a kind of bewilderment.

"It was the only way I could keep him here. He knows the smoker will come looking for him and he's determined to protect me. Just remember that before you decide to judge him. He's done some bad things, Mulder, but he's not…bad."

"But…naked?" Mulder's eyes blinked owlishly, and his hands twitched.

"I needed him to be distracted before I brought out the cuffs." Skinner could feel his face getting hot. "I don't think you need the voyeuristic details in order to comprehend the situation, Agent Mulder."

"Um. I guess not." Mulder lifted the bottle to his lips and drank it down without stopping. He licked his lips and set the empty bottle down on the table. "Can I speak to him, sir? I'm not going to hurt him. I swear."

"I believe the last time you mentioned him you said you were going to 'blow his fucking head off and spit down the stump'. Or do I misremember, Agent Mulder?"

"Things change." Mulder's eyes were haunted. "God…is it really true? What they did to him?"

"He says so. We'll know for certain once Scully examines him." Skinner said briskly. "Come on. Let's go get him dressed so we can get out of here. I'll need you to keep watch from across the room. He's going to be…difficult."

Krycek had the covers pulled up all the way to his neck when they walked into the room. He's probably hiding whatever he was trying to pick the lock with, Skinner thought fondly. One thing you had to admit about Krycek was that the man was a marvel of resourcefulness.

"Mulder." Krycek greeted his ex-partner warily, but without a trace of surprise or fear. Their voices had probably carried in to him from the kitchen.

"Krycek." Mulder took a step forward, halting as Skinner blocked his path. "Sir. I won't hurt him."

Skinner watched as Krycek's eyes flicked between himself and Mulder, narrowing in calculation. He'd try to play the two of them off against each other if he could. I'd better nip this one in the bud. Either I can trust Mulder or I can't. Better to find that out before things got dangerous.

"All right, Agent Mulder. I trust your word." Skinner stepped aside, then put out his hand as Mulder started past him. "Your gun, Agent?"

"I thought you trusted me."

"I trust you. I don't trust him." Mulder's inability to keep hold of his firearm under field conditions was practically a bureau joke. "I don't want him to get his hands on your weapon." Then he winced at his double-entendre.

"I can understand your concern, sir," Mulder said blandly, pulling the Sig out of his pants and handing it to Skinner.

Krycek's jaw tightened in frustration. "God-DAMN-it Skinner!" he snarled. "You're just going to get him killed, too. Just let me go." His voice broke and he thrashed violently, trying to work the sheets up over his head. Finally he had completely disappeared, only his handcuffed arm protruding from beneath the rumpled cotton.

"Jesus. Is he always like this?" Mulder eyed the motionless lump on the bed.

"No. I think…" Whatever hormones and treatments they had subjected Krycek to must be affecting his emotional stability, and maybe the chemical balance of his brain. What if he's permanently damaged? The thought chilled Skinner. "I think we need to hurry. Back off. Let me talk to him."

He dropped his own gun on the chest of drawers beside Mulder's.

"I don't want to talk to you," Krycek snapped from beneath the covers. "I want you both to get the hell out." Suddenly he kicked out, not coming close to connecting, but throwing the sheet askew. A small, slender bit of metal fell to the floor.

Mulder darted in and picked it up, then handed it to Skinner. "Hope this wasn't one of your favorite pens." The tip was bent.

Krycek kicked again, furiously, stretching to the limit allowed by the cuffs, then crouched on the bed, unselfconsciously naked, and began yanking viciously on the cuff.

"He's going to hurt himself," Mulder warned. He circled the bed warily as Krycek bared his teeth. The pillow was dotted with scarlet drops.

Waiting until Krycek's attention was fully on Mulder, Skinner flung himself onto the struggling body cuffed to the bed. "Alex. Calm down," he murmured.

Krycek convulsed, nearly incoherent with rage and Skinner felt his shoulder explode in agony.

"Mulder! He's biting me, dammit! Get something between his teeth!" Skinner heard drawers being rattled, and then Krycek's head was yanked up and away. "Take it easy with him, Mulder!" Skinner levered himself up so that his body was crouched over Krycek's, taking most of the weight on his hands and knees, but pressing down enough that Krycek couldn't kick or roll.

Mulder was wrapping the broad green tie which had previously encircled his neck around Krycek's mouth for the second time, and tied the ends together behind his head. "It was all I could find on short notice," he explained. "Your socks were too short. Hang on." He went around behind Skinner, and after a moment said "Okay. You can let go of him now."

Skinner rolled away and got to his feet.

Krycek didn't move. He lay on his back, cuffed and gagged, legs tied together with a bed sheet. His eyes were wounded, black pits that nearly swallowed the sea-green rims.

Skinner felt something inside him being ripped to shreds. "Alex?" His throat closed, and he couldn't continue. He sat down on the bed and untied the gag, unwinding it and tossing it to the floor.

Krycek didn't look at him, only stared unblinking at the ceiling.

Skinner began stroking his lover's face, his hair. "I'm sorry, Alex," he whispered. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to hurt you like this. Not after what they've already done to you."

A sudden upwelling of tears filled Krycek's eyes. He made a small sound of protest, as if he could keep them from falling by sheer force of will, but they spilled out from the corners of his eyes and left glistening tracks down the sides of his face.

"What's wrong with me, Skinner?" Krycek's gaze sought Skinner's, and Skinner could hear real fear beneath the surface of Krycek's carefully controlled voice. "This…isn't me. There's something happening inside of me and I can't…oh, god…" his eyes widened and he started panting. "I can't breathe, Skinner." He twisted, arching his spine and throwing his head back, his breath coming in terrified gasps.

"Mulder. Call an ambulance." Skinner dug frantically in his pocket for the key to the handcuffs. "Dammit!"

"I think he's having a panic attack, sir," Mulder murmured, placing a hand on his shoulder.

It steadied him, having Mulder's calm presence at his back. Skinner managed to get the key out and fitted to the lock, snapping open the bloodstained cuff. He lifted Krycek from the bed and pulled the other man against him.

Krycek wrapped himself around Skinner like a limpet and clung to him, gasping and trembling.

"Just breathe. Relax and concentrate on my hands, Alex. I won't let anything happen to you." He stroked Krycek's hair in a soothing rhythm, feeling the machine-gun staccato of Krycek's heartbeat. "This will pass in a moment. Trust me. Trust me, Alex. You're safe here with me. With us."

Mulder slid in behind Krycek. "Alex. I'm here at your back. Got two Sigs, a paisley tie and an F.B.A. that says if Cancerman so much as shows his face around here I'm gonna blow it clear to Thailand." He reached out, hesitating for a moment, studying Skinner's face, then laid a hand on Krycek's back. He began rubbing in slow, comforting circles. "and if you think Skinner and I aren't man enough to take Cancerman, I'm gonna call in Scully and you know she kicks butt."

"If Scully kicks anyone's butt it'll be mine." Krycek's voice was muffled against Skinner's shirt. "She hates me."

Mulder took a long, deep breath and let it out slowly. "Skinner told me you're…pregnant. With a baby. Is that true?"

Krycek's breathing had slowed back down to a normal pattern. His hold on Skinner loosened slightly, and Skinner felt a moment of regret and a little possessiveness. He pushed it firmly away. Whatever Alex needs

"Yeah," Krycek answered, finally. "It's true. 'Zat gross you out, Mulder?"

Mulder thought for a moment. "Yeah. It does."

"Good. That makes two of us."

"I never said I didn't find the whole thing profoundly disturbing," Skinner protested mildly. "I just prefer to focus my energies on the solvable problem, not the unsolvable ones."

"It's not unsolvable," Krycek protested. "Just let me go. Time and the smoker's doctors will solve it. Then they'll let me go."

"We're talking about the life of an innocent child, Alex," Skinner tried to keep his voice level. "Giving it to the smoker is not an option."

"It's not a child…it's an experimental process. A freaking abomination."

“So…the baby is an alien?” Mulder asked.

Krycek was silent for a long moment. “Not as far as I know.”

"Alex…you told me once you wished you could do something to make it up to her,” Mulder said in a low, intense voice. “You wished you could do something to make Scully forgive you."

"I…I was drunk, Mulder."

"Not all that drunk, if you can remember what I'm referring to. You don't want this…baby growing inside you. I don't blame you. Jesus, Krycek," Mulder shook his head wonderingly. "I don't know how you've managed to deal with it for as long as you have."

Krycek kicked out in sudden irritation. "Get this damned thing off my legs, Mulder."

"Don't change the subject. Listen to what I'm telling you, Alex."

"Krycek. My fucking name is Krycek."

Mulder ignored him, his single-mindedness more than a match for Krycek's powers of diversion.

Maybe that's one of my problems, Skinner mused. I let him distract me too easily.

"Your body is growing a baby, Alex. Once Scully finds that out, everything will change. She'll protect you with her life."

"She'll still hate me, Mulder."

"Maybe. But maybe you'll win her over. You can be a pretty likeable bastard when you put yourself out to be. You made a big impression on her when she first met you, you know."

"I vomited in her sink, Mulder."

"You weren't the first one to do that," Mulder chuckled. "But you came right back out and faced that corpse. That impressed her."

"I don't need your approval," Krycek said sullenly.

"No. You don't need anyone, do you Alex?" Mulder's eyes met Skinner's, in a moment of perfect understanding. "And if you find you're starting to, you'll run off and try to fuck that need away with a perfect stranger. Or an enemy."

Krycek stiffened. "Fuck you, Mulder! Shut the fuck up!"

"I always wondered who he was. It never even occurred to me…" Mulder shook his head wonderingly.

Krycek and…Mulder? "When?" Skinner's voice was harsher than he had meant it to be, and Krycek flinched.

"No. Please. Mulder," he whimpered. "Don't."

"He needs to know," Mulder said gently. He gazed at Skinner for a long moment. "About eight months ago Krycek showed up at my apartment with some information for me. Something very valuable and important. Something I needed badly at the time. I was suspicious at first, but it checked out. A couple of days after that he showed up again, drunk off his ass this time. He told me he'd come for his payment." Mulder's lips twitched. "Too drunk to collect, really, though he was persistent enough that I decided what the hell. It's not like I hadn't fantasized about it often enough. He went all maudlin on me, though. Repeating over and over that it was time to move on and get over 'him' one minute, then crying over what a terrible person he was and how he deserved to be shot in the head and fed to swine."

"I did not," Krycek said indignantly.

"Yes. You did," Mulder chuckled. "I had to steal all the bullets out of your gun, and even then you kept putting the barrel to your forehead and pulling the trigger. You looked so surprised every time it didn't fire."

Skinner's hands tightened on Krycek's hair. "You little idiot. Whatever possessed you?"

"He kept saying he'd done something terrible to the only one who'd ever treated him like a human being. Something unforgivable. No matter how drunk he got, though, he never mentioned the name of his lover." Mulder shook his head. "It must have been you, sir." He looked at Skinner inquiringly.

Skinner considered what Mulder had just told him. Eight months ago?. Had something happened then? His relationship with Krycek had always been erratic. The Consortium often sent him overseas or across the country on a moment's notice. Sometimes he'd call. Usually he'd just disappear, for days or weeks, leaving Skinner to wonder if he was lying dead or in prison somewhere.

He answered Mulder's curiosity with a shake of his head. "Yes. He and I were…together, then but I have no idea what he was talking about. He hasn't done anything to me lately. Nothing I know about, anyway." A tiny finger of dread slid down his spine. "Krycek? Alex?"

Krycek hid his face against Skinner's belly.

"Is it something that can be undone, Alex?"

"No. Just let it go, Skinner. It's not something that affects you directly. Just something I knew you'd disapprove of. Forget it."

A connection finally clicked into place in his brain. "It's something they made you do to…the other person we talked about, isn't it?"

"Yeah. Let it go, okay?"

"We'll find a way, Alex." Skinner felt a pang of regret. …the only one who'd ever treated him like a human being… Obviously, Krycek hadn't put him in that category. "Mulder and Scully are going to help us…"

"There is no us, Skinner…"

"Stubborn little cuss, isn't he?" Mulder remarked. "I don't envy you the responsibility. C'mon, Alex. Get dressed. Don't want to get us all mobbed by horny teenagers when we take you out of here, do you?"

"Where are we going?" Krycek sullenly allowed Skinner to wrap gauze and tape around his wrist.

"Scully's." Mulder fetched Krycek's clothing and handed it to Skinner. "Then maybe if you're good we'll take you to Baskin Robbins for some ice cream."

"Don't fucking patronize me, Mulder," Krycek snarled. Then his expression grew thoughtful. "Not that ice cream doesn't sound good. Aww, fuck…" He wilted, and passively allowed himself to be helped into his jeans and t-shirt. "I'm turning into a fucking stereotype. What's next…boobs?"

"Theoretically, the process that they use to induce lactation in women ought to work for you, if you want to breast-feed," Mulder informed him helpfully.

"Fuck you, Mulder. That's sick."

"Come on, you two." Skinner was beginning to feel like the playground monitor at an elementary school. "Scully's waiting." He picked up the cuffs.

"You're not putting those back on me." Krycek took a step back. "Look…I promise I won't try to get away."

"That only works once." Skinner told him, following as Krycek backed away from him. "You've lied to me before."

"It was for your own good," Krycek argued.

"And this is for yours." Skinner grabbed Krycek's arm and snapped the cuff over his wrist, then fastened the other around his own wrist.

Mulder kept up a running stream of conversation all the way to the elevator and down, and through the parking lot, chattering about aliens and mutants and Toys-R-Us. Any other time Skinner would have been irritated, but he found himself grateful, since it kept Krycek's ire focused on Mulder and not on him

Mulder popped the door locks on his dusty brown sedan. "Err, let me clean this up." He gathered up an armful of papers, folders and cartons of mostly eaten food from the back seat and dumped them into the front.

"I'm not sitting on that," Krycek said flatly.

Skinner stared at the dirty vinyl with unconcealed dismay. "Do you have a towel, or something?"

"You guys are wusses." Mulder opened the trunk and took out a blanket. It was musty and smelled faintly of gasoline. There were short, light colored hairs all over the darker fabric. "Here. Scully used to put this down so her dog wouldn't have to sit on the seat." He tossed it over the seat and tucked into in.

"Mulder…didn't that dog die over two years ago?"


"And you haven't washed it in all that time?"

"Yuck," Krycek commented. "You are such a slob, Mulder."

"I'm going to be starting the engine in about fifteen seconds," Mulder climbed into the driver's seat. "I hope you're in the car before then because if not you're going to have to run behind or be dragged."

Skinner nudged Krycek into the back seat, and then folded himself in next to him. He slammed the door shut, then reached over to buckle first Krycek, then himself, in.

"All aboard!" Mulder sang out. "Passengers boarding for the Mulder Express. Gentlemen, start your engines." He turned the key in the ignition and the engine roared to life.

Krycek's interest perked up. "Hey, Mulder. You've got a few horses under that lid."

"Wait'll you see how she corners…"

Skinner's head fell back against the seat as Mulder stepped on the gas.

Next time, I'm cuffing him to Mulder and I'll drive. It would serve them both right.

Ten minutes of teeth-grinding progress through D.C.'s clogged streets had Skinner seriously considering just opening the door and walking. It was a little after five, the worst possible time to be driving. He checked his watch. "Mulder. I'm not sure why you feel it necessary to take us sight-seeing, but Scully's not going to be happy if we're late."

"We're not sight-seeing." Mulder scowled and laid into his horn as a large blue truck cut in front of him. "We're going to Parkway."

"Last time I checked Bureau records," Skinner remarked, "Scully lives in Georgetown."

"We're not going to Scully's," Mulder told him evenly. "There's a clinic on Parkway where Scully does volunteer work. I told her to meet us there by way of a code we use in case of suspected surveillance. She's got a key and can get in any time, in case we need to go back later tonight for more tests."

"Hey!" Krycek sat up, alarmed. "I'm not letting anybody do any tests on me."

Skinner put a hand on Krycek's thigh. "Nobody's going to hurt you, Alex."

"Fuck that, Skinner." Krycek scowled, but didn't push Skinner's hand away. "I'm not a five-year-old. I know what the fucking word 'test' entails."

"I figure Scully can do an ultrasound," Mulder continued as if oblivious to the argument going on in his back seat. "That'll tell us whether this pregnancy thing is for real or not."

"You think I’m lying about this, Mulder? What the hell possible reason...?"

Mulder rolled his eyes. "They could be lying to you, Krycek. Don't tell me that possibility hadn't already occurred to you."

"God…wouldn't that be a crock? All this for nothing. Skinner coming out of the closet and all." Krycek gave Skinner an uncertain look. "And everything else."

"We'll also be able to tell all kinds of other things. If the baby is human, for one thing."

"It is," Krycek said, then froze guiltily.

"You know more about it than you've told us, aren't you, Alex?" Skinner realized. "What more aren't you telling us?"

"Nothing," Krycek said evasively. He refused to meet Skinner's eyes. "I just know it's human, that's all."

"What's the kid's genetic background?" Mulder asked.

"I don't know. Stop asking me about this shit." Krycek hunched down in the seat and stared morosely at the back of Mulder's head.

He was lying, Skinner was sure of it. "We'll talk more about this later," he warned. "And you'd better be prepared to answer my questions."

"Or what? You'll beat the shit out of me? You can't have it both ways, Skinner. Either I'm a snot-punk that you can slap around or I'm a fragile expectant mamma that you've got to be careful of."

Mulder snorted.

Krycek was right. Skinner's jaw clenched. If his story did check out, if there was a baby inside him, there'd be no way to physically threaten Krycek. They were already prepared to keep him prisoner…what else was there to threaten him with?

"Scully can do an amniocentesis. That may tell us something about the genetics," Mulder said.

"What's that?" Krycek asked warily.

"Genetic testing. Pregnant women do it all the time to check for birth defects. Stop being such a big baby, Krycek."

"Eat me, Mulder," Krycek suggested.

"I might, but then Skinner would have to pound me into paste for poaching."

"Mulder…" said Skinner.

"Yes sir," Mulder responded with a grin in his voice. "Shutting up, sir…"

The car pulled into a dingy parking lot behind a battered chain link fence.

Krycek looked around uneasily. "This isn't one of those back-street abortion clinics, is it Mulder? They do know about sterilization and other modern medical practices, right?"

"It looks a lot nicer on the inside," Mulder assured him.

They got out of the car and Skinner put their cuffed hands into the pocket of Krycek's jacket.

"That's so sweet," Mulder smirked. "Won't everyone think you're just the cutest couple?" He spun around quickly and headed for an unmarked side door.

Skinner followed, Krycek in reluctant tow.

Mulder pounded on the door, which opened immediately.

Scully was all smiles until she saw who her patient was going to be. "Him?" she hissed, outraged.

"A little privacy, Agent Scully," suggested Skinner, pulling his hand out of Krycek's pocket so that she could see the cuffs.

Scully hurried them off into a private examining room. She leaned against the wall, scowling, while Skinner settled Krycek in a chair.

"We need an ultrasound on him," Mulder told her without preamble.

"An ultrasound? Why?"

"I'd rather not…speculate before the facts. Can you do it? Right away? In here? We don't want to be dragging him around the clinic."

"I should say not. This clinic is supposed to be for women. They'll start asking questions if I use the equipment on a man, especially a man in handcuffs." Scully sighed. "There better be a good reason for this, Mulder."

"We'll soon find out." Mulder went out of the room with Scully, and the two of them returned some time later with a piece of equipment about the size of a hand blender.

“Have him lie down on the table,” said Scully.

Skinner bit down on his irritation. The last thing Krycek needed right now was to be treated like an object, but he couldn’t very well blame Scully for her anger against the man who had been involved in the death of her sister. “Alex? Please?”

Krycek glared, but gave in to the press of Skinner’s hand on his shoulder. He rose and approached the paper covered examination table, one step at a time.

Skinner kept the pressure of his hand steady, but didn’t shove him. He’s probably been on a lot of examining tables recently, poor little bastard.

At the table, Krycek paused, shoulders rigid and tense.

Mulder bent and murmured something into Scully’s ear, and she turned her attention to the ultrasound device, fiddling with the controls.

“I thought these were supposed to be a lot bigger.” Mulder turned his back to Krycek.

With their attention diverted, Krycek relaxed slightly. He shrugged Skinner’s hand off. “You’re gonna have to unlock me if you want me on that,” he said flatly.

Skinner threw a glance toward the door. If Krycek bolted Mulder could stop him, and it was pretty clear that Mulder wasn’t particularly distacted by his conversation with Scully. Taking the key out of his pocket, he fitted it into the tiny lock and the cuff slid free of his wrist. He unlocked Krycek’s cuff and put cuffs and key back into his pocket.

Krycek hesitated an instant before climbing up onto the table. He swung his feet up and cautiously laid his head back.

Scully nudged Mulder, and the two of them turned around. Her face was a study in resentful impatience. “What am I supposed to ultrasound?”

“Abdomen,” Mulder told her.

Skinner began to tug at the bottom of Krycek’s shirt, sliding it out from beneath the waistband of his jeans.

“I can take my own fucking clothes off,” Krycek snarled, batting at Skinner’s hands.

“That’s fine, Alex.” Skinner tried to pitch his voice to be calm, but with a touch of impatience. In the mood he was in, his lover would resent any kind of obvious coddling. “You’ll just need to slide your jeans lower on your hips.”

Krycek gave him a surprised look, then grinned knowingly. “Don’t want me to get naked in front of Scully, huh? Whatever.” He unbuttoned his fly, lifted his hips and shoved his jeans down far enough that the dark nest of his pubic hair was clearly revealed. He gave a bitter snort. “It’s not like I’ve got any modesty left, not after six months of this shit.”

Lying on his back, the rounded bulge of his abdomen was even more obvious. It didn’t settle the way an ordinary ‘spare tire’ would have.

“Is this some sort of tumor?” Scully asked, her interest beginning to pique. “Should I take a sample for a malignancy screening?”

There was a flash of panic in Krycek’s eyes, quickly suppressed. His gaze flitted briefly to the door, which Mulder was solidly blocking.

“No.” Skinner placed a hand deliberately on Krycek’s upper thigh, knowing that it would distract his lover. He heard Krycek’s slight intake of breath. “Just do the ultrasound. We need to have a look at what’s inside there.”

Scully gave him an uneasy look. “It’s not anything that’s going to…” she made a rising gesture with one hand.

“You’ve been partners with Mulder too long,” Skinner told her, trying to conceal his anger. If Krycek hadn’t known exactly what was inside him, her remark would have terrified him. Be patient with her, he reminded himself. This is the man she blames for her sister’s death. She has good reason to hate him.

As Scully positioned the monitor, Skinner placed his other hand on Krycek’s chest, seemingly by chance positioning his fingers on either side of the younger man’s right nipple. Then he crooked his index finger and surreptitiously began to explore the inseam of Krycek’s jeans.

Krycek gave him a wide-eyed, incredulous look of half-alarm, his face already beginning to flush.

To the casual observer, it would look like Skinner was merely pinning Krycek down, to keep him from moving.

A year ago, they’d been having a beer in a dark corner of the seedy pub that Krycek insisted was the only place that he’d risk being seen in public with Skinner. The place had made him uncomfortable, and in an effort to persuade Krycek to cut the experience short, Skinner had slipped his hand under the table and began fondling his lover’s leg.

Just as the third round of drinks was arriving, Krycek had given a strangled gasp and orgasmed right in front of the startled waitress, who’d given them both a bemused look before gathering up the empties and leaving.

In a state of post-orgasmic satiation, Krycek had admitted that he found surreptitious advances in a public situation an almost irresistible turn-on.

On the examining table, Krycek squirmed, trying ineffectually to remove his thigh from Skinner’s grasp.

“You need to keep him from moving,” Scully complained. “I can’t get a clear image.”

“Stay on the table, Krycek!” Skinner barked. “Stop wiggling. You aren’t going anywhere until Scully is done.” He tightened his grip, pinching Krycek’s nipple between index and middle fingers.

Krycek gasped, then coughed to disguise the sound and threw a worried look at Scully, whose attention was wholly focused on the ultrasound device’s image screen.

Mulder watched the proceedings with unconcealed amusement; obviously he was under no illusions as to what Skinner was doing. The corners of his lips twitched as he walked over to join Scully in studying the monitor, trusting Skinner to keep Krycek too occupied to think of bolting.

Skinner found himself torn between gratitude for Mulder’s support, and irritation that he so easily read them both. Did Mulder know about Krycek’s weakness? What had gone on between them, that drunken night? No matter…he’s mine now… He leaned down and whispered “Behave, or I’ll make you come in front of Scully.”

“That would be a very bad idea,” Krycek hissed between gritted teeth, but he was suddenly very still beneath Skinner’s hands.

Skinner ceased actively trying to stimulate a response from Krycek, other than the occasional squeeze to keep him aware of the presence of Skinner’s hands. Krycek was breathing deeply and there was a noticeable bulge straining against his jeans.

“There’s definitely …something in there,” said Scully. “Not just undifferentiated tissue. It’s some kind of…” her eyes widened, and her mouth formed a small ‘o’ of surprise. “This isn’t possible. Krycek is…a woman?”

“I’m not!” Krycek spasmed in outrage. His hand clenched as if he was about the punch something. “Fucking bitch…!”

Skinner straightened his fingers, allowing them to brush against the material stretched taut over Krycek’s crotch.

Krycek gasped and whimpered. “I’m not. They put those things…that stuff in me.”

“The consortium has been using Alex as a test subject for some kind of experiment. They told him he was pregnant. We needed to confirm that before we decide what to do about it.” Skinner gently rubbed Krycek’s trembling chest, careful not to touch the sensitive nipple. He needs to calm down

“It’s not moving. Is it dead?” Mulder asked.

Krycek’s face turned the color of cold ash.

“The baby’s fine.” Scully glared at him with a look that echoed Skinner’s desire to backhand his agent. “This is a digital image. There’s a camera built into the monitor. See…here’s the live image.”

Mulder peered at the screen. “It’s moving around. I can’t see anything,” he complained.

“That’s why you need the image capture capability,” Scully explained. The look she turned to Krycek was much less hostile that it had been, and softened even further when she saw how shaken he had been by Mulder’s insensitive remark. “The baby looks healthy. Do you know how far along you are?”

Krycek closed his eyes, lips pressed together in a thin line.

“Answer the question, Krycek,” ordered Mulder, “or we’ll shake the answer out of you.”

“Mulder, don’t you dare touch him!” Scully rounded on her partner angrily. “There’s no telling how fragile his biology is right now.” She turned back to Krycek, her eyes bright with worry.

Over her head, Mulder threw Skinner a wink.

Skinner took his cue. “Speak when the lady asks you a question, Krycek,” he growled, rubbing the gently curved underside of Krycek’s denim imprisoned scrotum in a gentle apology.

“You two…stop this. Whatever he’s done in the past, we have to think about his innocent baby,” Scully said unhappily. “You can’t hit him or lock him up in prison. He needs to be under constant care. He’s too thin and his color isn’t good.”

Krycek’s eyes opened. There was a glazed, twitchy look in them, as if he was having a hard time concentrating. “Five months. And seventeen days.”

“Five and a half months,” repeated Scully. “I think the baby looks like it’s developing normally, then. Good. I’ll need to brush up on my stages of development knowledge. It’s been a while since I’ve had a pregnancy to treat.”

“How come you remember the date so exactly?” asked Mulder.

“What do you think, asshole? It’s not like I just woke up one morning puking and had to pee on a stick to figure out that I had…this thing in me. The main procedure took four and a half hours and they kept me awake the whole time. They wanted it to be as unpleasant as possible.”

“But…why?” Scully gave him a puzzled look. “That doesn’t make any sense. If they had wanted the procedure to be a success they should have been trying to reduce the stress factor as much as possible.”

“They wanted to give me lots of incentive to avoid a repeat performance.”

Scully still looked puzzled. “Was this some sort of punishment, then?”

“If I don’t stick it out all the way to the bitter end they’ll put another one in,” Krycek explained wearily. “They didn’t want me to try to get rid of it.”

“That’s…” Scully looked sick. “This is a baby, not an experiment. How can they do this? What are they planning on doing about the baby when it’s born?”

“What they’re planning on doing,” Skinner interrupted, “And what we are going to let happen are two different things. You say the baby looks normal, Scully? What about the…how’s it going to get born?”

Skinner teased Krycek in a leisurely fashion as Scully continued her examination, just enough to keep his lover distracted. Krycek’s eyes were half-closed, and his fingers twitched occasionally.

“There’s a birth canal, I think. It leads down…Krycek, can you unzip your jeans all the way? I’m having a hard time…er…sorting things out here through the metal snaps,” Scully asked uncertainly, glancing at Skinner.

Krycek’s eyes flew open in alarm. It was now obvious, even to Scully, that he was fully aroused.

Her eyes narrowed thoughtfully as she contemplated the positioning of Skinner’s hand.

“Hey, Scully, I want to see that last image of the baby again,” Mulder tugged at her sleeve. “Back up. I thought I saw something weird.”

“And you’re only now remembering it?” The look she gave him was frankly suspicious, but she obliged him. “This one?”

“Yeah. Look. Right there.”

“Don’t touch the screen,” she scolded.

“Sorry. Look. It’s deformed. It’s got an extra arm. Right here.”

“That’s not an arm, it…” Scully gasped. “You’re right. There are fingers. I thought it was part of the umbilical cord.”

“What?” Krycek’s body went rigid. “It’s deformed? Fuck!” he moaned. “Oh, fuck. No.”

“Hold still,” Scully told him. “Don’t panic. It might be just a distortion…let me get a different angle. Hold on…aha! Look, Mulder,” she ordered triumphantly.

“Two of them. Twins,” Mulder’s normally cocky voice was awed. “Wow, Krycek. Alex. You’re not just fucking around here. Two at once.”

“I had nothing to do with it.” Krycek’s body was still rigid, trembling beneath Skinner’s hands. “I guess they were trying to economize. Just as easy to plant two as one, and it saves time.”

“Look at their tiny little fingers, Mulder.” Scully’s voice was husky. “They’re perfect. Perfect little babies.”

“Fetal tissue,” Krycek snapped. “They’re a Consortium experiment inside me and I’m just the incubating equipment. Don’t get sentimental over a piece of Consortium garbage.”

Scully jerked as if she’d been slapped. Her cheeks flushed with outrage. “Garbage? Who are you calling garbage? Them or you?”

“Both,” Krycek grated. “Are we done with the fucking freak show, here? I have to go check in with the bastard who’s holding my leash before he sends someone to hunt me down.” He thrashed on the table and managed to slip from Skinner’s grasp long enough to roll off the table.

Mulder moved to block the door, but Krycek flung himself against the far wall. His arms were wrapped tightly against his chest.

“We can’t let him go. He’ll let those men do whatever they want.” Scully turned angry eyes on Skinner. “We have to protect those babies.”

“We have to protect all three of them,” Skinner corrected her gently. “He’s in as much danger as they are. Not the same kind of danger, but no less terrible.”
“He doesn’t care what happens to them. He deserves whatever he gets.” Scully’s blue eyes were icy. “I’m willing to do everything I can to keep him healthy until they’re born…”

“Scully,” Mulder said calmly. “Why do women who’ve had an abortion refuse to think of it as anything other than the removal of fetal tissue? Why don’t they want to think about what was inside them as a baby?”

“Because…” Scully faltered. “But…he doesn’t have to…”

“He doesn’t think there’s any choice. He thinks they’ll take the babies and there’s nothing he can do about it,” Skinner told her.

“Stop talking about me like I’m not here,” Krycek objected angrily. “I’m a realist. You people are living in a fantasy. You think that somehow the system’s going to protect you, protect me. They’re outside the system. Nothing stops them from taking what they want. Nothing.”

“There are laws…” Scully ventured halfheartedly.

“Laws are useless if you don’t have the power to enforce them,” Skinner answered before Krycek could. “I understand that. We can’t rely on them. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to keep him safe. I’ve been trying to convince him of that all morning. He doesn’t believe it, though. He can’t let himself believe. I understand, Alex,” he murmured. “It’s how you’ve been able to survive this long, hasn’t it? Every time you have to listen to them tell you what’s going to happen, you make yourself believe that it doesn’t matter. It’s just another unpleasant experience that will be over in a few months.”

“That’s the way it is. Deal with it,” Krycek said hoarsely. “Quit trying to fuck with my mind.”

“You need to stop walling us out, Alex,” Mulder came to stand beside Scully. “That’s why this has gone on that way it has. You aren’t keeping yourself safe. You’re keeping yourself alone. It’s just what they want. Alone, you’re easy prey to that pack of manipulative bastards. They want you to believe that they’re all powerful, but believe me, they’re not.”

“Oh, yeah, like you’ve been so effective at exposing their secrets,” Krycek jeered. “If they’re so weak how come you can’t kick their asses?”

“I’m still alive, aren’t I?”

“So am I. And I intend to stay that way.” Krycek avoided their eyes, staring at the floor. “Stop trying to make me…to get me killed.”

“We can protect you, Alex,” Skinner took a step toward him, holding out his hand.

“Please, K…Alex,” Scully cradled the ultrasound machine in her arms. “Please fight them. Don’t let them kill your babies.”

“There’s nothing I can do. There’s nothing anybody can do,” Krycek told her desperately.

“We won’t let this happen,” Mulder said forcefully. “Krycek…Alex…listen to me. We’ll fight for you. We won’t let them…”

“Leave me alone.” Krycek’s legs collapsed under him and he crumpled into the shelter between two cabinets. “You don’t understand. There’s nothing you can do. There’s no place I can go. They’ll kill you all and take me back.”

Skinner knelt down in front of him. “They won’t, Alex. I have friends from…well…I’ve known them for a long time. I used to run with a pretty rough crowd when I was a kid.” He grinned. “The Consortium bully boys won’t scare them. A bunch of us enlisted together, and most of us even managed to make it back in one piece. We’re still pretty close, even though we don’t see much of each other these days. Once they’re on guard, nothing is going to get through them. Some of them were special ops. They do body-guarding work now.”

“How about if you assign Scully and me to a special closed-file witness protection case?” Mulder suggested. “We could guard him for the next four months. Your friends could help, if you think they’re necessary,” he added generously.

“Oh, they will be,” Skinner muttered. There’s no way in hell I’m leaving him alone with you for four months, Agent Mulder. “Are you okay with this, Alex?”

“What about you?” Krycek demanded. “Where will you be?”

Skinner sighed. “I can’t very well assign myself to the same case. I’ll have to stay in Washington and run interference in case someone prods the Director into asking questions about the assignment.”

“No deal,” said Krycek flatly. “Either you’re in or I’m out.”

“Alex, it’s only going to be for a few months. Once the baby’s born…”

“Alex is right, sir. Once they realize that Krycek is gone, you’re the first person they’ll come looking for. I’m the second,” Mulder observed. “I’d suggest you apply for a leave of absence. Scully could give you a medical excuse. You could test positive for cancer or something.”

“Too complicated. And too obvious. No, Alex needs to just disappear. My friends can guard him. They’ve got a couple of safe houses out of the country. They don’t tell me where. One of them is CIA.”

“The Consortium will come looking for you,” Krycek insisted.

“I’ll convince them I don’t know where you are. As far as I know you showed up this morning, told me some sort of weird story about being pregnant, and disappeared.” Skinner grinned at him reassuringly. “You have no idea what a good liar I can be when my ass is on the line.”

“Oh, oh, sir, maybe this is something we shouldn’t be hearing,” Mulder joked.

“But, sir,” Scully protested. “He’ll need a doctor. I ought to be there in case there are problems with the birth. I may have to do a C-section. The birth canal may not be adequate…”

“It isn’t,” Krycek confirmed bluntly. “They ran some sort of tube down into my cock for drainage. I’ve been pissing the sort of shit a man doesn’t like to see some out of that particular place. The smoker made sure I knew that if I didn’t go to a proper medical facility the babies would rip me apart trying to come out my piss hole.”

“Jesus,” Mulder swore, looking ill. “Why didn’t they just…ah…make another hole? One big enough for the babies to come out of?”

“Infection,” Scully answered. “The urinary tract is sterile. Any sort of normal external opening would allow germs access and the resulting infection could cause complications. Although the urinary infections will be a problem. That settles it, sir. I have to be there, sir.” Her eyes were very bright. “Unless one of your friends is a doctor?”

“No.” Skinner smothered a smile as he contemplated the dismay with which the squad’s de facto field surgeon would greet the idea of shepherding a man through pregnancy.

“And it wouldn’t be fair to Scully to leave her alone in a house full of strange men without me to look after her,” Mulder pointed out.

Scully rolled her eyes, but said “I’d feel better with Mulder there. No insult meant to your friends.”

“You don’t understand, Skinner. You can’t stay if I disappear,” Krycek said hoarsely. “You don’t know what they…”

“I won’t tell them anything, Alex. I promise. I won’t let them tell me anything about where they’re going to take you.”

“Then they’ll…” Krycek pulled his knees in against his belly and wrapped his arms around them. “I’m not going anywhere unless you’re guarding me.”

“What aren’t you telling us, Alex?” Mulder asked softly. “They’ve threatened to do something to Skinner if you disappear. That’s it, isn’t it?”

“No. His lover.” Skinner felt like slapping himself for forgetting. “He told me they were holding his lover hostage. Tell us who he is, Alex. We’ll get him to safety as well.”

Krycek buried his face in his arms.

“His lover?” asked Mulder. “But when he told me…” He gave Krycek a speculative look. “I think he’s been indulging in a little creative misdirection, sir. You’re the only one he talked about that night, though he wouldn’t tell me your name. I’m sure it was you. I should have guessed from the hints he let drop, but it never even occurred to me.”

“Alex?” Oh, hell. I’m the leash around his neck? I’m the reason he keeps going back to them? “Alex…is Mulder right?” Skinner reached out to wrap his hand around Krycek’s. “Does the Consortium keep you in line by threatening to hurt me?”

Krycek didn’t move or make a sound, but Skinner read his answer in the silence. “Why didn’t you tell me? Goddamn it!”

“Probably because he knew you’d be pissed and yell at him?” Mulder suggested.

“Stop helping me Mulder,” Krycek said resentfully. “You nosy bastard.” He glared at Mulder, and Skinner could see that his eyes were red-rimmed. “I don’t want your help,” Krycek spat.

“I know you don’t,” Mulder told him calmly, “but you need it. Whether you want to admit it or not, you’re in way over your head. And Skinner’s way too involved to see through your shit. You want out, but you want to keep him safe. You’d let them do anything to you to keep him alive, wouldn’t you?”

“Fuck you, Mulder! Jerk!” Krycek’s voice broke.

“Didn’t anyone ever warn you that you should never get shit-faced and fuck-drunk around a profiler, Alex?”

“If you ever get your cock anywhere near me again I’ll cut it off and shove it up your ass! You’d better be sleeping with Scully while you two are guarding me, cause it won’t be with me, and maybe she’ll be able to sew it back on after I rip it off…”

“There was never supposed to be a repeat performance.” Mulder’s grin looked strangely forced, and his hand hovered protectively over his crotch. “I’m not letting you anywhere near my equipment, especially not while you’re pregnant. Hell, Alex, you weren’t all that stable before all those hormones started messing with you…”

“Mulder?” Scully stared at him in shock. “You mean you and Krycek..?”

“Not just me,” muttered Mulder.

“I’d already figured that part out for myself.” Scully avoided Skinner’s eyes.

“Oh, hell.” Mulder stared at Krycek. A look of wonder transfixed his features. “It’s all finally starting to make sense now. The smoker’s message.”

“What message?” Skinner demanded, his words echoed by Scully’s glare and Krycek’s look of panic.

“A couple of weeks ago a black limousine pulled up alongside me while I was out jogging. I was invited into the back seat at gunpoint.”

Krycek’s mouth dropped open.

“Go on,” Skinner prompted.

“I found myself choking in the back seat of the smoker’s car. Never saw him, he was behind some sort of screen and his voice was electronically distorted, but there’s no disguising the stink that clings to everything he touches. The smoke was so thick you could taste it. We exchanged our usual, and I told him to quit beating around the bush, yadda yadda. He finally told me that Krycek had stolen something from Skinner and me. He said it was something we might not want back, but that Scully would. He said it was something we couldn’t take from him at gunpoint. Then he had his thug kick me out and he drove off. I haven’t seen him since. Or heard from him.”

“That’s bizarre,” remarked Scully.

“I remembered Krycek…Alex…spitting into the bottle and figured he must have somehow been able to do the same to Skinner, but what I couldn’t figure out was why Scully would want sperm samples from me and you.” He looked at Skinner. “The thought that he’d fertilized eggs with them briefly crossed my mind but then why would Krycek be running around with them? And why couldn’t we beat the answer out of him?”

Skinner felt his legs turn to water. “You think…one of those babies might be mine? They used my…” Suddenly Krycek’s words came back to him. His head whipped around, and Krycek shrank back from the look in his eyes.

“I told you,” he said with resignation. “I told you I’d done things…”

“Come out of there.” Skinner reached down to grasp the younger man’s arm.

Krycek flinched, but allowed himself to be pulled to his feet. He stood in front of Skinner, shoulders hunched, making no move to defend himself.

“You stole my sperm. And Mulder’s. For the Consortium to use. You let them put our babies inside of you. And you would have just walked out of my apartment this morning without telling me what you’d done…what they’d done. Wouldn’t you?”

Krycek’s shoulders twitched in an attempt at a shrug.

“Why, Alex? Explain to me why you did this.” Skinner clenched his fists, fighting the need to pull Krycek into his arms, to wrap him up and tell him that he was forgiven. He needed to hear all of it, first.

“At first they said if I didn’t, they’d just kill you. You wouldn’t join them, so they said you weren’t any use to them. Then after the…” Krycek gestured listlessly at his belly “…they said if I disappeared they’d take you instead Do this to you. If you died, they’d take Mulder next.”

There was a choked sound from Mulder. “Fuck. I guess I really owe you one, Alex.”

“Why us in particular?” Skinner asked. That question had been niggling at him “Why go to all this trouble and risk of getting our sperm? Why not…use their own? Or even yours?” he asked bluntly.

“And where did the ova come from?” Scully demanded. “You can’t make me believe they produced viable zygotes from just male sperm. Even if they are able to create clones, and I know they are…”

“They’re yours,” Krycek interrupted her. “They never told me, but I saw the name on the flask.”

“But…that’s not possible. Mulder stole that flask from their facility. It’s what we used to…”

“There were two of them,” Mulder admitted guiltily. “I though there’d be less chance they’d notice if I only took one.”

“And you didn’t tell me?” demanded Scully angrily.

“I knew it would only upset you,” Mulder muttered. “And I really didn’t want to be sent back in to fetch the other one.”

Scully glowered and turned her back on him. “What else did they say, Alex? What were they going to do with the babies?”

“I don’t know. The…technicians…doctors…whatever they were…they were arguing about it. There was some sort of genetic manipulation that they’d done on the…zygotes, I guess…before they put them in me. Some of them wanted to have one for dissection and one for testing. The rest wanted to do comparative testing on both of them and save the dissection for after they died. The smoker never said anything about there being two of them, so I just assumed one had died.”

Scully couldn’t speak for a moment, just stood, fists clenched, tears held back from spilling over by sheer willpower. Mulder put his hand around her shoulders and gently massaged her arm until she took a deep breath and was able to compose herself. “What sort of testing…no…don’t tell me that. Did they implant the womb and the babies at the same time? The anti-rejection drugs might have been harmful to the embryos.”

“No. They did the prep work, put the…extra parts in a few months before. They didn’t tell me what they were doing, only that it was a non-lethal alteration. You’ll have to make sure all that shit comes out when you take the babies,” Krycek told Scully. “It’s only good for one use. If you don’t get it all out, it rots and eventually kills me.”

Skinner fought back a wave of nausea.

“When the…zygotes…were far enough along that they were sure they’d survive, they put ‘em in with a long steel rod,” Krycek continued. “They tried a flexible catheter first, but they couldn’t get it to go up the right way. Kept going into my bladder. After a while they got tired of hearing me scream and the smoker let them give me a local. I was pissing blood for a week.”

“Oh, Jesus, Alex.” Skinner wrapped his arms around Krycek and pulled the younger man’s body against him. “I am so sorry. If I’d known I never would have let you go back to them.”

“I know.” Krycek didn’t resist Skinner’s embrace, but he didn’t relax into it either. “That’s why I didn’t tell you. I did what I had to.” His voice was strangely toneless, almost distant. “I made my choices and I’ve paid for them…” His voice trailed off.


“I think he’s in shock,” Scully’s brow furrowed with concern. She touched the side of his neck. “His skin is clammy.”

“Might be PTSD,” Mulder suggested. “We should get him somewhere that doesn’t remind him of the research facilities where they did this to him.”

“They’re probably watching my place by now,” Skinner told them.

“And Mulder’s apartment is a pig-sty,” Scully remarked. “That just leaves my place.”

“They could be watching any of our apartments,” Mulder pointed out. “What about your mom’s place, Sculls? Isn’t she out of town?”

“That’s a good idea. I’ll head there now and warm up a blanket in the dryer. Mulder, you know the way so you ride with them.”

“Dibs on the keys,” Mulder called. “Oh, wait. I already have them.” He tossed them up into the air, caught them, and headed out the door, grinning.

“Come on, Alex.” Skinner guided his unresisting lover toward the door. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Okay,” Krycek agreed, his eyes still vacant.

Skinner reached into his pocket for the handcuffs, and, with one smooth, practiced move, snapped one cuff over Krycek’s wrist and the other around his own.

Krycek’s eyes blazed with sudden fury.

“You think after all this time I can’t read you better than that, Alex? You didn’t really think I was going to let you get away from me, did you?” Skinner murmured in his ear. “By all means, keep playing it up, though. Scully doesn’t know you as well as I do.”

“Fuck you, Skinner!” Krycek hissed in frustration. “You’re making a mistake. A really big mistake. You’re going to get everybody killed, not just yourself.”

Scully opened the door and stuck her head in. “Is something wrong?” She looked first at Skinner, then at Krycek, who was glaring at his captor in sullen mutiny.

“Alex is fine. He was just hoping he’d get out of here without the handcuffs. He’s still hoping to make a run for it.”

“But…why? How can he even think about going back to them, after what they did to him? Or was that just more of his lies?” Scully demanded angrily.

“No. I think it was all true. He just doesn’t trust us, that’s all.”

“You just don’t get it,” Krycek told her, eyes like bruised flint. “This isn’t like a normal pregnancy where you take a few months off from work and then go back to your life after the kid is born. If you want these kids you’re going to have to spend the rest of your life in hiding or on the run. You could give up everything you’ve worked for your whole life, and you might still end up with nothing.”

“If I want them?” Scully took a step closer to him, and then another, until there was barely an arm’s length between them. She reached out a hand and placed it gently over Krycek’s belly. “Alex, there is nothing that I wouldn’t give up for even the chance to hold these babies in my arms. To watch them grow up, to protect them and keep them safe, to hear their laughter.”

Krycek stared down at her hand for a moment, then shook his head as if trying to shed an unwanted thought. “But what if…what if I’m part of the package?” he demanded. “What if…if I don’t plan on just walking away. Not that I want to do any of that mommy stuff…daddy stuff…” he amended hastily. “Just…you hate me. You’ve got good reasons. But I can’t…” he swallowed and continued with desperate honesty, “…can’t go through all this shit and then just walk away. Not if you’re going to make me…care about what happens.”

Scully’s blue eyes filled with tears and spilled down her cheeks. “I did hate you, Alex. For all the things you’ve been involved with. Mulder told me you didn’t shoot Melissa, but you didn’t stop it either.”

Krycek tensed, but made no attempt to deny her accusations. Skinner rubbed his thumb over the back of Krycek’s neck.

“But if you carry these babies inside you, protect them with your life…I’ll never be able to hate you again. Every time I look at them I’ll remember who gave them to me. Don’t take them away from me, Alex. Please. Don’t let them take our babies away.”

Krycek stood motionless. Skinner could feel his breath coming in small, silent gasps as if something inside him was spasming. His muscles began to tremble. “Don’t make me care like this. Please. Don’t.” His voice was almost inaudible.

“It’ll be all right, Alex,” Skinner murmured against his neck. “I’ll be right here with you. We’ll do whatever it takes to keep them safe.”


Skinner knew what he was really asking. “I promise. Wherever you go, I’ll be with you. I won’t give the smoker the chance to get his hands on me. Do I get the same promise from you?”

Krycek sucked in a lungful of air, and let out a long, shuddering breath. “Yeah. Yeah. Don’t make me regret this, Skinner.”

“Walter. Under the circumstances, I think it’s time you started calling me Walter.”

“Don’t push your luck.” Krycek’s voice was still a little quavery.

Skinner chuckled and unlocked the cuffs from around their wrists. “Scully, I think your mother’s house might still be the safest place to go right now. If the offer’s still open?”

“Of course.” Scully’s face lit up in a brilliant smile. “She’s got an attic full of baby things that I’ll want to pick through before we go.”

Krycek preceded Skinner out to the parking lot, a nervous, watchful shadow.

“What took you guys?” complained Mulder. He leaned out the window, and Skinner could feel a warm blast of air from inside the car.

“Just working out the details, Mulder.” Skinner opened the back door and slid in, leaving Krycek to follow on his own. Either I can trust him or I can’t.

Krycek slid inside without hesitation. There was an awkward moment as he had to wrestle the door shut with his right arm. He managed the seat belt without much difficulty, pushing it carefully down so the strap lay across his hips instead of his belly. “I’ve had to learn to be careful,” he explained, defensively. “Like I said, I didn’t want to have to go through that again.”

“I understand,” Skinner told him. “I don’t blame you at all.” He reached over and tucked his hand beneath the belt, leaning back as Mulder started the car and relaxing, for the first time in hours. It’ll be all right, now. The hardest part is over. I hope.

By the time they got to Margaret Scully’s house, Scully had turned up the heat, lit a fire in the fireplace and had a warm blanket and a glass of milk waiting for Krycek on a little antique side table beside an overstuffed chair. Skinner expected Krycek to protest or sneer, but he only stared at the chair for a moment, and then, more uncertainly, at Scully.

Her lips curved into a sad smile. “My dad used to love that chair. It’s the most comfortable in the house.”

“Yeah.” Krycek eased himself into the chair, let Scully cover him with the blanket, and then picked up the milk and began to sip it.

Scully pointedly moved a nearby potted plant to a farther-away location. “Bones need calcium to grow, Alex.”

“I’m drinking it,” he told her, with surprising meekness.

Skinner looked down at him, seeing Krycek’s eyes follow Scully as she moved about the room, straightening things, dusting, opening the curtains. He crouched down and leaned on Krycek’s legs for balance. “You look like you’re waiting for the monster to come out of the closet,” he murmured.

“They never let anyone sit in his chair,” Krycek mused, then cringed beneath Skinner’s outraged look.

“You did surveillance on Scully’s mother’s house?” Skinner demanded beneath his breath.

“Used to. They don’t bother anymore. It should be safe. For a while.” Krycek drained the last of the milk and asked. “Scully? Could I have more? I seem to be developing a craving for this stuff. And ice cream, too.”

“Good. That’s good, Alex,” Scully told him happily. “Your body is telling you what it needs. That means it’s adapting the way it’s supposed to…” She stopped. “I mean, if you were…” She stopped again.

“It’s okay,” he told her softly. “It’s not freaking me out so bad now. And the fact that it’s adapting means there’s less chance of something going badly wrong toward the end, right?”

“Right. That’s exactly right.” She took the glass from him. “Do you want some ice cream?”

He thought for a moment, then replied, wistfully “No. I mean...yes, but I still have three months of this to go. I don’t want to end up looking like Rush Limbaugh or something.”

Scully looked like she was about to protest, then said “I’ll get you some one percent.”

After she was gone, Krycek stared pensively at the blanket in his lap. “This can’t last. Can it?”

“I don’t know,” Skinner replied truthfully. “But it’s never going to go back to being the way it was. No matter what happens. I won’t let it. You’re never going back to them. You belong with me, Alex, and that’s where you’re going to stay.”

“I don’t understand,” Krycek said unhappily. “Why don’t you hate me? You heard what Mulder said. Mulder was right. About what I did. I was fucking around on you. I stole samples of your cum and gave them to the smoker.”

He’s right. I should feel angry. I do feel angry. Violated. But… “Would you have done those things if they hadn’t threatened to hurt me, Alex?”

Krycek ducked his head.

“Did you feel like you had any choice at all?”

After a moment, his head gave a slight shake.

“Then how can I hate you for trying to save me? For suffering in my place? You little idiot.” Skinner kissed the top of Krycek’s head. “You steal my thunder, boy. I’m supposed to be taking care of you, not the other way around.”

Krycek gave a convulsive sob and leaned back in the chair, his eyes streaming tears. “Dammit,” he hissed. “This is so fucking embarrassing. I hate this shit. Do women have to deal with this hormone shit all the time?”

“Pretty much,” Scully told him dryly. She handed him a full glass of milk, larger this time. “Some of them, anyway.”

He slapped the tears away, shook his head and accepted the milk. “Well…it sucks. Seriously.”

“Seriously?” she asks, suddenly developing some kind of accent.

“Seriously,” he mimicked her accent. They both started chuckling.

“I’m going to raid the attic,” Scully told them. “Stay warm, Alex. If you need anything send Daddy Number One to fetch it. May as well start developing good habits early. They’ll come in useful when you get so huge you can’t even find your zipper any more,” she said smugly.

Krycek watched her go, then turned back to Skinner with a sly smile. “Daddy Number One? Heh. Want to practice the zipper thing?”

“Not in Mrs. Scully’s house,” Skinner told him firmly, though there was at least one portion of his anatomy that had a very different opinion.

“You’re just afraid Mulder will catch us at it and want to join,” Krycek snarked, then his expression turned serious. “Skinner, I…”

“You don’t have to explain, Alex. I know why you did it. I was killing you, Alex. You were letting them kill you, slowly, because you believed the only alternative was to let them kill me.” Skinner crushed his lover’s hand gently between his own. Krycek’s fingers were cold. “The survivor in you was struggling to get free. And it didn’t hurt that Mulder is a very attractive man who you were probably attracted to from day one.”

Alex stared at him, owl eyed. “You think Mulder is attractive? Seriously? I mean, he is, but I didn’t think he was your type.”

“He’s not. I’m with Scully, there. He’s too high maintenance for me. You, on the other hand, run too far to the other extreme. I’m going to have to get you so used to being spoiled that you won’t be able to survive without me.”

“Too late.” Krycek’s throat worked convulsively, and he took a series of short swallows of his milk. “I couldn’t. Not any more. Maybe not for a long time.”

Skinner adjusted himself to a more comfortable position, and they sat for a long while, not speaking, just touching.

With a loud bang, Mulder let himself in through the front door, locking it behind himself, strode across the room and drew the curtains shut. “We’ve got company,” he announced. He turned back to face Skinner and Krycek. “Where’s Scully?”

Skinner stood up quickly. “She said she was going to the attic.”

Mulder sprinted out of the room, and then reappeared a few moments later. “Come with me.”

Krycek sprang up out of the chair and followed Mulder out of the room, with Skinner right on their heels. He drew his gun.

“You won’t need that. Yet,” Mulder said quietly as he led them around a corner and up a pull-down ladder. “Scully says we’ll be safer here. We’ll have warning if they break in, and the view is better. There’s also a window we can climb out of, that leads out behind the chimney.”

Once they were all safely up the ladder, Skinner stopped to pull it up behind them. There was no lock. If the stairs weren’t in the way I could pull something over the top. He stopped to examine the stair mechanism, but realized that in order to dismantle the stairs he’d need more time and tools than he could afford to spare right now.

Krycek had crouched down next to Scully and was peering out a tiny, slanting vent in the wall. A cold wind blew in to the already frigid attic, and Skinner could feel the chill biting into his fingers. “They’re Consortium, all right. I recognize the license plates. That one belongs to one of the top echelon, a guy named Trafalger. He used to be in charge of the…m-preg project until he and a couple of the others had some kind of argument over how to do things, and they put Petros in charge instead. That’s when things got really bad,” he said bleakly.

“There are two more cars parked in back,” Mulder reported.

“Dammit.” Scully pulled her gun and checked the loader. “That means we’ll have to wait until dark, or we’ll be sitting ducks climbing down.”

“If we start a fire fight with the front line, maybe our rear guard can be lured away,” Skinner suggested. “Then Alex and Scully can slip down through the side window. The vegetation is thick enough that they can hide once they get to the ground.”

Scully looked like she wanted to protest, but then “How will we find you again?”

“No!” Krycek was wild-eyed. “You promised, Skinner!”

“They’ll stand a better chance if they don’t have to worry about protecting us,” Scully told him gently.


“We’ll call for backup,” Skinner assured him. “We can hold them off til it gets here.”

“Then let’s just all hold them off together,” Krycek insisted stubbornly. “Less chance of catching a stray bullet.”

“I’ve gotta side with Krycek on this one. They probably won’t start shooting right away. If they were planning on some kind of violent action they wouldn’t be giving us time to get prepared.”

Skinner pulled out his cell phone and dialed a number. He held the phone to his ear. There was a click, and then nothing. He tried again. “Dammit. They’re blocking my phone somehow.”

“Mine, too.” Scully’s voice was taut with frustration.

“Trafalger’s men aren’t stupid. They won’t fall for a distraction. He’s got them watching every exit from the house,” Krycek said hoarsely. “There’s nothing you can do. Anyone else, and I’d still be willing to try, but not him. You can’t take him. If he wants me, he’ll get me. The only way you’re going to be able to stop him is if you kill me yourself.”

“That’s not an option,” Skinner snapped.

“Everybody just stay calm until we find out what he wants,” Mulder counseled. “He’ll be looking to deal. He’s after something more than just getting Krycek back.”

“How do you figure?” Krycek gave him a speculative look.

“Why else the show?”

“Maybe he thinks he can scare you into just tossing me out on the porch.”

“Maybe. Let’s wait and find out. Keep trying your cell phones. Maybe we’ll catch a window, if whatever they’re jamming with has them.”

Just then, Skinner’s cell phone went off. He flicked it on and held it to his ear. “Skinner, here. Who is this?”

There was a slight pause. “My name is Ulrik Trafalgar. There is no need for any of you to die tonight. I would like to speak with Alex Krycek. Please pass the phone to him.”

“The hell I will. If you have anything to say, say it to me. If you want to make any deals with him, they’ll have to go through me. Is that clear?”

“A very bold claim, Assistant Director Skinner. Does it have Alex’s approval, I wonder?”

“Alex belongs to me now. You won’t be getting your hands on him again.” Not now, not ever. Bastards.

“How very…Neanderthal of you, Assistant Director. Are you claiming him as a prisoner in your custody, or as a lover?”

“Who the hell are you to be asking me that question?” Skinner gritted his teeth.

“I’m the man who will either give the order to have you killed, or to allow you to leave, unharmed,” Trafalger replied dryly. “Based on your answers to my questions.”

“Ask them. I’ll give you my answers.”

“Not just you. I have questions for Alex as well. And perhaps for your agents Mulder and Scully. I don’t have time to play twenty questions with you over the phone. Alex’s current sponsor will be arriving presently, and I will need to have made a decision before then.

“Alex’s sponsor?”

“If you will agree to meet with me, all of you, and will give me your word of honor not to initiate any violence, I will come unarmed, with only one man in attendance. But you must make a decision quickly.”

“We’ll discuss it. Call me back.”

“Three minutes, Assistant Director Skinner. I cannot spare more than that.”

Skinner hung up, then quickly tried to dial out. The phone was still dead. “Damn,” he muttered.

“It’s the smoker, isn’t it?” Krycek said, his voice filled with quiet misery. “I was hoping…hell. He won’t give me up, Skinner.”

“He said his name was Trafalger. He said your sponsor was on the way. What does that mean, Alex?”

“He means the smoker. ‘Sponsor’ is the fancy word they have for whoever gets to give you your orders. They don’t allow us to swap around. Keeps the backstabbing to a minimum. What does he want? Me?”

“He wants to talk. Can he be trusted, Alex?”

“As far as…as any of them can, I guess. No, he’s the best of the lot. He…he treats his men well. I always wished…but Spender would never have let me go. They have some kind of arrangement.”

“Can he be trusted not to just be setting us up?”

“I don’t know.” Krycek began to pace. “I just don’t know. He’ll keep his word if he gives it. I don’t know about the rest.”

“What’s his place in the organization?” Mulder asked. “What does he want?”

“He wants the project to succeed. That’s all I know. And…he was always…he always asked how I was feeling. Like he cared. I don’t know, maybe it was all an act.”

“Or maybe he realizes how important the mother’s…pregnant person’s…state of mind is to their physical health,” Scully suggested cynically. “Sir, this may be our best chance. If we could convince him that being with us is best for Alex, that we can take care of him better than the Consortium, we can buy ourselves enough time to…”

The phone rang.

“Anyone vote nay?” Skinner asked as he positioned his finger over the button. No one spoke. “Let’s hear what he has to say, then. Skinner here.”

“Have you come to a decision?”

“Yes. You can come in. Leave your weapons, you’ll be frisked at the door. And come alone.”

“That is unacceptable. The weapons, yes, but being accompanied is non-negotiable. He will be functioning as a witness and an advisor, in some very specific areas.”

Skinner hesitated only a moment longer. “I guess I don’t have much of a choice. All right. Two of you. Do I have your word that this isn’t some sort of trick? That your men won’t be doing anything while we’re talking?”

“As long as I have your word that neither you nor any of your current companions will initiate any violence.”

“We’ll play it straight, as long as you do.”

There was a moment of silence. “Very well. Expect us presently.”

They re-lowered the staircase and made their way cautiously back to the living room. Mulder took position beside the curtain, peeking out. “I don’t see anyone yet.”

“Do we sit and look relaxed, or stand and make it clear that we don’t trust them?” Scully asked.

Skinner thought for a moment. “I’ll stand. Mulder as well. You and Alex sit. He already knows that we’re suspicious and paranoid. If he’s concerned for Alex’s welfare, he’ll be looking for non-verbal clues. Let’s give them to him.”

There was a loud knocking on the back door.

“Mulder, you and Scully get the door. Scully, cover them until Mulder finishes frisking them, then bring them into the living room. If there is any sign of trouble fall back and we’ll retreat to the attic again.” Skinner gave them a grim look. “We’ll shoot out neighborhood car windows if we have to, to get police attention.”

“Aye aye, mon capitain.” Mulder saluted and headed back through the kitchen. Scully drew her gun and followed.

“Is this where we smash our way out of the front bay window, come down shooting and Rambo our way out of danger?” Krycek asked dubiously.

“No. I meant it, Alex. No lone-wolfing. It just doesn’t pay.”

“I wouldn’t know.” Krycek perched on the edge of the recliner, watching anxiously as Mulder stepped out of the kitchen, followed by two men Skinner didn’t recognize, and then by Scully. Scully was training her gun on the first man, who didn’t look particularly worried by the situation.

The man in front was thin and blonde, almost delicate looking. Skinner immediately pegged him for Trafalger, and was surprised when the man took up an obvious bodyguard stance and the second man stepped forward.

“Neither of them are armed,” Mulder reported. He crossed the room to lounge, with typical Mulder aplomb, against the wall. Scully went to sit near Krycek, placing herself so she could keep an eye on both men, and laying her gun carefully within reach.

The second man was dark haired, possibly Eastern European, Skinner guessed, with a large frame and well manicured, blunt hands. His eyes did a slow circuit of the room, coming to rest on Scully, who was sitting on a footstool near Krycek.

“You are aware of his…condition, then?” the man, who Skinner was now assuming to be Trafalger, guessed.

“We know what you did to him.” Skinner stared at Trafalger, letting his rage and hostility show clearly in his face.

The man smiled mockingly. “I suppose it was inevitable that he would run to you, considering. I do confess myself surprised that you would be willing to risk your agents’ lives in order to keep your…lover. Though, perhaps not so surprising, since one of them is the man he was betraying you with..”

“If you’re trying to shock us,” Mulder drawled, “you’re going to have to do better than that. We already know all the details of Alex’s sex life.”

Skinner felt himself relax fractionally. He was so often at odds with Mulder that he’d forgotten what it was like to have the man at his back. “If that’s all you came for, you wasted your time.”

“Oh, that’s not what I came for at all.” Trafalger’s gaze dropped to Krycek, who was looking up at him with more puzzlement than fear.

“Then you’re going to have to leave empty-handed.”

“I think not.” Trafalger was still looking at Krycek, who shrank lower into the chair and wrapped his arms around his belly. “You are outnumbered and outgunned, Assistant Director Skinner.”

“You’ll be leaving without Krycek,” Skinner told him evenly. His heart was pounding in his chest. “One way or the other.”

“Ah,” remarked the man. “A variant of ‘If I can’t have him, no one can?’ How very…unexpected. It appears that I was misinformed as to the specifics of your…background.” The corners of his mouth turned down, and his eyes narrowed.

“Alex would rather die than go back with you,” Mulder interjected. His hands opened, palms up. “And in that case, the Assistant Director doesn’t plan on surviving the situation. None of us do.”

Skinner gave Mulder a sidelong questioning look. What was Mulder getting at?

Trafalger’s gaze suddenly became keen. “You would sacrifice your lives to keep him out of our hands? Why?” His voice became softly mocking. “Simply to thwart the aims of your enemies?”

“I’d die for Scully,” Mulder said simply. “And I’d die to protect her children.” He took a step forward. “That’s what you really came here to find out, wasn’t it?”

“I see your reputation was not a mere exaggeration, Agent Mulder.” Trafalger’s expression softened. “Agent Scully? Your dislike for Alex Krycek is well known among my colleagues, and is more than deserved. I assume your interest is in the safety of your children?”

Scully raised her eyes to Mulder, and something passed between them. She was silent for a moment, then reached out and touched Krycek’s hand. Their fingers twined together.

Krycek’s eyes took on the fixed, hard-eyes stare that told Skinner he was struggling to keep some powerful emotion under control.

“Alex Krycek has brought a lot of grief to me and my family,” Scully admitted. “But now he’s giving something back. He’s giving me these two precious children, and he’s prepared to fight to keep them alive. I could forgive him almost anything, for that. I used to see him as my enemy, but I can’t anymore. This changes everything.”

“And after the children are born?”

“Everything has still changed. We’ll go on from there.”

The man nodded, and, almost reluctantly, his gaze shifted to lock with Skinner’s. “And you, Assistant Director Skinner? What is Alex Krycek to you?”

Skinner struggled with the almost overwhelming urge to tell the man to go to hell. “What gives you the right to ask me that question? Who the hell are you?” My private feelings are no business of yours, you arrogant son of a bitch

“I?” One corner of Trafalger’s mouth twitched. “I’m the man who engineered the specifics of this situation. It wasn’t my decision to…complicate matters by choosing a male host for the embryos, nor was the choice of host entirely mine, but the genetic combinations and manipulations are entirely my responsibility.”

“You’re the one who…” Skinner’s hands clenched into fists “…who forced Alex to…steal our sperm?”

The man’s eyebrows rose a fraction. “I’m afraid my options for obtaining it were limited. Dana Scully’s contribution I already had access to.”

“Why us?” Mulder asked, curiously.

“I’m certain you can guess why your genetic material was essential,” Trafalger told him. “Your gifts are strong enough to be evident even without catalyzing or training. Agent Scully was chosen for several reasons. The material, as I have mentioned, was already available. The studies which were done on them and on her indicated a strong degree of latent giftedness. Her sister had a more active talent, but she was regrettably killed by enemies of the Project before she could be…please forgive the directness of the terminology…harvested.”

Scully was suddenly on her feet. “You mean you were going to do to my sister what you did to me?” Her voice was harsh with rage. “Kidnap her and experiment on her and mutilate her?”

“Not I, personally. I am a scientist, not a thug. Were it up to me…”

“But you’re a member of the Consortium, and they’re the ones who did it. That means you share the responsibility.”

“You are correct. I am. As is Alex.”

“Not by choice,” Skinner objected. “He had no choice. He was being blackmailed…”

“Then he has not been entirely honest with you,” Trafalger said sternly. “He once believed in the Cause as wholeheartedly as I.”

“Sure…until they started using me as a lab rat,” Krycek snapped resentfully. Then he threw Skinner a guilty look. “I mean…it wasn’t just because of that, but…”

“So Agents Mulder and Scully have some sort of genetic ‘gifts’ that you need for this project of yours,” Skinner interrupted. We’ll talk about this later, his eyes told Krycek sternly. “Why involve me? I doubt my genetic makeup is of any particular interest. Did you think Alex would be less likely to terminate the experiment that way?” Skinner’s jaw was beginning to ache, and he wanted nothing more than to put his fist through someone’s face. If it wasn’t for the fact that it would mean they probably wouldn’t make it out of the house alive…

“That was one consideration,” Trafalger admitted. “The second was that the children are going to be in danger every moment of their lives. There will be no way to keep their existence a secret once they are born. Who better to protect them than the three F.B.I. agents who have managed to remain a thorn in the side of our organization for so many years, and have survived the experience?”

“So…you want to keep them alive? Why? To experiment on them? To subject them to tests?” Scully demanded. “Alex told us…”

“My associates know nothing about the embryos’ genetic composition. They believe that particular experiment is still in the preliminary planning stages, and that this is a simple exercise in the manipulation of structural biology. That secret must remain exclusive to the four of you. If it became known, it is unlikely that they would survive long enough to be born. There are powerful forces which would be brought to bear, and which you would have no defenses against.”

“The smoker…”

“…doesn’t have any idea. He thinks there is only one embryo, the product of Skinner’s sperm and an egg from one of the other abductees. One who tested negative for psychic talent. The current head of the Project plans on keeping one of the twins for himself, for test purposes, and turning one over to the Project proper for dissection. But even he doesn’t know what the true genetic background of the children is.”

“What sort of gifts are we talking about?” Mulder asked. “Telepathy? Clairvoyance?”

“Yes. As well as several others that our allies among the Rebel forces indicate are vital to the defeat of our common enemies. You, Fox Mulder, are the product of several generations of careful genetic selection and manipulation. As is Dana Scully; that was why she was chosen as your partner. The only thing missing was the catalyst…the activation of those genes into their full potential. Those children which Alex is carrying will have that potential. They will need to be nurtured by those who understand those gifts and are not afraid of them. And they will need to be protected by two of the most trustworthy,” he gave a nod in Skinner’s direction, “and the most dangerous and effective” another nod at Krycek “…men I could find for them.”

Mulder leaned forward eagerly. “What will they be able to do? Who were they created to fight?”

Trafalger chuckled wryly. “I have chosen well, I think. There is a group of aliens who have already begun to implement plans to infiltrate and control humanity. The plan’s creators are scientists, who study humanity in order to learn how to best control us. They have been breeding humans for telepathic elements, intending to indoctrinate and condition the telepaths and use them as spies and controllers. Some of the aliens are shapeshifters, with the power to hide among us. They are undetectable by any convenient means which we currently have at our disposal. That is about to change.” He gestured at Krycek.

“But there’s only two of them. Against how many shapeshifters?” Mulder demanded. “And how do they detect them? Telepathically? By reading auras?”

Mulder was definitely in his element, Skinner thought. He caught Krycek’s eye and sent a silent question: How are you holding up?

Krycek gave him a brief nod. He looked subdued, but not in any distress that Skinner could detect.

“If all goes as planned,” Trafalger continued, “they will telepathically bond at birth, creating a permanent gestalt that can be used to activate not only their own abilities, but those of the latents, as well. I hope you are prepared for evolution to take a sudden leap all around you, Agent Mulder.”

“Hell, yes,” Mulder grinned. “It’s about damned time. Who’s going to teach us how to fight these aliens? The Rebels? Are they the guys with the sewed up faces? What’s up with that, anyway?”

“They are part of our organization, yes. But not the only part.”

The man’s bodyguard, who had been standing quietly to one side, looking almost bored, suddenly straightened and his eyes came back into focus.

“Lelon?” Trafalger asked. “What have you learned?”

“They are sincere,” Lelon answered. He stepped closer, and Skinner could see that his eyes were a strangely amber shade of brown. “They will protect the children. And they will not desert them out of fear of the strangeness. This one,” he pointed to Mulder, “has already begun to awaken. Being so close to him has caused the children to respond. They have formed the gestalt.”

“So soon?” For the first time, Trafalger looked startled, and a little apprehensive.

“They are more powerful than even I had hoped,” Lelon said placidly. “I should begin instruction of their guardians immediately. They must understand what will be needed of them.”

“Wait a moment,” Skinner objected. “This is all sounding a little far-fetched. I’m not agreeing to anything beyond guarding Alex. You’re asking us to just take everything you say on faith alone…”

“I will not make demands upon your trust yet,” Trafalger told him. “You will need to see with your own eyes. Your skepticism does you credit. By the time…”

Trafalger’s cell phone rang. He lifted it to his ear. “Yes? Are they here? Very well. Inform me immediately if anything unexpected occurs.” He snapped the phone shut. “Your patron has come to fetch you, Alex.”

“No…” Krycek’s face went ashen. His gaze desperately sought Skinner’s.

Skinner crossed the room and crouched down beside his lover. “He won’t take you, Alex. We won’t let him. Isn’t that right?” he demanded of Trafalger. “Are you going to help us? If not, get the hell out. Now.”

“You must not allow any suspicion of what Alex is carrying to be transmitted to Alex’s patron. He believes there is only one child, of unremarkable genetic potential. It is unlikely that he would deliberately inform our enemies of the situation, but Alex’s patron is not known for his ability to keep a secret. He is entirely too fond of using secrets as trade goods.”

“He knows the child is mine, though,” Skinner stated.

“It would be better if we didn’t…no…I have an idea. If you will follow my lead I believe I can establish a believable basis for our association, and one which would give me a legitimate reason for taking over Alex’s patronage.”

Krycek looked startled. “I thought you didn’t want me.”

“There are currents within the leadership of which you are unaware,” Trafalger said dryly. “That should come as no shock to you. My hands were tied until now.”

“Alex is getting out,” Skinner stated. “He doesn’t need a patron.”

“That would be unwise. It would draw too much attention to the situation. What we need is a diversion. I can provide it, with your help.”

“Alex? Is this something we want to happen?” Skinner asked him. He heard faint sounds from outside, the slamming of a car door, perhaps.

“I…I think so,” Krycek told him. “I’d trust Trafalger over the smoker any day. Not that I’d trust anyone all that much,” he added grimly.

“Mulder? Scully?” Skinner turned a questioning expression to his agents.

Mulder’s eyes narrowed. “What am I thinking about?” he demanded of Lelon.

Lelon blinked in mild astonishment. “I didn’t know that was possible,” he said. “You humans are so inventive. Perverted…but inventive.”

“I think we should believe them,” Mulder said hastily.

“But can we trust them?” Scully asked him.

“I don’t think we have a choice right now,” Mulder told her. “Let’s show the smoker a united front, and we can go back to negotiations once we get rid of him.”

The door opened with a bang, and two men entered the room, brandishing guns. They were followed by a man whose presence made Skinner’s hackles rise, and his gun hand twitchy.

“I believe you have something that belongs to me.” The smoker looked around the room before taking a pack of Morleys from his pocket, tapping out a cigarette and lighting it.

“As of today he is no longer your concern,” Trafalger said with a disdainful wave of his hand. “I have decided to take over his patronage.”

“Really?” The smoker stared at him with open dislike. “On what grounds?”

“On the grounds that Assistant Director Skinner and I have come to an agreement regarding his professional association with our organization, and his terms include my assumption of Krycek’s patronage.”

The smoker looked as pole-axed by the announcement as Skinner felt, but Skinner kept his expression carefully neutral.

“If Skinner wants his bed warmer on a more permanent basis he’ll have to deal with me. I own Krycek,” the smoker hissed.

“The only dealings I’ll be having with you is on the day your colleagues give me permission to blow your brains out through the back of your skull,” Skinner told him with no little satisfaction. “I don’t like having to deal with any of you, but if that’s what it takes, I’ll deal. With him.” He jerked his head in Trafalger’s direction.

“Given the obvious benefits of the situation, I don’t think I’ll have any trouble obtaining the approval of our associates,” Trafalger predicted blandly to the smoker. “Do you?”

“They wouldn’t approve of anything that would interfere with…the current phase of our Project,” the smoker objected. “There has been a substantial amount of time and money invested in it.”

“The Project will continue uninterrupted. The Assistant Director will not allow it to be terminated.”

“Does he know what this entails?” the smoker demanded.

“I know what you’ve done to Alex,” Skinner confirmed harshly. “I would have prevented it if I’d known, but it’s too late for that. My only concern is keeping Alex safe and out of the hands of the unethical bastards who did this to him. His medical care will be taken over by Agent Scully.”

The smoker looked as if he’d just bitten down on something rotten. “And what of you, Agent Mulder? Agent Scully? Doesn’t it disturb you to discover that your supervisor is engaged in an intimate relationship with a criminal?”

“Not half so much as it disturbs me that said criminal is pregnant, “ Mulder admitted honestly. “Although, I’ve got to admit to a certain degree of fascination concerning the process. Was it alien technology? How did you get it? Is the thing inside him human? Scully thinks it is…”

“Mulder!” Scully scolded, picking up her cue smoothly. “It’s a baby, not a ‘thing’. No matter how it was conceived.” She glared at the smoker. “An innocent baby with nobody who cares what happens to it but us. I don’t care for the company or the arrangements,” she spat, “but I’ll camp out on Krycek’s couch with my Sig for however long it takes to keep you bastards from getting your hands on this baby. I want that understood.” She shared her glare with the rest of the room. “I’m only in this as long as nobody harms the baby. Is that clear?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Mulder said meekly, and Skinner nodded.

“Of course,” Trafalger agreed smoothly. “That was our arrangement. So pleasant to have amicably achieved a goal long sought after by…certain of my colleagues.”

The smoker’s lips thinned to a dangerous line.

“Don’t,” Lelon suggested, blinking his dark eyes placidly. “It would end badly for you and your men.”

“I doubt it,” the smoker told him. “I can’t imagine that the Assistant Director would let you in here without taking your weapons, and in any case, my men…”

Both of the smoker’s men collapsed without warning, their guns clattering to the floor.

“Being a pacifist doesn’t prevent me from defending myself,” Lelon glanced down at them, with just a hint of smugness.

Angrily, the smoker prodded his men awake, directed them to put away their weapons and announced, as he was leaving, “We’ll see what our…foreign allies have to say about having the project derailed like this.” He slammed the door shut behind him.

“Hey,” Mulder said to Lelon, “can you teach me that funky brain fry thing?”

“Perhaps.” Lelon eyed him dubiously. “Eventually.”

Skinner took a deep breath and let it out, slowly.

“We are aware of your distaste for anything connected with our Association, Assistant Director Skinner” Lelon said. “But you must understand that it is a necessary evil. The Others must be pacified until we are strong enough to oppose them. And the Gestalt is the key to this resistance. It must be protected at all costs.”

“It will be,” Skinner said.

“I’ll contact you when I have finished smoothing ruffled feathers and making arrangements. I predict a time frame of not less that three weeks. Until then, please guard Alex closely but don’t disappear. If you strain my credibility with the Coalition you and I may find ourselves at odds. I don’t want that, but I cannot risk the Gestalt’s safety. Do you understand?”

“All right. I’ll give you three weeks.”

“Some of my associates will be keeping a discreet eye on Alex. You will most likely not even notice, but I feel that full disclosure is important to our future relations. Do you agree?”

“I suppose so,” Skinner said cautiously. “I hope you don’t intend to plant listening devices in my…home.”

“We do not use electronic surveillance,” Lelon assured him. “Too easy for it to be eavesdropped upon. And I have no interest in your intimate recreational activities, I can assure you.”

“Well, that blows all my theories as to the reasons behind the abductions,” Mulder said cheerfully. “Guess I won’t be writing that best-seller after all.”

“I’m sure something else will occur to you.” Trafalger’s phone rang. He answered it. “Yes? Good. Follow them discretely and make certain they have left.” He pocketed the phone and inclined his head toward Skinner. “I shall leave you to your domestic arrangements. I’ll have my men do a sweep of your home to make certain there are no listening or recording devices. If that is acceptable?”

Skinner hesitated. He didn’t like the idea of Consortium agents invading his personal space, but he could always have Mulder’s friends do a sweep afterwards. If they found anything, that would tell him that Trafalger couldn’t be trusted. “Go ahead.”

Lelon gave him an approving smile. “He’ll do. He’s suspicious and thorough. An effective combination.”

Damn. It was disturbing to know that his thoughts were being overheard. You’d better be on my side, he thought fiercely.

“Actually,” said Lelon, “I believe it could be said that technically, you are on my side. Not that it matters,” he reflected. “I’ll be available if you need me,” he told them, and followed Trafalger out of the front door.

Scully put her gun away, rose and walked across the room to open the curtains. Outside, it was dark. The outlines of the trees in the front yard could barely be seen. “Was that man really reading your mind, sir?” she asked cautiously. “Or could it have been just that he was very good at reading body language, and had been given previous knowledge of your character?”

“He seemed to be,” Skinner told her, thinking back. “And he was pretty specific about what was in Mulder’s mind.”

“Huh,” said Krycek. “Anybody who’s spent any amount of time doing surveillance on Mulder could have guessed that one. Bet it was the last scene from Hairy Neanderthal Asses in Jeopardy, or whatever your favorite porn tape is called. The one with the alien invaders with the three inch diameter anal probes…”

“Bite me,” Mulder suggested.

“Not unless Scully’s mom has a toothbrush I can use afterwards,” Krycek retorted.

Scully cleared her throat. “Mom isn’t going to be back for another month, and we have two spare bedrooms,” she told Mulder. “I suddenly feel like…putting up Christmas decorations. I spotted the boxes when we were up there earlier. Mulder, come on and help me get them down out of the attic.”

“Oh, no,” Mulder groaned. “Not the Christmas decorations. Scully, you promised.”

“I didn’t promise,” Scully headed for the attic. “I just said I didn’t feel like celebrating this year. Now I feel like celebrating. Mulder, remember that wreath you bought me the year we…”

“I suppose you’ll want a tree, too…” Mulder grumbled. Their voices faded out as they climbed up the attic stairs.

“How are you feeling, Alex?” Skinner seated himself on the floor beside Krycek’s chair.

“I don’t know,” Krycek admitted. “It’s so…strange. I’m sorry I got you into this,” he admitted in a low voice. “If you want us to make a run for it, I have a bolt-hole in West Virginia, up in the mountains. No telephone, but it does have electricity. And I’ve got money…”

“No. We’re safest here. You need to have Scully close by, and all of us will be better off watching each others’ backs. Besides, you don’t want to miss out on Christmas, do you?”

“I’ve never done Christmas,” Krycek said wistfully. “Not since I was a kid. We used to do things like caroling and baking cookies and…decorating stuff.”

“I bet Scully would appreciate the help,” Skinner suggested. “Mulder seems reluctant.”

“That’s because Mulder is an asshole,” Krycek sniffed. His face lit up. “Look, it’s starting to snow.”

Sure enough, large white flakes could be seen blowing against the window pane.

“I bet putting up Scully’s decorations would earn me a lot of brownie points, huh? And I’m going to need them, if she’s going to be…you know…” Krycek looked a little uncomfortable. “It would be the smart thing to do, getting on her good side, since she’s the one who’s going to be keeping me healthy.”

“Sure, Alex. That’s a great plan. You just keep to it,” Skinner told him fondly. I’ve got your number, Alex Krycek. You like Christmas, don’t you? Impulsively, he reached up to grab Krycek and carefully dragged the man down into his lap.

Krycek resisted for a moment, then allowed Skinner to pull him against his chest. “Don’t get mushy, Walt. We aren’t alone.”

“Things are going to be all right, Alex. For once in our lives, they’re going to turn out the way they should.”

“Do you really think so?” Krycek tried to make the question come out cynical, but it sounded more plaintive than anything.

“Yeah,” Skinner said. “I think so.”

From somewhere in another room, the strains of Silent Night started up. Outside, scattered flecks of snow were falling, but none had begun to stick. Skinner cradled Krycek against him, envisioned the ground covered with snow, Christmas lights against the whiteness, a decorated tree in the corner of the room.

Krycek took a deep breath and let it out, snuggling his head up beneath Skinner’s chin. “Yeah,” he said. “Maybe it could happen this time.”

“We’ll make it happen,” Skinner promised. “Merry Christmas, Alex.”

“Yeah,” said Krycek wonderingly. “I think it is.” He reached for Skinner’s hand, and the two of them sat listening to Christmas carols and watching the snow drift down against the backdrop of darkness.

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