A shrill ringing sound pierced the air startling Walter Skinner. It had been so long since he had last received a phone call that it took him a moment to identify the sound. Dropping 'Confederates in the Attic' onto the side table, he rose from his chair and took the few steps needed to pick up the telephone before its next ring.
"Hello," he said. And waited to see what new product or service the caller would offer to sell him.
"Sir," a tentative but familiar voice began, "you said if I ever needed help I should call..."
"Kim?" Skinner replied, remembering. One day, during her lunch hour, he'd noticed his personal assistant addressing envelopes, copying information from a printout onto pale linen with a nibbed pen. The writing flowing onto the paper was simply beautiful and he'd commented that she could find work as a calligrapher should she ever tire of being a PA. Kim blushed at words, admitting that she had been hired to hand-letter invitations for a friend's wedding — and that this wasn't the first time she'd sold her work.
Six months later, when he'd taken her out to lunch to announce his plans to retire, he'd offered to write a glowing letter of recommendation and told her that his replacement had already expressed interest in keeping her at her desk. She'd thanked him, but politely declined the offer, saying that she had tired of working for the FBI and intended to pursue her own business. With growing enthusiasm, she describe her plan to travel around the Eastern states with her husband, selling her work at weekend art fairs. It was then that he'd made the offer, saying that if she ever needed help manning her booth, she should call. He'd meant the offer sincerely, but doubted she'd take him up on it. Their relationship had been strictly professional and with the exception of that day's lunch, they had never socialized.
"Yes, it's me," she said with a sigh, "Kim Cook. I'm in a real bind. My work was accepted in a juried competition in Virginia Beach this coming weekend but something's come up and Larry can't go until Sunday. I hate to ask, but would you be willing to help set up my tent?"
Walter took a deep breath and Kim thought he was going to say no. Instead, he exhaled, saying, "Sure, Kim, I'll go with you." Who knew, it might even be fun.
Walter hung up the phone, surprised at himself for agreeing to go. Then again, it wasn't as if he had anything better to do. He thought of all the times he had backed down from challenging the old cigarette-smoking bastard, all times he had refused to help Mulder or Scully, fearful he would lose his retirement benefits. Had he actually had any retirement plans then? If so, he had never acted upon them and could no longer remember what they might have been.
He recalled the first few months of retired life, of having to remind himself that he no longer had an office in the FBI building and that he would never again be forced to spend his days reading reports, attending budget meetings, or dealing with recalcitrant agents.
In celebration of his newfound freedom, he unplugged his alarm clock, determined to go to bed when he was tired and wake up when he was refreshed. He slept a lot, those first few months.
And he started reading for pleasure, beginning with the books on the civil war that he had collected but had never before had time to read.
Walter still went to the gym occasionally, but somehow the transition from AD to retiree had made him a less worthy opponent in the eyes of the other boxers. He found it difficult to find a sparing partner and when he did, was usually paired with a boxer who was far less skilled. There was no challenge in such a fight and Walter drifted away from the gym. And it wasn't as if he needed to be in prime physical condition. Neither speed nor stamina were required for strolling through the isles of the grocery store or perusing the stacks at Barnes & Noble.
Slowly, without his being aware of it, Walter's world had collapsed to encompass little more than his apartment. If he had been an extrovert before retirement, he might have been lonely. But he had always been self-contained and self-reliant, and that had not changed.
Having won the fight against the strong breeze that had threatened to topple Kim's booth before they could get it properly weighted down, Walter poured himself a cup of coffee from Kim's thermos and watched as she began to unpack her wares. True to her business's name, Cook's Calligraphy, the majority of her work was in the form of heirloom recipes which were recorded in her beautiful writing and then matted and framed for display. For those without a culinary bent, she also had biblical passages, mottos, sayings, and the words to famous and well-loved poems. For those who inquired about the possibility of hiring her for custom projects, examples of past work were available upon request.
Walter helped Kim set up the folding tables that would hold boxes of matted copies of her work for potential customers to flip through. When the booth was arranged to Kim's satisfaction, Walter volunteered to move her van to the vendor's designated parking area. Kim's beaming smile of approval warmed a place in Skinner's heart that he hadn't realized had been cold. When, he wondered, had he stopped feeling?
He found the parking area without difficulty; the show would not open for another hour and the streets had not yet become jammed with traffic. On the walk back to Kim's booth, Walter noted the frequent exchange of greetings between vendors. They all appeared to know one another and he realized they must travel the same circuit of art shows and fairs, their paths regularly intersecting.
Kim, ready for her first customer of the day, sat in a tall folding chair at the back of her booth, a box of donuts on her lap. The smile on her face grew when he spotted Walter's approach and held the box aloft. "Want one?" she asked. "They're really good."
Once again surprising himself, Walter found himself smiling in return and accepting one of the glazed confections.
Kim selected a donut for herself and set the box aside. She looked at Skinner and then shook her head.
Walter, noticing her reaction, said "What?"
"I was surprised you agreed to come here with me, and now here you are, eating a donut in my booth."
"Seems a little too human?" Walter suggested.
Kim giggled. "Considering how many times I called you 'sir' this morning, yes!"
The breeze died down as morning turned into afternoon. The sun, in its cloudless sky, continued to beat down on the little tent and Walter grew restless. He had discovered that Kim did not need his help once the sale was underway. She was skilled at talking to customers and making sales. For most of the morning Walter sat in the tall chair next to Kim's, simply keeping her company, watching for shoplifters and pick-pockets. If there had been any, they had steered clear of Kim's booth.
Growing bored and restless, Skinner decided to take a walk. "I'm going to see what your competitors have for sale," he said, and Kim, busy with a customer, simply nodded.
Walter charted a course through the park, working up one side and down the other, looking into every booth as he passed, stopping only on those rare occasions that something piqued his interest. He was back by Kim's side in less than an hour.
He was dozing in his chair, half listening to the fragments of conversation his ears picked out from the background noise provided by the lively art fair, when a disturbingly familiar voice caught his attention.
"Just one shot - - "
No, it couldn't be. Walter strained his ears, trying to pick out the rest of the conversation.
"But Mom," a child wailed, "I wanted that one!" He tuned out the child. "Just $16.50." No, that was the vendor next door. "Irene, would you hurry up?!" No, not the bickering couple.
The jolt of adrenaline that had flown through his body when he heard those few words still thrummed in his blood. Keeping his eyes closed, Walter held his breath, listening intently. And was rewarded.
"I said I'm not interested," snarled the voice.
There was no doubt in his mind. That voice could only belong to Alex Krycek.
Stealthily, Walter rose from his seat. Kim, busy with a customer, didn't even notice as he eased himself out the gap between the rear and side panels of her display. For the first time in more than a year, Walter Skinner felt completely alive.
Outside, he paused; the voice was coming from the row behind Kim's tent, in the booth diagonally opposite. Cautiously making his way behind the tents, taking care not to trip over the various items stashed behind the booths by the vendors or to make any noise, Walter approached.
"No, I'm not interested in a contract," he heard Krycek's voice say.
"But I'm sure the offer will be at least six figures," said a surprisingly gentle male voice.
"That isn't the point," said Krycek. "I made a good profit on the last one; I don't need to do this any more."
Walter freed his Sig from its holster, took a deep breath, and stepped into the booth. "Don't move!" he ordered, aiming his weapon at the center of Krycek's back.
Startled, the other man jumped. Krycek merely raised his arms, muttering something Skinner couldn't catch.
Regaining control of himself, the other man swallowed heavily and then demanded "Who are you? What do you want?"
"Him," Skinner said, answering the second question.
"You'd best stay out of this, Neil," Krycek advised. "I know who he is and I think I know what he wants." He let his arms drop lower, but didn't turn around. "Come on, Skinner. Let's go somewhere we can talk," he said, and stepped out from under the canopy into the passing crowd. Skinner, constitutionally unable to shoot a man in the back, and having no desire to draw attention to himself and his armed state, holstered his weapon and quickly followed.
He thought Krycek would make a bolt for freedom, but instead the man had moved only as far as the middle of the path, where he now stood waiting. To Skinner's annoyance, the cocky son-of-a-bitch seemed completely untroubled by Skinner's rapid approach and actually smiled — smiled for God's sake — as he grew close.
"Skinner," he said, still smiling, "it's been a long time."
"Not long enough," Skinner growled back and was shocked when Krycek laughed. Not one of the evil manipulative little laughs Skinner remembered from previous encounters, but a full-throated laugh expressing sincere delight. Taken aback, Skinner stared at Krycek, and for the first time, thought to ask a question that he realized should have occurred to him when he first heard the man's voice. "How is it that you aren't dead?"
"I was," he said. "You should know, you're the one who put a bullet in my brain." And then he laughed even harder.
Skinner stood there, staring at the very alive Alex Krycek. "I need a drink," he announced.
Krycek, still chuckling, nodded. "I know the perfect place." And began to walk toward the exit of the park.
Skinner fell into step, scrutinizing Krycek as they walked. His forehead bore no sign that it had ever been the target of a speeding projectile. He couldn't tell whether or not the right arm had been scarred by the two bullets Skinner had pumped into it, as it was covered by the pale green long-sleeved shirt Krycek wore tucked into his black jeans. But whatever process had restored Krycek to life had obviously not been all-powerful; his left hand was the same pink-toned "flesh" colored prosthetic Walter remembered.
When they reached the corner, Krycek turned north and led Walter to a nearby restaurant/bar with outdoor seating. He stepped onto the patio and walked to the far corner, seating himself so that his back was against the brick wall of the building. Skinner sat down across from him, the solidity of the wrought iron chair helping to convince him that the odd, dream-like feeling taking possession of his faculties was itself the illusion.
"You aren't dead," Skinner said.
Krycek smiled, his sharp teeth flashing brilliantly white. "Not any more."
Skinner took off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose, and Krycek's smile returned at full power.
"What?" Skinner asked.
"I never thought I'd see the trademark Skinner nose pinch again."
The surreal feeling intensified.
"For that matter," Krycek continued, "I never though I'd see you again." He paused for a moment. "How did you find me, anyway?"
Not wanting to admit the accidental nature of their meeting, Skinner produced a highly edited version of the truth. "I heard your name in conjunction with an planned assassination."
For the first time, an expression of complete astonishment appeared on Krycek's face. He blinked at Skinner, stupefied.
"You heard my name in conjunction with a future hit?"
"A contract killing, yes."
Krycek seemed to be rapidly processing information; Skinner assumed he was trying to identify the leak in the organization with whom he contracted. Krycek tilted his head and looked at Skinner speculatively. "And you heard this when?"
The despised smirk appeared.
Skinner, already angered by Krycek's casual attitude, brought his hands to the surface to the table in preparation of an attack that would wipe the smirk off the arrogant bastard's face once and for all.
His plan was interrupted by the arrival of the waitress, asking for their drink orders.
Krycek asked her to bring a large Glenmorangie, no ice, for Skinner, and a Ketal One for himself.
"Glenmorangie is still your preferred drink, isn't it?" he asked Skinner, sounding unaccountably worried.
"Yes," Skinner agreed, wondering not for the first time just how much personal information Krycek and his Consortium masters had amassed concerning his private life.
The waitress left to fill the order.
Skinner, having regained control over his emotions, looked at the man sitting across from him. His hair was as black as a raven's wing at midnight and his skin glowed with good health. "You're looking awfully good for a dead man," he commented.
"I'm not dead now," Krycek said mildly. "And before you ask, no, I don't know what happens when you die. I remember the two shots you placed in my arm, pleading with you to shoot Mulder, and then a brilliant white light exploding, blanking out my vision and everything else. The next real memory I have is of 'waking up' cold and hungry on a steel table in what turned out to be a Rebel ship."
"When I came to, for lack of a better word, I was told I'd been dead for some 18 months. I didn't believe them at first, but," he said, smiling disarmingly, "unless I'm living on a very convincing movie set, corroborative evidence does lend support to that view."
"You, of all people," Skinner grumbled. "Why you?"
"It's not a good reason, but I believe it's 'because they could.' The Russian Consortium never trusted its American counterpart; East vs. West mistrust, it seems, runs deep. As you know, the American consortium agreed to sell out the human race in exchange for power and promises of protection. Russians, however, are born skeptics and having seen how easily power corrupts, believed that given the chance, the Americans Consortium would sell them out too. So, when the Rebel Aliens made their presence known, the Russian Consortium agreed to meet with them and decided they were the safer bet. When the Rebels discovered the Russians had developed a vaccine against the black oil, they speculated that a poison specific to the black oil was theoretically possible. To test the theory, they required three things: someone sharing Mulder's paternal DNA, someone who had survived possession by an Olien, and the Consortium's nanocyte technology."
Skinner bristled visibly, and Krycek braced himself for attack. But once again the appearance of the waitress forestalled danger. She placed the scotch in front of Skinner and handed Krycek his vodka. "You know to call, right?" she asked. Krycek smiled and nodded, but Skinner noticed that the smile was not of the same caliber as the blinding ones he'd received earlier that afternoon.
Before he could speculate further, Alex raised his glass in a toast. "To life," he said.
"To life," Walter echoed, and wondered to what, precisely, he had just agreed.
Alex took a long sip from his drink, and sighed happily. "They keep it in the freezer for me," he said. A business-like expression returned to his face and he picked up his story. "Mulder told you about the Russian gulag and his exposure to the Black Oil vaccine?"
The camp commandant was one of the Russian Consortium elders. When he heard what the Rebels wanted, he laughed and said it was too bad that the one person who shared two of the three attributes and had experience with the third was dead and buried. The Rebels' ears, if they can be said to have ears, apparently perked up at this point. They indicated that my being dead would not present an impediment and ordered the recovery of my body."
"Exactly what they did to me before I woke up, I don't know and I don't want to know." He stared off into the distance, muttering more for himself than Skinner's benefit, "What they did while I was awake was bad enough."
"So I'm supposed to feel sorry for you?" Skinner demanded angrily.
"Why would you?" Krycek asked rhetorically. "I hurt you — and I hurt people you care about. If I say that in every instance, my actions prevented something far worse from happening, you have no reason to believe me."
"That's right, I don't," Skinner agreed. But a small voice in the back of his mind asked if that was one hundred percent true.
Krycek, falling silent, savored the remainder of his vodka.
Skinner, swallowing more of his Glenmorangie, mentally reviewed Krycek' words, looking for inconsistencies. "I take it that since the Rebels released you, they got what they needed?"
"And the toxin proved effective?"
Krycek nodded again.
"And you're secretly a good guy."
A small smile flitted across Krycek's face. He gave a tiny nod.
"So why are you still an assassin?"
Triumphant, Skinner shot back, "You're a liar, Krycek. I overheard you talking about your last hit not an hour ago."
Krycek couldn't help it, he smirked. "The contract..."
"Mmmmm," Skinner agreed, visciously.
"...was for a series of photographs. Which are incredibly popular with teens and pre-teens, and have been reproduced on everything from greeting cards to school supplies."
Dumbfounded, Skinner could do nothing but stare at his drinking companion.
"Should I invite you to come up and see my prints?"
The half sarcastic, half flirtatious tone Krycek used to make the suggestion was a challenge Skinner couldn't let slide. "You make it sound like a proposition, Krycek."
"Would you like it to be?" Krycek snapped back.
To his surprise, Skinner found himself giving the question serious consideration.
Krycek, shocked by his own words, froze, his heart thumping wildly in his chest. "Fight or flight," he thought, and wondered if he should brace for a gay bashing, flee, or hold his ground and hope against hope that Skinner wasn't as straight as the Consortium files indicated.
Time slowed to a crawl. Skinner pondered.
Krycek took a deep, calming breath and waited.
A slow smile began to work it's magic on Skinner's face, making his eyes twinkle and revealing the impish sense of humor his stern demeanor usually disguised. "That," Skinner pronounced, "is the best offer I've had in years."
Title:The Art of Living
Feedback: Yes, please.
Spoilers: Assume all episodes.
Archive: WArm Thoughts, the Basement, all others ask first.
Disclaimer: I didn't create them, don't own them, and I'm not making making any money on the 1013 Productions and/or Fox owned characters.
Notes: Happy Birthday, Maddie! Hope all your surprises are nice ones. And many thanks to Peach for the beta.
First Published: June 26, 2003
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