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Mulder eyed his reflection in the locker room mirror with his usual dismay; from the green cap with its red feather, through the green and red elf outfit, to the curly toed shoes on his feet he looked and felt every bit as ridiculous today as he had a week ago when he had first been 'persuaded' to don the disguise.



He made sure that the gun in the SOB holster couldn't be seen, then with a deep, put-upon sigh he closed the locker's door and looked across the room at another of the unwilling participants in the undercover operation.



Skinner, having just put the finishing touches to his beard, said gruffly, "Let's go, Mulder. Wong, Henderson and Mackie are already outside waiting for us, and our shift in the Grotto starts in a few minutes."



Meekly Mulder followed in Santa Skinner's wake, wondering if his boss felt as ridiculous as he did, locked the disguised door behind them and gave the key to Scully for safekeeping.



She smiled sunnily at him, and when he gave her a suspicious look, she said, "Cheer up, Mulder, it's Christmas Eve and this is our last shift, if the robbers don't strike today, it'll be someone else's problem."



Mulder gave her a wry grin in return.



"That's true." Henderson sounded very happy. "My wife has been ready for weeks; all the presents were wrapped and hidden weeks ago. We did our main food shopping last Thursday, and the meat and fresh vegetables were delivered this morning.... No last-minute shipping for our family."



Mackie clapped him on the shoulder, laughing as he gave him a small shake. "Come down off your soapbox, Chuck. Not everyone is as organized as you and Marjorie. But as we're talking about being late... the others are waiting for us to take over so we'd best get going."



"Okay Mac," Chuck replied with a laugh. "Let's go."



Mac went to the entrance and spoke to Agent Quintaro who was controlling the flow of children into the Grotto, which caused a slight gap in the stream of children. Wong, Mulder and Henderson followed the last child through, and as soon as the boy had disappeared from the Santa's Cave, they smoothly took over, beckoning Skinner and Scully forward when the coast was completely clear.



Skinner made himself comfortable, Mulder took his place as Santa's helper and grabbed a present out of each sack ready for the next child who was guided though the cave entrance a few seconds later.... and so the line of children started flowing through again. Mac kept his eye on the small light which told him when to send the next child to Wong, who made sure they got safely on to Santa's lap, Skinner spoke to them, Mulder handed him either a boy or girl present as appropriate, Scully took their picture, then Henderson took them out of the Grotto, pressing the button to set the next child in motion as he did so, to hand them over to the waiting adult.



-oo0oo-



The sound of a shot, two hours later, was their first intimation that the robbers had struck. Four figures, wearing dark blue tracksuits and matching ski masks, were running along the corridor. As planned, Scully and Skinner quickly rounded up the children and got them out of harm's way, while the other four agents gave chase, Mulder calling out the challenge, "FBI - FREEZE!" which the fugitives totally ignored.



Wong and Henderson led the charge, being slighter, more sprinter types than Mackie and Mulder who were more long distance runners... but one thing was certain, they were all gaining on the villains.



Suddenly a man dressed as one of the Mall's cleaning staff stepped out of a maintenance corridor and pointed a shotgun at the Agents loosing off a shot at them which brought them skidding to a halt.



Shopper, already cringing in doorways, disappeared into shops like rabbits into burrows in the face of a pack of wolves.



Only one man hadn't fled, a ragged figure who picked up the janitor's broom and hit the man with it just as he loosed off another shot at Henderson.



Taken by surprise, one of the masked men drew his pistol and took a pot shot at the new threat. The man in black staggered back, then threw the broom at them, hitting two of them, spoiling their aim... their shots not finding living tissue.



Not satisfied with his success so far, the stranger hurled more of the of the equipment at them, allowing the Agents to move closer, then pushed the cart into the robbers. The fake cleaner swung at him with the now empty shotgun, catching the interloper on the side of the head. The man staggered away and collapsed out of sight behind one of the raised flower beds.



The robbers' preoccupation with the unexpected opponent gave the Agents, and the cops who had been on duty outside,, the edge they needed and the masked men were soon under arrest.



Kneeling by Henderson, Mulder called 911 for an ambulance, then asked the injured man how he felt.



"I'm okay, man, but... I thought I was a goner there, Mulder." Henderson replied in a pain-filled voice. "If that guy hadn't taken a hand I would have taken the full charge.... The guy deserves a medal... make sure he's okay, Mulder..."



"I'll stay with Chuck," Mac said as he joined them. "And I agree with him, without his intervention lives would have been lost."



Mulder nodded soberly. "Okay, okay, I get the message... I'll make sure he's okay."



Mulder walked around the flower bed to find the man feebly trying to crawl away from the scene, leaving a trail of blood on the marble floor. "The shooting's over and the paramedics are just arriving, so keep still until they've had a chance to patch you up." He put a hand on the man's left shoulder to stop him trying to get away. The man hissed with pain, and the arm gave way rolling him on to his back.



Mulder stepped back in surprise as green, pain-filled eyes met him own. "Krycek!"



His ex-partner stared glassily up at him, the uneven pupils indicative of concussion. "Mulderrr... you're okay.... thass good... couldn't let them hurt you...." the raspy voice mumbled, almost too low for Mulder to hear.



Krycek reached out towards him and for some reason that Mulder couldn't fathom he gripped the wandering hand, bringing a smile to the pinched face.



Mulder moved aside slightly to make room for the paramedic, and from where he was kneeling, he could see Wong telling Scully and Skinner, both now back in their normal attire, what had happened and from the gestures he was describing the actions of the man whose hand he was still gripping.



When he had been brought up to date, Skinner, with Scully trailing in his wake, walked swiftly over to where Mulder was kneeling.



Mulder had a hard time trying not to laugh when the AD recognized the man lying on the ground and came to such an abrupt halt that Scully ran into him. Fortunately by the time his boss and current partner had finished apologizing to one another, he had his mirth under control.



For a few moments, Skinner looked hard at the man lying on the ground, weighing up what he knew of him in the past against what he had done today to save his agents' lives. His mind made up, he said, "Agent Mulder, Agent Scully, go with him to the hospital and make sure that he gets the best of care. I will be along later." He took off his overcoat and handed it to Mulder. "Put this over your costume, I'll bring your clothes to the hospital with me as soon as I've finished here. For the time being, if anyone enquires, we will give out that he was hurt in the crossfire. We don't want to draw any unnecessary attention to him."



Mulder and Scully nodded their understanding... what he was really saying was, 'guard him well, and make sure he stays alive'.



Mulder slipped on the coat and belted it round his waist, glad that not only was Skinner broader than himself, but also two inches taller, so it almost completely hid his costume. Then he and Scully flanked the gurney as it was wheeled out to the waiting ambulance, and climbed in the back with Krycek for the journey to the hospital.



Once at the hospital, Scully identified herself as a doctor and accompanied Krycek while he was being examined and subjected a various scans. Mulder patiently stood guard outside every room, still wrapped in the heavy overcoat, until Skinner finally arrived with the carrier bag containing clothes. Leaving Skinner to stand guard in his place, he hurried to the bathroom and sighed with relief when he was once again dressed in his own suit. Stuffing the hated elf suit into the bag, he returned to where he'd left the others. Krycek was now in a wheelchair, and Scully and Skinner were talking in low voices just along the corridor from their charge.



Skinner took the bag back from Mulder as Scully said, "We are going to move Krycek into a room while they look at the x-rays, but judging by the fact that his eyes are beginning to focus properly again, we don't think there has been any damage to the skull - if this is confirmed, then Krycek will be discharged into our care. However, if there is any damage then he will be moved into a private room where we can protect him."



Mulder nodded, then he pushed the chair as a member of the administration staff showed them into a room where they could wait. From his position at the door, Mulder studied the patient. Krycek was sitting slumped in the chair, his head leaning into the pillow, with his eyes closed... quite possibly even sleeping a little - starting slightly each time Scully nudged him.



After what seemed like an interminable wait, Doctor Jennifer Peel came in with a sheaf of papers on a clipboard, and said, "There are no signs of any skull damage so I'm going to discharge him into your care, Doctor Scully."



"That's good news, thank you Doctor for your help," Scully replied politely, while signing the papers in the places indicated by Peel.



Skinner then signed the paperwork on behalf of the bureau, and they were allowed to leave with the patient. Outside, Wong drove up to the entrance with an SUV and once they had manoeuvred Krycek inside, Wong drove them to an apartment complex. On the way there, Skinner told them that he had arranged for Mulder and Krycek to take over a loft in the same block where Wong lived, so that they would have back-up nearby.



Scully and Skinner stayed until they had got Krycek into bed, and if they were surprised that Mulder made no fuss about being left alone with his former partner, they didn't say so. Once they had left, Mulder made himself comfortable on the couch, and switched on the television to keep him company, as he would normally have done if he were at home, and eventually dropped off to sleep.



-oo0oo-



Alone in the bedroom, Alex stared at the ceiling. It was such a long time since he had lain in such a comfortable bed, that it was impossible to get to sleep... and because he couldn't sleep he was worrying... and because he was worrying he couldn't sleep... he knew he was locked into a vicious circle, but he couldn't help himself... he couldn't help thinking of the few weeks that had elapsed since he had last seen Mulder... the last glimpse as he had rolled off the back of the truck careering down the steep hillside.



He shuddered at the thought of the one-armed peasant who had at first taken him in, then attacked him... he ad been fortunate to escape them in one piece... the gulag guards had arrived in the nick of time, attracted by his screams for help, and had taken him back to the barracks with them, where the doctor had sewn up the ragged wounds caused by his struggles against the hot knife. He pretended that he was more incapacitated by the attack than he really was, but since Mulder had escaped their clutches, they didn't seem to be concerned what he did, so he slipped away and returned to where they had left their tickets and papers. He discovered that Mulder had been there and accessed the stash, and he was extremely relieved to find that Mulder had left the second ticket and some money for him to use to get home.



Home... that was a laugh, he didn't have a home... no job... no home... no future... his only priorities were hiding from the Consortium and trying to stay alive... and in the last few hours he had been lucky to stay alive... he had acted without thinking only knowing that Mulder's life had been in danger and he, somehow, had to help.... Thinking about Mulder he knew that the longer he remained in the agent's company the more dangerous it would be for both of them. It was time to leave.



He threw back the covers and slowly got himself upright, as his head hurt if he moved too fast. His T-shirt was a write-off and his jacket and jeans were stained with blood, so he would have to find a way to get them cleaned at some point. he pulled the jeans on over the hospital scrubs, they would help to keep him warm in the bitter weather... and if he hurried there was still time for him to find shelter out of the worst of the weather.... After a struggle he managed to get his boots on, then his jacket... then, as quietly as he could, he made his way to the door of the apartment.



Krycek wasn't as quiet as he thought he was being. Mulder, hearing alien sounds and sensing movement, was at the door before him. "Just where do you think you are going?" he asked.



"I've got to get away, I haven't got any information to give you, and they'll hurt you if they find me here... and I couldn't stand it if you got hurt..." Krycek stopped speaking, aghast at what he had just revealed.



Mulder just smiled, and put his hand against Krycek's cheek, and Alex turned his face into the palm unable to stop himself reacting to Mulder's closeness.



"I know what you're thinking," Mulder told him, "But this time Skinner will protect you, and I'm not going to be side-tracked by any actual or imagined crimes... there are no warren out for your arrest, but I'm not letting you go, Alex... I've been thinking a lot in these last few hours and I've discovered that I want you.... I want to know you... come back to bed Alex, and get some rest... we can talk about what you do and don't know later....much later." He helped Krycek out of the clothes he had struggled to put on and got him back into bed, then stripped down to his shirt and pants and slipped into the other side. Pulling the younger man into his arms, he said, "I've been thinking about doing this again, ever since we had to share some warmth on the bed of that truck on the way to Tunguska. Once you're fully recovered we can talk about the future, but for the moment, just relax... I'll look after you."



The soothing litany of words worked their magic on Alex's tired mind and he drifted off to sleep, his head still pillowed on Mulder's chest, listening to his heartbeat. Some time later, Mulder also slept, but not before promising himself that this Christmas was going to be the best one either of them had ever had.
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